What You Don’t See

When we travel, we learn.  Sometimes when we least expect it, and when we’d rather be quaffing down a cold beer.  And this is especially true when we show an interest in people and their unique and fascinating stories.

Where this particular story begins is at an English style pub in the Soho district of Hong Kong.  This part of the city is well-known as the place expats come to mix, grab a few hours of Western style food or entertainment, and hang out. And, as we found, it draws an eclectic mix of displaced and searching Americans, drawn from throughout Southeast Asia.

Even though it was only late May, Hong Kong’s Central District was already a steamy cauldron of rushing office workers when we emerged from the subway in Central and began to wade through the late morning throngs climbing the hill to Soho.

On the lower slopes of Victoria Peak, Soho has long been the gateway to the good living found further up the hill. The higher you climb, the better the views, the more expansive the homes, and the cooler the air.  At one time in fact, under British rule, Chinese people were not allowed to set foot on the slopes of the peak, except as porters or servants.

Now though, this district at the foot of the Peak is vibrant with shops, restaurants and bars offering food and drink of many varieties….but with a predominantly Western tilt. All of this reflects the huge American, Australian and British presence of both ambitious young people and confirmed slackers, drawn to Hong Kong by the timeless tug of high paying jobs in finance, and the somewhat more romantic but equally enduring art of being young, artistic, and sloth like in Asia.

But while those are archetypes, they don’t begin to capture the strange diversity of those who arrive in the Fragrant Harbor, eager to blow off a little steam, and figure out their lives.  As we were to shortly see.

Taking our seats at a table we ordered ice cold beer, (Asahi of course), and began to take in the ever changing street scene. There is nothing quite like Hollywood Road in Soho at the noon hour. Young turks from East and West, well dressed financial analysts both male and female cruising the escalators to find a quick bite, a drink, and perhaps a business connection.  Hong Kong is first and foremost a city of business and commerce, and the social side of those transactions are on full display in Soho.

But, back to our story. Shortly after we settled in, a somewhat harried Western couple pushed past us, excused themselves, and made their way to a table ledge (like a bar but looking out on the street).  Their manner was hurried, bordering on the desperate, and their order confirmed that impression. Before you could blink they had captured the attention of the server, and were making a very specific, and very powerful order.  Three shots of Patron, immediately please, and two Corona chasers.  WHAT NO CORONA!!  There was a brief moment when we thought the couple might rain blows upon the server, but thankfully the moment passed as quickly as it arrived. OK, we’ll take Asahi. It was becoming clear that speed of service and consumption had won out over the specifics of the order.

At this juncture I should share something about Michon. My wife has the uncanny ability to pull the life story out of anyone. I dare you to sit in her presence and not begin to share the most sacred, most intimate details of your life. It will happen. And you will enjoy doing it. We call it her superpower, and it was on full display this sweaty afternoon in the Orient as this interesting couple turned toward us, and we toward them, and the conversation began.

The drinks had arrived, and two shots of Patron quickly disappeared. This had an immediate effect, because Steve, as I’ll call him, and Amy, as I’ll call her, were now noticeably more calm and collected.

We quickly exchanged names and pleasantries, and our new friends wasted no time in getting to the crux of their story.  “I fly with a small, cargo carrier based out of Dubai,” Steve casually began.   Seems the couple had been using Steve’s time off to explore the middle east and southeast Asia, and this visit to Hong Kong was a welcome, and much-needed break from the rather difficult conditions in Dubai.

Their story began to tumble out.  Steve had been downsized from a domestic U.S. airline, and the only way he could maintain his seniority, and eventually get back to the States was to take a job as a pilot overseas. And the jobs were in the Middle East. The trouble was…well there was plenty of trouble it turns out with the arrangement.  Amy had agreed to relocate with Steve to Dubai, with the promise of a semi permanent visa.  However, those promises were not kept.  She had instead been issued a three-month visa, forcing her to leave and return every 90 days.  On top of that, with Steve gone flying most days, Amy was (or at least felt like) a virtual prisoner in their apartment outside of Dubai city.  Due to strict Islamic rules it was not only difficult for her to leave her home unaccompanied, but she was required to wear head scarves and other extra garments in 110 degree heat.  She was not pleased.

“I hate it there” she told us as the second round of Patrons and beers arrived.  “I can’t wait to get back to the states.”

Steve for his part had other issues with the arrangement.  As the Patrons and beer flowed, he began to share more details of his work…cautiously at first, and then more freely.

“So we flew into London.  They wouldn’t tell us what the cargo was.” This in fact seemed to be the rule rather than the exception. The tiny airline apparently was transporting a lot of secret cargo around the middle East and Asia.  “We flew non stop into Iraq, and off loaded.  Well when I looked at what was coming off I wasn’t really surprised.  There were pallets, lots of them, loaded with currency.  Dollars, pounds, and other stuff. Millions.”  Over the course of the next hour, Steve and Amy shared other stories of strange cargoes delivered or retrieved in the night, as well as expat tales of hope, expectation, cruel reality, and even some joy.

Since this very nice couple were also a bit leery of publicizing what Steve was doing, I never took a picture of them directly.  Instead, as they stepped out to take a smoke, I captured the drinks they left in their wake, half consumed, perhaps a fitting metaphor for the life of an expat.

This was Steve and Amy’s last day in Hong Kong.  He would fly directly onto his next assignment, but poor Amy would endure a long series of cargo flights, finally arriving in Dubai a full day after Steve.

But before all of that we would have another drink with the pair, this time in a steamy new Gin joint aptly called G & T.  The drinks were good, but the conversation began to wane. Michon and I both had once longed to live the expat life, of wandering, of adventure, of spontaneity.  We were the kids who thought of National Geographic magazines as travel guides, eager to get out there and explore.  But we had long since realized that we are not destined to travel the planet indefinitely in sandals, trusting to fate for our future.  We instead prefer the stability of normal lives back home, and the kind of travel one can return from refreshed, but not exhausted and bereft.

As we said goodbye to Steve and Amy, it was clear they wanted the moment to linger.  They were clearly not relishing returning to their lives of work and wandering, strangers in a strange land.






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