An International Incident
“How much?” Rich asked as he flared a handful of assorted Hong Kong Dollar notes, like playing cards, in his right hand. The old woman, hunched raven-like in a weathered black coat, glared and said nothing. By the row of black fringe dangling from the brim of her conical hat I knew she was Hakka—one of the locals displaced when the cove behind us was dammed, forcing residents into the nearby hills.
Rich repeated his question slowly, waving three fingers toward the row of rusty bicycles. “How much for three bikes?”
With gnarled brown fingers the old woman pulled the $20 HKD note from his hand, ignoring the other bills, then fished in her pocket for five one-dollar coins, depositing them in his outstretched palm.
“Of course that woman’s unhappy,” I muttered as we pushed the ‘huffies’ toward the concrete dike that cut through the deep blue water of Plover Cove. “She just rented us the means to ride over the dam that drowned her village and forced her to rent bicycles for a living.”
We had hiked at dawn, daypacks bobbing, down the steep grade from our Hong Kong hotel—along twisted streets, through the park where old men, deep in concentration, glided through elegant martial arts forms while their jet-black mynahs and slender yellow finches warbled in wicker cages suspended from the Heung trees.
This was our family’s day to escape the city, to explore the northern, rural New Territories on the mainland. For Rich and me, it was a chance to discover non-caged birds; for fifteen-year-old Jenn, lost in her headphones, it was an adventure. After 100 years of British rule, the territories would soon be ceded back to the People’s Republic. Go now or miss it.
“Take the East Rail of the Kowloon Canton Railway,” the English-speaking concierge had said as she swiftly etched the Chinese characters on a scrap of paper. “And this train to Tai Po.” More scratches. “Then look for the bus to Tai Mei Tuk.” I clutched the paper like a scrip for life-saving medication.
A gritty wind filled the station with the sharp smell of steel and the huffing of trains at rest. Not the sleek silver trains that had hurtled us across Japan; these were lumbering, coal-black beasts, harnessed in individual stalls, awaiting release. In the dim light we squinted at signs, searching for New Territories.
For the first half hour, the old train shuddered through the darkened tunnel under Hong Kong harbor, then slowly rumbled up into the urban canyons of Kowloon. It was a dreary day. Throngs of people trudged and cycled, heads down, through the sunless streets. Soon we dropped underground again. I stared at the cave-like walls, the familiar tug of travel-anxiety gripping my stomach. Finally, bursting into the pale daylight, we were in the countryside. Mainland China.
The fog that had followed us from the city lifted briefly to reveal a watery world. We were following a river, its marshy banks spotted with white egrets and pale brown pond-herons. Out the left window a half-dozen sampans bobbed in the shallows of a small lake. Our first rice paddy—its endless rows of green shoots spiking through acres of muddy water—caught my breath. Farmers in straw conical hats bent over the fields against a backdrop of misty mountains I knew I’d seen in an ukiyo-e print.
We stopped in a few small villages, loading local passengers dressed in the loose gray cotton of the countryside. They squeezed three or four to a seat and chatted in lilting voices. Approaching a larger village, above the murmur of the train sounds, we heard: “Tai Po.”
A marketplace surrounded the station. We stepped gingerly onto the platform, caught for a few chaotic minutes in the swirl and smells of incense, people, poultry and dogs. Instinctively, my arms swung wide in both directions, grabbing familiar fabric. We spotted the bus station and scanned the ancient double-deckers for 75K. The only westerners in the crush of humanity clamoring to board, we gripped hands up the rickety steps to the top.
More countryside. We rattled past remote settlements surrounded by high wooden walls and fishing villages—straw-huts built over the bay, water lapping against the spindly supports that surely must bend in any storm. At Plover Cove Reservoir, the end of the line, we stared at verdant mountains drifting into the distance and the South China Sea. It looked like a post card.
The dike was as crowded as a Kowloon street. The crowd strolled and cycled, drifting to the constant, but startling, warning of handlebar bells.
“Kingfisher!” Rich said as a stunning blue bird with a chocolate-brown head and splashy white wing patches streaked by. A sharp, high-pitched screech overhead signaled another kingfisher, a smaller species, plunging bright-blue-head-first into the water. Tiny sandpipers bobbed along the rocks, a flock of gray-headed lapwings settled softly into some reeds.
We reached the end of the two-kilometer dike when it started to drizzle.
“What do you want to do,” Rich asked, “push on or head back?”
“Well, I didn’t lug this poncho for nothing,” said Jenn, yanking the see-through sheet from her pack and letting it flutter over her head.
“I’m in,” I said, enveloping myself in flimsy pale-blue plastic.
We chose the rocky path hugging the waterline rather than the grassy trail up the hillside. After an easy half-hour the rain intensified and we slowed our pace. I zoned in to the drip-drip-drip of water from the poncho hood onto my nose.
POP! A single explosion rang out, then a grating scrape like dragging chains. I looked up and saw, for one agonizing slow-motion moment, Rich tumbling right-shoulder-first into the dirt. Brakes screeched. Jenn was off her bike, stumbling toward him.
He was fine. Just pissed.
We stared at the flat tire, not sure how to proceed. A Chinese family pedaled by, oblivious to the rain and us. Even if they stopped, what would we say? What could they do?
Then it poured.
We were a sad parade back along the dike—Rich, shrouded in his dark green poncho, pushing the bike, muttering; me, sullen, thinking about a flat tire in Jamaica when at least it wasn’t raining; Jenn riding slowly, swerving erratically to avoid getting too far ahead, disappointed in the ride cut short.
The bike rental woman was even grumpier than before, and now we were drenched and grumpy too. Rich began the ‘conversation.’ Pulling himself up to his full 6’3” and gesturing, he explained the flat, running his fingers along the old tire’s worn surface.
She spoke. It was the first we’d heard her voice—thin and weary, but firm. Clearly she claimed no responsibility for the accident.
“But I just want a new tire or a different bike,” Rich said, irritation in his voice.
She wagged her head, words tumbling out, wizened hands shuffling as though counting dollar bills. Her pantomime was clear: she wanted money.
“No way,” Rich said, his voice raising. “You rent a bike with a tire this old, it goes flat!”
We were drawing a crowd. The woman was shouting. Our presence had escalated from novelty to intrusion. Rich shifted from foot to foot.
Jenn tugged on his poncho. “Dad. Don’t be an ugly American. Just give her some money and let’s go.”
I tried disappearing into the folds of my rain-gear.
A young man stepped forward, tall for a Chinese man, almost Rich’s height. He wore a Cincinnati Reds baseball cap and smiled shyly.
“She says you were too big for the bike and you broke her tire,” he said softly as though not wanting the woman to hear her words in another language.
“That’s crazy. This is a scam,” Rich said, but his voice was softening in the presence of the young man trying to mediate.
“Of course it is,” our new interpreter said. “She’ll make about fifty cents U. S.”
I watched Rich count out the same five one-dollar coins into the woman’s hand and marveled at how she, twenty miles from the border of Communist China, had the same eyes and cheek bones as the Mayan women who sold us bracelets in the Yucatan.
Jenn was heading toward the bus stop. Rich was shaking hands, chatting with the Chinese man. I thought about how we travel from place to place, collecting passport stamps and stories, carrying with us our impact on the world.
- Cindy Carlson has spent most of her adult life along the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. After a career in youth development, and publishing in numerous professional journals, she has turned, in her retirement, to her first love of creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Birding and The Quotable.