We leave China after our month-long stay, concluding with a short pass at Shenzhen. It takes little perspicacity to witness the heightened level of economic activity and development of the border city only miles from Hong-Kong.
It’ll soon be time to meet with Coco’s parents again, including my (promised) father-in law this time. I bury my head deep inside my shoulders till the storm blows away. Nah, just kidding, he’s cool, long as his daughter is happy – still, always best to keep on your toes in that kind of situation.
Short travel video featuring our departure through Shenzhen, Hong-Kong and its Avenue of the Stars, and Macau:
We take the modern subway, lugging our fortunately small backpacks, which we’ve lightened during our stay in Guangzhou – no more towels, ever! We’ll also be able to hand off our winter clothes and coats, no longer needed in these warmer latitudes.
I snap a few pictures hurriedly at some of the sites that we gleam during our brief stay: Buddhist monks walking by the entrance of Shenzhen’s Window of the World, an amusement park featuring replicas of the world’s monuments, the staggering glass towers harboring the Chamber of Commerce and World Trade Center, the heavy machinery and cranes at work building more ambitious skyscrapers, the luxury car shops displaying shiny Aston Martins, Ferraris and Rolls Royces, and the suited men and women hurriedly pacing the streets.
We feel slightly out of place, tugging our backpacks and worn-out clothes, and the rain starts pelting onto the sidewalk, so it’s with little ado we make way to the border walkway from China to Hong-Kong, our first – but not our last – walk-through border of the trip.
Nervousness rises as we enter the empty line for foreigners. Could we have misinterpreted the duration of our Visa? Will we have to uncomfortably face the animosity of China’s immigration officers?
But soon enough, after a rapid perusal of our papers, we’ re ushered into one of the best examples of commercial, colonial and post-colonial prowess, the city-state of Hong-Kong.
It’s no surprise we’re rapidly under the spell of the former British colony, whose inhabitants have retained much of the restraint and polite etiquette proper to their Commonwealth heritage, the display of which is soothing after our stay in tumultuous China.
Coco’s been around before, and is eager to see her father, whom she hasn’t seen in a long time. I follow her with mixed excitement and a tinge of apprehension.
A direct subway ride soon brings us into the touristy, high-tech, shopping neighborhood, where our hotel directly overlooks the pier and ferry terminal to Macau, a practicality which will come in handy.
I discretely change into a pair of pants in the hotel lobby, hoping to make a better first impression on the father – who shows up, luckily just after I slipped the pants on.
He embraces his daughter effusively. Then shakes my hand warmly. Phew!
He rapidly takes us to our room, apologizing he couldn’t book another hotel, but Coco and I marvel at the clean sheets, glass bay dominating Hong Kong’s buzzing traffic, and overall comfort of the accommodation.
Later that night, we dine at a fine Italian restaurant. I feel guilty ordering a banal lasagna, the father urges me several times to try something fancier should I care to do so, all three indulge in edgier choices: swordfish, pancetta, ricotta…
But when the dishes are served, the relative bulk and foolproof tastiness of the lasagna suddenly seems appetizing.
“You know, maybe we should try that lasagna,” orders my father-in-law.
“We all share in the family. You better get used to it.” Friendly advice. I’m happy to oblige.
We discuss our future travel plans. I don’t fail to notice Coco’s insistence on our current state of fatigue, on the stress that we’ve already been experiencing. Neither do her parents, who express concern. I’m walking on thinning ice.
“You know, there’s no point in traveling if you’re going to be tired and stressed all the time. Don’t force yourself.”
We’re set to meet again with Coco’s parents in Laos in about five weeks time. In the meantime, we’ve planned to travel through the Philippines and Indonesia. I feel a bit rushed, contrived: I prefer – and work hard to make it feasible – long-form travel, precisely to enable a more contemplative approach to discovering new countries and cultures. I don’t like the idea of rushing through sites and monuments to check them off a list – although it inevitably happens – and prefer to allot lee time for nooks and turns, detours and encounters.
Coco, on the other hand, has been more hesitant to dive neck-deep into this adventure, preferring to interspace our periods of travel with family encounters – to keep an anchor to reality. I can only understand: how many of us truly leave everything behind? How long does it take to get accustomed to? How long does it last?
However, I’m also aware the fatigue and stress of the trip are very real, and this is the least I can do considering what I’m asking of her. Besides, this tradeoff comes with three-fold benefits.
On one hand, it’s the only way to catch up on work considering the frenetic rhythm we’ve had so far. It’s a sure way to alleviate some of our fatigue and to get decent rest every so often, as well as spend valuable time with Coco’s family. Lastly, this deadline also forces us to budget our time and money, which are going through the roof.
We had initially set on a 4 to 6 months journey, but we’ve already been on the road over two months and aren’t nearly a third into the trip. It’s almost certain we’ll be travelling more than 6 months. But who knows for how long more than that? It doesn’t help we started with some of the most expensive countries.
Coco’s still hesitant to share this information with her parents. I’m all for honesty, but I think they’d freak out.
The next morning we board the ferryboat from Hong-Kong to Macau. What’s a good stay in Hong Kong if you don’t pay a visit slash give some business to the crooks and triads of the casino-state?
Hong Kong’s skyline recedes, as the ferry flies past oil tankers and commercial ships, gradually nearing Macau’s hyperbolic flourish, the sound of a million slot machines being simultaneously primed seemingly floating above the waves. Border officials eagerly stamp new arrivals, and we’re swept to the boarding area, where myriad sexy hostesses clad in their casino’s colors, from the thigh up, beckon the happy clientele. We board a free shuttle bus and drive through the empty highways; the city is busy at work, or at play, within the confines of the gambling palaces.
The Galaxy’s mere size entitles it to its name, spreading its towering wins from one end of the horizon to the other, shielding the sun. We’ve entered a new world, where daylight and time no longer exist. Here patrons live and vibrate, strings of randomly patterned colors, to the ringing rhythm of the slots as they titillate. An imposing fountain and sky-high ceilings, clouded in blue, suffuse tranquil serenity as we walk past the threshold that will mark our transformation from people to players.
Coco and I are left with some pocket money while the parents roll around the corner.
I try sit next to her at first, but soon the slots have us superstitious and win-craved:
“You’re bringing me bad luck. Go find your own slots.”
“So I will, so I will.”
I wander around the casino, marveling at the ingenious efforts of design, entertainment and engineering here combined to keep players at play: tucked away from the outside world, serenaded, then hypnotized, by the glittering blitz of the slot machines, ensconced in leather stools and waited upon by spruce waitresses, the millions lose millions to the electronic beat of a dance performance.
Nameless bands take turns on stage, parading in front of the uncaring gamblers, wholly absorbed by their game.
The hours spill more or less effortlessly as I loiter from one machine to the next, distilling a few coins along the way, spending more time to gawk at the players seated at the high stakes tables in the middle of the game room. The table managers closely monitor the dealers, while they wink and offer comforting smiles to their casino-churning patrons.
Later. In the afternoon. I pull Coco out of her trans: she won, lost, then lost almost everything, only to double up, and is now losing or winning again. Our artificially lit eyes squint at the remaining daylight, as in a dream, or as party-goers returning home at dawn wonderingly discover the promise of a new day.
Worse than Vegas, or more intelligently designed by the cynical, Macau’s casinos aren’t even close to walking distance. Needless to say a casino’s free shuttle buses don’t cater to the competition. The mere idea of heading over to another casino down the mile-long road is dizzying. It’s a lot more comforting to walk back through the large golden doors, and breathe in the serenity of the clouded blue skies.
In the end, I come out of this psychological warfare a winner: I’ve managed to only spend a few dollars. Luckily, among the four of us, we have at least one winner.
The father takes us to dinner to celebrate.
Meeting with your father-in-law
I’ve known Coco since I was fourteen – more than half of my life. And her parents for nearly as long. The early workings of this history don’t yet have a place here, though they will eventually, suffice it to say that though I’ve known them for long I had yet to ever have a frank conversation with the father. Who was naturally protective of his daughters, as are all fathers, as well as intimidating, both for his daughters and those who set out for their conquest.
But that night at dinner, once we had ordered and after some preliminary small talk, the man looked me in the eye:
“You know, for a long time I didn’t really care to figure you out. But since you’re still here….”
This pries a mischievous smile and laugh from him, which causes my mother-in-law and her daughter to giggle. I flush. I spent years vying to win his daughter’s affection, driven by an obstinate perseverance they know only too well.
“But now that I know you better, I think I understand better. You’re someone who knows what you want and where you’re going… I’m glad that my daughter is with someone like you.”
I blush, embarrassed, and also aware it’s important to honor this trust as well as appreciate the importance of this moment, when a loving father puts aside his worries and protective feelings for the person he cares most about, and is willing to delegate – rather to share, or loan – that responsibility with a younger man.
“You know. We’re a small family. There are only four of us. (Coco has a little sister) But that’s enough. What matters is that we stick together.”
Count on me.
I order a simple burger, reminiscent of the previous night’s lasagna (I must be in need of comfort foods), and we drink red wine, celebrating our happy family reunion.
The next day Coco and I set out to visit downtown Hong Kong and its financial districts, walking up the steep streets reminiscent of San Francisco, Chinese restaurants and fast foods included.
Our visit is rather uninteresting, a few architectural landmarks dating from the colonial era interspersed with a pleasant park and hilly views. As for most of Asia’s cities though, Hong-Kong’s smog has grown thick over the years.
Our minds are also wavering towards the (near) future: we just booked our onwards flight to the Philippines, for the next day. As a result, the fares were exorbitant. Little do we know that we’re flying to the world’s most Catholic country just in time for the last week of Lent, or Holy Week, or as it is prosaically called, Easter Week.
We’ve also learned last-minute we may need to produce an onwards ticket for Indonesia prior to our departure. Likewise, the fares of onwards flights are confounding, and we have yet to decide whether to chance it or not at the airport (more on this later).
Evening come, I stroll by Hong Kong’s Hollywood walk, crowds of tourists posing at the foot of Bruce Lee’s honorary statue, enjoying the cool breeze of an early spring night set across the river from Hong-Kong’s sprawling skyline.
It’s going to be hard to get back on the road after such cozy comforts. And we’re headed to Manila, no other. I suspect more will be asked from our adventurous spirits, and hope that Coco will enjoy it.
We’ll see tomorrow. Better get some rest.
The next morning, I give both parents a warm hug, and Coco’s teary but ready as we head over to the airport. In a few hours we’ll be landing in Manila, Philippines, with neither hotel booking nor travel information.
Find out more about travel tips to Hong-Kong, Shenzhen and Macau on Rollingcoconut.com!