How to Travel Smart and Do Other Things Smart, Too

I hate planning.  Whether this sentiment stems from some deep-seated existential revulsion to thinking about the future and its cruel promise of the transience of youth, or just plain laziness, I do not know.  Probably the latter.  Whatever the case, it makes a conversation about what I’d like to have for dinner tantamount to waterboarding.

It was in this spirit of spontaneity that I moved halfway across the globe, from Washington, D.C. to Hong Kong, for a job relocation.  For the purpose of clarity, I have included a Venn Diagram comparing the aspects of the trip I planned for versus the aspects of the trip I should have planned.

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And thus began my journey.  I was reticent to write a travel log because nobody actually likes to read travel logs other than the people writing them, with the notable exception of the writers’ mothers.  (My apologies to the mothers reading my travel log, who comprise probably 98% of my readership.)  Travel logs are either self-aggrandizing, interwoven with adjectives that go on for syllables, or they’re overly vague for lack of imagination or fear of future employers discovering the details of your “exotic” night with “Klaus,” the German man whose last name you cannot recall, though, if you had to guess, probably contained many consonants in a row.

Or the travel log might come off self-deprecating enough to diminish just how impressed you are with yourself for being so cultured and adventurous.  (My travel log will likely fall into this category.)

Still, none of these categories touches on people’s true repulsion toward reading travel logs, which has less to do with their content and mostly to do with that first part: reading.  As it so happens, reading is way harder than looking at pretty pictures.  I think this phenomenon also explains the rise in popularity of lists.  Lists are like little larval paragraphs: instead of punctuation separating thoughts, numbers and bold face tell you when you get to stop reading and reap your reward of an animated Arrested Development GIF with a witty quote flashing at the bottom.

Because my goal here is to become an overnight internet phenomenon and get paid to proselytize the yuppie lifestyle, I will reward you for reading almost 500 words with a list populated with pictures.

Lauren’s Advice on How to Travel Abroad

or, A Comedy of Errors

1.  Crying will not help you communicate to strangers more clearly.  But it might get them to call the police.

I got off the second leg of my 21-hour flight in my cowboy boots with three bags, a fistful of newly-exchanged Monopoly money, and an address—in English—to my new “flat.”¹

My taxi driver attempted to drop me off at two separate hotels before I determined that he neither spoke English nor knew where we were going.  After driving around for some time, we were finally able to locate the address, only to discover that our destination was actually a commercial warehouse.  Both the warehouse operator and my taxi driver attempted to explain this to me loudly and slowly in Cantonese, while I responded loudly and slowly in English.  At some point, a third man became involved.  Then it was 2:30 in the morning, I was crying, and they called the police.  And that’s how  I was escorted to  my apartment building with the same name, but across town at a different address.

The Actual Street I Live On

The Actual Street I Live On

2.  When in Rome, Do As the Romans Do


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I’ve been told the first lesson you learn in Hong Kong is “Look Up.”  Not only are 7.1 million people condensed into a tiny island, but the city itself was built into a hill—and not in the John Winthrop sense.  As such, public escalators assist commuters in their climbs to and from work, and commercial streets are tiered with storefronts.

My “flat” is teeny-tiny, even by D.C. standards.  It is probably smaller than most U.S. hotel rooms, yet the amount of utility they’ve managed to cram into such a tiny area is astounding.

After I arrived at the appropriate building, I consumed a bag of pretzels the previous tenant had kindly left for me (how did she know?), took a freezing cold shower that involved less bathing and more crying/reflecting on life choices/brainstorming ideas to obtain warmer water, and slept for the better part of 24 hours.

When I arose from my hibernation and actualized the concept that I was not in my bed in the States, and likely couldn’t get back to it if I tried—having exhausted the majority of my funds in the transition across the globe—I embraced my surroundings, put on my  big-girl pants, and prepared to face the day: take two.

Big Girl Pants happen to be Salmon--er, how could I be so crass--Nantucket Red.

Big Girl Pants happen to be Salmon–er, how could I be so crass–Nantucket Red.

I found a Starbucks, met up with my manager, and, in an attempt to resist taking a nap in order to stave off jet lag, we went on adventures.

And we're off!  Credit to manager for the instagram.

And we’re off! Credit to manager for the instagram.

First we ventured into the MTR, which is like the DC metro, except finding your line is intuitive, there is a distinct dearth of screaming, no one confuses the floor for a toilet, and no drunk people are vomiting on or molesting  you.


Observe how no one is defacing public property

Observe how no one is defacing public property

Instead of random groaning from several seats down accompanied by the vague aroma of urine, a light breeze blows by, and you can stand untethered to a pole without fear that you’ll be jolted forward suddenly or projected through the air in a collision.

We trekked to the office, ate dim sum, and then hiked to the Peak, where a tram took us to the highest point in all of Hong Kong.  From there, we overlooked the city at sunset.   The View from Victoria Peak, also known as Mount Austin, a mountain in the western part of Hong Kong Island

The tram that took us there, up what felt like a 45-degree incline

The tram that took us there, up what felt like a 45-degree incline

The View from Victoria Peak, also known as Mount Austin, a mountain in the western part of Hong Kong Island

The View from Victoria Peak, also known as Mount Austin, a mountain in the western part of Hong Kong Island

Our final adventure —or so we thought—involved getting Thai food with friends.  In actuality, that is where my adventure began.  In my exhaustion, I accepted assurances from our waiter that my salmon (really?  garlic seared salmon salad?) did not contain peanuts.  Moments later, I was stabbing myself with an epinephrine auto-injector and being rushed to the hospital, where I truly learned what it was like to “live like the natives.”

Luckily, my manager insisted we go to a “real” hospital (I am still unclear as to what the alternative is), where the doctors were very impressed that I had administered my own epi pen.  In a vast improvement on American hospitals, which really ought to step up their game, the Canossa hospital gave me a little goodie bag containing slippers, a tea cup, and ear plugs, among other toiletries.

And so, I spent my third night in Hong Kong in a Chinese hospital with an IV hanging out of my wrist and two elderly roommates I was convinced, in my adrenaline-induced delirium, were going to give me Avian flu or SARS or both.

So to all my self-important travel guru counterparts who insist on going off the beaten path and eschewing tourist traps, I see your obscure dining locale and raise you an in-patient tour of a private hospital.

I Survived Canossa Hospital

I Survived Canossa Hospital

3.  SARS/Avian Flu/Super AIDS is Coming For You and Your Immune System

Just when I thought my brush with death was over, I had to board a ferry to Macau in order to activate my work visa.

I grew increasingly seasick as the boat grappled with high tide and an American SCUBA diver in front of us analogized Capitalism to the feeling you get after you lose a game of Monopoly.  Since his name was Tom, I will refer to him heretofore as the Tommunist.

Sometime after my trip to Macau to use the lavatory and promptly turn around, my immune system decided to throw a temper tantrum and I contracted what was probably the regular flu.  Unlike during my tenure teaching, when I was actually glad if a student licked his hand before shaking mine if it meant I could take a sick day, I found my invalid state miserable and counterproductive.

Tried to go into work to make it rain, and they sent me home.

Tried to go into work to make it rain, and they sent me home.

And so, I spent days 7-10 imprisoned in bed with no connection to the outside world.  When I was awake and didn’t feel like someone had just bludgeoned me in the face with a sack of bricks, I was forced to entertain myself using these stacks of paper with words on them that told a story (sort of like a movie but without the pictures).

After a near-48-hour repose, I awoke with a severe case of cabin fever, and decided to go for a run.  This time, instead of traipsing down one of the world’s most densely populated streets, dodging maniacal taxi drivers and smokers alike, I decided to run by the harbor, which would have been beautiful if but for the thick veil of smog that was  descending over the city.  (Surely the particulates only added to the rigor of my cardio.)

Victoria Harbor, looking across to Kowloon

Victoria Harbor, looking across to Kowloon




As far as scenic routes go, I have done worse.

And so, it is with an imperialistic spirit that I beat on, for there are things to be conquered.  I am basically the modern-day Christopher Columbus, except in reverse, because the natives are giving me smallpox-infested blankets.

I am told there will always be Walmarts when I get back.


1.  I’m European now.


3 responses to “How to Travel Smart and Do Other Things Smart, Too

  1. Dear Lauren, I loved your post. Despite yor skepticism that only mothers would take part and read what you had to say, I will tell you that some of your friends might read just out of curiosity (nevermind the fact that I am about to become a mother). It is very interesting for someone like me to see what you are going through living outside the U.S. because I had the reverse experience. I left Brazil (which was my home) and ‘suffered’ the ‘living abroad’ experience in America. I am always curious to know if the experience is the same for the traveler independent of what country you come from and are going to. So far, I must say that you sound like a normal person living abroad 🙂 The language barrier does make things complicated, so in a distant memory I recollect feeling lonely and wrongly seeking Brazilian friends to make my experience more comfortable. In the same light, I remember trying to find Brazilian food… and only when I let down my guard and stepped out of my comfort zone was I able to really experience the culture and meet wonderful people in America. It is true that my first job in the U.S as a front desk agent in a hotel was a frightening experience and I cried almost every day for feeling stupid and helpeless… and it is also true that when I thought I was getting the hang of things, something would happen and remind me that I was not a local (yet). Every new activity, new person, new accent, new restaurant was a new adventure. Needless to say that I too got sick here. Considering that I grew up in a concrete jungle in Sao Paulo and ended up in a pollen paradise in Charlottesville, I am amazed that I survived. Just like you I went to the doctor for allergies, and then migraines… and then I discovered that the U.S. hospitals were not like my hospitals in Brazil (SURPRISE!). As you said, I realized that I had a huge bill to pay and the service was not that great. Thankfully you’ve been taken care of there, and from now on be carefull with your allergies. It took me two years to understand my body in this new country. Your new place looks cute, and it will change your perception of need vs. want FOREVER. I grew up in a small apartment like that, and now I live in a town house in the U.S. My perception is that my house here is HUGE (which differs from the perception my in-laws have of my house). You will cry many times, many days, and those tears will make you so strong that when you get back, there won’t be much you won’t be able to tolerate. You will miss the food, the friends, the laughs, and hugs, but time will tell you which of those ‘friends’ kept in touch during the time you were abroad, and which ones disappeared from the face of the earth – and those who remained in touch will be your friends… FOR LIFE. Hang in there. Keep writing- some of us are curious about your amazing ability to survive this new challenge 🙂

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