Hello, my hat is on fire
an excerpt from Book 2
The biggest regret of my entire life is everything I did not do from September 1987 to February 1988.
Though my body travels from Vancouver to Hong Kong, to Nepal and India, over to Thailand, and up to China, my mind is in a constant fog. It’s the biggest trip I will ever have and I waste it. Like high school memories, what I do —or rather, what I didn’t do— during these five months away from Canada comes back in unconnected memory patches.
I tag along with a group of my friends, most of whom are well-seasoned world travellers. They are seeking adventures; I’m bumbling along, a reluctant traveller. I should have stayed home.
Hong Kong is shiny and exciting. Everyone on the streets is beautiful and rich, with perfect hair and expensive clothes. Newly arrived from the dry Canadian prairies, I’m trudging along the crowded sidewalks in the oppressive humidity, soak-sweating my heavy jeans and black t-shirt each day.
The surreal highlight of Hong Kong for me is where all low-budget travellers stay: the seventeen-storey firetrap maze called Chung King Mansions. Any attempt to describe it will fail.
Imagine five connected towers filled with thousands of tiny guest-houses, each with one or two rental rooms barely big enough to fit a single bed or bunkbed. I avoid the creaking, clanking elevators and walk up the cement stairwells filled with garbage, dangling electrical cable, crumbling concrete, and the first non-English graffiti I ever see in my life. Luckily, my guest-room is on the fourth floor and is so clean I feel bad plopping down my dirty backpack. Beside my room, I have my own ingenious ‘Hong Kong Shower’ —a toilet, sink, and shower all in one tile-covered room with a drain-hole in the centre of the floor. I love it.
The 7/24 hustle and bustle of the lower floors is out of this world, or perhaps, completely of this world: shops and kiosks selling every type of food, faces of every race and nationality, a United Nations of languages and hand gestures, confusing signs in buzzing neon, the omnipresent money changers, the constant wafting of spices and incense and garbage — the continual hum of thousands of people together in a tight hive.
Of the few good memories I retain from my wasted Asia trip, I don’t know why Chung King Mansions stays with me.
Though my month in Nepal is enjoyable, a big regret remains. I buy a beautiful red and gold silk thangka depicting the Buddha at his Enlightenment, but am ashamed I don’t make the effort to shop for a human skull.
A friend and I are in a market near Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, looking at touristy items for sale: stone jewelry, singing bowls, creepy dolls, incense sticks, prayer wheels. As I try to calculate if this large curved Gurkha Kukri knife will actually fit in my backpack and whether I want to carry it for a few months, I notice my friend is holding up the pièce de résistance: a human head.
Upon first glance, it looks like a light-coloured wooden skull with silver ingots in its nose and eye holes. Looking closer, we realize it’s the real thing. The top of the skull pops off to reveal a silver-lined tray. Even though it will take up much more room in my backpack than a long knife, I want this.
“Where did you get the skull?” asks my friend, money in hand. The seller looks up with a puzzled, pissed-off look.
After a sigh, he spits out: “Tibet” —stunned he has to spend his days answering idiotic questions from foreigners.
I’m sitting next to a Nepalese man on a bus leaving Kathmandu on its way to India. He is a businessman who often goes there. When I ask him the tourist question of, “How is India?” he is silent for a long time, then says something cryptic: “In India, there is always a problem.” That’s all he says. This makes no sense until we arrive in New Delhi (a strange name for a city where many people are starving.)
Always visually stunning —both wondrous and horrific— India is a bizarre and confusing puzzle for me, with constant challenges to simply get through the day. Lessons learned in New Delhi don’t mean anything in Kashmir; helpful hints there don’t work in Jaipur or Jodhpur; Bombay is a world unto itself; and, surprisingly, I discover the most calm and beautiful place in all of India is one of its most populous cities.
After two months of bumbling around India, I attain pure peace and enlightenment in the far-eastern part, in Calcutta —though this could be from the heavy dose of drugs I’m taking to start my recovery from amoebic dysentery.
Thailand cures everything. I’ve never recovered as easily from serious illness as my first week on the beautiful beaches of this paradise of a country. Landing from India at a weight of 111 pounds, I fully regain my health with a strict regiment of laying on the soft white sand for two months ingesting nothing but endless barbecued meat and fish, fresh seafood and shark, vitamin-rich fruit, and late-night Mekhongs.
Clothing-wise, the Thai people are modest and conservative, so they are as offended as I am at all the topless foreigners on their secluded beaches. Down the Krabi beach from my hut, there is a dozen young Australian women volleyball players wearing nothing but bikini bottoms. To protect the honour of the great Kingdom of Thailand, I make a point of passing by this disgusting display many times a day, shaking my head in contempt.
I did not make even the slightest attempt to learn the languages while in Nepal, India, or Thailand —as English is passable there— but I know China is different. I better start learning this ancient language.
I buy a Mandarin/English phrase-book and study it diligently, though every time I have the confidence to speak in China, everyone’s eyes pop open and tilt to the top of my head. I am convinced that no matter what I say, no matter what intonation, it always sounds like: “Hello, my hat is on fire.”
Two distinct memories of China have always stayed with me: steaming tin pots of delicious dumplings and a waxy dead man.
Though there is a version of these dumplings in every culture worldwide, nothing compares to real Chinese jiaozi, steamed and covered in black vinegar and soy. I’m sure I eat my weight in these during my month in China.
(Note: in Chapter 36 of my previous book, I mentioned what I would like as my last meal if I’m on Death Row. I’d like to hereby change it to steamed jiaozi hand-made from scratch by an elderly Chinese woman.)
Chairman Mao died in 1976 and instead of being cremated according to his wishes, he was quickly pickled. I slowly walk past him lying on his back in a dimly-lit glass coffin in his mausoleum beside Tiananmen Square. He doesn’t look too bad for being dead a little over eleven years — a little waxy, but still sporting a full head of dark hair.
Back in Canada in February 1988, all I have to show for my big trip is a couple dozen photographs, a passport with a few stamps, an inane diary, and a burning grudge against a friend who has a candy-filled head on his coffee table.
Calcutta is now called Kolkata.
Bombay is now called Mumbai.
Chairman Mao is still dead.