Typhoon days

Sun on rocks sticking out of the ocean

Finally it rains. Our view, normally of buildings and trees, becomes a blur of gray until it becomes a wall of water. Curtains of rain slap against the building, blown by winds strong enough to pull scaffolding from buildings and signs from trees. The street out front will be covered in dirt washed down from the hill for days. We linger inside, happy for the reprieve from all the things we’d agreed to do. For two days we don’t count steps, or worry about social commitments. We rest and read and watch the world. After a sweltering summer lying in bed with the ACs off, listening to the rain is pleasure beyond reckoning.

On the second night we venture out, wandering the neighborhood between storm bands. By the time we decide to visit a friend it is pouring again, and we hide once more in doors, catching up on life’s adventures. It’s a wonderful weekend, the first truly relaxing one in a long time. Perhaps, I think, we are over-committed.

On Monday the air is clear, and with two days until the next typhoon we celebrate. From a friend’s company’s boat the ocean is very green. The water itself, once we’ve leapt off the side, is perfect, neither warm nor cold. The air too is cooler, no longer the 34 C of mid-summer but 30, perfect for a swim and some time on the top deck with a novel. We linger late into the afternoon, glad to have the bay mostly to ourselves on a Monday in October. The ride back to the city is beautiful, the sun setting in front of us with few clouds, and we realize how lucky this moment is, between storms, without work. Flexibilty can, sometimes, make up for the travel restrictions, make up for the lack of larger adventures. When I am underwater in the ocean the exact location matters less.

And then we are back to the storms, office windows battered by rain as people scamper towards the subways, leaving early in the face of the gale. I linger, unconcerned. In a country with infrastructure like this, with elevated covered walkways and trains and frequent overhangs, there is little need for fear of weather. I do not need to drive anywhere, nor walk more than a few moments exposed to the elements, between office and house.

I remember my first typhoon. Standing on the elevated platform in Saitama, soaked as the rain came in from the side, I resolved to buy rain gear, even if only for the moments spent waiting for the Saikyo line. Twenty years later, again wrapped in a storm brewed near the Philippines, I think of how lucky it is, to be dry in the face of such weather. And how pleasurable indeed to be wet clean through within sight of home.

Explicit caution

Rocks and water

A friend I saw on Monday was exposed last Thursday,” is the first time we’re aware. We leave work and go get rapid tests, and stop socializing. In Hong Kong there are centers everywhere, booking takes 5 minutes, the test process 15, and $20. For the rest of the evening we wonder. The texts telling us the results hit 18 hours later, negative. We relax, more so when the friend and our contact both test negative. More so when the friend’s colleagues do likewise. We won’t relax for another week, until two more rounds of testing pass quietly. We are too familiar with the day twelve positive test in Hong Kong quarantine to expect any less.

Time passes slowly these years, or quickly, in lockdown in quarantine or just with the gyms shut, with sports canceled, with bars closed after 6 pm, with tables limited. Whatever small price we are paying to be healthy, to be safe, it is not a large price. We are healthy, working, and usually able to socialize in small groups, in bubbles that are more porous than those we hear about in America.

Hong Kong has been a blessing these weeks and months. Hong Kong has been a blessing this year, more now, since that first case imported directly from Wuhan by train on the 21st of January, 2020. This city was early on the panic, people here still wary of SARS, their fear borne of actual memory rather than tales. Masks appeared as if by magic, shipped from family, shipped from friends, and purchased everywhere. For a year now it’s been rare to see a smile, and we’ve all learned how to read the signs in each other’s eyes.

Standing by the ocean, the breeze whipping whitecaps at my feet, I think about how lucky we are to be able at any moment to feel the sea. We live in the world’s tallest agglomeration, in a city of density and hills, of shopping and mass transit. And yet there is the sea. It is behind us as we boulder, beside us as we walk, a guide, a road, a backdrop, majesty. Hong Kong should always be remembered first as one of the most beautiful cities people have ever built. It should be remembered as a strange conglomeration of islands and mountains, of towers and jungle. It should be remembered as being built on the sea.

Usually the harbor is relatively calm, a casual mix of pathway and vista. The ocean proper is around the corners of the island, mostly out of sight. This of course is an illusion, is a false boundary of the kind humans like to draw. Wind from the south whips it up and we are suddenly aware the harbor is sea, is part of the same ocean that shakes the ferries to outer islands, that makes the run around the corner up to Sai Kung sometimes treacherous.

On a Sunday the ocean is closer, as it washes up against the island’s southern shores. Above the waves we scramble and struggle up steep rocks our bodies are not yet ready to master. We work hard and then relax, watching some other fool cut up fingers and arms in a tricky human-prescribed endeavor, to climb this small boulder with only a few holds.

For an hour we don’t consider the sea. And then a large wave crashes, pulling all our attention away to the water. We are here above it, with a viewpoint of majesty. We are lucky, a scant half hour from our urban homes, to find this wild spot where waves lap just out of reach. We are lucky to be free, for the moment, in this city now our home.

We float

Clearwater Bay

On off days, in good places, we have nowhere to be save on the water, or under it. The joy of the first quick dunk or dive is hard to match. Submerging always provides such a clear break with the world above. We have spent much time adrift, from houseboats on Lake Shasta or Lake Havasu to inner tubes in cold rivers in the Pacific North West or warmer ones in upstate New York. In recent years we’ve gotten lucky, spending days on the Colorado at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and on kayaks around small islands in Raja Ampat. All these breaks bring peace to the rest of our lives, give us small gaps of distance from the burdens of to-do-lists and spreadsheets, product meetings and sample reviews.

The best gift, in times like these, is to have such peace available near to home. In San Francisco we used to get moments of separation on an old sailboat with a haphazard group of acquaintances, telling stories of landmarks and wondering about the history of boats we passed beneath the Bay Bridge. Each time out was a gift, the reward of friendships we never expected to discover.

In Hong Kong on a Saturday we hop off the side of the boat as it comes to a stop in Clearwater Bay, around the corner and out of sight of the city. The water lives up to the name, and the temperature is perfect. For hours we swim and drift, chat and throw discs as the water laps gently at our arms and necks. We jump off the boat’s second deck and dive for thrown objects from the first. On board we eat, sing, and laugh. The guitar gets some work, as do the flippers. Mostly, though, we relax. In the middle of a long year, in the middle of an undetermined period of limitations and stress, it’s wonderful to have so much physical joy at hand, and so few risks.

Save, of course, for those who are afraid of heights, who are lightly heckled to jump and either do or retreat from the edge to laughter. Still, this is a mild form of pressure, that of friends with no risks save a momentary stutter of the heart as the feet leave the deck.

It’s a good way to spend a Saturday, and a good reminder that wherever we are, we need to step off the edge and into water every now and again.

Fishing for peace

Harbor view

On the edge of a block of concrete built to support a highway, they fish. It’s Sunday, and the sun is going down on the weekend, out to our left behind the island. These concrete chunks would already be in shadow were they not perpetually so because of the highway above. In Hong Kong some shade is a good thing, and these are regular fishing spots. The fishermen, for they are all men, seem to know who sits where without any spoken interaction, which points to a long established tradition. People have been fishing these blocks on the shore of Quarry Bay for years, probably since before there were concrete blocks to fish from.

The real joy from this spot isn’t the fishing, though. It’s the water, and the view across to Kowloon, Lion Rock, and Kwun Tong. That far shore is still lit, a beautiful shimmer of golden hour glory and the bay’s moving reflection that emphasize how much Hong Kong is a city of the ocean and the mountains. And so there are photographers here too, both casual and more serious, trying to capture this light. In so many ways the city, the dense urban towers that are home to eight million people, appears the smallest part of the view. Perhaps this is why so many people are able to live so tightly; the water and mountains are often in sight and rarely out of reach.

The story of density is told frequently as a sacrifice, but rarely as a comfort. Here, watching the fishermen sit on their blocks of concrete, rods out and down and lines into the bay, less than a dozen feet from each other and mostly silent, is a reminder that company without conversation can bring peace. In many ways the stories of dense urban areas are not of individual apartments but of shared spaces. Whether Central Park in New York or along the rivers of Paris and Rome, the spaces we share are what builds the fabric of the city. In these spaces we see each other, and are not alone.

In Hong Kong as Sunday ends I am so happy to walk the shoreline and watch all those out, like me, to find some peace. Fishing, jogging, taking photos, or just wandering, we’re all here together, part of this island and this city.

Sails raised

Bay

From the water all the stories seem true. San Francisco’s towers are a blend of new and old, and the bridges that link it to the surrounding hills are huge feats of engineering with graceful lines. On this Sunday the light and waves are perfect, neither dull nor overwhelming. We move at a good clip, up from the ballpark and around Treasure Island. On the north side, past Angel Island, there is a race on, a set of boats loosely grouped with similar sails raised. One of our companions, a racer himself, describes their paths and the rules as they tack around and farther from our view.

This short jaunt with new friends is educational. I learn about the wind’s two seasons, stronger summer and calmer winter. Our April Sunday feels like summer, with gusts pushing us south as soon as we pass the ballpark’s shelter. Our biggest shock comes in the missing Cape Horn, no longer tied alongside it’s companion the Cape Hudson. After ten years, the departure is a shock to seasoned sailors and city dwellers alike. Luckily we live in the age of curiosity, and it is quickly located via search, under power heading south down near Monterey. Why it is on the move remains a mystery that fuels much of our next half hour’s conversation.

Getting out on the water is one of the treasures of life here. With a bay large enough for container ships, ferries, cruise liners, and sailboats, it’s part of life in a different way than the waters near Shanghai, New York, or Tokyo. After eight years, I’m glad to be on a sailboat, grinding and tailing in turn as we make our way out and back. It’s a lucky coincidence, an invite we never expected, and we are happy to have said yes.

Sometime in the past few years yes became a goal. At least once a day, to something unplanned on waking. With a smile if at all possible, say yes once a day. It’s a small habit, a trick to play on my own nature to keep adventuring, to keep moving in new orbits and avoid the drag of laziness. Often I follow Tara, which counts. Often we follow someone entirely new, or old friends we did not plan to meet. In this way we end up at dance recitals and at track workouts, and learn in both cases.

Sometimes we end up out on the bay on a Sunday in April, watching the water and the land in equal measure, talking of ships and sails until we return to the dock and remember our knots.

Twelve paws

For a few moments tonight, in the heat of a late San Francisco evening, our entire family was in the tub.

On hot days we fill it with cold water, just an inch or two to cool the feet. It’s a cheap means of refreshment. We leave it like this all day, and frequent it between projects. Sometimes we catch each other standing quietly in the tub in the dark reading something on our phones. This is modern life, combining fast internet and rising temperatures.

Today, relaxing at home on the first weekend of the off season, we taught Mr. Squish our trick. As cats go he’s comfortable in water, a result of taking baths twice a month since he was very small. In hot weather he minds them less, the drying process being a benefit rather than a hassle. Today he took a cold shower, a more recent discovery. He padded around in the simulated rain quite content for a full five minutes before deciding he was done.

And so this evening in our dark apartment, lit only by the purple LED christmas lights that we are certain cause no heat, we all stood for a few moments in the tub, twelve paws together in the cool water. We humans crouched to put our hands in too, and the cat sniffed our faces. After a first aborted try Mr. Squish seemed to understand. He waited patiently with us until the chill seeped up his legs and into his body.

It’s a good way to spend a Sunday together, I think: lying on the floor in front of the fan and then standing in the bathtub. And then standing, slightly damp, in front of the fan, eight dripping sets of prints leading from one to the other.