Monthly Archives: July 2011

Hong Kong shopping reality check

So you’re looking forward to an incredible Hong Kong shopping frenzy. The mythical experience that Getaway and The Great Outdoors are always talking about. Well, definitely bring a spare suitcase but be wary of shopping utopia. There are a few catches.

The shopping novice will actually lick their lips as they stand at the beginning of the deliciously long Nathan Road with its showy boutiques and sale signs in shop windows. It’s not a bad place to start but resist spending your entire budget on this strip. The road is full of mainstream global chains at reasonable prices. You can do better. Plus, you have to play heartless tourist by shooing away equally heartless counterfeiters who approach you on the street and would like to take you, madam, to a more private place, yes, down this dark alley madam, where they can show you the ‘real’ stuff at super cheap prices. You’re a grown up, just walk away.

The first time I went to Hong Kong I was lucky enough to be with a seasoned shopper friend. She steered me well away from Nathan Road and introduced me to the side streets and the all important office block. Office blocks in Hong Kong are quite different to office blocks in Adelaide. In Adelaide you step out of the lift and you’ll find a good old fashioned office. Step out of the lifts in Hong Kong and you could find cavernous restaurants, bars, massage places, karaoke clubs and a little Portuguese cafe called The Little Flying Elephant. Or ‘Dumbo’ in your Lonely Planet. 

Most importantly, you could step out and find yourself in a department store. If you find one of these, your shopping itch can be well and truly scratched. The trick is not to draw blood. Here is a shopping girl’s dream – brand name shoes, handbags, clothes, perfume, make-up and jewelry ridiculously cheap, especially when bought with a strong Australian dollar. A word of caution, however – take a moment to breathe into a paper bag and really think about what you’re shoving into your shopping basket and flinging over your shoulder.  That fluffy green number with the silver feathers? Put it back. Those strappy Prada platform sandals on sale? That’s your whole budget, even on sale. Put it back. That enormous, heavy full length bright purple woolen coat? Are you going to carry it on the plane? Put it back. On second thoughts…. it’s not that heavy, right?

If, like me, you have a slightly unnatural obsession with pharmacies, you have found your Mecca. It’s called Sasa and it’s a chain you’ll find on almost every street corner. The stores vary in size and product variety but this is the mother lode of cosmetics, hair products, nail products, cheap vitamins, non-prescription drugs, and even prescription drugs.  Here is where you can buy intriguing tonics, lotions and potions. Does it matter if the packaging is not in English? It’s only $2. Figure it out later. (Perhaps just don’t ingest anything.)

And then, of course, you have to visit one (or all) of Hong Kong’s markets. Many are uncannily themed and impractical for tourists – think birds (live), fish (live) and meat (definitely dead). But others, like electronics and jade, are just made for the tourist with an expandable suitcase. The multi-product markets like the Night Markets are incredibly cheap, but this is for a good and practical reason – many things are essentially rubbish. But here’s where you can buy that yellow evening handbag you’ll only ever carry once, or a dozen pashminas in every colour imaginable, or those tracksuit pants perfectly suited to cold Sunday nights. They have their place. But like every Hong Kong shopping experience, market shopping does have its drawbacks. I played tug of war, not over a shopping item, but over a friend who was being physically pulled into a stall because he showed undue interest in a Mahjong set. We literally had to drag him out and scurry away through the complex labyrinth of shoppers to escape the stall holder’s clutches.

Shopping in Hong Kong is a cultural experience in itself and not to be missed. But, a final friendly word of warning to my fellow adults who are not a waif-like 45kg. There are times when you will be disappointed with the clothing – you will be confronted with an extra large that wouldn’t fit a small Western child, or a dearth of shoes over size 7. Be patient. Buy a scarf in the mean time. I asked a store attendant if she had a pair of jeans one size bigger than the pair I had squeezed into (a size 12 and for the record I’m only just 5ft tall). She sniggered very politely, smiled and shook her head. ‘We don’t stock those sizes’, she told me. Very well.

As I left that store with my ill fitting purchases under my arm and a subdued expression on my face, I passed a women who was just entering. She was at least 6ft tall, thin but curvaceous and toned. I opened my mouth to warn her and then I closed it again. She would figure it out.

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I’m sorry, are we related?

There’s something very special about traveling with your family. I use ‘special’ here to mean, ‘unexpected’, ‘slightly disappointing’ and ‘downright disgusting’. I had a special family moment when I had to share a tiny apartment with my father in Sao Paolo, Brazil. At 4am I realised I had slept an average of three hours a night, over the last week because I couldn’t escape my father’s snoring. Don’t underestimate the word ‘snore’ – it was more of an almighty roar dragged from the depths of hell and released into the night like a cursed soul.

Something had to be done if my father was to stay alive. I moved into the lounge room, a good two meters away from his bed. Nope. I rammed the headphones of my mp3 player right into my ears. Nope. The hawking, heaving, guttural noise coming from my father was still challenging the wake of a fighter jet. It was when I wedged together two kitchen chairs on the one meter square balcony to fashion a makeshift bed in the slightly drizzly night that I had my true epiphany – maybe it wasn’t a good idea traveling with family.  

Don’t get me wrong, family members can be great; even an advantage. My very attractive cousin managed to get us a lot of ‘free’ stuff in Rome. But gorgeous cousins can still be trouble. On one trip to Canada I developed an allergic reaction which turned my face into a nasty, angry red mess. My cousin inspected the damage very carefully and thoughtfully before looking me in the eye and poking me on the cheek with a very sharp pencil. ‘Did that hurt?’ she asked sincerely. YES!

Of course, I’m sure family members equally don’t like traveling with me. Certainly I can think of one particular family in rural Italy that might be glad to never set eyes on me again. They kindly drove me to my next destination, two hours away. The price of petrol was scandalous, their financial status humble. I repaid them by leaving a plastic bag of unwashed clothing in the back of the car that they rarely used, at the height of summer. I dread to think of the scene next time they opened the boot…

Unfortunately for me, I find family members really hard to tell off. I’ve no problem arguing with a friend over the price of a box of tea (we were on a budget!), and I’ve got no objections refusing to karaoke when I don’t feel like shaking my tail feather. But I couldn’t tell my father that he’d have to stop snoring or I’d kill him. (Actually, I did quietly whisper this in his ear while he was still sleeping but it had absolutely no effect). I could not bring myself to tell him off or yell at him, merited or not. He’s my dad! I couldn’t offend him like that! I love him!

Besides, he was paying for the hotel.

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Only connect

This epigraph in EM Forster’s Howard’s End implored Edwardian class-conscious society to look past the barriers and try to understand each other. In asking us to ‘only connect’ Forster asks us to find an overlapping point of interest, understanding and meaning, no matter what our background, to acknowledge that the space between us can easily be narrowed.

This idea has always resonated loudly with me. While it’s a credo I try to live my every day life by, it’s especially important to me with regard to travel. Travel is connection.

I know there’s a whole hierarchy of travel. Some define travel, real genuine travel, as only that kind of journey that involves making a twenty-four hour bus ride to a village high in the mountains of a third world country and teaching the local children English. These travellers throw away the Lonely Planet/iPhone, carry just one spare pair of underpants and happily forgo the comforts of a Western bathroom.

There are others who prefer every creature comfort and can’t bear the thought of public transport at all. They prefer coach travel or cruising. For them the journey is about getting away from home and all the related responsibilities and anxieties.

And there’s everything in between – Contiki tours and war travel, party groups and lone backpackers, volunteer stays and family visits. I probably sit in the in between.

I believe that everyone that leaves their home is a traveller, whether they take the road less travelled or the road first set by Thomas Cook. Personally, travel is about collecting stories, about witnessing something for the first time and of course, connecting. So that’s what I’m going to write about! Enjoy the armchair travel.

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