Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bad Luck to Cheat Tourists

In 1986, I cleverly managed to break my left leg.  I had a little help in the form of a nice shiny Buick, but after it ran away, I was left lying on the ground in the alley behind my store.  I had absolutely no doubt that the damn leg was broken, my foot was pointing in the wrong direction.  Eventually, I managed to attract a little attention and someone called for an ambulance.

My wife, the Doc, finally caught up with me in the emergency room.  I will never forget the kind and loving words she spoke to me as I lay in agony, waiting for an operation.  “I guess this means our trip to China is off,” she said.  This was not exactly the kind of bedside manner that I had been hoping to receive--I think this is a special version she reserves for family. 

Yes, we had reservations to travel to Hong Kong and China, and yes, it was our first vacation in quite a while.  As I lay on that gurney, I knew we were still going to China, even if I had to send that busted leg as checked baggage.  And we did go to China; I limped along with a cane, hurrying to keep up with my wife the best I could.  Having a bum leg wasn’t that bad in some ways--at least we got to pre-board all the flights.

In other ways, having a busted leg was extremely difficult.  While in China, we were taken on a tour of a traditional farming village, and they had huge piles of rice drying on the roads we walked down.  Weeks later, when that cast was finally cut off, they found some of that raw rice under it.  And walking through the crowded streets of Hong Kong was painful as the crowds pushed and rushed all around us.  Crossing the street at the intersections was a nightmare.  Cars don’t stop at red lights; instead, drivers speed up and honk their horns while the pedestrians run for it.  I did my best.

Maybe this traffic explains why the people of Hong Kong are incredibly superstitious.  Many of the stores and shops we visited sold good luck charms and amulets.  A news story in the city at the time told of someone who had spent over a million dollars to purchase a custom license plate for his car with the single lucky number “8.”  Looking at the traffic in those streets, I was almost ready to buy my own good luck charm.

The Doc and I had been warned that the only places to change money safely was at banks and the hotel, but eventually, on our last day in Hong Kong, my wife and I forgot about this chore before we left the hotel, remembering just as we had managed to cross the street safely.  Neither of us wanted to take the time to cross back to the hotel, and we were standing directly in front of a money changing shop--exactly the kind of store that we had been warned to stay away from.

“What the hell,” I said to the Doc.  “We’re not going to change much money, and even if they do charge a little more, it’s worth it not to cross that damn street.”   Wrong!  Wrong!  Wrong!

The shop was exactly the size of a single car garage (it even had one of those roll down metal doors that covered the glass windows and doors).  Inside was a single desk, a few file cabinets and a man eager to wait on us.  The price he quoted really wasn’t bad: it was almost the same as the rate the hotel gave us.  I asked a lot of questions, but he assured us we had the exchange rate correct, so I began signing American Express Travelers checks. 

As the money changer started counting out the bills, it was immediately apparent that the pile of currency was short…a lot.  I will skip most of the conversation for the next few minutes.  He wanted to charge us a “tax” and we knew that Hong Kong was famous for not having taxes.  The conversation got very loud, very angry, and eventually ended when I grabbed my travelers’ checks back and used my cane to rake everything off the money changers desk.  Not speaking Chinese, we probably could not fully appreciate the screamed insults as the Doc and I left the store.  Judging by the faces of the people gathered on the sidewalk around the store’s entrance, we were missing a masterful performance.

The Shangri-La Hotel was very polite, even accepting the travelers’ checks despite the fact that they had not been signed in their presence.  We had lost a little time, but we eventually got to enjoy our last day in Hong Kong, a town where you could (and my wife did) buy anything.  I especially enjoyed my shopping.

Much later that night, I took my purchases back to the currency exchange shop.  While the shop was closed, the traffic on the sidewalk was fairly steady and I soon gathered a good sized crowd of laughing onlookers and advisors as I worked on that metal roll-down garage door.  Every single wheel was super-glued into the track on both sides of the door.  The locks on the bottom of the gate were filled with glue.  By the time I finished, that door would just barely rattle--I had used a dozen tubes of super glue.

The last bit of work actually required a lot of help from my happy onlookers.  While I had gotten someone in the hotel to write out the Chinese characters I wanted, it turned out that I had no skill in actually drawing them on the door with the black marker I had purchased.  But my impromptu helpers did the job for me.  In large letters, the door said, “IT IS BAD LUCK TO CHEAT TOURISTS.”

The Doc and I left the next morning by bus for the airport.  As we drove away from the hotel, that shop was the only store on the street still closed, despite the small army of workmen trying to raise the gate.

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