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Getting high in Hong Kong and emotional in Indonesia

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: February 3, 2017
  • Published February 3, 2017

The view from the 118th floor of the Ritz Carlton hotel in Hong Kong. (Photo by Scott McMurren)

HONG KONG — I'm looking out over Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong from an interesting vantage point: the 103rd floor Ritz Carlton Hong Kong. The Ritz doesn't have all of the floors — just the top 20. Amy Overy of Hong Kong Greeters, a small guiding company here, took me to the Ritz to explain the hotel's triple-play in this city of skyscrapers. "The Ritz wanted to be the highest hotel, have the highest bar and the highest afternoon tea service in the world," she said.

So if you want to get high in Hong Kong, the Ritz Carlton is a good place to start. The Ozone bar is farther up — on the 118th floor. There's an outdoor atrium (for smokers), a champagne bar, lots of high ceilings, mirrors and mood lighting. Back to the tea service: Amy of course recommends that you bring your camera and make reservations for a window seat. The tea was delicious, and we opted for a tower of treats with tarts, truffles and other decadent delights. Down below, all manner of ships cruised the harbor: hydrofoils going to Macau, the iconic Star Ferry and many tenders, which take containers from the large ships to the port. It's an impressive sight.

Getting up high, whether on a tram to a mountaintop, in a helicopter or a Ferris wheel, is a great way to get your bearings when you're visiting a new destination. It's just one in a list of the tactics that I've learned during my 27-day trip around the world.

One important lesson I've learned is this: The best travel stories are love stories. Think about it: perhaps you've traveled to a beautiful island with someone you love. Or you meet someone while traveling and fall in love. Or, in my case, you're reunited with a long-lost family member. That's when the tears start to flow and everyone starts hugging each other.

Sweets on the 103rd floor of the Ritz Carlton in Hong Kong, with Amy Overy of Hong Kong Greeters. (Photo by Scott McMurren)

Just before my stop in Hong Kong, I visited the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. There are many beautiful areas on the island, but I landed in the largest city, Makassar. The city is home to almost 2 million people, a big port, lots of traffic and a mosque on every corner. It's where our former exchange student lives, and it's been seven years since I last saw her.

For those of you who want an international travel experience without the long flights and jet lag, I strongly recommend hosting an exchange student. My wife and kids will back me up when I say it was one of the best things our family ever did. You'll learn a lot about your student's culture, their family and their heritage. And of course you'll gain another family member.

So, Sulis was at the airport when I arrived. Even after hosting her for nine months in our home, I wasn't able to pronounce her full name, Sulistianingsih Nur Fitri. We hugged. We cried. Her brothers were there — we exchanged hearty handshakes and then headed to their home for lunch.

It's possible to go around the world and visit only glistening capital cities and stay at swanky hotels. Sure, they may speak a different language at home, but most of the front-desk staff have a good working knowledge of English. Makassar is a little off the beaten path. It's a big city, but unless you're importing coffee or shipping other agricultural goods, there's no specific reason to visit. That, of course, makes for a great adventure.

But the biggest event during my visit was the re-kindling of the love between our two families. When we got to her home, there were lots of hugs as I met Sulis' mother and her grandparents. Then friends came over from their home nearby to meet me. We snapped lots of photos and posted them on social media. Later, we used a passable Wi-Fi connection to do a video call with family in Alaska—again, more tears.

Sulis had worked out a plan for my brief visit: a trip to a nearby nature preserve with a boat trip up the river. Limestone mountains rose sharply on either side of our narrow water passage. At the end of the ride, we got out and explored some rice patties that one family tended, saw some butterflies and how the locals caught their fish in nets — and then returned.

Back in town we walked along the waterfront and visited a floating mosque, where the family said their prayers. This is a big part of life in Indonesia. The faithful say their prayers five times each day. At many public places, including airports and restaurants, there are spaces set aside for prayer, which include a place to wash up beforehand.

Sulistianingsih Nur Fitri with her brothers Adi, left, and Ari, right, in the Raya Mosque in downtown Makassar, Indonesia. (Photo by Scott McMurren)

As I was there on a Sunday, I attended a service at Sacred Heart Cathedral, after which we all went to Starbucks.

There is a big difference between street life in the U.S. and how streets look in downtown Makassar. Many are narrower and the streets are lined with merchant after merchant. Still, there are a number of large super-malls with familiar U.S. brands, including Kentucky Fried Chicken. There also are many European fashion brands in the malls, as well as some French supermarkets. Still, Sulis and her family shop at the local markets, where the produce is cheaper and fresher.

Cars are nice in Makassar, but it's the scooter that rules. They are everywhere — and they are piled high with people and goods. I saw more than one scooter with four people. Thankfully, Sulis and her family got a fully enclosed car to haul us around.

Between seeing the sights and eating at everyone's favorite restaurants, the days were spent reviewing photos and memories from Sulis' time in Anchorage. That was followed closely by invitations to come and visit in Alaska — and by promises to return to see her and her family soon. And not just me, but our whole family.

This round-the-world trip included visits with friends at several locations, including Sonoma, London, Barcelona, Cape Town and now Hong Kong. But it is the family reunification story with our exchange student which was overwhelming.

Over lunch on my last day, Sulis asked me if it was true that the U.S. now is banning Muslims. This was an awkward and embarrassing moment. I told her and her family that was not exactly what President Trump's executive order stated. But I also added that I believed that was his intent — and that I was very sad. The family did not hold me personally accountable for the actions of our new president. In fact, they took it in stride better than I did.

As I walked with Sulis and her family into a large mosque downtown, we all took our shoes off and walked across the beautiful marble floor to where some of the carpets were spread out for people to kneel and say their prayers. As her brothers said their prayers, I stood in back and prayed for a peaceful resolution to these new walls being imposed by our nation which impede travel. I cried.

If you are interested in hosting an exchange student, you can contact the Rotary Club in Anchorage. Julie Erickson is the youth exchange officer for Anchorage South Rotary and they're always looking for host families. Call her at 907-242-9282. Sulis came to the U.S. under the Yes Program, which is designed primarily for students from Muslim countries. Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation.

I'm getting ready to board my Delta flight here in Hong Kong for the 12-hour trip to Seattle. Although I'm taking with me souvenirs of my trip from all over the world, I left a big piece of my heart with Sulis and her family in Makassar.

Isn't it time for you to write a travel love story of your own? We'll be sharing more of these stories at my upcoming "Travel Secrets: Spring Forward" event next week on Feb. 8 at the Alaska Aviation Museum. Cost is $20 (plus $2.09 service charge). Learn more about the program, the prizes and the pizza here at eventbrite.com.

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