Yesterday morning I got my butt kicked by a pensioner playing Mahjong, visited an incense smoke-filled temple of the god of weather, and paid a woman to hit my buddy Jeff's spirit with a shoe. What did you do?
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I am not a fan of pre-planned tours. I've taken plenty, and can count the number of truly enjoyable experiences on one hand. With four fingers nestled against my palm. But they work for some people, and not everyone travels the same.
So you can imagine my trepidation when Buffalo Tours offered to comp us a private tour of Hong Kong while we in town. But did I mention the chance to get the shoe-soul-beating thing? How could I not pass that up?
I knew we were in good hands the moment Christine met us at the hotel for the start of the tour. She was not the over-bubbly cheerleader or agenda-ready matron I was expecting. Instead, her easy laugh and casual way she explained the day put us immediately ease. That was solidified when suddenly, mere seconds after I made an off-hand comment about the pastries in the widow of the bakery was passing, two of the goodies were in my hand. And quickly in my mouth. I'm sure Christine told me what they were called. But I was too busy shoving them in my mouth to remember. So I'll call the first a hole-less pineapple donut, and the second a coconut-filled baguette. Close enough.
Most tours are designed to take you to... well, tourist places. I knew that a chance to play Mahjong was on the agenda. I didn't know that we'd be playing inside the home of Mrs. Nguen, who lives in a government-assisted tenement. In this 35 square meter flat (~375 square feet), Mrs. Nguen and her husband raised two boys. A fascinating look on life not as it was and not as it's been designed to look, but how it actually is for the bulk of Hong Kong's residents. Oh, and after three games, I'm still not sure what the hell I was doing. So there's little chance I'll be hitting the betting parlor anytime soon. Sheila, on the other hand, won all three games. But I think that's because Mrs. Nguen was helping her. Or maybe I'm just a sore loser.
Following Christine is a lot better than having our head stuck in a guidebook or keeping an eye on Google Maps. This left us free to actually look around and experience the city as it unfolds throughout the day. Like watching a group of construction workers erect a wall of bamboo scaffolding in a matter of minutes, using nothing more than big zip ties to hold to gather a structure that can go up for a dozen or more floors. No, we didn't get a chance to climb it.
Across southeast Asia, temples are everywhere. I'm always hesitant to enter the smaller temples, and it has nothing to do with my lack of religion. I don't walk into a random office building and inquire of the receptionist what the business does or how long the building has stood. I don't see these smaller "working" temples any differently, so I tend to avoid them simple to not bother the people inside with my silly questions. That wasn’t a problem when Christine took us inside a small temple to the sea goddess Tin Hau, as she knew what was going on. Giant smoking incense cones hung from the ceilings, and a brick oven worked overtime to consume the offerings brought by the faithful every day. Though it was plenty smokey inside, Christine did an excellent job of helping us better understand the culture and customs.
Another staple of southeast Asia: the outdoor food market. In Hong Kong, most people buy their food daily. Not from a supermarket, as they're few and far between (and overpriced), but from a variety of shops and stalls. Christine picked out and had a vendor peel for us what I can only describe as a green grapefruit, only sweeter and with thick skin between the pieces that needs to be removed. Or you can just walk around like you're chewing your cud. Excellent food. Know what to pick out -- even though I don't know what it's called!
But the highlight of the day came under a bridge just a few blocks away from Times Square. Four ladies sit there -- all day, every day -- beating people up with shoes. Totally. Not. Kidding. Though I'm not explaining properly, so let me try that again.
The idea (if I got it right) is that these women can curse your enemies using magic. I don't have too many enemies. And I certainly don't believe in magic. Luckily, my friend Jeff doesn't either, because I asked the sorceress (yes, sorceress) to curse him. I wrote his name on a piece of paper over which she first chanted, then beat the hell out of with a shoe (yes, a shoe), then the pieces of which she picked up with a cardboard tiger, and then lit on fire with magic candles. There was also some rune-tossing and cross-referencing with some sacred tome. I mostly remember the shoe-beating. That was cool.
For the last eight months, we’ve been doing our best to live like locals - in a dozen or so countries, none the less! On If you're like me and you abhor organized tours, give Buffalo Tour's Local Life excursions a chance. It's very different from the normal tour fare, and gives you access you just can't get with a guidebook. Thanks again for showing us the city, Christine!