I was holding on to my seat, seatbelt tightly fastened, hands clutched on each armrest, as the pilot just announced that it was already time to fly for my third visit to Hong Kong. I’ve been on a plane every now and then but the very first moment before actually being lifted up in the air is the one I dread the most. Every takeoff always had the same routine: first, hold the hand of one of my family members as I start the illusion that the earth’s rotation suddenly sped up; next, it was never complete without talking to Mama Mary aloud. But this time, it was different. Instead of my family, I was with friends — not just any friends, but seven of my young, free, and thrill-seeking college friends. After going through weeks of screening, training, and exams, we were finally chosen to represent our alma mater to the Hong Kong International Model United Nations (HKIMUN). Aside from that, this was not just the boring three days-two nights-kind of trip offered by every travel agency you can find because with this one, we were all hoping to use all the luck we could get for we had to stay for nine whole days in this little but known Cantonese-speaking place, just below mainland China. And as the 17 year old that I was, just the thought of the whole idea was already an adventure in itself.
Vivi, my closest friend among the group, sat near the window, while my other friend, Emman, stayed on my right side. An hour later, angels were crying and the heavens were raging as I squeezed myself in between my two friends. Our destination was at arm’s reach when the aircraft suddenly went into a deep dive and I finally experienced the strongest air turbulence I’ve ever had. For a second, the flight became one thrilling ride as you can literally hear people gasping, holding their breaths, while waiting for another plunge into thin air — literally like the feeling of riding a roller coaster. Fortunately for us, we were disappointed by the heavens with that last thought. We finally landed in Hong Kong. And yes, thanks to Mama Mary for talking to me.
Once we all finished going through the usual protocol of any traveler in an airport, we still had one thing to do: look for a money changer. Disappointed with the available exchange rates, we decided to just look for the transfer to our hotel. The tourist bus we rode was nothing extraordinary. But as the tour guide continued blabbing about the same old-same old Hong Kong that I know of, with new information on their newest Disney attraction, Vivi and I just could’nt help but laugh as we were suddenly informed of a new character from Hundred Acre Wood: Winnie the Poor. Mispronunciations aside, we were thankful for that tour guide, whoever she was, because she gave us a tempting exchange rate, and yes, we gave in. Not only that, we also gave in to her offer of spending an awesome first night in the city, at least me and my two adventurous friends, Vivi and Emman. And so, after dropping us off at our hotel, we were expecting to meet up again a few hours later.
The first stop of our night tour was the Night Market, though I have to admit that it did not give me a sense of joy. Walking upon stalls and stalls, and more stalls of tiangge-looking stores wasn’t fun at all. The vendors were literally the ones running after us, trying their best to haggle with us, not to mention that the August weather was not cooperating either. Sharing just one umbrella, my two friends and I would’ve been described as basang sisiws if we were in Manila. Drenched with rainwater and whatnot, we just decided to heed the call of our rumbling bellies. Dinner for us that night was nothing fancy, with each of us having a simple serving of a beef bowl from Yoshinoya. But heck, immediately after my taste buds came in contact with that not-so-fancy food, I instantly felt like eating in some high-end restaurant. The tenderness of the beef and its combination with rice was just plain mouth-watering. I can’t say if it was because of hunger or the previous encounter we just had, but the only thing I was sure of was that I felt like an idiot for not being first acquainted with that sumptuous beef bowl back at home.
After feeling full, we were brought to Victoria Peak. The signature tram ride going to the peak itself was a little cliché even for me, but I guess the fogginess of the place that night can be considered as something I’ve never experienced before. However, the fog was too much that it misted the lens of my digital camera and all the pictures we had taken had this blurry silhouette that would pass for an imaginary ghost. Too bad because Albert Einstein, Meryl Streep, Nelson Mandela, Pablo Picasso, and Prince William were just some of the famous personalities I posed with that night — in Madame Tussauds Wax Museum that is.
We were near the end of the tour when our bus dropped us off in some place overlooking the Hong Kong skyline. At first, the glow of the buildings combined with the starry night kept me and my two friends mesmerized for a couple of minutes — until we realized that our bus was nowhere to be seen! Panic quickly came to our senses as we found our teenage selves deserted on top of a mountain, with other tourists we can’t mutually understand. The first thing that came out of my mouth was “Great, just great!” the way it is said in movies with all the sarcasm the actors can muster. It was a couple of minutes more when we finally found some kababayans and I wasn’t sure if I should’ve been thankful that we finally found some people who can sympathize with us or still panic for they also didn’t know where our bus went to. Alas, it was as if I was really starring in my own movie as I imagined a spotlight was on me and angels were flying above my head singing “Alleluia!” when our bus finally showed up. We were then told that our bus wasn’t allowed to park on our location and they had to make a very long U-turn to come pick us up again. Well, wasn’t that a relief?
On our second day, three more college friends arrived which made us a total of 11 delegates all in all. But Vivi, Emman, and I already had plans that day so we had a quick breakfast at McDonald’s just below our hotel. It’s a sin to eat at such a place when traveling for it exists just anywhere else, including home, but by just thinking about our itinerary for the day, we had to act fast and yes, that includes a hefty serving of fast food. Our destination was the then-talk-of-the-town: the newly built Hong Kong Disneyland. But arriving at our destination involved three kinds of transportation. First, we had to hail a cab to bring us to the MTR station — but even this was an obstacle for we had to play a game of charades with the driver who doesn’t know a word of English at all. But if Lewis and Clark were able to do it, then our Sacajawea at that time was our trusty map given by our hotel. Arriving at the MTR station still wasn’t a walk in the park. Riding the train meant we had to transfer to another one — the Disneyland MTR, which was thankfully a breath of fresh air.
Riding the Disneyland MTR was like entering a time warp that immediately transports you back to your childhood. My two friends and I couldn’t get enough of the Disney characters displayed just about everywhere: the Mickey Mouse-shaped windows and handles, the bronze statues enclosed in glass, and the royal blue seats that make you feel like a part of any Disney fairy tale.
Arriving at the place was even more surprising — but in a bad way. I guess because it was still “new” at that time and there weren’t enough rides to enjoy yet. Aside from that, rain was pouring hard, it was a Sunday, and the entire theme park was jam-packed with tourists and locals. The more than HK$300 we paid each for our entrance eventually became equivalent to a 30-minute 4D movie and a train ride only. That was because we couldn’t even squeeze ourselves in between the lines that seemed to be as long as The Great Wall. Eventually, we got tired of being victims of the downpour and never-ending lines, so we immediately resorted to our Plan B: shopping.
The different souvenir shops inside Disneyland have different themes depending on their location. I believe I got a little carried away in the “Princess” section because before I knew it, I almost spent an amount of money I could only then dream of earning from where else? My dreams! I knew better so I had to put back some of the stuff — but even that was only the beginning of my so-called Disney misery. In the middle of being engrossed with shopping, I got separated from Vivi and Emman. Outside, a parade had started and the rain decided to take a break. I was hoping to see my two friends there but with much disappointment, nada. I even tried to go to the help-desk but they weren’t of much help to me either, as ironic as that may sound. Surprisingly, I was completely calm despite the fact that I can’t contact both of them on their cell phones, and I almost hopped on to the next train back to Tsim Sha Tsui. But it wasn’t meant to be. A couple of minutes and walking later, we finally got reunited. And as if on cue, we all agreed that that marks the end of our Disneyland adventure as we walked to the exit, umbrellas on hand.
The third day was completely different. We finally transferred to a hostel to be with the other Hong Kong delegates, and it was like a snap back to reality — big time! The conference was the real purpose of our entire trip and the 11 of us had to make our alma mater proud. The entire four days of the HKIMUN was all a blur now: debates here and there, position papers, resolution papers — all kinds of papers, negotiations every hour or so, and the rest of the serious list goes on. Being a junior diplomat was hard. How much more for real diplomats? Fortunately for me and my partner, Mark, we were able to make new friends. Penny, Ming-Ming, and Jennifer were the reasons why I believe I was one of the first few Filipinos who created a Facebook account, while everybody was glued on Multiply — almost three years ago. Every now and then, we still contact each other and they can’t wait to pick me up on the airport on my next trip to their homeland, whenever that is.
The second-to-the-last night of the conference, our new-found Hong Kong friends invited us to dinner. However, they couldn’t meet us in our hostel, so Mark and I had to commute by cab. Once again, we had the similar experience of playing charades with the driver. And when we thought that there was already an understanding on both parties, we zoomed off. Trusting the driver to take us to an unfamiliar restaurant, while traveling with my partner who doesn’t know a word of Cantonese, like me, was a little nerve-wracking. Thoughts about getting lost and yes, being lost in translation, did cross my mind but those were all crushed by the beautiful sight that is Hong Kong. It was during that taxi ride that I truly appreciated the beauty of the city while coursing through a very long highway across Tsim Sha Tsui, and passing through one Hong Kong skyscraper at a time. I truly felt how it feels like to be a tourist in one place without actually being a stranger.
When we arrived, we were greeted by our friends and we shared a traditional meal eaten by the locals. We laughed, ate, laughed, got to know one another a little more, and laughed again. In the middle of sipping Naicha and chewing Yangchow, we took some pictures to seal the memory of that night and we even tried teaching each other a crash course on our respective languages, with English as medium of course. At the end of it, our friend, Jennifer, helped Mark and I get a taxi and this time, the game of charades had finally stopped for our Cantonese-speaking friend translated, and even directly instructed the driver where to take us.
Finally, the last day of the conference arrived. Awards were given where two people from our delegation received some, e-mail addresses were exchanged, and most of all, everyone prepared for the upcoming International Night on that exact same day. The International Night served to be the last hurrah of the conference where delegates were required to wear the national costumes of the “mock” countries they represented to the party, and just have fun. As for me and my partner, we had to wear Indian costumes for representing India during the conference, and that involved the wearing of a sari on my part. We ended the night by saying farewell to the new friends we made, and then from the hostel, it was time for us to transfer back to our hotel again.
Going back to our hotel meant that we had two days left in our trip. We used that remaining time wisely by spending the most of it. First, we walked the streets of Hong Kong at 3:00 AM in search for a late dinner or an early breakfast, whichever applied to each of us. When the sun finally rose, we all decided to have our own tour of Mong Kok to buy pasalubongs and for some reason, it was decided that the boys and the girls would be separated into two groups — but we still ended up bumping into each other at the MTR station anyway.
Mong Kok was tiring. Not all of us found the right things to buy so our money was spent on a generous serving of never-ending Yangchow and whatnot at a nearby restaurant from our hotel come dinner time. And on the day of our departure for Manila, we had it easy. There was already a bus waiting for us arranged by our hotel to take us to the airport and all we had to do was just wait.
When the time for waiting was finally put on hold, I was there once again holding on to my seat, seatbelt tightly fastened, as the pilot announced that it was already time to fly back to Manila. But this time, I was changed. I still said my prayers but instead of having my hands clutched on each armrest, I was now able to put a smile on my face as the aircraft went faster and faster up in the air, thinking that yes, I’m not going to let fear, let alone the fear of flying, stop me from having one adventure in my life at a time. After all, I’m a diplomat at heart, aren’t I?