Posts Tagged ‘asia’

Ask any ex-pat professional and they’ve got a story about the ex co-worker who had a sudden uncharacteristic thermonuclear meltdown while on a foreign posting, and either left in an unannounced mysterious huff or had to be physically extracted due to ‘a situation’. There’s no telling who might go ballistic over some trivial event while in Shanghai, Bangkok or Riyadh. It’s as predictable as vulcanism. The clashing of civilizations is too great for certain personalities. In the traveling world, business or otherwise, is well described as ‘culture shock’.

Relocating to a foreign country, where language, extremes in weather, officialdom, expectations, going to the bathroom, the cuisine, walking down the street, banking, post offices, shopping, and social interaction are often the opposite of normal in ones home country can either be stressful…or entertaining, depending on personality. In some cases, you’ll either love…or hate your new home, and either might have consequences….for better or worse. You can usually tell who’s heading for a short stay by how much that person bitches and kvetches about local conditions. Some people adapt and thrive, others…not so much.

This is part of the reason there is always a significant ‘turnover’ in satellite offices. Human resource officers go to great lengths to attract and vet the right people for these postings, but there’s no way of telling how an individual will adapt to the local conditions. It isn’t always possible to attract the right skill set from the finite pool of experienced ex pats willing to relocate, in spite of offering lucrative compensation packages, signing bonuses, relocation allowances and RSU’s in a low tax country.

In spite of all that vetting, despite the beneficial financial offerings, newbie hirelings still bail in surprising numbers after short periods of time. It comes down to the effects of #culturetainment….you either like a challenge…or you don’t. In the case of foreign government workers and NGO assignments, these people are often fit into a compound type environment where they live entirely separate lives from the local population. To my observation this often leads to a neocolonialist attitude where the ex pats become entrenched in a game of ‘us and them’. In that case I have to ask, “Why leave home at all if you’re going to live in a sterilized bubble?”

#Culturetainment, as I call it, is to develop the right frame of mind to enjoy your new home, and find the good, rather than the bad, in the culture you have decided to co-exist with . The world as we know has gone western, or haven’t you noticed? No one traveling on business lives in a grass hut surrounded by half naked servants. The economic miracle of the past forty years has brought millions of people, in countries like Thailand where I reside, into the modern age.

Without exception it is possible to live a very satisfactory lifestyle here in the ‘third world’, often with more mod-cons than we have in the west. Thailand for example has embraced technology and provides internet services far in advance of those offered in Canada, my home country, at far lower price points. There are more fast food franchises than ever before. I’ll fess up and freely admit to making the KFC soft ice cream cone part of  every day.

Yes, the street life scene can seem a little weird at times. Society isn’t as stratified here as in a western city. You’ll get everything, across the spectrum, on any city sidewalk. There always seems to be a million people around you, and you have to get used to the idea that personal space rules are not in effect. Sensory stimulation is on overload, it’s never quiet, there’s always so much going on. Asians use loud music to block out the traffic noise. Trish and I appreciate the excitement, versus the sedate predictability of a western city.

I can guarantee you’ll feel alive in an environment like this, and when you’ve had enough, you can always go back to your modern little high rise apartment and stream Netflix. But…to go ‘ballistic’ because the ‘foods too spicy’ or some other excuse, don’t be absurd. Enjoy the free #culturetainment’ and remember, you can sleep when your dead.

sleep when you're dead

sleep when you’re dead

Fringelords cover idea came out of a discussion with my art photography student son . We traveled a lot when he was young…. he was schooled in many exotic locals. We took a lot of pictures….hmmmmm…small wonder he became enamored with visual arts? The idea of a person with their travel experiences shown like tattoo’s on their flesh was a reflection of how we saw ourselves after one particularily enlightening trip, a year in duration, backpacking around Asia and the South Pacific. I amalgamated the concept of a hereditary mark depicting a sub class of humanoids into my novel, Fringelords-Return to Gaia. This book…like all my work is available on Amazon, KIndle, Smashwords etc…..kind comments only please.

Fringelords

Many  travelers overlook the benefits of stop over options while enroute to their final destination. Quite often stop over privileges are either free or granted at very low cost by the carrier. I have no such hesitation and make it a point to take advantage of every opportunity to discover a new city or to revisit one I have already fallen in love with and wish to rekindle a quickie romance. Recently I had the opportunity to take a 24 hour stop over in Hong Kong and jumped at the chance. I have been visiting Hong Kong for thirty plus years. I have an endless love affair with this city.

Rapid change has always been the hallmark of Hong Kongs famous harbour skyline. It makes the city seem fresh every time I visit. New buildings stand where old haunts used to be forcing me to take new directions and discover entirely new markets and streets that had eluded me on previous trips. Hong Kong and I are on a constant voyage of discovery. It’s like a marriage, the more we change, the more we love one another.

From the purely selfish perspective of an ‘Old Asia Hand’ I would have preferred they kept Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong as the port of arrival, now that was an airport entrance like no other. The runway was pulled from the water and the flightpath ran straight through the high towers of Tsim Tsa Tsui. On approach the aircraft would literally fly so close to the buildings that you could see people at their kitchen tables reading a paper from out the window of the plane as you descended. Once clear of the buildings the pilot would bank the plane fiercely as if to roll the craft over onto it’s side. From that position of what seemed like a 30% angle all you could see was either sky or water depending on what side of the plane you were seated.

The Kai Tak runway was a skinny strip of asphalt out into the water and short. When the pilot touched down he jammed on the brakes to skid to a stop..welcome to Hong Kong, it was a thrilling way to arrive at this exotic destination. Leaving the airports front entrance was to step directly into downtown Kowloon, you could walk to your hotel in those days. Some did, to make peace after the fear of flying they had just experienced. For many newbie arrivals into HK at the time, Kai Tak was also their first ‘near death’ experience. I count myself as one of those. Old hands rarely spilled a drink knowing what was coming when the plane cleared the last two towers.

Modern Chep Lap Kok airport is boring by comparison. It is much more modern, much larger, but situated on Lantau Island removed from the city by fourty minutes of ultra modern freeway and bridge connection by taxi. The current fare, which is negotiable depending on the number of bags you carry at around $240 Hong Kong Dollars for any number of people. I stay downtown Kowloon at an old favorite, The Nathan Hotel, appropriately named as it is situated on Nathan Road, the main street of Kowloon running from Yau Mei Tai to Tsim Tsa Tsui.

This street is on the subway line, the closest station o the hotel being Jordan Station, a connection to every part of either Kowloon, New Territories and Hong Kong Island can be made from here. The Nathan Hotel and I are old friends. They have undergone a modern renovation and in my opinion is one of the most comfortable hotels in Kowloon. I was very fortunate this time to be granted an upgrade to the Nathans ‘Grand Room’ suite for being a loyal repeat customer. The Bali Room restaurant on the 15th floor was a welcome inclusion to my holiday. I was able to have bacon for breakfast along with many other western delights, included in the room price. If you wonder why I mention this it is because I hadn’t had a western style breakfast for exactly 6 months and this was a real treat.

My wife Patricia and I were on a mission to see as much of Hong Kong in the 24 hours we had allotted ourselves. A requested late check out privilege at the hotel was a big help in our quest. The evening of our arrival began at the airport where we were whisked through immigration by some travel miracle. In about 45 minutes we had taken a cab, driven into the city, checked in to the hotel with an amazing level of efficiency, dropped our bags, donned comfortable shoes and hit the street for our nights itinerary, all within an hour and a half. First stop, Mong Kok, the Ladies Market, so called for it’s traditional collection of women’s clothing stores. But, it is so much more today. Mong Kok is a microcosm of everything Hong Kong. Time Square has nothing on the neon lights of Mong Kok.

The streets are packed with people. There are street hawkers and buskers playing music. New Mong Kok is a great market for electronics and photo equipment. The famous lanes are still excitingly filled with a tremendous variety of clothing, accessories and tourist must haves. Young people by the thousands come to Mong Kok to revel at night, the atmosphere is very lively. I love the snack carts and kiosks that line the streets here in Asia, Hong Kong does this as well as anyone. The food is clean and delicious. This time we found the seafood on a stick to be most to our liking and ate while we ambled along the streets to enjoy the general ambiance.

The evening was greatly enhanced by the Hong Kong transit system. For less that $1 Canadian Dollar , $4 Hong Kong Dollars, we jumped on the train and headed to our next destination after we were sure that we’d had as good a time in Mong Kok as anyone could. Next stop, Yau Mei Tai, the Jade Market street which at night, becomes a open air market of an older Hong Kong style that represents the commerce of an era long past. People come out of their high rise homes and eat in the streets below when it’s too hot to cook.

The subway stop let us come up into the Temple Street North market aka The Jade Market ,and walk straight into this delightful neighborhood. This is an area where at night restaurants place tables out into the pedestrian only street. It’s very gay and bright. Several beer bars and entertainment complexes are pouring music out in the open air. People by the hundreds are dining Al fresco under the warm night sky. This is as romantic a destination as any I have found on my travels around the world. Patricia and I always come here whenever in Hong Kong.

However our destination was several blocks away, past the Taoist temple park where fortune tellers have tents all along the sidewalks for those who seek an insight to their destiny from the gods. We would walk through the gauntlet of hawker stands along the way. These vendors can be selling anything from hardware and appliances to sex toys and antique watches or communist party memorabilia. It’s quite pleasant to be able to walk at night through this uber urban setting and meet with such amicable surroundings. I have never felt anything but safe while walking in Hong Kong and do so without restraint. We were headed to the other Temple Street Market, the really big one, on Temple Street South in the Jordan District. This street is a unique market in Hong Kong in that it not only offers a walk through an amazing assortment of goods for sale, good and bad. But at every cross street corner there are restaurants set up for you to sit down and indulge yourself in a variety of favorites.

My tastes are fairly simple and I had a hankering for a really good bowl of ‘melt in your mouth’ beef brisket in noodle soup with a side dish of steamed vegetables in oyster sauce. The atmosphere is electric, there are people from around the world enjoying themselves. The locals are dominant by the way and this is an authentic Hong Kong experience like no other if are like me and collect such experiences like others collect stamps. You’ll likely find yourself in conversation with complete strangers interested in your travel story. Hong Kong people like visitors. Learn a few words of Cantonese and you’re going to find new friends are easily made.

A little after midnight Pat and I agreed to have an early evening so that we could get up for breakfast at 7AM and do the rest of the town as we saw fit. I had two things on my agenda, the first being the early morning bakery offerings. Hong Kong bakers make the best Dan Tat , Chinese egg custard, in the world. When it’s hot and fresh from the oven there are few food experiences  that can surpass the flavour of a Dan Tat  fresh and being eaten on the streets of the busy city that invented gourmet street food.

I’m also a creature of habit and like to revisit old memories when in Hong Kong. I have to take a ride across the harbour on the ancient Star Ferry. The ferry terminal on Kowloon’s water front hasn’t changed since built in  an earlier century when HK was still an outpost of the British Empire, it’s a veritable time capsule of old Hong Kong. There is no better way to get the full ‘Hong Kong experience’ than from the wooden deck of the Star Ferry. The views of the imposing cityscape is one of the best in the world. This time I rode ‘The Twinkling Star’, she’s a venerable original in the fleet.

The Trabzon border station into Iran from Turkey was chaotic.  Turkey was contemporary in 1975  compared to Medieval Iran. It was as if we’d slipped through a time portal into a world that had passed thousands of years before. Turkey was a  nation built on mud brick, Iran had been snatched from the dust. These people had nothing, not even shelter. At the ragged lean-to that Eddy, our intrepid driver, assured us was the border station, a wretchedly filthy and toothless man was butchering a goat on the sidewalk , bleeding the carcass into the street. The Magic Bus from London to New Delhi had arrived.

“Welcome to Iran,” Eddy called back to us. This was everyone’s first experience with the brutal poverty of Iran , a state which  would entertain us for the next several thousand miles across the bleak section of the world called Asia Minor. The big silver door had just been opened when a wild eyed young man in a ragged tunic jumped aboard wearing a military looking peaked cap as if blown in by a desert scirrocco . He shouted ‘Passport, Passport,” in a thick accent and waving his arms.

Eddy promptly turned him around by the scruff of his neck and eased him out the door without argument. “Your passport’s worth a thousand dollars in these parts,” he said. “Never let it out of your sight.” Instead we waited in the baking heat for several hours behind a train of trucks and trailers at the border  for the real guards to finish whatever they were doing and get to us. I had a brief chat with some  lorry drivers and they told me that depending on what they were carrying they could be here for days, “In Shah Allah,” God willing. When the border agents did finally come our way they were intercepted by others trying to jump the queue who insisted the Muslims should be allowed through first and that seemed to carry some influence with the guards.

The collection of shacks on the border was the last sign of human occupation for a thousand miles. We were in the deep desert, uninhabited except for the occasional nomad caravan of camels and shadow people in the distance. The sand had swallowed everything that had come before us. Heading towards the capital of Tehran was a grinding process because of the heat. We had to drive slowly so as not to bake the engine. At night an  incredible view of  unblemished constellations was visible from our stand on the ghostly silent road. The phrase ‘in the middle of nowhere’ took on a deeply profound new significance. After a day and a vigilant night  a white city began to  loom in the distance.  I thought I had been transported back to ancient Babylon.

As we entered the outer city limits,  grey desert began to transform into lush greenery. Paved roads replaced the dirt track highway. White low rise buildings were hung with layers of flowing leafy creepers, window ledges crowded with flowering pots in red and purple. The streets were deserted, shadow women in wraith like burka’s darted in and out of sight, we were in the empire of the Shah Reza Pahlavi, a brutal and repressive dictator. His close friends and regime supporters had surrounded themselves with a decadent  island of civilization not shared with the rest of the country. Eddy knew of a parking lot fairly close to the center of the city and we stopped there.

It was a walled caravansarai in every sense of the word except that these wandering merchants were not leading camels, they were the drivers of truck convoys laden with goods destined for hinterlands far beyond Tehran. Open air cold showers and roast mutton were welcomed by all but the women who had to bucket bath behind blankets and couldn’t eat within sight of the men’s camp. Sorry girls, that part of the world is still mired in proto-modernity. We men sat around an open fire swapping travel stories under the moon as travelers had along the silk road from the time of  ancient kingdoms that time had long since swept  into oblivion. I slept in the open that night under a pantheon of stars.  I thought that this scene had welcomed travelers on this  spot for perhaps thousands of years. It was like Marco Polo, in the 20th century.

Loaded with provisions we were road savvy zealots by the time we headed off to Meshed on the  Afghan border. We would cross at Herat. Little would we know the storm of war brewing in the Kremlin and how  Russia would invade Afghanistan within 18 months plunging the brutally impoverished country into a murderous no mans land for travelers . The farther east along the highway we sped, the farther back in time we traveled. When we came to the  Afghan border the Tardis  stopped spinning somewhere around the 6th  century. It was the first time I had encountered troglodytes, cave dwellers along the hillsides. The border guards didn’t have shoes or shirts under their threadbare uniform jackets let alone any obvious sense of the 20th century about them.

I had read about places like Herat in the journals of Marco Polo and the famous Arabic scholar/traveler Ibn Battuta. The red mud of the desert had been made to stand up into  rudimentary one story hovels on a simple frame of tortured wood poles. The peoples costume had something of the Aladdin flair. The extra large turbans  Afghan men wore and the long beards were something I hadn’t seen before. Their curled toed leather sandals were brilliant. I bought a pair.

It was only here where women wore  netting over the eye’s  so that nothing of their appearance could be seen by an outsider. They held the netting tight to their eyes to see where they were going and not trip over the full length hems of their blue or grey burkhas as they picked their way through the rubbish  strewn and sodden streets. Raw meat dangled on hooks in shop fronts, but none  made me hungry. Butchery seemed more like an act of tearing flesh off a dead animal in ragged strips rather than the linear precision we’d call presentable in the west. Flies were ubiquitous , no attempt was made to curtail their dominance.

Houses and shopfronts were interchangeable,  like  fortresses with heavy gates to bar forced entry . The courtyards were filled with animals, mostly goats and small donkey’s. Larger area’s had pens of bound camel , waiting on their knee’s for who knows what. The most memorable characteristic of the town was the incredible stench of sewage and blood. Guts were left to lay in the sun under black blankets of buzzing flies and ringed by snarling curs.

I would come back to Afghanistan in the months before the war to visit the Lapis blue lakes above the Bamiyan Valley  to see the incredible statues of Buddha carved into the cliff walls. The lakes are still there, the Buddha’s have been blown to smithereens by the Taliban after resting in the sleepy valley for 2500 years. Kabul was a  flyblown shotgun setting  of one miserable treet gilded by a single hotel, the Holiday Inn. It was such an anomaly we had to stop and have a drink in the bar. It was the only place serving alcohol for thousands of miles in either direction. The rectangular building looked like a space machine had landed in the midst of a 7th century biblical ghetto.

I fended off many offers to buy large and small firearms from various merchants in the Kabul Bazaar. It was  a country where every man young and old was armed to the teeth with pistols, knives, swords, muskets and modern weapons of every sort. Being a man and unarmed in this country was  unusual , they wanted me to load up for my own good. Looking back I should have know that something was up. The gun shops in the back lanes of Kabul were cranking out knock off weapons like a war was coming, it was, three decades worth and counting.

I was looking forward to the Khyber Pass crossing into Pakistan. We’d be retracing the footsteps of Alexander the Great, Darius, Genghis Khan the Moguls and the British Expeditionary Force. The police told us  we’d have to join a caravan of vehicles to cross through  Pushtun territory. Unruly tribesmen could make short work out of a busload of unarmed hippies.  Afghan tribal leaders have been murdering foreigners who dared cross into their territory since  Alexander. We’d stay with the caravan through the border region, past Peshawar and well on the way to Islamabad where the tribes no longer had the gun power to flaunt the national fantasies of the State of Pakistan.

I talked my way onto the roof of a loaded lorry so  I could ride through the Khyber in the open. It was breathtaking, I was sitting on the shoulders of my heroes, the great explorers. We wound through the winding pass on razor thin tracks cut into the side of raw mountain. Rock falls were evident , down in the valleys below at the worst corners, evidence of misfortune lay glinting in the unforgiving sun. Eddy assured us that Pakistan was nothing but filth and squalor, we took him at his word, and sped right through towards India. We would cross at Waguh, on the colonial Grand Trunk Road, the only passable land border between the feuding states of India and Pakistan.

The scene I  met at the border stuck in my mind forever, The Punjabi Sikh border guard met me as if I were a long lost relative being rescued from an ultimate evil. The impossibly tall man in full regalia shouted “Welcome to India Sir” and ushered me under a stone arch that divides the two mortal enemies. It was a strange feeling, but after so much time on the road I actually experienced an emotion of ‘home coming’. Every subsequent visit to India has brought back that memory. I feel very much at home there to this day. I answered his invitation with , “I’m really happy to be here”. Stamp stamp  and I was a native of India for the next six months as stated in my well used passport.

I can describe a state of mind where bliss and happiness, satisfaction and wonder are all rolled up into one beautiful moment. Amazingly, my companion travelers were all of the same  persuasion. Even the usually talkative and boisterous Eddy was pensive and contemplative as we made a bee-line towards Delhi. Everyone had their own plans around what they would do once we left the Tardis…ahem…Magic Bus.

The countryside was hypnotic. The Indians have chosen colour as their weapon against  drab clay and rusty earth. Everything was new, words, food, deeds, people, livestock, architecture. Fantastic ziggurat temples rose out of the flat soil, painted in every bright hue . The gods they housed were every bit as fantastic as the temples that housed them.

The city of New Delhi begins a thousand miles away from it’s epicenter. The build up in population is only a precursor to the crowded streets  in the city. It reached a point where we were  constantly shoulder to shoulder inside a seething mass of humanity. I was elated, afraid, in wonder, amused, all in a day. Our journey as a clan of intrepid travelers ended in a  nondescript parking lot in the Pahar Ganj district close to  Delhi railway station. This would prove fortuitous to me as I would ride the trains for months to discover this great land in a way that many Indians envy . I went everywhere, north-south-east-west , no matter the distance or hardship.

Eventually I found a virtually secret little place along the coast south of Bombay called Goa. There were only four other westerners there, no where to stay and no restaurants. Just an untended beach along the Arabian Sea.

I was fortunate to be introduced to a fisherman who agreed to move  his family out of his comfortable mud and cow dung thatch roofed shack with  outside well and pig cleaned outhouse, for the princely sum of sixteen cents a day. I had to get up early if I wanted  fresh fish from the boats on the beach.  I bought a kerosene cooker to make rice with the only two vegetables grown in local gardens, tomato and onion. My journey to India had just begun.