Tuesday, October 13, 2009


            When Ellen came home and said she’d bought three tickets to sail on a Junk, I said, “That’s great.  You and the kids should enjoy it.”

“I’m not going,” she responded.  “You are.”

I stared at her.  “Me?  But I’m the one who barfs on a riding lawnmower.  There’s no way I’m getting on some rickety old ship and hurling in front of strangers.”

But apparently there was.  See, Jamie was too little to go on the cruise, and Hong Kong seems to have a rule prohibiting two-year-olds wandering around by themselves.  So someone had to stay on the dock.  And according to Ellen, that someone wouldn’t be me. 

“I can ride the junk another time,” she said, “when my mom’s here.  Or when Jamie turns three and the Junk Nazis lighten up.”

“But—” I began, about to explain again about my propensity to empty my stomach every time our car went over a speed bump. 

“You’ll be okay,” she said, and patted me on the shoulder in that way she does that makes me feel like I’m eight.  “You can wear a raincoat.”  Then she headed down the hall.

“A what?  What’s that have to do with anything?”

“Easier cleaning,” she called over her shoulder. 

When we get down to Kowloon on Saturday, the water looks like a typhoon just came through.  Victoria harbor isn’t actually that big, maybe a quarter mile across, but nevertheless it sees 250 ocean-going ships a day pass through its narrow confines.  All the wake from all those boats bounces back and forth between the banks, and in no time at all the water gets not just choppy, but jagged, with 24- foot swells, six or seven shipwrecks per hour, and men who have been sailing for fifty years clinging to masts and screaming like little girls. 

It doesn’t help that when the junk rounds the bend in the harbor, it’s pitching back and forth so dramatically that not only are there times when I get a top-down view of the cabin roof, there are times when I swear I’m looking straight down the main mast. I am not making this up.  So quit looking at me like that. 

I glance up at Ellen, suddenly wishing I’d taken her advice and worn that rain coat.  She’s just waves and smiles, and strolls off with the one child that—I now realize—she truly loves, as clearly the other two are about to sink to the bottom of the harbor along with their spewing father. 

We climb on board, and Lucy and Will head immediately to the poop deck despite my insistence that this is entirely the wrong scatological reference for this particular venture.  I follow, feeling the tilt and rock of the boat beneath me—this despite the fact that we’re still moored—then crawl past an old couple smiling and holding hands, clearly thrilled that their dream of a double suicide will finally be fulfilled.  The poop deck is layered with a thick pad, not unlike the ones I used to collapse on in the grade school gymnasium every time Jim Lewis threw a dodge ball at my groin for no other reason than the fact that my falls were more dramatic than anyone else’s.  Vaguely remembering something about keeping a low center of gravity on boats, I crawl across the padding and join Will and Lucy at the back railing. 

“Careful,” I croak.  “There are sharks in these waters.”

“Dad,” says Will, turning it into a three-syllable word.  “No there’s not.  All the pollution killed them years ago.”

“Even so,” I say.  I curl up a corner, my back to the water, having heard once that if you pretend the ocean isn’t there, eventually it’ll take the hint and go away.  A bell rings, somebody somewhere throws a rope to the guys on the boat, there’s a grinding and shredding of wood and metal, somewhere someone screams—and then we’re off into the harbor. 

And then a funny thing happens.  I feel the wind.  I mean, I really feel the wind.  Maybe it’s just that I’m covered in a pale sweat.  Or maybe it’s that, for the first time since arriving in Asia, I’m not surrounded by either mountains or buildings—or in the case of Hong Kong Island, mountains and buildings.  Whatever it is, though, I can feel a cool breeze across my forehead, tugging at my shirt and whistle gently past my ears. 

There’s the chatter of Cantonese, and three men in blue shirts climb onto the deck.  Ropes creak, canvas snaps, and three thick red sails sewn around bamboo battens are hoisted into the air.  They crack and buck.  In the cabin beside us, an old man with bare feet and a striped shirt gives a turn to a wooden wheel, and the junk cuts a line into the harbor, past a steaming green and white Star Ferry and through a gap between a police cruiser and a rusted buoy. 

In the distance I can hear the clank of a jackhammer on the Island side where they’re putting in foundations for more buildings.  Closer, Lucy and Will chatter, pointing to a red and yellow painted tour boat floating by.  Behind us is the slap of the wake.  The sun is warm, but not hot, the breeze blowing steadily, cooling everything off. 

It’s wonderful.  I mean, really wonderful.  I’d sailed before, but only once, on a little row-boat sized thing on some lake near my hometown.  We were the guests of one of my dad’s parishoners, and he kept yelling at my brother and me to move this way or that across the rough-hewn bottom of the boat.   Needless to say, the only impression that experience made on me was that:  a)  sailors need to drink less coffee, and b) sailing gives you slivers in your ass. 

Now, though, I find myself leaning against the dark stained railing of a boat that was built in 1955 and used for years by real fisherman as a real fishing boat catching real fish.  I mention this in slightly mocking way, of course, because I’m a butthead, but the fact of the matter is that you can tell it actually is an old boat that really was employed, at one time, in hard and true labor.  The trim of the cabin is coarse beneath dozens of coats of varnish.  The floor of the main deck is untreated wood, scraped raw by years of salt and wind and water, so that all that only the seams and nail holes are dark, with the rest a worn gray like the sides of a barn. 

The ride, too, is relatively smooth. Sure, there’s some bumps up and down, but very little. The steerer guy—he hardly seems a captain—is leaning back in his small cabin, one foot up on a post, a thick strand of what looks like clothesline securing the wheel.  Every so often he lifts the rope, turns the wheel 10 degrees, then reconnects the line one notch further along.  The junk adjusts accordingly, and we shift slightly to the left. 

It’s lame to say, I know, but it’s peaceful out there.  In the middle of one of the busiest deep-water harbors in the middle of one of the busiest biggest cities in the world, I feel perfectly calm.  And so do the kids.  Will was a little worried that he might get green around the gills, but now he’s standing by the rear mast—I’m sure it’s got an official name, but I’m from America’s dairy land for Pete’s sake—looking out over the water and tugging on a rope like somehow he’s controlling this whole venture.  Lucy, of course, is loving every minute of it, taking ten thousand pictures of the junk, the sails, passing ships, the waves, and old shoes bobbing on the water. 

And me?  I’m loving it too.  In recent weeks I’ve been busy with my job, stuck in my office working on powerpoints on learning outcomes or departmental briefings.  When I’m not stuck in the office, I’m stuck in meetings discussing quality assurance, or stuck on the couch in our living room doing this blogging thing-a-ma-bobby.  Too, there was a part of me that was beginning to think I’d discovered pretty much everything there was to know about Hong Kong.  Which is naïve, I know, but seriously, how many neighborhoods can you visit with tall buildings; how many malls can you stroll through filled with shops you’ve heard of glancing through the fashion section of the newspaper but that you can’t possibly afford; how may quaint markets and kitschy souvenir shops and massage parlors can you visit before it all starts to blur together?

Now, though, I’m on a real junk, cutting across the harbor with my blonde-haired girl and my blue-eyed boy and the sun on my closed lids and the wind in what’s left of my hair.  That night, after the tour ends and we get dumplings on the Island and visit an art show that, seriously, is fantastic—after all of that and after we put the kids to bed, I’ll go on-line and Google “Chinese Junks” and learn about how these ships have been around since 220 BC, how their design is considered one of the most efficient and easy to use in the history of sailing, how some ships in the 1400s were as large as 390 feet long, how the sails are red to please the big dragon in the sky so that he won’t make typhoons or hurricanes.

And I’ll read about how, in 1938, some guy named E. Allen Petersen sailed a junk from Shanghai to the States, fleeing the Japanese with his wife and two others.  And about how, in 1955, six young men from Taiwan took a junk and sailed all the way to San Francisco, learning how to handle the old ship along the way , gliding under the golden-gate bridge on a mist-shrouded day,.  And I’ll learn how they did this just because they could.  And because they wanted to. 

And I’ll get it.  I will absolutely get it.   


Cherilyn said...

Nice. Love the new header pic!

Paul Hanstedt said...

Thanks! I wanted to keep that moment with me for a while.