The face was grey, color of dough mixed with ashes, flaccid, sex indeterminate but tending more toward female. Dark sockets where eyeballs had been. She—or was it me?—said she was so glad to have gotten into masochism, wished she’d started years ago, and now only wanted it to go on for a thousand years.
I snapped awake and took a few deep breaths to slow my pulse. In those days I didn’t own a watch, but guessed it was shortly after 5:00 a.m., as light had started to seep through the window that opened on the airshaft. It was early July, 1983. The room was small, unfurnished except for a single cot that sagged almost like a hammock, with enough space underneath it for my suitcase. It cost $7.00 a night.
I didn’t need an interpreter to understand the dream. I was 39, this was my first time traveling outside the U.S., and I was alone. Nobody in Hong Kong—this city of nearly five and a half million—knew me, nor would they care if I dropped dead in front of them. It was the adventure of a lifetime, and I was terrified.
The Indian guy who owned this hotel—actually, a suite of rooms on the eighth floor of a 15 story building—was asleep on the floor in the hallway. He was rather stout, his belly a small hill blocking the elevator. In another hour or two he’d be up and the aroma of tea and rotis would drift into the rooms, but I was jet lagged and couldn’t wait, so I tried tiptoeing around him. No go. He woke up anyway and complained.
The dim sum place across the street was already open. I took a seat and when the lady with the trolley came by, asked for the one dish I knew by name, char siu bao.
* * *
I had decided to come here in April—well, not specifically to Hong Kong, but anywhere in the world except to see Ruth in Israel. We’d broken up the previous summer and she’d taken the kids and flown home to Haifa. I was heartbroken, as much over the loss of the children than of their mother. “You can always come visit them,” Ruth said, as though she was just moving to the next county. I spent four days in bed sobbing, too wrecked to call in sick, but the head of the department accepted my explanation and didn’t throw me out of the masters program.
Then I started saving the air fare. By the following spring I was ready to go. I’d been working as a student teacher at the American Language Institute at San Francisco State U., and we all had the summer off. That April, however, I learned that Ruth was already involved with someone else.
I called my friend Jan. She told me to come over immediately. We sat in her Berkeley apartment while she wove her new tapestry, a volcano with magma rising in the center but not pouring down the sides, at least not yet. It was supposed to represent the fire inside. Her loom took up most of the living room, which smelled of the gouache paints she used to create the design.
“What am I going to do?” I wept. “I don’t think I can stand to see Ruth with another woman.”
“Martha, it would be the most masochistic thing in the world for you to go to Israel now. The children can wait. You’ve got the money, you’ve got the time off. Isn’t there anyplace else the world you’d like to see?”
Anxiety rose up in my center. “Jan, roll me a joint. Please.”
Jan always had high quality weed. After a couple of drags, music started running through my head. Aloha Oe…Bali Hai will call you…a tropical island…Hawaii? Too many honeymooning couples, and I’d be sitting on the beach alone and miserable. Bali? Where the heck is Bali anyway?
Research ensued. I confided in my supervisor at the American Language Institute. He had worked in Indonesia. “It’s a safe place for women,” he declared. “Why rape, when you can just ask and get what you want?” He was clueless, of course, not understanding that rape is about power, not sex, but I wanted to believe him, wanted to believe I’d be okay.
When I told my father where I was going, he was upset. “Indonesia is a Muslim country. That’s no place for a Jewish girl!”
“Bali isn’t Muslim, Dad,” I assured him. “It’s a kind of Hindu-Buddhist.” I certainly wasn’t going to tell him that I’d be spending time on other islands of the archipelago.
Next came obtaining a passport, vaccinations, malaria pills, guidebooks, and a slim phrasebook of Indonesian for tourists. My plan was to stop in Hong Kong for a week, purchase a good camera at a bargain price, and then fly to Jakarta.
Jan drove me to the airport. We were at the gate when the anxiety hit. Jan had traveled around Europe with a boyfriend during her college years. Other people I knew had done the same, or done a junior year abroad, or gone on group tours. But I’d never left the U.S., except for a brief drive along the Canadian side of Lake Erie. And as I said, I was traveling alone. “Don’t leave me here,” I pleaded. “I’m scared!”
“You’ll be just fine,” Jan assured me, making a little shoving motion toward the door. An hour later I was over the Pacific, no land in sight. I opened my phrasebook. Selamat pagi—good morning. Berapa harganya—how much does it cost?
* * *
After the dim sum breakfast I returned to my lodgings and saw that the bathroom was free, then peered inside. I’d attempted to shower the day after my arrival and found that I was sharing the stall with a large beetle, which I labeled a water bug. It was probably terrified. I know I was, because I would have sworn it was big as my head, but the giant water bugs of that region are only three inches long. I exited in haste. All clear on the second day, though.
Once I’d had cleaned up I went for a walk in the neighborhood. Aside from the big bug, Hong Kong didn’t seem particularly scary. It looked sort of like Chinatown in New York, but as though that ethnic enclave had multiplied to ten times its size and taken over the city, its 5.4 million residents packed into blocks of high-rise apartment buildings, some of them 30, 40, even 60 stories tall. One difference, however, was that in New York you might hang your clothes to dry on lines across an airshaft or central courtyard. Here people draped their laundry over the railings of the balconies or pinned it to a cat’s cradle of clotheslines, all visible from the public street.
Time for lunch. The hotel owner served a very nice curry for a dollar. I shared a table with another visitor, a man who looked to be in his late thirties. He owned a rug factory in India and was here marketing his wares. “I’d like to do business in your country,” he said. “Can you recommend where to stay? A middle class place, like this one?”
Middle class? In the U.S. the health department would shut this place down. A cheap motel room in California, maybe Motel 6, was around $35.00 a night. With a phone, television, and private bath, it would have been the height of luxury to my lunch companion. I told him the price but refrained from describing the accommodations, and his face fell. I couldn’t imagine what a cheap motel might be like in his country.
By the end of the week I’d purchased a high-end Canon camera, along with telephoto and close-up lenses. Took a train to the airport, boarded my flight, and deplaned half a day later at Kemayoran Airport in North Jakarta—the strangest place I’d ever seen. As someone born and raised in New York, exposed (albeit minimally) to a variety of cultures, I fancied myself somewhat sophisticated, but nothing back home had prepared me for this.
To be continued…