In the eleven hours that followed we would hear this recording, given in four languages, repeat over and over again about every twenty seconds. Macau, while only an hour boat ride from Hong Kong, was temporarily cut off, at least by sea or air.
It was Monday. Earlier in the day Sawako and I boarded a boat from a Hong Kong ferry station and set off for what we thought would only be an afternoon in Macau, a former Portuguese territory with a bit of Old World charm and a lot of casinos. Our interest was not in the casinos, but just some sightseeing and eating, one of my favorite pastimes as the bit of pudge on my late-thirties belly would indicate.
The boat was mostly full of tourists from China and Hong Kong, and then me and Sawako, American and Japanese. I don’t think I saw any other foreigners (well, I guess we all were foreigners – perhaps I mean Westerners, really really foreign foreigners) on the vessel. I was seated in the middle of a three-seat row. Sawako was in the aisle, and a strange man was at the window. At first I thought he was waiting for someone, as he kept turning back to look in the direction of the entrance before we departed. Then I thought maybe he was a bit nervous, as he kept fidgeting and executing strange little tics. He would quickly touch his left middle finger to his forehead just beside his temple, or hold his index finger pointed upwards and make a circle clockwise and counter-clockwise, then nod as if understanding some directions he had just given himself. Sometimes he would reach into his handbag to read his wristwatch. Why it wasn’t on his wrist I don’t know, but every time he went for it I was prepared for him to procure a letter opener or other sharp object to stab me to death. I’ve read news articles about such events, and I’d be damned if I was gonna sit there and die on a diesel-powered boat before I even had lunch.
Strange Chinese man, I thought. Then I said that thought to Sawako, in Japanese: “The man beside me is a little strange,” I said. She verbally agreed. We passed the time chatting and playing games like Rock, Paper, Scissors (or Rock, Scissors, Paper as it is in Japan) or a funny little numbers game with thumbs that my students play called “Isse No.”
I was peckish so I dug out of my bag a granola bar (dark chocolate flavored) and offered one to Sawako. I asked her, in broken Japanese so as to be discreet, if I should offer one to the strange man next to us. She said of course. I offered it to him. He said, “Thank you very much.” In perfect Japanese. Turns out he’s a Japanese guy. I looked at Sawako. She looked at me. We didn’t say anything, but our expressions said it all. Shit, I thought. This guy could understand everything we’ve been talking about. Sawako went to the restroom, as far as I know. She could have gone to look out the window or take a call from her bookie, but it’s an irrelevant detail to this story. The strange man and I started chatting. He was really friendly. He spoke English really well. He had traveled a lot. Sawako returned and they began chatting in normal Japanese that was too fast for me to fully comprehend. Later she said she thought he was a really smart man – an engineer or something too – and that would make sense in a way, with his mannerisms. The plague of a genius, as I call it. My grandfather was sort of that way: social interaction seemed infrequent and trying for him, but hell if he wasn’t leaps and bounds smarter than your honor student and golden retriever and clever bumper sticker.
He recommended that if we were planning to return to Macau that day that we shouldn’t stay too long, as there was a typhoon headed towards the region. We heard his words. We talked about them later. We even got caught in a few quick downpours that afternoon. But as we were sitting on a bench in Senado Square, a light rain being a bit of respite from the oppressive summer heat, we agreed to wander around a bit more to explore the town.
So when we finally made our way back to the Macau ferry terminal to take the ferry back to Hong Kong and have a nice dinner at the restaurant near our hotel that we had discovered the night before, we were greeted with the aforementioned message. It was about six o’clock. The last ferry before service was cut off had left only an hour ago.
The ferry terminal has three floors. The first floor has some tourism service counters and vending machines, the second floor has ferry ticket counters and the boarding gates for the ferries, and the third floor has a mediocre food court and souvenir shops. We approached the information counter on the second floor.
“What are our options for leaving today?” I asked.
“There are none,” the man said.
And that would begin our marathon hanging out at the ever-so-boring ferry terminal in Macau until the next morning when service would begin again. Since it was so unbelievably hot we hadn’t bothered to bring anything warm, which by all accounts is a sound decision, except when you’re trapped inside a building for twelve hours and the air conditioning is cranked up so high you could leave out the fresh salmon and not worry that it would spoil.
The first matter of business was to secure seats on the first ferry out of this place. Our flight was at 1:30pm the following day so it was imperative that we get back to Hong Kong asap. Unfortunately my dreams of a slow, relaxing morning and freshly baked egg tart from a street vendor before leaving Hong Kong was now out of the question. We would have to rush to the subway, hustle to our hotel, book it to the airport, and race to the gate if we were going to get to work the next day. I hadn’t told any of my coworkers where I was going as I have given up on the Japanese tradition (obligation, rather) of buying a ton of omiyage – souvenirs, or gifts – for all of them. And I don’t want them to make me feel guilty. Try, that is, because these days I refuse to feel guilty. Most of them don’t talk to me day in and day out, and they sure as hell don’t consider me any part of their group, so why should I play pretend, I ask. So I kept my trip a secret. Unless someone is so compelled to read this. Then my secret’s out. But I don’t care. I’d be flattered if someone found reading this a worthy use of her time.
The hours passed slowly. Sometimes to warm up we’d go outside. We ordered fried rice from one of the mini restaurants on the third floor. It was dry and tasteless but cheap. We found some open seats in the waiting area and sat down to rest for a while. It didn’t really work as it’s difficult to sleep in a metal chair, and the lady beside us kept bouncing her legs and tapping with conviction on the armrest, which made the whole thing move and kept disrupting my attempt at slumber. We relocated to an open space in front of the now closed ticket counter and tried sleeping on the floor. That didn’t quite work well either because of the recorded announcement informing us of the weather situation. “May I have your attention, please?” Oh, you’ve had it. You’ve had it for hours. Nobody else is coming here, so it would be A-Okay if you shut the hell up. There were probably two hundred or so other travelers also parked around the terminal, some sleeping, some entertaining themselves with one another, most engrossed in the glow of their smartphones.
We relocated to the third floor. It was quieter and just a tad warmer. One of the souvenir shops had placed a few empty boxes outside the entrance and I thought, those would make an excellent bed. It would provide enough padding and insulation from the cold hard floor. I hadn’t planned to buy anything in the shop, but I contemplated how I could casually – discreetly – nab those boxes to craft a castle for the evening. We got a bite to eat while I thought about it. My hesitation was my loss. When I returned, the boxes had been taken. I looked around. Now they had become beds for Chinese people. “Look,” I said, “That man isn’t even using it all! He’s just made his own territory on which he has occupied but a third of it!” What a waste, I thought.
In the early morning, something shifted in the air. What was that? What just happened? The announcement had finally been turned off. There was a silence that was now being replaced by the pitter patter and scuffling of travelers rushing to the second floor to wait in line for the ferry. Funny that, it’s only 5am. Hell if I’m standing in a line for two hours just to get on a ferry for which we already had a reservation. We’d sit here comfortably until then. And sit we did.
A woman, who had both the facial features and expression of a confused stray dog, rose from some of the cardboard territory I had earlier laid claim to but was strategically conquered by invaders. She folded up the cardboard and walked on seemingly aimlessly, weaving left and right, dragging her confused dog feet while sniffing the air and looking around confusingly. She was nearing our seats, and suddenly made a turn. She wedged the cardboard in my seatback to abandon it. I looked at her. She looked back with that clueless, lifeless expression as she jammed it into place. “Really?” I said. “Are you fucking serious?” She casually turned and walked away. I called after her. What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Nothing. Off she moped, scratching across the floor with the few brain cells that seemed to remain in her stray dog skull. Sawako laughed at my reaction, but we both agreed how bizarre and rude that zombie woman was. I said I almost hope she’s next to me on the ferry. I’ll pile all my trash on her lap. That’s the kind of lessons I like to teach. Situational awareness. Peripheral consideration. Personal responsibility. Common fucking sense. I had no further opportunity to school her; she disappeared, maybe wandered out to sea in search of a bone.
The boat was rocky. The water was “choppy” as they say. And me, I get motion sickness and spells of vertigo all too frequently from the simplest things such as shaky home video footage. This was going to be quite a ride. Drink service was suspended and everyone was told to remain in his or her seat for their own safety. All right, then.
In Japan, one can find a truly convenient convenience store on nearly every street corner. Sometimes there are so many they are within throwing distance, or at least in view of each other. But in Hong Kong that’s not the case. So when we surfaced from the metro station to walk back to the hotel we were greeted to a proper downpour of level eight typhoon status. Take my shirt, cover your head. We’ll run to that sidewalk and we’ll find a shop where we can buy an umbrella. Or not.
Back at the hotel and soaked to the bone, I decided to take a shower. The shower door swings inward, and extends nearly the entire width of the shower stall itself. In order to get in the shower and close the door I had to press myself against the corner wall and let the door graze my belly (I put on a few pounds) and my dick. The door doesn’t make a complete seal and when I stepped out of the shower there was a large puddle, I forgot about it until I put on socks and went back in to brush my teeth.
That feeling of showering after getting wet from rain or a pool or other body of water is amazing. I don’t quite understand it. I wasn’t cold, just wet. So I got wet again by getting in the shower. But somehow that healed me. In any case, we were ready to go, and off we went to the airport to say goodbye to this adventure and be back in the (often superficially) friendly Land of the Rising Sun.
Oh, you wanna know about Hong Kong? Well, there are plenty of resources at your local library or on the World Wide Web via your favorite Internet browser, but I’ll give you my impressions:
Hong Kong is: hot and humid. (It is in the subtropics after all.)
Hong Kong is: dirty, trash-covered, yet colorful and vibrant streets.
Hong Kong is: a cloud of cigarette smoke. (While smoking indoors is finally illegal – something Japan needs to adopt if it truly wants to be a leading nation – people still smoke everywhere else, constantly, getting their selfish fix at the expense of passersby: children, elderly, and even a pregnant woman with two kids as I would witness. Ashtrays are situated all around the city to accommodate people who choose to harm themselves and others. There are no accommodations for those of us who desire clean, healthy air.)
Hong Kong is: rude taxi drivers who act like your business is the biggest inconvenience to them, huffing and sighing as you provide your destination and money. (Don’t waste your time with them; let that industry fold under its own shitty service and don’t support it.)
Hong Kong is: basically China with more expensive cars even though few people will actually say they are Chinese. (By ethnicity, they are.)
Hong Kong is: so many cockroaches you must watch your every step when walking the streets, day or night. But especially night.
Hong Kong is: department stores and street markets praised in travel guidebooks but in reality just the same lot of overpriced brands (department stores) and poorly-made counterfeit goods (street markets) any traveler can find nearly anywhere.
Hong Kong is: shitty customer service where “hello” and “thank you” (in any language) is an inconvenience to them and not worth saying to their customers.
Hong Kong is: a beautiful skyline, especially at night.
Hong Kong is: high rent. (A Japanese friend of mine lives there and told me the average rent for a single tiny room where she lives is about $3000. She took us on a bit of a walking tour that ended with a nice vegetarian dim sum restaurant.)
Hong Kong is: no personal space.
Hong Kong is: a pretty decent, and very clean, metro system.
Hong Kong is: comprised of over 200 islands. At extreme ends of the comparative scale, Japan is made up of over 6000 islands, while Hawaii has only a handful.
Hong Kong is: not on my Top Ten list.
And there you have it.
The following are a few pictures taken with my phone. On this trip I had opted to rely on only a film camera and my smartphone, but I haven’t had a chance to develop the pictures from the former. Perhaps I’ll add them later.
Thanks for reading and sticking it out with me.