January 19th, 2020

mom walk

east end boys

I am currently sitting on the floor in Hong Kong airport. Why am i in Hong Kong airport with 2 more hours to kill before i can travel 20km south to Shenzhen? You might have to wait for the second entry to hear that story.

Here is the first.

I booked a taxi for 6.45 on Tuesday morning to take me to the ferry terminal. I asked the driver if we could stop somewhere to get steam buns along the way, but there was no chance. Once you get on the arterial roads of Shenzhen the only restaurants you'll see are upscale chain restaurants. No bamboo baskets billowing steam and no breakfast worth mentioning. These roads are made to drive past things, not to stop.

I arrived at the ferry terminal, still hungry, at 7.30 sharp and met up with the three of my fucking colleagues who had actually came on time. The ferry wasn't due to leave for another 2 hours so we obviously didn't need to be that early, but group travel the fuck. The rest trickled in over the next couple hours, while i sat grumpily at KFC drinking coffee and eating a not vegan croissant.

Then came the flight. Or not, really. Then came sitting around in Hong Kong airport for another 2 hours. Every time i have been to Hong Kong airport i have been offended at the price of everything. It's not just the airport markup, it's also the contrast of how ridiculously fucking expensive food is in Hong Kong vs the mainland. To add insult to injury, everything i've eaten there has been terrible. Tuesday morning was no exception. I had heard from a colleague that one of the best burger restaurants in the PRD was in Hong Kong airport. I had checked their website in advance and saw they had a vegan burger, so of course i had to give it a try.

Friends, this was not the vegan burger i was looking for. It was a vege burger from the bad old days of vege burgers. And by the bad old days i mean like the fucking 1970s. It was some kind of Moosewood Cookbook compressed quinoa nonsense that tasted absolutely nothing like a burger and a lot like bird seed sandwiched in a gluten free misery bap. Without any sauce. Don't get me wrong, i like bird seed. But when i order a burger at an acclaimed burger place, i expect a fucking burger. Obviously it cost a fortune - over 100$, which is something like an entire week of lunches in the mainland - and it did not even come with fries or a salad or anything.

But whatever. Food in Hong Kong continues to suck. I don't know why i expected anything better.

The flight was a flight. 13 hours in a middle seat of a plane designed for people with a much shorter stature than me. Of course they hadn't got my vege meal on the books. Why would they? Group fucking travel, lordy. I ate fruit salad and dry bread rolls, which was at least better than the burger at Hong Kong airport.

We only found out after we arrived and spoke to some British colleagues that there had been an epic storm on Tuesday, which explained why the flight took longer than scheduled and the landing was a bit bumpy. None of us on the plane really noticed it, till we got out the coach at the hotel and were almost blown flat on our faces by the wind.

Ah, the coach. When we got to Heathrow i spent an hour sitting in front of baggage claim like an idiot because i didn't have any checked bags while all my colleagues struggled with getting through customs and picking up their giant suitcases full of God knows what. I know, i know, i have EU citizen fast lane privilege (well, for the next 2 weeks at least), but come on. Someone even lost a bag because of course they did.

Then we had to wait another hour outside for the coach because the original delay had thrown off the whole plan. Hilariously, our company had booked tour guides and instead of the buses taking the orbital to get to our hotel as quickly as possible, we crawled through the tiny-ass, stop-light ridden streets of old London getting a running commentary of every building, old and new.

The cringe of it was, almost everyone on the bus was fast asleep due to jet lag. And even if they were awake i doubt they would've been able to follow the thickly accented English of our immigrant tour guide.

To be honest, i kinda liked getting the tour guide stories of London. It's a very low effort way to check the boxes of "having been to London" to drive past Buckingham Palace and Houses of Parliament and Picadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square and Tower of London then cross the Tower Bridge.

I kinda didn't like that it took 2 hours.

Immediately after arriving at the hotel i didn't even go to my room, i just grabbed my key and went to the underground. For those who don't know London, perhaps you do know that hideous white pimple called the Millienium Dome that the city built for Y2K. It's still a hideous white pimple but it's been rebranded The O2 and now it's a giant circular shopping mall that fucking sucks. Maybe it was always a giant circular shopping mall. Anyway, it fucking sucks, especially at 9.30 on a Tuesday night.

I took the tube to the next station over, which is called Canning Town. According to my maps there were some pubs there. Although, the pubs were closing. Everything was closing. There were a couple chippies and kebab shops still open and that was it. Eventually i found an open pub, where i plopped myself and proceeded to natter to the oldies and drink 4£ Stellas till last call.

I got a falafel from a kebab shop on the way back to the hotel. It was the best thing i had eaten in 36 hours.

Thanks to jet lag, despite only getting to bed after midnight, i woke up by 5am, which is when i got to see just how utterly obnoxious the hotel they had us in was. It is right on the Thames, with a view to loads of skyscrapers emblazoned with the logos of every money-grubbing shitheel finance company in the world. The room was bigger than my entire fucking apartment in Shenzhen. There were about 17 different creams and soaps and shampoos and shit. Gowns, slippers, towels, pillows galore. It was nauseating, especially after having walked past the rows of delapidated council housing and tower blocks just one subway stop away.

The work thing was a work thing. I'll skim over it since this is a crotchety travel blog and not a cheery work blog. Good stuff: it was awesome to catch up with colleagues i only know from Slack (text) and Zoom (video). The executive team killed it with their presentations, getting everyone really pumped and excited for working at the company. Bad stuff: the vegan option was hummus (just hummus) and the coffee was abysmal.

Some of the teams had dinner plans. Fortunately my circles were less organized so i just went off on my own to find another pub. I walked around Canning Town and Plaistow following my map app, and discovered that almost all pubs in the area have closed up. There was a large McDonalds doing a roaring trade, replete with drug dealers out the back. I sat down at a fish and chip shop to get fish and chips. It was not a vegan meal. There were no vegan options anywhere aside from falafel. Fish, chips, battered sausage. Salt, vinegar. West Ham United FC.

It was the best. I know that my taste of Britain is stuck in the early 1980s, but fish and chips is exactly my nostalgic food. No other country does it the same way. Fat, floppy chips. Cod hanging over the edge of the plate. No bullshit fucking panko bread crumbs or artisanal chorizo, just a sausage dunked in batter.

The most interesting part about sitting in the chippy was listening to the guy at the counter codeswitch. I don't know what the coworkers' language was, but i presume it was something Middle Eastern or Turkish, because of the mystery meat rotating on a spit. What was great was how he addressed the customers, depending on who walked in. I got "mate", as did several others. Women who read as women got "darling". Men with beards got "brother". One guy in a suit got "sir". Even his accent changed each time.

After failing to find another pub that was open or looked good, i returned to the Tuesday night pub, which was a bit more jumping at 8 than it had been at 10 the night before. I was only planning to get a few, but you know how it goes.

Some random popped in from the night before saying he got drunk and lost his body board, or at least i think that's what he said because he was too drunk to explain what it was he actually lost. He'd gone by every pub he'd been to the previous night looking for it. Perhaps he'd ordered a pint at each one, to be polite.

There were a couple of people in from Essex, the elder of whom the chap next to me swore had a completely unintellible accent, although it sounded vaguely Irish to me. That was confusing because there were a few people with a legit brogue in the pub too.

One person in the back played a song i thought was a bit provocative since it was about becoming a cop and at least one table had a fellow just out of prison. Then i looked it up on my phone and found out it was an Irish rebel band, which felt even more provocative to me. But the oldies bopped along, just as they did to a raunchy song by The Stranglers, another band i had to look up on my phone. I realized then that i know absolutely nothing about UK pub music or if there are any politics behind it at all.

The locals spoke cockney, had tattooed hands and draped high-vis vests over the backs of the chairs.

I told the barkeep i think the reason i ended up moving a lot is because my dad was in the Forces, so even after he left i had adopted the habit of moving every few years. She said her son was in the Forces too and she suspects her grandkids will end up just like me - "itchy feet". She'd like to go to Japan one day.

The chap next to me said he was born and raised in the east end, lives with his mum now. She has emphysema. His whole street "has turned into the United Nations", and he said he was surprised that "we" voted for Brexit, which i took to mean he voted for Brexit. Don't have a problem with 'em coming here to work, but they should at least learn some English. His neighbor was a Chinese bus driver, see. The husband could speak passable English, but the wife couldn't even manage a hello after three years. Bit rude, innit?

It wasn't a xenophobic pub, at all. In fact, the whole neighborhood was multicultural in ways i haven't seen since i lived in the Toronto east end. A million times better than anywhere i visited in London last year. As my Brexiteer compadre accurately put it when i lamented the state of west end pubs: "poncy".

I didn't dig into the Brexit thing after despairing at the opinion of a Glaswegian colleague that the UK was getting screwed by EU "membership fees". Money better spent on the NHS. Bla bla. Guardian-reading toffs like me roll their eyes, but i didn't want to belabor the point. This is Brexit in 2020, when even your intrepid pub chat chronicler is just fucking done talking about it.

Besides, we were all rather pissed.

The Essex woman's best friend - who was also enough of a regular to be worthy of gossip - split with her fiancé because he cheated. All happened last month, just before Christmas. What a scandal! They'd all been wondering where she'd been lately. The Essex oldie bought a few more bourbons. After last call, the Essex woman started singing. To the frustration of the barkeep, she and my Brexit buddy were still exchanging songs and trying to negotiate for just one more pint when i left.

Good pub. I miss those pubs.
mom walk

greenwich time

Yesterday's entry was mostly written sitting cross-legged on the floor in Hong Kong airport, fleshing out notes i had taken on my phone. I posted it when i got home. But more on that in a bit.

Now i am blissfully stretched out after the first 7 hours of consecutive sleep i've had all week.

My notes stopped on Thursday because the days got a bit more packed.

In response to the hangry vegans, the caterers sorted out lots of plant-based dishes for day two, and they were pretty good. The nice thing about rebranding vegan food as plant-based is that everyone eats it without complaint. This is how we win, muahahaha!

The coffee was still awful, so in the morning i took a walk down to the tube to get real coffee from an East European lady with an espresso machine in the boot of her kei car.

Thursday evening we had a work do, which was held at an events venue tailor-made for tech company hipsters. DJ. Mariachi band. Food trucks. Arcade games. Cocktails. Jugglers. Sort of like a rave crashed into a pleasure pier and everyone forgot to bring drugs and children. It was fine, for a work do. Some of my colleagues inadvertently made me feel incredibly cool when they gushed about how it was the best party they had ever been to in their lives, which... i mean...

It was the earliest i got home all week.

I had booked the later flight back to Hong Kong to allow for maximum wandering time on Friday. Unfortunately that plan was thwarted when we were told to be at the hotel parking lot by midday. Group the fuck travel. Fortunately due to the quaint ending time of the work do, i was up by daybreak and out the door to get another coffee from the espresso machine in the back of a kei car and a delicious vegan cheese toastie from Costa, a British coffee chain. Vegan cheese has come a long way. I could eat that toastie every morning. Yum.

When i was a child we visited London, and i am sure we saw all the sights, but only a few fragments have stuck in my mind. One was Battersea Power Station, which i spied from a bridge last year. Another was the Cutty Sark, an old sailing ship plonked in the middle of a square.

I walked along the Thames to get there, and it's a weird sight to behold, this new London. It's like there is a Vancouver fungus sprouting from the cracks of crumbling industrial lots. Vancouver is a very nice place, so that's theoretically a good thing. It's also an unaffordable place. I'll miss the grubby corners.

The Cutty Sark is different from when i saw it as a kid. There is a museum underneath it now and it's all covered in advertisements which have taken it from corny to tacky. I walked up a road i vaguely remember to the Royal Observatory, where you have to pay money to see the official 0° line. It was too early for the place to be open, but i met a few colleagues up there taking selfies by the gate. Apparently little groups of Chinese software developers were zooming all over the city. Money quote from the coach on the way back: "London is so small, we kept running into our coworkers!"

Instead of waiting for the gates to open, i decided to walk to a part of London i don't remember from my childhood, but i personally find to be one of the most iconic features of the city - the Thames Barrier. I mean, you gotta see the flood defences, right? Must be my Dutch heritage coming through.

The map led me down a single-lane road that was choked with cars and red buses belching out fumes. In Shenzhen cars are mostly relegated to arterial roads so on the smaller streets you can pretend that the only things around are electric mopeds and bikes. Despite the famous congestion charge, that is not the case in London. The city is rammed full of internal combustion vehicles and it's fucking disgusting. I cut down a residential side street to escape, and ended up in rows of identical terraced houses. Those are places i remember from my youth, when we went to see university friends of my parents, distant aunts and uncles who lived civvie lives in the big smoke.

I sat down for a late breakfast at a caff in the heart of the Charlton Athletics FC neighborhood. You remember my British tastes are stuck in the 80s? So was the caff. The menu was basically the Monty Python SPAM sketch. I got baked beans on toast, grilled tomato, brown sauce and a coffee, which turned out to be less vegan than i expected when the coffee was Nescafé with powdered milk. But then when i added sugar i didn't mind because it reminded me of being a kid.

The rest of the way i stuck to back roads, heaths, parks and one fantastically named spot called Gilbert's Pit. Eventually i popped out between some warehouses at the Thames Barrier.

My colleagues were right when they said London is small. Even the Thames Barrier looks like a miniature. I suspect living in China has even worse of an impact than living in America on a person's sense of scale. It makes everywhere else in the world seem tiny. Perspective aside, the Thames Barrier is still cool.

I wandered back up the river past a few aging bulk carrier berths and a lot more Vancouverization, then hopped on the coach to Heathrow with my colleagues.

At Heathrow i finally got my vegan burger. I went into an American-themed restaurant and ordered the only vegan burger on the menu, which was a BBQ pulled jackfruit thing. The bartender said there was also an off-menu vegan burger that they were trialing, some kind of fake chicken thing. I ordered it and it was everything i hoped for. Beetroot-colored bun that soaked up the sauce. That great gooey vegan cheese. Lettuce. Tomato. Onions. BBQ sauce. "Chicken." It was awesome.

The only disappointing part was the fries. Honestly, American fries are really the worst. They even have Canada right next door teaching them how to make a passable chip (see: poutine), but it will just never happen. I think Americans are too attached to pointy over-salted batonnets.

Anyway. The burger set me up in a good mood. The flight back they had my VOML on the books. Then we landed in Hong Kong and met our colleagues from the earlier flight.

You see, our company had booked the ferry back to Shenzhen in advance, to depart 3 hours after the landing time of our respective planes, just in case of delay. So we met our cranky colleagues, still waiting for their ferry. Then we proceeded to become cranky ourselves - literally able to see mainland China out of the window, but not able to get on the ferry there because fucking group travel.

Needless to say i jumped in a taxi the moment i got back to mainland.

All up, i was very surprised and pleased with my experience in London this time around, especially after the last trip where i hated just about everywhere i went. East London is less full of pretentious twats, the prices are less outrageous and it feels more like the London of my childhood memories. Aside from everyone driving on the wrong side of the road and the ground floors not starting at 1, it did feel kinda homey.

I mean, what is home?

After 6-7 years living outside of English-speaking countries it was very refreshing to just be able to take part in any conversation without having to concentrate, even a little. And after almost 3 years in countries where i am a very conspicuous minority, it was nice to be in a place like Toronto where the people around me were multi-colored enough that none of us felt like a visible minority.

I also really fucking miss pubs, for fuck's sake.