Thursday, June 22, 2006

Summer to Winter


After a damned long 48 or so hours, I have successfully made it from Beijing to Hong Kong to South Africa. And I have been reminded of the unique chill of South African winter, surely exacerbated by the fact that it was 90 and humid as hell when I was wandering Hong Kong yesterday. The winters here can get pretty raw, but the biggest issue is that there is no cultural infrastructure for winter. This morning, for example, was no colder than a brisk but sunny spring day in New England. But houses here are not insulated for cold, they do not often have central heating, and so the frigid factor is out of all proportion to the conditions. Jo-burg will not be that bad, but if I make it to Grahamstown it can get pretty raw, and a windy day in Cape Town will send you scurrying for cover and a duvet as well.

In any case, I am back and savoring the special familiarity I have with South Africa -- not as familiar, and thus as banal, as home, but even if I don't know it blind, I know the contours. South Africa is the friend I go months without seeing, but when we do get together it feels good and right and special. I pay extra close attention, because it may be a while before it happens again and a chance meeting is unlikely, but it is highly doubtful that I'll be thrown for a loop by much that I see and hear, and I appreciate the differences that absence affords me the opportunity to notice.

Yesterday was long, but not uneventful. I headed into Hong Kong proper for several hours with the highlight being a trip up the tram to the "Peak," a hill (mountain? Though that designation seems a bit grandiloquent) that affords splendid views of Hong Kong's unquestionably fabulous skyline (I place it in my top five) but which also captures the essence of Hong Kong as I have discerned it from an admittedly small sample. The first thing one sees upon debarking from the vertiginously steep two-car tram (which, impossibly, has not had a single accident since 1888) is a glitzy, unabashed, out-of-place Shopping Mall in the midst of a beaucolic escape that most cities would work to preserve, to keep somehow sacred. Not Hong Kong -- if it can be developed, exploited, sold and commercialized, bring it on.

After two weeks in Beijing the contrast was sharp. I loathe false designations like "real" versus "false" with regard to Asia or anything else, but there was something ersatz and chintzy about Hong Kong. Maybe the root is its status as a former colony. Hong Kong sees itself as self-consciously different and better than the rest of the leviathan that now more than ever hovers so menacingly nearby. The gorgeous setting is just a delivery system for a soulless brand of commercialism. I'm sure there is much more to Hong Kong than this, but in so brazenly cultivating the high-end mall culture the city doesn't do much to tug at the curiousity of guys like me who travel enough not to be suckered. Of course the city's world-class airport serves as a hub to much of the rest of Asia, and that will draw in the filthy lucre. Plus, my views may represent a minority -- Disney Asia has opened up in close and convenient proximity to the airport, right off the Airport Express train service. Hong Kong seems content to cultivate the empty shell approach to tourism.

Dizzy from commercial overload I was almost relieved to get back to the airport for what still loomed as a five-hour wait, which I killed quite well, made easier by the fact that I ran into my new friend from the last weeks, Kaz, who was in Hong Kong from her trip to Nanking on her way back to Australia. I also was able to spend my Hong Kong dollars down to the nub, which I always like to be able to do. I did keep a garish HK$10 note, which looks like technocolor vomit.

Not much to say about the flight. Happily it was not full, and my row of four seats had two of us. The entertainment system was largely down, so I got quite a lot of reading done. The stewardesses were first-rate (Cathay Pacific earns high marks based on these last four flights) and while long, it was not unbearable. Customs was easy and my Melville bed-and-breakfast dispatched someone to fetch me for two thirds of what a private taxi hire would have run me. I have managed to avoid sleeping, and even finished the last hundred or so pages of a book and caught a rerun of Dallas, which I thoroughly enjoyed. My memories of that show are that my Mom loved it, periodically watched it with friends, and that it followed a heavy-hitter Friday Night Lineup from the vantage of an eight-year old, The Incredible Hulk and The Dukes of Hazzard a show the passion for which I had cannot be described. In the early years of South African television (the country kept tv's pervasive influence at bay until thirty years ago almost wholly because of the closed nature of the apartheid state) Dallas was huge. One could analyze why for hours (it represented the ideal of privilege that white South Africans had cultivated for themselves; secretly everyone here envied the hats; etc.) but apparently the romance is still alive, as wedged between the soap operas (South Africans love their soap operas, which can be found throughout the day, both imported US soaps and as importantly from a cultural vantagepoint, their own domestic ones, which, because they sometimes try to carry a message and because they are multi-lingual might actually have at least some social value) was J. R. Ewing in all of his conniving glory. I'm not going to lie to you -- if it is on dvd, I might have to buy season one of Dallas when I get back to the States.

I'm in danger-zone time. If I sleep anytime before tonight, I'm royally screwed, no two ways about it. I could have stolen a nap upon arrival and been ok -- when I got in it was 11:00 pm last night in China -- but if I do so now, I am going to end up awake in the middle of the night, and that sometimes leads me to depression, plus it makes getting my clock right all the more difficult. So I am just going to catch up on some internet, wander around Melville for a while longer, and by 3 settle in to a bar to watch the US-Ghana game that kicks off at 4, which I think will be especially fascinating because not only do I expect everyone here to be anti-US, but also the fact that we are playing an African nation should ratchet it up a few notches. Fortunately, it will be friendly banter, and truth be told, I would be fine with Ghana moving on because that would mean so much more to that country and this continent than if the US wins. That said, I'd like the US to strap on a pair and begin to look like a team that deserved its ranking coming in. If Ghana wins, I am rooting for them and England the rest of the way.

You know what's good for a chill in the air? Beer. It will soon be Castle Lager time. Lekker.


Roger said...

It was nice at least to see the US actually score a goal in this tournament before being knocked out - ie. have the ball leave an American foot before going in, rather than luckily bouncing it off an Italian. With you on Ghana, but with their next game against Brazil, we'll have to depend on miracles for that one. I'm also very pleased for Australia.

You'll have to make it back to South Africa in four years time, Derek. They're hosting it in 2010, and apparently the USA will be going in to win it this time. They have a strategy!

dcat said...

Not a good show by the US boys. Nice game by Ghana. They certainly will have their work cut out for them, but they won't be afraid of Brazil, and no other team goes in with their resume from the group stages -- they faced three top-10 teams, defeating the two highest ranked.
I'm already toying with 2010, though that might be an awful time to come actually -- prices will be jacked, everyone will assume I'm just another stupid tourist, lodging will be tough to find, etc.
I'm just hoping we get England as a part of things for my arrival on the 9th!