I’ve always wanted to ride a motorcycle across Australia. At least that’s what I’ve been saying for years. Motorcycle trips on back roads through the countryside is a favorite past-time of mine, so when I first went to Australia in 1978 and saw its incredible size (equal to the continental United States), small population (14 million then, 19 now) and huge amount of undeveloped territory, it was love at first sight.
I’d been promising myself a ride for a while, the last significant one being a couple of years ago up through the Pacific Northwest into Canada, onto a ferry through the Inland Passage (incredible!), then to the southern tip of Alaska (making Maine the only state I’ve not yet set foot in), across British Columbia and down through Idaho and Montana. Great ride, but it had been too long, so a trip in the spring or summer of 1996 sounded ideal.
But then Marvin and I got a nibble on a movie and it began to appear that we might shoot it in that period, so the trip had to be put off. As the schedule for the picture slipped toward the fall, and I got more frustrated about losing the trip in ‘96 (again - I had booted the chance for a ride in ‘95 as well), a brainstorm made me feel better about it all. It figured we’d turn the picture over shortly after the first of the year (late March, as it turned out) and, since I’d have been gainfully employed for a while, maybe I could just take advantage of the fact that winter here is summer Down Under and make that old dream come true.
Shelley loved the idea and we decided to do two trips in one - for a long time she had been wanting to go back to Hong Kong (was there in the early ‘80s) and wanted me to see it with her. That sounded good and was of particular interest because of the imminent “hand-over” of control from Britain to China, a much debated event of considerable interest to the human rights community.
So, with “Coach” coming to the end of a nine-year run with a very emotional wrap party, and the end of post-production on “Sins of the Mind” neatly coinciding, we took off for Hong Kong on March 25, 1997.
My only experience of Hong Kong up to this point was a change of planes there on the way to the Thai/Cambodian border refugee camps in 1980, which is to say none at all. Shelley always recalls her trip there with a mixture of awe and delight. She describes the crush of people, the sights, sounds and smells, the frenzied pace, the kaleidoscope of exotic meals and shopping delights in a way that makes it sound both attractive and a claustrophobe’s nightmare, but intriguing enough to try.
Fourteen hours in the air, even in first class (thanks to my wife’s never-ending generosity), is drudgery. Air travel seems designed as torture for tall people. Maybe all people. But finally the lights of Hong Kong are below us and the plane descends toward this capitalist haven carved into the coast of China.
It’s still dark, the wee hours of the morning here, something like seventeen hours earlier (still yesterday) at home, as we tote our carry-ons down the ramp and board the waiting buses. Although tired and bleary-eyed, our fellow passengers are fairly friendly, though some of the Asians among us already display the willingness to ignore Western ideas of courtesy and push their way to the front of whatever line confronts them. This is, as Shel has explained, characteristic of Hong Kong and probably a result of having lived in impossibly cramped circumstances for too long. She advises that I not let it bug me because if I do it will drive me nuts.
What the hell, we’re on vacation! The bus takes us through a convocation of huge jets from all points of the globe - evidence of the unique place Hong Kong enjoys in the world - bumps to a halt and we pour out with the throng, through doors and down winding hallways to Passport Control.
Unsmiling uniformed men and women (actually ours smiles once) check our passports and stamp us in, our bags (my one, Shelley’s seventeen) flop out onto the carousel and we pile them onto two carts (not really seventeen) and head out into the terminal. Gobs of people are here, waiting, greeting, waving, calling, smiling. None for us. We’re on vacation!
None for us. But then, where do we go? We follow a group with their own luggage-piled carts, but shortly it becomes clear they’re headed for taxis and buses. Wasn’t a car from the hotel supposed to be here? We circle back and someone points the way to the area where hotel cars await. Down the line a sign announces the pick-up point for the Regent Hotel (generous wife). Our names on a list and a hand signal bring a car - a Rolls Royce, no less - with uniformed driver! Two well-dressed men load our bags into the back (Does one tip men dressed in suits? Even if one doesn’t yet have Hong Kong dollars? Evidently one does.) and we’re whisked off into the night.
The streets of Hong Kong are crowded with traffic as dawn greets us. Right-hand drive Rolls and traffic on the left testify to England’s now tentative control. Into Kowloon and down a brightly lit, neon-studded thoroughfare (Salisbury Road), then up a sloped drive and around a fountain. Two, count ‘em, two manager-types, a lovely Asian woman and an Occidental man, greet us as we exit the car and escort us past the smiling, uniformed attendants who hold open very large glass doors and welcome us inside for a quick registration. I’m a bit cowed by the splendor of the large, open, glass-walled lobby and the high-class treatment, and wearing jeans, a wrinkled shirt and needing a shave don’t help. But no one seems to mind and the lovely woman takes us up to our room and shows us around.
God, what a place! We have a giant suite with what amounts to a guest bath off the living room, a dining area and separate bedroom and full bath. The most impressive part, though, is the extraordinary view through the picture windows that line the living room, dining area, bedroom and yes, even the bathroom. We are right on the water, four floors up, facing south, with a stunning view of the Hong Kong skyline across what must be one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Hong Kong is an island, I am surprised to learn, and Kowloon, where we are situated, is on the mainland, part of the ceded territory that makes up what we, the uninitiated, often think of only as Hong Kong.
The view is breath-taking. The Hong Kong skyline is reminiscent of Manhattan’s, if in miniature. Skyscrapers appear to grow immediately out of the water on the other side (We later learn this is quite literally true. Developers have been reclaiming land from the harbor and putting up very tall buildings very quickly. If there is anxiety about the “hand-over,” and there is, it doesn’t appear to have slowed business or growth.). Directly behind the wall of skyscrapers rise green hills, themselves honeycombed with buildings. Large signs (Mitsubishi, etc.) sit atop some of the skyscrapers, or are worn across their breastworks like badges, announcing the presence of what are clearly major commercial interests. The city itself, streaked with neon and other lighting, fairly pulses. This, together with the constant stream of river traffic, gives a sense of bustle and energy. A bee-hive comes readily to mind.
The harbor is spectacular! There’s something soothing about water, and it’s odd that even as busy a channel as this one has the same calming effect. Ships of all sizes and shapes parade before us night and day. Ferries, barges, tugs, pleasure craft and freighters share the lanes, occasionally a traditional Chinese junk plows along with or around them and periodically a police boat scoots through. It’s a show of astonishing commercial power, doubtless providing fortunes for some as others barely manage to eke out a living, but to the casual observer it has the all the magic of a water-borne merry-go-round, with whistles and horns providing calliope.
Venturing forth a bit later in the morning, we exchange U.S. dollars for Hong Kong dollars (depending on the day and where you go, it’s US$1 for 7 to 8 HKD) and walk west down Salisbury Road, past the Space Theater and Space Museum, to the Star Ferry. Picking our way through the crowd, we finally get in the right line and pay HK$20 each (a bit less than US$3) for an upper class ticket across the channel to Hong Kong’s Central District. (Figuring the value of each cash transaction at 7 to 1, keeping in mind not to walk in front of cars because of the reversal of traffic directions and trying to figure out what time it is at home - 17 hours earlier - is enough to give one a headache.)
The ferry is a large, two-deck affair, with those who pay extra able to sit on wooden pews and be sheltered from the wind (if one chooses) by transparent plastic sheets that can be rolled down. The way to the ferry (once past the ticket booth) is lined with shops selling food, souvenirs and gifts. A ringing bell indicates the gate (a large chain-link affair) is opening and we follow the crowd down the ramp, across a none-too-secure looking gangplank and aboard.
The trip across the channel is probably fifteen minutes at the outside and there’s nothing really remarkable about it except for the fact that we’re in HONG KONG! We keep looking at each other and grinning. Stepping off the ferry is a re-run of getting on, with people surging for the gangplank at the bell, then double-timing up the ramp while we amble along, hand in hand, checking things out and grinning.
Out on the streets of the Central District (which is, per the map, actually more the western end of the city) Shel is so excited she can’t decide what I should see first. Since it’s been maybe a dozen years since she was last (and first) here, she’s excitedly pointing out things, buildings, areas, and then stopping, unsure if they are what (and where) she remembers them to be. Finally, we decide to follow the signs and take the tram-ride up to the top of Mount Victoria, which overlooks the city.
We walk through the bustling streets, which, though heavily traveled, are somehow not as busy as I had expected, and quickly find ourselves in a ticket line at the Victoria Tram Station. The line moves fairly quickly and as we progress voices speaking French, German, English and other languages flow about us, giving more evidence of the international flavor of the city..
The train itself, when it appears from up the very steep hill, is reminiscent of the old Angel’s Flight in downtown Los Angeles. Though not built on as radical a bias, the construction of the two-car train does reflect the incline up and down which it travels all day. As it pulls us up through the rabbit-warren of streets and apartment houses, all of which look as though they could slide down the hill in the wink of an earthquake, I find myself wondering how this car works on the way down. If it turns around, won’t it...? Ah, hah! Probably doesn’t turn around. But doesn’t that mean people will be riding down backward?
Anyway, it’s a remarkable ride if only to see the ingenious examples of engineering and architecture that enable the millions who have flocked to this speck of “freedom” off the edge of China’s south coast to live in a manner very different from their countrymen and women.
At the top we find more shops. Souvenirs and gifts, clothing and accessories, electronics, anything the consumer might want are for sale everywhere one looks in this city; for sale with a vengeance. Prices require a quick calculation (“Let’s see, HK$75 is about equal to US$10, HK$750 is about US$100.”). Turning from the shops, the view is remarkable. Below, the city spreads out to the left and right. Beyond it, the busy ribbon of water separates Kowloon, which bustles easily as much as does Hong Kong below. We can pick out our hotel, its south wall of nearly solid glass reflecting brightly. To its left past the Space Museum are the Star Ferry piers, to its right the New World Center (a shopping mall), and beyond them, across Salisbury Road, the entire area of Kowloon known as Tsim Sha Tsui, or T-S-T, stretches on toward the frontier and, eventually, the Chinese border. Behind us, down the south side of the mountain, is this relatively small island’s other coast. Ocean Park and Repulse Bay, south coast towns, are readily visible. The town of Stanley is out of sight off to the left, or east. The South China Sea stretches away to the horizon, interrupted only by Lamma and other, smaller islands.
The shops hold nothing of interest (and no particular bargains, as far as I can see), so we look around the mountain a bit and then head for the tram. The ride down (backward) is highlighted by a peekaboo game Shel gets into with a gorgeous Chinese baby boy sitting in the row in front of us on the lap of his mother, one of those exquisitely beautiful women who look as though they stepped out of a painting. It seems there is a whole family in the row or two ahead of us, at least three generations of them, and the child’s pure delight in Shelley’s attention, his wonderful laugh when she hides and then peeks out at him, shortly has everyone laughing, smiling and nodding happily, though clearly unable to speak a word of each other’s language. (My wife the ambassador.)
At the bottom we nod and smile some more, Shelley waves good-bye to her conquest and we make our way out of the station and east toward Hong Kong Park. The park is lovely, very well kept and seems to have quite a bit to offer. A cricket pitch, flower gardens and other sporting facilities are separated by walks, quiet places to sit, and ponds with rocks and waterfalls that dot the landscape as we make our way eastward. Just as we reach the end of the park we come across what is obviously Hong Kong’s version of a wedding chapel, with a number of formally dressed parties standing around posing for pictures. I notice no traditional clothing, all appear to be dressed in the western style. At least two sets of brides and grooms share the space outside the chapel and we watch two tiny boys, dressed to the nines in suits, shirts and ties, push each other back and forth before a newly married couple who are trying to pose for a picture.
A group of children who appear to be part of a grade-school class come by and two boys separate from the group, approach us and ask where we are from. When we reply, they nod as if we have given the right answer then ask how we like Hong Kong. When we tell them that we have only just arrived but that is seems so far to be very beautiful and very nice, they smile and nod, again apparently satisfied with our answer. They thank us very politely and walk away to join their classmates. Very formal, very proper.
We walk down and into a giant indoor mall, the Pacific Place. Three or four or more floors of shops, restaurants, hotels and more shops. Shopping is a religion in Hong Kong. After looking around a bit we wander back to the Star Ferry Terminal and a ride across the channel to Kowloon and our humble abode.
Every time we set foot back in our room (though to call it a ‘room’ is like calling the Rolls Royce that brought us here a ‘car’) we find ourselves hypnotized by the extraordinary view that awaits us. Time and again we find ourselves simply sitting, staring at the array of water, ships, lights, city and life that presents itself for our enjoyment.
The next day it’s again the Star Ferry across the channel. This time Shelley wants to try to find Hollywood Road, an antique-shopping area she remembers liking. Walking up incredibly steep by-ways that interlace the streets, we pass stalls and shops full of the kinds of sights that one expects to find in an overcrowded Asian city. Amid the noise of traffic and the distant sounds of ships, directly beneath skyscrapers filled with men and women doing billions of dollars worth of business, people, some young, some old, some broken, some vital, are selling everything one can imagine. New, old, cheap, and fairly expensive items are hawked from shops, from carts, from out of alleys and off rugs on the ground. Much of it is a reminder of the grim reality of life for so many who are trying to find a way to survive in this city.
Finally, with directions from a couple of the policemen who seem to walk in pairs all ‘round the city, we find Hollywood Road and make our way along it in search of a particular store Shel remembers. We can’t find it, but on the way back we do find a store that she has read about, so go in and look around. It soon becomes clear that I am cramping her style. Antique shopping holds no allure for me and Shelley wants to feel free to roam and pick and look and spend time at her browsing. While I assure her that it’s fine with me, she decides it will be less nervous-making to come back by herself when I’m off doing something else. And, while I’m a bit uncomfortable with the idea that I’m making her uncomfortable, I do have to agree that I can think of ways I’d probably rather spend my time, so we head off.
After much walking and looking, remembering to look first to the right as we cross streets, we’re both ready to head back across the channel, so it’s down to the ferry and back across to T-S-T.
Once in our rooms, I decide to put in a call to see if I can reach anyone at the office of Human Rights Watch. After an exchange of messages I make contact and am given directions that I finally understand are for the IMT, a subway (which I didn’t even know existed), that will take us to a stop near the office in the Wan Chai District on the east side of Hong Kong.
Later that afternoon, Shel and I find an IMT stop very near our hotel, go down and figure out the token machines, find the right landing and have a new adventure. The stations are very modern and clean, as are the trains, and the crowds suggest the system is very popular. Shel is not thrilled (a surprise to me) by the fact that the train goes underneath the harbor. I, being the family claustrophobe, certainly understand not liking things like subways (thought they don’t usually bother me for whatever reason), but this is a new one. I had no idea this sort of thing ever bothered Shelley, but it truly does. However, she holds tightly to my hand and guts it out and once clear of the channel and under the city, she’s fine (apparently what bothers her is the idea of being in a tunnel beneath a large body of water). After a transfer to another line, we find the right stop and make our way with the crowd to the street.
The Wan Chai District seems older and poorer than the western part of the city we explored yesterday. (It would be hard, of course, to be “poorer” than some of the people and situations we saw there, but here we see none of the new construction that gives much of the west side a sense of modernity and the appearance of wealth.) Down a crowded lane and past a park filled with young people playing basketball we find the address, go into a tall, slightly dingy older building and are confronted by an extremely tiny elevator which provides my opportunity to panic. A deep breath and in we go and up, up, and up, verrrry slowly, to the eleventh floor where we seek out the sign for Human Rights Watch/Asia. Inside the small, typically cramped, paper-strewn, two-desk office we meet Joyce Wan and Robin Munro. Robin, a wiry, bearded Englishman in his forties, is the China expert. Joyce, an American of Chinese descent (from Huntington Beach, California), is the expert on Hong Kong. Robin is busy on the phone, so Joyce, a lawyer perhaps in her mid-thirties with a beautiful oval face and a great smile, makes us comfortable and tells us of the tensions and concerns that are gripping the people of Hong Kong as they look to the near future.
Most of their focus at this point is on interpreting the moves and statements of the incoming government, headed by Beijing’s hand-picked leader, shipping magnate-millionaire Tung Chee-hwa. A ___ point plan has been laid out, which is being scoured for hints as those concerned with human rights and civil liberties try to grasp what is actually meant by the soon-to-be-leaders when they claim that there is nothing to fear and that little of substance will change. Those who will lead the take-over insist that the Basic Law of Hong Kong, as it is known, will be honored in accordance with the 1984 joint declaration of the Chinese and British Governments. Having maintained this position on the one hand and having indicated that little patience will be shown the writers of critical journalism on the other, for example, are signs that bode ill. The maintenance of civil rights and civil liberties for the people of Hong Kong is a major concern here and the group of wealthy and powerful people around Mr. Tung, while they are certainly not communists, give no indication of a particular sensitivity in that area. One of the things HRW is doing currently, per Joyce, is a study of the state of current prison conditions in Hong Kong so that they can be compared and contrasted with whatever develops in the future. She indicates that conditions are surprisingly good in Hong Kong’s prisons and mental institutions today, a discovery that is, for her, “a rare treat.” In an aside, I’m pleased to learn that Joanne Mariner, a prison researcher from the New York office, is here in the city working on this project with Joyce. (Joanne and I have been in touch in the past about work she is doing on conditions in American prisons and, in particular, about an on-going study of the epidemic of male rape in U.S. prisons.)
By the time Joyce finishes giving us the run-down and answering all our questions, Shelley and I are both under her spell. She is one of those outstanding people who give themselves to this kind of work and make it clear, by the way in which they confront life, that in spite of the ugliness that surrounds and so often appears ready to engulf us, we are fully capable of creating a world in which reason, decency and compassion prevail over fear and greed. Robin has now joined the conversation and though he comes across as tougher, more flip and slightly cynical, he, too, seems a tireless and committed advocate for humane and responsible behavior.
Before we leave, Robin allows me to send an e-mail message home. As I’m doing so he answers a call from a reporter who is asking about a human rights briefing for Newt Gingrich’s congressional delegation the next afternoon. Robin says it is happening, but he isn’t sure if the press is invited, so refers the reporter to the American Consulate for information. Since Robin is being so cautious with the reporter I don’t want to put him in an uncomfortable spot, so don’t do more than offer a brief comment about the meeting with Gingrich tomorrow, while making a mental note as he says it’s set for lunch at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, which is, as I recall, at the Pacific Place mall we visited yesterday.
Joyce and Robin are clearly busy and have been more than generous with their time, so we offer our thanks and head out. Down in the coffin-sized elevator, out through the mob to the IMT and under the channel we go, exercising both of our phobias twice each in one short trip.
Dinner at the hotel again, watching the river and the city across the way. The informal restaurant (there are a couple of VERY formal ones, of course) is set against the very large windows that make up the south wall of the lobby, but is actually one level down. The lobby is kind of a split-level affair, with a railing at the south end from which one can look out over the diners, through the huge windows at the channel and the city, or look down at the restaurant below. The hotel was designed with a respectful eye toward ancient Chinese beliefs that huge dragons come down from the hills of the north to drink in the waters of the channel. The architect designed this huge open lobby with the gigantic windows so that the dragon- spirits can move through and down to the shore to slake their thirst unimpeded.
The next day we loaf about in the morning, again dazzled by the spectacular view from our room. Shelley wants to do some shopping, but I can’t resist the lure posed by my awareness of the impending human rights briefing for the Congressional delegation, so I put on a coat and tie and Shel her walking shoes and we set out independently, she for the Star Ferry and I for the IMT. Once at the Central District stop, I’m able to follow the signs and make my way through a maze of tunnels and passageways to the Pacific Place without setting foot outside. Once there, I find the Hyatt, go up to the lobby and, feeling just a bit brazen, proceed to walk around slowly, trying to figure out where this luncheon might be taking place (my thought being that if I “just happen” to be there when they come in, either I might know somebody or somebody might know me and perhaps I can get an invitation to hear the briefing). Down an escalator, I find a wing where there are some banquet rooms and evidence of a couple of business groups meeting, but nothing that tells me anything. One of the banquet rooms is set up for lunch and has only a couple of people standing around outside, so that looks like a possibility, but it’s hard to know anything and I don’t think I just want to walk up and ask. So it’s back to the lobby, where I see a camera crew come in and watch as they are led by a woman, obviously their producer, to the elevators. Going back down the escalator to the banquet room wing, I see the crew and the woman come off the elevator and begin to set up outside the empty room I had spotted. Ah, hah!
After waiting around for a bit near the camera crew, a security man comes over, walks right by me and tells them they’ll have to go out into the hallway through the door behind them. The woman producer protests, but the security man is firm. They can shoot, he says, but the lights and camera have to be outside the door. I, of course, am trying to blend even further into the wall behind me and fully expect to be the next one sent packing, but the man then walks back by me and again takes his station at the door to the banquet room. Maybe he thinks I’m Secret Service. CIA?
Moments later a number of people appear from a bank of elevators just around a corner to my left and begin to mill around. Then the lights come on and the cameraman comes back in through the door as Newt Gingrich and a group walk up. Gingrich waves to the camera and moves with his group past me and to the area just in front of the banquet room I had staked out. Well, God, reading all those detective novels does pay off!
Of course, there is the question of what I do now. But what the hell, I’m here. If no one tells me to leave I’ll just stay here and see what happens. In a moment, Robin Munro comes down the escalator in a rush, putting on his coat as he hurries toward the banquet room. Glancing up as he passes me he stops, confused. Given someone to relate to and something to do besides hold up the wall, I say hi, shake his hand and quickly explain that I remembered where this was going to be and just thought I’d drop by. Robin is a bit off-balance, of course, and apologetic when he has to excuse himself to go on in, but it’s clear he doesn’t feel he has the authority to invite me to come along. “Not a problem,” I assure him.
As he goes to join the ever-growing group at the door of the banquet room, a woman comes over and says hello. A petite blonde in her forties, she says her name in Debbie Dingell, she’s married to Congressman John Dingell from Detroit, then reminds me that we met at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco and wants to know what I’m doing here. Oh, I tell her, as though it’s the most normal thing in the world to be standing here, I’m vacationing in the city with my wife and heard about the Gingrich delegation’s interest in human rights and just happened to...
“Well, would you like to join us for lunch?”
“Oh, gosh,” (I thought “Aw, shucks” would be too much) “I wouldn’t want to barge in...”
“Wait here just a minute.” And off she goes toward the crowd at the door. In a few seconds she’s back with a tall woman with long brown hair whom she introduces as Marianne Gingrich. Marianne thinks it’s a wonderful coincidence that I’m here and would I like to join them for lunch?
“Well, gee...” I manage, straining mightily to avoid “Aw, shucks,” and she asks me to wait a minute and goes back to the group. Debbie is saying something to me when Marianne and a number of people approach, led by Congressman Gingrich, who introduces himself, shakes my hand (as flashbulbs pop and the news crew zeroes in on us) and says how nice it is to meet me and that if I understand that this is a confidential briefing he’d be delighted to have me join them for lunch. I thank him and take the opportunity to express my appreciation for his showing some concern for human rights, to which he responds, “Isn’t everyone concerned about human rights?” “Unfortunately,” I offer, “that’s not been my experience.”
So, with the Congressman leading the way I’m brought over to become one of the group. Debbie introduces me to her husband and a number of others, I catch Robin’s eye and he gives me a slightly dazed smile, and we go in to sit down for lunch.
Debbie sees to it that I’m seated between Marianne and herself at the bottom of a rectangle of tables with Robin and three other speakers at the top, Congressman Gingrich in the seat closest to them on the left side and various other members of Congress, aides, staff members, wives, husbands and people from the U.S. Consulate arrayed down both sides and at our end.
During the lunch Debbie, Marianne and I make small talk and a number of people introduce themselves. I try to get as many names and positions as possible, but it’s a losing battle.
After lunch, the presentation begins with ten-minute over-views from each of the four participants. Aside from Robin there is another man and two Chinese women. One of the women is a sitting judge in Hong Kong. Very bright, extraordinarily articulate. The other woman is a journalist. Not a very impressive speaker, unfortunately. The other man is a lawyer from India who lives and practices here. He is today representing the International Commission of Jurists (a highly regarded organization which last year issued a strong condemnation of the way the death penalty is carried out in the United States) and is a strong speaker with a wonderful presence.
While there is some slight disagreement about specifics among the four, the general thrust of their remarks is to the point that despite Chinese assurances to the contrary there will be a serious clamp-down on civil rights and civil liberties after the hand-over, with people’s right to freely assemble and openly criticize governmental practices very likely lost. Robin’s knowledge of such practices inside China is very valuable here and his command of information about the political scene inside the country and the specifics of the political history of the past few decades there are impressive. A fair amount of time is spent on free press issues, with the journalist being somewhat defensive and the others pressing her on the fact that signs of self-censorship are already evident.
There are a few questions, the first one from Gingrich. He seems to be of the opinion that the U.S. can and should press the Chinese - and says he intends to do just that when they get to Beijing tomorrow - for assurances about continued freedoms in all areas for the people of Hong Kong, and asserts that our leadership in the area of human rights demands at least that of us. It’s an odd thing to hear from one who has a history of being such a right winger, but when you consider 1) that he’s criticizing a Communist country and 2) that this position puts him ahead of Clinton on human rights vis-à-vis China, it’s a little easier to understand.
The delegation has a tight schedule to keep (they’ve been in Korea and Taiwan, are here now and go on to Beijing tomorrow), so things wrap up quickly. Some more introductions as we leave, including an African-American Congressman and his wife (I think his name is Jefferson and I think he’s from Missouri), who leaned over and whispered in my ear, “We’re Democrats!”
Robin and I connect as we leave and he apologizes for not having had the presence of mind to try to get me in himself. I assure him it’s fine and that I had thought it was a bit cheeky, but worth a try - and look at the way it worked out. He then suggests I come with him back to the office and he’ll see if he can’t wrangle an invitation for us to a cocktail reception the U.S. Consul is giving for the delegation tonight.
Once at the office, Robin gets on the phone and, as he begins to make the request , finds out that the people at the Consulate already know about my being at the lunch. It’s hard to tell if they’re pissed or impressed, but the result of a couple of calls back and forth is an invitation for the two of us to come tonight, so I head for the IMT to meet Shelley at the hotel.
She’s bushed after walking all around the city, but gets it that this is a fairly rare opportunity, so rallies and agrees. (What a kid!) We clean up and put on what we have that approximates cocktail reception attire and head for an evening of hob-nobbing with the politicos (not Shelley’s favorite past-time). The IMT to the Central District (nor her favorite way to travel) and then we have to fight the end-of-the-day crowd for a taxi, which proves to be not easy. Finally we snag a cab and tell him we’re going to the U.S. Consul’s residence on the hill and up we go.
After a few wrong turns we get to the gate, give our names and are waved through and up a long, curving drive which ends at a very modern white two story house inside a walled compound. The place is rich-looking and OK, not really our taste, but the view is spectacular. It appears to be at least as high as Mount Victoria, which we can see off to the east, and with the lights coming on below the whole effect is magical. We’re latched onto by a very friendly guy who takes us up to the semi-circular living room, windows all around, where we’re given drinks and welcomed enthusiastically by all and sundry. There are, it seems, a lot of MASH fans on the Consular staff, and since they’re all familiar with Shelley and thrilled to meet her, we’re made to feel right at home.
With all the people milling around it’s hard to have anything like a meaningful conversation, but we chat with a number of Members of Congress and their husbands and wives (most of whom I’d met earlier), the Deputy Consul (the Consul being away), a number of business and press people and lots of staff. One woman, an assistant to the Consul, latches onto Shel and bends her ear for quite a while. (Later, Shelley told me the woman had been a hairdresser for the Consul’s wife and, because she seemed to have a knack for organization, was brought onto the staff and is now a full-fledged assistant. Per Shel, “There’s a qualification!”) Newt comes over and says hello, then is cornered by a couple of newspeople and begins to speechify. Debbie Dingell is very friendly, as is her husband, though he seems to be campaigning for something. He also seems to be of the opinion that there’s no reason to be concerned about the people of Hong Kong losing their civil and human rights once the Chinese take over. I am a bit taken aback by his cavalier attitude, but finally figure that it must be his way of being loyal to the Clinton position on China and human rights, which is to say stupid.
Congressman and Mrs. Jefferson come over for a while and chat, but as is often the case in these kinds of situations, not much of substance is said. What’s clear is that all members of the delegation are on a killing schedule and are feeling the effects of it.
Joyce Wan brings over a tall, dark-eyed woman with short red hair and sharp features whom she introduces as Joanne Mariner. It’s strange to meet Joanne halfway around the world, but it’s good to get a chance to say hello face to face and compliment her on the work she’s been doing.
I’m also glad to get a chance to speak to the Indian gentleman (I never got his name clearly) who spoke at the luncheon as a representative of the International Commission of Jurists, so I can tell him of my great appreciation for the ICJ’s report on the death penalty in the U.S. His wife, also Indian, is an international lawyer and expresses real concern about what appears to be the political nature of the accelerated pace of executions in America. She finds it “barbaric” and “disturbing.” I assure her that many share her view.
We haven’t had any dinner, so Shel and I decide to see if we can rustle up a cab, head downhill and find someplace interesting to eat. On the way out, the hairdresser-turned-Assistant-to-the-Consul offers to call a cab, but one of the staff guys comes over and offers us a ride. We end up in a car with three very friendly fellows, one a military officer attached to the consulate and the others State Department professionals, who regale us all the way down the hill with stories of how excited everyone was about our being at the party. The politicos they see all the time, but Movie Stars!! They’re loose and easy and very funny with us and each other and it turns out to be the best part of the evening. The two State Dept. types get out at an intersection at the bottom of the hill and the military guy, learning that we’re looking for dinner, knows a restaurant he says we’ll love and races us through the streets only to drop us, of all places, around the corner from the HRW offices in Wan Chai.
Now, in spite of the fact that we’re standing at the front of a building with the sign for this restaurant hanging on it, it’s actually a bit of a puzzle to find the way in. The restaurant on the ground floor isn’t the one we want. We end up being directed around the corner and down the street, through an open kitchen for yet another restaurant and up in another weird elevator before finally finding the entrance to the place we’ve been told about. One quick look around and we decide we’re not feeling this adventurous and would rather go back to the casual place with the wonderful view at our hotel, so we head for the IMT and home.
The next morning Shel wants to once again try Hollywood Road - and once again wants to do it without a reluctant husband along to hum, comment, sigh or just breathe deeply from time to time. We agree to meet in a few hours and she takes off. Heading out later to meet her, a step on a patch of uneven pavement brings a slight twinge in my back that worries me. A history of lower back problems has taught me that long plane rides can set the stage for a real bout of grief if I’m not careful. A couple of years ago, the same kind of slight misstep, that one in Paris, resulted in some increasingly painful days, the worst part being driving through the incredibly beautiful French countryside with my back heading ever deeper into spasm. A night in Strasbourg remains firmly etched in memory - awakening in the wee hours in utter agony, being barely able to inch my way out of bed and literally crawl to the bathroom in such pain that I was sure Shelley would have to have me carted out on a stretcher in the morning. It eased gradually, thank God, as I lay stretched out on a cool tile floor, and by the next morning I could navigate a bit so we went on. But we spent too much of the next few days trying unsuccessfully to find a chiropractor and ended up resolving the problem gradually with a newly purchased back brace, stretching exercises and finally a much-anticipated visit to the chiropractor once home.
At any rate, that experience is firmly in mind for the rest of the day as I feel the old sensation slowly gaining and try to head it off with stretches and pulls. My layman’s sense of what occurs is that once the lower back is weakened, a misstep or wrong move can result in the crunching of a nerve, probably the sciatic nerve, which then becomes irritated and inflamed. The muscles around it go into spasm to protect the nerve, the result being a lot of pain and very restricted ability to move, at least until one can get the inflammation down and the muscles to release. What really worries me now is the effect a bad episode here might have on my motorcycle ride.
One of the things I have packed for the ride, in fact, is a lower back brace, so that comes out of the bag and makes me feel a bit more secure. But by the middle of that night, in spite of the brace, all the walking we’ve done and the careful stretching I’m adding to my routine at every opportunity, I sit on the side of the bed and literally feel the muscle spasms roll over my lower back like waves across the surface of the ocean.
The next day, Thursday, I try the number for the only chiropractic clinic recommended by the hotel (having been specifically warned off the others in the city) only to learn that they’re closed on Thursdays. Friday, it turns out, is the beginning of a major holiday weekend here, so it doesn’t look very promising that I’ll find anything before we leave for Sydney on Sunday night. As it is, I can walk okay, if stiffly, so we keep going and doing, trying to see as much as possible and find gifts and things for friends and family. Sitting is not too bad, though too much of it is uncomfortable. It’s the getting up and down that are the problem. Bending over is out of the question.
But since we’re here, we’ll make the most of it. Shelley wants to get some clothes made and has read about a tailor who sounds good so we scout him out. After walking a good mile out of the way in the increasingly muggy heat, it turns out he’s only a couple of blocks from our hotel, upstairs in a run-down office building. We pick our way up steps that look as though they’ve survived a bomb attack and past men carting out great hunks of concrete to finally find the small storefront Shel has read about. Inside, as advertised, a smiling Raymond Lo and his wife Cindy welcome us warmly and invite us to come in and look around as they finish with a customer. Having looked at material in a couple of places and come away with the feeling that I was being hustled by desperate people, this place, cramped as it is, is a warm and friendly paradise. Once Raymond and Cindy finish with their customer they are ours - or at least that’s the impression that’s conveyed. They are either very good actors or simply wonderful, and our sense is it’s the latter. Charming, interested, anxious to please, genuine and wonderfully helpful, they have in short order taken care of everything Shelley had dreamed she’d find here (including being willing to copy a coat she’s worn and loved for years) and in the process so disarmed me that I ended up ordering two suits and a couple of shirts. We are measured from stem to stern and simply have to come back tomorrow for another fitting, then can pick everything up on Saturday. Amazing!
Happy with that success, we take the ferry across to Hong Kong and find the bus to Stanley, on the island’s south coast. The Stanley Market is a famous shopping area that Shelley remembers from her earlier trip and is a must-see. The bus trip from the Central District up, over and down the other side of the mountain is a carnival ride. We’re on the top of a two-decker bus which just barely clears the cliffside rocks that reach out to grab it as we careen around sharp corners at what seem to be decidedly unsafe speeds. An occasional branch smacks the window ahead of us with a sharp ‘thwack!’ that has the kids in the seat in front of us jumping in fear (us, too, once or twice).
Shel is anxiously searching, as we barrel down the south side of the hill, for a sign of the building that was used as the hospital in the film “Love is a Many Splendored Thing.” It’s one of her favorite movies, and the look on her sweet face as she describes the scenes on the mountain-top outside the hospital where Jennifer Jones and William Holden declared their love for each other is beyond beautiful. Things have changed in the ensuing years, of course, but she sees a couple of places that could possibly be the one and each time her breath catches and her eyes mist over in that unique and unembarrassed way she has of showing appreciation for something meaningful and beautiful that is in itself the perfect example of loving generosity.
We disembark at the bottom of the hill and stroll down through the Stanley Market, which is a combination bazaar, swap-meet and sale-day-at-Macy’s rolled into one. Buses full of tourists load and unload in a street lined with shed and tent stores as throngs of shoppers from around the world push and look, try on jackets and hats, finger silks and shoes and trinkets, and bargain with the merchants. It’s the kind of experience that you either go with and enjoy or endure until you have a monstrous headache. We decide to enjoy it and walk through once to size the place up, then on down the beach-front road to a restaurant that has been recommended and have lunch. Afterwards, we make our way back into the tented catacomb, wander, do some fun bargaining and stagger away hours later with bags full of gifts for family and friends. My back has now settled into a constant, nagging ache, but it seems better when we walk, so we keep going (and struggling - Shelley wants to carry all the bags).
Making our way back to the bus terminal we find, through conversation with some other travelers, that there is an express bus back to the city which will save us half an hour by going “through the tunnel.” We didn’t even know there was a tunnel, so decide to try that one and discover there is in fact a very modern, well-engineered tunnel running straight through the mountain we took the joyride over a few hours ago. But, we decide, the experience was worth it (and Shel got to see the Splendored place). Now we get to try the other way. Back to the Central Station in no time and across on the ferry we go, then stagger back up to our room and its amazingly therapeutic view. It’s truly wonderful how relaxing it can be to sit and watch the traffic on the water. If only I could see it from flat on my back on the floor it would be better, as that’s the only place I find I can fully escape the ache in my back.
That night we decide to try the very formal restaurant in the hotel, since Shelley has heard that it’s particularly good and likes to try something classy once in a while (a rare event for the poor thing, given who she has married). It is very posh and a nice experience, if you like that sort of thing, with excellent food and service. (I just like lots of food and get yippy when they put little tiny pieces of things on my plate.) I’m such a Philistine it’s amazing Shelley puts up with me.
This morning there’s an official parade of ships in celebration of the holiday, and we have heard it’s going to include some of the “tall ships,” which are said to be stopping over here on some sort of ‘round the world race, or cruise. People are lining up along the sea-front walk below our windows, but our seats are much better than theirs. We breakfast in the room, feeling incredibly privileged as we watch the preparations and, eventually, the parade itself. The usual panoply is on display, fringed by fire boats spewing fountains of water and augmented by craft of all types, personal, military and commercial, but the addition of the tall ships, apparently built on the model of early men ‘o war and the like, is incredibly impressive. There’s something deeply stirring about these graceful creatures as they plow through the water, and to see crews in full dress standing in formation on the decks of some of them is a stirring addition to the romance of it all.
In the afternoon we head back to Raymond Lo’s for fittings. There are three Americans there when we arrive and it turns out one of them is a Republican State Senator from California and the other two are his aides, one man and one woman. The male aide, a very big, heavy-set guy with a kind of baby face, recognizes us and introduces himself. His comments suggest that he and his boss are pretty far to the right, but he seems to be a fairly nice fellow and goes out of his way to be friendly. He’s sporting a new suit and is getting a little razzing and some suggestions for shirts and other accessories from the woman with him. She’s also wearing some stuff that’s just been made up, so Raymond and Cindy seem to be doing OK. I find it interesting and actually sort of comical that their boss, who is busily conferring with Raymond, obviously ordering a number of suits and shirts to be shipped home, never looks our way and never acknowledges our presence - no mean feat when you consider that we’re all squeezed into a single room that’s probably 15’ by 25’ in all. Before they’re finished another couple of men come in, one of them a very outgoing guy who says hello to us and immediately begins ribbing the Silent Senator and announces to us that he’s one also, but a Democrat, and that they’re all here on some sort of political junket. They decide they’ll come back later and the whole political group leaves together, with the friendly aide passing out cards and shaking our hands and the Silent Senator maintaining his act that we simply don’t exist. Amazing feat, actually.
The stuff Raymond has made for Shelley looks wonderful. It’s a bit stunning to think that all of this has been accomplished since we were here yesterday. I struggle into what they have for me, but it’s hard as hell to get my own pants off and the new ones on with my back as screwed up as it is. And of course I have to take off the brace, which makes it even less comfortable, but the clothing, even partially done, looks pretty good. Raymond and Cindy assure us that it’ll all be done and ready for us to pick up tomorrow, or at worst by noon Sunday, in plenty of time for us to catch our plane to Sydney that night.
We roam for the rest of the day and decide to try an Italian restaurant for dinner this evening. Shelley reads about one and the hotel directs us. The cabby gets lost, which always annoys me, but we finally make it and end up having a wonderful meal. Big servings. Lots of food.
Saturday morning the phone rings and it’s Dr. Barry Decker, the chiropractor, who just happened into the office to catch up on some paper work and got my message from Thursday. If we can get there before noon, he says, he’d be happy to see if he can help. God is this a welcome call! We hustle (she hustles, I do my tin soldier impression) to the IMT and in no time at all we’re back in the Central District of Hong Kong looking for Duddell Street, which we find just off Queen’s Road Central, one of the main business streets. The building is at the end of a short block, just before a beautiful stone stairway that climbs the cliff into which the street dead ends. Inside, the security guard shows us to the elevator and tells us the floor for Dr. Decker, who is waiting as we come out of the car on his floor. A very nice young man, an Australian by the by, he gives an immediate sense of competence and confidence. As Shelley waits, he asks me a few questions, gets me down on his table and begins to work.
It feels to me as though he’s very good, though he tends to favor using a small, spring-loaded device called an “activator” to make the adjustments rather than using the hands-on, joint manipulating, gross-adjustment technique favored by most American-trained chiropractors. (At least the ones I like. I have seen activators at home, and have actually been treated by people who use them, so what I should probably say is that it’s not something I get any sense of effectiveness from, but which may have its uses in areas I don’t appreciate.) When using the activator you pull a trigger which causes a rubber-tipped metal rod to thump against the bone or joint at which you’ve aimed it. The idea behind it seems to be that by using it one can direct force very specifically in a given direction and set in motion an energy that will effect things on down the line. (Though I confess, as much as I’m willing to go along with a lot of this stuff, it’s hard for me to accept the fact that this has a significant effect.) Anyway, he does some good muscle work and, when I ask him to, also does the kind of adjustment I’m used to, which feels as though it helps. Though the results of these kinds of sessions are rarely immediate, I do feel better by the time we leave - certainly more at ease and more hopeful that I’m now on the mend and that the bike trip is less likely to be jeopardized. (Whether this is the result of my own belief that this process works or his actually doing something to ease the pressure on the nerve that I sense is causing the discomfort is a subject for another discussion. Maybe a little of both is what happens.)
Shel and I make our way back to the Kowloon side and wander around, shopping and looking. We check in at Raymond Lo’s, but he asks if we’ll mind picking the stuff up tomorrow (for sure!). We remind him that we have a plane tomorrow evening and he assures us that he’ll have everything. We go looking for another suitcase, thinking that with all the stuff we’ve picked up that we’ll need another, but after prowling around looking for a while decide to wait and see if we actually need it.
Since we enjoyed the Italian restaurant so much last night we decide we’ll go back there tonight, so enjoy another lovely pasta meal (good, big servings!) on our last night in Hong Kong.
Sunday, as promised, Raymond and Cindy welcome us and have everything ready. I like the shirts he’s made so much that I order a bunch more (which he’ll mail) and we cart our new belongings back to the hotel and drag out the suitcases. My back is feeling better today, so I’m careful with the suitcases but increasingly excited about the next part of the trip. And everything fits perfectly into the suitcases we have!
Come the appointed time we head downstairs, check out and are loaded into the Rolls for the ride to the airport. We’re checked into Qantas for this leg of the trip and pass through the ticket and baggage check rather quickly (First Class, you know), are shown through a door and hurried along a corridor only to run into a sea of people that looks like a refugee exodus, all milling about in a large room. Long lines of people of all ages, races, genders and persuasions wait impatiently, only periodically inching toward a line of passport control officers who sit regally at their stations, clearly enjoying their power as they take their sweet time examining papers, asking or answering questions and occasionally remonstrating imperiously with someone who objects to having to wait in this huge line. No First Class treatment here, clearly, so we find the end of one of the lines and start the next leg of our journey.
It’s interesting to take a look at oneself in a situation like this and see how easy it is to become accustomed to “special” treatment and thus annoyed when forced to deal with the same crappy conditions everyone else has to contend with regularly. Watching and listening to those around us is a helpful exercise, I find. Some are anxious, some angry, some apparently perfectly content to wait their turn. A man to our right is clearly steamed about this treatment and his arrogant fulminations and his son’s embarrassed attempts to calm him are a good lesson to take in. Here I am in Hong Kong, for God’s sake, having had a wonderful experience in an exotic place with the sweetest and most decent woman I’ve ever known, and here we are - she calm, content and apparently perfectly game to deal with whatever comes - about to take off for Australia for my much-dreamed-of adventure. We have plenty of time before our plane leaves. No sweat.
And sure enough we survive. The line ends and we’re passed through with a smile (he actually doesn’t seem imperious at all, just tired), go up to the First Class Lounge to be fawned over again, board the plane, strap in and eventually watch the lights of Hong Kong fade away below as we head for the Southern Hemisphere.
Again, the flight seems long. Actually it is long. It’s surprising, somehow, that it takes twelve hours to get from Hong Kong to Sydney. It looks shorter on the map. I’m able to catch a bit of sleep, but this long-term sitting isn’t such a good thing for the old back. Dr. Decker’s magic has helped, but Qantas is trying to undo his efforts.
Shel is faced with a dilemma. The declaration forms we’re being asked to fill out call for a list of everything we’ve purchased for the purpose of charging duty on it. My concern (we go through this on every trip) is that she may be asked to pay a considerable sum and I don’t think she should. She’s intent on honestly putting down every last item and I insist that it’s silly and unnecessary to do that because she is effectively in transit. She’ll only be here for a few days and then will be taking all of that stuff on home, where she will again be asked to declare it and pay duty. Why do it twice? That can’t be what they intended these laws to do. She’s uncomfortable doing it other than by the book - or in this case form. Finally I offer to carry some of the things and assume responsibility for them, dutiable or otherwise, and she reluctantly agrees. But when she goes on home without me...
With the rising of the sun there is land below us. Australia! The huge stretches of apparently unpopulated “outback” are impressive. And after a couple more hours we settle down over the familiar red tile roofs of Sydney. It’s been fourteen years since Shel and I were last here; her first trip, my third. We came then to be presenters at the Logies, Australian television’s version of our Emmy Awards, and took advantage of the all-expenses-paid vacation offer by getting a fully-stocked camper-van and traveling through some of the fabulous Australian countryside up to visit a friend in Queensland. (Another story - and a funny one.)
The arrival goes without a hitch. The Sydney airport hasn’t changed much and feels kind of comfortable. I pick a customs inspector who I decide, for some inexplicable reason, will recognize me and wait for him to nod me forward. He does and he does. It’s great. He’s all smiles and warm welcome, chatting about MASH and happy to see us. He says the show is playing here again and is as popular as ever. Amazing. But anyway, no problems, no duty, no waiting. Shel can’t believe we’re not being put behind bars and gives me a somewhat reluctant attaboy.
She’s got us booked at the Regent here as well and there’s a driver waiting with a Mercedes, the favored Australian hire-car. Steven’s a typical Aussie, warm, friendly, full of good will and plenty of information. There is a sense that comes through here of a kind of national inferiority complex, with everyone wanting to know what you think of the country the minute you arrive and only too happy to do anything they can to make sure you see it in the best possible light. I find it hard to resist.
It’s a beautiful day, warmer but less humid than Hong Kong, with a bright, clear sky. We’re entering the fall season here in the Southern Hemisphere, with their late March the equivalent of our late September. It’s been very warm, the driver tells us, and he’s looking forward to some cooler fall weather. I’m not anxious for it to cool off too soon, but it’s too long a story to go into now.
A modern freeway-style road takes us into the outskirts of Sydney and then we plug along in traffic. While Sydney is the largest and most populous Australian city, its considerable traffic isn’t really comparable to that of major U.S. cities. The problem seems to be that the city grew up too fast and hooked together a number of suburbs without significant thought to traffic control, the result being the need to make your way through a maze of neighborhoods and traffic lights in order to reach the center of the city.
It is a beautiful city, though, as bright and clean-appearing as I remember it. Hard to believe it’s been fourteen years since we were last here. Now we pass through King’s Cross, a seamier section with lots of bars advertising lots of girlie shows, then on into the center where there are parks, nice hotels, large churches and staid buildings that once housed government offices. The Regent is at the top of George Street near The Rocks, the area that was once the site of the original prison. Australia originated as a British penal colony and many of the families here trace their beginnings to prisoners who, once freed, decided to stay on, or to those who came to guard the prisons or administer the colony.
As he’s pointing out the various landmarks Steven asks how long we’re going to be here. The inevitable explanation of why Shelley’s only going to be here for a few days and I’ll be around for three weeks or so (the “or so” having to do with my feeling the need to be back in time to be rested for the annual fund-raising dinner for Death Penalty Focus, a group I chair, and Shelley’s insistence that I ought to just keep riding until I feel like stopping - an idea that is extremely tempting) results in Shel’s telling him about my planned motorcycle trip. (She’s very funny about this whole thing. She hates motorcycles and fears my taking these rides because she worries I’ll get hurt, but in a funny way I get the feeling that she’s proud that I do it and that she supports me in doing it. When someone asks what I’m going to be doing, my inclination is to sort of short-hand it by saying something like “I’m going to take a look around,” while Shel will announce “He’s going to ride a motorcycle across Australia!” What a doll.) Anyway, Steven lights up. As is the case with a lot of Australian men, I discover, he used to have a motorcycle and loved to ride. He also, like a lot of Australian men, hasn’t actually seen much of the country. He talks a bit about a great bike trip he and some friends took up into Queensland a few years back and begins to quiz me about where I’ll go and what I’ll do. The thing is, I can’t tell him much because I really don’t know. I’m not sure how long it will take me to get from one place to another, what the road and weather conditions are likely to be, or in fact much of anything. All I know is I’ve wanted to ride “across” for years, which to me has always meant from Sydney to Perth. “Perth!,” he says, and is quiet for a minute. “Yeah, that’s my thought.” He’s quiet for another minute, then, “Long way!” “Yeah.” “Across the Nullarbor!” (The Nullarbor - the name literally means “No Trees” - is a reportedly desolate stretch that covers much of the territory between Adelaide, South Australia, and Perth, on the West Coast.) “Yeah, guess so.” “Long bloody way!” “Uh huh.”
Just before we get to Hyde Park, a beautiful, long park in near the city center, he points out a couple of bike shops that he says I should check out. I make a note that it’s Wentworth Street.
I’m not happy that my back gives a serious yelp when I get out of the car, the cramp grabbing again around the sacroiliac on the lower right side, but it eases as Ken, the doorman at the Regent Hotel welcomes us like old friends, and recalls, amazingly, when we were here the last time. Has it about down to the year. He’s a giant MASH fan (actually a big celebrity fan all around, but seems to be a genuine MASH addict) and epitomizes the Australian “mate” philosophy, which, in short, is based on the idea that everyone (every man, that is) is everyone else’s equal. You may work for someone, but he’s still no better than you are - he’s your “mate.” Though they’ve come some distance since we’ve been away, the issue of women’s rights is still a thorny one for Aussie men, but the mate concept remains strongly a part of the social order - probably in reaction to the prisoner/person-in-authority division in the past.
This Regent also has a high, open lobby, with smooth marble floor and a ceiling three stories up, the walls trisected by the balconies of the second and third floors. From there, restaurants and shops, just the reverse of the Regent Hong Kong, look down on us as we register. Everyone is very nice and the assistant manager shows us to our suite (generous wife) on the 32nd floor. It’s a pretty grand set-up, but it would have to be magnificent to match Hong Kong. Shelley immediately sees that we don’t have a harbor view (though Hong Kong is spectacular, the Sydney Harbor, with its famous opera house, is a comparably phenomenal sight) and lets the woman know that this is not what we were promised. The manager is embarrassed and says there was a foul-up and there aren’t any comparable suites available on the east side. We quickly assure her that the view is more important to us than the size of the room and she promises to see what can be done.
Before long an Asian man, a sort of butler assigned to this suite (!) comes in and begins to point out all the niceties and find out what special things he can do for us. It’s just a bit uncomfortable, seeing how much pride he takes in the room, to tell him that we may not be staying here after all. In fact his face falls when we tell him, but he recovers quickly and manages a fine pretense of understanding about our desire to have a harbor view and very graciously bows his way out, probably issuing vicious Chinese curses under his breath.
Soon (I’m back on the floor doing stretches trying to remedy the damage done by the flight), Shel gets an apologetic call from the assistant manager inviting us to see another room. Down we go to the 18th floor (low rent district) to be shown a much smaller room with a magnificent view of the fabulous Sydney Harbor complete with the Opera House, all laid at our feet. We try not to laugh as the woman apologizes for asking us to consider accepting this dungeon, evidently sure that we’ll have her thrown in irons for having the audacity to deprive us of the lush suite. We’re finally able to calm her fears enough to get her out so we can settle in, absolutely thrilled with this room that is so much like the one we were in here fourteen years ago.
A walk about the city is in order, we decide, so off we go for a look. Sydney is a beautiful place, clean and friendly-feeling. The European’s discovery of the place wasn’t until the 18th century, I believe, and I don’t think they began settling it as a penal colony until the 19th century, so while there’s a certain sense of English stateliness about some of the older buildings, one doesn’t get the same sense of “history” that is evident in Europe, for example.
Cars drive on the left here, of course, as they did in Hong Kong. We’re a bit used to it from all the walking there, but it’s amazing how easy it is to forget and step in front of oncoming traffic. And we’re now, as we figure it, 14 hours earlier than the U.S., so that’s another readjustment we’ll have to make. The money situation, we make out from the signs at the various banks, is roughly $.80 U.S. to the Australian dollar. The mind reels.
George Street, where we’re housed, is arguably the city’s main street. Just north of us is a line of shops featuring Australiana - opals of all descriptions, back-packing and bush gear, copies of the boots, overcoats and hats Aussie cowboys wear, a Ken Done shop, art, antiques, souvenirs, just about everything you’d expect and most of it fairly nice. And again, the people are generally friendly and embracing. Between our hotel and these shops Albert Street angles 90 degrees off to the right and heads east along the south end of Circular Quay, sporting an elevated train track overhead. The Circular Quay Station is just down the block and between it and the bay is a clean and popular waterfront park on the southern rim of the harbor. Excursion boats and ferries come in and out of the piers in this area all day, offering tours of the harbor and trips across to the town of Manley, on the north shore.
South from our hotel is the business district, with a large shopping area about a half-mile down. A number of streets, King, Market and Park in particular, run off to the east of George street and feature every kind of store/shopping experience imaginable. One of the notable things about shopping in Australian cities is the preponderance of “arcades,” passageways that pass through from one street to the next lined with one and sometimes two levels of shops (and sometimes a subterranean one as well). The arcades often have a distinctive personality, with some featuring a higher quality store and more pricey merchandise, etc.
There are benches placed strategically throughout the city for public use and, unlike those in some parts of the world, they’re usually pretty clean and inviting. A great city, this.
Back at the hotel the bed-board we’ve asked for arrives (Australians evidently don’t like firm mattresses) and we settle in for a good night’s rest.
The next day I start to do some checking. Dr. Barry Decker had given me some names of reliable people to check in with here for follow-up and the way my back feels, I need it. A call to the doctor he recommended reveals that the man now exclusively treats learning-disabled children (something I’d like to know more about), but his office refers me to a Dr. Leanne Chin, who answers her own phone (which I like) and invites me to come by in the afternoon. She sounds like an Australian but the name sounds Chinese, so I’m curious.
A woman at Fox Television in L.A. who handles MASH in Australia had given me a lead on a couple of motorcycle dealers in Sydney whose names she’d gotten from a colleague here. In exchange, she asked if I’d consider doing a brief interview and perhaps some promos for the channel here that carries MASH. No problem. I had called one dealer she recommended before we left home. He sounded like a nice guy. Specialized in Yamahas (not a bike I’d ridden much), but said he had a couple of used Hondas (just like the one I have) that I could look over. “Just come one in, mate, no problem.” Calling him now, I find that there is a slight problem. His place, it turns out, is in Parramata, about an hour’s drive northwest of Sydney. Aha! So, I call the local woman at Channel 10 who wants me to do the promos and she graciously agrees to provide a car that will take us to do the stuff she wants and then on to Parramata or anywhere else we want to go. Problem solved.
Then, back getting stiffer, I walk down George Street toward the shopping area and seek out Dr. Chin, who’s on Park, just off George. She turns out to be a young Chinese woman who has been raised in Australia. She is also a delight! She’s one of those people, as Shel and I analyzed it later, who create their own positive-energy force fields. She takes a quick history, gets me down on her table and checks things by, among other things, using muscle testing, and before I know it I feel right at home. She does pull out the old activator, I’m sorry to see, and snaps me with it here and there, but she also does some massage and muscle work that feels helpful. I explain to her that I don’t have lot of faith in the activator, but unlike Dr. Decker, she doesn’t make the switch, instead explains the theory behind it, with which I’m somewhat familiar, and continues to snap away.
Whatever the case, I do feel better when she’s done. She suggests that I try an herb and directs me across the street to an underground arcade where there is a health food store. Walking across and down into the arcade I experience the kind of rush of good feeling that comes sometimes when all seems right with the world. I like this place, I like this woman, I feel good (and like I’m going to be feeling better). I’m comfortable and happy, on the other side of the world with my lady love and I’m about to set out on a great adventure, a fantasy I’ve conjectured about for years. A real “on top of the world” kind of elation. And then, just before I get to the health food store, I see a shop that makes smoothies! God is good!
Shel was going to take it easy and maybe do some shopping, so once I’m away from the health food store, herbs and smoothie in hand, the doctor’s admonition that walking is a good idea firmly in mind, I walk over to Hyde Park and then head further south toward Wentworth Street, where our driver pointed out the motorcycle shops yesterday. What a hoot! Once there I immediately find two of them! One is a kind of repair shop that has a number of used bikes around and a nice guy inside who takes an interest in what I’ve got in mind. He’s made the trip as far as Adelaide himself, but has never been all the way across. “Long bloody way,” he says. It’s becoming a litany. He’s one of the few people around, he says, who rent bikes, and points out to me the three he has available. One is an old BMW, which is a nice road bike, but the particular design of the engine has two cylinders in the “opposed” position, which means they are stick straight out on the horizontal at about the level of the rider’s feet. Too much information, I know, but what it means is that if you head out onto a dirt road (which I like to have the freedom to do) or go off into the boonies, a rock can hook on them or ding something up and you can quickly get in mechanical trouble. At any rate, not a good idea. Of the others, one is far too small for my needs and the other, a 450cc Yamaha, looks a bit the worse for wear. He says that of the three he’d trust the Yamaha the most for a ride like this.
We talk cost for a bit, and it figures out to be not as expensive for the entire trip as I’d feared it might be, but between the relatively small size of the Yamaha (my Honda at home has a 600cc engine) and it’s age and general condition, I’m just not too excited about what I’m seeing. As I cross the street to look at another shop I figure that the up-side is that I’ve now determined that it is possible to rent a bike and do the trip. Yahoo!
Inside the second shop I find an array of newer bikes and a fast-talking salesman who recognizes me, loves the show and can’t believe what I tell him I want to do. As we talk for a bit he gets an idea and takes me in the back to see a bike they’ve just taken in. It’s a new Honda, the ‘97 version of the bike I have at home, with a 650cc engine, but it looks pretty lousy. The guy explains that it was sold to a Japanese tourist who took it out into the bush and just went all-out, hell-bent-for-leather for a few weeks and then came back and sold it back to them. The paint is nicked and streaked and there are dings and scrapes and scratches all over it where this guy evidently went through instead of around anything he came up against, but it’s only got a couple thousand miles on it - making it still within factory warranty - and could be cleaned up pretty easily. As he tells me what they’re willing to do to it (new fender, new tires, clean it up, check out the engine and running gear) before they sell it to me it begins to sound pretty exciting.
By the time I head back toward the hotel I’m weighing the advantages of a newer bike in better shape that I’ll have to buy and take the risk of being able to sell back against an older rental that might come with its own set of troubles. Newer bike sounds pretty good to me, but I’ll wait and see what Paramatta has to offer.
Back at the hotel a number of calls had come in. Evidently someone spotted me in the lobby and the Good Morning Australia show wanted me to come on the next day. Also, a newspaper guy had called for an interview. News travels fast here! What the hell, I figured, the morning show was easy enough to do, and the newspaper guy said he’d come here, so that was no problem, so I agree to both.
Shel’s feeling a little off, so we take it easy and kind of dope around for the rest of the day, find an Italian restaurant for dinner. We take a cab, but as he drops us off we realize we’re in the ___________ section, just southeast of Hyde Park, so after a not very impressive dinner (OK food, lousy service) we decide to walk back to the hotel.
Sad thing to pass very young women, girls really, standing on a corner just down from the restaurant talking to drivers who come by. Hookers, obviously, and so young. Once we shake off the funk that brings about, we enjoy the walk through the city.
The next morning I’m up early. The driver is waiting when I come down and the morning show is kind of fun. The affection for MASH here is quite touching. It’s really no different, I suppose, from the kind of enthusiasm for the show I find out in the American heartland, but there is something here, maybe just the unquenchable Aussie spirit, that seems to give it a special meaning. The hosts are a man and a woman. She does all the talking and he just sits there and grins. She can’t get over the fact that I’m here to ride a motorcycle across Australia. “All the way?” “Well, we’ll see, but that’s my intention.”
Once off the air and back in the make-up room picking up my gear, there’s a phone call from the producer of a show in Melbourne who has been watching. Would I come to Melbourne and do his show? This is getting to be a bit much, I think, but tell him I’ll call him back. Then before I can leave the producer of this show wants to talk. A huge fan, he loves the idea of what I’m planning and has an idea. Will I carry a video camera and shoot some stuff as I’m traveling, then stop at affiliated stations along the way so they can interview me and pipe it back here? The idea is to document my travels, show Australians their own country from an American’s point of view.
Well, God. It’s all very flattering, of course, but this isn’t what I had in mind. I tell the man that I don’t have a video camera (he’ll provide one) and I don’t think I’ll have much room (it’ll be small) and stopping and pulling out a camera to shoot stuff for them really isn’t the kind of trip I had intended to take (Oh, don’t worry, just shoot what you feel like shooting). He’s not anxious to let me go, so we finally compromise to the point that I’ll see if there’s room for the camera with my stuff, but make clear that it may be an exercise. He may get nothing at all from me. He understands, or so he says, and off I go.
Back at the hotel, Shel’s still a bit off, so we decide to take a leisurely walk. After a bit, she begins to feel even worse, so with her agreement I call Dr. Chin and she tells us to come right over. Shel’s a bit leery of new things, especially new doctors, but she’s game and soon is as taken with Dr. Chin and I am. Her cautious, easy approach, her careful respect for Shel’s anxiety and her generally lovely manner has a very calming effect. She uses muscle-testing to check out a bunch of the stuff Shel is taking (vitamins, herbs, thyroid pills, etc.) and gently suggests that she might want to cut out certain of the things until she feels better. Shel even lets Dr. Chin use the activator on her (she doesn’t like the gross manipulation that chiropractors do in the States, so here’s an example of the right place for this tool). After a pretty lengthy session we take our leave and walk away marveling at the magical aura that this woman seems to project.
Take it slow the rest of the day, though we do manage a trip on the ferry across Sydney Harbor to Manley, on the north shore. This ferry is a different animal from the Star Ferry to Hong Kong, of course. Clean and modern, with glassed in windows and comfortable seats. The harbor is gorgeous, aswarm with sailboats. There’s something about the Australian sky, hard to describe, exactly, but there’s a special brightness to the light. I know they talk about that in the Middle East, and I guess there is a sense of that there as well, but here it’s as though the air is so clear that there’s less between you and the sun. Perhaps, given the ozone problems they’re known to have in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s as simple as that. There’s an art gallery in Manley Shel has read about, so once we dock and fight our way through the crowd of shops, shoppers and other tourists at the ferry port, we roam around a bit before locating it. Manley is very much like any seaside town, full of awning-fronted shops selling tourist gadgets, restaurants and strolling people in shorts, hats and summer-wear. We keep an eye out for exchange rates to see if we can do better in one place than another, but we’re doing OK at about $.80 US to the Aussie dollar. (And the calculations continue. Every time we see something that we want to buy we’re back to the conversion table. $10.00 Australian is about $8.00 U.S. Or, as Shelley tends to think of it, $100.00 Australian is only $80.00 U.S.) It’s warmer today, and a bit muggy, so we find the gallery and have a look, find nothing remarkable and head back to the ferry. We came across on the slow ferry, so decide to take the catamaran back. Maybe it’s a hydofoil. Whatever, it has a split hull and makes the trip in half the time. One-half hour over, fifteen minutes back.
There’s a natural food restaurant in the phone book, so we give that a try for dinner. It’s OK rather than great. Shel very generously indulges these quirks of mine. I figure it’s a way to expand her appreciation of life. As she feels exposing me to the finer things does the same for me. What fun we have!
The next day we’re picked up by a very talkative driver in yet another Mercedes and taken out to a small airport where I do a couple of MASH promos beside an old helicopter, then it’s on to Parramatta. The spasm that hits me when getting in and out of the Mercedes reminds me quickly that the back is not much improved despite the tender ministrations of Dr. Chin and has me a bit depressed. The two bikes I’ve seen so far are both kick-start types (meaning they both are started in the traditional style of motorcycles, kicking down on a lever with one foot to turn the engine over, causing a spark to ignite the gas vapor in the cylinder. It’s the same premise as the old crank they used to use to start the Model T Ford. The problem, of course, is that with my back in this condition I won’t be able to do that without aggravating the hell out of it, which makes the whole idea of the trip suddenly seem very problematic.) By the time we get to the shop I’m silently praying that there’s a great bike here that has an electric starter. Bike Biz has a large supply of used bikes outside and my mouth is fairly watering by the time I hook up with Peter _____, the owner (and the man I talked to from the States a couple of weeks ago). We talk about what I’m looking for and I remind him of the bike I ride at home. After we look around a bit, he says, “Let me show you something” and takes me inside.
It’s a great shop, with all sorts of bikes and equipment beautifully displayed around. New bikes are such a luxury I usually don’t spend much time around them, but they certainly are attractive little devils. (Some of them. And not so little, either.) He takes me over and stops in front of a gorgeous black bike. A Yamaha Tenere, it’s got a 660cc engine, is set up for the street but has all the equipment to go in the dirt, is almost exactly like the Honda I have at home but has a bigger engine, some rather attractive faring (which I don’t usually like) around the engine to cut down on wind resistance, and it has an electric starter. It is truly a beauty. As I’m standing there looking at it and doing some quick mental calculations, Shelley comes in to find me and takes a look at it. Now understand, Shel doesn’t like motorcycles, but she immediately says, “This is a beauty. I want you to get this one.”
What a woman.
Peter and I talk as I try to figure out how much more this will cost me than it would to rent or buy one of the other bikes I’ve seen. When I ask what it’ll be worth at the end of the trip he says he’ll figure it out and offers that there are two ways to deal with it; he can take it back, put it out on the lot and sell it on consignment or buy it back from me. It’s my call.
I think I love this guy. It’s so hard to know, of course, because he is in business to sell these things, but it seems to me that he’s being very generous and extremely helpful. And what the hell, it’s an adventure, right? So before long, with Shelley’s urging, I’m buying a new motorcycle which will be fitted with a small rack on the back to carry my gear. And now Shel’s in her element. She’s showing me a terrific Gortex jacket with Mylar strips in the shoulders, down the sleeves and in the back (because she wants me back in one piece, she says), helping me pick out a pack that attaches to the rack and is waterproof so will protect my gear, choosing a helmet, some wet-weather gear and anything else she can think of (or spot on a shelf). What excitement!
Mark, the nice young guy behind the counter who knows how to deal with international credit card purchases, and Rod, the mechanic who will service the bike, attach the rack and make sure everything is OK for the trip, are full of questions and advice about the ride. Rod is one of those utterly sweet people who just walk into one’s heart. He’s a New Zealander who has transplanted himself over here (as, it turns out, is Peter and his family) and he’s so enthusiastic about the trip it’s clear he wants to go himself.
“Don’t miss the Great Ocean Road,” is Rod’s major offering. Mark warns me about “Road Trains,” which, as I get it, are big semi-truck and trailer outfits that careen along the rural highways. Unlike our semi’s which are actually a tractor/truck pulling a trailer, these come with a train of three and four trailers. Mark’s advice, “Don’t try to pass one. Stay away from them if you’re on a dirt road. (The wheels throw up rocks.)” Rod is thrilled with the bike I’m getting and assures me it’ll go anywhere I point it. They’re both a bit daunted by the idea of the ride to Perth, though. “Across the Nullarbor, eh?” (Place begins to take on elements of an evil kingdom.)
So, having spent several thousands of dollars and being in a state of mild euphoric shock, Shel and I load back in to the Mercedes (is this really happening?) and head back for Sydney while the bike is being prepped. (I can pick it up in two days.)
Having actually made the commitment to the bike makes everything very real. It also puts things into focus a bit. I’ll have to stop somewhere for the 1000 kilometer service (change the special breaking-in oil for regular oil, see if everything is behaving, etc.) so I call the guy in Melbourne and tell him that I’ll do his show. He won’t have to fly me down there as he offered to do, but I’ll accept the hotel he offered. As it turns out, a second show’s producer has called asking if I’d do that one as well. It’s in Melbourne, too, so it appears that I’m covered for two nights in the city if I need them.
Shel’s feeling a bit better, but still not top-notch, so we go back to Dr. Ching a couple of times in the next couple of days. She’s a gem. Channel __ makes the same driver available on Thursday to take us out to pick up the bike and Peter, Rod, Mark and company greet us like members of the family. The bike is all set up and they are full of advice and encouragement. What to watch for, what idiosyncracies the bike has, etc. Mostly it’s “look out for the ‘roos if you’re riding at night. You don’t want to hit one of those guys.” It’s a bit like driving in the mountains in the western U.S. There, deer will come out to the edge of the highway, occasionally stand on the highway staring, entranced (kind of a Dan Quayle thing), at the oncoming headlights and can raise all kinds of hell with a car if you hit them. If you hit one on a motorcycle, odds are you’re both down for the count. Same here with a kangaroo.
So after much cheerful advice and more than one “Good Luck!” (which always puts me in mind of Holden Caulfield) I fire up MY NEW BIKE by pressing its electric starter, figure out the choke and edge out into the street to follow Shel and _____ in the Mercedes as they lead me back to the Regent. The bike runs like a charm, but it is new to me and I have to remind myself about its little idiosyncracies (You can’t put down the side stand [kick stand] when the engine is running, for example. Automatically kills it. Safety feature.). It’s also time to focus on staying on the left side of the road, which is not all that hard when following traffic or on divided roads, but gets tricky when making turns or thinking about something else and letting long-formed habit patterns take over.
Once back at the hotel the guys at the door are excited to see the bike and show me a special place to park it in the subterranean garage. I lug all the new gear up to the room and give it a looking over, barely able to contain the excitement at the thought that this is actually going to happen! Shelley, bless her, seems to be just as excited for me as I am for myself and is quick to assure me that she really doesn’t mind taking my suitcases back home. The only thing I have to worry about, she insists, is dealing with what I need for the trip.
A message comes in from an old Kiwi friend, Colin Hindson, who is in Sydney. I get him on the phone and he tells me he is living here now and would love to see us, so we make arrangements to meet at yet another Italian restaurant, one the concierge assures us is very good. It turns out this one is right across the street from the not-so-good one we tried before, but fortunately is much better. Very old world; none of the casual arrogance of the other very inside kind of Hollywood-feeling place we didn’t like. The proprietor takes care to greet us and make us comfortable and pretty soon Colin joins us.
It’s a lovely dinner, but a bit sad. I met Colin in New Zealand on my first trip to this area in about ‘78 or ‘79. He’s a very straight-laced Kiwi with a wonderful kind of old-boy-decency about him reminiscent of some of the characters David Niven used to play before he got the devil-may-care glint in his eye. Colin was doing some sort of publicity thing back then and took care of Judy and the kids and me for New Zealand television, arranging interviews and showing us around Auckland. When I came back with my mom in ‘80 or ‘81 he did the same thing. When Shelley and the kids and I toured New Zealand in ‘84 he had moved to Christchurch and set up his own business and again took great care of us.