Accidental Expat -2 Hong Kong

DSCN2888‘…. travel is, deep down, about the real confirmation of very unreal dreams (PICO IYER…’CAN A TRIP EVER BE AUTHENTIC’)

2000-2008…a period of hibernation, of re-locations from Muscat to New Delhi to Gurgaon, Haryana. Property boom and strong industrial base had transformed Gurgaon, a sleepy village with affiliations to Mahabharata (one of the religious tomes of India), into a New Delhi clone. We were lured by green vistas, pollution- free air and manageable traffic, little realizing that few years down the line the ‘Dream city’ would emulate New Delhi’s traffic congestions and unruly constructions.

IMG_0410Not surprisingly the seven-year itch surfaced and 2008 found us jetting our way to Hong Kong, another country and another accidental expat experience. In between there were vacations to USA (meet with children), Singapore, and Thailand and cities within India. Every time we returned, Gurgaon would dip one notch lower in pollution index. The blue skies were fast disappearing to be replaced by perpetual grey, haze and smog.

Hong Kong: Sultanate of Oman and Hong Kong are on different trajectories: one a traditional laid back nation and the other glitz, glamor and restlessness. Hong Kong’s  lingering British influences amidst ‘Red’ mish-mash of opportunism is probably what lures visitors, us included, to its crowded streets embossed with glass fronted buildings. The British came in 1789 to what was then ‘Fragrant Harbour’, a sobriquet derived from the scents of trees and flowers that once adorned the hills and shores. They liked what they saw and stayed on finally being reminded of their status as over-stayers in 1997. One cannot blame them as ‘Some can just jump right in, others take their time and watch from the sides for a while… ultimately to succumb to the allure’ and continue to stay on. For millions who followed over the years, Hong Kong continues to be a dream destination despite being swamped by constructions, traffic fumes, odorous exhalations of raw meats and cigarettes and political shenanigans.

We came to Hong Kong in 2008, for a year, and found ourselves queuing at the Immigration office to get our extensions stamped for two, three, seven and permanent residency. There was no single reason for taking root in this neatly packaged multi dimensional concrete locale balanced by yan ching mei ( essence of humanity) but combination of these assets that presented Hong Kong as an exotic experiment. Maybe, I was waiting for such a change.

hong Kong

Cuisine Trap: A clichéd way to knowing a country is to step on its food trail and my introduction to local cuisine was through Chin-India cuisine, Chinese cuisine flavored to Indian taste. The surprising part is that I am not a food person but differentiating the fake (Indian –Chinese) from the real was a choice I willingly made and splurged on the rainbow additions to my culinary choices. Other ‘food’ firsts were the squirming fishes in restaurant water tanks, different species and hues, and till date I ask a table farthest from the mini tanks. Wet markets were another self-imposed banned areas till my helper asked me to accompany her once,  Nose scrunched I followed her to realise that I had missed out on the color riot of fruits and vegetables.

Another reason for hopping onto to the food cart is that writing about Hong Kong is similar to being repeatedly pushed through topic shredders. The Island city is prodded and pricked with every alphabet and the F word is way out of the maze. The choice is unlimited from Michelin star, five-star or simply neighborhood open-air food stalls or the once popular Dai Pai Dongs, book cafes and fast food outlets.

ChinaDragon Boat festival The ‘food trail’ facilitated tasting of the esoteric and exotic such as Snake soup, whole pigs or fish varieties and talking about it.

One year down the line the ‘Chinese Takeaway’ in words of Betty Mullard (KOWLOON TONG by PAUL THEROUX) became more than food exploration; it became a way of life. We changed residence from service apartment to a fully furnished apartment in Laguna Verde, Hung Hom, along the waterfront. My days followed a set pattern; morning and evening walks along Tsim Sha Sui (East) promenade watching ‘still’ fishers and seniors risking cold water dips in the Bay; walks in Hutchinson Park to gawk at feisty seniors in coordinated tees swinging to ‘Sugar…Sugar…Honey… Honey’; afternoons and evenings were leisure and writing times, social outings and television viewing. I discovered South Korean serials, watching most from start to finish.

Communication, as in Sultanate of Oman, was/is without bumps or lumps except when faced with unblinking faces in crowded MTR, the mute cashiers at general stores, the gruff fruit sellers at wet market stalls expecting  exact change or the ‘No cheap’ commenting shop assistants of brand showrooms because you happen to be from the Sub-continent.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In seven years my discoveries multiplied, in step with the burgeoning verticality as I walked streets, alleys and subterranean air-conditioned walkways, checked on numerous eating-places metamorphosing with drop of chopstick, watched tenacious seventy year olds, bent back tiptoeing on tiny feet, pushing carts stacked with cardboard boxes through crowded pavements. My initial response was to help, but one withering look and I backed off. In a way it was an inspiration to step out of my comfort zone of ‘non-labor’. My glance went to her feet, tiny, but not the ‘iron feet’ of Chinese girls we had read in geography books, in school in India.

DSCN2641Talking with friends I learnt  that ‘iron feet’ was ‘lotus feet’, a custom of ‘applying painfully tight bindings to the feet of young girls to prevent further growth.’ This excruciating custom had originated from the upper classes, court dancers of Imperial China (Song dynasty) and percolated down to the masses, a status symbol of beauty and sexuality for a prestigious marriage. Dorothy Ko in ‘Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet (2002)’ writes that the Han Chinese women were bowing to social dictates of the time wearing embroidered and colorful symbols of prosperity. By seventeenth and eighteenth century the custom had percolated down to the masses. In 1887, Alicia Little, had referred to bound feet  ‘six year old girls instead of hopping, skipping or jumping like little girls in England, were leaning heavily on sticks taller than them or being carried on a man’s back or sitting sadly crying’.

I do not have ‘Lotus feet’ but my feet size is 4 and it was a joke in my hometown (India) that ‘ you will find your size only in China’. But I have a hard time finding my size amidst the present large shoe sizes of Hong Kong.  I see dainty, normal size feet and it is a relief that human frailties and their callous results consigned to the past.

 

IMG_3057Explorations and Visitations: 2008 onwards was also a period of acclimatization and exploration. Weekends saw us boarding ferries and public transport for surrounding islands (Cheung Chau, Peng Chau, Lamma, Lantau), walking commercial streets and alleys, visiting temples, libraries, museums and to watch commercial and residential areas turn into grand commercial carnivals of decadence and expectations. The trips were ‘mystical flashes of belonging’, of windows opening to another life, of feeling confident about our move to an island country existing in different time zones.

Selfie sticks in Sham Shi Po market

The journey continues and when someone asks me ‘Don’t you miss your country’ my answer is ‘Why. Even after seven years of stay, Hong Kong never ceases to exist’. (John Le Carre “When you leave Hong Kong,” …”it ceases to exist.” in The Honorable Schoolboy’.

DSCN4482

 

Accidental Expat.

DSCN4927
River Ganga, Allahabad

Growing up I would envy friends whose father’s had transferable jobs moving to different cities, within country and abroad. Ours was a business family and this necessitated staying in one place and one residence, a family property, in sleepy, culturally and politically rich town of Allahabad on the banks of River Ganga, the holy river for Hindus.

I immersed myself in books, no limits on genre, waiting for the day when I too will have the world in my palm, because in words of travel writer Pico Iyer ‘‘…travel is, deep down, about the real confirmation of very unreal dreams”. My dreams were about ‘traveling the world and seven seas’, of becoming a successful novelist/journalist/writer,  and penning my thoughts.

Travel was a family weakness (my father had traveled to Europe by the P&O liner in 1959) though in my case it surfaced late. The opportunity came with marriage (1978) when I took up residence in New Delhi, an opportunity or step closer to other lands. We covered the length and breadth of India and Nepal in first year of marriage as husband was in Sales and Marketing and I accompanied him when ever I could. I preferred the lazy somnolent train travels of the 80’s, irrespective of often-grimy stations and unhygienic train bathrooms, to latter-day air travel. The arrival of children bought a lull to frequent travels that were gradually replaced by vacations to nearby hill stations and family outings to my hometown, Allahabad.

The real expat change came when husband accepted a five-year assignment in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman, an unknown land in the Middle East. Apprehensions sidelined I did not mind being a “trailing spouse” (term coined in 1981 by The Wall Street Journal’s Mary Bralove) sacrificing a career as I had opted out of long-hours of journalistic work for freelance writing, reading, exploring and meeting with people. My husband’s position as General Manager of his company and Director on the Management Committee of Indian School, Muscat, insured us the luxuries and privileges of social and cultural life of Muscat. School holidays took us to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Cyprus, travel within Oman, while my husband jetted to USA, Europe and the Far East on work. Life was on an even keel, our daughter left for the USA, joining college in Massachusetts after high school and son followed a few years later to Purdue University.

camel country
Dhofar…land of frankincense and camels

Oman was an unknown shoe-shaped land; our then 6-year old son had refused to live in a shoe on hearing about our move, probably thinking about the “Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe”. The country was a challenge, not for language or adjustments, but accepting the similarities between India and Oman. There were no language issues, close ties between Oman and the sub-continent had guaranteed that, except for following the laws of the country.  English and to certain extent Hindi was the common bond and the younger generation was keen on following what an Omani friend dubbed as ‘India’s export of English –speaking workforce’.

IMG_1685
Muscat Souk and the Corniche

Oman was Indian, as far as its history goes ‘with one foot in India’ during British rule in the subcontinent. Muscat was an enclosed city with no main street, a maze of narrow winding alleys leading to a central compound. The heavy wooden gates would be closed at night, about three hours after sunset, allowing only authorized vehicles within the city boundaries. Pedestrians were let in through a small door in the main gate and that too if they carried the lantern provided by the law. A Omani friend told us about how there were few automobiles in the city and the proud owners would take pains to salute passing motorists, who, very often happened to be friends or family. Over a passage of time, with the exercise getting a bit tedious, cardboard hands replaced human hands to be waved from the windows. It did sound a bit far-fetched. In present Muscat it is impossible to look sideways for fear of being hit from the rear or side. With discovery of oil in the 1980s, progress stepped in and today Oman enjoys a stable and peaceful environment under a benevolent Sultan.

photo 3
1997, Salalah, Dhofar

I spent time in libraries reading about Oman, its close ties with India and in free time walking the souks and the lanes, the beaches and restaurants and parks, meeting with other expats and reveling in concerts and art exhibitions. I took up freelance writing assignment with Khaleej Times (Dubai) and this opened up vistas to meet with Omanis. The women were friendly but men, a slight reserve and respect. I was intrigued and impressed by the women, their restrictions and freedom, and work opportunities.  In Salalah, capital of Dhofar on Southern tip of Oman and bordering Yemen, I met with a Omani family. The wife was expecting her sixth child and wanting to know how many I had and was surprised by my answer .She placed her hand on my stomach and whispered  ‘only two-khallas’. I wanted to tell her that I had a choice to decide, but refrained being guests of the family and the country. Oman was/is not a ‘Purdah’ nation, though women did wear the Abaya and covered their heads, as women enjoyed freedom to work, to drive. Being the first or fourth wife did not frighten most as I gauged from my conversation with a girl soon to be the fourth wife of a moneyed man. She awaiting to enjoy a life of luxury. There must be a different side to the story to.

The five years, 1995 -2000, were a learning curve for the family. But then changes happen and we decided to return to India, empty nesters starting anew.

To be cont: Accidental Expat …fresh pastures

Odds and Ends

Ailsa’s Challenge\Cee’s Odd Ball Challenge

Wall writings in a Pub…appropriate for the festive season. Gurgaon, India

IMG_2554

IMG_2555

Odd balls one cannot discard….a Goat Walk ( somewhere in British Columbia, Canada)

IMG_3334

 

Kumbh Mela- 2013

Link to my observations on the Kumbh Mela: http://www.tripatini.com/profiles/blogs/kumbh-mela-instant-moksha

The Kumbh Mela held every 12 years on the banks of Rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati at Allahabad is supposedly the biggest religious fair on earth. Allahabad or Prayag is my home town and I grew up with the myths surrounding the three rivers.
Moksha is salvation and a dip in the sacred waters cleanses mind and body.

20130312-203517.jpg

20130312-203538.jpg

20130312-203558.jpg

20130312-203623.jpg

20130312-203636.jpg

20130312-203651.jpg

20130312-203726.jpg

20130312-203747.jpg

 

Taj Mahal ……Marbleized

The whiteness vandalizes the senses as I gaze at this architectural splendor from the prism of the entrance arch. On closer view the white is flecked with browns and greys and burrowed settings once embellished with precious and semi precious stones. I savor the fluidic elegance of ‘a teardrop on the cheek of time‘* and wonder how long will it take for the present pollution level to stymie the Taj into a giant tear drop.

It is amazing how this venerated love monument has taken on the rampaging composition of pollution, population and political sentiments……the prayer caps and picnicking families, the gullible tourists* (foreigners pay Rs. 700 as compared with Rs. 20 for locals), the never-ending queues of admirers listening to guides crochet VIP visits ‘Princess of Wales sat on this very seat’ with the history of the monument, the workmanship, the conspiracy theories of Shah Jahan hijacking a Hindu monument, whether it is a ‘monument of devotion’ or simply a Mughal conquerors statement.

Agra played a central role in Mughal history, forfeited its capital status to Delhi in 1637. with its cache of Mughal architecture such as Fathepur Sikri the city built by Akbar, the tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daula, Sikandra 13 miles from the Great Red Fort of Agra from where an imprisoned Shah Jahan would view the Taj Mahal through a piece of glass and the Taj Mahal, constructed in 1631.

This was my fifth visit to Agra and the Taj Mahal in last 40 years and on this visit the Taj took on the hue of the protagonist of hypothetical murder mysteries revolving around religious conflicts, secret organizations, assassinations and the world of dancers and dons. In real scenario the main burial site of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan is off-limits to tourists and I tried to visualize the action as I strolled on the paved pathways searching for hidden clues. The surrounding narrow and congested lanes, the dilapidated Mina Bazaar near the entrance to the Taj, the gardens turned into farms, crowded parking lots, the colorful modes of transport, the varied cuisine are props for an actionized duplicate.

The real is marbleized photo-op for visitors.

* Rabindranath Tagore
*The Taj Mahal is visited by nearly 2-4 million visitors annually with over 200,000 from overseas.

NEW DELHI and GURGAON: I Thought I Knew My Cities.

Delhi is celebrating 100 years of its existence as the capital city of India and shades of its glorious past squint through heritage sites and dilapidated pockets of livelihood. The long journey of transformation from collective villages into a metropolis has been traumatic, uneventful, deceitful, apathetic, joyful, resentful.

Delhi is my adopted city, married here, and Allahabad my birth city and school holidays meant visits to my mother’s ancestral home in one of the lanes of Ballimaran, Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. My great-grandfather had seven sons and one daughter and the wise old man refused to build property because he did not want his sons to fight over bricks and mortar. I remember the rented ‘haveli’ or mansion with its shadowless rooms, the ‘baithak’ or lounge with a massive mattress, where great-grandfather reportedly spent hours puffing on his hookah, and the labyrinth of passages for the children to run around. I heard stories from my mother and her cousins of how they would sneak out to purchase candy from street-hawkers when great-grandfather had his afternoon nap. The visits also meant gorging on jalebis* at the Dariba, fruit chaat* from the vendor in front of State Bank building and parathas* from the Paratha gali or lane.

New Delhi- Connaught Place

I made New Delhi my home, after marriage, and similar to most dwellers became immune to the dirt and squalor blaming it on the government and the people trooping from adjoining cities and villages. I would weave my way through traffic stopping at red lights by choice and accepting noise pollution, power outages and water shortage as addendum of daily living.

The equation changed when we returned after five years in Oman, 2000, and I viewed Delhi from an ‘outsider’ perception. The ‘India Shining’ slogan rang hollow against the squalor, the lounging cows blocking roads and traffic, the daily workers living on roadsides and using the vacant plots as toilets, the women beggars with scrawny infants hanging onto their hips, child beggars and the ‘acceptance’ attitude of the public. The list was endless little realizing that I was voicing ‘tourist’ views when I too was to blame for the apathetic state of affairs.

The Gurgaon entrance

In 2006 we moved to Gurgaon, 15 miles south of New Delhi, hoping for a slice of the ‘millennium’ bonanza. My first impression of the ‘Millennium’ city was that ‘it is haphazardly crowded’ with nearly 26 shopping malls showcasing major world brands, golf courses, private clubs, movie theaters, pubs and bars, luxury apartments, palatial villas, slums and all-glass commercial hubs displaying world’s top corporations. The city touted as the symbol of rising India slipped somewhere along the line and problems that were once the bane of Delhi haunt the new city and its residents: The unreliable power supply (generator power is the main power supply), missing pavements and sidewalks, vacant lots converted into garbage disposal sites, pot holed roads and lanes, the newer overcrowded Metro stations still in incomplete stage, rickshaw queues and traffic snarls.

still developing

On a recent visit to Delhi/Gurgaon from Hong Kong, our residence since 2008, I was driving from Gurgaon to Delhi on the main connector M.G. Road with its demolished landmarks (commercial buildings demolished when the Municipal Corporation decided they were illegal) and the crawling traffic made me chant prayers to keep my cool. For a few minutes it worked but I soon gave up all pretence of civility and for rest of the one hour drive I was mouthing expletives at passing motorists and motor cyclists. There is still no lane or signal concept and before you can say ‘red’ a car zooms past oblivious of your rear view mirror. It is an ordeal or an adventure, whichever way one looks at it, though I still would not trade it for a monotonous drive I experienced commuting from San Jose to San Francisco where one is in danger of dozing off.

The 2011 Anna Hazare movement against corruption captured the collective imagination of the country in different ways. Even when the Anna fast was going on and streets crowded with sympathizers, an employee of the electricity sub station in my block, in Gurgaon, wanted to know whether I was living in a bungalow or an apartment. I had gone to register a meter fault and was without electricity for four hours. He showed up around 6 p.m.,least apologetic about the inconvenience though sorry for missing out on ‘pocket money’ because by then I had called a private electrician to repair the meter.  A Catch-22 situation..be damned if you give and be damned if you don’t.

The Gurgaon and Delhi refurbishings are still on, and hopefully, someday the cities would not remind me of village belles stepping out of their comfort zones with mismatched accessories.

* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jalebi

* http://tarladalal.com/Fruit-Chaat

* Stuffed Indian flat bread