I slung my backpack over my shoulder and stumbled out of the hostel, bound for another day on the road. Spread out below me was a panorama of the Hong Kong harbor.
I was sharing the walk that morning with an Australian named William. Answering what appears to be a biological calling in the Aussies, William had finished school and left the country for a couple of years. There were so many Australians in the hostels of Asia that it felt like a migration. I would tell them of my six-month trip outside the U.S., and they would say things like, "That's a nice, short trip for your starter."
William had been "kicking around the South Pacific the last couple of years," an odyssey interrupted only by going back to Australia to get more money. Later, I would drink in London pubs with Australians who were working construction jobs in England, living on fish, chips, and beer, then "hitting the continent for a few months." They -- we -- lived in a world of infinite possibility, a life that was like a pump, taking in cash and cranking out mobility, unfettered by possessions or debt or a fixed address. It was work, get money, go.
William and I shared a typical, mutually self-assuring Travelers' Conversation: Why should I settle down at home and wear a business suit when I could be kicking around the South Pacific? Some people want nice cars and a big house; I want adventures. Work and home will still be there when I get back, and a guy can go a long way on 30 bucks a day.
Talking with William and watching the locals go through their morning routines, I felt my own day begin to open up. Here I was, 23 years old, on my own, across the globe from home with the clean slate of a day in this great city. And, in fact, I had only one thing on my "list" for the day: A fellow traveler in Japan had told me that while in Hong Kong, I owed it to myself, as part of a three-month sojourn in Asia, to take a couple hours off -- away from the stale-bread-and-jelly fare at the hostel, from the cheese-and-sausage lunches eaten on tour buses, from the mostly-bone duck dinners in the local diners. I owed it to myself to get fancied up just a little bit and go eat breakfast at the Excelsior.
In a city that exists solely for commerce, the Excelsior Hotel aims straight for the moneyed crowd. It's not the fanciest place in town -- rooms were, in 1989, "only" $200 a night -- but it didn't have to be far above the level of a Holiday Inn to be radically different from where I was staying. The hostel had a killer view of the harbor and it was $3 a night, but there were 40 other guys sleeping in the room with me, and breakfast was a dry roll, a package of jam, and luke-warm cocoa.
The restaurant at the Excelsior was packed with nervous businessmen and high-dollar tourists, all reading the paper or watching CNN. There were suits and dresses everywhere, and as soon as I walked in, the rebel in me wished that my hair were longer, my clothes dirtier, and my person less showered. That morning I was decked out in baggy shorts and a "Free Tibet" T-shirt -- both purchased on the street in Kathmandu -- along with a baseball cap and a daypack. But, good East Memphis boy that I am, I also caught myself walking with better posture and using better table manners than I used at the hostel.
I went to the buffet and loaded up. Scooping eggs and sausage onto my plate was surreal; I marveled at the perfectly browned links. A businessman eyed me cautiously as I held up a strip of bacon for closer inspection and admiration. They had poached eggs, croissants, and fresh fruit, for heaven's sake. And corn flakes! And pancakes!
All the feelings I had walked in with -- belonging there or not belonging there, liking it or not -- faded away with the food, and I was just another person having breakfast before starting my day, though I doubt anyone enjoyed it as much as I did. I got seconds on the pancakes and at least four cups of coffee, and I'm sure I caught a wry smile from a waitress. I was like a starving pet let into the house and turned loose on the leftovers.
I think that meal set me back about 20 bucks, which for most of us now -- with jobs and rent and restaurants and car insurance and everything else -- is a decent price for a high-end breakfast splurge. But I had spent more than half the money I would need for the whole day when I walked out of the Excelsior, all full-belly and satisfied-smile.
I had also spent an hour among the rich, and it occurred to me as I slung my pack over my shoulder and went back to my chosen day, that for that morning, at least, I had won. I had sampled the life of money but was still on the path of freedom.