Monday, August 03, 2009

Shopping in Stanley

I reached my hostel just before noon, and checked in without difficulty. When the hostel manager checked me in, she indicated a bed and said "ah, one other person. You have a girl this time." Ah Shan's mixed dorm is the kind of arrangement that--in my experience--is limited almost entirely to single men on their way between other places in Asia or taking the long hop between Asia and Europe. It's a bit rough and tumble, and not the sort of place you see a lot of womenfolk.

In fact, womenfolk in hostels tend to be a mysterious curiosity. Admittedly, I've had some great luck along the way, meeting good traveling companions like Melanie, but there have also been the odd girls that will check into mixed dorms but then never say hello, leaving an awkward silence in a room for an entire evening and the following morning, making you wonder if you really look that scary or if maybe they just assume that you won't speak a common language or perhaps they're mute?

Judging by the twinkle in the eye of my host this girl was the sort of likable person I would probably get along with, so I looked forward to meeting her.

So it was that even though Roger turned out to be a very nice guy, I'll always think of him by the nickname "disappointment". It turned out the girl had checked out that morning, and Roger was the only remaining guest. He was a pleasant, softspoken fellow with a soft torso and hair cut very short to mitigate a receding hairline. The oppressive heat had done a number on his UK sensibilities, and so he returned from his morning's excursion shirtless, making him look like the quintessential western victim of Hong Kong's heat and humidity. A sort of white gumby, slowly deforming in the pressure-cooker that is Hong Kong in midsummer.

If he's good at reading expressions, I'm sure he's wondering why the American stranger's face fell quite that far when he walked in the door. Ah well, win some, lose some.

We struck it off well enough, and I gave him a little advice on the easiest way to get back to the airport (bus, from where we happened to be) and headed out. I was hungry, and I had shopping to do.

I had intentionally resisted the urge to buy some things along the way, knowing that I didn't have the space or weight to carry souvenirs, and so I specifically managed it so that I could wait until my last day in Hong Kong to do much of my shopping.

I took the MTR out to the very end of Hong Kong Island, and from there a Green Minibus across the island to the tiny seaside village of Stanley, a tourist's village with a pretty well known souvenir market. There I bought gifts both small and large for several friends, and many of you will be receiving them as Christmas and Birthday gifts over the coming six months.

But before I did most of my shopping, I went hunting for food.

There is a long strip of tourist restaurants with names like "Cafe De Paris" and signs advertising Carlsberg and Heineken, all facing the waterfront. I walked along them glancing incredulously at prices and shaking my head. I suspected there was a place near here where the locals ate, and there was no way I was paying HK $100 for a dim sum sampler plate. At the end of the long line of tourist trap eateries I found a grungy instant noodle house nesting in a hole in the wall, and there I had vegetable and meat wonton noodle soup for $18--about US $2.50. It was delicious, though simple, and I felt a little better about my chances of succeeding in the market.

Hong Kong markets don't really do that much haggling anymore--I mean, some do, but most of the prices are already low and there really isn't much room to negotiate, so I only asked for small discounts when I bought several things together, and while this always resulted in some savings, it was usually only between 5 and 15 percent. I suppose I could have struck a hard bargain, played the difficult sell, and tried for more, but I liked the laid back, relaxed attitude of the shopkeepers and was more than comfortable paying the asking price in almost every case. I found most of the gifts I was looking for, although a couple of artists I had seen on my first visit to Hong Kong whose work I really liked were not represented there, and several pieces that I loved were far, far out out of my price range.

As I wandered I took time to view the waterfront. Stanley faces out towards the open ocean, on the far side of Hong Kong Island from the major city, and it's blatantly obvious at any given moment that Hong Kong's role as one of the major shipping centers of the world is still quite strong.

Eventually the afternoon's torrential downpour settled in, and I moved slowly from shop to shop, thankful for the tightly woven roof made of awnings and fabric and plastic that the shop owners string up to keep the sun and rain off their customers. Around six I finally headed back to town, waiting until a thinner band of the storm came through and the rain reduced to a light drizzle and I could make it to the bus stop at a dead run. I must have looked an awkward sight, with a road-weary face and worn clothing, two cardboard art tube rolls and a severely anachronistic samurai sword protruding from the bag slung over my shoulder.

I headed back to town, dropped my bags at the hostel, grabbed a few pastries from a bake shop for dinner, and took the MTR down to the waterfront for one last view of Hong Kong's incredible skyline. The rain had dispersed by then, and I happened to accidentally arrive just before 2000, which gave me the chance to wade through the crowds of tourists and watch the Hong Kong lightshow again.

The show was nice, but I found it better the second time around, since I decided to block out the Movie-Theatre-Introduction Music with Oh Dorian, which actually seemed to match the light show a little better than the stuff blaring from the Public Address system.

I headed back to the hostel around 9, did a bit of research and caught up on my internets, then turned in around 11.

Tomorrow was going to be two very short days.