Historically, I have not been a travel-buff. This may be incongruous with the fact that I moved halfway around the world for my first job, but as I’ve emphasized before, my primary aim in coming to India was career exploration.
Indeed, before coming to Mumbai, I had never left the United States, and was frankly baffled by anyone who noted one of their hobbies as “travel.” In my mind, the financial and time investment of simply sitting on an airplane or in a car for so many hours outweighed any clear benefit. So, with only about three-months left in India, I am surprised to say that I have developed a hearty appreciation for travel – from sight-seeing to walking tours to hiking – to the point where I may even pride myself a “travel hobbyist” in my own right.
Business travel, I should note, presents a set of opportunities and challenges entirely unique from “pure pleasure” travel. In my business travel, I have ventured to Pune and Karjat – both within several hours of Mumbai – as well as to Hyderabad, which necessitates a plane ride to the south-east. In Hyderabad, many office parks make aesthetic use of the natural boulders littering the flat, prairie-like countryside. Man-made waterfalls and rock sculptures decorate corporate campuses – sprawling affairs which reminded me of certain American West Coast offices I have seen, but would be entirely out of place in an economically-spaced city like Mumbai. One office building I worked out of held a cadre of geese and turkeys in cages, which staff tended to and periodically let free throughout the day. I only assume the point of these birds was to evoke a more natural campus atmosphere, although I still wonder if they served any deeper purpose for the grounds or corporate culture.
Travel for pleasure, of course, is harder to schedule. I have done quite a bit of weekend sight-seeing around Mumbai – everything from the historic Haji Ali Dargah temple in Worli Bay to the Gateway of India monument. However, my most extensive travel by far has been to Hong Kong – a trip as unexpected as it was enlightening.
When my two college friends began e-mailing me about planning the trip, I was skeptical of taking time off from work, and of what I would find in Hong Kong – I knew literally nothing about this “special administrative region” of China. As my two friends began to elaborate on their plans for the trip, I of course softened and surrendered to Hong Kong’s beckoning – or more accurately, my friend’s pleas.
I arrived early on a Saturday, with 10 hours to kill before my friend arrived from Atlanta. My first major food purchase of the trip was a bacon cheeseburger – made with 100% beef, of course. After having been denied beef for more than half a year, the burger entirely lived up to my hopes – and was a nice precursor to the Ngong Ping 360 crystal cable-car sky tour of the city. The temperate climate and pleasant fog across the city was invigorating, and by the time my friends arrived – one from Wuhan, China, the other from Atlanta, Georgia -- I was ready to explore Hong Kong full-bore.
There are a lot of factors that separate Mumbai from Hong Kong, but I think two of Hong Kong’s most obvious assets are luxury malls and the “Mass Transit Railway” system. Indeed, Hong Kong’s abundance of high-end shopping centers dwarfs most cities I’ve been to in the U.S., let alone Mumbai – the city hosts 10 Gucci stores, for instance. Travel bags of Goyard, Cartier watches, a slew of French designers I couldn’t pronounce – the streets of Kowloon in particular had a serious fetish for fashion, and we lapped up the eye candy as only American tourists can.
The prices were luxury as well, so only once or twice did our “window-shopping” translate into actual purchases. Of course, there is a very clear line between the gold-plated watches behind the glass windows, and the knock-off Rolexes sold on the street. Tempted as I was, I avoided any impulse purchases of bootleg items – a faulty pair of headphones I once bought for seven dollars in Mumbai had taught me my lesson about the black market.
Hong Kong’s subway system – the Mass Transit Railway – is inspiringly great. I have a long, patchy history with subway systems – as does any child of the Washington, D.C. suburbs – and have previously expressed my weariness of Indian railways, which are often over-crowded and over-rusted. Hong Kong’s subway cars, on the other hand, are reliably clean and provide a silky smooth ride. With trains consistently rocketing into stations every few minutes, I would estimate that it takes no more than fifteen minutes to get between any two given locations in Hong Kong.
We also spent a night in Macau – which didn’t quite live up to its reputation as “crazier then Vegas,” although to be fair we were there at a low-season for gambling – and took in Hong Kong nightlife with gusto. The city almost never failed to impress me with cleanliness, quick service and beautiful sights. By the middle of the trip, I was lecturing my friend – who currently teaches English in the mainland Chinese city of Wuhan – about my impressions of Chinese cities over Indian infrastructure.
At this point, my friend corrected my judgments – Hong Kong was effectively a British colony until 1997, and the “one country, two systems” government gives the region a different political system then mainland China. In other words, Hong Kong is not a good representation of a Chinese emerging market city – amongst other advantages, Hong Kong did not deal as directly with the travesties of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. As my friend noted, his experience in Wuhan is more akin to some of the frustrations I’ve found with the infrastructure and bureaucracy of Mumbai.
To reasonably compare Hong Kong to Mumbai, I realized, would be impossible, if for no other reason than the sheer breadth of historical context one would have to provide in explaining both cities. If nothing else, I am beginning to see the value in dissertations and extensive sociological case studies of cultures – the only way to truly judge a country in the present day is by looking through the lens of history and policy. Regardless, if we were to ever get into inevitably unfair comparisons of cultures, I would say that, spice for spice, I still prefer Indian food to Chinese.
Since returning to Mumbai two weeks ago, I have taken a break from traveling, although my American roommate and I are currently bandying about the idea of a Eurotrip following our leave of India in May. If anyone has suggestions for places to visit – or their own impressions on Hong Kong and other world cultures – feel free to respond to this post on Facebook, or on the Project Firefly site.