Saturday, 28 August 2010

Best of both worlds

One of the things I like very much about travelling around the world in places new to me is not knowing what's going on.

The first time I visited China I travelled with Dig down from Beijing to Hong Kong. It was not all as strange and alien as I imagined. It was clear that some parts of that long route south were on the official Lonely Planet run.

We would visit some restaurant, and know immediately. It may not be the only restaurant for 500 miles where the staff spoke any English, and it may have served the worst noodles in all of China, but it was in The Book. It was invariably Western themed and invariably full, to bursting.

We would be squeezed to a table in a crammed and dim lit room by worn out waiters who had to place dishes on tables staggering under the weight of Lonely Planet travel guides. Then they navigated their way back to the kitchen through spaces that an ant would find impassible. Meanwhile, some young American kid with a bellowing voice, arriving too late to be accommodated, would be haranguing the staff about how everyone in the restaurant was just free loading on the beer. By which I suppose he meant he couldn't get any table at all, thanks to his basic mistake of bringing a Baedeker.

If we came off that run, which we did, thanks to Dig and his young exploring ways, we ended up in places I could not make head nor tail of at all. In one restaurant I remember eating a lot of peanuts. Just that. Peanuts. Peanuts in red sauce. Peanuts in black sauce. Peanuts in no sauce. By the end of that meal I probably had consumed 40,000 calories in peanuts. I was glad to do so, because typically in these restaurants we got nothing to eat, and went back to the hotel starving. In one place in Canton, a young woman just stared at us suspiciously and handed us what looked like a song sheet. I suspect it was a brothel masquerading as a karaoke bar. She looked relieved when we drank some water, pushed money at her, and left.

Those experiences always filled me with a sort of pleasure. Not pleasure at discomfort, hunger and pain, but just the pleasure of knowing that the world worked in ways I didn't always understand. Mostly, that was alright. When I was too tired, too starving, too disconnected, I could say it was because the world outside me was foreign, and it was all their fault. When I was well fed on peanuts and the sheets were clean, travelling life was an amazing insight into a wonderful culture.

So when I knew that Lamma Island was a haven for expats, part of me was disappointed and part of me was pleased. The juvenile exploring part of me still likes to imagine I could go off over there. The older, fatter, near half-century part of me needs a proper dinner for those elderly aching bones. Anyway, now I have responsibilities bigger than me. Now I have kids.

And I have found this out about kids. They do not think it is a mark of a fun evening to crawl along a maze of rabbit holes in total darkness avoiding open drains and murderers, all in the search of a restaurant you think you saw on the bus through here two days ago. Kids want things they can recognise. A pizza and a bed. In early onset teenage, they may want those things together, but for now we can get away with a five minute walk separating the two. But mother, make the five minutes fun with a torch and an interesting snail along the way, or the deal's off and the screaming starts.

Lamma Island is a good compromise. The Chinese community is strong and thriving. The traders talk in a language I can't understand. Some speak no English at all, but just stick up two fingers and pass me the bananas. The streets are crowded, the gutters in the backstreet clogged with solid fat, the drains stink on a hot day, and I can still stand in front of the dried stuff in packs stall and feel that sense of wonderment. I want to buy that unknown, dried white stuff, take it home, sniff it, dip it in water, make tinctures of it, experiment and make a total idiot of myself because I am cooking toilet block, and then I want to say Hey Kids, do you want to come to the Waterfront Bar? I hear the pizza there is great.


Retiredandcrazy said...

I'm doing the "off the beaten track" thing with a group of people in China next spring grit so I was fascinated with your travels. My guess is that English is more widely spoken now. If not I'll starve for 10 days!

sharon said...

You're a braver woman than I am Grit! I'd like to think I could do those things but the reality is that I like my comforts, am a bit fussy about what I eat and where I sleep. Also I'm older fatter and somewhat more decrepit than you ;-)

At least 2/3 of the gritlets appear to be taking the changes in their stride and hopefully the remaining 1/3 is taking a few faltering steps now.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes! The wonderment of being somewhere alien - I love that too, mostly.

Many a time I've ordered a meal in a non-English speaking restaurant by acting it. I do a mean "stir fried chicken" (complete with squawking and flapping) and (after a few beers) a passable squid.

kellyi said...

Buy the white could lead to all kinds of fun.