Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmas Tunes in Narita

For those who don't speak "airport", that's Tokyo Japan. It just seems wrong to hear instrumental version of Christmas Carols carried via the sound system in the JAL Lounge. In a country in which less than 1% of the population are Christian I did not expect to hear "White Christmas" or other similar tunes playing.

So, as any good modern researcher would do, I quickly checked the internet to determine all the pertinent facts about Christmas in Japan. As it turns out, Christmas is commercialized here too (please don't get me started on the commercialization of holidays in the U.S.). Couple that with the Japanese love of festivals, and well, you have an unofficial holiday that is celebrated between close friends and those engaged in romantic commitments.

And there you have it...the interesting fact of the day.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Things I Learned While in Hong Kong

I realize the picture seen here is the not the typical picture one expects of Hong Kong. Despite this, it is my favorite picture I took Labor Day weekend. I generally abhor taking photos inside places of worship, but I could not resist the leading lines of incense inside Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road.

Devotees burn these huge bell-shaped coils of incense that hang from the temple’s ceiling in hopes of attracting the attention of the gods. Some also believe the incense is food for the “spirits” that have gone before. Older traditions such as leaving food—even freshly killed chickens—are still prevalent practices of the worshipers. I love the snaking curves of the incense, the China-red tag proudly announcing the written Cantonese.

My weekend was lovely, coupled with utter exhaustion. I arrived Saturday morning and after clearly customs and taking a tour bus to my hotel, managed to get my bearings in this new city. By 3 in the afternoon, I was toast as I’d been up for more than 24 hours. I slept until about midnight—then decided to order room service: dumpling soup, Hong Kong style.

Sunday was our busy day: Man Mo Temple, Lock Cha Tea House, Western Market, The Four Seasons, Stanley Street Market, The Peak, Hong Kong Park, followed by dinner at Tao Heung. Monday, we took it slow: tea at the Peninsula Hotel, Dim Sum at Maxim’s, drinks at the Intercontinental (FYI, you can find a caipirinha in Hong Kong), a visit to Sam, and shopping.

Being a student of life, here’s a couple of things I learned in Hong Kong:

• I am not a Bus 26 type of person
• When frustrations ride high, tea at the Four Seasons fixes everything
• It is possible for 7.5 million people to live in 400 square miles without feeling suffocated, while maintaining pristine levels of cleanliness and low crime rates.
• For the best Chinese food—head to China
• Shark fin is prevalent on menus—despite international attention and awareness
• When traveling to a foreign place—pick a higher-end hotel. The English proficiency and concierge staff are well worth the additional price.
• Take the advice of others who have been where you are visiting. Leave the travel book at home.
• A boat ride across a harbor can cost as little as 50 cents USD.
• Paper currency can be secured by a bank—not a government.
• It is possible for an economy to rely completely on financial exchanges—not the exchange of goods.
• There’s lots of money is Asia.
• The coolest place in town is the oldest cemetery—particularly at sunset
• Cricket does have a huge following outside America.
• Americans and Germans are the only people who get an early morning start. Why rush—nothing opens until 10 AM.
• Like New York City, the city never sleeps.
• The rest of the world walks—as in places one foot in front of the other. Magically the rest of the body moves as the feet advance forward.
• Know when you are at a vegetarian restaurant, so you don’t ask for the “menu with meat”.

Bocas del Toro, Panama

10 weeks in Panama can only lead to one thing—getting out of the city! The Panamanians all recommended a weekend trip to Bocas del Toro. It’s an archipelago on the Panama Costa Rica border. From the air, you have an immediate sense of unspoiled, unpolluted nature.

I found a decently priced aqua-lodge—Eclypse del Mar. The family purchased the land almost 10 years ago, obtaining the permits to build the lodges only 6 years ago. They started architecting the land into a nature reserve that puts our gardens to shame. The reserve boasts sloths, banyan trees, crocodiles, red frogs, and flora galore.

Sadly, it rained the entire weekend—with the exception of 2 hours prior to departure. Despite this, it was relaxing enough to jump off the patio of the lodge into the water, walk the reserve, play cards, read a book, drink rum, search for starfish…all activities perfect for a lazy weekend.

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

The Panama canal is truly beyond words. As I sit and enjoy dinner, the cargo ships ease their way through the locks. The shear size of these vessels is beyond comprehension until you are within 10 meters. Generally speaking, the ships unload their cargo as fee to pass through the 4 sets of locks is based on weight. The cargo is then transported on land to other side. In some cases, it is worth the hassle to keep the cargo on board.

Dinner at Miraflores locks is lovely, particularly at sunset. This picture is taken just as the sunset starts to descend beyond the horizon to the west (right in this photo). I'm looking to the southwest as this multi-colored vessel passes through the locks.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

From Seat 6B

Everyone has their calming mechanism. Some do repetitive motions, others feel comfortable in the back seat of a car. Mine—an airplane. As the engines rev for takeoff from DFW, I am amazed at how my body starts to magically relax. Relax in a way that no massage, no tranquil music could ever produce. I love being on an airplane.

I have traveled extensively for the past 5+ years, accumulating over 1.5 million miles. Until about 1 year ago, I was still a nervous flier (yoga cured that). Now, as the plane enters turbulence or any kind of “pot hole in the air” I feel more relaxed than humanly possible. The vibration of the engines, the warm smiles of the flight attendants, the soft red blankets…it all feels like home. But then again, when the airline calls you to simply thank you for being a valued customer, I expect the commute to work to be bountiful with home-like remembrances.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Boracay, Philippines

For many years now, acquaintances whom have lived or worked extensively in Asian have told me that I must visit Boracay—a small island in the Philippines. “It’s the best beach vacation” numerous people have touted. So, on a recent trip to Manila, I managed to slip away to Boracay for the weekend.

Wow…”best beach vacation” doesn’t begin to describe the experience. The island is 7km long x 1 km wide. White Beach—consistently labeled one of the best beaches in the world is flanked by what is now considered the best water sports beach in Asia. Surfing, kite surfing, skim board…you name it, it is there. Interestingly, White Beach is gifted with perfectly calm waters coupled with sea green and azure blue seas only postcards could possible convey. When dreaming up the beach of all beaches…White Beach tops the list.

The sand is naturally white. But it’s the texture of White Beach that is incredibly phenomenal. It’s so0 soft and airy--like flour. The texture is sandy enough that it will stick to your skin whilst bathing unless you rub a hand over it. Surely, my clothes are still filled with sand despite the multiple washings.

The island boasts lodgings to meet any budget. From $10 to $400 per night…you simply can’t go wrong. The best part…$10 per night gets you a room off the beach (mind you, the island is ½ a mile wide, so it might as well be considered beach front). My incidentals for 2 ½ days…a total of $40USD—and that included a massage. The island is incredible cheap by American standards and quite hospitable. Philippinos aim to please and hospitality is their specialty. No wonder the Europeans have kept this little island a secret…

Be mindful of the means to travel to Boracay. A plane from Manila is followed by a bus ride to the boat dock, where you then take a water taxi to the island. There’s no airport on Boracay….so the nearest island must do. It’s an arduous journey, but worth it nonetheless. The sun is perfect, the mangos best in the world, and the hospitality unrivaled. I would, I will, gladly return here.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Tropical Rain Forest, Panama

After a tour of Panama City—including being able to enter the Presidential Palace (supposedly a rare occurrence)—we head into the rain forest of Panama. Myself, Colleen, Daphne, and Barbara (a woman who has a brilliance, a radiance, never before seen) eye each other skeptically as we make our way 90 minutes outside of the city. The day prior, we were seduced over Corvina Francesca (sea bass with a Chardonnay and butter reduction) and a pitcher of the best Sangria to dance on my palate. Seduce by stories told by Luiz, our tour guide. (Interestingly, Luiz’s native language is Hindi—born in Panama of an Indian father and Panamanian mother. He fluent speaks English, Spanish, Hindi, Italian, and French. He’s currently in the throws of learning German, getting stuck by the sheer amount of exceptions allotted in the grammar of the language.)

The seduction...we were seduce by the tales of the aboriginal peoples who are truly natives of the rain forest in Panama. After loosing their native lands to the government, they were “conveniently” relocated—sound familiar? The natives offer tours to visit their local village where one is guested to a lunch along with a brief summary of their history and current state.

The four of us burden our way through muddy roads in which we question the ability of our van to make it through deep troughs via questioning glances. After many eyebrow raises, we arrive at what appears to be a bus stop. Our driver and tour guide conveniently announce we had arrived. We have? Certainly not. Um….

As we look around, we notice a few of the locals hanging out. There are men, who upon inspection are wearing loin cloths covered with bright, decorative skirts of beads. We soon realize these are the aboriginals who have agreed to allow us to intrude into their secretive world. They graciously help us down a steep hill to their hand made canoes. The canoes are over 18 feet long, holding up to 7 guests. They take up to 6 months to carve, depending on size and available men to aid their hands. Once we make it safely to our canoe, we all have a good chuckle as the senior Indian starts up the engine.

Sadly, the rains have not been kind to this region of Panama, and we are often forced to pull up the engine as our 3 aboriginals break out the oars and row—more like push—through shallow waters. After an hour, we end at our destination—sort of. Normally, the rains push up the water level and we would be closer to our destination…but today, we are forced to hike to “10 minutes” to a waterfall. So, we start to rough it. I am enthusiastic to find our destination—me, clothed in flip flops and my Coach bag which is housing my SLR. 20 minutes later, it is enthusiastically announced that we are half way there. Not a problem…except that I diligently shaved my legs this morning and put lotion on my legs to moisturize. Well, sweat, lotion, and gravity, only lead to slippery feet—in flip flops. I was nearly at the point of deciding to go bare foot—like the natives—as my foot slipped out my shoes time and time again.

Finally, we arrive at the waterfall. Absolutely gorgeous! It falls into a fresh water pond, large enough to fit all of us with plenty of room to spare. It’s the perfect temperature—cold—after a long hike in the humid rain forest. We stay long enough to cool our bodies off; enjoying a natural shoulder massage as the water reluctantly follows the force of gravity. The hike back to the canoe seems shorter and more pleasurable. We take a short canoe ride to the camp.

We are eagerly greeted by the locals via song and dance. We are quickly herded off to a public pavilion in which we are quickly fed. Fried plantains, sea bass, and freshly harvested watermelon, eloquently rapped in a banana leaf. Simple and delicious. The chief of the tribe nobly greets us and quickly begins to tell us the history and current state of the tribe. 2 guest speakers arrive to describe the roles of the men and women of the tribe. All is spoken in the local language—Ambrial—then translated to Spanish, to English. The roles are typical segregation of outside-inside male-female roles. Interestingly, the role of child rearing is a group effort.

The 82 members of the tribe congregate to our location and organize themselves to perform a traditional dance. The men gather to the side, each picking up a musical instrument. The elder—a man of approximately 80 years—picks up a hand made flute. He has been featured in the likes of National Geographic, BBC, and the Travel Channel. The first few notes that escape his instrument, allows the other musicians to fall into step. The women dutifully and enthusiastically begin their dance. It’s simple, but beautiful. The first dance ends and the second one begins. We are then asked to join in on the third round. With gusto, we comply. Smiles, joy, music, and laughter abound.

We are then asked to shop the local crafts made by the families of the tribe. Everything is right up my alley—hand crafted by locals, never to be found in franchised stores. Each table represents the goods of a different family. In an effort to share the wealth, I shop slowly, wanting to purchase something from each family. Sadly, my suitcase does not have enough room, but I manage to purchase a beautifully carved canoe, oar, and stick—reminiscent of our mode of transportation—and a basket hand weaved of palm fronds. The basket took 6 weeks to make. It costs only $30 USD. Feeling guilty that I have not paid enough and not contributed to each family, I make a large donation to the chief. Feeling grateful for the time the tribe has given us, for sharing their way of life. Today was a gift.

Sadly, the late afternoon storms are quickly approaching and we decide it is best to leave. We canoe our way back to the “bus stop” and sadly say good-bye. The eyebrow raises on the road home do not exist. We are grateful for the experience, for the check mark on our bucket list. The beauty, the simplicity, the unbridled joy. Each of us find it difficult to contain the butterflies floating eloquently, softly throughout our bodies.