Once again, the Herald has sent me, its one and only foreign correspondent, on a journey far and wide and Down Under, to see the world and report back to my readers.
In truth, my travel perks stop at the Midtown Tunnel. Nevertheless, my husband and I set out on Dec. 16 for a really big trip. Our flight to Hong Kong was delayed 23 hours. We missed our connection to Bali, where, on Dec. 21, we were to board a ship for a month-long journey to Australia and New Zealand.
In Hong Kong, the airline put us up in what turned out to be not Hong Kong, but the New Territories of former mainland China. Nearly dead from jet lag, we landed in the Panda Hotel in a neighborhood that reminded me of the worst slums of Brazil (not that I’ve been there, but I watch the Discovery Channel).
Imagine the elegance of the Peninsula or the Mandarin Oriental in the heart of Hong Kong. We were imagining that, too, but this was the Panda, a strange high-rise tower built over a vast complex of malls. You know how China has a population of a billion and a half people? They were all staying at the hotel, and they were all shopping the malls for basic goods. This wasn’t the Fifth Avenue of China. It was the retail equivalent of junk food — toasters, razors, low-end clothing and alarmingly dangerous kids’ toys.
We had only one night there before the next flight to Bali. Peeling wallpaper in the room. Enormous buffet of raw fish and other critters I wouldn’t think of touching, much less eating. I remembered my travel doc’s cardinal rule: Never eat at a hotel buffet in a foreign country. My husband did (dinner was included), and he survived.
Mostly it was the surreal, slightly Hitchcockian atmosphere that unnerved us. Unimaginable crowds of people pressing all around us. We were the one and only Caucasian couple, and people stared. Even the desk clerks who tried to be helpful didn’t speak any English. It was pre-Christmas, so the hotel was ablaze with Christmas lights and Chinese elf tchotchkes and, believe me, more stuffed red pandas in Santa hats than you’d ever want to see.