The allure of Hong Kong

There is an undeniably attractive appeal for places and material objects that are newer, bigger, fancier, and brighter. Hong Kong capitalizes on just this- having the reputation for being the city shopping, skyscrapers and good food. And they have done it well. Sailing into central Hong Kong from Lantau island I was utterly speechless at the numbimg_0229er, height and variety of skyscrapers that were packed into this small inlet. This city had more concrete and newly polished  windows than was visible from my peripheral vision. I was immediately overwhelmed by the how many buildings were squeezed into a small space.

img_0280What this looked like on the ground was streets with a shopping mall at every corner, more 7-11s than Starbucks, people staring at their cell phones more than looking where IMG_0236.jpgthey were walking or more likely which was the next escalator they would go up, and SHOPPING. You can not escape this town without being forced into a shopping mall that is primary American stores. Even the subway, which is such an impressive and clean network of trains, coming every two minutes, had stores selling everything from purses to soda to wedding rings.

This consumerist driven culture was overly at Victoria Peek. The highest point in the city, this peek was where the British stayed to get out of the smog and look over the city. A tram was constructed in the late 1880s to bring residents up to the peek and still runs today. A hardy wooden shuttle that goes directly up this mountain, it offers an amazing view and a tourist trip that is probably worth the hour wait in line.

While expecting to find a line and a horde of tourists from countries all over, I was not expecting to get out of the tram and be forced to walk into a 5 story shopping mall before I could get out and find the best view of the city. What was saddest to me was the inability to find this view, all of the best spots are owned by businesses, hotels, fancy apartments, etc.. I was effectively ‘priced’ out of seeing best view. Strolling around the top of the peak in the sun, it is pleasant to find other foreigners voicing similar grievances and making your way to the gardens which have an appealing and colonial setting with terraces, fountains and canopies.

Another example of this manufactured appeal is the ‘Big Buddha’ on Lantau island. Known as the Big Buddha for a reason, this massive bronze Buddha sits on the top of hill, looking out over a monastery, cable car and shores of Lantau Island. Completed in 1993, the stair climb up to the base of the Buddha emphasized the enormity and impressive size of this structure as it appears large- even at the base of a 400(ish) stair case. As you climb up couple pose for selfies at ever stair- partially to capture the Buddha and partially to take a break from the burn in your thighs.

My favorite part of Lantau was the monastery adjacent to the Buddha. The food was far from superior- mediocre fake chicken meat drenched in a questionable sauce along with dumplings that were more dough than flavor- but the temples were magical. The room of 10,000 Buddhas is exactly that- a room with 10,000s buddhas decorating the walls, floors and open space of this peaceful and overwhelmingly spiritual room. An off white tile floor reflects the buddhas that are represented in tiny tiles along every part of the wall, only emphasizing the magnanimity. With five large golden buddhas in the center of the room, this space reminded me of how powerful and spiritual a constructed place can be. The visitor is instantly reminded of the power in a unified belief system. Only such devote beliefs could instigate the type of unity and vision that is required to make such a magical place.

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Venturing Down Under

I recently traveled to Australia for a short and expansive trip to several of the continent’s more populated cities (Sydney and Melbourne) as well as several sites that are less populated, yet infamous for natural wonders. While my second or third trip to several of these places, I was struck by the antiquated nature of the buildings, the fashion and the mindsets of Australians. I could not help but gawk at the neck tattoos and the overly muscular, weight obsessed men who seemed to want nothing more than drive their large trucks and brag about how large they were (both the truck and their muscles).

This was especially apparent in Fraser island, a gorgeous island off of fullsizerenderQueensland where I could not help but compare the sand, unpaved roads, to roads I have traveled on in West Africa. While in Fraser, going on these roads seemed to be the epitome of a adventurous vacation get away, a fake land un-developed for the pleasure of these seemingly misogynistic men, in West Africa going on these roads is norm. It is a product of a lack of government funding. The unpaved and sandy roads becomes the reality that people have to deal with- and do so expertly without bragging about their 4 wheel drive.

I was enchanted by Sydney and struck by how suburbs of cities (especially in Brisbane and Melbourne) seemed to resemble California- in the 1990s. Not only the tub tops and the short shorts but the one story strip malls, mini golf and strange architecture of buildings with neon bordering windows and terraces.

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Most of the continent is flat, arid and not too visually appealing or all that different from portions of the Midwest. Cradle Mountain National Park in Tasmania is a spectacular site. The moss ground juxtaposed with grey rock, small lakes, crater lakes, ponds and wombats make every turn you take on the well managed paths of the park a joy. I was utterly astonished by how well labeled, preserved and maintained the paths of the park were. While I did not have time to make it to the mountain’s summit, the wooden stairs and paths going up make the journey a much easier trek. Largely untrue in the US, the Australian government has clearly invested well in preserving its natural treasures, as well as providing universal health care to its citizens.

My final day was passed in Melbourne, an energetic, artsy and colonial city. The parks of the city are decorated with marble statues, old school greenhouses with hydrangeas and  fountains that gives the green grass and nicely cobbled walkways a very 19th century British appeal. The contemporary art pieces seem a strange addition to this formal, colonial style but I found them to be a pleasant and modern surprise.

img_0142Another colonial legacy left by the British is cricket. I had the pleasure of attending a few hours on the second day of a match between Australia and Pakistan that was intended to run nine days. As this long running, infamously boring game is as confusing as it has sounded, I paid little attention to the actual functions of the game but was more curious to observe those in attendance. Seated right above the field, I was astonished at how cheap my ticket was for such a popular event (about 20 dollars USD). Additionally, I was surprised to learn that a weak beer only cost 7 dollars, in comparison to the 15 dollar beer at Dodgers stadium. I quickly learned that the price of the beverage was necessary to keep everyone entertained during the game- and seemed to be the real reason that the crowd was in attendance. While doing the wave and occasionally yelling chants at the players like the crowd does at a sports event in the US, no one really seemed to care how the game went. First this was due to the fact that the game still went on another 7 days, but additionally, most of the young fans surrounding my seat admitted that Australia was not very good. Lastly, they seemed more interested in who was ‘skulling’ a beer, who was getting kicked out of the stands for making a ruckus after drinking and the face paint of someone on the crowd cam.

I left Australia for Hong Kong, recollecting my experiences with Australians in Africa. Most Austrialians I have encountered there were working in or for various mines in West Africa. The majority have been rambunctious, inconsiderate of the Africans who work with or for them and rather uninterested in making sure those living in Africa receive a fair share of the profits from the mines. Simultaneously, they are aware that without their technical and financial support, these natural resources would be left untouched and extracted as the local governments and institutions do not yet have the local capacity to access these resources. Thus, they validate their work because of this necessity.

Mines are similarly growing in Australia, land is plentiful and the continent is said to have more millionaires than anywhere else, it is clear that Australians are finding new frontiers and moving from their island to recolonize spaces and places. I could not help but think that the education, cultural sensitivity and economic priorities of this increasingly powerful continent need to be re-examined, similar to my own home.

Glimpses from the Road

Some people think of each photo before they take it, contemplating the shadows, the light, the profile of the people. As a member of the iphone generation, I just point and shoot. Often from the window of a car as I pass by interesting – or what I see to be typical scenes of daily life.

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Ugandan Lunch

Everyone always asks about the food so here goes. These are from my lunches at Oxfam, where a woman makes lunch everyday for the staff to come and purchase for 5,000 Uganda Shillings a plate, approximately $1.30. The lunch time lasts about 45 minutes and most of the staff sit and talk politics, football, relationships, etc… A few workers get a plate and bring it back to their desk to eat and keep working. I have teased them about being ‘American’ but am truly amazed by their hard work- very different from Mali where we had a 2 hour lunch, tea and nap break.

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Monday.

The standard matoke (steamed and mashed green bananas is a staple for all meals here. It is slightly sour but not too flavorful). Accompanied by peas, steamed pumpkin (delicious), rice and goat meat.

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Tuesday

Starting from the top right going clockwise- posho/ugali (maize that is flavorless and pretty unappetizing), sweet potato and ground nut sauce (delicious and thicker than the West African equivalent), more matoke, and chicken. The avocado was separately cut by a coworker who shared it to add flavor to the meal and wanted it pictured as she said “Now it looks healthier”.

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Wednesday

Beans, rice, meat, pumpkin and greens. There was matoke of course but I said no…

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Thursday-

More Posho and matoke with sweet potato, groundnut sauce and chicken. I had to add some spice this time as it was getting pretty old.

There are many differences with West African cuisine, one of the largest being that there is no spicy food here. I was told that it is because when food is spicy it is fried and Ugandans are very health conscious so they dont like fried food. While people here are incredibly health conscious (there are gyms, saunas, health clubs all over) I dont think that is necessarily the reason although the food here not typically fried- more often it is boiled or steamed. Overall, there are more elements to the dishes here, even in villages, and there are far more options for foreign restaurants and food styles. A topic for another blog…