The Grand (if Sodden) Tourists Send Greetings from Hong Kong…

May 18, 2012 at 3:20 am (Uncategorized)

It’s a day of rain here in Hong Kong. Llew took the Touring Toddler out earlier and has just returned with our little guy asleep on his shoulder, snug in his monsters raincoat and minus his two blue gumboots. The gumboots were found en route to the farm in Coolah, in one of those brilliantly idiosyncratic country general stores, where one finds barrels, actual barrels, of poison sitting just down the aisle from saddlery and parallel to haberdashery. The gumboots were invaluable at the farm and have already justified their inclusion here. Luckily the gumboots were not MIA but safely stashed in Llew’s bag, and now we’re all home, with the littlest of us sound asleep in the room next door while the rain continues to bucket down outside.

We have lucked out outrageously in the accommodation department. It required a lot of web browsing and trawling, but in the end I didn’t contact anyone else in Hong Kong about a booking, and my gut feeling about this place has proved as true as if its coordinates were always etched in my heart. Some cities, some places, are like that. We used a site called AirBNB to book because we were looking for an apartment; our month-long road trip within Australia taught us briskly that we need to be able to pull a door to once the Touring Toddler goes down. Hotel rooms are a nightmare. A waking nightmare, because sure as shit no one’s getting any sleep. AirBNB entered our consciousness at the perfect time – first my sister-in-law mentioned it, then one of the Darklings, then Llew read an article about it. The travel gods were speaking. Perusing the site for the first time, we were and remain astonished by the number of people who have already been making use of the service. I guess we haven’t been doing any travelling at all since the Touring Toddler was born, but still it’s jarring when one realises other people have continued adventuring without us. And while we weren’t looking, AirBNB has arrived and must, surely, grow to prominence.

Essentially, the site brings the ‘host’ and the ‘guest’ together. You can look for all sorts of short- and long-stay accommodation, including a room in someone’s home or an entire house or apartment, and you can refine the search with geographic and other filters, including full bedroom (as opposed to pesky studios, which crept into our results anyway) and bathroom, full kitchen, family friendly and so on. The website matches accommodation to your dates, and then you are at liberty to contact the host and proceed from there. What I like about it as opposed to something like Craigslist is that you are much better able to verify the host’s existence and credentials, plus – crucially, in my view – AirBNB holds the cash until 24 hours after you check in. If a host is dodgy or indeed criminal, they won’t be able to clear off with your money. I first started looking for accommodation by wading through Craigslist and quickly came to the conclusion that it represented too great a risk of being swindled. The words ‘Western Union’ were used.

Not that AirBNB is without its drawbacks. The biggest is that it can be time-consuming looking for a place only to have the host say, ‘It’s not available,’ even though their calendar says that it is. And I’ve read plenty of negative reviews about hosts cancelling bookings at the last minute, because this is mainly their own home we’re talking about here, and life is like that. You thought you were going to be away, but now it turns out you have to stay home – that must happen all the time. I sympathise with hosts on this point, but as the prospective guest, with a 17-month toddler in tow, it’s a prospect that gives me a little chill.

My other nag is that there’s a big hyperlink inviting you to BOOK IT! but that is not at all what happens next. If you click on that instead of the hyperlink ‘contact host,’ AirBNB will process the transaction as if your booking has been accepted. You shell out your clams, and wait to hear if the booking has been accepted or declined by the host. In my eagerness to sort something for the two weeks in New York, anxious not to left stranded, I made this mistake. A rookie error I won’t repeat. Because while AirBNB voids the transaction immediately a host declines, your bank won’t be quite so snappy, which means you will be out of pocket until your financial institution catches up, and you risk missing other bookings while you wait. It would have suited me much better if AirBNB had a ‘ROLL-OVER’ function, whereby it just held onto the funds I have already put up while I look for another place. If that had been an option alongside the refund, I would have taken it. I was fortunate the host I eventually did find in NYC was prepared to help me out, blocking my requested dates on his calendar so no one would book over the top of me while we waited for the funds to clear.

And that’s the thing I would most like to say about my experience so far with AirBNB: it’s the sheer decency of the majority of people that is so heart-warming. It takes an act of some faith to allow complete strangers to come stay in your apartment, and our experience here – I add the link in case anyone reading this is looking for accommodation in Hong Kong, because in my opinion this joint is unbeatable for location, size, comfort, ambience and value for money – demands that the host Sam’s faith is rewarded. You’d have to be a particular kind of dick to disrespect the man’s hospitality. The apartment is entirely entrusted to us during our stay, and I feel so lucky that Sam decided to extend that generosity to us. We will not want to leave when the time comes, so it’s lucky we have the enticing prospect of New York City to lure us out the door come Sunday morning…

In the meantime, Hong Kong is everything I’ve always hoped and believed it would be. Another city ever alive in my imagination, the reality brings me a sense of profound peace, because I’m here now. Finally, I am here.

Postscript: I realise I have not yet told you anything of the travel or the city itself; I shall.

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The Touring Toddler, Part II

May 3, 2012 at 6:16 am (Uncategorized)

We’re currently in beautiful Noosa, QLD, thoroughly enjoying the sunshine and sea air. We are at heart coastal creatures, and this little duck definitely prefers the mercury rising, so it’s been absolutely wonderful to be here. This is our last night – sob! – tomorrow, on to Llew’s cousin’s wedding in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.

The following post was actually written last Sunday when we were still on the farm… time continues to elude me!

Due to some bizarre miscalculation – perhaps thanks to Moving Day Madness – what we always planned as a two-week stretch at Llew’s uncle’s farm is in fact one: we have to leave tomorrow and press on northward. The dates got badly scrambled somehow, and it’s a real shame – we’re just getting into the swing of things. The Touring Toddler even slept until 4.15 am this morning – his best night BY FAR since we left Sydney, practically a sleep-in from our point of view – and Llew and I are both just beginning to unwind. This is the perennial problem with road trips and holidays in general, isn’t it? By the time you finally manage to relax, it’s time to go. That’s definitely the situation here.

Time has unexpectedly flown by. It’s hard to know where to begin describing the rest of the week… but we had a daytrip on Tuesday I’ll tell you about because it was just so awesome. We made the trip to Dubbo’s Western Plains Zoo (about 1.5 hours west of here), and it’s an amazing zoo experience because it’s such an open, expansive site. We also rented bikes there and cycled around the entire place: brilliant. All enclosures are gigantic by regular zoo standards, and the animals live in as open an area as possible – in places like the well-populated giraffe enclosure, for example, one might almost forget one is in a zoo at all. There is a sense of sanctuary about the place that so few zoos successfully engender – it’s an idea that sits uncomfortably alongside captivity, after all – but Western Plains really does seem a beautiful, peaceful home for the animals.

As you know, the Touring Toddler and I love a bike, and Llew’s no slouch when it comes to pedal power himself, so we made three very happy visitors once we were astride our two-wheeled chariots with Master J’s seat fixed firmly behind Llew’s. Cycling around a zoo circuit: what a genius idea. You can also rent a cart or even drive your own car, but I’d have hated the latter and I suspect Master J would have arched his back at that option too. Hopping in and out of your vehicle every few minutes instead of coasting downhill with the wind in your hair…well, there’s no contest, is there? Still, once you’ve forked over admission – something we didn’t have to do because our Taronga Zoo membership extends to Western Plains – families are no doubt motivated to stay in the car to save some cash. With zoo admission set at $46 per adult and well over $100 for a family, with bikes and carts extra, it’s a big day out. But with our zoo passes and a packed lunch in tow, we got out of there for thirty bucks – incidentally the same amount we paid to get into the Old Dubbo Gaol earlier in the day. Given the Touring Toddler was totally traumatised by that little side excursion (hmmm, could it have been the isolation chamber; the creepy, lazy-eyed mannequins in period costume; the hangman’s mask or the padded cell, I wonder…?), the zoo by comparison was a red-hot bargain.

Mind you, it’s not as though we’ve had to travel far to see wildlife in action. Driving home from Coolah after dark the other evening, we realised an owl was flying directly ahead of us on the road, using our headlights to better hunt wabbits. The owl’s poise and stealth instantly called to mind a sleek fighter jet, all aerodynamic perfection and deadly skill. Right on cue a terrified rabbit appeared by the side of the road, jumping, skidding and weaving in and out of the long grass at improbable speeds of his own. I guess bounding for your life will do that for you. The owl passed over the bunny then flew back into the beam of light, clearly coasting with intent. Llew immediately slowed the car so as to avoid hitting the poor creature now streaking blindly alongside us; the owl, apparently disgusted by our failure to keep up and thus fulfil our potential as accomplices, flew off into the black night to continue his search elsewhere. I tell you, it’s a non-stop live-action drama out here.

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