I keep thinking that I didn’t do much traveling this year, but that’s not entirely correct. It’s true I only went to two places I’d (sort of) never been to before: North Carolina and Virginia. But I did also go to old stomping grounds: Vancouver, NYC, Washington DC and Hong Kong.
A week in Hong Kong completely spoiled me. I never had to look at a schedule, since MTR comes every 5 minutes or sooner, the bus comes every 10 minutes or sooner, etc. When I came home, the first day I went back to work, I was screwed up because I missed my light rail train, which meant I missed my Caltrain connection. This added 40 minutes of waiting/transfer time on top of the 30-minute travel time. “What do you mean the train doesn’t run every 5 minutes?” I was indignant in my jet-lagged haze.
The second day I went to work, I simply jumped on the next train that showed up on the platform. “Hmm, why is this train stopping at San Antonio?” I thought it was part of the revamped Caltrain schedule. Then the train approached San Carlos . . . “Hmm, it doesn’t seem to be slowing down to stop. Oh, it’s not stopping.” It ended up stopping at Hillsdale. I was lucky, the next southbound train that I could take from Hillsdale to San Carlos arrived 3 minutes after I got off, so I wasn’t too late for work.
Of course, there’s similar issues on New York subways: if you don’t pay attention and hop on the Express train by mistake, it may skip the stop you want, in order to get between major stops quicker. Which happened to us once on this trip. But since we were being tourists not on a schedule, it didn’t matter.
What I have noticed that’s common between both Hong Kong and New York City is the average pedestrian walking speed seems a lot slower than I remember. I attribute my walking fast to a habit acquired early in childhood: having to keep up with my longer-legged (older and taller) cousins in Hong Kong, or risk getting left behind and/or lost. This has made me appear to walk at a freakishly fast pace relative to everyone else in more laid-back places, like Bangkok and the Bay Area. When I visited NYC for the first time in 1994, it felt like a homecoming of sorts in spite of the place being completely alien to me: I walked at the same pace as everyone else, so I fit in.
The equally frenetic and driven pulse of both HK and NYC seems to have mellowed out a bit. Slower walking – I attribute to people fiddling with their smartphones as they walk (a universal phenomenon): they’re distracted and walking slower. (Of course it makes them more susceptible to getting their smartphones snatched and stolen by thieves, or getting run over. I’m sure somewhere out there, there has been an incident where a motorist who was texting collided with a pedestrian who was texting, and it’s undetermined who was at fault.
People in both cities have also become a bit more polite, driven by the need for providing good customer service for tourism-driven economies. I used to think salesladies in Hong Kong the rudest people on earth, especially coming from Bangkok. Now they are just helpful as sales clerks in Thailand.
On this latest trip to the Big Apple, I found a fake rhinestone and blue fur tiara in the floor of a taxi-cab and wore it everywhere the rest of my time in NYC. New York being New York, no one bats an eye an anything. It was perfectly normal, just as someone walking a brown goat on a leash with a pearl collar down lower Broadway was normal. What was surprising was how people were downright friendly. My tiara attracted seven ‘Happy Birthdays’ from strangers, as well as a “Congratulations, let me see your ring . . . you’re already married!?”
I’m surprised at how few people use auto-toll to pay for tunnel fees in Hong Kong. None of the taxis we rode used it. None of the folks whose cars we rode in used it. You’d think they’d have incentive to use it to save time. I wonder what why.
One of the enduring legacies of the Brits in Hong Kong is the left-hand drive. Usually that also functionally dictates how people walk on the left hand side of the road as well. This usually leads to passing or faster traffic on the right, no? But Joe noticed something odd on this trip to Hong Kong: on escalators people who stand are on the right, and the people who hurry/walk up the escalators are on the left, like we do here in the US. Why is that?
Every time I visit my dad, I end up sorting and ‘cashing in’ all the coins he’s collected since my last visit. It’s my three-in-one good deed: (1) I reduce the clutter in his house; (2) I put coinage back into circulation, which reduces the need to mint coinage; and (3) I get some local spending money without having to deal with the mordida of foreign exchange commissions.
Last year, when I visited him in HK, I accumulated enough to pay for a very nice shabu-shabu dinner for five adults with all the spare change. I had to lug the coins to HSBC first though, where they charged him a percentage fee for coin counting and converting it to banknotes. (I really need to educate my dad on using Octopus card to pay for the small purchases, and avoiding the whole spare change problem.)
This visit being so recent on the heels of my last visit, Dad hadn’t squirreled away as many coins. I couldn’t take them to HSBS, so I sorted the $1, $2, $5 and $10s into piles of $100, and then took them to the customer service booth at different MTR stations on different days to load them onto our Octopus cards.
The 10-cent, 20-cent and 50-cent pieces were more of a problem. I can’t take those to MTR and no one else really wants them. I finally hit on the idea of using to buy drinks from vending machines. Machines can’t protest. Joe got Schweppes ginger beer, which is really not as good as Bundaberg. I got a Schweppes grapefruit soda in honor of my colleague Lauren, who had told me she missed those from her time as an exchange student in Hong Kong. I did the obnoxious thing and had Joe snap a photo of me guzzling it on his smartphone and then emailed the photo to her!
We tried out Capital Bikeshare in Washington DC: our first time ever using a bikeshare service. It worked pretty well for us as tourists. $7 for a 24-hour membership, and you can sign up for an account right at any kiosk with a credit card. Rides of 30 minutes or less are ‘free’, so we just biked between pods and parked.
Even the glitches and trouble-shooting worked well. You get issued a new code each time you check out a bike to unlock it. The code can either be read on screen or be printed out on a slip of paper. If the kiosk has run out of paper, and you didn’t memorize the code from the screen, all you have to do is wait 5 minutes, when the code expires, and then log in and get another code issued.
Another glitch we encountered was when we wanted to return a bike, but couldn’t because all the pod parking spaces were taken by existing bikes. You could look up the next nearest pod with available space to park your bike.
The equipment was OK. Many had bells where the clicker was broken. Some had seats which were impossible to adjust. But for short rides, those nuisances are tolerable.
I got Joe to take a photo of me on my bikeshare bike in front on the White House, which may be ironic. I understand that few people ride their bikes past Tiananmen Square anymore, it may even be illegal?
There’s lots of pods, close to most of the tourist attractions. I hope the Bay Area version will eventually be as dense/good/critically massed. I have to admit I was a bit of a doubter on bikesharing before, but now I’m sold on it. But I wonder how I would use it as a local, as opposed to a tourist. Why wouldn’t I simply buy myself a beater-bike?
We also rode the DC circulator shuttle quite a bit, to get to and from Georgetown, since Metro is not close by. It works pretty well at $1 a ride. Although the maps are slightly confusing (some show outdated routes.) While underground Metros are usually faster, surface buses have windows on the streets, allowing to you discover things you otherwise wouldn’t know about.
We got to ride Translink for the first-time ever in Vancouver! It may sound silly to consider this a major accomplishment, until you consider how many times I’ve been to Vancouver in the past couple of years, and still not manage to check it out. I was impressed with the frequency of the trains, almost as good as MTR, even during mid-day.
A shout-out to VTA; for having upgraded their Ticket Vending Machines to enable Clipper card financial transactions. I had given up on doing any web-based transactions with my Clipper card (definitely no auto-load!) because their user-interface and customer service is so crappy. I was buying my monthly Caltrain pass in person at the customer service window in my office. Sometimes there would be a queue – I get irritated with having to wait in line. Now I can use my credit card to add cash, or buy fare products (not just VTAs, but other transit agencies’ as well) or just to see my account balances simply by walking to my neighbourhood light rail station.
Hey, did Clipper card change its name from Translink because Vancouver copyrighted the name?