What’s crazier than travelling Southeast Asia solo on a shoestring budget throughout November? Travelling Southeast Asia solo on a shoestring budget throughout November and writing 50,000 words of a book at the same time, that’s what.
This summer I worked with an eighteen-year-old Etonian. He spoke of ‘bumping into’ David Cameron at chapel, meeting Elton John, as well as hobnobbing with Damian Lewis and Tom Hiddleston at alumna events. He wore the uniform of penguin tailcoats to school every day. Dubbed as one of the best young musicians in the country, he was a cellist. A bloody good cellist.
Needless to say, we had absolutely nothing in common. He was an alien to me. I was pretty sure I was going to hate him. Read more
Anyone who knows me well knows my phone.
Going on five years, it’s been my trusty and reliable companion (and often my only ally) in my battle against the technology takeover. A nostalgic #throwback to my first ever week in Hong Kong, my museum-worthy Anycall holds a special place in my heart. And aside from it’s personal significance, it texts, it calls, it has a battery life of over a week (what stamina!), it has a calculator and a torch (which has come in very handy on camping trips when everyone else’s phone dies before sundown) and that’s all I have ever needed it to do.
I prided myself on the fact that should the Terminator-style digital apocalypse happen, I would be the sole survivor whose voice would not be identified by the ‘Big Brother’ surveillance conspiracy that is Siri. And I was far less likely to be kidnapped by terrorists or cyborgs because they would not be able to track me by hacking into Google maps or figure out my every move via my social media accounts. #blessedlife
It was a cost-effective anti-theft device. Nobody wanted it, so I didn’t need to be careful. I once left it in a H&M changing room over a weekend and it was still there when I came back for it. I felt assured by the fact that if the phone broke, or if I lost it, it would cost me less that HK$100 to get a replacement.
Technology didn’t own me. And I felt a prideful surge of hipster-esque rebellion whenever I took out my phone in front of new people and heard them audibly gasp in horror.
I watched, smugly, as couples sat opposite each other in restaurants, scrolling through their Facebook feeds instead of speaking to the person next to them. I sucked my teeth as I watched those taking Insta-photos of their meals, crafting hashtags and monitoring ‘Likes’ rather than eating. On the MTR, I would look up and judge the hundreds of commuters playing Candy Crush before sticking my nose back into the pages of my book.
When people turned up late with the excuse of ‘But I sent you a message on Facebook?’, I snapped that they could have, and should have, called me, or y’know actually turned up on time instead of relying on technology to let everyone know of their lateness. When friends and family complained that it would be so much easier and cheaper for me (but mainly for them) if I was available via Whatsapp rather that texting, I reminded them that it wasn’t cheaper because one has to buy a smartphone, a contract and pay for data, which far exceeds the cost of a few texts. When my boyfriend didn’t reply to a question because he was too busy swiping through Sky Sports News on his phone, I literally whacked it out of his hand.
I would never be like that. I would not be a zombie. I would not give Apple any of my money. I would not cave to peer pressure. I would not prioritise my online presence over my actual presence. I would not become a smartphone wanker.
And then the unthinkable happened.
My boss came to me one day, sick of being unable to communicate with me via the work Whatsapp group, and gave me her old iPhone 4. I’m told that this is an old model that is already considered old fashioned by smartphone snobs the world over, but to me it was a Flux Capacitor. I had no choice. It was finally time to give in and join the virtual world.
And, reader, I admit that I kinda liked it.
My arrival into the world of Whatsapp put me back in contact with old friends who sent messages just to say hi, or mostly ‘Welcome to the real world!’. I could take photos, listen to music, call, message, do the social media thing, Skype, Facetime, calculate, calorie count, shine a torch, and anything else (because, apparently, there’s always an app for that) all in one place. Not that I need to explain that to you, reader, as you’re probably scrolling through this blog post on your smartphone now, right?
And Instagram! Good lord, Instagram! What I had been missing out on there! As a travel junkie, I found a new source of pleasure in flicking through endlessly gorgeous and wanderlust-y pictures by National Geographic, Lonely Planet and all my travel-savvy friends that I have met these past five years. And I shared my own snaps, serotonin rushing to my brain every time someone tapped on the ‘heart icon’ below my pics.
When I went to Japan, I was able to share photos that I’d taken with people back home instantly, rather than waiting several weeks before I could be bothered to take them off my camera and put them on Facebook.
My family created a Whatsapp group so that we could keep on top of everyone’s news and organise ourselves better (and make fun of each other, obviously, that’s important too).
I downloaded language apps, and started practising my Italian again.
When inspiration hit – whether it was writing, travel or otherwise – I typed up my thoughts using the notes function without having the problems of ‘Shit, I don’t have a pen,’ or ‘Argh, no paper, I’ll just have to scrawl this on my arm,’ or the dreaded, ‘Where did I put that scrap of paper with the thing on that was going to change my life?’.
But, sadly, it wasn’t all eggplant emojis and Ludwig Instagram filters.
I got in trouble for ‘seeing’ messages and not replying, because Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger like to tell people when you’ve seen something, and when you were last online. I also had one conversation with three different people via three different apps playing a twisted game of ‘he says she says’ because they didn’t want to talk to each other, but didn’t want the others to know that they didn’t want to talk to them. I despaired that the battery never lasted a full day, and that sometimes it would just die with 50% battery, no warning, and then my morning alarm wouldn’t go off.
And, even though I had promised myself that I wouldn’t be that person, I admit that I got distracted looking at perfect pictures of skinny Pinterest and Instagram girls effortlessly posing in flawless make-up and intricately braided hair. Why didn’t my hair look like that when I braided it? Why did my belly go outwards when theirs went inwards? Why didn’t I look cute with a lace bra, dark purple lipstick and a cute geometric tattoo?
I stalked people that I hadn’t thought about in years, swiping through their photos, wondering what they were doing now and then feeling bad about myself when I saw they were happier than I thought they would be, or happier than I am.
Yes, I know that people’s online personas are fake. Yes, I know that I was looking at the highlight reel, not the full picture. Yes, I know I was being ridiculous, but somehow I still let myself get sucked in. Obviously, I had social media accounts before I got a smartphone, but this was a digital overload for an analog girl like me.
Then, it got worse.
After three weeks, I accidentally knocked the phone off the bathroom sink and the bottom part of the screen smashed on the floor. It cracked into a spiderweb pattern. It wasn’t enough to break the device or render it unusable, but I started getting tiny pieces of glass crumble on my fingertips whenever I tried to scroll or type.
After four weeks, I went to the Philippines with friends and the phone was stolen. I was as careful as I could be, keeping it in a tightly zipped bag, with my hand on the bag at all times, but it was a futile effort. Two of us were robbed at the same time one night, the thief quickly snatching the phones out of our pockets and bags without us even noticing until it was too late.
When I realised my bag was unzipped and the phone was gone, I was disappointed in myself. Why hadn’t I been more careful? What would my boss would say? Did I need to change my passwords to everything? How would I contact people while I was travelling? What if something went wrong?
And yet there was a small part of me that felt vindicated. I had been right all along about smartphones – they were trouble. It was foolish to put all your eggs in one basket, and carry around something so personally as well as financially valuable.
Although the thief had bolted, I looked on the ground on the off-chance that either myself or the robber had dropped the phone. Then, I saw a Polaroid photograph on the ground. It had been taken earlier that day by a Korean couple we had met on the beach, who were excited to take photos with (using their words, not ours!) ‘handsome’ and ‘beautiful’ foreigners. They were lovely people, it had been a great day and it was a hilarious memory that I’ll always cherish. The Polaroid was a classic. It didn’t require a filter.
Back in Hong Kong, I came crawling back to my Anycall, like a sheepish ex-girlfriend begging for forgiveness. ‘Will you give me another chance? I promise I’ll never cheat on you again.’ I told my boss what had happened, and I calculated that the excess on my travel insurance would potentially cost me more than the money I would receive in compensation, and there was a risk that my claim wouldn’t be accepted anyway because I had no proof of purchase for the phone. (Thanks a lot insurance, what exactly is the point of you?)
Not without a sense of irony, my trusty Anycall started playing up too. I couldn’t hear people when I called them, and the buttons (buttons!) were stiff and didn’t always work. To add insult to injury, a tiny beach pebble from Boracay got stuck in the headphone jack of my old-school iPod. Meanwhile, my old-school digital camera was also giving up the ghost and, besides, the photos that it took weren’t as good quality as the iPhone’s.
I was faced with a dilemma. A true #firstworldproblem. I was no longer a smartphone virgin, and I now needed a replacement phone, iPod and camera. It made sense to cave and buy myself a smartphone. Plus, I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss the ease of use of the device; the ability to communicate with loved ones around the world at the touch of (well, not buttons) a touchscreen, especially considering that I live abroad and travel often.
So, yesterday, I bought a secondhand iPhone with my own actual money.
It’s not one of these fancy 6+CS things, it’s not new, I still don’t plan on taking selfies unless it’s ironic, and I still haven’t lost my pride enough to step into an Apple store, but it’s an iPhone nonetheless. And this time, I’ll do it properly. This time, I’ll be a grown-up. This time, I’ll learn from my mistakes.
I will not get sucked into a social media spiral looking at unattainable beauty that I know is orchestrated, photoshopped and sponsored by big brands.
I will not stare at my phone for hours on end, and I will not unnecessarily spend time on my phone when I am with actual flesh-people.
I will not value my online presence over my actual presence.
I have learnt my lesson:
There are no smartphone wankers, only wankers with smartphones.
What is it like living in Hong Kong? I get asked this question often, especially when I’m back in the UK.
So, I thought it was about time that I put a little more care into my answer rather than just shrugging my shoulders and saying something non committal like, ‘Uh, ok, fine, I guess…’ while wondering how best to describe this curious and crazy place to someone who has never been to Asia.
So here it is – the best answer I can come up with to summarise what its like living in the paradoxical and bewitching vertical jungle that is Hong Kong, for those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting The Fragrant Harbour:
What is it like living in Hong Kong?
– The language is hard, the language barrier isn’t.
– Public transport is cheap and fast, though the bureaucracy can be slow and frustrating.
– The job market is good, though it should be noted that the majority of expats teach English or work in finance.
– The politics are messed up, but, then again, they’re messed up everywhere (I’m looking at you, Trump fans).
– People wear surgical masks when they’re sick, kind of like a zombie film.
– The skyscrapers look like something out of the future; the temples make you feel like you’re stepping into the past.
– You think of Hong Kong as a city until you venture into the New Territories and realise that you’ve been wrong the whole time, the majority of Hong Kong is spectacular countryside.
You cross your fingers and hope that the breathtaking country parks won’t be bulldozed and turned into MTR shopping malls any time soon.
– Chinese food is delicious and constantly surprises you in its diversity, from dim sum to dumplings to hotpot to barbecue. However, going for a meal is a bit like Russian roulette for your stomach.
You regularly eat Asian cuisine that you didn’t know existed before, such as Vietnamese pho, Korean bibimbap and Japanese curry, which are all readily available because everyone eats out all the time rather than cooking.
You also try popular food fusions such as Korean-Mexican or Japanese-Italian, and wonder where it all went wrong.
– Staying on the topic of food, local people assume that if you’re British then your favourite food must be fish and chips, and will ask you how much you miss it or how much fish and chips you ate the last time you were back.
In truth, you could give or take fish and chips, but you do miss proper cheese, proper bacon and a proper roast dinner.
– You start to refer to yourself as a ‘Westerner’, much to the confusion of everyone you know back home.
– The rent is high, but apartments are small.
– There are cockroaches, tree spiders and snakes. There may be a lizard living in your flat, but that’s a good thing because it will eat your cockroaches.
– Summers are scorching hot, sticky and humid, but you’re cold all the time anyway because the air-con is on full blast everywhere.
– The local TV is mostly awful, although sometimes so bad it’s good, and the news can be shamelessly censored.
– During storm season you pray for a typhoon warning from the Hong Kong Observatory so that you get the day off work.
– Ladies drink for free on Ladies Nights, and you’re not sure how you feel about it. Sometimes you are disgusted by the sexism and effectiveness of a cheap marketing ploy, while at other times you drink for free because alcohol that is not bought at club 7-Eleven is bloody expensive.
– You will buy drinks at a 24-hour 7-Eleven and drink them on the street making new friends with people who are doing exactly the same thing.
– There is a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark (and I lived in it for the first three weeks that I lived in Hong Kong).
– Chicken tastes weird.
– The most expensive real estate in the world is here and the city is home to millionaire tycoons. On the other hand, poor old ladies go through rubbish bins at night to find recyclable material that they can sell just to earn a little bit of money.
– It’s cheap to travel to the rest of Asia, though a trip to the Chinese embassy to get a visa to Mainland China is a nightmarish experience.
– There are day-long junk boat parties every summer.
– Many households have a ‘helper’ – a maid/nanny/servant who usually comes from the Philippines or Indonesia.
– Over time, you develop an ‘international’ English accent, mixing British idioms and turns of phrase with American vocabulary, peppered with slang from just about everywhere else around the world.
– You discover that queuing is a Western cultural norm, not a global one.
– The smog is gross, but the skyline is magical.
– The education system is crazy competitive and most children have no free time because they study so much and take a load of extra-curricular classes in the evenings and at weekends.
There are even infomercials on TV that remind parents that children should have at least one hour of play every day.
– The ocean is dirty, but there are still some secret beaches hidden away with white sands and sparkling turquoise waters, if you know where to find them…
– You eat more McDonalds than you have ever done before in your life, as the majority of branches are open 24/7 and the food is consistent with what you would have in a McDonald’s back home (if you ignore the corn pie and crayfish bisque, that is).
– Even though you will try, you will never truly understand the concept of ‘saving face’ in Asian cultures.
– Tax is low and paid once a year rather than being taken out of your paycheck every month, but it is near-impossible to work out how it is calculated.
Once the tax is collected, the government decides it has too much money and reimburses high-earners the majority of their tax in a ‘sweetener’ deal rather than spending the money on real issues… Yep, it doesn’t make any sense to me either.
– The crime rate is one of the lowest in the world and you feel safe walking alone at night just about anywhere.
– The birth rate is also one of the lowest in the world. There are also infomercials on TV that remind people to have more children.
– The expat community is small and you will inevitably know everyone through everyone else within a year. You will also, inexplicably, bump into someone who is from your tiny hometown and marvel with them at how big and small the world is.
– There are times when you miss your family and friends back home, and there are times when you remember that you get to live in Hong Kong!
Phew, so there’s my HK life in a nutshell, both the good and the bad. Sound impossible? Well, you could just come and visit me and find out what this mad place is like for yourself…
So the question is… ‘Why now?’
It danced around my brain as I literally googled ‘How to start a blog?’, selected a domain name and navigated my way around WordPress. It repeated itself like a catchy jingle as I opened a new word document to draft the first post and, for once, didn’t just stare at the blank white screen.
I actually started typing…
I’ve been living in Hong Kong for four years, and I know I’ve always said that I’d write a travel / lifestyle / book / other blog and never quite got round to it… so… why have I finally got round to it?
Maybe it’s a classic New Year’s resolution that I’m going to make with all the festive good intentions, only to slowly forget about and not be bothered with come February and March.
Maybe it’s because 2015 was filled with fantastic travel and writing adventures, and I don’t want to forget a single moment. I finally feel ready to start documenting all the past years’ memories as well as the adventures to come.
Maybe it’s my quarter-life crisis kicking in.
Maybe it’s because I’m just a little bit older, wiser and better organised (ish) with my time than I used to be. I’ve started carving out some ‘me time’ somewhere in the intense work-obsessed culture of Hong Kong and found, more often than not, that I am using that ‘me time’ to write.
Maybe it’s because the grace period of my early twenties is over. I’ve survived the ‘figuring out what I want to do’ years. Now, I’ve moved into the scary ‘figuring out how to make what I want to do a reality’ years.
So ‘Why now?’ Well, it’s because the clock has struck Do Something o’clock, and it’s already the second Thursday of Get Your Act Together in the year of What Are You Waiting For?
In other words, I stopped asking ‘Why now?’ and started asking ‘Why not?‘ I pushed aside feelings of self-doubt. My fingertips reclaimed their rightful place on the keyboard.
What if I write a blog and no one reads it? At least you’re writing. What if I run out of things to say? Then you’ll just have to blog about that too. What will people think? They think you’re an idiot anyway. What if I say something stupid and then years later when I’m rich and famous it comes back to haunt me and ends up in the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame? Well, then you know you’ve made it.
So, although it may surprise some people (most notably myself), here I am hitting the 400-word mark as well as the Save button on my brand new blog, Page Traveller. 2016, I’m coming for you.