Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Hot, Humid, Happy Hong Kong

At this point it's been almost two months since Drew and I touched down in Hong Kong, and a month since we left it the second and final time. Our time in Hong Kong was so great that it's hard to know where to even start. I *loved* this city. To recap, some of the things we wanted to do while we were in Hong Kong included:

- climbing up to Victoria Peak
- going to the Temple Street Night Market, among others
- going to Lamma by ferry, and eating at the Rainbow Seafood Restaurant
- going to Macau for a day

The first day we were in Hong Kong was Thursday Sept. 3rd 2015, and it had been rather suddenly announced that this day was a national holiday, marking the Chinese victory over Japan 70 years previous, in 1945. This was the first time that this national holiday would be observed, and the last time. While Beijing had parades and fireworks and all kinds of celebrations, in Hong Kong, which wasn't even a part of China until 1997, it was just a normal day off.

Drew and Melissa check out
the fish at Rainbow Seafood
Because people had the day off, families were out and about together, and the 'helpers' - domestic staff - that Hong Kongers have were all sitting together outdoors, on pieces of cardboard, in their designated gathering areas. These were all women, and almost exclusively Filipina. My friend, Melissa, who lives in Hong Kong and let us stay with her (wonderful person!), also had the day off, which was amazing luck for all of us, and we decided to head out to Lamma together to hike over the island and check out the restaurant. The food was amazing everywhere we ate, and Rainbow was definitely worth the trip. Live fish were arranged in tanks, and everything was fresh and cooked to order. It was a recommendation from another friend, Christina, who had been to Hong Kong last year on her honeymoon, and it was a great call. I definitely recommend it to anyone going. The ferry ride to Lamma is also great, and gave us a chance to see some cool architecture, such as a collection of buildings that all have Feng Shui holes in them, so that the 'dragon energy' of the mountain behind them can escape to the sea.

Feng Shui spaces, for energy flow
Hong Kong was *super hot* - I can't even describe how hot it was. Mostly, it was incredibly humid, and though I'm sure that the real temperature wasn't outrageous - maybe in the low-to-mid 30's C - the air was smotheringly, inescapably, mind-destroyingly damp. It was like wearing a hot, wet duvet at all times. Drew and I were constantly sweating, and I envied the people around us who still looked crisp and comfortable in their clothes. This was another great thing about being on the ferry: artificial breeze and the illusion of coolness.

Spotting the Buddha from the gondola
Drew and I decided not to go to Macau after all, instead opting to take a trip out to Landau, a nearby island that one can get to by train, to visit the world's largest seated Buddha. Apparently, if you're flying into the city on a clear day you can see it from the air. We didn't get that view, but amazing views of it were possible from the gondola (!!) that you have to take from the train station, over the mountainous island to the Buddha. It turns out that Drew does not enjoy gondola rides, so he found it a bit scary. I was mostly impressed at the few people who I could see down below us crossing the island on a pathway that snaked up and down the mountains, with staircases here and there.

We climbed these stairs,
it was hard.
Again, this day was insanely hot, and Drew and I were dripping sweat just by climbing all the stairs up to the Buddha itself, so I can't imagine traversing the island on foot. The view from the Buddha was worth the shaking legs and soaked shirt, at least. After walking around the grounds and the statue, we grabbed some noodles and water at a vegetarian canteen run by the monks who live beside and take care of the Buddha, and then made our way back, utterly exhausted. Many showers were required in Hong Kong.

The following day, Melissa took us around to the various markets of Kowloon (the mainland part of Hong Kong). We started at the flower market, which was a long street entirely composed of flower shops, then went to the bird market, which was a square garden-like area full of people selling birds of different kinds.

A little bird in its
fancy cage
It's a sign of prosperity in China to own a bird, and we occasionally saw people walking down the street with birds in decorative cages. I can only hope that the birds had larger cages at home, and that the small decorative ones were just for showy walks down the street. They were super ornate, with tiny painted porcelain dishes for water and seeds.

From the bird market, we went to the Ladies' Market, which used to be where women would go to buy fabric and other materials for sewing and dressmaking, but which is now just a kind of regular clothes and gadgets market. We stopped in a few places, warming up our haggling skills, and picking up souvenirs for friends.

Just a fun picture of a parrot getting a
shower in the bird market.
She loved it; I was jealous.
From there, we next went to Sneaker Street, which is an entire city block of shoe - specifically, sneaker - stores. All of the stores were busy. Rather, all of the markets we went to this day were packed with people. Some of the sneaker stores even repeated, with multiple Nike stores and Adidas stores set up just a block from each other, and all doing a hefty trade. Then we stopped by the smaller jade market, which was more of a tent-based structure, with stalls inside. It was hard to tell good/real jade from non-jade stone, though it's easy to tell real stone from plastic or glass. We did some reading on what to look for in jade, because I wanted to buy a bangle, and we found some quite useful websites about it. I believe that I purchased a real jade bangle, and I think I haggled down to a reasonable price for it, but I doubt that I'll ever really know if it's real or not. In truth, it doesn't much matter - I like it, and didn't feel ripped off.

Waiting for yummy food at the
Temple Street Nigh Market
Finally, after this stop we went to the Temple Street Night Market. At this point we were heavily marketed out. We'd spent money along the way at the various markets (with the exception of flower and bird), and kind of just needed to sit and watch the crowd. Fortunately, the Night Market is packed with restaurants serving delicious food at outdoor tables. We went to a spicy crab place, and had a number of dishes, including some seriously good crispy duck on noodles. Hong Kong is really a food-lovers paradise.

After being in Hong Kong for a few days, I felt like we had adapted a bit to the heat. My feet and hands had stopped doubling in size with heat-edema the instant I walked outside (Drew and I both had this - Drew had to have a silver ring that he bought at the markets sized down significantly when we returned to Canada and his hands went back to normal). I thought that maybe we could handle hiking up to Victoria Peak.

We set out to take the bus to the bottom of the path that leads up the mountain, with plans to walk to the top and maybe take a bus or the tram back down to the bottom. We got off the bus at the spot where the map kind of showed a street or lane-way leading up into the park, and promptly got very lost. We weren't lost in the sense that we didn't know where we were, but we were lost in the sense that we had no idea how to get where we wanted to go. We started walking vaguely in the direction of 'up the mountain', following paths that looked to be going the right way. We finally thought we were on the right pathway when it abruptly ended at, on the left, a building complex, and on the right, a gate, slightly open, that seemed to lead into some kind of garden. We saw a man watering plants through the gate, so we went through to ask for some directions. We were disconcerted to find that he was unable to locate us on a map, so we just asked if he could tell us where we could get a taxi. He pointed through an archway, up some stairs, and told us to take a right at the top. As we walked through the archway, and up the stairs, we realized we were passing a pool and tennis courts, and a restaurant, and everyone at the tables and around the facilities looked fresh and neat compared to our sweaty and panting state. Finally we walked into a lobby, took a right into a larger lobby, and walked past a lovely reception desk where people were checking in for tennis fours and making dinner reservations. We smiled warmly at the reception people and the door man, and exited swiftly into the open door of a waiting taxi. And that's how Drew and I accidentally broke in through the back way of the Ladies' Recreational Club, Hong Kong.

Hong Kong from the Peak!
The taxi was a life-saver. There was no way we could have walked up to Victoria Peak that day, sunny and humid as it was. We made it to the top, wandered around with green tea ice cream cones from McDonald's, took a bunch of great photos of Hong Kong harbour, and laughed at our misadventure. We took the bus back down to the Wan Chai neighbourhood for lunch, and (after I recovered from car-sickness - Gravol is recommended for Hong Kong bus adventures) wandered the streets and ate delicious food from vendor stalls.

Me at the peak, admiring the city
There's still more that I could tell about our visit in Hong Kong. It was a great city that I could easily have spent more time in. We managed to see and do a lot, and Melissa was a wonderful and very generous host and tour guide, and yet there is so much more that we could have done if we'd had more time. Hong Kong is so accessible to the Westerner, because everything is in English (road signs, restaurant menus, subway signs) and pretty much everyone speaks English, including in the markets. It was easy to haggle, with the help of a calculator to display the amount you were offering, and people were friendly. There were also big cultural differences between Hong Kongers and Chinese people (mainlanders), which was interesting to see and experience. Hong Kongers, because of the British influence, I assume, have many more Brit customs and cultural expectations (table manners, for example), which also made it a pretty comfortable place for us to visit, and interesting to contrast this with mainland Chinese culture and how their customs and expectations were so different. I really hope to get back to Hong Kong, and I can't recommend it enough. I'd also like to see much more of China, now that I feel like I'm a bit prepared and it feels less intimidating.

Drinks at the top of the ICC!
Drew and I can't express enough tanks to Melissa, for showing us around and making excellent recommendations about what to see, where to go, and how to get there! From her many umbrellas to her expertise on top-of-the-world cocktails and soup dumplings, Melissa really made our time in Hong Kong the excellent experience that it was. Thank you so much, Melissa. You are so generous, and so willing to give your time and space and energy to friends! We love you!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Singapore: Totally Underrated.

I've just finished an afternoon of teaching, and find myself too tired to do more PhD reading at the moment. What's up on my to-do list? Singapore!

When I was writing about Singapore in a pre-trip post, I had said that my goals while visiting the city were as follows:
- eat a lot
- experience a hawker market
- check out the night safari at the zoo
- maybe spend a day in Malaysia for more delicious food, and
- don't break any laws.

I think my current state of non-incarceration suffices to demonstrate that the last goal was (to my and the authorities'  knowledge) met. It wasn't difficult to avoid breaking laws in Singapore, despite the jokes and no chewing gum (a real law). The government does love rules, but as a tourist, many of them didn't affect my behaviour. The rules did curb my alcohol consumption a wee bit, because alcohol taxes are incredibly high, but I could hardly claim that I suffered or enjoyed the trip less for that.
Drew purchases yummy victuals
at a hawker market

Happily, my other goals for Singapore were quite easy to meet. The first goal of eating a lot was satisfied by pursuing the second goal, to check out some hawker markets. Hawker markets are covered outdoor areas lined with rows of small food stalls and picnic-table-style seating. Instead of having street food vendors willy nilly around the city, Singapore decided to put them all together in a few organized places. I think that there's a lot of competition to get a stall, and so the quality of the food sold - though extremely cheap! - is very good. Drew and I checked out a few hawker markets and ate tons of food from different places - Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, etc. I was rarely hungry because we were always eating.

We also went to the famous Raffles
Hotel, and tried the Singapore Sling,
invented here and still very good!
We patronized some stand-out restaurants, as well. One Indian restaurant, called Lagnaa (reservations recommended), will stay in my memory forever, because the food is super delicious, they take the heat levels of their dishes very seriously, and our friend, Zac, was interested in their chili challenge. The heat of their dishes ranges from 1 (mild) to 6 (extreme heat). This is not a numeric scale, but more like an exponential scale, so 2 is not medium; 2 is spicy, and Drew, Anna and I, who all enjoy spicy food, ate dishes at level 2 and were happy with our choice. Zac has an uncommon love of heat in his food, and so he tried a level 4 dish. It was good, he said, but he could have had a hotter one. If a person eats an entire level 6 dish at this restaurant, with no yoghurt-drinks or bread (to cut the heat), then that person will be invited to attend a Full Moon party, when the chef will spend all afternoon carefully preparing a level 7 dish that the attendees will share. If they succeed in eating the level 7 dish, their names go up on the wall in everlasting glory. Zac recently returned to the restaurant and had a level 6 dish all to himself. He said, though, that the heat was more than he enjoys in his food. I'm unclear about whether he'll attempt level 7.

The night safari at the Singapore Zoo is absolutely worth doing. It's touristy, yes, but it seems to me that many touristy things are popular because they're great. The Singapore Zoo is apparently one of the best in the world in terms of animal environment and care-taking, and their night safari gives visitors the chance to see a lot of animals that would normally be lazing about in the day up, eating, and running around. One of my favourites was the Fisher Cat, and we watched her pacing along the bank of a river that ran through her enclosure, carefully watching the water for fish. Part of the night safari can be explored on foot, but another part, with the larger animals, can only be seen by going on a guided tour. The tour was informative, of course, telling visitors about the animals, but was also really focused on conservation, and telling visitors about animals that were threatened or endangered because of careless human activity. The guide was very firm in telling us that Rhino horn has no medicinal value, for example, and that some of the animals we were seeing in the zoo were extinct in the wild from over-hunting and habitat loss. I really appreciated that message from this safari, which could otherwise have been a kind of empty voyerism. So check it out, get a bit sad, and then go look at the Slow Loris and be cheered! He's so cute, and so slow!!

Drew beside some
towering wax palms
Finally, rather than go to Malaysia for a day (knowing that a great spot for food, Malacca, was really too far away for a day-trip and we were getting to eat some awesome Malaysian food in Singapore), we decided to spend a day on one of Singapore's outlying islands. We went to one called Pulau Ubin, which is quite easy to get to by taking a bus to a small ferry port, and then catching a bum-boat across. Pulau Ubin has one tiny village, a bunch of friendly street dogs, bike rentals, and a protected mangrove. The day we went, the sky seemed to be threatening rain, but because Singapore was *super hot* we did not care about rain. We were already sweaty and couldn't see how it could be any more humid, so we went to the island anyway. Shortly after we arrived on the island, the heavens opened and dumped an absolute lashing of rain, but we took cover in a little refreshment stand and waited, with our rented bikes, for the worst of it to pass.

Wild piglets!
Once it had mostly stopped, we set off on one of the paths around the island. We saw some of the island's wild pigs, and the beautiful palms and mangrove, and biked up an appetite before heading back to sample the fare at the ferry terminal hawker market. Again, I recommend doing this. There is a ton of interesting wildlife that you can learn about (and potentially see), and you can take a shorter or longer time to tour the island, as you like. There were walking paths that we didn't do, preferring to cycle instead. It was really a lush, pristine jungle, with all the heat and humidity that one imagines when using that word, and was one of my favourite days in Singapore.

It's Jane Goodall if she
was a flower!
Another spot not to miss is the botanical gardens, with the national orchid gallery. The entire park is stunning. Drew found his spiritual centre in the ginger garden, and the orchid gallery is incredible - you can look at orchids named after visiting dignitaries and stars, as well. My favourite was Jane Goodall. Tip: students get in free! Make sure to take food and water with you (take water everywhere in Singapore, to stay hydrated!) because once in the park you're on your own; there aren't any restaurants inside.

I'm really happy that we decided to stop in Singapore. In deciding to go, it clearly helped that we had friends there who we wanted to see, but it was a really fun and interesting city, and there is lots that we didn't have time to do. Many people met the news that we would visit Singapore with derision - of all the places in Asia to visit, all the cool places, why go to Singapore! It's so sterile, they would tell us. Having been there, I have to disagree. Singapore is an incredibly unique place, unlike any other I've been to, with distinct architecture, history, and cultural influences. I'd have liked to visit the municipal planning museum (does sound boring, but Zac highly recommended it and he knows what's up) to get a greater sense of all the thought and organization that has gone into Singapore, making it the phenomenon that it is. I think it's terribly underrated as a place to visit, and I really think it's worth checking out when one is in that part of the world.

Drew and I would like to extend a huge thank you to Zac and Anna, our friends who live in Singapore, for their hospitality and for showing us such a great time! They really knew all the great spots to check out, including micro-breweries, bespoke cocktail bars, awesome food, and of course, the best way to see the Super Trees. Thanks, you two! You're excellent tour guides! 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Beach Bums in Bali

The name 'Bali' usually brings visions of tropical landscapes and long beaches stretching into the distance. I didn't have much of a concept in mind when we decided to go there, but I think something like this was what I expected, along with some temples, and some rice paddies. We decided to split our time between Ubud, in the central part of Bali, and Uluwatu, in the southern tip of the island.

Our accommodations: The Studios Ubud,
looking toward rice paddies
When writing about our up-coming trip, I had a few objectives for each place we were visiting. For Bali, I said that I wanted to:
- check out some art and Balinese theatre
- see the monkey temple, and not get bitten
- visit the cliffside temple at Uluwatu
- learn to surf
- appreciate paradise

Things went well, goal-wise, in Ubud. We stayed in a gorgeous compound with a stunning view and a pool that was always the perfect temperature for swimming.

We went to see a 'kecak' dance one night, which had 100 men sitting in a circle and providing rhythm with their voices, while a story unfolded in front of us with different characters. The story was told by one man, and the dancers set the mood with their facial expressions and movements. I had no idea what the man was saying, since he told the story in Indonesian, but I could tell what was happening by watching the dancers (love! betrayal! anger! battle!). We also watched a man dance in a 'fire trance' and he actually walked through and around and over a pile of hot coals, that were smoking and sparking and flying around, and we could feel the heat from our seats. That, my friends, was one of the coolest things I've ever seen.

The next night, we went to a restaurant that also had Balinese dancing, but of a different kind. This time, we listened to 'gamelan' music, which is played on wooden or bronze xylophone-type instruments that are struck with little hammers, while women danced. The outfits they wore were so beautiful, and their movements were absolutely precise and sometimes subtle - like moving the eyes and chin only, or wiggling two fingers. I was enthralled.

This one wanted to hold my hand,
so I went with it.
We checked out the monkey forest in Ubud, and yes, there were many monkeys. The monkeys were very accustomed to people, so there wasn't really any worry about them biting or doing aggressive things to humans. They were more focused on the others of their own kind, having mum-and-baby parties or fighting over territory. People, to their credit, also weren't trying to take weird photos with the monkeys, or to pick them up or pat them. We checked out an exhibit of paintings by Ubud artists that was inside the monkey forest, and that was also very interesting. The paintings were often on a similar theme - gods fighting humans/monkeys, gods being nice to humans, humans and monkeys making offerings to gods, humans going about their business while gods sneakily watched. That sort of thing.

One of many temples, this one
behind Cafe Lotus
Ubud was quite busy, but is a small town, so it felt like the busyness was really concentrated in a two-block radius right in the centre, and once you got away from that it was far less busy. Walking on the sidewalks was difficult because they were narrow, broken in places, criss-crossed by tree roots, uneven (sometimes by a foot or two), and just generally treacherous, so it was much easier to walk around in areas that weren't very busy. Bali is not a very accessible place for people with impairments to walking.

Looking north-west from a cafe in Uluwatu. There are shops
above us and below us on the cliff.

Goal-wise, things went less well in Uluwatu. I think I focused too much on the last goal - enjoy paradise - and forgot about the other things I wanted to do. Drew and I rented a scooter for our time in Uluwatu, which was the most fun thing ever. We just scooted around wherever we wanted to go, and didn't have to worry about getting taxis (or being asked, constantly, if we wanted a taxi when we were quite happy to walk). Uluwatu is extremely small, and at first glance it felt a bit like the middle of nowhere. From the road, only a few buildings are visible. The wily adventurer, however, quickly discovers that there are restaurants, shops, and cafes built on top of each other all the way down the west-facing cliff, connected by ramshackle stairways and sloping sidewalks.

Our hotel in Uluwatu was between this pile of spots, at Uluwatu beach (or break, or point), and a beach called Padang-Padang. Uluwatu beach is not the place to learn to surf. It is for intermediate to expert surfers. It is also accessed by a staircase through a cave! Padang-Padang, however, is a place where first-timers can get lessons. September is also toward the end of the surf season, so that makes it a good time of year to go and try it out.

That said, we did not end up surfing at all. We went to Padang-Padang and saw the lessons happening, but just never got it together to go and ask about them and get signed up. We observed from our beach-towels, Bintang beers in hand, as people went out on boards and learned the ropes, and yet just didn't budge. We went swimming a bunch there, floating in the warm salt water like manatees. I think that's the right way to think of us on that beach: chilled-out slow-moving water mammals. I can't explain why we didn't surf - I still really want to do it. It just didn't happen.

Bintang and a frosty glass
Likewise, visiting Uluwatu temple on the cliff didn't happen, but this time I know why. There is one road that takes one between Uluwatu beach and Uluwatu temple. It is 2.5 km, or a 10 minute scoot. This road was closed. The bridge in one part of the road was being repaired, and so the road was impassible. That meant having to hire a taxi to drive for one hour each way to see the temple (Google maps says 25 minutes, because it's actually only 11 km, but once you're in Indonesia you quickly learn to double all estimates of time, even from locals). I'm sure that the temple is beautiful, and the scenery looks breath-taking, but by this time in the trip we had seen many, many temples. We opted for Bintangs, manatee-ism, and inertia. I don't regret it.

The weather in Bali was *amazing*. We were prepared for some rain in all of our stops, but it never came. Bali was blazing hot, but not too humid. We could comfortably sit in the shade of a cafe without feeling sweat trickle down our backs. Most Balinese buildings we saw do not have full walls or windows - they're mostly open-air and breezy. The exception is a few newer hotels where tourists go to stay, and which would have air conditioning (which is definitely a comfort at night).

A perfect Bali sunset
Tourism is a big industry (perhaps the main industry?) in Bali, and many people have their own businesses that operate in the 'informal' economy - that is, we paid cash to most people, and haggled over prices, and it seems clear that the folks who have shops and restaurants are just trying to make a living and avoid the tax man (for better or worse). Some bigger restaurants, chain stores (e.g. Quicksilver) and the hotels have credit card machines, but everywhere else is cash-only, including our scooter-rental place ($10 CAD for two days) and side-of-the-road scooter-gas purchases (a man with a cart, selling gasoline in old Absolut vodka bottles).

I would recommend Bali to anyone looking for an awesome and varied tropical vacation, with a definite local presence. The Balinese people we met were very friendly, and seemed genuinely pleased to have visitors on the island. We were thanked many times for coming to Bali, and asked if we would come back in the hopes that we would say yes, and indeed, we would.