Just Breathe (Part 1: Cheung Chau Island)

It can get to you. The daily grind, the pollution, the cars, the jackhammers when you wake up in the morning, the blinking neon signs, the race to make more more more money, the living in an expensively shitty apartment, the people, the chaos, the life, the pace, the pulsating energy-guzzling monster that is the city of Hong Kong.

But 30 minutes away, life is drastically, languidly, gloriously different.

I am standing alone in the middle of the ocean on a platform – used as a rest stop for swimmers or simply a place to relax like blubbery black seals on a rock, away from the busy shore – looking at the sky turn this shade of tangerine. Joe is swimming just below, content at having tackled me into the ocean twice. And I wonder why I don’t live here, on Cheung Chau island.

Serasphere.net

It’s a Saturday and it’s been a struggle to carve out this little space of relative solitude, when everyone else from the city has had the same idea to come out and lie on a beach, eat some deep-fried snacks, guzzle some cold beers, explore the small streets and hiking trails, and then maybe follow the smell of faint gasoline back to the wharf where you can sit and gorge at the seafood restaurants.

Upon arrival, it was like swimming in a sea of bodies. Hordes of sweaty, scantily clothed Asian bodies. Then listening as the wrinkled, grim, mostly elderly Chinese women at the various apartment-rental stalls mouth the words “one-thousand-one-hundred.” The cheapest price of a room for the weekend; check-out time at noon.

It’s this crush of people and the race for overpriced rooms that lead a woman on neighboring Peng Chau island, which we hit the next day, to say Cheung Chau is “too commercialized.”

But for now, we’re still annoyed, stewing in the heat, about to find a more delicious way to wile away the afternoon at a Thai restaurant that opened on the dot at 6pm, eating mixed satay, pork neck in a salty-sweet sauce, and fat donut-shaped fish cakes resting on a bed of coriander.

And when the last drops of Singha beer were drained, we hit the beach just as everyone was leaving and the lifeguards were rescuing four women from the floating dais, preparing to hang their life-saving red shorts and ship out to their respective nighttime barbecues. Theirs is the life.

chinapost.com.tw

The beach is surprisingly cold, the sand coarse and pebbly. Swimming after 6 o’clock is probably the best if you don’t like crowds, although the sun sinks fast and your only light comes from the shower stalls, the lamps at the nearby promenade and the twinkling Hong Kong Island skyline.

Joe points to a cluster of pink and white buildings across the sea. “See? You live right over there. And you have no idea how calm it is just a boat ride away.”

There had been a “For Rent” sign, on a previous visit as we were walking our rented bikes up a hill, for the first floor of a large house with a garden just a five-minute walk from the beach. It was a few thousand bucks more than my ailing studio. We passed on it, thinking the commute would be too long to our offices, that we’d miss the heaving, grating energy we like to hate, that respites like this should have rarity and hence¬†value.

cher-ry.blogspot.com

It’s dark and a frog is out, hiding behind a bucket as we shower. We’re in a gin-and-tonic kind of mood so are disappointed to be told by the staff and their friends drinking at Cheung Chau Windsurfing Centre and Outdoor Cafe that it’s closed. I bite my lip and try not to tell them the last time we went, their calamari came at such a paltry serving that it racked up to HK$10 a piece. That we deserve a compensatory drink for that.

We head back to “town,” and while the majority of shops are closed, there is this glorious smell of grilling, grease and XO sauce from the restaurants that are still open, their chefs sweating over giant cast-iron woks that sit on giant flames that sometimes flare as high as a man’s torso. We survey our options: a hotpot restaurant, a posh Western place called ChocoDuck Bistro, a Thai restaurant that served Belgian beer, an organic cafe that served brunch food at half the price as in the city.

On the way, we chance upon a funeral. Men who have sat on plastic chairs for hours, being guided through various forms of capitulation and the motions of grief by an assistant to several clerical-looking men in yellow-and-green robes, are sweating in their white shirts, pants and headbands. There is a large furnace in the middle of the street, surrounded by what look like effigies – paper mansions, paper boxes, a paper car with a paper driver in it.

We end up eating at the usual, the seafood restaurant closest to the pier, which has fabulous crabs and steamed clams with garlic and vermicelli noodles, but sickly greasy fish fillet.

discoverhongkong.com
My favorite – the garlicky clams. cher-ry.blogspot.com

It’s half an hour till our fast boat leaves at 11. We explore a bit more, on the hunt for dessert. Joe spots the shadow of a giant ice cream cone in front of a shop manned by a wispy girl, who said she was the daughter of the owners. We pick from the chocolate, blueberry, mango, strawberry, grape rum, the mint chocolate chip.

Then this is the moment we turn into the stereotype, when we’re just like the crowd, strolling hand in hand, looking at the boats bobbing in the water, contemplating if we should move here – a question that melts like the last spoonfuls of our ice cream when we disappear on a boat back to the city.

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