A Travellerspoint blog

The Learning Resource Center


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It only takes three days to reach Shanghai from HK, but for the purpose of the program, the Executive Team needed it to take twice as long. So though we set sail on January 2, we have actually going in circles in the Formosa Strait. It took a couple of days before anyone really noticed. I mean you couldn’t notice from looking out the window, but we all have tv monitors in our room and there’s a display 24/7 that gives real time longitude and latitude, shows our position on a map, and shows a live cam from the bridge. I, for one, rarely turn on the monitor, so I would never have known. But a bright student figured it out and began a protest because of the environmental waste not to mention that cost of traveling in circles. He suggested that we anchor and use the savings to buy more resources for the library and provide a fund for the more needy students. I don’t know if all of that will happen, but after a couple days, the administration agreed, and we anchored.

Speaking of the library, it’s had its ups and downs. It’s larger than I expected with a better collection than I expected, though it is lacking the full array of resources needed. Despite that fact, the traffic within the library is fairly heavy! We have been pretty busy this first week in operation! Most of my time has been spent cataloging and shelving as well as performing circulation duties. My librarian friends will be interested to know that the operation is very primitive. We accession all the materials by handwriting them in a book and then re-entering the information into Resource Mate 3.0.

The library is physically housed in which normally is the other half of the ship’s souvenir shop. For some reason, the wiring for the network and Internet is jinxed there; we have to call IT at least once a day to get the Internet back up and running on our desktop and often on the two student machines. That means we can’t rely on Resource Mate to ping the web for information, which is why we have to duplicate the work by hand. We check books out by hand as well – noting the accession number – which we handwrite on the title page when cataloging and then having the borrower write their name, cabin number, and signature. This is very primitive! If someone comes in looking for a book, we can use Resource Mate to call it up, but we can’t do anything else with it. Students can check out two items at a time for two days; staff can borrow four items at a time for four days.

Our overdue policy is quite strict because we have such a dearth of materials and such a short time at sea, that we can’t afford to let people have anything longer than specified. So, the first offense brings a warning, which is delivered by the crew members to the offender’s cabin – placed directly on their bed. The second offense brings a suspension of borrowing privileges for four days. The third offense means a suspension of borrowing privileges for ten days; a ban from the student computers; and a write up to the academic advisor who will review that person’s case. Pretty harsh! But G. and I came up with that and agreed that that’s how it must be.

Right now we’re open from 9 to 12 and from 3 to 6. We will be hiring five student assistants, which will allow us to operate from 8 to 11 while at sea. We are closed during port days. Right now, Grete and I work together, but eventually I will work 8 to 2 and she will work 3 to 11, per her choice. While at port, we have a miniscule budget with which to buy newspapers and journals - $US150. For non-librarians that might sound like plenty, but it’s really not much at all. Ideally we’d like to get things like the International Herald Tribune, the regional Wall Street News, the major dailies of the country we’re in, The Financial News, BusinessWeek, Time, Newsweek, Business 2.0, Forbes, Fortune, The Economist, and other curriculum specific materials such as environmental magazines, international relations or foreign policy journals, and foreign-language materials. $150 doesn’t go very far and it goes very fast. We rely on a lot of donations. Some faculty members leave books from their personal collection as reference only material. Students from the preceeding voyage left their textbooks. Others bring in their copies of magazines, so wind up with random things like one issue of Architectural Digest or the foreign language celebrity rags. The computers are a big draw because the students can use them for 30 minutes of free Internet access per day. Of course they are supposed to use them for research only but there’s no real way to enforce that. They all do what I would do – “oh, hey, I’m checking my email because so-and-so was supposed to send me an article …”

By and large the work is okay. Not super challenging, but better than some of the other things I could be doing. I would be hard pressed to say it’s satisfying, and G. and I got off to rocky start but I think we’re starting to grow on each other, and I think it tickles people to watch was play off of each other. She’s definitely the boss in the sense that she was here last voyage, she knows the collection much better than I do, she’s invested in the policies, she really cares about the library though the situation frustrates her. For instance today we were dealing with the fact that the computer lost its connection to the printer/copier, and there’s been no toner onboard the ship since HK, so we had to make additional check out sheets by hand. As she was drawing them up, she said to me: “I can’t believe I have a Ph.d.” So yes, even she has issues.

For me though, I have finally realized why this is a poor profession for me. A large component of librarianship is process, and I abhor process. I don’t care about making a return policy or how to limit people from making more than 10 copies (when we have toner) at a time. I couldn’t care less if someone borrowed three items instead of two. This is why I have always felt ill at ease in libraries while wearing the guise of a librarian. I think G. has noted this in me, but she reigns me in pretty well without trampling all over me or trying to break me. She just kind of laughs and urges me to help her figure stuff out, and I grumble – which seems to amuse her - and then do it. I’m sure she gets exasperated with me because when I have a lack of interest in things, my memory becomes faulty, and I have to ask the same things over and over. It took me three days to remember that students can only sign up to use the computer once a day. I don’t remember because I don’t care.

I think she likes me though because she vicariously gets another perspective on the ship and program. She seems to be exempt from all this other stuff I’ve been sucked into – the Learning Circle, the AFPs, etc. We’re not sure why this is, and she is surprised that I have been expected to do these things because last voyage academic staff who were non-faculty were not allowed to participate in those areas. In fact, the librarian whom I replaced bore a grudge throughout the entire last voyage because she was not able to participate though she requested to do so; just my luck that I don’t expressly want to do it, and I’ve no choice. But somehow G. fell through the cracks. Go figure.

More on the library to come, but I thought I should mention it at long last since it’s my job now!

Posted by mpho3 09:27 Archived in China Comments (0)

Shanghai Surprise

overcast 55 °F
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A few days ago we all had to have our temperatures taken – all meaning students, staff, and crew members – as a requirement for entering China. Apparently it’s one way of screening for Avian Bird flu. Weird. Ironically, yesterday I had a touch of Montezuma’s revenge. I’m not sure if that’s the right expression, but I woke up around 7am and began expelling my dinner from the rear. No vomiting. This lasted for about four hours and then ended. I was able to eat a normal lunch and dinner.

Our arrival into Shanghai has been delayed due to fog conditions! Yesterday, after I awoke I glanced at my port holes (sounds obscene, doesn’t it) and couldn’t see a thing except for grey. So just like at an airport, we’ve been instructed not to attempt to land. Immigration officers were supposed to board the ship at 8 am so we could begin to be processed. When are eventually permitted to dock, the Chinese immigration officials will remain onboard the ship until we leave on the 16th. Oughta be interesting. There are a few people who will not be allowed off the ship the entire time we’re in Shanghai because of visa problems. What a bummer for them!

Posted by mpho3 09:22 Archived in China Comments (0)

O Great Ocean, O Great Sea

A Salty Rumination

The Motion of Life in Water, by the way, is a play on the title of Samuel R. Delany’s autobiography, The Motion of Light in Water. I read it so long ago that I don’t recall the origins of his usage, but Delany was an early writing hero of mine, particularly his masterwork Dhalgren, which is among other things, a novel about inner journeys.

An interesting part of this journey for me is not just the destinations themselves but the manner in which I’ll be getting there. I’m not particularly fond of being in water. I’ve never enjoyed swimming, partially because my eyesight is so bad and partially because the sensation of salt or chlorinated water in my nose and trickling into my lungs has always struck me as the unpleasant precursor to drowning.

As for boats, well, I’ve been in rowboats and canoes here and there. Suzanne’s dad still talks about the expression on my face and the way I clutched the sides of the canoe during our little outing up north one time, and that was more than ten years ago now. Marie and I went ocean kayaking once during a trip to Vancouver. Hated it. Was sure I was gonna die. On that same trip, we went whale watching in one of those Zodiac watercraft. Now that was pretty cool. I actually felt fine – until the driver sped directly and purposefully into a wave. A cold, cold one. Marie and I, seated in the front, bore the brunt of it, which found its way deep into our suits and made our teeth chatter during the remainder of the half hour ride back to the shore. Then we had to walk around Granville Island with wet clothes for the rest of the afternoon, looking like the tourists we were. At June Lake outside of Yosemite a few years ago, the Hermans commandeered some kind speed boat thingy and that was okay for a while until Marc cut the engine and Dave dove into the water and swam to some gigantic rock jutting out of the water. The problem for me there was whether or not he would tip the boat trying to get back in as he nearly did when he jumped off. My point is that being in large bodies of water makes me uncomfortable. Swimming pools make me uncomfortable. This is the sea.

Not the sea near the shore, such as the one and only time I went body surfing down in Pacifica w/ Patty K. and Marie. That I had to do, because I was new to Cali and felt like I couldn’t claim it as my own if I didn’t get in at least one time. Patty always claims that I had fun, and I suppose I did to a certain degree – but not enough fun to wanna do it ever again. Nor is it a securely walled off portion of the sea like the Millionaire’s Pond that Shez took me to on the Big Island, Hawaii. There the water never came up past my shoulders even if little silver fish did nibble at me if I stayed in one spot too long. Nope, this is the sea – the wide open, mammoth, vast and endless ocean that I’ve always preferred shore side.

In SF, I became enchanted enough by the sea to feel out of sorts if I didn’t ride my bike to it at least every couple of weeks, if not more frequently. There I would sing to it, a little snippet picked up from a U2’s Joshua Tree album: “Oh great ocean / oh great sea / run to the ocean / run to the sea.” I spent many a moment alone or with friends at China Beach. I spent my first New Year’s Eve in San Francisco at Ocean Beach, with new friends and old. We laughed raucously when Jennifer, in Cali for a visit, gushed that she’d never seen the Pacific and in that instant a rogue wave struck her from the knees down. She froze the rest of the night despite the bonfire, but she was a real trooper. Patty K. took me to Ocean Beach the day my mom died. I remember the particular way the light was that day and the way the sun was perched in the sky. Probably I was there in the very moments that she passed on. I also spent a very day at Ocean Beach with Alex last year; it was memorable because we were both down and out our luck and it felt like the beginning of the end. Not long afterward, we both left California.

My mom also feared water, in fact, much more so than I do. Yet, we bandied about the idea of taking a cruise down the Danube. That never happened. And if she were here now, I’d invite her along on this trip. She’d probably say no, too much water, but I’d ask anyway.

Yet despite my mistrust of water, I am a water sign. At least partially. Scorpio. Water. And Sag is Fire. Hence I have always tended to view myself as Steam Driven. If either element is out of balance, the train will not move.

I have spent my life thus far courting Fire much more so than Water. So now, comes the time to switch my allegiance. If I don’t make friends with water out here, I may find myself resting in it forever. I suppose that could happen anyway, but where’s the romance in that way of looking at it?

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An afterthought In reference to a previous post: I guess it’s only fair if some of the world views us (Americans) as gun-toting Jesus freaks, since that’s how we reduce Islam, viewing most Muslims as gun-toting Allah freaks. O Great ocean. O great sea.

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Guess what? I love the sea. Every morning I am thrilled to gaze upon it, whether we are moving or whether we’re anchored. I love looking out and seeing nothing but sea for as far as the eye can see and knowing that even far beyond the horizon, there is nothing more than what is already at my feet. I also love it when we encounter a fishing boat here or there or better yet, a fishing boat posse. Right now we are anchored somewhere in the Taiwan (aka Formosa) Strait and though land is not visible, there is a community of ships out here: fishing boats, cargo ships, and even a few house boats! Yes, it’s odd, but I am truly enjoying the great ocean, the great sea, which is an extraordinary feeling for a landlubber like me. This is a part of myself whom I had not yet encountered and could not have hoped to meet because I did not know she existed. The sea in me.

Posted by mpho3 07:08 Archived in China Comments (0)

Who Put the Cult in MutiCultural?

January 7, 2008 - Formosa Strait

Those who know me well, know that I do not really believe in the term “coincidence,” i.e. random happenings with no connection or meaning. Instead, I I tend to believe more in synchronicity and the fact that everything is interconnected, meaning that seemingly random events provide us with a subtext. Unfortunately, I often don’t know how to read that subtext. And so it is with great delight that I took note of the fact that immediately following a series of epiphanies I’ve had over the past couple of days, I selected a song at random on my iPod, began listening to it, and only after the music had begun, noticed the title: “The Awakening of a Woman (Burnout).” Ironically, this is a song that I have absolutely loved since the very first time I heard it, a few years ago now. In fact, there was a period of time where I listened to it – and the entire album from which it stems – Cinematic Orchestra’s Man with a Movie Camera – on a daily basis. However, I never bothered to look at the specific track names - which is a lamentable after-effect of the mp3 revolution but a diatribe I shall not invite myself to enter, for I have others.

Getting back to the song and its relevance in this posting, first of all, I look at the date – January 7 – and I marvel. It seems impossible that so much time has passed already and yet we’re still at the start of things. I can’t possibly describe everything that has happened, but I will try to give a taste.

The students arrived on January 2. I can’t even remember already whether they came in the morning or in the evening, whether they came at once or trickled in, whether they bore excited expressions or whether they were nervous or sad. I don’t remember. What I possibly remember is that it was one of my first days working in the library. Or maybe we had training events up until they arrived. I do remember there was a day where we had a closing ceremony for the staff, during which we had to do performances, and the group I was in "staged" a story that I wrote and Shez illustrated a few years ago. L., the American Human Rights attorney, sang “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “Catch a Falling Star” and F., the Italian ESL instructor, accompanied her on trumpet. These selections were appropo as will be evident in a moment. First I would mention that afterward the Director of Onboard Life, a Black S. African, told me he found the story to be very profound, and requested a copy of the book. I had to tell him it’s just a little unpublished story, but that I would send him the text, which is as follows:

Once upon a time Starfish and Heavenly Star decided to trade places (Alachazam!)

Starfish floated around outer space, while Heavenly Star swam the seven seas.

At first Starfish thought, “Wow, Heavenly Star’s been luckiest – “it’s beautiful up here, if a little chilly and dry!”

Meanwhile, Heavenly Star thought, “I like it glug glug, but I don’t know how to swim!”

Neither would admit that while traveling’s fun, home, once you’ve found it, is best.

So Starfish stayed in the sky, dried out and desiccated, and Heavenly Star floated on bright light burned out.

But the mystery of life would not let that be, and the stars were restored to their individual glories, left to believe it was all a dream…. But it wasn’t, for every now and then Heavenly Star finds plankton and Starfish finds moon dust.

And whenever they do, both laugh because they now know that every dream can be real, just as every goodbye can mean hello.

Meanwhile, another woman, D., was tickled pink because she’s the onboard geochemist, and she thought perhaps I’d used the word “plankton” as a reference to her talk on “Phytoplankton Pigments and Microscopy” – earlier in the day? some other day previous? I don’t recall the day, but she had, in fact, told us about the oceanography research being conducted daily on the ship. TSS is helping to study the ocean’s food webs by collecting water samples six times per day, which helps to give an indication of how global change affects plankton and alters the ecosystem base. Other shipboard efforts include monitoring changes in pollution (atmospheric aerosols and trace gasses) levels from ocean to urban settings and conducting marine animal and seabird surveys. TSS is also participating in the Consortium for the Barcode of Life, similar to the Human Genome Project. In this case, they are collecting and analyzing mosquito samples from port visits as part of the Mosquito Barcoding Initiative. In addition, the Oceanic II is one of many ships all over the world that collect data for the World Meteorological Organization; three times each day, folks onboard the ship record the temperature, humidity, wind speed, air pressure, and cloud conditions – information that contributes to weather forecasts.

But again I digress, though purposely. I would ask you to understand, however, the metaphor, which I have conjured to help me make sense of my own situation, the situation being the fact that we are bombarded with information. It's as if we've each been given a glass and told to keep it full at all times, even when running from point to point, meeting to meeting, etc. Meanwhile, a large faucet or hose is produced, which so generously produces water, that our glasses are actually overflowing. Yet, we're so distressed about the spillover that we fail to realize that if they glasses are overfull, by default they are full as well. Each day has brought such a bounty of information that it’s absolutely impossible to take it all in – and I reached a saturation point a few days ago, which was an unpleasant feeling. Unpleasant as in mental illness unpleasant, but I do think it’s passed, at least for the time being.

The Students

But back to the students for minute. There was another day, in which we had a welcoming ceremony. Everyone stood on the deck and a bunch of hippie folk banged a bunch of hippie drums and then there was a role call of nations/ethnicities and those from that nation were invited to step forward. For example, I stepped forward when they called out S. Africa and Tanzania and, of course, the U.S. What we witnessed, therefore, was the vast array of nationalities from which these students and staff hail. In fact, the students represent more than 30 countries. BUT.

I need to breakout for a minute again, for you see, it was not merely a coincidence, my friends, when I picked up that issue of The Economist at the airport and stumbled upon the article on Esalen. I spent a month at Esalen two years ago. It took me two days to realize I had basically joined something very similar to a cult, and it took me a good couple of weeks to recover from the fight I had to put up at Esalen to resist any and all forms of brainwashing. How surprised am I then to rediscover myself part of an entity that I have begun to question *in that way* on some levels? I can’t go so far as to call it a cult.

But here’s the thing. What these places do is they distract you. It’s the same thing you do with children or the very naïve. You get them to look over here so they don’t see what’s going on over there. Here they’ve got us so busy, running around from meeting to meeting, tasked with so many things to do, from morning to night, that we’re too overwhelmed and too exhausted to do anything but go along with the program. Except, in my life, I never tend to go with program as dictated, and that’s why these experiences never go smoothly for me. But I do want to change that. Because, even if by my own assessment I were to deem the entire world to be a cult, I still have to have my own place in it. That’s just the plain and simple truth. So, I’m writing this not as a whistleblower nor as a dramatist. I’m just trying to explain what’s going on here, and it’s damn near impossible, but I will try anyway. But at the same time, I ask you to accept on face value that my even bringing up the words “Esalen” or “cult” aren’t simply the ravings of a black woman gone mad in the middle of the wide open seas.

(to be continued)

Posted by mpho3 06:52 Comments (0)

New Year’s Eve

Hong Kong/Kowloon

Yesterday was particularly thrilling because we got to get off the ship. All of us have been going a little stir-crazy, since we’re stuck on the ship though it’s not going anywhere. But tonight we actually sail to the Port, meaning that we’ll be able to come and go without having to adhere to the tendering schedule and dealing with the gangplank, which is next to impossible for anyone with disabilities or bad knees or simply leary of an accidental spill into the sea.

Anyway, I was quite fortunate and pleased that one of the IRCs, Nancy, invited three of us to join her for the night: Marcela, an IRC from Mexico; Ashley, a faculty member from Albuquerque; Ann, an IRC from China. (IRC = Intercultural Residence Counselor; akin to residence advisors in US universities). Nancy is a first-generation Chinese American, born in Hong Kong, raised in Boston, who has a first-gen Chinese American friend, Felix, from Boston who has been living in Hong Kong. He and his girlfriend Irene, who is the District Executive Officer of HK’s Home Affairs office, met us at the pier at 7:00.

The ride on the ferry gave us a thrilling view of the incredible skyline, though it was chilly. I think I tried to describe it before, but I can’t do it justice. I’m quite sure that the Victoria Harbor skyline is probably one of the most beautiful in the world. The south side is highlighted by the Convention Center, and the steel and glass of various financial buildings, and the island’s tallest skyscraper, which is an astounding 1,378 feet tall. It is impossible to miss. From the other direction, if you’re approaching Kowloon, you not only see the Arts and Culture Center, but the hills of the New Territories lurk in the background. As I mentioned, during the holiday season, the building have elaborate neon designs on them as well as laser displays that emanate from the building tops. We sat on the top of the ferry and froze our asses off, but it was well worth it.

Once we arrived, Felix and Irene met us and we strolled along the “promenade” as it were. This city definitely has high aesthetic values. Neon gold stars about the size of a dinner plate were everywhere, lining the walkway and illuminating the water. The crowds were already gathering, but the tone was pretty low key. The atmosphere was festive but tranquil, and people of all ages were visible everywhere we went. We arrived at a hot pot restaurant at which our new friends had made reservations.

Hot pot is a traditional Chinese dish that’s as much about the preparation as the eating. We sat at a table that had a hot plate in the center, upon which is placed a pot of boiling broth that you select. Because all but one of us wanted a spicy broth, we a double-sided pot with spicy broth on one side and a more mild broth on the other. Then we ordered very thinly cut slices of chicken, pork, beef, several kinds of wontons, oysters, and all kinds of veggies. A veritable feast! Think fondue – using your chopsticks or a ladle, you put a vegetable or slice of meat or a wonton directly in the pot. It very quickly cooks, and then you can put it in your own bowl or directly to your mouth : ) The meal was insanely delicious, especially after a week of the ship’s food, which as I’ve mentioned is not very good.

Although in the end, Felix and Irene were fantastic hosts and wonderful company, there was one moment early on, which I had to make a conscious decision not to go off. He and Irene had demonstrated how to prepare and eat the food, so we were all eating and chatting and having a good time when out of nowhere he says, “It’s always so interesting to eat hot pot w/ Americans because they always only serve themselves. In China, it's important to think about others, so you put several things in at once so that everyone can share." His comment extraordinarily pissed me off. Believe me, I’m well aware that Americans tend to have a sense of entitlement that doesn’t translate in other cultures, but we were following his lead – plus he’s American! All he had to do is say something like, “Now that you’ve got the hang of it, here’s how we put several things in at once and everybody shares.” I had to think about the ramifications of reacting to the same degree that I felt. I decided to let it pass and am glad I did, but it was a tense moment.

On the other end of the awkward scale, I did inadvertently put a fish wonton into my mouth that was raw and cold in the center. This I blame on the fact that we were all throwing things into the pot, so it was hard to know what had been in for what amount of time. As soon as I bit into it, though, I knew it wasn’t cooked, and I didn’t know what to do because we hadn’t been given napkins. I was also quite horrified that I was going to get food poisoning. I scanned the restaurant for the rest rooms but didn’t see them. I know it’s ugly but I had to think fast, so I pretended to cough and expunged the slimy, oozing ball of mush from my mouth and then threw it underneath the table. After that, I was afraid to eat anymore so I feigned fullness. Moments later, Ashley chose a raw wonton as well. I could tell by the look on her face. She kind of whispered to me, but we were sitting at a round table in a brightly lit space. I didn’t know what to tell her, and then it didn’t matter anymore because she decided to swallow it. She looked rather glum afterwards, but unlike me, she kept eating. As it later turned out, neither of us got sick so we both suffered in silence for no reason.

Later, I told him how much I like the little – very little – I’ve seen of HK – the fact that most people speak English, that it seems pretty low key for such a heavily populated place, the easy access to ample natural beauty, a fantastic public transportation system, and the fact that though it’s gotten expensive, it’s still a relative bargain in some things, such as electronics. I asked him his opinion about the city and whether he would recommend it as a place for a newcomer. He felt like it wouldn’t necessarily be such an easy transition because it would be hard to make friends. Instead he suggested Kuala Lumpur, which is a place that’s never even remotely been on my radar. I don’t even think I know anyone who has been there, but it’s definitely food for thought.

After dinner we walked around quite a bit and then ended up at Happy Together, which is a popular desert place. Marcela had fried black sesame ice cream, Nancy had a chilled mango soup with little tapioca balls in it, Ashley had a chocolate cake with hot chocolate fudge inside, and Felix had black sesame wontons in a cooled ginger-sugar broth. I don’t know the names for the deserts; all but Ashley’s were traditional. I had some kind of puff pastry thing that had a soup of tofu in a sweet, chocolaty kind of sauce, which was good but as I’m not over excited by chocolate, I was a tad disappointed. I had let Irene choose for me, though, so I went with it.

We bought a couple bottle of beer and then tried to find a spot to catch the fireworks. I think the most noticeable thing was that for as crowded as it was everywhere, everyone was well behaved. Though there were cops around, their presence wasn’t aggressive. It was as unlikely a thing as I’ve ever seen – that many people and no visible problems. Scads of people of all ages, families etc. and everyone was having a good time but there was never a moment of feeling like something bad might happen.

We found a spot where we could see a bit of the fireworks and laser show, though our view was obscured by some of the skyscrapers. But people were happy and at midnight we all cheered. At that point I desperately needed to use the restroom. We went into a McDonalds but the line was outrageously long, so we went to a bar called Nathan’s Pub of all things – a Brit kind of bar. We hung out there a bit and then wended our way back to the pier to await our transport, which came at 1:30am.

All in all it was a very good night. Back at the ship, everyone who was around was giddy. Coming back it was like being greeted by long lost companions. In fact, some of the people in the reception area did think that I had been lost. They hadn’t seen me board the ferry, and they were worried that I’d been left behind. Of course that didn’t prevent them from theoretically leaving me behind. : )

Posted by mpho3 16:59 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

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