Hong Kong, city of prosperity and re-construction

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A butcher sells his wares at a market in downtown Hong Kong.

It’s cloudy when we arrive in Hong Kong, only an hour’s flight but worlds away from Hanoi. We board a modern double-decker bus to carry us from airport to the city, marveling at the skyscrapers that line the highway and the slew of construction equipment building ever-more. We’re only here for a week (in an ill-fated attempt to get Chinese visas), but even in that short time it feels like the city will be different—an old, crumbling building lost there and a new, shining one erected there. And between our arrival and departure, the city will have grown even further, adding to itself as land is reclaimed from the sea.

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Endless rows of high-rise buildlings on the way into the city.
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A barge, laden with sand, likely for land reclamation work.

It’s a city of lonefulness, a feeling I get when I visit New York. The streets are full of people, all rushing to get somewhere in quick strides, staring down at their phones or straight ahead to their destinations. You could pass hundreds of people in an hour here and not know you had passed a single one. Interactions only come when necessary, and otherwise people huddle in their groups of friends and acquaintances, sharing inside jokes and giggling. Or they sit without anyone, full in their alone-ness.

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A man walks alone by the space museum and planetarium.
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A man sits alone and drinks on the waterfront.
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A face, lit only by screen-light.

The people that will interact with you on the street want to sell you something, often “copy” or “replica” products. These street-sellers are immigrants from South Asia, India and Pakistan, who came here for the same reason most people come to a city: the prospect of jobs and better money. They crowd the main streets, asking if you want to buy a ‘replica’ watch, a SIM card, or need a room for the night. Their epicenter is Chungking Mansion, where we happen to be staying. Several decades old and brimming with stalls selling Indian curries, electronics, and everything and nothing you might need, Chunking Mansion is a city unto itself. It lives and breathes, exhaling and inhaling human bodies that make their way up the few squeaky elevators to tiny guesthouses and homes and restaurants run illegally from apartments.

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Immigrants from South Asia socialize at one of the entrances to Chungking Mansion
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Our hotel room, from end to end, is the width of one Stoytcho.
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The internals of Chunking Mansion. We’re on the fourteenth floor. Thirteen floors below us is the center cesspool, a mix of rainwater and whatever people throw down here.

Despite Chungking Mansion’s relative poverty, the rest of the Hong Kong downtown appears wealthy. Hong Kong was and continues to be a huge financial hub, although there have been some grumblings that the city is declining in prominence as China attempts to elevate Shanghai’s status as a financial center. Steps from the entrance to Chunking Mansion are storefronts boasting glittering figurines and jewelry made of pure gold. Parks are full of sculptures and art installations, while galleries line the streets of wealthy neighborhoods and an “Affordable Art Fair” we visited boasted works starting at only a few thousand dollars. Old buildings, like the PMQ, have been entirely renovated to house artisanal bakeries and design shops. There are people here in Hong Kong who want to live well and have the money to pay for it.

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A sculpture stands in the pond behind the Hong Kong Space Museum.
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A woman explains her work in an exhibit.
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Spot the banana: visitors giggle over a real banana hidden among ceramic replicas, a joke by the employees running the exhibit.

But undercurrent in the city is a mild anxiety, of what it is and will be in relation to China. Much news has been made abroad about the Hong Kong democracy movement, but it’s hard to say Western news outlets are unbiased, given that Britain only gave up Hong Kong in 1999 and would like to maintain influence there. Nor can it be said that China is unbiased, since it’s likely looking to bring Hong Kong’s government closer to one approved by the nation’s Communist Party and to avoid the spread of any ideals that would weaken the Party’s power. In the absence of unbiased sources, the best course of action is to ask the people of Hong Kong directly what they worry about and want, on streets and in coffee shops and clothing stores. Their response isn’t surprising: they worry that their future is dim, with investors nervous about China’s increasing influence in the city and China working to develop Shanghai as a major financial hub. What they want most is an assurance that they, too, have a future where they can prosper.

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A cat peers out from under stacks of goods at the market.

Not-so-smooth entry into New Zealand

New Zealand got off to a pretty rocky start for us. We arrived exhausted from our travels, and we hit our first snag at immigration. We figured we’d rent a car and drive around the country’s North Island for a couple of weeks, then head on to Australia, but the last few days in Chile were so hectic that we hadn’t yet been able to fully plan it.

Our mistake was mentioning that to the immigration agent upon entry. She asked what we were going to see and misunderstanding it for polite banter, we answered that we weren’t sure yet. She paused, and then asked what we were doing here then. “We’re here to visit New Zealand,” I replied. “And you don’t have your trip planned?” she asked with suspicion. I realized she was evaluating us as visa overstay risk, and I wanted to respond with “Look, I’m sure your country is nice, but we really don’t want to be here for more than a couple of weeks, lest I go insane from an overdose of pastoral scenery.”

But you don’t say that to an immigration agent. Instead I told her with an exhausted sigh, “Look, we have a rough plan. We’re going to rent a car and drive around the North Island for two or three weeks. Then we’re going on to Australia. Did you want me to write out our rough itinerary?” “No, it’s fine,” she said. She stamped our passports and handed them back. “Most people arrive with a more detailed itinerary,” she added. Ouch.*

Eager to put the immigration agent behind us, we moved on to customs where we stood in line to declare that we had a tent. Most countries in the world take customs and introduction of invasive species seriously, but New Zealand takes this stuff very seriously. If you’ve got a tent or camping equipment that may have dirt on it, they ask that you declare it at customs so they can perform an examination and cleaning. When we got to the front, we opened our bag and pulled out or camping equipment, which all passed inspection as dirt-free. Our tent was the only thing that needed cleaning.

The customs agent took our tent, tagged it, and handed us a paper. “Go through the exit, then wait at the window outside. We’ll call the number on your tag when we’re done cleaning it.” That seemed super nice of them, and although we knew it was in New Zealand’s best interests to do these cleanings, I also appreciated it. “Wow, it’s so nice you give free tent cleanings,” I said cheerfully, “Thank you.” The agent didn’t smile or look up. “But it’s not free. It’s us taxpayers that pay for it, but really we should be charging you,” he replied. I didn’t try to make conversation again after that.

Everyone else at the airport following these interactions was absolutely lovely. A whole team of airport employees, including a couple of off-duty customs agents, helped us find some important medical documents we forgot while moving through customs. The young Maori guy who sold us bus tickets to get to the city had a warm smile and a great sense of humor. And our bus driver was the sweetest guy, making sure everyone got off at the stop they needed. But it’s hard to forget first impressions, and after all of the hype around New Zealand as one of the friendliest places on Earth, it was a surprise to find that not everyone here is friendly after all.

 

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At least they have Crunchie bars here. P.S. Stoytcho had never had a crunchie bar before. 

 

* I have since found a much easier way to handle immigration agents, whose primary goals are to determine if you’re a threat to their country or a visa overstay risk: tell them you’re on a trip around the world, and list a few countries you’ve been to and where you’ll go next. This gives them both the reason you’re visiting their country and confirmation that you’ll be leaving for a subsequent destination (assumedly before your visa expires). They’re also usually tickled by the idea of meeting a round-the-world traveler, so it spices up their day.

BS.AS a Alaska

One of the interesting parts of our trip is finding out how the world reacts to President Donald Trump. We get to see the situation on the ground and hear from normal people, far from the rhetoric of politics. Since this isn’t a point of view you normally hear, these experiences provide insight into how things in the world have changed since the election. These posts won’t have as many pictures, they won’t be as touristy, and they may be uncomfortable.

Back when we were in Cahuita, one of the most notable features of our hostel was the Volkswagen minivan parked out front. It had the same homemade feel as the hostel, hand-painted in bright colors and filled to the brim with belongings. It popped against the green of the tropics, a vibrant, living animal come to rest under the shade of the hostel palms. That’s a great transport van for a hostel, I thought.

As the days drifted by, though, it became clear that the van didn’t belong to the hostel. A trio of young twentysomethings from the hostel tended the van like an ill beast. They cleaned it and checked things under the hood. From time to time I heard them start the engine, although I never saw the van go anywhere. And at night after dinner, we saw them retreat to the van for sleep.

Then a few days after we checked in, one of the twentysomethings approached us and asked if we wanted to buy some banana bread. She was cheerful and friendly, crowned with dreadlocks and accented with a slightly lispy form of Spanish that we struggled to understand. We asked why she was selling the bread. “To pay for gas,” she replied. “Do you need help getting somewhere? Maybe we know someone who can give you a ride,” we said. “No, it’s ok,” she shook her head politely, “We’re driving to Alahka.” “Sorry, where?” I listened harder to understand. She repeated herself, “Alahka. Alahska.”

Alaska.

It turns out that these twentysomethings were driving from Buenos Aires to Alaska. Six months ago, they had purchased a Volkswagen minibus, kitted it out with a sleeping area and pop out kitchenette, and started the drive. They parked and slept where they could, trading labor at hostels for the use kitchens and restrooms. They did odd jobs and sold what they could to get gas money. Currently, that consisted of banana bread made in our hostel’s kitchen and stickers they made to promote the trip. When we met them, they were estimating it would take a year and a half to drive up and another year and a half to drive back—a trip of three full years.

According to Google Maps, Alaska is 6,575 miles (10,582 kilometers) from Cahuita, Costa Rica. This distance encompasses six countries, countless stretches of empty road, and at least seven border checkpoints. I wasn’t terribly worried for them driving through dangerous parts Honduras or Mexico, though—they could clearly take care of themselves. The place I was most worried for them was the Mexican-U.S. border, or specifically, how in hell they were going to get across that border. I tried asking the woman selling banana bread about whether they had U.S. visas: she said they didn’t.

Getting a U.S. visa, even a tourist visa (B1/B2), isn’t a trivial task. Because Argentina isn’t on the visa exemption list, the three of them definitely need visas. At the time I wasn’t entirely sure how much work it took, but doing some research revealed that the application takes around $140 USD, an interview at the embassy in Argentina, and several weeks. That doesn’t guarantee you a visa, either: the U.S. government can choose to reject you if they consider you either a security risk or they think you’ll break the law or overstay your visa. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. government makes it very hard to enter the United States.

In previous years, I think they would have had a good shot at a visa, though apparently it’s always been difficult.  But every new visa restriction put in place by the Trump administration makes it seem less likely. It’s true that these restrictions are mostly on visa programs for refugees and long term migrants. But I don’t think it will be long before the administration starts cracking down on tourist visas under the pretense of protecting us.

Which always raises the question for me, “Protecting us from what?” The main response I’ve heard to this is terrorists and terrorism, but that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In the last 15 years, only 2 out of every 10 convicted terrorists is an immigrant; the remaining 8 were citizens born in the United States. And looking at all crime, immigrants that are not U.S. citizens (both legal and illegal) are less likely to commit crimes than native U.S. citizens. If we took at 1,000 people currently imprisoned for crimes, only 60 of them would be immigrants. Of these 60 imprisoned immigrants, 40 would be convicted of immigration-related offenses (like entering the country illegally). Only 1 of these 60 people would be imprisoned for violent crime; that’s 1 in 1,000 people imprisoned overall. If we want to prevent terrorism and violence in the U.S., shouldn’t we be using our limited resources to address 80% of terrorists and the 94% percent of crime committed by U.S. citizens? Are the crimes and victims of crimes committed by U.S. citizens somehow less important, less deserving of respect and resources? And while the argument is often about what we do or don’t gain by keeping immigrants out, what about the things we lose by excluding them? What about their creativity, their ideas, and the wealth they create?

I have no idea what will happen to those Argentinean artists bound for Alaska. Maybe they’ll make it. Or maybe they’ll run out of money or a vehicle breakdown will end their journey. I just hope that it doesn’t end because of overly-strict immigration laws at the U.S. border.

P.S.: I’m incredibly curious to know what applying for a U.S. visa is like. If you have a story of applying for a U.S. visa (either success or failure), comment or send me a message.