Customs

Wine, Tango and Futbol Chat

As Phil stated in the previous post, we had quite a full day yesterday.  It seems some days we take it easy and do nothing of any consequence, then there are days where we are constantly on the go.  It actually works out pretty well and makes for some really great days.  After voting for president and navigating our way through the Buenos Aires bus station, we finally took part in what I most looking forward to while in Argentina–wine!

Thanks to Phil’s diligent research, he found Anuva Wines, a small business dedicated to helping people discover small South American wineries with a personal touch.  We found they offer tasting sessions twice daily in English, so we eagerly signed up.  The reviews raved about this experience with several people stating it was the best thing they did while in Buenos Aires.  They also bragged of the generous pours and refills, often rare at such tastings.  The reviews were spot on.  We arrived to the Anuva Wine Loft to be greeted by Cara, our hostess.  Along with four other visitors, she explained to us the process of tasting wine and the importance of using all the senses.  We looked.  We smelled.  But most importantly, we tasted.  Using all Argentinian wines, of course, she started us with a delicious sparkling white called “Hom”. We moved onto a Torrontes (my favorite white wine grape), and then onto the reds.  When I think of Argentinian wines, I always think red.  She introduced me to a new grape called Bonarda which has traditionally been used with blended wines, but has recently become more popular on its own.  She explained to us the importance of sun, temperature, rain and altitude in the wine industry.  With the Andes Mountains, Argentina has a the perfect conditions for certain grapes to grow, most especially Malbec.  This was easily my favorite wine of the tasting, probably because it is what I often choose to drink at home.  We were offered one more red blend, and they all came along with a different food pairing.  With each glass Cara offered insights and information…and refills if we so desired.  Yes and yes!  After we finished, the order forms came out.  Of course, we could buy all the wines we tasted (and then some).  We could choose to take them with us or have them shipped home.  Everyone immediately started filling out the form to have one or more cases sent home. After we had decided which 12 bottles to get, we put the order form away and figured it’s probably best not to make this kind of decision after drinking so much!  We settled for taking two bottles with us and we will order more online if we wish (when we are totally sober).

After the wine tasting, we had a short respite before going to our first tango lesson.  One of the reasons we chose our hotel, The Tango Suites, is because they offer complimentary tango lessons, at all skill levels, to their guests.  Tango is everywhere in Buenos Aires and we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to learn a little bit ourselves.  There were two teachers and six students.  We kicked off our shoes in order to move more fluidly across the floor.  We started merely by walking to the beat of the music, feeling the rhythm.  This wasn’t always easy–tango music changes often and there is not a strong back beat.  It was difficult to keep in time.  After we learned to walk, we paired up and walked with a partner.  No touching, just sensing one another’s movements.  We slowly graduated to touching arms, then embracing, then traditional dance posture.  We took turns leading each other and often changed partners.  There was quite a bit of stumbling, and not a little of stepping on toes, but it was great fun.  I would love to take another lesson, or maybe even a dance class where we learn lots of different dances.  I don’t think Phil had quite the same experience.  He seemed to enjoy the walking and the earlier steps of the lesson.  Once we got to the embrace and traditional dance posture, he got frustrated and I could tell he was ready to be done with it.  If I take future dance lessons, I’m pretty sure I’ll have to find a different partner.

Brooke with Dan, a freelance futbol writer in Argentina.

After we finished the tango, we hurried out of the hotel to meet up with Dan, a freelance writer who covers Argentinian futbol.  While Phil was attempting to procure tickets to a futbol match, he found Sam and Dan, two futbol writers.  When we couldn’t make the game happen, we opted instead to meet for a drink and talk about life in Buenos Aires.  Due to the crazy amounts of rain, Sam couldn’t make it, but we were able to meet up with Dan at a pub called Gibralter.  We chatted for a couple of hours about life in Argentina, futbol culture and the differences between the UK and South America.  Having lived here for 3 years, it was interesting to hear Dan’s perspective.  We always enjoy talking to locals and getting their take.  We spoke of the overwhelming homeless problem and he explained that compared to other big cities in South America, Buenos Aires is considered wealthy.  It is all relative, I suppose.  He also shared a few stories about attempted muggings on the street.  He was much braver than I would have been, standing up to these would be attackers and refusing to give them anything.  In both cases, they walked away.  This certainly made me look over my shoulder a bit more on our way back to the hotel.

We have had full and interesting days here in Buenos Aires, but I have to say, I am ready to go.  I don’t really like it here.  It is a really big city, very spread out and not very well served by the subway.  It seems to take 45 minutes to get anywhere.  Not only that, part of it just aren’t very nice.  It is dirty, with broken sidewalks, graffiti and trash everywhere.  And homelessness is rampant, even in the nicest areas.  I am very ready to get out of Buenos Aires and head to wine country, which is good because that is exactly what we are doing.  Fourteen-hour, overnight bus ride, here we come!

–Brooke

Just one example of the broken and busted sidewalks. i wish the was the exception, but it is the rule.

Brooke learns the tango…or at least learns to walk rhythmically.

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Categories: Argentina, At Night, Bars, City Visits, Customs, Differences, Hotels, Reflections, Safety, Tango, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sour Goodbyes and Gorgeous Hellos

St. Stehpen's at nightAt the crack of 4:30am, we woke up to get ready for our 6am train from Budapest to Zagreb, Croatia.  From there, we took a very short flight on Croatian Airlines to the coastal town, Dubrovnik.  Because today was primarily a travel day, we don’t have a lot to tell you.  However, I would like to share one good story and one lovely moment.

Whenever we leave a city, we try to have as little leftover cash as possible.  We have found it sometimes difficult to exchange certain currencies and so much is lost in the exchange that we’d rather spend it.  We’ve had mixed success in this endeavor, but in Budapest we did quite well–only 500 Hungarian forint in coins left.  That’s only about $2.25 so we felt it was a success.  However, we realized that is about 140 forint shy of the amount required for the metro ride we would be taking from the Hotel to the train station.  Phil was willing to risk it and go without a ticket, and even though I felt a little uneasy, I agreed.  (I should tell you that earlier in the week, Gina and Phil made fun of me relentlessly for being a “rule follower” and buying a metro ticket when they didn’t.  Phil said he was willing to risk it because he thought it was only about an $8.00 fine if we got caught.)  In this case, Phil figured since it was 5:30am on a Saturday and we were only going three stops we would be fine.  Although I didn’t love the idea of cheating the system, I agreed Phil was probably right and we boarded the arriving train sans ticket.

Stunning hilltop in budapestWe arrived at our stop without incident and thought we were in the clear.  Not so fast!  As we joined the line to board the ascending escalator, we noticed a large group of people checking tickets.  I blame the early hour and our surprise for our inability to think quickly and jump back on the train or avoid the inspectors in some other way.  So, when they asked for our ticket, I showed them a 24 hour pass we purchased 2 days before.  Knowing it wouldn’t work, I tried to blame it on a language misunderstanding between me and the original woman who sold us the ticket.  She wasn’t buying it.  She vehemently pointed to the 24-hour description of the ticket and the date so clearly written on top.  Knowing it was hopeless, I relented and asked how much we owed for the fine. She immediately responded, “8000 forint, per person.”  Sixteen-thousand forint total!  That was almost 80 bucks! What happened to the $8.00 ticket Phil expected?  Irritated and immediately regretting my decision to join with my rule-breaking husband, I asked if they would accept a credit card.  Of course, they did not.  She would have accepted euros, but we didn’t have that either.  So while Phil stayed trying to beg and fruitlessly plead with the ticket control agent, I sped up the two escalators and several steps to find the nearest ATM.  We paid, got a receipt and apologized (all the while Phil was still trying to convince her not to give us the ticket).  Walking away defeated, Phil felt terrible and completely responsible.  I’d like to blame him completely, but I’m a grown-up and I could have bought my own ticket if I really wanted to.  I just chose to go along with him this time. Next time I’ll think twice.  (On a side note, the only other people who did not have tickets were other tourists heading to the train.  Coincidence?  I think not!)

Dubrovnik by airAfter loving Budapest so much, the ticket incident left us with a sour departure, but it was our own fault and a hard lesson learned.  Luckily, we were able to shake it off and enjoy a lovely moment later in the day which I’d also like to share.  The Croatia Airlines plane ride from Zagreb to Dubrovnik is a short 40 minutes from take-off to touchdown.  All in all, it is less than an hour on the airplane.  Exhausted, we both fell asleep almost immediately.  Phil sleeps like a baby on planes, but it is more difficult for me and I wake up much more often.  As we were nearing Dubrovnik, I awoke to see beautiful mountains outside our window.  Feeling that we were descending, I woke Phil so he could enjoy the view before we landed.  It was spectacular.  All around we saw huge mountains and rolling hills.  The plane tipped its wings to make a turn and we saw the coast of the Adriatic Sea.  At seeing this beautiful sight, there was an audible gasp from the passengers on the plane.  The mountains and ocean seemed to extend all around us.  It was amazing, but we started to question where we would land.  Except for the water, there was no extended flat space in sight.  Luckily our pilot skillfully found the runway and landed us safely among the mountains.  Since Dubrovnik’s airport is quite small, we were not surprised when we exited the plane down the steps and onto the tarmac.  Once there, we were thrilled to be hit with the most gorgeous view from any airport we’ve been to.  Passengers immediately started snapping photos, trying to capture this picturesque landscape.  This lovely welcome ensured us that our time here would be wonderful.

Croatian Tarmac

Part of the awesome view from our terrace in Dubrovnik!

Now we enjoy discovering this beautiful seaside town and await the arrival of our friend, Jack.  We aren’t sure what we’ll do tomorrow because we don’t want to discover too much before Jack gets here.  I’m sure we’ll find something awesome to occupy our time.  Actually, I’d be perfectly  happy sitting on our terrace and staring out at the Adriatic Sea with a glass of wine all day long!

–Brooke

Categories: City Visits, Croatia, Customs, Destinations, Eastern Europe, Flights, Friends, Hungary, Landmarks, Rail, Surprises, Trains, Transportation, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

St. Petersburg!

Naval ShipOne of the main reasons we chose to embark on a nine night Baltic capitals cruise was to take advantage of the opportunity to visit Russia. Obtaining a Russian tourist visa on your own is actually quite difficult, so we decided to make it easy on ourselves and book shore excursions organized by Norwegian Cruise Line for our two days in the old Russian Capital of St. Petersburg.

Immediately upon arriving in St. Petersburg we started to hear talk of Peter the Great. He is the founder of the city which he modeled off other European cities like Amsterdam. Because of this, it doesn’t have a lot of traditional Russian architecture, and instead has several canals, fountains and brightly colored buildings reminiscent of old cities in Western Europe. We learned so much in our two days and only wish we would have had some time to explore it on our own.

Originally called St. Petersburg (after Saint Peter, not the Russian Czar Peter the Great), this city has been known by a few different names. It was called Petrograd for about ten years in the early 1900’s, until the name changed to Leningrad when Russia became the U.S.S.R. and was ruled by the Bolsheviks. It stayed Leningrad until 1991 when the local government finally decided to let the people decide on the name. Apparently there was some surprise that the people voted for the name to be changed back to St. Petersburg. Our tour guide quipped that her grandmother was born in St. Petersburg, lived in Petrograd, also lived in Leningrad and died in St. Petersburg and she never even moved homes!

Our first day began with a river cruise through the center of the city. Everywhere you turn there is another museum, cathedral, park or historical monument. Most notably is the Hermitage, the largest art museum in the world with over three million pieces of art. We would have loved to see it, but each excursion included a visit allotted 4-8 hours inside, and that is just a bit too much art for us. The museum was originally built for the nobility, but has become public over the years. It is housed in the Winter Palace, and its surrounding buildings where the Romanovs as well as other nobility used to reside. It is said to be impossible to see it all in two days, but we met several art enthusiasts who were willing to give it a try.

Entrance to the subway. We were actually allowed to take pictures of this!

We did not go to the Hermitage, but after visiting other landmark institutions we discovered that they are very particular about people taking photographs here. All of the museums charge tourists an additional fee to take pictures – once you have paid they give a colored sticker to place on your camera, otherwise you are liable to get fined or have your camera taken. The policy is even more strict on the subway – here, photos are not permitted in any of the stations! You can take them on the train, but none on the platform or in the buildings. This is such a shame, because their subway stations are absolutely beautiful. They are artfully designed, with huge marble columns and detailed decorations along the ceilings. It reminded us a lot of the beauty of Grand Central Station in New York City. There is even a large sculpture of Peter the Great which is set up like an art exhibit, blocked off by a velvet rope. Phil and I couldn’t help but think that this would last all of two hours (tops) in a New York subway without being vandalized and ultimately destroyed.

Probably the most iconic place we visited taught us an important lesson: It is very dangerous to be a czar. Sure, there is something appealing about the idea of being the leader: you get to rule the country, you have power and money and influence, but I don’t think it is worth it. Every other story we heard was about the killing of one czar or the brutal murder of another. One of the most notable stories is the centerpiece for the Spilled Blood Cathedral. Among a small number of buildings in St. Petersburg to look “Russian”, it was constructed on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated. Inside the cathedral, visitors can see a memorial directly above the spot where his blood was spilled–hence the colloquial name Spilled Blood Cathedral. The building itself is magnificent. It’s walls are lined with painstakingly detailed mosaics telling the stories from the Bible. In fact, this cathedral holds the largest square footage of mosaic art in the world. There was a notable absence of pews and when we inquired we were informed that parishioners are expected to stand or bow on their knees throughout the length of the service. Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.

Besides the plethora of cathedrals, museums and stories about Peter the Great, one of the most prominent topics of discussion was the weather. It is drab, dreary and depressing much of the year. Both of our tour guides emphasized the fact that St. Petersburg is on the same parallel as Anchorage, Alaska. Of course, it gets extremely cold and snowy, but even worse than that, they have less than 55 days of sunshine per year. Yikes! In the winter there is very little daylight, therefore finding distraction is important for the local people. Stereotype or not, drinking vodka seems to be the favorite distraction of most of the people here, and we got to experience it first hand.

Our shore excursion on the second day in St. Petersburg was called “St. Petersburg through the eyes of the locals.” So, we did what locals do–we shopped at a mall, went to the farmer’s market to sample pickles and cottage cheese, and rode the subway. However, the most distinctly local thing we did was have a vodka tasting. That’s right! At the end of our tour, we went to restaurant where three shots of vodka were set up for each of us. There were three different kinds–horseradish, walnut, and cranberry vodka. They also set out some small pieces of toast and pickles to help wash it down. We had about 30 minutes to down all 3 shots, which was not a problem for most of us. However, it became apparent pretty quickly that some of the people in our group hadn’t done a shot of liquor in a while (not to mention three). The vodka was decent, I personally liked the walnut flavored one the best. However, what surprised us most is that there was no water on the table. No soda, no juice, nothing to wash the vodka down. This is so much different than it would have been at a tasting in America with all of its rules and regulations. Once 15 minutes had passed, most of the shots were gone and the stacking (and crashing) of shot glasses began. The crowd was certainly livelier after the shots, feeling warmer in both body and spirit, and we all understood the important role vodka plays in a country that can have such depressing weather!

All in all, St. Petersburg was a blast. We especially loved getting to see the magnificent subway system and learning a bit more about Russian history than we knew before. I’ll leave you with one more interesting note. One of the men on our tour asked the guide if Russia is a democracy. She said, “We are supposed to be a democracy, but are we? I don’t know.” She continued to talk about Vladimir Putin and extended term limits with cynicism and candor. It definitely showed us that perhaps the country has not progressed as far as Russia would have the world believe.

-Brooke

This is the ceiling of the Spilled Blood Cathedral. There was very little space on the interior walls which was not covered with some colorful artwork.

Here’s a sampling of the mosaics which cover the walls and account for the largest square footage of mosaic art in a single building in the world.

The bronze equestrian of Nicholas I s unique because it is the first horse statue in Europe to have only two support points, its rear hooves.  Impressive?  Apparently.

To celebrate St. Petersburg, the cruise ship hosted a “Taste of Russia” complete with borscht and stuffed cabbage.

Categories: City Visits, Customs, Destinations, Differences, Diversions, Europe, Exploring, Landmarks, Museums, Russia, The Cruise, Trains, Transportation, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Beyond Hong Kong’s City Center

Last night in Hong KongToday was our last full day in Hong Kong, so rather than stay in the center of the city as we have been, we decided to get out and see something a bit different. With our Big Bus Tour passes from yesterday, we were able to get out and see another side of this lovely city-state.

We got up nice and early to make the most of the day and in hopes that we might beat the heat a bit (no real luck there).  We climbed aboard the Star Ferry which took us over to Hong Kong Island.  From there, we boarded the open-air Big Bus and began our journey away from downtown.  It took a while for us to get out of the city center, since traffic here is quite thick.  However, once we passed through an immensely long tunnel, we could feel the difference almost immediately.  Sure, there are still giant buildings, but fewer people and there was generally a more remote vibe.

Great tour bus!One of the first things to catch our eye was this amazing amusement park called Ocean Park, which has the coolest roller coaster we have ever seen.  Because land here is at a premium, the amusement park bought two different pieces of land on either side of a huge hill.  The two sections are connected by a super-long gondola which looked very scary to me.  The awesome part though was this twisting and turning roller coaster on the side of the hill overlooking the South China Sea.  That must have some of the best views of any roller coaster in the world (granted, it is so hazy here right now that they probably can’t see much of anything).  We didn’t want to take the time do an amusement park, and I have a tendency to vomit when riding such roller coasters, but it looks like an awesome time for people who are into that kind of thing.

As we wound our way through narrow roads along the coast of the South China Sea’s Repulse Bay and Deep Water Bay, we heard tales of the many rich and famous people who have vacationed here over the years.  There have been a couple of famous movies filmed here including “Love is a many Splendored Thing” and it soon became clear that this area is a playground for the wealthy.  Perhaps it was the beach-side Ferrari dealership that gave it away or it could have been the Lamborghini we saw driving past us.  Either way, it is clear these beaches provide a nice getaway for people living in Hong Kong who need a bit of respite.  If we were here longer, we would have definitely spent some time swimming and lounging on the beach.

A view of the seaThe next beach town we came to was Stanley, famous for its huge Stanley Market.  We had heard this was a great stop, so we decided to hop off the bus and see what we could.  The market spread across several blocks, twisting and turning like a maze.  As with all of these, there are lots of items that repeat themselves and you can find in any market in Hong Kong.  However, there were also handmade crafts, beautiful clothiers and handmade jewelry.  Phil found lots of toys to play with and was especially impressed by the remote-control car that could climb up a wall.  We found a few little tokens to buy here, but I could tell Phil was starting to lose interest in shopping after about an hour, so we hopped back on the bus and left Stanley.

Our final stop on the bus tour was probably the coolest.  We were dropped in historic Aberdeen, a town which used to be primarily a fishing village, it still houses many people making their living in this way.  It has been known for centuries as the home to a group of people called Tanka (which is now considered an inappropriate word and instead they are called “Boat People”).  These people have lived their lives as fisherman, living on junks in the water.  Over the years, the government has tried to get them to move out of the bay, but there are still several who live here.  As part of our tour, we got the opportunity to ride a Sampan, a flat-bottomed wooden boat.  We puttered through the harbor,  saw a huge floating restaurant called “Jumbo’s” and looked at boats that range from resembling mansions and some which resemble shanties.  The financial paradox is overwhelmingly clear and really fascinating.  We could tell there were still many people who make their homes on these boats, but we also saw a number of people who are just making their living as fisherman.  It is fun to think about their catch today going on the table of a local restaurant tonight.

Riding on the Sampan

Exhausted from riding in the blazing sun all day, we decided it was time for a break.  After a good rest in our air-conditioned room, we headed out for a final night in Hong Kong.  We found an awesome bar called Castro’s, the first bar in Asia to really feel like our kind of place.  Friendly bartenders, small but not overcrowded, with delicious draft beer.  Hanging out here, looking down on the neon-filled streets below, and rehashing all that we’ve learned and experienced while being here was the perfect punctuation mark for our visit.  We are a little sad to leave Hong Kong because we could easily spend a ton of time here, but alas we must travel onward.  Tomorrow, Vietnam!


–Brooke

Itty-bitty beer

Drinking a half-pint of Stella with dinner. It’s so little!

The busy streets

Even late into the evening, the streets in Hong Kong are bustling with people.

In Aberdeen Harbor

Here is a traditional Sampan which fishermen use daily. It isn’t the steadiest of boats, but it can turn on a dime!

Categories: China, City Visits, Customs, Destinations, Diversions, Exploring, Landmarks, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Hong Kong

Cool Neon SignsDespite our many miscommunications and all efforts to the contrary, we managed to get on the right bus heading for Hong Kong!  Yay, off to experience a new part of China…technically.  It certainly does not feel like we are still in China.  Our first clue that Hong Kong would be different from Guangzhou was when we were required to go through customs and immigration.  No, Hong Kong is not under British control any longer.  It hasn’t been since 1997, however we had to wait in line for over an hour, fill out forms, get our passports inspected and then stamped in order to get in.  It was one of the most complex border crossings we have experienced yet, especially considering we didn’t really cross a border.

Hong Kong is a big place, but when discussing the city of Hong Kong, it really has two parts to it–the Hong Kong Island side and the Kowloon side.  We are staying on the Kowloon side, in the heart of it all.  This is as close to feeling like the middle of Times Square as I have felt on our trip thus far.  We are surrounded by stores, bars and a slew of restaurants.  When we walk down the street, we are approached every 15 seconds by a guy trying to sell us designer suits, watches and handbags.  It certainly isn’t a place I would want to live or even visit for too long, but it is really convenient being in the center of it all.  The Hong Kong Island side is the center for business and industry.  The skyline is filled with mammoth buildings, each one more impressive than the next, touting their company name in bold neon lights.  Every major bank and brand you can imagine has a spot on its waterfront, from HSBC to Hyundai.  It is a short ferry ride from Kowloon and it rivals New York City in its visual spectacle of high rises and well-dressed business people.

Bargains,, BargainsThese two sides of Hong Kong are part of what gives it a really awesome vibe.  It is urban and chic, with high-end shopping that overshadows 5th Avenue any day of the week.  But, at the same time it feels like an old city holding onto its traditions.  The Kowloon side is known for its markets, where vendors sell everything from knock-off handbags to high-end electronics.  As you might expect, nothing has a price marked and everything is negotiable.  While walking through the Night Market, Phil saw a set of bowls he liked and when he asked the price, the lady told him they were $165 Hong Kong Dollars (about $22 USD).  I immediately said that was too much and then the bargaining began.  She said she’d give them to us for $150.  When we walked away and said we had to think about it, she grabbed Phil, handed him a calculator and said, “How much?  How much you want?”  Phil punched in 100, figuring she’d say no.  It took her a minute, but she said yes.  I then began to dig through my wallet only to discover we only had $81 HKD.  We told her we didn’t have enough, so she asked if we had any American money.  We told her we didn’t and said we’d come back.  As we began to walk away, she shook her head, sighed heavily and said, “Okay.”  We were a little shocked.  We couldn’t believe that our lack of cash led to half-price bowls.  If only we had planned it that way we might be considered keen negotiators.  Oh well, we’ll take it!

As you might imagine, a city with so much to offer is packed with tourists.  In fact, this is probably the most touristy city we’ve visited thus far.  That suits us fine, and it is really interesting to see all kinds of people and hear a dozen different languages being spoken in the span of 20 minutes.  We are engaging in typical tourist activities, while also trying to involve ourselves with some locals.  The best way we’ve found to do this is by talking with the people at our hostel, Hop Inn.  They live and work in Hong Kong and have given us really excellent suggestions on local cuisine and places to get away from the tourists.  They led us to our two favorite meals we’ve had in a while, and we found ourselves smiling when we were in the equivalent to a New York City diner, curt manager and all.  It kind of felt like home.  As for the local fare, they love their instant noodles and bread.  My god, we have eaten so much bread we are turning into dough balls.  I never associated Chinese food with bread, but they love it here.  We had a hot buttered roll, drenched with sweetened condensed milk this morning.  Amazing.  I think  I’ll be bringing that idea back with me!

Hong Kong Big Bus tourWe ended our day with an hour-long bus tour of the Kowloon side of Hong Kong.  At 7pm it was only 90 degrees, much more tolerable than the heat of day.  It was easy to forget our sweaty thighs as we cruised through the city.  The streets, with neon signs hanging everywhere, are truly like something off a movie set.  It is exactly what you picture in your mind when you think of Hong Kong.  The tour ended with us on the waterfront, watching the nightly light display.  The skyscrapers on the shoreline dance with lights and beam lasers into the night sky set in time with music.  It was quite a vision–really spectacular.  Tomorrow we continue to discover Hong Kong Island by heading out to the countryside, going to Stanley Market and maybe even visiting a fishing village.  Phil also wants to head to Macau, but I’d hate for him to lose all of our money trying his hand at some Chinese table game he’s never played.  Well, maybe he’ll have beginners luck!

–Brooke

Ferry with Hong Kong's Tallest Building in the background

One of several ferries found in Victoria Harbor with Hong Kong’s Tallest Building in the background

Statue of Hong Kong's favorite son: Bruce Lee

Statue of Hong Kong’s favorite son: Bruce Lee

Spectacular Tokyo Skyline at Night

Spectacular Hong Kong Skyline at Night

Categories: China, City Visits, Customs, Discounts, Eating, Exploring, Landmarks, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Many Differences and Surprises of Japan

Downtown TokyoDuring our time in Japan, we have naturally noticed that there is just so much that is different.  Different than we expected and also different from what we are used to.  Some of these things are small surprises, like the crazy numbers of ferris wheels and sky-reaching towers.  Some are more obvious differences, like the fact that we haven’t seen any places of worship besides temples and shrines (though we did see Mormons on riding around on their bikes).  And some are probably just silly–like how seeing an overweight Japanese person is so unusual you actually take notice.  With all of these differences and surprises, we thought we would take some time to highlight some of the more interesting things we’ve observed.

1.  Eggs, eggs everywhere–That’s right, believe it or not, the Japanese love their eggs.  This may seem like a strange thing for us to notice, but seriously, you can’t miss it.  One of the first quick meals we had here was an egg salad sandwich from the convenience store at the airport.  We figured they were just catering to Americans and didn’t think anything of it.  Since then, we have seen egg salad everywhere, from sandwiches to fillings inside of pastries.  In addition to that variety of egg, we are constantly finding sushi rolls filled with steamed egg and vegetables.  I thought it was tofu at first, but was surprised when the chef told me I was wrong.  Our ramen noodles had the optional hard boiled egg on top and the Okonomyaki (savory pancake) has an egg making up one whole side of it.  I’ve been to Japanese restaurants in the states and I swear I’ve never noticed a proliferation of eggs.  On a related note, we’ve seen no chickens.  Curious.

More Shrines2.  Super Polite People–Okay, perhaps it is no surprise that the Japanese people are super polite.  In fact, this is pretty much a stereotype that many Americans have of this country.  However, we had no idea how far this behavior would extend.  We already mentioned that people line up at the train doors rather than all crowding around in a mass.  Okay, that helps things be more organized, we can understand.  But even when the train is crazy-crowded, there is no shoving or shouldering past one another to get on or off.  People here are constantly saying “Domo” (thank-you) and bowing to you in greeting or departure.  But our favorite example came when we heard a fire truck barreling through a crowded intersection.  They were shouting over their loud speaker for people to get out of the way.  Of course, since it was all in Japanese, we only caught some of what he was saying, but he started the whole thing with “Konnichiwa,” essentially saying “Hello, good afternoon” before telling them to get the hell out of the road.  We thought that was the perfect exemplar of their incredibly polite behavior.

So many people crossing the street!3.  People, People Everywhere–Okay, we knew Tokyo would be crowded.  It is a big city with tons of people and Asia in general has the reputation for being overpopulated in many areas.  Fine, we get it.  What we didn’t get was that the entire country would be jam packed with people.  Whether it is a small town or a major city, it seems there are people everywhere.  We didn’t really realize how crowded it is until we were on Miyajima, a small island outside of Hiroshima.  Here, a ferry boat ride away, was the first place in Japan (other than a temple garden) where we found ourselves with some room to breathe.  We’ve lived in New York City for six years so we know what crowds can be like.  A typically crowded New York street is nothing compared to what we’ve seen here.  It is like Christmas at Rockefeller Center all the time, especially at the train stations.  We are not saying it is a bad thing that there are people all over, but it certainly has made us take notice and appreciate the quiet moments.

Kimonos in Kyoto!4.  Fashionistas–First, let me remind you that it is crazy hot here right now.  There is a ton of humidity, the sun is always shining, and people here walk a lot.  I am always a sweaty disaster looking like I can barely breathe.  On the contrary, the Japanese women look totally unfazed.  No matter where we are, whether it is a major tourist attraction or a small coffee shop, Japanese women are so well put together with nary a drop of sweat anywhere.  They are always wearing full make-up, quite often cute skirts, and 75% of them are wearing high heels.  (In order to keep themselves looking dry and fresh, most of them carry “sweat towels” to dab their faces.)  These are not all women who are going to and from work, either.  This is just part of the culture here.  Interestingly, almost all of the women wear some sort of stocking or hosiery all summer long.  It is completely normal to see a woman wearing stockings in the middle of summer with her open-toed sandals.  However, if they choose not to wear full stockings, many of them wear some sort of cute sock with their high heels and sandals.  It looks strange at first, but it is really cute and I bet it makes those shoes much more comfortable.  They sure look better than I do!

If this looks confusing, imagine the toilet!

If you think this Air Conditioning remote looks confusing, imagine the toilets!

5.  Awesome and Confounding Bathrooms Experience–The public bathrooms here vary from being completely awesome to totally disgusting.  I guess this is true in most places.  However, there are a few things that make their bathrooms particularly unique.  The first is the amazingly high-tech toilets found in some of the nicer restrooms.  These toilets are hooked up to a panel on the wall and they do all kinds of fun things.  The toilet seat can raise automatically, they spray water to clean you (you can adjust the pressure of the spray and the temperature), it will blow you dry with warm air, spray deodorizer and give you  multiple levels of flushing.  These are very refreshing bathroom visits.  In addition, even if the toilet isn’t this fancy, almost all of the restrooms I went into have a sensor on the wall so as soon as you sit down, a fake flushing sound starts happening.  This allows for a little background noise and some privacy to prevent any possible stage fright.  (Note:  Phil said the men’s restrooms were not this fun.) With all of these cool gadgets, you would think they would have amazing sinks and high-tech hand dryers.  To the contrary.  The bathrooms everywhere here do not have any air dryers or paper towels to dry your hands after you wash them!  We don’t understand.  Why can’t there be something to dry our hands?  Why do you want us dripping wet as we leave the bathroom?   Phil kept forgetting about the lack of towels and he would splash water on his face and have nowhere to dry it.  It’s very frustrating, but also kind of amusing.

Brooke and Gate at sunsetOf course, in any foreign country there are tons of differences both big and small, and getting to discover these is part of the fun of travel.  We were surprised to see both men and women dressed in traditional kimonos.  We figured this was outdated, but as it turns out this is common for formal occasions like weddings, funerals and fancy parties.   Another small surprise was the overwhelming number of vending machines.  They are everywhere, even in people’s front yards.  And they sell both hot and cold drinks.  Hot coffee in a can!  Genius.

We look forward to continuing our journey in Asia to see how these countries compare with one another and with the U.S.  No matter what, we will leave all of them with some amusing stories and having learned a lot about a new culture.  And that is what this is all about!

–Brooke

One of Brooke’s new favorite Japan snacks: Asparagus Biscuits!

As seen on Japan Rail

We saw this sign in a few places on the Japanese train line. I believe that when translated, it reads, “If you’re a small child who drops her hat onto the tracks, please wait for a man with a long, long pole to retrieve it instead of going down there”

What's Beef Kyoto

Sign on a restaurant in Kyoto. This one of Phil’s favorite photos from the trip thus far. As Brooke said at the time, “Well, if you don’t know what beef is, I’m probably not going to eat at your restaurant!”

Categories: Clothes, Customs, Destinations, Differences, Exploring, Japan, Random Thoughts, Reflections, Surprises, Temples, Tokyo, Trains, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Hello from Tokyo!

Note: Sorry for the delay on getting this post live and the lack of photos. We’re having a bit of trouble getting online in Japan. More to follow once we get set…

Konnichiwa from Japan! Brooke and I have completed the journey from Auckland, New Zealand to Tokyo, Japan trading in a quiet pacific island nation for a much busier pacific island nation. Our two flights on China Southern (11 hours from Auckland to Guangzhou and then another 4 from Guangzhou to Tokyo) were easy going, luxurious and comfortable. We embraced the opportunity to spend some quality time in the China Southern First Class Lounges in both airports. Man, that lounge in Guangzhou is like traveler’s Shangri La. Private shower room? Yes, please. Sure, we may be making our way through each country in hostels and shared bathrooms while on the ground, but we’re living in the lap of luxury and doing it in style while we’re flying on this SkyMiles reward business class ticket.

We did face a small roadblock when we were told that only one carry on bag would be allowed while flying out of Auckland per the airport’s universal best practice. Completely new info. Part of our whole packing structure was based on the plan to never have to check a single bag, so that went out the window. No harm done – our bags arrived safely in Japan. Landing at Narita International Airport, we sailed through customs and immigration. In fact, aside from an episode regarding Beef Jerky confiscation (seriously), we haven’t had a single issue or question while arriving in any country so far. Fingers crossed that keeps up.

To make our arrival even sweeter, we were greeted by Brooke’s second cousin the minute we walked out of customs. Gaye has lived in Japan for twenty-five years teaching English at Camp Zama – a U.S. Army base just outside of Tokyo in Sagamihara City. She’s been an informative, excited, local guide who has already provided a wealth of information (probably more than we can remember!) on life in Japan, the military base and even the language. For example, “Don’t touch my moustache” is a helpful way to remember the phrase for “You’re welcome.” That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Gaye, who Brooke hasn’t seen in over two decades, has been kind enough to let us stay at her place on base in Tokyo while we’re here. What an amazing re source we’re lucky to have! We even found a welcome gift bag on our bed that included, among other things, Asparagus Cookies.

Earlier tonight, we took the long but scenic bus ride on the Camp Zama shuttle from Narita to the base passing through Tokyo and Yokohama which saved us some cash. Gaye pointed out the sites, told stories about last year’s giant earthquake and gave us the rundown of life in Japan. We got our first taste for how large and populated the area is. curiously enough, we saw two (and possibly three) gargantuan Ferris wheels driving through town. We’re back to being in a hot climate which gives us a chance to break out the shorts. We must concede that we are a little overwhelmed upon arriving in a truly foreign country.We’ve been attempting to digest complicated, involved looking train maps, reviewing our options for what to explore and absorbing the sites, sounds, language and more. Whew! The first eight hours in Japan have been quite the immersion!

So, now on to the second leg of our trip, the itinerary tells us that we have nine days to explore, discover and immerse ourselves in Japan. We’ve got our money belts loaded and locked on us, our JR Rail Pass ready to be cashed in and eager to burst out and explore this new land. In short, ready to get our Nippon on!

Categories: China Southern, City Visits, Customs, Destinations, Exploring, Japan, Tokyo | 2 Comments

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