Saturday, May 14, 2011

Four Months on the Road and Counting

When I met Diane in1980, I thought I was getting a good deal because she was smart, sexy, one helluva pianist and ran the New York Marathon that year in four hours and twenty-six minutes. I had no idea what else came with the package, least of all that she was a born concierge. She likes to pack. She likes to do laundry. She likes to sit at the computer and book hotels and airline reservations. She likes to take photographs. In short, she is the perfect traveling partner–except when lost in reading.

Since we departed New York on January 7, she’s disappeared into ten books you can actually touch and twelve  e-books (titles on request). In Hong Kong recently, during a stroll in Victoria Park, Diane whipped out her Kindle, found a wi-fi connection somewhere in the leaves and, in a minute or so, had downloaded The New YorkerThe New York Review of Books and the Sunday New York Times. “Something to read on the plane to London,” she explained.

We flew through Heathrow en route to Istanbul. So far, our airborne itinerary has been New York-Los Angeles-Hong Kong-Singapore-Hong Kong-Ho Chi Minh City-Da Nang-Ho Chi Minh City-Siem Reap-Ho Chi Minh City-Hong Kong-London-Istanbul, a route arranged by our cost-conscious travel agent with a considerable assist from Rube Goldberg. There is not much upbeat that you can say about 15- and 12-hour passages in a flying sarcophagus, but the skilled and friendly cabin crews on Cathay Pacific Airways worked hard to reduce the stress. I did my best to increase it, by constantly staring at the seat-back TV screen, where a Cracker Jack toy jet moved like an aerial inchworm above oceans and continents.

In Istanbul, we are ensconced in Room 103 of the Adora Hotel and sleeping in our eighteenth bed. This feat may not qualify us for the Guinness Book of World Records, but it has had its moments. In Siem Reap, we stayed in an intimate guest house where the proprietor required that we take off our shoes before entering the living quarters, and that featured a small shrine to Buddha on the porch where we ate breakfast. Given this Cambodian piety, it was with some surprise that we saw, when the sheet of our bed came untucked, the shining countenances of Tom and Jerry staring up from the mattress.

Photo: Diane

One subway and one tram brought us swiftly from the Istanbul airport to within steps of the Adora, proof once again that urban rail transport gets better and better once you leave the cramped and noisy tunnels of what used to be called the IRT, IND and BMT.  To my surprise, even car-centric Los Angeles boasted a clean and efficient Metro system, with imaginative art at every spacious station and quiet trains that arrived just when the platform read-outs promised.

The systems in Singapore and Hong Kong offered these virtues plus glass barriers at the edge of platforms, multi-language signage and announcements (Mandarin, Cantonese, English) and flashing route maps in the cars, amenities negated only by the arctic air conditioning. In Hong Kong, each train also featured a quiet car, a welcome rolling retreat from the nattering TV screens in most cars and the number of Chinese cell phones that seem to work perfectly deep beneath the city.

Above ground, we rode one of the many double-decker trams that run the length of Hong Kong Island; it swayed with nostalgia as it moved through the crowded streets, bell ringing and trolley sparking on the electric line above, like the street cars I rode to Comiskey Park in Chicago sixty-five year ago.

Photo: Diane

“All horsepower corrupts,” insisted the British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor of his decision, when walking across Europe in the thirties, to reject a lift in an automobile. I shared that view even before reading A Time of Gifts, the charming and erudite book where it appears, and before coping in terror in January and February with the infamous freeways that pretzel Los Angeles.

That said, I concede my hypocrisy, having in March put 1,100 miles on a rented Volkswagen Jetta happily exploring the stunning vineyards and seascapes of the Central California Coast, a tour not only made possible by the dread internal combustion engine but one that erased the reflexive Eastern sneer I long had reserved for the Golden State.

In Ho Chi Minh City, I decided to grow a beard. This impulse comes upon me once every fifteen or twenty years, and always proves misguided. This time, after a week, I began constantly feeling my face and wondering who this beachcomber was. By then the beard was scruffy enough to resist the puny Gillette razor in my dopp kit, so I put myself under the gleaming straight razor of Kim Lien, the twenty-something barber at the Riverside Resort & Spa in Hoi An. As this alarmingly young Vietnamese woman tilted me gently back in her black leather tonsorial chair and placed a pillow beneath my ankles, I gazed up at the thatched roof and fixed not so much on the image of Sweeney Todd (though he did make a cameo appearance) but on the only other time someone had held a knife at my throat, in 1963.

He was a segregationist barber in Cambridge, Maryland, who asked, as he stropped his weapon, why I had rushed to town to write about the Freedom Riders and other “outside agitators” for that liberal rag, Baltimore’s Evening Sun. Several sympathizers waited their turn in the chair, hard eyes on my every flinch. This time I was surrounded by bamboo blinds and gauzy white curtains, as Kim Lien deftly scraped away my mistake to soothing pentatonic flute music that mingled with the odors of oregano, pepper, star anise, clove, nutmeg, ginger and other spices and herbs rising from the sectional tray just beyond my head. Smooth, indeed.

Photo: Diane

Thirty-plus years ago, my daughter Amanda and I often ate dinner on Sunday nights at Chun Cha Fu, a restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "Dad," she asked one evening, as she tackled a spare rib, "do Chinese people eat American food on Sunday nights?" Probably not, I replied, with the kind of certainty that always seems to work when talking to an 8-year-old. Clearly, however, the child was prescient.

In Hong Kong, Diane and I, hankering for a western menu one Sunday, reported at 7 P.M. to Spaghetti House, a restaurant around the corner from our hotel. It was so besieged that they might have been offering free Gucci handbags to every third customer; the wait, said the harried man at the checkpoint, was two hours. At the nearby Pizza Hut, the decor and size of which was to the U.S. versions like a pagoda to an actual hut, the wait was "at least a half an hour, maybe more." Thin crusts were not the only lure; if you bought one soft drink, you got one free.

Hong Kong diners looked altogether happy when sipping all this fructose and devouring their slices, and Diane and I agreed that everyone we had dealt with or observed in the city seemed quite cheerful and contented. Then we read on page one of the South China Morning Post that residents of Hong Kong were among the least happy in the nation. These tidings came from the annual study of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which the paper billed as “the central government’s top think tank.” It reported that Hong Kong had dropped 73 places on the happiness index, putting it 271st out of 294 Chinese cities.

The problem, not unknown in the United States, appears to be that most of the city’s seven million residents are preoccupied with getting rich. This may be understandable given the profusion of glistening shopping malls that require, and very much get, their eager patronage. One consequence of this passionate consumerism is that Hong Kong has been named by the academy’s survey as China's most competitive city for the sixth year in a row.

We didn’t see many malls when we stopped in San Luis Obispo earlier this year, which may help explain why the California city is regarded in some quarters as the happiest community in the United States. Perhaps a visit by Hong Kong’s city fathers would prove useful.

Are we homesick after four months away? Well, we miss our dinners in Brooklyn with Amanda, Gustav, Rex and Aggie, and we miss our friends. And after eating out at least 350 times, it would be nice to sauté some zucchini with oregano and garlic in olive oil, spoon it atop a bowlful of spaghetti, sprinkle the lot generously with grated parmesan, and eat at our kitchen table while watching the sun set over the Hudson and listening to Schumann.

But then the eclectic cuisine of Istanbul beckons, not to mention the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace, the Golden Horn, and the spice market, that's been around since 1664. And Venice next week, Vienna after that, and who knows where else?