The View From the Peak

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There was a group of about fifty students wandering around the courtyard that sat in the middle of two tall look-out towers.  Most carried pads and pencils.  A few had cameras.  I sat on a bench, wishing I had something to read.  The afternoon was dull and grey, the sort of day no one ever wishes for, a sad compromise between spring sunshine and romantic rain.  My lungs hurt from smoking too much, so I just sat there.  I hadn’t spoken to anyone in over a day.  Maybe one of the students sensed that, a desperate need for me to form words, or maybe he only saw a tourist, sitting alone on a bench at the top of Victoria Peak, and labeled me an easy target.

“Excuse me,” he said, “I have a project for my school.  I must interview foreigners.  Can I ask you some questions?”

“Sure,” I told him.  “I’d be happy to help.”  The student wanted to ask me all about shopping in Hong Kong.  What I had bought, what I intended to buy, what I had heard about Hong Kong and its shopping.  I answered in short sentences that were mostly variations of “I don’t know.”  At the end of the interview a girl with a camera came over and took our picture, so that he would have proof that our conversation did indeed happen.

This was my first full day in Hong Kong.  Victoria Peak was mentioned in every guidebook or Internet site I looked at, so it was the obvious way to begin my short trip.  The train ride up the mountain was real cool; the train goes almost vertically, like an elevator on tracks.  A couple of times it stopped on its way up and I was filled with terror, afraid that having lost its inertia it would go crashing back down to the bottom.  But it didn’t, and I was able to reach the tip top of the mountain safe and sound.  (On a side note, if I was a female and a porn star from Hong Kong I would definitely call myself Victoria Peaks.  Regardless of breast size.)

Another student came rushing up to me.  And then another.  By the third or fourth time I completed the interview, I had gotten pretty good at it.  “Oh yes,” I’d say, “I hear AMAZING things about the shopping in Hong Kong.  Tomorrow I’ll go down to Hollywood Road.  There are supposed to be some very exciting and unique items there; I want to get a dragon for my niece, and maybe I’ll be able to find something for my friend Sandy’s coin collection.”

Before I had stumbled my way down into the courtyard, where the students swarmed around like gnats, I’d gone up one of the observation towers, ready to savor the view from the peak.  Lonely Planet said it was magnificent.  I’d be able to look out over an expanse of the entire island.  It didn’t dawn on me that the weather wasn’t so good.  I walked out a good point on the observation deck and looked down at Hong Kong.

I couldn’t see anything.  Just clouds and fog.  It reminded me of the scene in Nurse Betty when Chris Rock and Morgan Freeman go to the Grand Canyon at night and can only see darkness.  I sighed, even though I wasn’t sad or disappointed.  Years ago I’d reached a point where I kind of expect things like this to happen.  I held up my camera, pointed it at myself, and took what Hipster Trish calls a “Myspace Pic” – meaning a picture you take of yourself with the purpose of putting it on Myspace or Facebook.  This moment had to be captured; me at the summit of Victoria’s Peak, the world behind me distant and obscure.

The girl student with the camera kept having to take my picture every time I was interviewed.  I wondered what their teacher would think, seeing me in photo after photo with my Korean “V for Victory” sign held up to my cheek.  “What a nice man,” the teacher might think, or conversely “Didn’t that guy have anything better to do than talk about shopping for an hour?”

It wasn’t coincidence that the students were there at the same time I was.  Lonely Planet had sent us.  The students went where a tourist is supposed to go, and so did I.  It’s hard to imagine an encounter being more logical.  Even on a foggy, uninviting day, with a foreigner who looked like he wanted to be left alone, at the top of a mountain overlooking a city that had been completely hidden.

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