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9
Jan 03
Thu

Trip Roundup

I got a bit tied up when I came home with things, but now that I’m free again, I’ll finish writing about the trip. This will be a big post.

The 26th: Caveat Emptor
Kicked off the day with breakfast with Amy and her mum. In another one of those “degrees of separation” trackbacks I’m so fond of, Gerald and I both know Amy through two different routes. With Gerald, she’s a schoolmate’s cousin. With me, I first met her when she was the year 12 formal partner of a schoolmate of mine, which eventuated because she went to his sister’s school. Coincidentally, she’s also in the same dragonboat team as me now. Tangled web, eh.

The rest of the day was spent shopping for a digital camera. Let me say upfront that, if you are buying a digital camera in Hong Kong, be careful. My main requirement for a new digicam was that it should be able to fit in my pocket. After research, my original intentions were to buy a Canon Digital Ixus v3 – compact, well featured, good quality and 3.2 megapixels (RRP is A$1000, best price in Oz: A$820). We found one shop selling it in the high HK$2000s (about A$700), so that was a decent deal. But then we sighted the Olympus C-50 Zoom going for HK$3500 (A$815). It was a compact, a centimetre fatter and wider than the Canon, but still decently sized. Its main selling point was that it was 5 megapixels. I knew nothing about the model, so I went back to the hotel, jumped on the net and did a bit of reading. The C-50 retails for US$800, received positive reviews and had most of the features I wanted, so the Olympus it was.

The first strange thing we came across was the selling price of the digicam. Up and down Kowloon, from Mong Kok to Tsim Sha Tsui we asked for the digicam (with an international warranty). Prices ranged from HK$3500 to HK$4900. About 20 shops later, we were still clueless as to the reason for a A$300 price difference. And we were getting annoyed that we had to ask for a price at most of the stores, because it’s common practice to not stick price tags on goods. We came across a camera shop on a street parallel to Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. After a quick round of bargaining, we underwent price-shock: the digicams were being offered to us at HK$3180 a piece. Out came our credit cards and down went our signatures on the dotted lines. We had to wait 20 minutes for them to retrieve stock from their warehouse, so the salesman took us into a small room to teach us how to use the camera. That’s when things started to happen.

A perhaps not so well known sales tactic, but a common one nonetheless, is a modified bait and switch trick. You go into a store wanting to buy one thing, but you come out with something different because the store has convinced you to buy something else. They rope you in with a low price on your original item, show you it, then dissuade you from buying it, switching you to a “better” model which has a much higher profit margin. Only it’s not really illegal, because in bait-and-switch advertising, the bait is “out of stock” or “not for sale”, but these HK merchants are still willing to sell you the goods you originally wanted.

So, the onus is on the salesman to switch you onto a different product – which isn’t going to be easy, right? The incredible thing about this is that this can happen without you realising it, even if you are aware of the tactic, which I was fully (garnered from dad’s tales of his shopping experiences in HK a decade ago, and from my shopping experiences 3 years ago). I don’t know if it is the skill of the salesman, or the stupidity of the customer, but the relative ease of which they can start to make you hesitate about buying the camera that you spent hours researching on the net, reading through impartial reviews and opinions, and begin considering the model that they, a party with a huge vested interest and bias, are recommending – of which you have next to zero knowledge – is very troubling.

I know my technology. I was very well informed when it came to the compact digital camera market at that time. I knew about bait-and-switch, and yet, they almost managed to do the switch on us. Almost.

There was something a little different and dodgy about this camera store. The guy had taken us into the room with the Olympus and had already started to bad mouth its quality. Here we go again, I thought. He snapped a couple shots, and stuck them up on the TV. We were agape. The quality was pretty cruddy. Washed out, faded, slightly blurred photos. He brought in a Nikon CP5700 for comparison (Gerald already owns a 5000, so he wasn’t trying to push the 5700 on us). No contest, the pictures were much better. We knew the CP5700 was a class above the C-50, but the picture quality on the Olympus was way, way below par. At this point, doubt started to enter our minds.

We were beginning to doubt the quality of the Olympus. Despite all its glowing reviews, here we were seeing its image quality, which was quite frankly, crap. Surely the reviews would have picked up on this? Or maybe this is just how the camera is? What on earth was going on? Our camera hadn’t arrived from the warehouse yet. Alternatives?

“Here, have a look at this Fujifilm’s quality. This F402 is 4 megapixels.” (Although he neglected to mention it was an interpolated resolution.) We sat and compared the Fuji’s quality to the Olympus, and it won hands down. Now we were worried. After extolling the virtues of the Fuji F402 for a few minutes, the next sentence jolted me back into reality: “This camera sells for HK$5000, but I’ll do it to you for HK$4500.” He was doing the switch. At this point I shut up and was adamant in not considering the F402. Gerald, on the other hand was beginning to get drawn in. Blood in the water. The salesman started to focus all his attention on him.

I had to pull Gerald out of his spiral, so I said that regardless of the quality, we can sell the Olympus back in Australia new for 75% of its Aus RRP, and still make a profit. All good. Then, second shock. “Erm, this model you are buying – it is Japanese. The camera menus, and manuals, in Japanese.” Shit. What the hell were we supposed to do with a Japanese version of the camera? We couldn’t use it without obvious difficulties, let alone resell it back in Australia!

“Never mind, how hard can a camera be to use, huh?” the shark said, smiling wryly at us. “By the way, the Fujifilm is in English.” We were in a rut. I stuck to my guns with the Olympus, but was starting to panic inside. The shark dropped the price on the F402 to HK$4200. Gerald paused, then started talking in a Anglo-Cantonese (swapping between English and Cantonese):

“Look, we’ll duck back to our hotel and check out the Fuji’s price, then return and buy it if it’s better.”
“No, don’t waste your time. Wait until your C-50 comes, then go back to your hotel room, check, and come back.”
“No no, we’re not doing anything now, we might as well check now.”
“Oh what, don’t you trust me?” he retorted.
“No, it’s not that…”
“You’ve seen our discount over Australia on the Olympus, the discount on the Canon will be similar!”
“But… I’d like to check back at the hotel still–“
“– you don’t trust me?! Look if you are going to be like that and not trust me, I won’t even sell it to you at $4200!”
“No need, no need, I trust you.”

Meanwhile, I was figuring out if I could get out of the deal altogether. Otherwise, we were going to get burnt bad, one way or the other. I received an SMS from Dad saying he wanted to meet up at the Timberland store. In the next few minutes, a miracle occurred. I asked Gerald whether it was possible to back out of a deal even though we had signed. My reasoning was that we hadn’t taken delivery of the goods yet. With online retailers, you can cancel orders even after authorising payment, so it is possible, but I wasn’t aware whether it is a consumer right to be able to cancel orders before delivery (any lawyers out there that can answer this for me?). Gerald spoke again, “My cousin wants to cancel his order.”
“Huh, why?” he said, turning to me. Think fast, think fast.

“Because you are scum and are ripping us off.” Nope, can’t use that one.
“Because you are a person of questionable parentage and I’ve changed my mind.” Nup, not that one either.
“Ummm… my Dad just SMSed me. He has been looking for a camera and just bought one without um… giving me warning. He’s on Hong Kong island… so uh, I don’t need to buy a camera anymore.” Oh wait, did I say that one aloud? I guess that will have to do.

In an amazing event, which I’m still not sure of why it happened, he asked Gerald if he wanted to cancel his order too, and then… complied. He didn’t get angry, or anything. He gave us back our credit card slip (all 3 copies) and tore them up (thank goodness they weren’t using electronic transacting). We exited, extremely relieved to come out of that ordeal without loss, putting our faith in American Express’ card fraud protection program. Over the next few hours, we tried to figure out what the fark happened, piecing together the puzzle bit by bit.

Step 1: We tested the Olympus at a few more stores. The picture quality was much, much better. We suspect the C-50 we were looking at in the scam store was either a pre-production model, or had been tampered with for bait-and-switch purposes. Our faith in the C-50 was reaffirmed.
Step 2: We checked the price of the Fujifilm F402 digicam. The first store we checked at had a price tag on the camera. It read HK$2500. Ouch.
Step 3: We started specifying “international model, not the Japanese model” when asking for prices. The prices jumped up to the low HK$4000s. (Japanese stock, “soi forr” is reasonably common in HK. It’s cheaper, but everything’s in Japanese, including the 110 volt power requirements.)
Step 4: We revisited the 30 plus stores we’d previously gone to and started specifying “full package, including battery charger, remote, English manual, international warranty and international model” when asking for prices. The prices were revised again and rocketed to high HK$4000s.

Bingo! That’s what was different. We’d been shopping in the past two days for different camera models and packages, and not a single salesman in any store had mentioned anything about differences.

I ended up buying my Olympus in Singapore.

The 27th
Caught up with Lill (Aussie, HK-born) over lunch, one of the topics of conversation being a complaint of how she didn’t manage to get around to straightening her hair because it would have taken 6 hours and few hundred bucks (in contrast, my A$3, 20 minute haircut in Thailand was surprisingly decent). After lunch, we went digicam shopping AGAIN, but this time for a Canon D-60 (mmm, very nice) for her boyfriend, which she ended up purchasing the next day.

Went to the HK Museum of History, where they had recently opened an exhibition on the history of HK. We’d walked through the whole floor, when the announcement came that the museum was closing in 15 minutes. Then we realised that there was another half of the exhibition that was on the 2nd floor. Oops. We had to run through all the interesting bits.

The 28th
Met up with Kit (Aussie, HK-born). Bummed around the whole day. Tried to catch an afternoon session of Infernal Affairs on HK island, only to find that if you book 30 minutes before the show, only front row seats will be available. We ended up returning to Mong Kok and booking into a 10.40pm session. More bumming around. Wandered through Temple Street. On one end there is a long row of fortune tellers charging HK$80 for their babblings. Apparently if you ask them, “if you can tell the future, why aren’t you rich?” To which their standard response is, “I’m being punished for telling people more than they should know.” Which of course is bollocks. Just form a fortune telling cartel and tell each others’ fortunes.

Kit felt he needed something herbal to consume to address the problem of being too “eet hay” (peculiar asian concept that some foods are… hmm… “heaty” and need “cooling” foods or drinks to balance it out). We walked down Temple Street past a tramp of prostitutes (a couple of which barely looked 16) and sat down at a herbal place serving “turtle jelly” (guai leen goh). We spent the next half hour trying to convince Kit that “guai leen goh” was indeed made from “guai leen” (turtles), of which it is.

Movie was quite good. Best cop movie I’ve seen in a long time, although the Mong Kok cinema is crap and is in mono sound.

The 29th: Chinese Roots
When we arrived into Hong Kong, my uncle had the flu. On the second day, my grandfather caught it. He spent the rest of the trip in his hotel room. From there, it was transmitted to the rest of the family, catching everyone. When it got to Dad, he was bedridden for almost two days. I thought I had managed to evade it until it caught up with me on the very last day of HK.

The 29th was our day trip into China, so after waking up at the obscene hour of 6.30am, we caught a ferry up to the Cantonese speaking district of “poon yue”. Specifically, “poon yue dai loong” (something something big dragon). This was the hometown of my grandmother, and it was here that I was told I’d be able to “get in touch with my roots”.

The China air was frigid when we disembarked. We made our way past the unsmiling immigration officials, and got picked up my grandmother’s relatives, all descendants of my great uncle (paternal grandmother’s brother, or “kow koong”). The 13 of us set out in an overcrowded minivan they’d hired for the day. First stop was a Buddhist site featuring a 40m statue of some Buddhist god or something atop a hill.

One of the problems with China is that they have no eye for aesthetics. When they attempt to beautify things, they appear incredibly artificial, which detracts majorly from the presentation. While you understand their intentions, they just haven’t got the hang of it. It seems to be a problem with not adapting to the environment, but making the environment adapt to them. (Much akin to them “beautifying” Ayer’s Rock/Uluru by chiselling it into a cube shape.) In this case, they had flowerpots with lettuce in them lining gardenbeds. Lettuce amongst flowers? I mean, come on. That, and the Chinese people’s overwhelming urge to build everything using grey concrete. Concrete everywhere. I hear they have concrete urinals elsewhere in China, which stink to high heaven (waste slides over porcelain, it sticks to concrete).

The worship site was quite interesting. They had this shrine alcove you could buy firecrackers for. People would run up to the shrine holding a bundle of crackers, then gingerly lighting the fuse before piss bolting out of the area. As a result, you could hear the thunderous roar of crackers no matter where you were on the hill.

Evidence of China’s considerable economic growth is readily visible. We were expecting my grandmother’s village to be exactly that, a village. Instead, we came across a rapidly industrialising town. Much infrastructure had been recently developed. Too much, in fact. The three lane highways were grossly underutilised by a populace still trying to come to grips with lane markings. As with all lesser developed countries, the horn is used frequently as a signalling and warning device (as opposed to one of road rage as in Australia). My uncle was undertaking a “take-no-prisoners” approach to driving. Zebra crossing ahead? No worries, just let loose with a few blasts on the horn, rev the engine, speed up, and that 80 year old great-grandmother crossing the road will move out of the way for sure.

By the time we rocked up at the restaurant for lunch, the rest of the clan had arrived. A veritable entourage of young and old relatives I never knew I had. They all came on scooters. It looked like a bikie gang… but of scooters. Enough relos to fill up three large tables. It was at that point in time it struck me how much like mainlanders these people were. My uncles were all slouching in the typical mainlander garb of a well-worn and frayed cheap suit, loafers, unkempt hair, chain smoking away on cigarettes. They were so much like peasants. Well, that’s because they were. And I was related to them.

I must stress here that I neither intend to be condescending nor patronising here. This realisation did not come with such a feeling. What I realised was that these were my roots, and my roots were not as far away as I imagined. All Chinese, everywhere in the world, have migrated from China to seek better fortune somewhere along the line. These mainlander ancestors, amongst the billion or so other mainlanders, would likely have been peasants. For me, my paternal grandmother had migrated from China to Singapore. She got lucky and married my grandfather, who was exceedingly well-to-do at the time (and still is currently, somewhat, despite his various rash and excessive youthful vices). But even on my grandfather’s side, migration only occurred with his father – my great-grandfather – living in poverty in China, migrated with nothing to Singapore after selling off the family pig for $5 for a boat ticket. Within a couple decades, he was a business tycoon, mixing it in Singapore’s colonial high society. It only takes one generation to change things, but it can be many generations before that happens. I’m just one of the more fortunate ones in the extended family.

Despite me having bestowing the undignified classification of peasantry on my not-so-distant relatives, they pulled no stops for lunch. Their hospitality and generosity was exceptional. Put it this way, they certainly weren’t living in poverty, which I suppose is a tangible result of China’s economic progress – a falling percentage of working class in poverty. A large plate of live (or at least, freshly killed) prawns was served. They were small and required much effort in peeling them. Nearing the end of lunch, everyone seemed to have lost interest in peeling the prawns, so me and Gerald began the process of consuming half a plate of prawns. Someone noticed we seemed to like prawns (well, we do – they are expensive in Sydney, and no one was eating them so we were acting as waste disposal units – but it’s not like it’s our favourite food) and when we finished our current plate, another half-full plate was plonked down. Compliments from the other table. After devouring that, yet another plate was put in front of us. We gave up after that.

We left for a tour of the residential part of town. We pulled up to a street, across from my grandmother’s old primary school, which was now converted into a ceremonial hall. An archaic steam-driven pile driver across the road was meanwhile driving metal rods into the ground as foundation for a new building. Its clanging reverberated throughout the village. It was fascinating to watch in action, but the din it was making was not insignificant. Again there were many instances of aesthetic efforts gone horribly wrong. Ponds built in locations around the town were concrete eyesores, filled with stagnant, black and odorous water. It didn’t do anything to bolster their image when we were told that one of my Dad’s aunts had committed suicide in one of those ponds years ago. Heck, all you’d have to do is fall in accidentally and it’s game over.

People smoke everywhere. Convenience stores around the village are ill-stocked with merchandise rapidly nearing or past their expiry dates, and with non-perishables lingering around from the era of Mao. The exception is the ubiquitous availability of cigarettes, whose turnover must be earning the tobacco companies a tidy profit indeed.

Eventually we made it to the houses, which were all much the same. Devoid of carpet, they were nonetheless high-roofed and quite spacious (partially due to the fact of the relative lack of furniture). A water well in the yard was a remnant from the days when there wasn’t running water. I was aware that China had an “open door” economic policy in the late 70s, but it seemed like the town had an open door social policy too. We tramped through over half a dozen homes, a couple were rented out to non-family tenants, but they didn’t seem to mind when we flocked through their kitchen unannounced. One interesting three storey house we toured was uninhabited. It was actually still under construction, and had been for 20 years already. As there was no one to live in it, the family was not in any hurry to complete it.

The town was moving into the Internet age slowly too. My relos were quite eager in pointing out that they had a net-connected computer. “Gnor dei yow deen lo lau seong, lay tai-ha!” they kept insisting (We have a computer upstairs, go and look!) I swapped e-mail addresses with Warm, a cousin there who was also studying English at university. Paradoxically, her first Chinese name is “sheet” (snow or ice) but her English name is “Warm”. Unfortunately with my atrocious language skills, I couldn’t wrangle a satisfactory response from her on that matter.

Eventually we tired of walking around. I got bored. I took to pestering the local wildlife to amuse myself. My uncle kept a coup of chickens, one which had escaped from the pen. So Gerald herded the loose fowl towards me, and I managed to nab it, before tossing it over the fence back into the pen. That was strangely satisfying. Then I spent a few minutes herding another stray chicken through the streets. Chickens are stupid. You move left, they move right. You move right, they move left. Thus, it is very easy to direct them where you want them to go. I spent the next few minutes chasing the chicken (reminds me of the French Nike ad of the guy being chased by an angry chicken). During that time, I observed my peasant cousins, aunts and uncles watch me curiously. I can only imagine what they must have been thinking about “that strange cousin” from Australia’s peculiar fascination with the local poultry.

Dogs dragging around their litters of pups also frequented the streets. Extremely cute balls of fur flopping around in the dust. I soon learnt that those dogs were ultimately destined for the dinner pot, for soup and meat, which is understandable and not repulsive if you can accommodate for a cultural paradigm shift.

After a bunch of photos and more chatting, the daytrip was over and we returned to Hong Kong.

The 30th
Met up with Jamie and Kit. Since we considered Jamie as pretty much a local, we placed responsibility on her to decide what we should do for the day. After failing to find the prospect of Ocean Park enticing (an overpriced theme park), we decided to head for the outer burbs and see the Wishing Tree. An MTR, KCR and bus trip later, we arrived at the tree. Basically, these people sell you pieces of paper, carrying messages of luck and fortune, which is weighted with an orange, connected with some string. The aim is to throw the bundle into the tree and hope it sticks. The theory is, the higher your orange goes (and sticks), the more likely your wish will eventuate. If the orange doesn’t stick, then you’re stuffed. And there’s also the prospect of your projectile causing someone serious head injuries when it returns back to earth. (They aren’t familiar with the concept of yelling “heads up!” out there.) As long as you keep a respectable distance, it’s fun to watch other people grapple with their predicament – especially women, whose arms and shoulders are simply not designed anatomically for throwing. Oranges miss the tree completely. Some even fly backwards away from the tree. Some catch on other bundles of paper, fail to stick, and bring other people’s wishes down with them. Hilarious stuff, not that it’s meant to be a game. Tourist note: orange vendors sell bundles for $3 each, although you can get a deal that will get you 4 oranges for $4.

We returned to Tsim Sha Tsui afterwards and had a walk along the harbour side. There were many weddings going on simultaneously there, and we took to chasing after married couples to uh, check them out. Eventually we decided to go into the Science Museum and Planetarium. The Planetarium is a hemispherical dome, upon which an array of projectors cast images up onto the roof, so you have vision all around and above you. Chairs are reclined backwards for ease of viewing the movies and documentaries they show there. I was here last when I was about six, and was thrilled. Unfortunately, fifteen years on, the current experience left a lot to be desired. Probably because the projection technology was decades old, the documentary taught me nothing, the chairs were reclined, and we all fell asleep.

Dinner finally rolled around, and what was going to be a dinner for four in Causeway Bay turned out to be a dinner for ten as Gerald and I roped in a few more friends. Kit and I went back to Jordan to pick up Glen, a Singapore computer engineer also studying at UNSW, from his hotel (finally, someone who has no Cantonese skills like me). Sometime after that, we made our way to Lan Kwai Fong, bar and club centre of Hong Kong, and crawling with drunk expats. We had drinks. I decided it was once again time to test my allergy to alcohol (I never learn, do I?) and managed to down half a cocktail before a rash was observed on my neck and I was persuaded to stop because no one relished the possibility of having to drag a vomiting sick bloke through the streets of Hong Kong at that hour.

The 31st: New Year’s Eve
The final day of 2002 rolled around and I met up with Derek for lunch. The last time I’d seen him was when we were both in HK three years ago. This is despite the fact that we both live in Sydney. Shocking. I learnt that since we last spoke, he’d started a grad law degree (like the one I am planning to do this year). I also learnt that in HK for some strange reason, lawyers earn a packet. Grads receive around A$90k, with that doubling after two years. The HK tax rate is also only 17%.

For the actual New Year’s celebrations, I met up with Kit once more and at 11pm we headed off to Lan Kwai Fong. However, we were obviously clueless, as virtually everyone knew that if you wanted to be in LKF for the countdown, you had to be there hours before the event. When we arrived at Central, police were directing the human traffic. A cop laughed when we said whether it was possible to get in, saying that there were 10000 people attempting that currently, but there’s simply no more room. So, at the risk of being stuck in the middle of nowhere, we jumped on the MTR and hurried back to Tsim Sha Tsui where we knew they’d be doing a harbourside countdown.

We arrived at the station and emerged above ground at 11.50pm, only to run smack into a brick wall of people. We were on Nathan Road, on the side wall of the Peninsula Hotel. All the action was happening just around the corner, on the road that runs perpendicular, along the harbour. Our line of sight did not reach around the corner, so we began to squeeze our way through the crown inch by inch, until we finally were stuck for good – literally hemmed in by the press of bodies in front and behind us. Luckily, the crowd was pretty tame. There wasn’t any alcohol out on the streets, and at one stage during a forward charge, Kit yelled out in Cantonese to the people behind to stop pushing… and they did.

Thank goodness everyone in HK is so short. I pity the girls standing around me that barely reached my chin level, they didn’t see much that night. Not that there was very much to see. Lifting myself on tiptoes, and craning my neck around the corner, all I saw was a sea of heads. Countdown came, countdown went. No fireworks, just a few hoots, a bit of silly string sprayed into the air, and the tide of people slowly started to reverse. Not content to waddle around at 1m a minute, we escaped down a side alley.

There’s a bar/restaurant up the Peninsula Hotel called Felix. In there is meant to be a real swanky urinal. The urinal wall is made out of glass, overlooking HK, so apparently you can “piss on HK city”. Out of curiousity, and because we weren’t going anywhere fast for the time being, we snuck in a side entrance into the hotel and wandered around. We found Felix. There were no restaurant tables left (naturally all booked out), but the bar was not full. Unfortunately, the HK$300 cover charge discouraged us mere mortals from entering, and we gave up on that idea and started making our way back up Nathan Road.

HK people work crazy hours. I wrote that all stores were open on Christmas. On the Christmas Eve dinner, one of the girls there in the fashion industry said she was moving back to Australia because of the HK working hours – 9am-midnight days weren’t uncommon. Derek’s sister, working in a law firm received a company memo said they could finish work early on Christmas Eve at 1pm. The memo came with a disclaimer: “(only if there is no work to do)”. Naturally, there was more work to do. So, there we were walking down the street, past 2am, and we came across a Giordano clothing store. Open. Fully staffed. 40% sale. These people are crazy, we were thinking, as we went inside and snapped up a few bargains. It must have been 2.30am when Kit overheard two of the sales people chatting.

“Hey, we just hit our sales target for today!”
“You’re kidding me! No way?!!”

I cringe to think what kind of sales total was the target, that it took until 2.30am to reach.

The 1st: New Year’s Day
Slept in. Woke up in time for lunch, which we had with Andy (Amy’s cousin) at 2.30pm. We then met up with Amy at a relatively dear Japanese dessert place which didn’t have English menus, so I went with the random choice – number 136 – the item without the photo. If it’s dessert, it can’t be all that risky can it? Turned out to be quite nice, though $10 for some icecream, jelly, dough balls, fruit and red bean paste is a little steep.

And that basically sums up the HK trip. If you’ve been to HK before and have seen all the sights, then it can be a very boring place. All that’s left is eating, shopping and sleeping. However, you can only spend so much time eating, your wallet only is so big and sleeping all day in your room is something you can do back home.

As I reiterate, my number one maxim for travelling is simple: Your travel experience depends on who you travel with and who you meet along the way. The better the company, the better the time you will have. And I had a pretty good time!