Taking steps out of my comfort zone

hong kong skyline showing many high rise buildings climbing up the hill.Yesterday I arrived back from Hong Kong – a whirlwind trip of meetings and moments that is still swirling around my head. I feel like swirled soup, still waiting for everything to settle and the broth to become clear.

I had pushed myself by eating food I had never tried before including birds nest soup (never knew the nests were made of bird saliva) and hot coco-cola with ginger and lemon, but part of the reason for my trip was to spend some time out on my own – for me a real push.

Sounds a simple thing, but I found the idea quite surprisingly scary. I worried I wouldn’t be able to communicate, would get lost, would make the wrong decision and take the wrong turnings. Earlier in the week I had struggled with communication – at dinner, a question about ‘exchange programmes for UK’ I misheard as ‘strange customs in UK’ and launched into a long monologue about not walking under ladders. I had also taken a wrong ferry – making a simple 5 minute crossing into a 2 hour excursion. And by my twisted sense of logic, if I could make this kind of error whilst in the company of others, I could hardly do worse when alone!

So up early and out, off to Kowloon Park, up and down Nathan Road, exploring Tsim Sha Tsui. A camera helps, provides an excuse for both being alone and the endless stopping and staring I find myself caught up in.

I find I have set strange ‘rules’ – taking pictures in the park (of flamingoes and swans, people practicing tai chi, family gatherings, picnics) I place the camera on my lap with the viewfinder angled upwards, snapping by stealth. Walking through the meat market however I feel a voyeur and choose not take a single shot. With ease, I zoom upwards and steal image after image of mirrored skyscrapers against the sky. With guilt, I capture the social housing blocks, ashamed of my indulgence in their aesthetic appeal whilst unable to imagine the lives of those living within them.

I am determined to push myself further, feeling for my resistance and following it. I walked past the entrance to the meat market twice before entering. It was covered, the heat making the sights and smells visceral and immediate.

A few days before I had delightedly walked the fish market with friends, staring at the shiny rows of unfamiliar fish, the multitude of crabs, their claws tied with bamboo, the turtles and the toads. I had felt amazed, unhinged. Greedily sucking in the sights, in heated discussion about our hypocrisies with food – why we happily eat one creature and yet castigate others for eating another.

On my own, the meat market seemed enticing yet repelling. I felt scared but I don’t know of what. Inside it was cooler yet more intense. Hanging carcasses swaying as workers knocked them as they moved back and forth to the butchers blocks to carve out cuts for buyers. The tails remained on many of the swinging hunks, helping me to identify some, if not all, of the animals available for purchase.

Feeling braver, I know I must get beyond the streets. The streets are lit and busy, neon flashing even in day time. But always with steps and stairs that lead indoors – to other spaces and places enticingly just out of view. I decided against entering Chungking Mansions. (Well, I did enter. I stepped four steps in before I realized it was too dark and too noisy for me to wander around in comfortably given its reputation).

So turning away from the harbor I walked a block or so more, and then took some steps downstairs into a supermarket seduced by a vast display of dried noodles. All was easy and I idled in the aisles choosing treats to take home, often selecting purely because I had no idea what the packaging contained.

Emboldened by such simple shopping I headed to find God – or rather Goods of Desire, a rather upmarket design shop promising urban design (think IKEA with a Hong Kong twist), with the byline ‘delay no more’. Finding it was easy but I was an hour too early – it didn’t open until 12.30. I had an hour to wait.

I went back out the streets. Hot and heavy, I looked up. A sign among the many caught my eye – happy feet, it promised. Now this would be pushing myself – but for an immediate result. So for 45 minutes I had my feet pummelled and polished (and pained too in some places) before finding retail nirvana again.

I returned to the hotel with a spring in my step and bags of goodies in my arms, ready to dash to my next set of meetings – back in my comfort zone for now, but having relished my morning set of mini adventures.

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