“Does it cost a lot to eat in Hong Kong?”
“No,” my boss said, “it doesn’t have to.”Though he was an experienced traveler, I didn’t believe him. He had money and I didn’t-only 900 bucks to my name after airfare, and I was spending every last cent on this trip. For my first time overseas, everything had to be perfect.
I wanted to taste the Chinese recipes that had been handed down to my great grandmother, her daughter, my father, and now me. I wanted to dine with the locals and order for my friends in Cantonese. I wanted to eat the best dim sum in the world…
“The noodle houses are cheap,” he encouraged.
Ahhh the noodle houses. I envisioned every street corner marked by bamboo carts with steamy mystery broth—old men in black pajama pants and mandarin shirts cooking dried egg noodles, grandmothers sitting on nearby benches chopping vegetables, live chickens in wooden crates waiting their turn to provide a fresh meal.
“And there’s always McDonald’s,” he added.
“James! I am not going half way across the world to eat at McDonald’s!” I yelled with my virgin travel nose 45 degrees towards the ceiling. The golden arches were completely out of the question. And off I huffed to go pack.
The next thing I knew, a beautiful Singapore Airlines stewardess was offering me a hot face towel, new socks, toothbrush, earphones for my personal TV with movie options, and a menu for a full-course gourmet dinner. This was the life, what international traveling was all about. The plane wasn’t turning around, so I was officially “worldly.”
I arrived to a quiet Hong Kong morning. Twenty-story tenements towered over clean vacant streets. Clothes dried on laundry lines outside the apartment windows. A man on a rickety black bicycle rode by with a large woven basket tied to the back. The sky was overcast and shops were closed. I headed down Nathan Road in Tsimshatsui to meet my friend.
All of a sudden, I stopped in my tracks. There they were. The golden arches. I hadn’t even been in Hong Kong twenty minutes! A big shiny red and yellow sign staring me right in the face, bright and breakfasty for all of sleeping Hong Kong to see. I bolstered my international attitude, and walked on.
Our first day, we roamed through a Wanchai wet market. Live fish and crab swam in tanks, frogs and eels squirmed and slithered in tubs, chickens, ducks, quails and pigeons squawked from stacks of wooden cages. The sidewalks were full. The streets were loud. Chinese women pushed to get by, storeowners yelled for you to come in, cars honked to get through the crowds. Wanchai was busy and we were getting hungry.
I stopped in a bakery to get us some Cha Shu baos, (barbecue pork buns). When I returned with the buns, I almost turned into a pig—gobbling down the feed before I could even smell it. Almost. I couldn’t turn into a pig because I had already transformed into a cat. A finicky feline sniffing her food and turning her nose. These weren’t like the baos I ate at home. These baos were small and cold and doughy. My nose was back in the air. One loud whiny meow and we had returned to the hunt for lunch.
It was 3:30 and we hadn’t eaten all day. Half bent over and cranky as can be, I stopped looking for the perfect back street dim sum cafe and begrudgingly settled on a restaurant advertising menus in English. They had the basics, and we ordered them. Chow mein, baby bok choy, egg rolls, steamed rice, and hot tea. There were other tourists in the restaurant, identifiable by their fanny packs, and they wouldn’t leave us alone. Smiling and telling us what to order, and where to go. Clearly, I wasn’t half way around the world. This could have been any old Chinese restaurant back home in San Francisco. I wasn’t feeling worldly anymore.
The next 24 hours were a haze of tired swollen feet rambling mile after mile from Kowloon to Central, over to Admiralty, Wanchai, back to Kowloon, then over to Causeway Bay, back to Central and then back to Tsimshatsui and through the streets to our guest house in Jordan, all in the rain. Our log of the day read as a list. The Star Ferry, Hong Kong Park aviary, the government buildings, the Mass Transit Railway, Nathan Road, Mass Transit Railway, The Mandarin Oriental, Chater Road, The Mass Transit Railway, Nathan Road. All of our time was spent getting from one place to the next. Traveling.
The cell phones kept ringing and Calgon was nowhere to be found. I knew that I was wet, couldn’t deny that I was exhausted, had Grouch stamped right across my forehead, and was hungry enough to eat a…hey! The light bulb of all light bulbs, the grand daddy of electrical know how, a billboard of Thomas Edison shot up in pink blinking neon above my head! I hadn’t eaten since yesterday. Food—the ultimate mood-saver extraordinare! The epiphany lifted our heads from following the feet in front of us.
“Thank God, a McDonald’s!” my friend Alison said with an unbeatable sigh of relief. I, of course, went into the deep dark world of utter embarrassment.
“But, it’s McDonald’s,” I whispered.
“Lucky for us, eh?” she replied.
“But, we’re in Hong Kong,” I attempted to reason, “we can’t eat McDonald’s in Hong Kong. What about dim sum? What about noodle houses?”
“What about next time,” she said beginning to get annoyed with me. My stomach was shedding its skin, throwing out its monogrammed lining, and nailing a “for rent” sign to my jacket.
“O.K., just this once,” my hungry half surrendered.
She opened the door. I must have been delirious from the heat and famine, because there was no doubt in my mind that I had just set foot in the happiest place on earth.
“Didn’t Disney merge with McDonald’s?” I asked. But no one was listening. I couldn’t move. I was paralyzed in air-conditioned bliss. It wasn’t even raining in here.
The aroma of French fries and Big Mac’s was sweeter and more fulfilling than any home cooked Thanksgiving dinner I’d ever set the table for. Happy Meal advertisements hung from the ceiling like white dreamy clouds. Everyone was smiling, everyone was eating. Except me. I woke up and went to order.
“Two of everything please.”
The young Chinese woman ignored me and pointed at a picture menu for me to place a real order.
“Yut,” I muttered the Cantonese word for one, trying to please my conscience. I could still bring some cultural experience to this magical Hong Kong wonderland.
“Do you mean Value meal number one?” she asked in perfect English.
“Yes, and a diet coke please,” I replied, a little taken aback.
We sat down to eat the most rewarding meal of our lives. The fries had never been so perfect, Coke never as refreshing, and the special sauce, never so special. I couldn’t remember ever being so gastronomically satisfied. What was happening to me? I was so relaxed and happy you’d have thought I’d just spent the last half hour being pampered at a health spa. But I wasn’t in a spa and my health was of no consideration here. “Tomorrow, I’ll redeem myself,” I promised my conscience.
Sixteen hours later my words to James came haunting back, “I’m not going half way across the world to eat at McDonald’s!” But there we were, starving at 7 a.m., standing in the rain in front of another Tsimshatsui McDonald’s. A quick breakfast didn’t count as a meal so I postponed my promise and ignored the ghost of James while I followed Alison in to have the most delicious orange juice of my life. The rain had not let up and I wasn’t going to either. I ordered more potato cakes and another large orange juice. Alison followed suit. We didn’t want to leave, but what would Sean, our other traveling partner, think? He was waiting for us to begin another blister-bursting-day of combing through more and more and more of Hong Kong.
One day led to the next and before I knew it the trip was almost over. We had found sanctuary in the dry friendly air-conditioned McDonald’s almost once a day since the first acquiescence. Each visit had become more and more soothing to my tired body, but less and less agreeable with my conscience. But hey, on nearly every street, they were impossible to avoid.
For Sean’s last day we were going to Macau. Alison had already gone back to the States, so we decided to take one last shot at giving up McDonald’s for the rest of the trip. I had to start eating Chinese food.
After six days of true travel adventure wandering—the kind that never got us where we wanted to be, on time, or with energy to experience the landmark-we followed a simple map from the tourist authority. The sun was out, momentarily, and we were in search of the Monte Fort, built nearly four hundred years ago. We meandered up and down hilly backstreets, past mechanic closets and teak carpenters, seafood stalls and china bowl shops. There were clothes for sale, juices to drink, shoes to buy and jewelry to bring home for bargain prices. We were falling in love with Macau, but getting tired from not finding the Fort. And then, deja vú.
“Where is it?” Sean asked. By now I could recognize the early signs of misery.
“I don’t know, according to the map it’s supposed to be right here,” I answered, equally irritated.
“I think we’d be able to see a Fort,” he continued. I couldn’t argue.
“Well, why don’t we try this street.” I offered.
Fifteen minutes later, “Sean, look, up there, I think that’s it!”
“That’s got to be it!” Desperately needed energy returned.
“How do we get up there?”
“I don’t know.” Hope faltered, but remained alive.
An hour later we still hadn’t reached Monte Fort. Exhausted and frustrated, we saw some Americans up the street and relented to asking for directions. But they were fast and we were crabby. When we finally caught up, I froze in shock. Right behind the Americans was a corner McDonald’s. I wasn’t going to break our pact. No way, no how, no matter how hungry, hot and tired I was. Maybe if I didn’t look over there, he wouldn’t notice.
“Do you know where the Fort is?” Sean asked half cheerily.
“We can’t find it either,” the woman replied, “it’s supposed to be right around this McDonald’s.”
Not the M word! Sean and I could only laugh. I knew that look in his eye. We were worn out, and she stood there beckoning with comforting golden open arms. I shook my head, but we were no match for her familiar charms. I kept my stubborn front.
“Sean, we said we weren’t going to eat here anymore.”
“Come on, just a shake,” he compromised, “a chocolate shake.” I could practically feel the relieving frosty cream on my throat. We were fighting a battle with desire much stronger than both of us, a calling far greater than the Fort we’d soon find.
“O.K. But only if it’s to-go. A shake to-go isn’t really like eating at McDonald’s.”
We walked into the air-conditioned paradise and forgot all about the archaeological treasure only minutes away.
“Two chocolate shakes,” Sean ordered.
“And a small fry too,” I added.
About Jennifer L. Leo:
Jennifer Leo is the editor of Sand in My Bra and Other Misadventures and co-editor of A Woman’s Path. She has written for books published by Travelers’ Tales, Lonely Planet, and Globe-Pequot. Her website Written Road, is a resource for travel writers. View Jen’s full list of works, services, and speaking venues at www.JenLeo.com
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