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Going Home

Jefferson Galt

I've just taken off from Hong Kong: my favourite place in the world.

I'm going home. But paradoxically, I'm also leaving home.

I'm not supposed to be rushing around like I used to when I worked full time but there's something in the air in Hong Kong (and I don't mean the horrible pollution that is choking the life out of the city). I just can't help myself. But now I've finished all my meetings, had the last beer with some old mates, locked up the flat, made sure there's nothing perishable in the fridge, emptied the cupboards of the health supplements with their "use before 2009" legend daring me to take them anyway and turned sadly away after locking the security grill. Already, I know I'm going to miss being here.

The first time I landed in Hong Kong, the smell of the Harbour (Hong Kong means "Fragrant Harbour," a term that took on a sense of irony for several decades but it's better now) came through the ventilation system of the British Caledonian flight from London that needed to make a pit-stop somewhere in the Middle East. I think it was Dubai: wherever it was, the airport was a very smart but tiny construction that seemed to have nothing in it but a gold bazaar. Airport staff seemed to have nothing much to do except stand around, not even talking to each other. On the tarmac, there were airport staff just wandering about. The only things of interest were the nice, shiny, new military aircraft half-hidden behind the terminal building. We weren't allowed to take photos but we did. After the first time, we didn't bother getting off the plane.

Hong Kong was different. The old Kai Tak airport was exciting even before the plane arrived: swooping over and between the hills to line up for final approach, the plane was carefully dropped to just a few metres above the tops of buildings as it flew over Kowloon. In those days, before the clouds of pollution began to drift down from China, the sun lit up the Peak and the harbour and the glittering buildings in between. As the plane side-slipped, levelled and the nose came up, the airspeed dropped almost to the point where it seemed impossible that there was enough lift to keep it in the air. Then, a clunk as the wheels came down - later than at other airports, perhaps because of the risk of hitting TV aerials on the tops of buildings. Ahead, the runway jutted out into the harbour like a sea front pier.

As reverse thrust kicked in, passengers began to chatter excitedly. The smell of the harbour came into the cabin. The aircraft came to the end of the runway without falling off and into the water and turned around to taxi back to the terminal - bigger than Dubai and a lot scruffier to say nothing of what seemed (to a first-time visitor) to be utter chaos.

It turned out that there was no chaos. It was just that things moved, people moved, reacted, faster than anywhere I had seen before. Women three times my age and half my size elbowed me out of their way, grabbed their bags off the belt and, banging them into my knees so hard I almost fell over, pushed their way back through the throng.

It was a major culture shock, eased only by the fact that my Hong Kong born (then) wife was so busy laughing at the confusion on my face and the realisation that, for the first time since she had known me, I had absolutely no control over what was happening around me and no reference points to be able to get any kind of fix. Except to get the bags.

That was a fix that, it turned out, wasn't a fix at all. For this trip, our first to HK since our wedding in the UK, we had carefully shopped for a new case and chosen the latest design: a Samsonite clam-shell. As the bags came out at Kai Tak, a terrible truth came by: ours was exactly the same as the bags Cathay Pacific had within the past few weeks issued to all their crew. In the tiny but very busy airport, lots of flights used the same belt. And HK is the home base for CX.

There were hundreds of identical cases in baggage retrieval. I laughed. The missus got cross. In a tell-tale sign of life in HK, she was furious that we would need to spend time looking for the bag. I just thought the whole thing so bizarre that I giggled the whole time we were searching.

Falling back into her Hong Kong ways, my wife grabbed one of the cases and setting her shoulders, dived into the morass of people heading for the door.

In London a Chinese woman is exotic. She's easy to spot. In Hong Kong? Not so much. In fact, not at all. It took me about half-a-nanosecond to realise that identifying her receding shape with reference to her hair colour was not going to work. Then she disappeared entirely.

I found her, looking angry, outside the doors, standing with her mother and a friend. "Where were you?" She demanded, and did not understand at all that I, so much bigger and unused to this mêlée, needed some acclimatisation before I could move at the same speed. I didn't tell her I couldn't recognise her amongst all the other heads of black hair. That's not what a beautiful woman wants to hear.

At that time, Kai Tak had a small taxi rank with a huge queue. Literally, we would walk out of the terminal onto the pavement of a city street and that meant space for only three or four taxis to queue at any one time.

So there I was, on the side of the road, meeting my new (and not very impressed with me) mother in law for the first time when all of a sudden, the group, like those films of shoals of fish that turn, all together, suddenly took off without any obvious sign of communication or warning. Again, I was left floundering, a fish out of water, wondering what to do. Follow, I guessed.

I have no idea how they knew a bus was coming, much less one that went almost to the door of the apartment building, nor how we miraculously ended up at the head of the queue, the two elderly women somehow blocking access while my wife and I struggled onto the bus with our cases.

And that was how it was: the energy was infectious. Within hours, I was making phone calls, making appointments, working.

And, no matter how often I come back, I get the same energy.

Ironically, because of the speed Hong Kong moves, in sync with me, it's the only place I am entirely relaxed: there is no tension between my pace and that of my environment.

Things have changed. The airport is now a huge modern thing, a truly spectacular construction and a monument to efficiency, outside the city; the air is filthy; the harbour is narrower because of land reclamation and the Star Ferry has to cope with choppier conditions because the water races through the narrow harbour more quickly; the street food has largely been banished to food courts; the Peak is horrible after the construction of a monstrous visitor centre.

But under it all, it's still Hong Kong. It's still the best place in the whole world.

Today, almost 30 years and countless visits after that first visit, as always, as the plane lifts off and turns to give me a last view of the only place I am totally, spiritually, at home, there's a tear in my eye and a sadness somewhere deep inside me. I have no idea why Hong Kong gets under my skin but it does. Every time. I tip my glass of fizz to the city I love so much, telling it I'll be back soon. And, as always, knowing that even before wheels up, it will have moved on, oblivious to my leaving, forgetting I was even there, a fickle mistress and a spectacular lover that I just can't get enough of.

© 2012 Jefferson Galt

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