Thursday, July 16, 2015

Strange Familiarity: Hong Kong & Macau

After playing in my first ultimate tournament in ages, I was happy to spend a few more days exploring Hong Kong.   I once again had the opportunity to stay with my friend Sue, who had moved to a new neighborhood since my previous visit.  Her new place was nice and cozy, but open - the perfect size for one person, though it appeared a family of four or five was living in a space the same size just across the hall!  I spent the next few days exploring new areas of Hong Kong and revisiting familiar ones, and I was thrilled for the opportunity to take a day trip over to Macau, something I hadn't had enough time to do in my first visit.  

One of the first new places I discovered in Hong Kong was the Zoological and Botanical Gardens - a green space set up on a hill right smack dab in the middle of the city, with cages full of lemurs, gibbons, orangutans, some tortoises, and a gorilla.  It was so bizarre, this little free zoo of (mostly) primates right in the middle of downtown.  But it was interesting to see, and just across the street from the zoo was a lovely little botanical garden.  I sat for a while on a bench, people watching in front of a giant fountain as the sky began to turn a lovely shade of pink, the modern buildings towering against it.  

My friend Steve had invited us to join him and some American friends - Raph from San Francisco and Megan from Indiana - at an Irish bar called McSorley's that evening for a makeshift Monday Night Football.  Since Hong Kong was so far ahead in time zones, the Sunday games all took place on Monday!  This group would meet at the bar, which had recorded all of the games, and select which one they wanted to watch.  We selected well - the Seahawks versus the Cowboys - as the game turned out to be a very close match.  

I paid a visit to CrossFit Typhoon the following morning for a brutal workout, later setting out with my laptop to find a cafe.  I found myself wandering around a neighborhood friends had referred to as 'hipsterville', wandering in and out of small shops and art galleries.  Then I spotted a man walking five identical-looking Shiba Inu dogs, all wearing rainbow bowties.  I snapped their photo as they posed outside of one of the local shops, and I discovered later that they're local celebrities, often being spotted around town.

I also stopped in Sin Sin Gallery, after spotting an exhibition featuring an Indonesian painter.  I was pleasantly surprised to find images of Barong - a wonderful reminder of the time I had just spent in Bali.  I settled in at a cafe called Oldish to get some work done, surrounded by antiques with a soundtrack of classic rock and Sinatra-era tunes.  After Sue got off work, I met her at a place with unique and inventive cocktails called Quinary.  I sampled a whiskey-based drink called a Black Pearl, while Sue's included a tower of foam!  After we had finished our cocktails, we met some of her friends just around the corner at a restaurant called La Vache, famous for their steak and frites.  And truly, that's all they served - the waiter just asked our drink and done-ness requests!  The food was excellent, and the company resulted in an entertaining evening.

The next morning, I woke early, determined to spend the day exploring nearby Macau - another Chinese Semi Autonomous Region and a former Portuguese colony, now best known as the Las Vegas of Asia, filled with glittering casinos.  I caught a midmorning ferry across the channel, found the appropriate bus, and beelined it to the historic Portuguese area of town.   As soon as I stepped off the bus, I felt like I had entered a parallel universe, standing on typical Portuguese blue and white tiles with Portuguese architecture swirling up around me, but with signage in a mix of Chinese characters, and surrounded by Chinese tourists.  It was a bit of a jolt being somewhere that felt so familiar and yet so far away from a place I adored.

I walked past a gorgeous fountain and a large yellow church, continuing up a walking street towards the São Paulo Cathedral ruins, passing people wearing signboards (and one in a durian mask) directing tourists towards various shops and restaurants.  I finally stopped at a spot called 7 Burger for a typical sandwich of fried pork before continuing.  After refueling, I made my way up the stairs leading to the outer front facade of the cathedral, the largest portion of the building that's still standing.  Ironically, just behind the ruins sat a small temple with offerings of incense out front.  

From the ruins, I walked through a small garden up to the top of the adjacent fort, with ancient cannons and a view of the city.  Looking out over the smoggy skyline and the Grand Lisboa casino rising up like a golden pineapple, I felt very, very far away from Portugal.  

I finally made my way down, weaving through small alleys and side streets decorated with with Portuguese mosaics that echoed those in Aveiro.  I even picked up a Pastel de Nata (a typical Portuguese egg tart), but the shop didn't have the fresh cinnamon that I usually dusted over the top.  I eventually found my way back to where I had started, and, intrigued by the man in the durian mask, I stopped at McPherson's Sweets Shop.  Mostly a windowfront with an interior the size of a closet, they specialized in durian and black garlic flavored sweets!  I took a chance on the black garlic flavored ice cream and was pleasantly surprised, but there was no way I was touching the durian flavors!

I caught the ferry back to Hong Kong, with mixed emotions about my day trip to Macau.  I'm glad I went, but it was a bittersweet reminder of Portugal and João and the distance between us.  Thankfully Sue had set up some dinner plans for the evening, so I met her and a group of friends out in a swanky shopping district of town for a delicious meal of small plates - dumplings and noodles that we sampled and shared.

Unfortunately, Sue had to take off for a conference in Beijing the next day, so I wouldn't see her my final days of the trip.  But it was so wonderful to see her and reconnect, and I thanked her (and still do!!) for being so incredibly welcoming when I dropped in - twice!!  I wound up returning to Mixing Bowl near her old apartment for their incredible scones and coffee (and wifi), and the sweet owners actually recognized me and asked me how my travels had been!  As welcoming as everyone had been in the city, it was steadily becoming one of those places I would be happy to return to and live in if I ever had the chance.

That evening, I stopped by a place called PMQ - formerly the Police Married Quarters, the area has been converted into an incredible space full of art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and cafes.  That evening, they were hosting a huge night market / Oktoberfest event - the main floor was packed with small tents - local vendors selling beer and food - and tons of locals were out to enjoy it. After checking out some boutiques, I picked up a delicious - and massive - Chinese-style crepe filled with peking duck for dinner.  It was phenomenal!  

As I walked back to Sue's apartment with my takeout, I passed a restaurant I had seen many times with a gold door and a door man and a window downstairs looking into a space full of art, including what looked like a Vhils piece across one wall.  (Vhils is a Portuguese street artist that often carves faces into the sides of buildings.) That evening, the door was open, and two well-dressed men were standing outside.  One of them stopped me, insisting I looked familiar and he had met me before (I don't think this is a line - literally everywhere I go someone swears they've met me - I think I just have a familiar-looking face).  As it turned out, he was the restaurant manager - the place was called Bi Bo - and confirmed that yes, not only did they have a custom Vhils, but that the restaurant was fully decorated with street art.  I knew I couldn't afford a meal there, but I promised myself I would at least have a drink to see the art before I left the island.  

Over the next couple of days I mostly spent time between the gym and various cafes like the Mixing Bowl and nearby Agnes B (also delicious and on a street full of cute boutiques), but I did meet some of the folks from the gym out one night to bid one of the members farewell before he made his return to the US.  We had a small group at a restaurant with delicious, super-organic food in teeny tiny portions.  But, the group was a lot of fun, and we had some wine and chatted and I again found myself enjoying all the little things about Hong Kong.

My final day in Hong Kong, I was determined to visit the mainland side of Hong Kong, so I caught the star ferry over to a neighborhood nicknamed BT.  The sky was a bit smoggy, but otherwise it was a nice, bright day as I crossed the water and viewed the skyline from the other side.  I did some shopping at H&M and sat down at a food court style spot reminiscent of Singapore with - of course - some chicken rice.  After crossing back to the island side, I wandered around Central, picking up some guides for my next and final stops - South Korea and Japan - and splurged on a pedicure for my tired feet!  After dinner that evening, I finally fulfilled my promise to myself - dropping in on Bi Bo on my own for one farewell drink.  

I arrived and sat at the bar, immediately making friends with Alex, not just the bartender on duty, but the head mixologist for the restaurant.  He whipped up something for me off their unique menu called a Vieux Carré - a smooth, whiskey-based drink with hints of citrus, finished off with a flamed orange peel.  He wound up telling me all about each of the distinctive pieces from artists like Vhils, Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and even Jean-Michel Basquiat (the 'founder' of modern street art).  He wound up giving me a sort of private tour of the dining area (once it wasn't so full), even showing me a piece that had been hidden in a stairwell behind a door.  There was a group of three later on who wanted a mini tour, but with so many people he couldn't take them into the small dining area - I felt very thankful that I had arrived alone!  I hated that I couldn't stay longer and have more than one drink - I promised myself to come back for dinner someday - but I had a very early flight the following morning to South Korea, and I needed at least a few hours of sleep!

The more I've traveled, the more I realize how special it is to find a connection with a place - and Hong Kong is just one of those cities I'm drawn to.  As big of a city as it is, it somehow feels small and cozy.  It has the most amazing mix of Asian and European culture mashed together in a single location.  And the people I met who call Hong Kong home - from all over the world - were all incredibly friendly and welcoming.  I have a feeling I'll be back there one of these days - after all, I managed to see it twice in one world tour!


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