Chapter 1: Hong Kong and the Zen of Inadvisable Destinations

“Oh my God, you were in Hong Kong?? With all the massive protests and police brutality craziness? You were on the very front lines of the fight for democracy? How was it?”

“Uhm, we went to Disneyland. It was great. I got to meet Goofy.”

“. . .”

This is that story.

As you’re no doubt aware, there’s some shit going on in Hong Kong. Protests over a bill that would have allowed China to basically kidnap people from Hong Kong and put them on trial in mainland China just for shits blew up this year into a full-fledged push for democracy for the former British colony that was given over to Chinese control in 1997. The promised “One Country, Two Systems” policy that China has been slowly trying to erode into “One Country, You Heard Us, One Country” is basically on fire and no one knows what’s going to happen next. China’s efforts to brutally crack down on the unrest have backfired into the protests blossoming exponentially, with hundreds of thousands of people taking part this past week. It’s pretty awesome.

Shortly after I was at the DMZ in North Korea in 2017, a North Korean border guard declared “fuck this noise!” in Korean (I don’t think they actually have Korean words for “fuck this noise” I think they just praise Kim Jong-un slightly less enthusiastically when they mean that) and made a run for the border, ultimately escaping into South Korea in spite of being shot multiple times dickishly by his own fellow DPRK border guards.

After this story broke, I started thinking about the energy we bring to the places we visit, whether we’re aware of it or not. Did that border guard unknowingly pick up on the energy of all the tourists from less-repressive countries, me included, visiting the DMZ every day? Was he reacting to this when he decided he’d rather die than live in North Korea another day? By our standard way of looking at things, of course this seems far-fetched, but as I travel around the world and have experience after experience involving bringing specific energy to places that need it, and seeing the effects of that first-hand, I’ve had to expand my own mind and it no longer seems far-fetched to me.

Reading about the protests in Hong Kong made me want to be there in person. Visiting Tiananmen Square in 2017 made me wish I’d been there to see the pro-democracy protests back in 1989. Now I had the chance to be on the ground when something just as important, maybe even more so, was happening. I probably wasn’t going to join in the protests, as a tall white guy it didn’t seem likely I’d be able to blend in enough to get away with that, but I felt like just by being there in person I could contribute to the energy building in Hong Kong and I wanted to at least plug into that.

Also I really wanted to go to Hong Kong Disneyland. Hey, not everything can be selfless.

“Weren’t you worried about getting caught up in the chaos and getting blasted with a fire hose full of blue paint or something?”

Well yeah but I was also worried about not going to Hong Kong and never finding out what was going on with Hong Kong Phooey. I mean, what exactly was that cartoon all about? Dogs can’t do karate. That shit’s bananas. So there was danger on both sides of the equation.

Drifting through the clouds and over Kowloon and Hong Kong island was magical. The steep mountains poked up from a carpet of skyscrapers, as thin, whispy clouds mystically curled around their green slopes. Wow. This feels like a dream.

Landing in Hong Kong, the airport was utterly empty. Hmmm. Yeah, I guess we’re the only tourists who weren’t scared off by everything happening here. I’d never been in an international airport that was this empty before.

We got our bags and after multiple mishaps eventually found our Uber hiding on the second floor of a parking garage across the street (??). Disneyland shares Lantau Island with the airport, so getting there was a pretty short ride.

Disneyland was empty.

Oh man, are they closed?

We checked our bags and approached the turnstiles. Oh, the park’s open. There’s just nobody here.

We walked through the gates and into Main Street. We were two of about a hundred people in the entire park. Holy shit. This is amazing.

My mom hadn’t been to any Disneyland since she was a kid in the early 60s. I quickly explained to her that we were experiencing a miracle. We had a Disneyland all to ourselves. This is crazy.

I felt like I was in one of the stories I’d heard about Michael Jackson (or whatever eccentric billionaire you prefer) renting out the entirety of Disneyland for the day just for his friends/victims. We’d somehow done that ourselves, without the nosejob or the orangutan or the victims.

Our original plan had been to spend the first half of the day at Disneyland, then the rest of the day sightseeing Hong Kong, taking in the sights of the city and the giant Buddha. But it quickly became clear that not taking advantage of this particular stroke of luck would be like kicking God in the balls. All-day Disneyland it is!

Empty Toy Story Land. They’d planted tall bamboo along the walkway to make you feel like you’re tiny and walking through the grass on Andy’s lawn. Pretty neat.

So what does Hong Kong Disneyland have? It’s the smallest of all the Disney parks, which sounds like a bummer until you have it all to yourself and can fall in love with how cozy it all is.

And the park has two special things. The first is Mystic Manor.

Mystic Manor is what Hong Kong Disneyland has instead of The Haunted Mansion. Why? Elders are revered in Chinese culture and ghosts are simply seen as deceased elders. They assist the living and watch over their families when they’re not busy messing with stoners and talking dogs. So making a goofy theme park ride about your dead grandpa would be considered pretty disrespectful. Any ghost was somebody’s relative.

So for Hong Kong Disneyland, they changed the concept to be about touring through an explorer’s mansion full of artifacts that come to life when his monkey helper opens an enchanted box. And so for anyone keeping score: Ghosts are taboo in China but monkey magic is A-OK.

The thing that’s really cool about this is that instead of cloning the old ride from the US, this gave Disney an excuse to create a completely new attraction using much newer ride technology, involving trackless carriages and more realistic animatronics and special effects.

All kinds of crazy shit coming to life and chasing you through a mansion turns out to be a lot of fun.

It was also really interesting to think about these cultural differences and reflect on the things we take for granted as “normal” just because we grew up with them. It’s easy to feel like the Chinese are being oversensitive about a bit of fun with ghosts, but we’d react in much the same way to a singing Jesus or a hundred other things that are no big deal in other cultures.

Photo by Sheila O'Donnell

The second great thing at Hong Kong Disney is Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars, a western-themed roller coaster that’s like a cross between Big Thunder Mountain and Expedition Everest. We ended up riding it three times over the course of the day, and it’s the first roller coaster I’ve ever experienced that was exponentially more fun every time we rode it. I wish I could ride it right now.

It’s also located in the midst of a cool old west neighborhood with a working geyser and a bunch of fun slanted buildings.

Having the place to ourselves meant we could ride literally every attraction in the park, something I’d never done before. Even all the little kid rides and the shows. This led to some interesting surprises, like the Toy Story RC Car ride is actually pretty scary. It was fun to get to the top of the U shaped track and lean back to see Hong Kong upside down on the horizon behind us.

And we could take the time to watch a bunch of little kids putting on a hilarious Jedi play.

Uninspired by the food options in the park, we even had time to take the bus to the Disneyland Hotel to have a shockingly awesome vegan lunch there.

Oh you, China! Always making us feel welcome!

After lunch we got to take in another round of our favorite rides before hitting It’s a Small World.

Did I mention the park was really empty?

I hadn’t been on Small World in years and was really surprised how beautiful the Hong Kong version of the ride was. It occurred to me that I’d always seen versions in California that were covered in decades of dirt and faded paint.

Photo by Sheila O'Donnell

It was kind of trippy being on It’s a Small World in a foreign country, since now the United States section was a foreign country rather than “where we are” and the Hong Kong and China parts instead were what was right outside the walls of the ride.

By afternoon, more people had showed up at the park, raising the park’s attendance from “there are more employees than guests here this is insane” to “respectable ghost town.” The afternoon was punctuated by the parade, which was more fun than I expected since I usually avoid the parades at the parks in the US. Having Chinese people playing all the parts in the parade made it bizarre enough to be really entertaining.

I laughed out loud when the sexy Buzz Lightyears paraded by.

The only white girl working at Hong Kong Disneyland was stuck with playing Tinkerbell and about six other roles in the parade.

Photo by Sheila O'Donnell

I had no idea who most of the dancers were even supposed to be but that made it even more fun.

After the parade, lunch safely digested, we hit the teacups.

Photo by Sheila O'Donnell
Photo by Sheila O'Donnell

This was a lot of fun, though you should probably avoid the teacups if you’re over the age of 15, I think they damaged my DNA.

Our evening was filled with the Jungle Cruise and Iron Man and Dumbo and Pooh and Mystic Manor again and Grizzly Mountain again and trying to shoot Ant Man and the Wasp in the head. What a fun day.

Hong Kong Disney closed out the night with another parade, which was super fucking psychedelic.

Photo by Sheila O'Donnell
Photo by Sheila O'Donnell
Pretty sure that's Tinkerbell again.

On the short train ride back into the city, my mom immediately fell asleep sitting up and dropped all her bags on the floor as she snoozed away, which was kind of amazing and hilarious at the same time. I kind of wish I could fall asleep like that and am also kind of glad that I can’t. I gathered up her bags as they slid around the train floor, the Hong Kong passengers looking at us like we were insane. Before we knew it we were walking through the Hong Kong night on the way to our hostel.

I had originally planned the pre-Tibet days of this trip just for myself, to indulge my desire to hike in Taiwan and my newfound desire to visit every Disney park in the world. To my surprise my mom wanted to do all that stuff too, so I managed to Tetris her into the trip at the last second. The downside of this was she was about to see the kind of cheap places I stay when I’m traveling by myself, as opposed to the much nicer hotels I had booked for our Tibet trip.

The Hong Kong hostel did not disappoint, as it was just a small apartment inside a massive apartment block, an apartment that someone had half-heartedly subdivided into tiny rooms. After taking the miniscule service elevator up, we were lackadaisically checked into our room by a guy at the front desk who had a really weird vibe. It was twelve billion degrees in our room, but thankfully the extremely loud window air conditioner took care of that in about six hours flat.

The bathroom was a classic Asian “the entire bathroom is also a shower” bathroom, a fact I celebrated by getting the toilet paper really, really wet during my shower. In the morning we were off like a shot across Hong Kong to catch the ferry to Macau.

Here, protests, protests, protests! Don't be shy!
"I swear you just missed the tanks like five minutes ago."

Instead of leaving from a boringly predictable and recognizable ferry terminal, the ferry creatively left from a bizarre multi-story shopping mall that was hidden inside an office building, which took so long to figure out that we completely missed our ferry. This wasn’t any great tragedy, as we were able to hop on the next one a couple of hours later, though those hours were the ones we had intended to spend sight-seeing Senado Square and Lou Lim Lok Garden in Macau. Oh well, another lifetime.

Chapter 2: How Now, Macau?
Photo by Sheila O'Donnell

We hopped off the ferry at the Macau terminal and went through a brief loop of confusion over how to get to the Macau Tower. We didn’t have any time to spare, as my appointment to climb the Macau Tower was coming up fast. I was immediately turned upside-down by the fact that Uber doesn’t exist in Macau. I took a quick glance at the bus schedule and realized the bus that goes by the tower happened to be the one that was pulling up right this second. I think? We jogged up the road as I dragged my mom’s huge suitcase behind me and we scrambled onto the bus right as the door was closing. Whew!

Oh shit, I don’t have change for the bus. I had just got my first Macau dollars four minutes ago. I offered the driver the smallest bill I had, which was about double what our bus fare would be. He took it and I paused, waiting for change that never came. No English. The bus pulled away. Okay. I guess that was a tip.

As soon as the bus started moving, my mom’s trunk-sized spinner suitcase began to roll away from me, toward the back of the bus. I’d managed to ditch my suitcase at the airport during my layover in Shanghai, but we still had my mom’s bags since she’d flown straight to Taiwan. As I struggled to stop the suitcase from rolling and wrestle it to the ground, I felt a twinge of gratitude that I at least wasn’t trying to do this with two suitcases at once. Sitting down, I wrapped my legs around the suitcase in a somewhat-futile effort to keep it from rolling away every time the bus moved, pulling me across the floor with it.

Also, I was only about 49% sure this was the bus that went to the Macau Tower. The route sign on the bus wall said Torre de Macau. Huh.

I looked around the bus, which was full of Chinese people. They were all speaking Portuguese. Which completely makes sense, as in much the same way that Hong Kong was a British colony, Macau was a Portuguese colony until being turned over to the Chinese in 1999. But it is still really surreal to see Chinese people speaking Portuguese. And not like two of them. All of them. So surreal, like being in a David Lynch movie.

The bus rambled through the streets as I wondered if “Torre de Macau” was Portuguese for “Macau Tower” or possibly “Tour of Macau.” Two very different possibilities. Hmmm. We seemed to be heading toward the tower, more or less, as we trundled through the streets of tiny Macau, one of the most densely-populated places on Earth. The entirety of Macau is only 12.7 square miles, and most of that had been reclaimed from the sea via man-made islands.

Macau is a Special Administrative Region of China, just like Hong Kong, also having their own passports and constitution. If you don’t want to think about it too hard, you can basically think of it as “the Portuguese Hong Kong” and not be far wrong. In practice it’s quite different though, as Macau is generally quite happy to be part of China, with Chinese investment in Macau’s many, many casinos driving their booming economy. Hong Kong, you may have heard, is less thrilled with their own arrangement with China.

Vibe-wise, Macau felt a bit darker to me, compared to Hong Kong. The people were less friendly and the place as a whole felt more materialistic. People were lined up outside malls, waiting for the designer shops to open, as our bus rolled by in the morning light.

Oh shit, there’s the Macau Tower! We’re on the right bus!

Photo by Sheila O'Donnell

We hurriedly dragged our shit off the bus and were checked in and zooming up the tower in a hyper-fast elevator before we knew it.

When I’d started researching Macau and thinking about what I wanted to do there, the Macau Tower stood out. It was 1,109 feet tall, dwarfing everything else in the city. And you can… you can bungee jump off the top?? Holy shit! Oh wow, it’s $500. Hmmm.

I thought about this for a day or two. Once you’ve done bungee jumping, how much of an experience is it to do it again, barely a year later? This was the highest bungee jump in the world, that might be interesting, jumping from 764 feet instead of the 360 feet I had jumped from in New Zealand. Hmmm.

I was surfing around, looking for deals on the bungee tickets, when I discovered something else entirely. You can climb the Macau Tower. What?

I have always been fascinated by the photos online of people (usually Russians) doing urban tower climbs, which usually involve breaking into a prominent skyscraper and free-climbing to the top of the spire for a photo opportunity. This always seemed both mind-boggling and fantastic to me. Mesmerizing. But I never once considered it something I’d actually get to do in this life.

This seems way more interesting than doing another bungee jump.

Sign me up.

The Tower Climb involves taking an elevator up to the tower’s hamburger-shaped observation deck, then climbing a series of ladders inside and then outside the building on up the spire to the very tip top, which I’ve marked helpfully with a terrifying red arrow below.

After meeting my climbing guide and the sweet teenager from Japan that I’d be climbing the tower with, changing into my Tower Climb t-shirt and being fitted for a harness, I left my mom at the observation deck and a guard unlocked the back door that led us into the building’s maintenance shaft. From there, a ladder stretched up far out of sight way up above us. Wow. We’re doing this.

To minimize the chances of plummeting to our deaths, our harnesses were each attached to a little metal wedge that we stuck inside a rail that was welded to the ladder. As we climbed, the wedge would slide up the inside of this rail. If we fell, the shape of the wedge would create friction inside the rail and eventually limit how far we could fall. Hopefully.

Every 20 feet or so, we’d reach a grate that formed a floor across the cavernous, round inside of the tower. At each one of these junctions, we’d unclip from the ladder, swing over to the opposite side, and climb the next 20 feet on the other side of the ladder, since the openings in the grate alternated which side they were on. This was a bit technical since you had to get your metal wedge out of the rail, carabineer yourself to the ladder, flip to the other side, insert the wedge again, unclip, and then climb to the next level. Again and again and again.

This went on for quite a while, as it was a long away up. As we climbed, the tower grew narrower and narrower until there wasn’t much room inside the tube at all.

Finally we made it out onto the first outside deck, where it was a relief to get out of the boiling hot tower interior. Stepping outside, the city spread out far below the thin mesh grate we were standing on. My new Japanese friend and I both sat down as our legs went to jelly looking down from the ledge.

“How are you doing?” I asked him.

“Scared. Very scared.”

“Yeah, me too.”

My whole body was tingling and I felt light-headed. Our guide came up the ladder and handed us water, which I pounded before realizing that was my water for the entire climb. Oops. I’m not sure I’ve ever been that thirsty before.

We’d been climbing for around an hour, and aside from trying not to screw up the carabineer/wedge system and fall to my death, I was trying to make sure I climbed with my legs, as we were repeatedly warned that we’d need our arms, and especially our hands, to be fresh for when we got to the really difficult part of the climb up ahead. This is easier said than done, since it’s natural to pull up with your arms while you’re climbing, and to grip hard with your hands when you’re climbing an endless ladder a thousand feet off the ground. Both no-nos when it came to having the endurance to make it to the top and, just as importantly, back down again.

For the next phase we would be climbing on the outside of the tower, which had grown too narrow to fit a ladder inside. This was much, much scarier than climbing, nestled snug as a bug, inside the safety of the tower. Now we were out in the wind, as the tower itself grew narrower and narrower.

Okay, don’t think about it. Don’t look down. Just put one foot in front of the other. Or above the other, rather. One more step. One more step. One more step. Suddenly my harness locked up and I couldn’t move. AHHH! What is happening??

I looked down and my wedge had cemented itself inside the rail and wasn’t budging. Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me! The sweat ran out of my helmet and down my back, and the cold wind swooping up the tower chilled my wet skin. I was just barely holding onto my nerves enough to be able to climb unthinkingly, hand over hand, up that exterior ladder, practically blacking out. Now I had to stop and think about what I’m doing. Dammit. I have to climb down a bit.

My legs shaking, I maneuvered down a rung on the ladder until the wedge was even with my upper chest. With no pressure on the harness, I was able to fight the wedge loose and slide it down the rail. Okay. Back up. Here we go.

I climbed two rungs and then suddenly realized my leg was stuck inside the ladder. Somehow, the distance between the top of my knee and the bottom of my foot was the exact distance between the rungs of the ladder, perfectly sized for my leg to get wedged inside that gap. I had to stick my knees out sideways like a frog and try to climb like that to prevent getting stuck in the ladder again.

The wedge stuck twice more before I reached the next rest point. Jesus. This is insane.

My Japanese friend and I sat down on the next mesh. We were both clearly only part-way in our bodies at this point. We made small talk, congratulated each other and psyched each other up to make the final ascent, the most difficult stretch of the entire climb, up to the very top of the tower’s spire.

Our guide caught up with us and I told him about my wedge sticking.

“Oh yeah, that’s going to happen. This wasn’t built for someone your height. This is way harder the taller you are. Sorry. Try to keep your chest as close to the tower as you can when you’re climbing, it should stick less.”

Gulp. We rested for a few minutes, the entire Earth spinning below us. The wind picked up and the spire began to sway back and forth in the breeze. Oh God.

“Let’s go.”

The last tall section of the spire had entirely different rungs than the section below it. Rather than a ladder, which wouldn’t have anything to attach to now that the spire was only two feet wide, now we needed to climb metal rungs that stuck straight out of the spire itself. Each one protruded a few inches and looped down to form a rung. The harness rail was welded to the rungs.

The problem was, with the rail in the way, each rung was now too small for me to fit my size 13 feet inside. I’d have to climb the rest of the way by balancing my feet on the skinny nub of the rung sticking perpendicular out of the spire, each one less than a half an inch wide. Jesus.

With each step I had to swing my foot around the outside of the rung and feel around for the narrow little knob I was going to have to stand on. Once I’d found it, I had to test for where the balance point was to get it as close to the middle of the bottom of my foot as I could, so I wouldn’t just slip off the rung. Repeat with the other foot, then pull myself up. One rung down. So many more to go.

On about the fourth rung the wind picked up stronger, bending the spire as it swayed back and forth in the open air. I began to hyperventilate. My whole body was shaking.

Oh man. I don’t think I can do this. I don’t say that lightly, I think I can do anything. I don’t give up on things. But I literally don’t think I can make my feet move to take another step up to the next rung. They’re not listening to me at the moment. My arms were locked out, clenching the rung as the wind tried to blow me off the spire.

Wooh. Light headed.

Okay, breathe. Breathe. I’ve never been this scared before. Wow. Skydiving and bungee jumping are scary, but only for a few seconds, really. This has been completely terrifying for two hours now. And now I’ve hit a new level that I didn’t know existed. My body had decided my mind had clearly lost its shit and wasn’t taking its instructions any more. I clung to the spire as it swayed back and forth in the wind.

Do I climb back down? CAN I climb back down? That doesn’t seem any easier than climbing the rest of the way up. Fuck it, I’m not going down. I’m going to finish this. Breathe. Breathe. I calmed my body down, lifted my foot, and balanced it on the nub of the next rung up. Let’s go.

I forced myself to breathe as deeply as I could at a steady clip and repeated “you can do this you can do this you can do this” as I climbed higher and higher up, the spire bending and swaying. Up, up, up, you can do this, you can do this. One more rung, one more rung, one more rung. My wedge jammed. Goddamn you, not now! Shakily down a step, get it loose, breathe. One more rung, one more rung, one more- wedge jammed. Back down, wiggle it loose. Okay. One more rung, one more rung, one more-

And then, suddenly, I ran out of rungs.

Holy shit, I made it!

The elation was incredible. I was on top of the world.

Once you’re at the top, you want nothing more than to wrap your arms and legs around the spire, close your eyes, and hold on for dear life. You’re unimaginably high up, completely exposed, and the spire itself is rocking back and forth in the wind. But crying in a fetal position rarely makes for good photographs, so this is when your guide coaxes you into finding ways to somehow make this whole thing even scarier.

Take one hand off the railing? Whew. I don’t know. Maybe! Okay, now take your foot off too. Jesus. Okay, I think I… Now lean back! GAAAAAH!

One note: As the pic above illustrates, I had sweat through those pants three times over during the long climb up through the oven-like narrowing tower tube. But for the record, if there’s ever a time in life when it’s completely appropriate to piss yourself, this was definitely it.

Okay, good job. Got the photo. Now do it without any hands!

I swallowed hard and took my hands off the railing, my whole body screaming NO NO NO NO. I knew the harness and clip were probably (probably) going to keep me from plummeting to my death in a fall that would take so long it would get boring before I hit the ground. But my mind and body were in a profound disagreement about how much they trusted this clip.

My guide futzed with his GoPro and selfie stick, searching for the best angle to take the photo.

OH MY GOD DUDE. I grabbed onto the railing. Yeah how about you just let me know when you’re ready.

OK, go!

One solitary cell in my brain said this was fine, it’s a decent harness and they wouldn’t be able to do this if they were just killing people left and right. Every other cell in my entire body was just going FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK.

Okay, cool. Survived that. Ain’t no thing.

By the way, see that white deck way below me on the left? That’s not the observation deck where we started. That’s just the mesh where we rested between the two sections of outdoor climbing. We were WAY up there.

My guide wanted to take his favorite photo next. I love this photo for how nonchalant it looks, because getting into this position was fucking terrifying.

When you’re standing on the top of the spire, it takes all your willpower to let go of the railing for just a few seconds. So imagine having to not only let go, but turn all the way around, facing the abyss, with your back to the spire, taking tiny steps on a platform that’s narrower than the length of your shoes. Now, sit down, with nothing to hold onto and nothing in front of you but a lot of air and Macau.

It wasn’t pretty, but I somehow managed to sit down without putting the harness to the ultimate test, and we got a bitchin photo. Standing back up wasn’t much easier or less scary.

Once I stood up again, the wind picked up and the spire began to sway back and forth several feet in the breeze. Which is- Yep. These pants may not get through the day unshit.

I looked over and my Japanese friend was gripping the railing like the Hulk and hyperventilating.

“You okay?”

“Very scared. Very scared.”

I know how you feel.

Our guide had a solution for this. He climbed up onto the top of the spire, like a possessed gargoyle, and began rocking the spire back and forth even harder, so that the swaying increased in distance and intensity.

My Japanese friend and I looked at each other, eyes huge. Then we laughed and started throwing our weight into swaying the spire back and forth with him. The tower bowed and flexed gracefully as we rocked the entire thing back and forth.

This bizarrely broke the tension and my Japanese friend was fine. We spent about twenty minutes up there, taking in the view in every direction and marveling at the sensation of being in such a physically unlikely spot. This is easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

The climb back down was fascinating, because it was technically harder than the climb up, but actually somewhat less scary. It was more difficult because I couldn’t see where I was going, each step down was just a blind stab with my foot, feeling around and touching the various shwag attached to the spire until I was reasonably sure I was stepping onto the arm of one of the rungs. Then the next foot. Weight shifted down, and I didn’t fall. Whew! One rung down. So, so many more to go.

But the fascinating thing was that it wasn’t quite as scary, simply because I had made the climb up. I’m amazed by how quickly we as human beings adapt to things, and this was one of the most stark examples I have ever experienced. My vast experience of having done this exactly once before, in the opposite direction, was enough for my body to feel like “Oh yeah, this is just a normal thing we do” as opposed to feeling like “OH MY GOD WHAT ARE YOU DOING OH MY GOD OH MY GOD” the entire way up.

The wedge did bone me a couple times on the way down, but even this was less scary the second time through, and I had figured out the bizarre, awkward bowed frog-leg climbing stance necessary to keep my legs from getting stuck between the ladder rungs.

Before long I had reached the lower platform, and it was back into the tower and down the interior ladders. This felt like old hat all of a sudden, like I was some kind of tower maintenance worker who did this kind of thing every day.

One of the things that amused me during the entire climb, and helped take my mind off of how completely terrifying it was, was to imagine some future incarnation of my soul searching back and vaguely remembering this life. When past life memories come to you, they generally come in disconnected snippets and scenes, and from those you kind of logic out who you were and what you must have been doing in that life. Planting crops? You were probably a farmer. Chanting in a monastery? Probably a monk. It cracks me up to think of some future me trying to make sense of this life.

“I think I was a… I think I did tower maintenance? Wait no, I’m in a submarine. I think I lived in… Bolivia? What the fuck?”

This feeling of comfort and normalcy was something you had to combat a bit, because on the way down the inside of the tower, your wedge would fall out at the bottom of each rail if you weren’t paying attention, meaning you were no longer harnessed to anything at all.

About 40 minutes later we had made our way down the long, long series of ladders and were passing through the service doors leading to the observation deck. Wow, I can’t believe- Oh hey, there’s my mom!

“How was it?”

“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was amazing.”

I was floating. My body was running on pure adrenaline. But I wasn’t done. The Tower Climb also came with a free Skywalk. And with barely enough time to catch my breath I was being harnessed up to walk around the edge of the observation deck, on the outside of the building.

Photo by Sheila O'Donnell

While I was waiting to clip into the skywalk tether, I watched the people six feet away from me who were about to bungee jump off the tower. I had no regrets at all about choosing the Tower Climb, it was way more interesting and unique of an experience and I was pretty sure scarier than the bungee jump. But who knows? Maybe bungee jumping from this high is way more intense than the canyon jumps I did in New Zealand?

I watched as the next jumper was very slowly maneuvered into place on the gang plank sticking out over the abyss. After much careful preparation, inching him into place, he leaned forward while the guides held onto handles on the back of his harness. He was leaning forward off the plank at a slight angle for a split second before the guides let go and he dropped off the tower and out of our view in a blink.

Ah, okay. Yeah, the tower climb was way scarier than that. Having someone else release you like that is the least scary way to bungee jump, completely removing the element of needing to psyche yourself up to make yourself jump. Doing the bungee jump here would have been disappointing after having done the run and jump and the backwards somersault off that cliff in New Zealand.

Our skywalk group was led through the gate and out onto the rim of the observation deck. There was nothing between us and the abyss now, though we were at 764 feet off the ground, compared to the 1,109 feet I’d been to, at the top of the tower. The rest of the group was wearing orange Skywalk shirts, leaving me the odd man out in my yellow Tower Climb shirt.

The difference quickly became obvious, as for the skywalk folks, this was by far the scariest thing they’d ever done, while I had literally just finished doing something much scarier. When it came time to stop and pose for photos on our walk around the diameter of the observation deck, two of the skywalkers refused to step within six feet of the edge for any reason, and the other two would only attempt the tamest of the suggested photo poses. The two Japanese girls in front of me were absolutely adorable in their sheer terror and excitement at merely being outside at this altitude.

They both gasped and said “Holy shit!” in Japanese when I plopped down on the narrow arm connecting the walkway to the tower, my feet dangling over Macau 764 feet below.

Photo by Sheila O'Donnell

Our guide was thrilled to have a Tower Climber in the group since I was the only one who was up for taking the really fun photos.

The Japanese girls applauded after this one, and I returned the compliment later when they sat down near the edge.

The photos kind of look like an illusion of some sort, like there’s some other lower ledge out of the frame, but it really was straight down to the ground from that point. This was actually a lot of fun, and not as lame as I expected it to be after having just done the Tower Climb. Mom watched from inside and got some fun photos.

Photo by Sheila O'Donnell

After getting back inside, I realized we needed to beat cheeks to not miss our flight to Shanghai. The taxi driver didn’t speak any English at all, so after pantomiming “airplane“ I resorted to a valuable trick I’ve learned for taking taxis in foreign countries: Follow the route on Google Maps to make sure they’re actually taking you to where you want to go. I had a brief scare that he might be taking us to the Hong Kong airport instead, but we ended up at the Macau airport as hoped.

I was starving, but the airport McDonald’s wouldn’t sell me French Fries, because I had just exchanged all my Macau dollars and instead of credit cards, they only accepted a few Chinese phone-based payment systems like WeChat Pay and Alipay, all of which require a Chinese bank account and are therefore only available to Chinese people. Ah, Macau. It was just as well, as we walked up to our gate right as boarding was nearing completion, like we were picking up the plane from a valet. We pulled off this trick for something ridiculous like ten flights in a row on this trip.

I slouched into my plane seat, adrenaline crashing and exhausted, and tried very hard to not smell like I’d just spent the day roasting in a giant oven and then flailing completely terrified halfway to outer space, as I drifted off to sleep.

. . .



Bolivia There are good and bad times to suddenly realize you haven’t been on a bicycle in 15 years. Barreling down a steep mountain in Bolivia at dizzying speeds is one of the bad times. You might think it would be comforting to find yourself on a $3,000 downhill racing bike at this moment, but in actuality it’s like realizing you can’t drive while you’re behind the wheel of a Lamborghini and all the cops are chasing you.

Scotland A dark blur would arc just over our heads in the twilight and then suddenly change direction, making sure we knew that waggagawaagaaaggaagaaagaaa. We stood out there for a long time theorizing about if it was some kind of robotic bird, or a bat, a huge insect, or a very small flying saucer. In the end I decided it must be a bat because I didn’t want to think there were only tinfoil caravan walls between us and bugs that freaking big.

Israel Oh my God, am I high?

“So rich it gives you a little buzz!”

A little buzz? I tried to remember if the Chocolate Shaman had said it would give you a little buzz, or if he said it would completely fuck you up like Hunter S. Thompson on assignment and you’d wake up naked in the desert in the middle of the night, yelling about bats.