Philippines Travelogue Postscript: Hong Kong

I just can’t stop writing about this trip. As promised, here is the exciting final conclusion to our Philippines trip: our layover in Hong Kong. (If you missed any episodes in the Philippines series, you can find them all together here.)

As the vintage double-decker bus wound up the wooded peak, we considered our state of affairs with a mixture of dismay and wild anticipation. We were on our way to the top of Victoria Peak, number one on every list of Hong Kong Island’s numerous attractions. That we had no money to get back down to the airport for our flight home, which left in a mere three hours, had not concerned us much when we boarded the bus. We’d gotten out of scrapes like this before, hadn’t we?

On our first day in the Philippines, only four long months before, we had committed the egregious error of arriving in a foreign country with a bank card that did not function internationally. We had our credit cards, but they were of little use in the

remote villages and budget pension houses, both of which figured prominently in our itinerary. We got around our unfortunate indiscretion by wiring ourselves money in $1000 increments, using a lovely little service called XOOM. By the end of our stay in the Philippines, we realized we were short on cash. Unfortunately, we were also too cheap to wire ourselves more Filipino pesos, to be converted at less-than-ideal exchange rates into first Hong Kong dollars and then American ones. We half considered following the local example and spreading out our belongings on blankets to sell to passersby in the metro. Until an even more brilliant scheme occurred to us.

On the Saturday evening before we left Manila, we went to the grocery store at the popular local mall (yes in the Philippines grocery stores are located inside of malls), which we knew to be always overflowing at that hour. Walking up and down the lines of people waiting for checkout, we began asking if we could pay the bill with a credit card and be reimbursed with cash. To be fair to us, it is standard practice in the Philippines if you have only one or two items to walk up and down the checkout lines, looking for someone who will let you cut at the front of the line. We didn’t consider our request too much stranger or more annoying. The rest of the shoppers did, however, and they eyed us doubtfully. As we passed back through the lines, we became acutely aware that the entire store was staring at the two Americans with the little white baby, begging for money in the grocery store. They were almost sure we were up to something shady. Finally, a kind (and courageous) shopper consented to our plan. We paid for her groceries with our credit card, and she presented us with enough cash to barely make it through a day and a night in Hong Kong. Thinking back on it now, I wonder if this is somehow illegal, like a form of money laundering. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me to consider.

To our dismay, upon our arrival in the Hong Kong airport, we were informed of an exit tax of $20 each, which we would need to pay when we left the next day. I know $40 is not an onerous sum, but we’re talking about two cheapskate students with a baby here. $40 just happened to be a considerable percentage of our total budget for a night on the town in Hong Kong. But what could we do? We shrugged our shoulders and decided we’d just do a lot of walking.

Geography-wise, Hong Kong is a little bump off of Mainland China. The two major destinations for in-and-out tourists like us are Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island. We spent the rest of our arrival day exploring the fascinating and historical Kowloon. For people who come to Hong Kong with money, Kowloon’s markets are paradise. Specific streets specialize in everything from electronics to jade to goldfish. The ladies’ market sells expensive brand-name merchandise (sometimes fake, but often surplus from the genuine factories in China proper) at bargain prices. Our favorite was the Temple Street Night Market, a bewildering affair of colorful pearls, leatherwork, clothing, and every kind of exotic souvenir, vended by still more colorful people.

Hong Kong Island, across Victoria Bay and reachable from Kowloon in moments by either underwater subway or picturesque ferry, is the splendid metropolis that embodies the island nation’s formidable economy. In Hong Kong, one doesn’t see many advertisements for restaurants or cell phones or normal commodities. Most billboards in the city are after bigger fish. They advertise “wealth management,” apparently one of the principal preoccupations of the city’s well-heeled inhabitants.

Every night, along the “Avenue of Stars” boardwalk on the Kowloon side of Victoria Bay, visitors can watch a spectacular light show that incorporates the eclectic skyscrapers of the other side in a dazzling Coruscant-meets-Vegas light display. This is a city with plenty of pizzazz, and the money and P.R. department to show it all off.

Even so, Hong Kong is not without its spiritual side. Rumor has it that the commercial district was laid out according to the strict rules of Feng Shui. We visited the Wong Tai Sin Temple, a gorgeous complex complete with small stone statues of animals, a lovely collection of bonsai, and two massive hand prints from a sumo champion who visited a few years ago. The complex also contains two separate temples, dedicated to the Buddha and Confucius respectively. We were nearly asphyxiated in the temple itself by a crowd of people telling their fortunes with great bundles of lighted incense.

Our final (and for us sentimental Mormons, most exciting) destination was the Mormon Temple. Yes, like a growing number of cities worldwide, Hong Kong is home to its very own architectural symbol of my faith. This temple, though, wasn’t on any of the tourist maps. We had only the sketchiest of directions to follow. A helpful employee at the airport had circled the subway stop where we should exit to find the Temple. She went on to tell us that we would need to walk “very far” to reach it. As we left the subway and started out on our search, it began sprinkling.

Having spent the last month enjoying the rainy season in the Philippines, we knew enough to be suitably wary of tropical storms. We asked a few people on the street if they knew where the Mormon Temple was. They shook their heads, either because they didn’t understand us or because they actually didn’t know the location of the temple. Finally, a young man pointed us in the opposite direction of the way we had been going. He did not sound at all certain that he really knew where it was, or even what we were talking about. The only thing he seemed certain of, like our helper at the airport, was that we would need to walk a long way. We had already walked a long way. It was raining harder now, and we were beginning to doubt the wisdom of our quest. How were we to find the Temple when we were so surrounded by large, important buildings and nobody seemed even aware of its existence? Had we just dreamed that there was a Mormon Temple in Hong Kong? We turned dispiritedly in the direction our guide had indicated, and began retracing our steps.

Just then, we looked up, and over the rooftops and trees, backed by a cloudy grey sky, was the unmistakable image of a golden Moroni. We laughed and hugged as if we had received unexpectedly wonderful news. Then we threaded our way back through the streets, this time with our goal hovering always in sight. We reached the street where the Temple stands just as the clouds finally burst open in earnest, dumping down quite a bit more rain on us than our little, decrepit umbrella could really handle. We wanted to go across the street to take a picture in front of the Temple, but we also wanted to keep our baby reasonably dry. Just when we thought we would have to be content with looking from across the street, we saw the rain blow down the street away from us, like a moving curtain. For a little while, we were standing in a block of sunlight across from the Temple. It was a moment of pure magic. We quickly set up the camera, took a picture, and ran across the street to peer through the bars on the fence. Then it started pouring rain again, and we dashed for shelter in a nearby doorway.

Oh, and in case you were wondering . . . we did manage to find a charitable tourist at the top of Victoria Peak, who gave us enough change to get back down again. And then when we left the Hong Kong Airport, they ended up not exacting an exit tax from us after all. So somewhere in the catacombs of our San Diego storage unit, I believe we still have that $40 of Hong Kong money. Maybe we’ll make it back sometime to spend it on a wild shopping spree at the Kowloon markets.

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