Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Ultimate Return to Hong Kong

I arrived in Hong Kong at a very interesting time for the Special Administration Region, when it was in the midst of a movement of mass civil disobedience that was dubbed the "Umbrella Revolution".  The movement was a reaction against proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system - in short, that the Communist Party in mainland China would have the authority to "approve" (select) the leadership candidates that Hong Kong residents could vote for.

When I arrived at the Mong Kok metro station, I found myself suddenly surrounded by blocked-off streets for the student-led pro-democracy protests.  It was a relatively quiet community of sign boards and yellow umbrellas and people camped out and sharing ideas while the police looked on.  I never witnessed any intimidation or violence, but it was certainly interesting and a bit humbling to arrive in this city for something as insignificant as a frisbee tournament, as I watched the locals around me taking a stand for their democratic rights.

I eventually found the guesthouse where I was to meet with my teammates - mostly expats from Shanghai that my friend Amy had connected me to, as she would be arriving later.  It took some time as the guesthouse was located only on a small portion of a floor of a tall building, and given the vague address I wound up wandering up and down the stairs of an adjacent building full of small shops and stalls full of men with cigarettes in their hands who didn't speak English.  I finally enlisted the help of one of the police officers standing by, and he graciously directed me to the entrance.  Once inside, I met the American and Philippino girls I would be sharing a small room with, and we got some sleep for an early morning for my first ultimate tournament in years.

The next morning, I reconnected with Amy and met more of my teammates as we walked to the nearby fields, set in a beautifully manicured sports complex with incredible views of the city springing up all around us.  Older men and women moved slowly around the edges of the park, doing thai chi or low-impact exercises.  I was entirely unprepared for a tournament given the limitations of my pack, so Amy had brought me a pair of jerseys, and I borrowed a spare pair of cleats from one of the guys on the team.  They were a bit tight and pinched my big toes, but I figured they would get me through the weekend, especially since (given limited field space) we would have byes after every game.  I was wrong.

Our first game was against a Beijing-based team called Big Brother that the Shanghai folks knew well.  It was a tight, back and forth game, but we wound up on top in the end.  Next we played a team from Manilla, and I was impressed that the team was nearly entirely composed of Philippino Nationals rather than American and European expats, like so many of the teams.  They were fast and incredibly athletic, but their throws weren't always on target, and we slowly pulled away for the win.  After two games in those tight cleats, my big toes felt bruised and tender, and not wanting to risk losing a couple of toenails, I switched to my CrossFit sneakers for the remainder of the weekend!

Next we were served delicious boxes of chicken, veggies, rice, and sauce as part of a lunch break  We sat in the shade on the edges of the park, eating using the container lids as spoons since the chopsticks were a bit late to arrive.  As wevchatted with other teams, I bumped into one of the guys from pickup in Singapore - I hadn't realized it before, but he was actually from Memphis and had played ultimate in Wyoming with a close friend of ours!  The global ultimate community remains a very, very small world indeed.

After lunch, we only had one game left against a strong team from Taiwan, called Chairman Xiong Mao (a clever play on words, since 'xiongmao' actually means 'panda' in Chinese).  Again it was a close game, and we walked away with a win by only a point or two.  I finished the day completely exhausted - I clearly hadn't been doing much running over the course of my travels, and I felt slow and out of shape.  Every cut I made on the field felt like I was wearing ankle weights and an inner tube around my waist!   Plus, I hadn't played real 7-on-7 ultimate in a very long time, and it was a struggle just remembering where on the field I needed to be!  Thankfully I had Amy there to help me, and I gave her permission to yell and instruct me as much as possible!

We returned to the hotel to shower and rest a bit, then grabbed a quick dinner before heading to the party.  Ultimate tournament parties are well-known for involving silly themes and lots of drinking, to the point where one team will often seek to 'win the party' rather than the tournament itself.  In this case, the party winners actually received an award similar to the tournament winners!  We hopped on a bus that would take us and the other attendees out to a spot called 'Hidden Agenda' - a warehouse-style space over an auto repair shop.  The DJ was loud but good, and despite numerous 'no smoking' signs, it seemed that every person working at the venue was smoking.  Thankfully, ultimate players don't often smoke cigarettes, so it wasn't too bad.  The party theme was puns, so various teams dressed accordingly, some more elaborately than others.  The team that would go on to win the party called themselves 'Gang-green' and wore green tutus and bandanas and walked around putting little green stickers on everyone else at the party.  Eventually a few of us broke away around 11:30 and found a taxi back to our hotel, leaving the party still in full swing.

Since we had done so well on the first day of the tournament, we had earned a first round bye for Sunday, allowing us to sleep in a bit, pack our bags, and grab some coffee before meeting at the fields for our first game.  We played against a team called Hakuna Matata, led by a woman who had gone to Wake Forest and played with many of my friends from North Carolina.  While it was probably our easiest game of the tournament, it was by no means a blowout, and we had to work for the win.  My legs felt much better after the jolt of the previous day, and I sort of remembered what I was doing on the field, allowing me to get a bit more involved!  

Our second game of the day turned out to be a rematch against Big Brother from Beijing, though they had picked up a few new players since our previous game.  Though we mostly traded points the entire game and kept things close, we wound up losing in a heartbreaker by a single point.  Honestly though, I'm not sure I could have made it through another game, and the eventual winners - a mixed group called Junket - beat Beijing handily in the finals.  We had a consolation match ourselves, but it was a rematch against the Taiwan team from the previous day, and neither team took it very seriously!  

Since I was planning to stay a few more days in Hong Kong, I had the luxury of hanging out at the fields through the end of the finals, watching the match, enjoying some free pizza, and chatting with various teammates and random other people from the tournament who somehow had even more connections with friends back home.  As I finally bid Amy and my teammates farewell, I was thankful that I had made the decision to return to Hong Kong and to take part in the tournament.  It was an interesting mix of something familiar and completely unique, huge varieties of new people with surprising connections to old friends, a sport that used to be an integral part of my life in a year of exploration.  And as my time out on the road was nearing an end, it was nice to have that familiarity mixed with the new, and I was looking forward to a few more days in Hong Kong.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Taste of Singapore

Arriving in Singapore was a stark contrast to the cozy little island towns I had spent time in over the last few weeks.  As I climbed into a taxi, a massive downpour began, bringing cool refreshing air to the immaculately clean city with manicured palms on either side of the road.  I was fortunate to know a couple of people in the city, and my friend Kevin, whom I had met during my week at Elephant Nature Park, had offered to let me stay at his place while he was away most of the week for work.  His apartment was gorgeous, with an incredible little porch and huge windows out to a portion of the city that was overwhelmingly green and lush.  In terms of finding a quiet cafe-style place to work, here I was!  

My primary goal during my time in Singapore was to eat all the things, so Kevin immediately took me out for one of Singapore's signature dishes:  chicken rice.  We went to a spot called Boon Tong Kee Pte Ltd at 425 River Valley Road, which had started as a hawker stall but had grown into a full restaurant.  We sat down and treated ourselves to an immensely flavorful plate of chicken rice, as well as sweet and sour pork, bean sprouts, fried tofu, and a sort of limeade drink.  Completely stuffed, we returned to the house to relax a bit, before Kevin took me on a short walking tour of nearby Orchard Road.  

We then ventured back out to the airport to meet Xindi, who I had also met at ENP, who only had a few hours in between an arrival and another departure for another work trip.  We delivered her a new suitcase and retrieved a small one from her, then sat down at a Chinese restaurant in the airport for a massive spread of food that I couldn't hope to finish!  

After bidding her farewell, we dropped a few things back at the apartment before swinging by Marina Bay to see the iconic Merlion fountain, arriving just in time to catch the nightly light show projected from the Marina Bay Sands just across the water.  We continued walking around the bay, until we reached a collection of hawker stalls called Glutton's Bay.  We took in all the options, finally deciding to share a plate of fried bananas with a sort of coconut butter dipping sauce of deliciousness before returning to the apartment.  

The next morning, Kevin left for Kuala Lampur for work, and I ventured out to nearby ION, a shopping complex on Orchard Road.  I picked up a new external hard drive at the Apple store, and made a trip to H&M for some basic shirts since I was going to be in nicer, dressier cities the last few weeks of my trip, and I didn't want to keep wearing some of my ratty backpacker tank tops from Thailand!  I had a tasty lunch of crispy pork and noodles from the hawker center within ION, and I picked up some incredible fresh-baked bread (a loaf of orange chocolate and a loaf of mango raisin) for snacks and breakfast.  Bread and coffee in hand, I returned to the apartment for the afternoon to catch up on photo editing.  I stayed there the rest of the evening, only venturing out for a plate of cashew chicken from a nearby shop.

I got up the next morning determined to check out a CrossFit gym Kevin had connected me to called Mobilus.  Luckily, as I was stepping off the metro, a girl named Joann saw my outfit and the confused look on my face and led me to the gym - a small space tucked away in an alley.  Apparently, they were sharing the space with another gym for now as they got their new primary space set up.  The workout was a good one, and despite it being my first visit to a real gym in over a month, I felt pretty good!  

I made my way back to Orchard, planning to grab some lunch at the ION hawker center (as that's where the metro stopped), but I took a wrong turn within the maze of the mall complex, and I wound up in a more upscale section, surrounded by luxury brands!  But right in the center of the space was a little burger spot called Omakase Burger that was absolutely packed.  I figured if it was that busy, it must be good, and I took my place in the queue to order a cheeseburger and fries.  While it was definitely expensive, the meal was absolutely delicious, and I was amused by the efficiency of the restaurant.  Since I was a single patron, they sat another single patron at the same two-person table with me!  

That evening, I decided to try out a recommendation from one of Kevin's roommates for delicious takeout Thai.  Of course, the restaurant - called Thai Tantric - was inside of the one building in Singapore where prostitution is legal.  Orchard Towers, affectionately referred to as "four floors of whores" by the locals, is a bizarre collection of bars and "beauty spas" with scantily-clad women standing outside the various "shops" to lure in customers.  It was a strange experience to see all the ladies wandering through the building as I waited on my food, and the people-watching outside was hilarious, as large groups of young Indian men congregated around the building.  But, he was right.  The green curry I ordered was phenomenal, and the papaya salad had all the right flavors, though it was a bit too spicy for me.  It was definitely the best Thai food I had tasted outside of Thailand!

The next morning I took another tip from the roommates for a spot for lunch and coffee, though I took a wrong turn and walked for about half an hour through the sweltering heat.  At least I got a nice little tour of the other side of the neighborhood, passing a number of embassies and winding up at the entrance to the botanical gardens.  I eventually found the Nissen Hill Bakery down a road parallel to the one I had taken, where I enjoyed a plate of creamy tomato and chicken pasta and a tasty cup of coffee as I edited another pile of photos.  

I headed back out to CrossFit Mobilus that evening to make full use of their policy that the first two drop-ins are free.  This time, the workout was much harder than my first visit, and I could definitely feel my long absence from the gym as we did back squats, shuttle runs, wall walks, squat cleans, and burpees.  It was late when I headed back, and I was exhausted, so I grabbed a late dinner at ION and picked up some more delicious breakfast bread on the way home.  

The next day I was determined to try another of Singapore's signature dishes:  chili crab.  Unfortunately, I quickly learned that chili crab is a dish for sharing for many reasons, one being the price!  I quickly cancelled my order after hearing it would cost $40, and grabbed a Vietnamese pork and noodle dish instead.  

Later that evening, I decided to check out the pick-up ultimate scene.  While I used to play ultimate competitively, it had been years since I had played anything more than small, less competitive league games.  I also didn't have any cleats, and I hadn't even touched a disc in nearly a year.  But, I had a friend named Alex living in Singapore who was part of the scene - someone I had met at an ultimate tournament in Italy called Paganello nearly 10 years prior - and he convinced me to come give it a try.  I didn't play particularly well, but I did have fun, and it was nice to run around in the fresh air.  I chatted with a few of the players afterwards, learning that quite a few had roots in the southern US, including a guy from Memphis that I would later learn was friends with my good friend Caroline.  The ultimate world is a very, very small one!  

After pickup, Alex and I wandered around the surrounding neighborhood of Little India, the streets brightly lit with colorful decorations for the upcoming holiday of Diwali.  It felt a world away from Singapore, but also perhaps, just as far from India.  We settled on a place called Banana Leaf for dinner, and we shared delicious plates of butter chicken, palak paneer, chickpeas, saffron rice, and butter naan, washed down with Tiger Beer.  We chatted about the many, many years since we had seen each other, especially all of our crazy travel stories.  

The next morning, as I was chatting with Kevin about his trip to Kuala Lampur - he had returned the night before - he discovered that a bomb (really a grenade, but still) had gone off just around the corner from his hotel!  Supposedly it was gang activity rather than terrorism, but it had also taken place in a very nice, touristy section of the city.  My plan had been to go to Malaysia and particularly Kuala Lampur next, but this felt like a huge sign that I should be going elsewhere.  I also felt like I needed to get out of Singapore as quickly as possible.  I knew I was starting to impose upon the roommates, and I didn't want to affect their weekend plans by taking up the couch.  On a whim, I sent a message to my friend Amy in Shanghai about an ultimate tournament she had mentioned going to in Hong Kong.  Sure enough, it was the coming weekend, and they desperately needed women.  Flights to Hong Kong from Singapore were actually pretty reasonable, so that evening I made the decision, booking a ticket for the following day.

I still had a few places to explore in Singapore, so while Kevin had a meeting, I set out to the bay area, walking along the Marina Bay Sands to the Art Science Museum, a large lotus-shaped feat of architecture, with a small pond of lotus blooms beneath it.  I explored the two major exhibits on display:  an Annie Lebowitz photography exhibition, and another featuring Chinese artists.  The Lewbowitz exhibit was really interesting - I hadn't been aware of much of her background, and the show displayed a mix of celebrity portraits and more personal, casual photos she had taken of friends and family.  I was especially fascinated with the focal points she chose for her portraits, often a detail around the face - like the hair - leaving the eyes a bit softer.  

The second exhibit was smaller, but also very interesting, showcasing a few Chinese artists with vastly different styles.  Many were posed photography pieces, another featured a look at various shots of Mao that had been severely photoshopped (showing the originals versus what appeared in publications), and another was a series of landscapes that resembled traditional black and white paintings, but used photoshopped urban elements - telephone poles, wires, factories, skyscrapers - to construct the natural scenes.

From the museum, I continued walking over to the Gardens by the Bay, sort of behind the Marina Bay Sands.  As I walked, the gardens spread out in front of me, dozens of runners trotted past, many wearing identical outfits.  I decided to visit the Cloud Forest, one of many individual 'galleries' of plantlife, this one featuring a 7-story manmade waterfall and an entire ecosystem of mountainous and rainforest plantlife.  I wound my way through the living exhibition as it slowly became dark through the glass dome to the outside world.  

I waited outside to meet with Kevin, and he arrived just as a lightship was beginning on the enormous "trees" that looked like something out of Avatar.  We sat and watched the radiant lights and music, feeling like we'd stepped into another universe.  And as we departed, a full moon lit our way from above the colorful trees.

We walked to a set of hawker stalls called Satay by the Bay, where we enjoyed a small feast - satays of pork, pork belly, chicken, and prawn; grilled stingray with a spicy sauce; and something called a carrot cake which more closely resembled an omelet with turnips and oysters; as we sipped fresh cane juice.  We sampled a local dessert as well - shaved ice with sweet jelly and red bean paste.  

The next morning I made my preparations for departure, packing and separating out a bundle of items to be shipped home - mostly gifts and trinkets I had picked up in China and Indonesia.  Kevin took me to a smaller nearby mall for a local dish as a farewell lunch, then I grabbed my bag and we walked over to ION to catch the metro to the airport.  Kevin pointed out a spot for another local specialty that I was able to enjoy on my ride to the airport - strong, local coffee, and toasts slathered in the coconutty butter we had tried the night I arrived.  I thanked Kevin for his amazing hospitality and bid him farewell, arriving at the airport just in time to check my bag and rush to the gate, still attempting to organize where I would be staying in Hong Kong as I walked onto the flight.  

While I enjoyed my time in Singapore, and while I'd definitely like to return one of these days, I was surprised that I didn't connect with it nearly as strongly as some of the other large Asian cities I had visited.  It felt a little too clean, a little too structured, a little too expensive and luxurious.  And while the food was incredible, the hawker stalls felt hidden, and I was never quite sure exactly where I was supposed to go to find this or that dish.  It was a place where I should have found a local food tour, or taken any sort of tour in general.  In the end though, I enjoyed my time there, and I would certainly return sometime in the future.