British Airways, An English Tragedy Far Stranger (And Scarier) Than Fiction

Taken from the Daily Telegraph's picture galleries. Would have taken pictures if I wasn't out of my mind just then.

My dealings with British Airways, from start to finish, had all the trappings of the most sensational of Shakespearean tragedy. Emotionally-charged confrontations? Check. Dire circumstances? Check. Carelessly broken promises? Check. Epic, nail-biting quests across oceans in order to reclaim rightful property? Check, check, check. However, the scariest thing of all as that this tangled mess has its basis in cold, hard reality, something that should outrage anyone with the remotest sense of fair play.

It all started when I arrived in Heathrow to meet my family in London. I waited at the baggage carousel for a good 45 minutes, my anxiety growing by the second as I squinted over each suitcase, trying to identify my own. I’d already stopped two or three officials, asking them to check my baggage tag in vain. Each told me something different. “Wait and see, love”, “I don’t know if it’s here, miss. Check customer service”. Finally, fearing the worst, I reluctantly leave the carousel to do as he tells me, check customer service. The line is about two football fields long, swarming with angry energy and people loudly lamenting that they had connecting flights to catch, Lord knew if their baggage was already in Istanbul by this time. Sirens began to sound in my already spinning head. I call my mother for the billionth time to moan about the lines and all my stuff (my laptop with my resume was in the suitcase) and she wisely tells me to get out if I knew what was good for me. I up and leave on the Picadilly line from Terminal 5, just before darkness descends upon the thousands of unfortunates inside. If you’ve been living under a rock for the past month or so, here’s what I’m referring to. Yes, I was this close to being one of them. Heathrow Fiasco

Dressed in borrowed clothes the next day, I awake to the news that no flights are allowed in or out. Pitiful scenes, just like the one above, fill the screen. My dad and I take the Tube back to Terminal 5 to try our luck. After going through a somewhat drawn out screening, I was allowed to go into the baggage room and check every bag there. It was pandemonium, hundreds of suitcases haphazardly piled on top of the other with barely any rhyme or reason. A lady was floating around amidst the clutter, trying to categorize it with a vague sense of purpose. She too had no answers as to where the luggage from the BA flight from New York yesterday could possibly be. Perhaps they were still unloading from the aircraft? Who knew? It took 20 more frustrating minutes for me to realize that my suitcase was not among the baggage carcasses clogging up the arrival hall. I had to subdue my obsessive inclination to search all day and make a report.

We constantly examine the online baggage tracer for our remaining time in London, hoping that the whole affair would resolve itself before we left for Spain in a few days. It was third time lucky, as we finally get some news. Guess where my bag was? Not in Heathrow, not in JFK, in Dublin! As I’d been fool enough to be late for check-in (I fully admit my own culpability tinges the matter ever so slightly), they had to put my baggage on the next available flight to Heathrow. And as the airport had gone into hibernation, no flights could land. All because of a few inches of snow, that had actually stopped accumulating much after the first day! We heard that Heathrow was quite the laughingstock among the Scandinavians, who probably have to deal with blizzards and the like all the time. I hoped like hell that they were bloody ashamed.

To top it all of, next to none of the calls we made to them amounted to actual conversations. We were either blankwalled with a tinny answering machine or foisted onto a call centre in India, where they knew even less about my luggage’s fate than I did. By the time someone who sounded like he might actually be in London finally deemed us worthy of a few moments notice, my mother was done with pleasantries. Following a tense, angry exchange, we managed to gather that the flight from Dublin had indeed arrived, but there was no way of knowing (someone should take a shot for each time they say this) whether the baggage was on the plane. Given the endless piles of baggage already at the airport, they were obviously going to take ages to verify this for us. We knew by then that I was going to have to survive two weeks in Spain without any of my own clothing. We had to resign ourselves to giving them the address of my aunt, who lives in London, so they could send it to her should they ever actually find it. Then, the really bad part of my story begins.

The two weeks went by without any news from them. I was basically scouring stores for any scrap of clothing that appealed, toiletries and other bare necessities. Weirdly, it made me feel homeless. I pestered my mum every now and then for updates. She called my Aunt Carol, checked online, but to no avail. Towards the final lap of our journey, when I was beginning to think I was never going to see my stuff ever again, she suddenly came into my room and told me what the bastards had actually done to it. They found it, but apparently hadn’t bothered with reading our explicit instructions or with calling one of the many numbers we left for them. Instead, they quietly snuck it on a plane back to JFK and washed their hands off us, so they thought, for good.

When I got to JFK, I could hardly be blamed for rushing to Baggage Services as directed, glowing with the idea of actually possessing things once again. My elation died down when I arrived in their holding compartment and thoroughly searched it, only to find that my suitcase was still nowhere to be seen. I had to make yet another report, this time with JFK, who informed me that Heathrow hadn’t even bothered letting them know that it had arrived, as is standard protocol. I went to my hotel fuming, wondering where it could possibly have been if that was the only baggage service for BA there.

The next day, I called them multiple times again before someone answered. I asked if they’ve found it, and the woman on the other end threw me another shockbomb: they sent it to my apartment in Charlottesville, VA at 7am on the day I arrived! Yet again, they hadn’t cared to find out that I wasn’t going to be back till 7:16pm on the next day, which meant that it would have been outside for three full days by the time I got home. Now, I live right next to some dodgy railroad and a neighbor that we’ve suspected of dealing drugs for a while now. There was no end to the possible occurrences that have befallen it within that span of time. I had literally chased my bag across the Atlantic, only to run the risk of having it stolen right outside my front door. The very thought made me homicidal, sadistically so.

It was no thanks to British Airways or to the morons at Fedex who left it out there that my bag was miraculously untouched. Of course, I found some very noticeable damages to my property. My zipper is stuck in its combination lock and refuses to respond to the pin number. My laptop screen is cracked and indented like an eggshell:

 

As with every real tragedy, however, this has its own form of catharsis as well, its own little lesson of the day. From my experience, and those of the poor people sprawled on Heathrow’s floor under ratty foil blankets, realize one thing: British Airways does not give a shit. To them, the very idea of customer service is as alien a concept as an iPod would be to a caveman. In fact, I sometimes wonder if they are very much more developed than neanderthals, considering that they apparently thought my suitcase had as much material value as a cheap birthday card from Hallmark and assumed they could just slip it under the door or something. However, they are pretty dangerous idiots, if so. They don’t just screw up their reputation, they screw up your plans, your belongings and even your mental health. I can’t even begin to describe how stressed out I was at having no resume or clothes, how difficult it is to deal with suddenly having no possessions of your own. Let’s not even begin to speculate on the thousands stranded in the airport indefinitely. Worse still, they are completely apathetic to your plight and remorseless to the very end, never admitting to be at fault possibly even under torture (might still like to try that out someday though, =P). In short, don’t give them the time of the day, because trust me, they won’t give it to you. Oh, and er, arrive early for check in, yeah? *blushes*

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Concluding Hong Kong: Featuring Conspiracy Theorists And Some Fish We Didn’t Eat

As my previous posts on Day I and Day 2 have indicated, most of the fish we’d encountered were on our plates, steamed, stewed. Appreciating them for their aesthetic, rather than culinary, value was nice for a change; I’m exactly the kind of person who likes looking at fish as much as eating them. Call me Asian, I guess.

Fish Street is located in Mongkok, which on the Tsim Sha Tsui side of the city. We took the metro across the strait and surfaced in a section of the city that seemed a lot more “down home”, less trendy than Lan Kwai Fong. There were a lot of small neighbourhood shops, the types where you get giant bottles of shampoo for a dollar and dried fruit. It was a little hard to find Fish Street itself, among the untidy sprawl of the dime stores and many, many street intersections we came across.

At long last, we came upon a series of fish signs floating above the heads of the passersby and stacks of tanks full of bright, predominantly orange, blobs swimming around in them. We had hit the motherlode! Unfortunately, we soon found out that we had arrived far too early to witness the spectacle of hundreds of aquariums and their exotic inhabitants lining the street. The shops that were open were few and far between; we wondered if everyone stayed up the night before to party in Lan Kwai Fong and Soho. Ah well. At least we were rewarded with a fraction of the full fish street experience. The places that were open displayed their wares in abundant clusters of plastic bags that collectively looked like the magnified spawn of some aquatic alien.

What really interested me, quite aside from the display, were the creatures themselves. I’d expected to see only standard freshwater fish, maybe about two rare species of goldfish to set the place apart. I certainly hadn’t counted on encountering some of the animals, a few of which are quite possibly considered endangered….

Not sure what this is, but it might be related to a stonefish somehow....

Perhaps, this factors into the ridiculous prices for caviar....

My suspicions strengthened after we came across this store where they absolutely refused to let us take pictures of their merchandise. Granted, most of the creatures were probably photosensitive and hated flash, but still. Most of the inhabitants of the tanks were marine, and were not restricted to a few clownfish and anemones. There were rays, jellyfish, sea horses, and a whole slew of others that would not be the first things I look for when I go to a shabby, roadside store. It’s instances like this when I feel a bizarre combination of outrage and guilty admiration for the mother continent. Asians are well-known to be thoroughly cavalier about animal rights. We’ll cram a bunch of ailing fish into a tank with barely any breathing space only to slice them up while they are still alive, nonchalantly chop fins off of sharks and toss them back in the sea, and fill claw machines with jars of little critters (no kidding, saw this in Japan). I don’t condone animal cruelty at all; as a kid, I used to be traumatised for days after watching those sobering ads on the Discovery Channel about shark find. However, there is definitely a part of me that feels ever so slightly refreshed by our political incorrectness.

What we did next doesn’t sound too exciting on paper; we went to a mall. However, this is listed as part of the quintessential shopping experience in Hong Kong. I was initially sceptical myself, but Langham Place was an evolved specimen. Even as far as aesthetics went, it attempted to impress. The architect probably envisioned some form of sculpture when he drew the plans.

Content was not lacking either. Instead of the generic Gap and Zara chains, we found quirky, even avante-garde Japanese brands in abundance. And Muji was ridiculously well stocked. Yep, the mall was definitely run by Japanophiles. However, we didn’t get much of a chance to forget where we were. At lunch in a fancy tonkatsu place, the chef bellowed loudly at one of his underlings for all to hear in a display of very local effusiveness. Not quite the image of Japanese restraint, I imagine.

We’d put off Victoria Peak for a while, but as it was the last day, we didn’t have much of a choice. We braced ourselves for the queue, and weren’t disappointed. Like a vast tapeworm, it looped several times around the tram station to accommodate traffic. As there were so many bends in it, we were treated to several interesting vantage points of some very important public service announcements stuck on the fences surrounding us.

In case that was difficult to read, the CIA is using wireless mind control! Osama was a victim, and you will be too if you don’t watch out. If you have any concerns whatsoever, give Dr. Yan Xu a call. The world is a dark, dark place…..

His choice of venue for his ads was a pretty strategic one. The building towering over us would have been right at home on a mind control facility. In Mars.

All this was good build-up, but Victoria Peak was…. a letdown. It really shouldn’t have been. Cities always make fantastic panoramic vistas, especially at sunset and all that jazz. But to get a full view of everything, you had to pay to get on top of this structure…

If not, you only got views in segments.

Can anyone say ripoff? Views should always, always, be free because nothing else ever is. 😦

Dinner made up for it though. As usual. We had velvety, rich Asian style goose and foie gras in its own juices…

The best shark’s fin I can profess to have had, in clusters in a golden-brown broth..

The inevitable whole steamed soon hock. Make a note to yourself, steamed in soy is the best way to eat fish, hands down.

I'm getting hungry looking at this. Are you?

And bitter gourd steamed with stock in a claypot with pork mince.

This was the best meal we had, on a trip where there were virtually no bad meals. Wicked!

We decided to spend our last day doing what we do best, eating. We decided on Yong Kee, supposedly the best place in the city for roast goose. Now, my parents had been there about ten years ago and were disappointed, but we bowed to the accolades and peer pressure and went. It was duly crowded, with a combination of locals, gweilos and mainland tourists jostling to get in. We were all assigned numbers and told to occupy every available square inch of space on a staircase landing, in anticipation of our food. Thankfully for us, the wait lasted only (!) half an hour. We were ushered to our seats and soon found out that my parent’s former dissatisfaction with the fare was rather unfounded. Maybe they were just having a bad day?

To start with, century egg. I’d always been brought up to think of century egg purely as a textural component, rather than a dish with any particular culinary merit of its own. Obviously, the people working here would have been aghast, had they been aware of my barbarism. They’d elevated it to an art form, with the tea-coloured “white” beautifully translucent and richly brown and the yolk disintegrating to semi-liquid bliss at its core. In other words, wow.

This was what we came here for. It’s so much better than roast duck, gamier and more intense. Add just a hint of the spicy salt it came with, and it suddenly took on a crisp, tangy edge, the very definition of umami.

My dad wanted some larger pigeons than we had the last time, so we ordered some. It turns out that the guy knew what he was talking about. These were bigger, but they didn’t have the same concentrated flavour is the last batch and were just alright. However, they made for very artistic, macabre photo opportunities, which were graciously set up by our obliging waiter.

As we are on most vacations, we were sad to leave. It was for all the usual reasons; we’d spent too short a time there, we’d miss the food and shopping, and we were just getting used to the place. However, the last reason played a larger role here; it took less than a day for us to feel at home. It may have been the excellent food, which put the Cantonese fare at home to shame but still seemed undoubtedly familiar. The snatches of Cantonese everywhere around us were at least half-intelligible and made the intimidating, metropolitan space around us more friendly. It felt like we were visiting our immense extended family, so large in size, attitude, ambition and an innate sense of style that it needed its own brazen, autonomous capital.

Hong Kong, Part 2: And So It Continues

It is said that if New York is the city that never sleeps, Hong Kong is the city that never even sits to catch its breath. Yet, it made a pretty good pretence of slowly rousing itself to greet the day. The daytime denizens of the city were gradually opening up shop all around us. We saw queues of people waiting outside shop lots selling congee and yew char koey, conversing raucously. The iconic double decker buses and Cadillac sized taxis formed the backdrop to the steadily increasing hum around us. Add the vibrant signs in Chinese that glow neon even in bright daylight and you have before you a pretty invigorating, atmospheric scene to wake up to. And I say this having been brought up in another bustling, “exotic” Asian city.

Well, what did we do today? After some very good congee, unfortunately eaten amidst a gaggle of boisterous Little Emperors, we took a van from Causeway Bay to Stanley Market. It’s a bit of a ways off from the city proper, so we drove for about 45 minutes on a path cut into lush, verdant South China Sea coastline. It actually looked a good deal like the tropical shores back home, with the same humidity and polluted water but without much beach to speak of. Stanley Market proved to be a little too touristy for us. Not to sound elitist, but it was somewhat grating hearing my parents play the tourists and feign ignorance of their native tongue by speaking in English to the vendors. I can’t exactly explain the linguistic shift, but I’m chalking it down to the atmosphere of foreign backpackers and cheap mass-produced souvenirs. We left pretty soon afterwards.

This excursion took up quite a bit of the day, so we ended up heading back and emerging from our rooms only at dusk to feed, of course. But first, some shopping. We headed back to Lan Kwai Fong, which was becoming a bit of a favourite with us thanks to its quirky (but expensive) boutiques and ridiculously steep, narrow streets. Again, I should really have taken more pictures. Our next encounter is one that sticks in my mind as one of those interactions with locals that are such an essential part of every travel journal. My sisters and I got into one of the small boutiques perched at an intersection of dramatically sloped streets. The windows were crowded with an array of eclectic inhabitants, from felt gorillas to vintage dolls wearing Sixties pop-art shifts. It just seemed to implore us to dive in and bask in the craziness. We were all quite nervous, as we were armed only with very rudimentary Cantonese skills and were bound to run into misunderstanding at one point. Our worst fears were confirmed when the bubbly salesgirl launched into a excited tirade of greetings, questions and exclamations that I alone had to decipher, as my sisters promptly hid behind me the moment she opened her mouth. Surprisingly, I actually managed ok, despite one embarrassing moment where I asked her for “ears” instead of “earrings”. In my defence though, no one has ever described my ears as “cute” before; I simply assumed she was complimenting my earrings. At least I know the difference now. And she offered to come shopping with us in Causeway Bay should we ever end up in Hong Kong again.

Dinner was a bit of an event. Happily, I was much smarter and actually charged my camera. Good thing, the food was definitely worth taking note of.

Does this look innocuous to you? Mild, milky? It is, and yet it isn’t. Take a mouthful of this and you do get a subtly creamy, dairy smooth undertone, but it all underlies a broth that explodes into fragrant, meaty juiciness on the palate. Yes, this is a carnivorous indulgence. And it’s pig’s lung soup, no less. And to illustrate my point…

There’s the lung!

And then there was the deep-fried oyster hot pot, my personal favourite. Crisply savoury on the outside, luxuriant and redolent with pungent oceany flavour on the inside, they were probably the best cooked oysters I’ve had.

We decided we couldn’t leave Hong Kong without having our roast pigeon. The restaurant’s version was dense, rich and gamy as all good pigeon should be, but we were a little disappointed by the size of each scrawny bird. However, the manager assured us that we were not simply getting the short end of the stick; apparently, the ganglier the pigeon, the more flavourful its meat would be. Concentrated juices, methinks.

After dinner, we wandered around Soho and Lan Kwai Fong, checking out the nightlife. Admittedly, it was a little awkward with the parents and little brat sister (you know who you are!) in tow. Moreover, at the risk of sounding like a snob again, I must add that the drunk, rowdy gweilos weren’t helping the situation too much. We decided to look for some tong shui, desert in a soup. With the help of yet another taxi driver, we found a very, very local hangout that would have been virtually invisible to the untrained eye.

This shady looking joint was apparently well-known among insiders as the place to have tong shui. And we can attest to this. The desserts served were of the traditional variety: creamy walnut soup, red bean soup, almond soup, and kai dan cha (egg tea, with an actual hard-boiled egg floating in murky brown liquid). This was the very antithesis of the bright dessert place of yesternight filled with teenagers and pretentiously fancy concoctions. It was simple, no-frills and superb. And sadly a dying business; not a single waiter or cook there was under 40, by the looks of it.

Clockwise from left: walnut soup, almond soup, kai dan cha, red bean soup

This was quite the antidote to the foreign invasion at Soho. I just felt lucky we actually got to sample these before the owner’s grandchildren sold the business and turned it into an Apple store.

Hong Kong: A Flash of Nostalgia, Then Some Shopping, Then Some Eating Prologue

Whenever I try to describe Hong Kong, I end up sounding like an Amy Tan novel. My account would be chock full of the outsider’s awe at how brazenly, unabashedly Asian it is. The entire city is a heady assault to the senses, complete with shouted conversations, an obsession with food and money, colors everywhere, and even a pungent odor of pollution that welcomes anyone driving in from the airport. Yet, despite how much of an exotic, Far East novelty it may seem to me, there are also aspects about it that remain undeniably familiar. For a change, I actually half understand what everyone is saying. I’ll catch fragments here and there about someone’s cat, someone else’s Thai wife, opinionated rants against the newly rich of China. Everything I eat here has an element of deja vu about it. I’d be digging into a bowl of wantan mee that sorta kinda hearkens back to one of my countless meals at hawker stalls here in KL, only the fragrance and overall deliciousness of the food would be multiplied by 50. The whole place feels like somewhere I could have lived in a more exciting, more romantic past life full of intrigue, monsoon rain, rickshaws, forbidden love…

Anyway, before I get carried away with the cliches, the trip itself. Contrary to how it may sound, it wasn’t some month long sojourn with distant relatives, but a three night stay to get away from the monotony of summer and my dad’s laborious building projects. However, for such a short trip, it sure made an impression. The fun began as soon as we got onto one of the ubiquitous cadillac-sized taxis and drove towards the city. It had obviously just been raining; the sky over the many condos set in the lush hills was ominously cloudy. The driver confirmed this, and then some. We had apparently arrived on the tail of a fairly strong typhoon that had just struck that morning! Quite astonishing, as we hadn’t been aware that HK was plagued by these. When we got to the city itself, the adjectives that came to mind were “ultra-contemporary”, “developed”, “indestructible” even. It was a considerable testament to innovation, progressiveness and capitalism; the very notion of a typhoon there seemed a little incongruous. However, when we disembarked, the wind just about backhanded us. A typhoon? No kidding.

Yes, despite the continuing showers and the sight of a few unfortunate trees suffer whiplash at the hands of invisible forces, we thought with our stomachs as per usual and got the hell out of the hotel. We headed to Lan Kwai Fong, an area known for its clubs and crazy, crazy nightlife. There was this place that was renowned for its ngau lam mee, beef tendon soup noodles. Although we initially headed to the wrong restaurant, we finally found the place. It was in a cramped shophouse reminiscent of some of the older noodle joints in KL, replete with wet floors, great milky tea and backless stools. To my relief, we didn’t look too out-of-place. There was another table filled with non-Cantonese speaking Asian kids looking out of place and letting their parents order for them. I even knew a little more than them and was able to fake some street cred! And the main event, the food itself, was a spectacular thing. The soup in the tiny bowl was a beautiful, rich translucent yellow, hinting at the juices and fat melted into it from the meat. It tasted every bit as good as it looked, the fragrant meatiness of the broth coupling perfectly with the slippery smoothness of the noodles. The tendon was in no way chewy or stringy, but was so unctuous that it seemed almost like a gelatinous portion of the broth, with more flavor and texture of course. Even through all the indulgent greasiness, it somehow managed to remain light, balanced and just filling enough.

With that out of the way, we explored the neighborhood. Now, I wasn’t overly keen on exploring Lan Kwai Fong on this trip. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks that nightclubs and parents do not a happy union make. Plus, hanging around a clubbing district at noon sounded pretty counter-productive to me. But upon our arrival, all those pesky pre-conceived notions were abolished soon enough….

I mean, just look at it! Streets steep enough to rival San Francisco’s, crumbling shop houses, indie boutiques, that Tokyo-style clustering of neon signs…. This place has character. It probably owes a lot of its upfront personality to the hordes of locals that swarm this area. Everyone here was no-nonsense, fast-walking and very, very well dressed. The crowd was just very daring with dress sense, lots of silver, purple, bright pink, but it all came together somehow. The metrosexual men in particular caught our eye.

Bad picture of a metrosexual clad in purple pants and a very fetching tie dye shirt

For a neighborhood junkie like myself, the whole experience was quite a turn on. XD

After a much-needed nap, we tried to head out again. But the weather was not co-operating at all, so we were forced to seek alternative means of entertainment. Fortunately for us, there was a Michelin star restaurant in our hotel. So naturally, we decided to sate our hunger in style.

Char siew!

Shark's fin!

Crab's claw with garlic

Roasted spring chicken

The char siew was the most tender I’ve ever had, with just a hint of savouriness peeking through the sweet marinade. The shark’s fin came in luxuriant spools in a clear consomme and was just the right texture, crunchy and gelatinous. The latter two dishes were all about letting simple, natural flavour shine through without overwhelming it with heavy handed seasoning, a very Cantonese approach to dining. What can I say, it was nice to accidentally stumble upon a place that actually deserved the hype.

After dinner, the weather decided to lighten up. To make the most of it, we decided to hop on the much-lauded Star Ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui and see what the fuss was all about. As it turned out, it was about plenty. The Hong Kong skyline is probably among the most beautiful I have had the good fortune to witness, and I’ve seen a lot of skylines. From the water, the outlines of buildings are crisp and clear even against the murky sky. The coloured neon lights enhance their silhouettes and illuminate any clouds present from below, like stage lights below billowing dramatic puffs of smoke. They also stretch out onto the shimmering liquid surface below and become distorted by it, in direct contrast to the panorama above the water. The whole spectacle rises up around the ferry and surrounds it like a kind of open, vast canyon of skyscrapers. Warning: It is possible the pictures I took did not do it justice.

Apparently, even being passive spectators of this magnificent scene piqued our appetite. So when we got to Tsim Sha Tsui, we kind of had to eat some more. We chose this extremely bright, cheery joint that served the kind of fancy, colourful fusion-ish desserts that have become a trademark of young, hip Asia. Here are some of the concoctions we sampled.

Harsma (frog's innards) with dates and coconut milk

Coconut ice and a truckload of fruits, both tinned and fresh

Sister and frog guts (I think, anyway)

Me and other sister being an idiot, but when isn't she? XD

And all this was accomplished in, half a day? Wow. More to come!

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