Lost in Hong Kong

It’s more than a cliche to say you better be ready for anything when you travel around the world. And the way we do it, the unexpected can often come in torrents. A long flight from Chicago to Vancouver B.C. to Hong Kong ended with the added thrill of lost luggage as we stood and watched the carousel go round and round and people disappeared one by one. Stefanie picked up her backpack right away and that seemed like a good sign until we were left alone in the claim area with dying hopes. Nice way to kick it off, get the weirdness out of the way right up front so we won’t have to wonder when it’s coming. We filled out the forms and the nice men promised to call as soon as there was any news. I kind of kissed off seeing my little satchel until at least Bali since we are only here two days.

Hong Kong neon

Hong Kong neon

The last thing I’d do is let that kick my butt. I’m ready to enjoy this come hell or unavoidable consequence so we grabbed our bus into Kowloon and I fought hard to not let that loss break hard on me. Everything in the bag except my wedding ring can be replaced so what the heck, we got our health right? I went through the stages of grief as quickly as possible on the bus ride to the hotel because I wanted to get into the much-anticipated joy of arrival if at all possible. I managed to keep my pouting to a minimum and, for the most part, internal.

The streets of Kowloon

The streets of Kowloon

We tried to get a good night’s sleep after checking in to the hotel. Our room was tiny and the two single beds ate up all the maneuvering space so we had to take turns moving around as we settled in. The double dose of Sominex got me knocked out for a few hours but soon I was back to the insomnia as I wandered through plans to get on without my backpack.

The Wishing Tree

The Wishing Tree

Next morning we were up around nine, asking our hotel staff how to get to the wishing tree. Stef had her own reasons to make use of this Hong Kong custom and I just developed my own special need to make a wish regarding lost possessions. We mastered the Hong Kong rapid transit system and transferred our way up to a small town in the New Territories, the northern fringe of the former colonial region. After a quick cab ride we executed a commando raid on the wishing tree since we had only one day to see all of Hong Kong. The wishing tree custom involves tossing an orange tied to a scroll with your wish up into a tree, hopefully getting it lodged in the branches. You only get three tries. I got my two wishes written out and tossed into the trees. Stefanie got her bundles of wishes up too after buying one replacement for the second uncooperative orange.

Stef has success making her wish

Stef has success making her wish

Back down to Kowloon past the same lovely rural scenery we saw on the way up, we transferred onto the train that took us under the channel and on to the island of Hong Kong. The shiny, largely glass and metal city with its amazing blur of humanity rushing about greeted our rise from that submarine express. What at first I took to be frantic and oppressive actually grew on me fondly as the rest of the day progressed. The city is an elaborate 3-dimensional maze of triple-deck causeways and interlocking buildings. Often we wouldn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t realize when a hall between two stores became a connection between them. At other times just finding our way back outside at street level was a challenge. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìJaw-dropping?¢‚Ǩ¬ù I kept repeating to myself. Like nothing I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢d ever seen.

Statue Square

Statue Square

We had lunch with the locals in a noodle shop and then went from site to site, using our Xerox copies from the libraries guide book to lead us on. One of the only buildings older then fifty is the old Courthouse and we used the Statuary Square in front for a brief water break. We headed up through the HSBC building (a billion dollar wonder of exoskeletal construction) to gaze up twenty stories at into the hollowed out center atrium and then, through another causeway, headed out into a lovely tiered garden by the old Episcopal cathedral. After another short break in the lovely, cool interior with wood beamed and blue ceiling, we went up to take the tram up Victoria Peak. This famous overlook gave us our first overall look at this city and I agreed when Stefanie remarked, “modern architecture sometimes looks uniform and boring close up but from a distance the assembly can be very impressive”.

Stef taking in the view at Victoria Peak

Stef taking in the view at Victoria Peak

Our day ended back on the Kowloon side, sitting on the promenade doing some people watching while the sun went down over Hong Kong. The bus ride back to the airport in daylight revealed easily the largest harbor complex we?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢d ever seen. Miles of docks, cranes, freighters and container cargo, receeding of into the vast distance.

The luggage left behind was fast becoming symbolic of what we had tried to leave. We made a promise to travel lightly but we had no idea just how extreme that commitment was.

The "Star" promenade at sunset

The "Star" promenade at sunset

Hong Kong harbor

Hong Kong harbor

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Observations

Mexican man with black leather vest

Socializing in a plaza

Except for their Spanish, the girls could be any typical group of young adolescents in the U.S., talking and squealing in a tight clique. They’re dressed in school uniforms and gathered along the cramped sidewalk of Quebrada just above the bus stop where I’m waiting. I watch them crowd together, then fall back from one another, laughing. Their conversations seem urgent, their friendships kinetic, like they’ve just run a mile and are out of breath. Whispers and shouts emit from the group, and their eyes collectively watch each other and whoever is around them. Then suddenly it’s time to go. Kisses all around and peels of excited laughter as they pinch each others’ cheeks in fun. The kissing gives them away, as definitely not Norte Americanos.


I was caught in a funeral procession again last week. They’re more solemn here and a curiosity to those used to the sterilized grief of a parade of cars with orange flags marked ?¢‚Ǩ?°”funeral” adorning their hoods. As I stepped onto Quebrado I saw the slow parade of people dressed mostly in black walking through the street ahead, en mass, black umbrellas over head. Theirs was the largest group I’ve seen so far. The first I witnessed many weeks ago came marching down Insurgentes passed the Biblioteca following a flower-laden hearse. There was no question as to what they were. Their tears were enough to tell me what I was watching. Cars went around them, never stopping or hardly slowing. At home, I’d been taught to stop the car as funeral processions went by. So I stood at the curb and removed my hat in their honor. A little huddled knot of people unafraid to show their grief so publicly.


Horses in the campo

Horses in the campo

?¢‚Ǩ?ìHay Ingles/Espan?ɬ?l diccionario??¢‚Ǩ¬ù I asked the clerk at the bookstore. She told me ?¢‚Ǩ?ìSi,?¢‚Ǩ¬ù and handed me a copy of the one dictionary they had. Leafing through it I apologized, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìMi Espan?ɬ?l es muy mal.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù I was on my way for a hair cut, and while I once again had looked up ?¢‚Ǩ?ìlength?¢‚Ǩ¬ù (largo) and ?¢‚Ǩ?ìgrow?¢‚Ǩ¬ù (crecer) and ?¢‚Ǩ?ìdeaf?¢‚Ǩ¬ù (sordo) and ?¢‚Ǩ?ìbangs?¢‚Ǩ¬ù (flequillos), I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢d neglected to translate ?¢‚Ǩ?ìlayers,?¢‚Ǩ¬ù as in, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìI want my bangs layered.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù So, I was on a mission to get the correct phrase. My last hair cut I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢d used the word ?¢‚Ǩ?ìestratos?¢‚Ǩ¬ù only to get a look of pure confusion from my stylist. I managed to pantomime what I wanted, but I knew I needed something more definitive this time.

Art sales in the lavenderia

Art sales in the lavenderia

Looking at the clerk at the bookstore, I took off my hat and pointed to my bangs. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìQuiero corte mi flequillos en estratos. Como se dice??¢‚Ǩ¬ù I asked her, pointing to the Spanish translation of ?¢‚Ǩ?ìlayers.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù She wrinkled her brow and got that same look of confusion. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìNo uno largo,?¢‚Ǩ¬ù I said ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú not one length ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú using my fingers as a prop. She said something incomprehensible and then demonstrated different lengths along the side of her head. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìSi,?¢‚Ǩ¬ù I said, realizing she understood what I was after. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìComo se dice??¢‚Ǩ¬ù How do you say it? She repeated but not to where I could understand. Another hearing loss moment. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìEscribe, por favor.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù Write it, please. I handed her a pen and she uncovered a scrap of paper. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìEn capas,?¢‚Ǩ¬ù she wrote out. I repeated it to her satisfaction. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìSi,?¢‚Ǩ¬ù she nodded and smiled. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìMuy amable,?¢‚Ǩ¬ù I told her. (You are very kind.) ?¢‚Ǩ?ìMuchas gracias,?¢‚Ǩ¬ù I added as I tripped out the door with my newest magic phrase.

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A New Year in an Old World

Okay, New Year’s Resolution: no more heavy, philosophical bullcrap. Just the facts as I see ’em ma’am. Though that may not work out too well since I can’t seem to resist those meanderings, at least every now and then. Then maybe… okay REVISED New Year’s Resolution #1B: not so much heavy, philosophical bullcrap. Keep it light and tight. No one wants to spend ten minutes of their valuable allotment of discretionary time reading someone else’s brain noise.

morning sky

Morning sky over San Miguel

The problem here is the same as Popeye?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s and everybody else?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s: I am what I am. Just bear with me and I promise to mix it up.

One promise I made myself for the new year was to get this weblog up to speed. Thanks to some new software you can now try to toss me a line when I go out dog-paddling in the deep end. Post your comments and save me from drowning in simile.

Welcome to the New Year! The ?¢‚Ǩ?ìnew?¢‚Ǩ¬ù thing is very big in this world, so no wonder this holiday is popular. Western Culture keeps us hungry for it. Keeping on top of it is our lifestyle and you?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢re some dotty old crank if you aren?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t right there.

The sharp point of ?¢‚Ǩ?ìthe new?¢‚Ǩ¬ù is always staring us down as artists. While making a fresh instance in art is vital, there?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s really nothing new under the sun, so finding a context and then developing a viewpoint seems to me more important. Or else you?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ll go around with a big, neon, self-conscious arrow pointing to your ?¢‚Ǩ?ìnew art?¢‚Ǩ¬ù; all shiny and new but trivial at last. It?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s like the ?¢‚Ǩ?ìNew Toy at Christmas?¢‚Ǩ¬ù phenomena. The toy that gets twenty minutes of attention Christmas morning and then passes onto a heap of mediocre plastic.

morning sky

Stefanie in the campo

At some point as we age the opposite value makes its stand: Old is amazing! I see it as the ultimate test of value: been around the block a few times, still kicking and looking good! (well maybe just the first two parts). We met many great people at our art fair this week but some of our favorites were well up there on the chronological scale. One lady told us she painted watercolors for ten years but gave it up because ?¢‚Ǩ?ìI decided I didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t know what the hell I was doing!?¢‚Ǩ¬ù. Another charming lady told us she decided not to buy land here thirty years ago. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìI could shoot myself. In fact I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m surprised I haven?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t!?¢‚Ǩ¬ù

morning sky

Sunset blaze on templo edifice

These old beauties tell me the wonderful part about the age I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m entering. Its time to have fun with my foibles and weakenings, let go of the pride that is death to humor and the unflinching opinions about what is real quality that make me a snob and get on with opening my senses to this big fat juicy life.

morning sky

Smiles at the art fair

Sure we love our new things; new house, new car, The New Christie Minstrals. But god forbid we Americans learn a new language. Talking to a lady from San Luis Potosi (who spoke multiple languages), I lamented the lack of foreign language study in the States as well as my own inability to master Spanish. She asked me if I knew what a person who spoke three languages was called ?¢‚Ǩ?ìtrilingual?¢‚Ǩ¬ù, Two?, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìbilingual?¢‚Ǩ¬ù One? ?¢‚Ǩ?ìgringo?¢‚Ǩ¬ù.

Happy New Year. May it bring you new ways to see growing older.

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Navidad

As we stood watching, our maid, Chela, spotted us and motioned for us to come and join them. With her second beckoning I knew that I had to go join in. This was an opportunity not to be missed, in spite of my trepidation at not knowing the rituals of the ceremony. I slipped on my jacket and gloves and hurried outside into the cold night, down the steps of the calljon to Raul’s gate. Chela was just inside, and we exchanged greetings and then stood for a moment with arms around each others’ waists. One of Chela’s daughters was near by, but that was the only other familiar face. Eyes turned in my direction, the only gringo present. Chela then moved into the yard amidst the rest of the gathering while I remained at the periphery, content to observe and be a silent part of their tradition. Voices raised in unison, young and old together singing from memory these songs to commemorate the night of the birth of Christ. Songs alternated with chants and spoken verses, and I understood but a few words. Yet it mattered little.

Soon Dave came to join me, and we stood together as the last song was sung into the night. The mood shifted from solemn to festive as bags of fruit and nuts were handed out to everyone. We were ushered inside the yard by a man standing next to me, in spite of our protestations, and given a bag as well. Raul appeared and welcomed us, bringing us glasses of hot fruited punche, quickly followed by a splash of Tequila for additional fortification against the cold. He then invited us inside to meet the rest of his family. Sitting on the couch watching 3 of the small children and trying to determine whether they were siblings, one of teenagers on our other side told us in English that they were cousins. The spell was broken, and one of the women across from us said, “Mama!” and pointed to herself. There followed a part English, part Spanish exchange of introductions and talk of our families.

Away from our own traditions, friends, and families it felt good to be included and welcomed by our neighbors. We watch nightly to see where the Posada will go and listen for the sounds of our neighbors’ voices to fill the night air. They bring a friendly warmth to the cold that has descended.

Feliz Navidad,

— Stef

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Another Photo

They hung paper streamers across the plaza the other day. These brightly colored paper cutouts known as “papel picado” are used throughout the year to dress up every Mexican fiesta but this is the time when they really get to shine. This is Dios de los Muertes (http://muertos.palomar.edu/dayofthedead.htm), the season when every Mexican family pays respect to their dearly departed. While the American tradition of dressing in costume has a great appeal here to a culture that loves street theater, the unique customs of Day of the Dead are still honored with an outpouring of energy typical of this culture’s approach to celebrations. Unlike the other fiestas we’ve experienced since we’ve arrived (and there have been many!) where the papel picado strung across the streets are the more common, machine made cutouts, they now take the time to carefully hand-cut them with elaborately detailed designs. Then they are raised prominently right across the main plaza to fly in the breeze until the ancestral spirits are chased back to heaven at the end of November 2nd.

All this fuss about the spirits of the dead seems odd to me because something tells me its superstitious and irrational. Certainly a night spent at father’s grave with candles, incense and plates of food to beckon him back doesn’t fit neatly into my experience or understanding. The vigil part makes some sense, but the plates of food? I’m sure this is where I part ways. The spirits aren’t actually returning are they? And a bit peckish at that? But then, what exactly are these plates of food? The very things papa enjoyed while living; enchiladas mole, chicken with rice and beans, cerveza fria. These simple details soon expand into a flood of memories and regardless of what logic may not allow, those memories have now created a presence. Dear papa has arrived in the circle of those who share his memory. Now whether or not he likes the same old cooking…

My culture chooses to denigrate the value of the emotional, irrational mind, largely to its own detriment. There are some very fundamental and persistent enigmas that can’t be approached any other way. The rational day cycles with irrational night and they both have their place and time. As much as we try to banish the irrational, it never really disappears. I began thinking about my culture’s rituals to see how the irrational sneaks in the back door.

The rituals we all share are almost transparent, so much so that we would hardly see them as superstitious. What is with lighting and blowing out candles on a birthday? Or what is the “laying of the cornerstone” ceremony, or even the singing of the National Anthem at ballgames? Why do we do these things? Well, because they feel right and because they are the right thing to do. And actually that’s reason enough. Rituals only persist as long as they “feel right”. Those that lose that emotional connection, or those that succumb to logic and are designated “silly” or “old fashioned” tend to fade away. It could happen to the candles on the cake. It’s what happened to the curtsy. And then there are the other behaviors that become “just a superstition”, like those encounters with black cats, ladders and sidewalk cracks. Hard to imagine they were all highly respected ritual behaviors at one time, ignored only at great risk.
IMG_2416sm.jpg
So, are all rituals eventually doomed to the ash heap of “silly superstitious behavior”? Maybe, but I don’t think its appropriate to judge their worth based on whether or not they are sensible, or even logical. Even the rituals we buy into completely and follow habitually look a little silly when you step aside and get “objective” in that way. The only reason that really matters is whether they help us to connect to a shared emotional experience, not whether they look silly to some third party. A wonderful thing happens when we can give ourselves over to a commonly shared ritual. To perform a ritual that your community holds dear, and to perform it with conviction and absolute focus can be uncommonly powerful. We’re just awfully self-conscious about the whole ordeal because we’re sure that somebody will call us on it at any time. Just what the heck are you doing anyway?

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