It’s not that there’s no way to get from our flat in eastern Tai Po to the school in northwestern Tai Po, it’s that there’s no direct way. It requires a long walk down a big hill in the hot sun, a mini-bus (the #26, known around here simply as “The 26”), and a shuttle bus from the Norwegian International School Kindergarten to the Norwegian International Primary School. It is important to note that the shuttle bus, for which we pay US$70/month, arrives promptly at 8:30, and leaves promptly at 8:31. Miss it, and you’ll have a long, hot walk through noisy Tai Po.
Because Ellen and I are nothing if not anal, we made a point of leaving the flat the first morning promptly at 7:50. We strolled down the hall, took the elevator to the twelfth floor, and began to descend the hill behind the Senior Staff Quarters where we reside. About half-way down, Ellen glanced at her watch and said, “Uh-oh.” We picked up our pace, expecting the descent to finish at every bend, the parking lot and bus stand to appear at any minute.
Another two-hundred yards, and Ellen glanced at her watch again. She didn’t say anything this time, just bent down and buckled Jamie into the stroller before taking off at a dead sprint down.
Finally we arrived at the lot. Luckily, a mini-bus was just pulling in, and we climbed on, glancing at our watches and cell-phone clocks to make sure there wasn’t some mistake. There wasn’t. But that didn’t phase our driver, who sat glancing back in the rear-view mirror, waiting, I don’t know, for Julia Roberts maybe? Or Ed McMahon with a million-dollar-check? (“He’s dead!” I wanted to shout.)
Eventually he started off, and we made our way through Tai Po with its stacks of white high rises and concrete malls and across the canal to Old Tai Po with its huge signs and gray buildings and wonderfully busy streets. Finally our stop came up and we climbed off. Ellen glanced at her watch again: 8:27. Snap! Jamie was buckled in again, and we beat it down the block to the shuttle bus like some sort of bizarre Disney movie about a family of five living in Hong Kong with two stupid parents who were always late (movie rights still available, by-the-way).
We made it of course. But we’d learned our lesson. The next day we woke the kids up 15 minutes earlier and headed out the door at 7:35. Same trek down the hill, same sprint for the mini-bus, same drive through Tai Po and across the canal into the old neighborhoods. Once we got to our stop, Ellen looked at her watch: 8:27. Damn. We ran.
The next day we’d planned on getting up even fifteen minutes earlier, but the alarm didn’t go off and we ended up bolting out the door, unwashed and barely fed, at 8:05. Dash down the hill, onto the mini-bus, drive through town, get out at our stop, look at our watches: 8:27.
Huh, I thought.
The next day Ellen needed a swim (go figure), so I took the kids myself. We headed out the door at 7:45, but I made a point of taking our time as we walked down the hill: we looked at spiders, we talked about the weather, we picked pretty flowers. When we got to the parking lot, we refused to run, even when the mini-bus revved up and pulled away. We waited in the shade for the next one, and boarded when it arrived. When we got to our stop, I looked at my watch: 8:27. A-ha.
On Friday, we slept in until 8. I made the kids bacon and eggs with fresh-squeezed orange juice. On the way down the hill, we unfurled a kite and flew it in the stiff morning breeze. Lucy had some sidewalk chalk and drew pictures of all five of us, then sketched in a forest and a harbor with some boats bobbing on the waves. When we got to the mini-bus stand, I made a point of glancing at my watch: 9:07. At that point, we should have taken a taxi, but I refused to be rattled. We boarded the 26, took our seats, and chatted as the bus made its way through Tai Po’s industrial park and the crowded downtown streets. When we emerged, I looked at my wrist.
So yes folks, it’s true: Hong Kong really is a magical place.
Okay, so I made that up. The fact of the matter is, though, when you’re going from one place to another using mass transport in a big city—even one like Hong Kong where the transport is amazing—you really have no control over when you arrive. We’ve left the flat at 7:50 and arrived at 8:29. We’ve left the flat at 7:50 and arrived at 8:10. We’ve left the flat at 7:40 and arrived at 8:25.
Any number of things can cause this unpredictability: on the walk down the hill, you can see a truly amazing—read: big enough to eat your cat—spider. Or you can turn the bend to the bus stand and see the 26 pulling out (they don’t really run on a regular schedule—it’s not unusual to actually have two 26s riding one right behind the other). Or you can get to the stand and find a full bus. Or you can be on an empty bus, and the driver has to pause at every stop because someone rings to get off or waves to get on. The buses all have digital speedometers over the windshield so that passengers can report a driver who goes too fast, but on occasion you’ll have a maniac who likes to take corners on two wheels and who won’t so much stop as slow down to let you off. At other times, we’ve had drivers who are so cautious that I want to report them to the police for being a menace. And there are days the 26 turns the bend to cross into Old Tai Po, and you see double-decker buses lined up 6 deep on the bridge.
The great thing is, the kids like the adventure. They dig the spiders, sure, but they like climbing on the bus and saying “Tai Po,” so the driver changes the meter to half-fare. They like flashing their Octopus Cards (multi-purpose, reusable pre-pay cards that can be used for anything from train fares to bar girls) at the electronic scanner until it beeps. And they like climbing in the front row and taking turns getting the window seat. The stroll from the bus stop to the shuttle pick up is shady and short, and when we get to the meeting place, there are kids and parents mingling around. Too, it’s amazing how, in such a chaotic town full of so many people, there can be such continuity: every morning while we’re waiting for the shuttle, we see the same man in blue jeans walking the same fat chow. Every morning the same school girl in her white uniform and ballerina slippers strolls by. I swear I’ve actually seen the same young woman, standing the front step of a double-decker and listening to her iPod, three days in a row.
After Will and Lucy get on the shuttle bus (Lucy always waves; Will never does), Jamie and I stroll back down the street to the shops in Old Tai Po. Sometimes I push Jamie in the stroller, sometimes he gets out and pushes it himself. Sometimes we stop and get a paper from a newsstand. The man there always hands me a square packet of disposable handkerchiefs. I’m not sure if it’s a promotional gimmick, or if he just abhors sweaty white men.
Paper in hand, we cross the street at the corner and wait for a 26 heading back to campus. We’ve yet to stand more than 5 minutes. On board, we sit and watch the people strolling along the canal and the school boys in their white shirts and the old men sitting on benches talking—a national past time in China when you’re retired.
Inevitably, Jamie and I back to the college by 9 or a little after. We stroll across campus, stopping at the Coffee Corner to pick up a chocolate muffin, which we share. Sometimes we stop at the library for kids books. Sometimes we just head to the flat and crank the AC. Then Jamie plays on the floor and I do a little writing. Eventually, keys jangle in the lock, and Ellen comes in, smelling of chlorine and looking satisfied.
Yeah. We’re getting there.