Before leaving New Zealand I got a bit of a jolt. My husband, and major proponent of being in Hong Kong over crazy Chinese New Year time, would be accompanying the girls and I to the Hong Kong then leaving for Europe less than 24 hours later. Instead of 1 week absent as planned, he will be gone for 3 weeks- pretty much the whole Hong Kong stay aside from a day at the end. Hong Kong on my own with 3 kids, not knowing a soul…it will be alright, it's a western city-right??
We arrived late into Hong Kong from our Cathay Pacific flight and needed two cabs to get ourselves to the apartment. The ride was about a half hour and I had a hard time getting my bearings. On top of jet lag haze (an unexpected 6 hour time difference between NZ and Hong Kong) there were no distinctive landmarks on the way to anchor me. It was all bridges and water reflecting the lights of endless high rises, then more bridges and high rises. Once at the apartment we found that the cabs do not take credit cards. We had no cash and the residential area was dark and quiet- no sign of any ATMs. The cabbies stood there looking at us. We found help on the 8th floor- the apartment lobby helped convert money for us. The apartment is good. It is clean and there is 1 pan, 1 pot, 2 burners. The internet is dependable and available to all 5 of us versus a per computer tariff which we were plagued with in Oceania.
I went to bed with an open mind, but the health benefits of sleeping on wood were not received well by my back. We would call what they made up with sheets a box spring in the west. The 12-hour flight then a night sleeping on boards and my back is thrown back to early caravan days- hard core spasms and a twisted spine. Ugh. Back wellness is a big issue for me and a place that doesn't support it can cripple my ability to function….and that is scary when the only other adult has just checked in online.
There is a list in my head that I know in my guts I need to have done before he goes. I am the only one with this sense of urgency and feel like a salmon swimming up river trying to get everyone out the door. Don't misunderstand; spawning is NOT on my mind. I won't air my many negative emotions about being left on my own with the kids. There is an unpublished blog that perhaps someday will be married with this one and tell the tales of darkness that accompany the light. For now, cash, water, groceries, a SIM card for the phone, public transport/way to town needs sorted. If I can get these done I know my negative emotions will be diluted and I will feel like I have some sort of base to function from.
Security points us to a supermarket. It is just across the street on the 2nd floor. We haven't even purchased a Chinese chotchkie yet and are already enjoying good luck! The elevator doors open and there behind glass immediately across the hall are 10 barrels brimming with unrecognizable vegetation. Behind them are vats of very thin dried things that resemble insects and the outline of a turtle and some other unique sea life. My heart sinks. The glass door is locked and we make out that it doesn't open for another hour. The snapshot of me sautéing giant leaves for breakfast and chewing on slim jimmed turtles bums me out. I am trying to keep a can-do attitude but slowly welling up is the reality that I am not psyched about this, any of this. My back screams in echo.
We go back to the apartment empty handed to try to figure out our next move. Town holds the answer- there must be stores with stocks of dried grains marketed by Olympians rather than dried abalones. Noticing our lack of groceries the security guy says you find ok? Yes we find, no it's not ok. I say closed. Just then the chotchkie proximity works again and my fairy godmother appears. I wish I could remember something about her- she must have enchanted me to forget. What I do recall is that she explained the grocery is on the 2nd floor as instructed BUT there is a hidden bank of elevators you access through an unmarked alcove when you enter the building the way we were sent. If you access the building on the other side you are right at the bank that takes you to the real 2nd floor instead of the one they keep to punk tourists. We set out again. The grocery store is excellent. 10 jugs of water later and a few supplies… things are looking up. Thank you fairy godmother. On the way home my husband and I knowingly look at each other and with our eyes collectively SCHWEW.
No time to celebrate for more than a muffin, the way to town, phone SIM, cash remain outstanding. We are in what they call the midlevels and the view from our apartment is of other high rises, the tip of a park, and a network of non intersecting planes with cars zooming on them and no shoulder or walkway. From our limited view it feels like we are on an island surrounded by impassable roadways. We have 1 working phone and make an avatar of ourselves in the form a little blue dot on its map program. We know from research about the famed midlevels escalator so it seems a logical waypoint for us to navigate towards. It can get us down into town.
After a couple of attempts we become conditioned to think that all sidewalks shortly end into lanes of traffic so we head into the park and follow any path that looks like it can continue us (the blue dot) in the direction we need to go (the red dot). The park is thick with green and gorgeous but I imagine I won't be out much at night if this is the path. None of the passageways we find are reflected on the map so we appear as a blue dot floating in unmarked gray on the map. All that is missing is a slight yellow tinge and it will accurately reflect the sky we get glimpses of from breaks in the green. The network of paths through the greenery is manic. They layer under the roads then you walk up steps and go over the road and wind through more greenery. We weave through the residential highrises inspecting the laundry hanging out of small 14x12ish apartments and make guesses about their lives as revealed by their undergarments.
Twenty pathway decisions later I realize I am no-way going to recreate this decision tree. As the paths wind around and the greenery subsides the steep inclines are revealed and we get to see that the 60-degree vertical rise has been fully concreted. There are small round holes for drainage and slightly larger holes where the trees stick out. The whole place is coated in concrete. Up the stairs, down the stairs, or the steep windy ramp that disappears around the bend….it's chutes and ladders. There are signs at 25% of the junctures but at this point in our learning curve they are not useful, as it requires local knowledge of place names, of which we have none. Arrows that point to places like the government building mean nothing to us.
As we continue our explore we begin to walk by engineering feats reminiscent of the Romans. We cross over structures like ten-foot wide troughs laced with four-foot deep indentations. The indents clearly designed to serve as water slowing measures in the flash floods that likely occur due to the vertical and highly concrete nature of the terrain. Some slopes have warnings to avoid in weather. This place must be fascinating in a torrential rain. It is truly a concrete jungle. Sorry NYC- this is SO the place King Kong should have made his reappearance.
Starting to further notice detail in our strange surroundings we see that each tree and section of slope is labeled with identifying numbers. It makes sense to keep this all from succumbing to gravity that there is a major maintenance plan. There is an eye in the sky that has mapped these crazy pathways and watches over them. Oh how my life would be sweet if they would just publish the map.
My enjoyment of this venture is sidetracked by my cognizance that the co-parenting clock is winding down. I am EXTREMELY regretting our decision to locate like a local. I yearn to be at the Landmark or Mandarin in town, wherever that is, with easy access to a western bed, public transport and concierge. I have worked in rural mainland China- its not that I have never been exposed to their ways. But how different it is when you have a company sponsoring you or other expats to rely on for moral support. I am feeling extremely unsponsored and alone here- 180 degrees away from anyone I know. There are a few friends of friends on some outlying islands I know I can call in an emergency, which is great, but I don't have an emergency- just mid grade discomfort from the pending lonely hardships before me. They match the ache in my back. Hold a glass of water for 5 minutes- it seems like such a light load-especially to an onlooker sizing up your burden. But hold that glass of water for a day, a week, or 3 weeks to be exact and it is more of a weight than someone looking in can know. I have no one to share the burden of that glass with. I need to secure my base so I can set it down on stable ground. Where is town?
(PS. Thanks LF for the glass analogy)
We have walked for half of an hour and still no escalator. I get it- I am in one of the five boroughs, maybe even Jersey? GASP. Apartment after apartment goes by. In places, the top of a building downslope rises just half way up the same height building upslope and they are just 100' from each other. I will remember this place for a rise over run lesson. How these buildings hang on to this hillside, I can't figure. How the concrete is not cracked and patched everywhere, I don't know. We built a pool years ago and were delayed a month due to a concrete shortage blamed on China. I totally get it now. They use it like chocolate dip on a cone.
We continue on our journey. Sharing the windy paths of concrete are people that walk with purpose and seem to know where they are going. We pass by uniformed workers engaged in maintenance, and sweepers- sweepers everywhere. Any enjoyable adventure involved in this hike is clouded by the possibility that I am going to have to recreate it solo on a daily basis to access civilization. We had a win with the grocery store, but frankly this whole situation still weighs on the side of sucks. I would have located so much closer to things had I known I would be leaving bread crumbs to find my way home.
Escalator located. The setting changes to a mix of apartments AND commerce. The streets are what you typically see in movies and pictures of Hong Kong- small with tons of things hanging across them. Rudimentary shops with an occasional recognizable brand like STARBUCKS stuck in between. Ah, the perfect toilet stop. With 3 girls it seems like bladder management accounts for a significant portion of time. The starbucks is not an easy stop- takes me twice back to the counter to learn how to access the toilets. Again with the partial clues. Do we look like Charlie Chan and the Chan Clan?
We shift our cross slope hike to a down slope descent. The escalator is only running up so we descend by walking down stairs- a lot of stairs. One of the kids researches later and finds the escalator runs down 8-10 am and up the rest of the day. We have been hiking for an hour now and still no town. The kids all have thirst and hunger issues and I can't follow the blue bleep on the phone because thinking straight is impeded by back ache and the constant borage of the kids' moaning and intermittent displays of spatial awareness ignorance. Don't they get the blue dot is getting on a plane in a matter of hours? I have to find a SIM card.
The buildings are bigger and strictly commercial now, the dot is near the blue of Victoria Harbor. We have found town. We score a SIM at a 7-11 and we thread together by key words that we have to go to the MTR (underground) to get an Octopus card before we can use a 7-11 to put credit on it. After the adventure hike it was clearer than ever that I needed to get public transport figured out. We find the MTR....it does not take credit cards so we need to find cash… the ATMs in the MTR are out of cash so we go back to ground level to find a bank….the first 5 attempts for cash don't work….the 6th does but we have no idea why to be able to recreate it. It all gets done, but it is slow. Moral support is key in dealing- it's so helpful to have another adult to help manage the kids, hear and interpret what is being said and generally lean on to help figure things out- when you grow weary they kick in. Wah.
We spend the next hour trying to employ our mildly charged MTR cards. The underground just runs along the waterfront and over to the mainland so not a connector to our apartment. The big buses don't go near our digs either. It is the small blue PS buses we were instructed by security to look for. Finding their point of origination involves asking around 6 people who each give us just a small broken piece of the puzzle. The amazing Chan and the Chan Clan - another mystery to solve. We finally find the station in an out of the way place that looks uninviting. The mini blue vehicles look like communist work buses. We scan our fellow passengers hoping they will model what to do. Our eldest spies one in action and jumps to the lead saying follow me. There are no delineated bus stops on the blue PS bus route. It stops in front of our apartment and we jump out. We have no idea how to replicate or do this in reverse but we made it home.
After so many years of British rule I really thought Hong Kong would be more western. I expected all the expats to be in larger homes and compounds out on Discovery (Disco) Bay or the New Territories but figured the basic mix of nonexpats would be more diverse. Maybe they have vacated because of the Chinese New Year holiday and break from school and work? I guess it doesn't matter. We came to China to experience China not transplanted westerners. Even still, it would be great to have a 10-minute conversation with someone from the west that knows the ins and outs of my part of the midlevels to solve all these mysteries- especially the getting around one.
I lay in bed alone and tired and contemplate the near month long existence in front of me and tell myself that going back and forth across the street to the grocery store and just staying in the apartment catching up on schoolwork won't be so bad. We haven't had internet for a month and are pretty backed up with work. If we toss occasional visits to the park in it won't qualify as agoraphobia, will it?