Chapter 12 – I did not have sex with that woman

The next morning Steven and Jessica woke up together.  Her friends had called up late in the evening, and Steven had literally been saved by the bell.  The night had not proceeded exactly as she had planned.  He had slept with her Bill Clinton style and he too would be able to say truthfully that he didn’t have sex with that woman.  Nonetheless, Jessica was radiant with joy and felt much better than what she had for over a year.  She was ready to go and meet her friends later in the day.

They had mutually agreed that it would be best if Jessica’s friends didn’t see him.  They didn’t want them to get the wrong impression.

They hugged each other in the lobby and promised to keep in touch.  She then left him to finish his trip alone and never saw or called him again as is normally the case with on-the-road friends.

The next three days were rather relaxed and routine as far as the travelling went. He woke up at six o’clock every day, trained at the decently-equipped gym and had breakfast at the Banff Spring restaurant which he felt rather pricy even for a four diamond hotel, but was good.  Then he restricted himself to one activity a day.  In the morning of the fourth day, after returning from the summit of Sulfur Mountain, he stepped off from the gondola and made his way through the parking lot on to the street leading downtown.  He entered a small Japanese restaurant where he enjoyed some sushi before taking a taxi back to his hotel.  He checked the train schedule and waited till he got hungry again and ordered room service.  He would be checking out early the next morning and resuming his journey.  Although Banff was a magnificent town, he was eager to go visit Vancouver or Hongcouver as it was called nowadays with more than half a million Chinese from Hong Kong.  His next plan was to take a plane for the first time and fly to the real Hong Kong to pay his respect to Li Xiaolong.  He had always revered Bruce Lee for having changed the world of martial arts in a few years before his tragic death at the age of thirty-three.

The rest of the train ride to Vancouver was as eventless as it had been from Toronto, but the view of the Rockies was beautiful.  At dinner that evening, he was forced to eat alone and his thoughts drifted to Stephanie once more.  He thought that he would need to call her in Vancouver for good measure just as the conductor announced that they would arrive at the Canadian Pacific Station in Vancouver in less than an hour.  He had already planned his time and decided that he would be staying at the Pan Pacific Hotel by the harbour and visit the few landmarks that the city had to offer.

Arriving in Vancouver, he noticed that as opposed to the Banff Spring, the Pan was quite modern.  His room on the 21st floor afforded him a great view of the port of Vancouver in the distance.  As he sat by the window, he looked down at the roof of the IMAX theatre with its four large sails which somehow inaccurately reminded him of the Sydney Opera House.  He felt amazed that the excitement of the day before his departure from Toronto and the train journey to his long dreamed destination had been far more intense than the actual realisation of his dream.  Like girls, it seemed that the fun was in the chase.

The next morning, he booked an economy ticket to Hong Kong on United Airlines for the Friday after his birthday.  He felt that a week in Vancouver was more than enough.  Also, celebrating his birthday in Canada appeared to be the patriotic thing to do.  After travelling to Vancouver Island where he had been thoroughly impressed by the century old trees that were big enough to allow cars to pass between their roots, he travelled to the ski hills of Whistler and even took a few skiing lessons in whatever remained of the snow for the season. There too, he soon discovered that the desire to do something was often more fun than doing it.  Of course, if he had spent more time on his skis and less on his ass, he may have felt differently.  But like most mediocre skiers, he had appreciated the chalet and the fireplace, which was a fitting reward for a day of toil.

The next morning, he made it a point to arrive at the airport early to catch his flight connecting to Asia via Los Angeles.  The airport was almost deserted as he had arrived at six in the morning on a weekday.  His inexperience in traveling was really showing at every step of the process.  As is the case for all flights to the United States from Canada, he was forced to clear customs before boarding the plane.

As he grabbed his backpack at the end of the security station, he felt that the cold sweat beneath his armpits had returned.  It didn’t take long for him to feel uncomfortable as he turned the corner and entered the vast room where more than twenty customs stations were set up to process the travelers in order to weed out the potential illegal aliens.  Steven felt almost overwhelmed by stress as he remembered some horror stories of people being refused entry in the United States either because of criminal records or because they didn’t tell the truth about what they were bringing into the country.  But he was just transiting, he thought, and he didn’t have a criminal record.

Steven walked in zigzag around the empty divider lines and tried to think of something else, and Stephanie was the first thing that came to his mind.  It was a nice memory and good enough to make him feel relaxed a little.  He could see that all the booths were now empty, but he still stopped and waited at the yellow line to be called by what he imagined would be his tormentor.  As he was waved to approach, he could see that the customs officer was just like he had imagined- no smile and all business.

“Where are you travelling to?” asked the agent, looking at his passport photo before placing it upside down on what Steven assumed to be a scanner.

“Hong Kong, Sir.” was the reply, knowing to keep his answers brief.

“What for?”

“I love Vancouver and Hong Kong seems the next logical place to go,” Steven explained, thinking he should have rehearsed that one because it was anything but short.

“Do you bring more than 10,000 U.S. dollars with you?”

I wish! was Tony’s general answer to that when he crossed the border by car, but Steven felt that playing smart-ass was often stupid and he remembered his own advice and kept that one short.  “No, Sir.”  But in truth, he did have a great deal more than that hidden in the space under his laptop.  But with that, he had just discovered that lying to custom officers was just as easy as lying to the police and he didn’t have time to blink or feel nervous about it as the officer handed him his passport.

“All good, have a safe trip.”

“Thank you, Sir.” said Steven moving forward, smiling in relief.

Having a lot of time on his hands, Steven perused through the duty-free shops and boutiques until boarding was announced.  And when he had to take his seat in the back of the plane, he understood at last what the expression, packed like sardines meant.  The flight was less frightening than he had expected.  There was a little bit of turbulence before landing, but nothing more.  And he praised the god he didn’t believe in for it.   In LA, Steven decided to upgrade to Business Class.  No way am I spending twelve more hours in the luggage compartment again.

Feeling like a king in the front of the plane, he was welcomed by the captain and was referred to by his name.  After eating until he came near bursting, he fell asleep thinking of what he should do next.  If he could, he would have driven from China all the way to Spain, visiting every city and little village along the way.  But the world, being what it was, gave no such option unless your name was Michael Palin and you had the entire resources of the BBC behind you.

Hong Kong was better than he had expected and he spent a week there enjoying every second of it, especially the shopping and the three-dollar massages.   As he had promised himself to do, he even paid his respect to Bruce Lee by visiting the house he grew up in.  On the way back, he stopped by the Chinese embassy to pick up his single-entry tourist visa to China.  The visa was for three months starting that very day and this was great.

In China, he was lucky.  Almost immediately upon arriving, he found a student who stopped him on the street and offered him her services as an interpreter, saying that without one, he wouldn’t even be able to eat.  He felt the statement very arrogant, especially since she didn’t know him at all, but fortunately for him, his ego was well placed and for less than five dollars a day, he felt that it was worth a try.  This turned out to be the best decision he had ever made.  With all the menus in Chinese and no one speaking English anywhere, she had been a life-saver.   During their travels, they always booked separate rooms and Steven had liked it. Walking in the streets of China when you were white, especially in 1997, was like being Elton John or Madonna.  Everyone looked at him and if he said a few words in Mandarin, that’s it!  He was sure he was not sleeping alone that night.

On July 1st, he was in Beijing celebrating with the rest of the millions of Chinese that took to the streets in a well-organized procession.  After the government-authorized fun was over, he toured all the major tourist attractions in the Mainland from Shenzhen in the south all the way to Tianjin in the north, taking the time to visit the Terra Cotta Soldiers in Shi An and the Great Wall in Beijing.  After taking a train to Taiyuan, which had to be the most polluted city in the world, he tried to travel to Tibet, but he was unable to go as he had only a single-entry visa and exiting China to go to Tibet meant that he would have been unable to return unless he obtained another visa.  It was with that frustration for the useless bureaucracy that he returned to Hong Kong, a few days shy of his ninety-day visa expiration.

Besides a few incidents, Steven felt that nothing in his life could be any better.  He had lived like a prince in China and now he promised himself to repeat the same experience in Kowloon.  Hong Kong was different, but he loved it much more.  To him, it was like being in Toronto with tall skyscrapers, well-mannered people and everyone speaking at least Basic English.  He had no problem communicating and travelling on his own and everything was a fraction of the price.  The return of Hong Kong to China in July had not changed anything, at least not as far as he was concerned.