2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 7,600 times in 2010. That’s about 18 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 70 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 1058 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 1gb. That’s about 3 pictures per day.

The busiest day of the year was September 29th with 456 views. The most popular post that day was young Muslim women go for a swim in the latest burka fashion.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, mail.live.com, google.ca, linkedin.com, and mariaozawa2u.blogspot.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for mineau.wordpress.com, singapore expat family blogs, mineau wordpress, cow shower curtain, and portara.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

About us February 2010
1 comment

2

First post to come shortly February 2010
5 comments

3

A fun dinner at a real Supper Club (by Olivier) March 2010

4

Random wanderings (by Jessica) April 2010

Crème de la crème

We promised some “top lists” from our journeys, and after many laughs around the dinner table, we’ve compiled some our favourite memories for your enjoyment.

More lists to come!

Places to return to:

Greek Islands

New Zealand

Bali

Argentina & Buenos Aires

London

China

Singapore

Where we still want to go:

South Africa

Jordan

Israel

Portugal

Scandinavia

Russia

Ireland

Brazil

Central America

Hawaii

Myanmar

Tibet

Most memorable stories

Eighteen hour car ride through the Bolivian jungle, in the rain, on the world’s most dangerous road, from Rurrenabaque to La Paz, including three flat tires, three cars and three drivers.

Nearly jumping out of our moving taxi in Athens to avoid being ripped off by the driver’s inflated flat rate upon discovering he didn’t have a meter.

Travelling New Zealand’s North Island in a campervan.  On day two, the camper van broke down and wouldn’t start.  Upon the arrival of a tow truck, the thing finally started.  We drove and drove, without turning off the van, until we reached the repair garage.

The screaming lady and her peeing daughter on the plane to Hong Kong.

Our grand entrance of smashing three duty free bottles of wine, including one bottle of port, onto the floor of our Singapore apartment upon our arrival.

Jessica’s purse being stolen in a vegetarian lunch restaurant during our second week in Buenos Aires, and the ensuing challenges of replacing the missing items in South America.

Our amazing four-day Inca Trail trek, our favourite guide Santiago who taught us all about his people, and reaching Machu Picchu at sunrise after hiking through the dark after a 3am wake-up call.

Witnessing a near scooter death in Bali.

The fantastic friends who partied in style at our big Buenos Aires going away bash.

Interesting People Wednesdays, where we met some truly fascinating and inspiring folks congregating in Buenos Aires.

Lying together in a body harness swing, being hoisted high above the green New Zealand sheep pastures, and pulling the rip cord for a gut-churning fall.

While river rafting in Arequipa, Peru, the boat bucked over a drop and Oli was left hanging out of the boat by his tangled big toe.  His head (in a helmet) was perilously close to smashing against big rocks while his rafting partner flailed around to help him.  Jess reached down, grabbed Oli’s life jacket and heaved him back into the boat with bewildering strength.

Along with a lovely Japanese family, being crammed in a two-person horse and buggy for four hours on Eid in Alexandria as we made our way from dinner back to the hotel.

Being smuggled into the Bombonera by the local hooligan gang, the barrabrava, to watch a stadium-shaking Boca Junior game.

Best Hotel Rooms

W Hong Kong

W Santiago (Chile)

Sheraton Alexandria (hotel is a time capsule, but we had the Presidential Suite!)

Luxury Collection Villas, Phuket (Thailand)

Le Meridien, Siem Reap (Cambodia)

Dewani Villas, Bali (Indonesia)

Vedema Santorini (Greece)

Best friends made along the way:

Cristobal: who got the ball rolling and who was always up for fun, and by extension his friends Gaston & Javier

Bernardo:  for his big smile, welcoming hugs and connecting personality

Sally, Nacho & the Worm Hole IT crew: for being great friends, teaching us about Argentina and always being open, fun and wonderful

Morgan, Celia & the Wednesday “Interesting People” night crew: for always opening the door, and for an unfailingly interesting Wednesday night gang

Vanesa & the Palermo Valley crew: for welcoming the Canadians as one of you

Martin, Withers & co.: for supporting us and our ideas

Michelle & Co.: for a memorable night at the rooftop pot luck party

Spanish school crew: for many good nights out, and for all being travelling misfits together

Jeffaroundtheworld: Quebecois happenstance friend in Cusco; for continuing the Quebecer bond

Olivier & Sophie: French happenstance friends in Copacabana; for fondue and a fireplace

Lupe & Christian: Peruvian/German happenstance friends in Arequipa; for cuy culinary lessons and a 4-hour lunch

Santiago: Our wonderful Inca Trail leader, who also wins the award for best guide in the world!

Quebecer couple: Happenstance Quebecois friends we first met on a glacier in El Calafate, Patagonia and again for dinner in Buenos Aires; for proving once again that Quebecers are great people

Anne-Gaelle & Guillaume: Excellent French friends and roomies in Singapore; shaky-shaky!

Japanese family in Alexandria: For your good humour and go-with-the-flow attitude while we were all stuck first in taxis, then in a horse-and-buggy, for six hours on Eid in Alexandria

Italian/Greek couple in Santorini:  To enjoying Greek food, wine, and black volcanic sand

Our deepest gratitude to all of our friends who welcomed us along the way, in no particular order:

Patricia & Guillaume, who toasted our travels on day one in Buenos Aires

Arieh & Blair, for Team Canada bar trivia domination in Melbourne

Ting & Ying, for hosting us like Emperors at your home, guiding us around Chengdu and answering all our questions about China

Joyce & Andrew, for hosting us first in LA, and then at your home in Beijing.  Here’s to foot massages, Peking duck, climbing the Great Wall and your generosity

Marcelo & Daniela, for taking us out to Hong Kong’s best spots

Oli’s INSEAD class crew in Singapore, for sharing our love of Singapore

Ananda & Barbora, for hosting us in your Singapore home

Steve & Jenny, for a fun meet-up dinner in Beijing

Diana, for a chauffeured tour of Jakarta’s finest

Alex & Kate, for crossing travel paths long enough for a Singaporean brunch

Darwin & Erika, for satays and sugar cane juice on the streets of Singapore

Coby & Dana, for honeymooning over steak and Malbec in Buenos Aires

Creighton, for some of the best fish in Sydney

Jorge & Amelia, for introducing us to Lima’s best pisco sour, causas, chicha and ceviche

Julia, for a brilliant evening in London

Louis-Philippe, for meeting up with family over Lebanese food and a pool hall in Buenos Aires

****

Happy New Year to everyone!  It’s been a helluva year, and writing these top lists have taken us back to those happy, happy months on the road.  Thanks to our friends and family for the memories and support throughout this adventure.  It is truly the people in this world that make the places so special.

Final port of call: Amsterdam (by Jessica)

The Dutch are a very privileged bunch.  Not only are they tall, lean and beautiful with wavy blonde hair and an impeccable sense of style, but they have a capital city that is a fairytale come true of clean canals, civilized bicycle traffic, charming brick row houses and silent trams gliding through the city’s main roads.  I’m sure that the modern Dutch might disagree with my overly positive first impressions; they might grumble about immigrants, or extreme right-wing politics, or the constant winter rain, but all in all Amsterdam is one of the most idyllic cities in the world.

We arrived to a misty rain in the evening and dragged our suitcases about a kilometre to the Movenpick Hotel.  Our luggage, being only 15kg each plus a backpack, is not particularly heavy or awkward, but also carrying an umbrella is an added juggle.  The hotel was a bit out of the way, but it was a steal on Priceline in pricey Amsterdam, and we stayed there very comfortably for two nights.  It was around 9pm and we were starving, so we checked out the “curry night” in the hotel restaurant.  For once the hotel restaurant wasn’t an overpriced morgue, but instead a social, lively place.  Our curries were decidedly watered down but OK…and Amsterdam is not particularly known for its cuisine.

Tummies full and spirits refuelled, we headed out into the night, determined to enjoy our evening.  This is, after all, the last destination on our itinerary.  Our epic trip is quickly coming to an end!  We headed to the happening Leidseplein neighbourhood and came back around 12:30pm on the last tram, having felt like we’d seized the day and being thoroughly exhausted from a day of travel and a slight one hour jet lag.

We awoke to grey but dry skies; all that we could ask for from the Fall weather.  Beneath the hotel we rented two very Dutch bikes, equipped with one bell, three gears and two mega locks.  We set off onto the cycling highway and explored the quiet side streets of canals and leaning houses.  Amsterdam’s signature old houses are all tall and skinny, much like its people, and were built on a slight outward angle with hooks on the top.  These hooks are to better allow moving in furniture, which is hoisted up on the hooks and put through the windows.  The angle helps avoid anything smashing into the window below.  I would have liked to have seen these in action, but maybe today the furniture it brought up on pneumatic hoists or some other type of sturdy machinery?  The Dutch would know.

It was a chilly day and I was looking for some Dutch comfort food.  Pizza and pasta are it.  We stopped for lunch at a nice little place that advertised 5 euro pizzas.  If you don’t feel like pizza, which is available on every street, then you can pop into one of the dozens of trendy Argentinean steak houses with semi-catchy Spanish names.  Whether the beef is from Argentina is questionable, but at least the concept seems to have caught on regardless of authenticity.

Back in the saddles, we rode to the Van Gogh museum, where we spent a few great hours following the life of this fantastic Dutch artist.  I have never left a museum feeling like I knew about the artist…until now.  The Van Gogh museum is like travelling through the artist’s life through his art.  Large posters explain what he was living through at each period, and how the art reflected his growth as a person and as an artist.  He was a prolific, daring artist who was self-taught and completely broke, but thankfully sponsored by his brother who believed in him.  He died in tragic circumstances, by his own hand driven to madness, perhaps by syphilis, at a young age.  His loving brother died shortly afterwards, and Vincent, as he signed all of his paintings, was buried in the South of France, where he spent his most inspired years painting his colourful pieces known the world over.  Oli and I played a game where we each had to choose just one painting, a favourite.  He chose Sunflowers and I chose Almond Blossoms, both of which are available on a paperweight, t-shirt, bicycle or traditional poster in the gift shop for great sums of money.  If only Vincent could see his work now.

By the time we left the museum it was sunny!  We followed Vondelpark, which was packed with Amsterdammers enjoying the rays.  Beside the park we found some extremely nice residential streets that we rode around until the sun set.  That night we went to see Boom Chicago, an American improv comedy troupe and Amsterdam institution that produces hilarious shows for tourists and locals alike.  The Sunday night crowd was big and lively and the energy made the four performers even funnier.  We laughed until our guts hurt and I admire their on-the-spot skills for making any phrase, word or suggestion into an entire song or skit…and very funny at that.  The more ridiculous, the better.  They poked fun at the Dutch, which made the locals laugh louder than ever, and we left with plans to go back the next night for a different show for only 5 euros.  What a deal!

Our second day and the weather wasn’t as cooperative as the first.  It was rainy, but we weren’t deterred.  After two nights at the Movenpick, it was time to switch to the Pulitzer, a unique hotel in the city that spreads between several traditional row houses.  Oli worked his Starwood magic once again, with the last of our hotel points for the big finish.  Each house still has its own style and the place is a maze to navigate all the different levels, hallways and ups and downs.  Its central courtyard must be great in nice weather, but we just saw it in the drizzle.  Their computers were down when we arrived, so they served us some tea and coffee until they were back online.  Nice touch.  Our room was on the ground floor with a canal view and very high ceilings; lots of “old world charm” as they would say in a brochure.

We decided to do a bit of shopping, since we were carrying many summer clothes and only one or two cool weather tops and pants.  In just a few short days we’d arrive in Montreal, where the weather would be cool and we’d be stuck in the same old things.  We checked out a nearby shopping street and split up for a little while, which seems to be the most painless and efficient way to shop as a couple.  I hit the jackpot in one store and bought two pairs of jeans (they fit!) and a long-sleeved top, which will be enough to tide me over.

That night we decided to have a nice dinner before our second Boom Chicago show and found a great tapas restaurant for a Spanish meal.  A man singing songs from Uruguay entertained the room, but the kitchen was slow. We ended up eating in a hurry to make our show.  At least it was tasty!  The show was half full, so the energy wasn’t the same as the previous night, but I had the fun of throwing out a few suggestions on which to base their improv skits.  It was funny, but not the uproarious laughter from the previous night.  Still worth the five euros, though!

Our third and final day in Amsterdam… is not only our final day in Amsterdam, but the final day of our entire journey!  We’ve both been pretty contemplative these past few days, savouring and yet finding each moment bittersweet.  Each evening we’ve been putting together a bunch of “top ten” lists from our trip as a way to remember all of our highlights, low lights and crazy adventures.  To add to the drama, the final day is also my birthday!  No time for tears and morose faces.  It’s time to celebrate!

Instead of being at work in the office, which has been my usual birthday for the past few years, we were together in beautiful Amsterdam, wandering the city hand in hand, going in whichever direction we wanted, doing whatever pleased us that day.  It wasn’t raining, and so the wandering was easy and we walked for a few hours.  I knew that Oli had planned a nice dinner for us, but we were without schedule for the last time.  After a well-deserved nap, we walked to dinner at Little Buddha, the sister location in Paris where we’d eaten a few years ago.  The food was good and the atmosphere cool but relaxed.  There was no singing or birthday candle, but then my travel dreams have already come true.  What would I wish for on the candle?  Continued good health, love, happiness… and that one day our future children will be able to see the world, too.

I could tell you about our flight home (uneventful), but I’ll skip that part.  Instead, I’ll share some of our top ten lists.  Stay tuned!

Going Greek in Naxos & Athens (by Jessica)

It’s always been my dream to travel to Greece.  Why wouldn’t it be?  Sunshine, bright blue skies, friendly people, turquoise ocean, fresh seafood, white and blue domes… and it’s even better than I could have imagined.  Santorini was the pampered, ultimate vacation experience.  I was sad to leave our Olympian villa oasis.  I thought that our next island destination, Naxos, couldn’t compete with the best.  Well, I was wrong.  We boarded the ferry for Naxos and arrived in the late afternoon a few hours later.  Instead of the imposing cliffs of Santorini, we found a dry, mountainous island with a picturesque town and marina stretching along the blue, blue shore.

We walked the comfortable kilometre along the boardwalk towards our accommodation past dozens of seaside restaurants, all claiming to have the best home cooking, the most authentic Greek cuisine, the freshest seafood and the oldest establishment.  It was like we had the island to ourselves, like we didn’t get the memo that the tourists have all left for the summer.  September is the best time to visit Greece.  The weather is sunny and in the high 20s, and still nice enough to make an ocean swim tempting.  The turquoise ocean is still warm from the summer heat.  The tourist industry workers are tired and relaxed after the busy season and aren’t aggressive to sell.  Everyone is extremely friendly, and prices are more competitive or negotiable.  Best of all, there are much fewer tourists, so we enjoyed our pick of beach space, the attention of waiters, and a choice of discounted accommodations.

We had an idea where our studio apartment rental was located, and asked a few locals along the way until we found it hidden on a lovely street just a few steps from the beach and a quick walk to town.  A smiling woman met us at Antony Studios (not to be confused with Antonio or Antonia Studios in the same neighbourhood) and let us into our spacious room with kitchenette and a balcony overlooking the lane.  The whole place had the laid back, beachy feel of a vacation apartment and we felt immediately happy with our choice of coming to Naxos.  Gone was the luxury of Santorini, but here we felt a simpler, family-friendly approach to a good time at much more affordable prices.

We dropped our stuff, threw all of our laundry into a mega bag and trotted it over to the neighbourhood lady who charges 10euros per bag to wash and fold.  Laundry in Santorini was out of the question.  Already in our swimming gear, we skipped to the beach, happily anticipating clean clothes and warm waves.  It was already late afternoon, nearly sunset, and we found the calm, sandy bay lined with restaurants with empty lounge chairs.

It had been awhile since we’d eaten the small, overpriced sandwiches on the ferry, and dinner wouldn’t be for a few hours.  We decided to camp out at a table in the sand, ordered a few classic Greek appetizers with some house vino, and went for a quick dip in the ocean.  The bay was surprisingly shallow and warm, and we had to wade out quite a ways before we could do any real swimming.  By the time we were back on shore, our food had arrived and we filled our hunger with tzatiki, hummous, babaganoush, bread, and some Greek salad while the sun set over the water.

We picked up our impeccably clean laundry and, before we knew it, dinner time was rolling around.  We walked back to the restaurant strip and shopped the menus up and down, and spoke with all the staff at each place about their specials and catches of the day.  Finally, we came upon our perfect table and menu next to the marina.  Their deal of a fresh grilled fish, potatoes, salad and a ½ litre of wine won us over.

The next morning we headed out into the village to explore on foot, and also to shop around for a rental car for the next day’s excursion around the island.  The village’s souvenir and touristy shops were cute, but the best part came when we climbed up and around the maze that is the oldest part of town.  The old town was settled by Venetians during their glory days in the 1600s, and walking around their twisty alleys and shady spots were one of the highlights of our stay in Naxos.  Not only were the alleys empty of all people, but we felt like we were interrupting a secret, very special place.  The only signs of life were a few cats lounging in the sun, and some wash hanging to dry in the wind. There were no shops, no tourists…just us, the sun, the salty wind, and the white, white buildings against the blue, blue sky.  Then, we heard something.  It was a piano!  A concert pianist was practicing his evening performance on the stage of a small outdoor venue overlooking the ocean.  It was our private show.  Heaven on earth?  It qualifies in my books.

Our walk continued towards the Portara, the island’s landmark Venetian marble arch that greets all arrivals.  The Portara is on a tiny island off the coast, connected by a break wall.  On one side of the break wall, the ocean’s huge waves crash with fury.  On the other, the waters are calm and locals go swimming.  We rushed along the wall and barely missed a full soak, but we were pleasantly sprinkled with salt water.

Lunch was back in the village, served by a little old woman who is owner, server and chef of her establishment, cheerily decorated with decades of kitsch.  Oli loved his gyro platter, and I dug into an assortment of little dishes suggested by our kind hostess.  Across the street were a few rental car places, so we obtained several quotes for a day of touring.  Most places have all of their vehicles available, dying on the lot, so we were able to get aggressive prices and had the pick of the island.  We ended up booking a mint green VW Bug look-alike convertible from the island’s “Fun Car” agency.  Fun, here we come!  We ended the day at the beach again, with another great sunset and more delicious Greek food.

Oli went to get our Fun Car at 9am the next day.  We learned of two fun surprises.  First, the car was a permanent convertible; there was no roof.  We eyed the usually 100% blue sky and spotted a few little clouds.  But what were the odds that it would rain?  We’d take our chances.  Second, the car had all the oomph of a supped up golf cart.  It looked cute, but we wouldn’t win any races.  Well, at least it was a manual transmission, so pilot Oli could shift around the curvy mountain roads.  For 35 euros, we couldn’t ask for much more.

Map in hand (with hand-drawn arrows on our suggested route from the Fun Car lady), we set off.  The car climbed high into the mountains and we could see the whole island and well beyond.  Our first stop was the site of an ancient marble quarry and workers’ village, where the Greeks obtained most of their marble for architecture and statues in Athens.  The footprint of the former village was clear, as were several broken and abandoned statues scattered several kilometres around the site.

Back in the car, we climbed even higher and we were suddenly much colder, up in the misty clouds, with spectacular 360 views.  As we drove through the mountains, we noticed entire peaks were carved up, with sheer faces showing where the machines had dug slabs of marble.  The mountains had been mutilated.

We blasted the heat and headed back down, to the other side of the island this time, and spiralled downwards through back-shifting roads to the water.  The cliffs and narrow roads made me close my eyes while Oli drove the challenging course like a pro.  Once down, we found a seaside restaurant with a selection of freshly caught fish and the fishing boat to prove it.  The service was incredibly slow, but we sat beside the crashing waves in the shade of some scrubby trees while the cats begged for food at neighbouring tables.  Finally our fish arrived, and it was our turn to be stared down by the kittie gang.

Next stop were some beaches.  We found them, deserted and pristine, but by then the temperature had dropped and we weren’t enticed by swimming.  The last item on our itinerary was another ancient Greek site, but we couldn’t find it after several drive-bys.  Before dropping off the car, we filled up with gas and got our third surprise of the day; the little golf cart guzzled gas!  All of that hill climbing and descending cost 30 euros in gas.  We couldn’t believe it.

Our final day in Naxos involved some more beach time.  We wanted to lie on one of the hundreds of lounge chairs, but each set is owned by the adjoining restaurant and you can’t lounge for free.  Even if we ordered lunch there, the chairs were not negotiable.  Instead, we headed back to our inn and borrowed some grass mats and water floaties to set-up camp on the free sandy section.  One girl nearby, who happened to be particularly curvy and obviously proud of it, was dressed in the only bikini thong on the beach.  After a quick dip to display her large buns, she decided that she would sunbathe topless, slather oil all over her body, and roast her humungous, glistening breasts in the sun.  As we took a walk along the beach, we noticed that many women, although mostly over the age of 50, were also displaying their browned boobs while reading, eating lunch, playing a board game or simply crisping during a nap.  Those Europeans.

Our final day in Naxos involved more beach time, more eating of delicious seafood and heavenly tomatoes, more house wine and slabs of feta.  After a cheap gyro snack, we lined up for the ferry  and waited…and waited.  The boat was late, but it showed up nonetheless.  It was a long, wavy ride back to Athens.  I remember the ship’s cleaning crew working hard to mop up the frequent seasickness accidents, and trying hard to keep my cookies firmly untossed.  Back on terra firma, we jumped onto a train and headed into the city.

ATHENS

We met some fellow Canadians on the train, backpackers on honeymoon.  When we got out of the train, we flagged a taxi to take us the rest of the way to our hotel.  Since we were returning to the same hotel, we knew where to go and how much it would cost.  Our driver took off and after a few blocks we noticed that there was no meter running.  Oli spoke up and asked to turn on the meter.  The driver replied that there was no meter, flat rate only.  How much would be charging us?  Fifteen euros, three times the five euros it should cost on a meter!  We yelled at the driver and told him to stop, that we wanted out, that he was ripping us off.  When he kept driving, Oli started to open the car door to get his attention.  That worked, and the cabbie pulled over out of fear of damaging his cab.  We insisted he drop his price.  There was haggling.  In the end, all worked out and we earned his respect.  He started to call us “friend”!  Once safely delivered at the hotel, we went out for a bite to eat and crashed hard into bed.  The next day was set aside for sightseeing!

We awoke bright and early to switch to a downtown hotel, where we used a free weekend night to check-in to the Hotel Grande-Bretagne, a classy but stuffy hotel in a great location.  We received champagne and cookies as we checked in, but our room wasn’t ready so we headed out to find some lunch and see the city.  Taking directions from the check-in lady, we found ourselves in the ultra touristy neighbourhood where lunch would cost a salty 20 euros each.  We shopped around and found a nice outdoor terrace with decent prices.  After having experienced the best, freshest Greek food on the islands, Athens couldn’t hold a candle to our expectations for delicious, cheap fare.  At the table next to us were a lovely retired couple from Argentina, and we struck up a conversation about our time in Buenos Aires.  Suddenly, I found myself searching for words and sentences.  My Spanish had become rusty!

Back at the hotel, we checked into a room with early 20th century British décor that felt like a Queen’s boudoir….a bit of creepy mixed with posh, and facing a brick wall.  No Acropolis view for us.  Instead, we headed back out and hiked up to the Acropolis for a close-up view.  We got a bit confused and headed up the wrong side of the hill, until we met a Mexican couple and steered ourselves in the right direction.  Again, we conversed in Spanish and I was again frustrated with my brain freeze.  I vowed to find some Spanish speakers back in Canada to make friends and practice.

At the Acropolis, we paid the entry tickets and wandered the sites.  It was busy and we could only imagine how swamped and hot it would have been during high summer season.  I was patient and got a few photos without any tourists, and the views overlooking the city were truly impressive.  We spotted many of the ancient sites with an excellent bird’s eye view, which was enough for me without having to go there and walk around the fallen columns.  I was a bit underwhelmed by the Acropolis and its many buildings, all under perpetual restoration, paid from the coffers of the bankrupt Greek state.  It’s hard to tell which parts are original or which are reconstructed at this point, and what it must have looked like all those centuries ago.  The buildings’ accomplished beauty and historical significance are truly mind-boggling, though, and I tried to imagine these buildings being built during the Golden Age of 400BC.  The worn marble pathways and stairs are all extremely slippery, like walking on smooth ice, and the tour groups barrelled forward to block our views.  I decided that the Acropolis is impressive, but that it looks much more beautiful from a distance, dominating the city landscape.

That evening we went to the rooftop of our hotel, where a swanky open-air lounge was in full swing.  We ducked a few intimate tables for two to stand at the edge and admire the Acropolis, bathed in light, its columns still standing over Athens as they always have.

The next day we did a little work-out at the gym, did a dash for some Greek fast-food (more gyros!) and hunted down what is supposedly the best place in town for baklava!  The famous cake, a crispy pastry soaked in honey and crunchy with pistachios, was so worth it, but then we were getting to be tight on time to get on the subway, get to the airport and catch our flight to Amsterdam.  We said a little prayer to our travel god Iquique (pronounced Ee-kee-kay, named after the Chilean airport that benevolently didn’t charge us the $120/person to land) and got on the metro, which took us smoothly to the airport in record time.  We bid farewell to the sunshine and heat, knowing full well that Amsterdam would be cold and rainy, and promised to return to this fantastic country soon.

Living like an Olympian (by Olivier)

We were pretty concerned when we found out that our flight from Amsterdam to Budapest was 30 minutes late, considering our connection for Athens was only 45 minutes! Fortunately, our second flight was also late by 30 minutes, so all worked out for the best and arrived in Athens, luggage and all!

While the Greeks have trouble paying for it, they enjoy brand new infrastructure, including a subway line going right to the airport. We took it downtown, and found out that our station was closed for repair. Four euros later by taxi, we arrived at the Centrotel, a small, bit out of the way hotel with excellent reviews on TripAdvisor. After checking in to a spacious room with a balcony, we walked over to nearby Victoria Plaza, restaurant and cafe hub with huge outdoor seating areas. We hadn’t had lunch, so we sat down to a sizeable Greek late lunch/mid-afternoon snack: a salad of fresh tomatoes and rye bread, huge meat balls in tomato sauce, and a ½ litre of house white wine. I made the mistake of asking if their house wine is good. “Yes, I think, very!” came the natural reply. For only a few euros, I wasn’t sure, but it turned out to be great. We walked around the area a bit, which was not at all touristy but full of locals.  Later on, we were a bit hungry, so we popped into a souvlaki place with a huge grill, full of meat on a stick.  We called it a night early since our ferry for the islands was leaving early the next morning.

The alarm went off at 6am Athens time, 4am London time. Ouch. Only the thought of paradisiacal white and blue islands was strong enough to tow us out of bed. The pre-booked taxi was right on time, and we headed for Piraeus, the main ferry port. The city was empty, until we reached a traffic snarl at the port.  We jumped out and walked the rest of the way, picked up our pre-booked tickets and boarded the huge and modern HighSpeed 5, “Greece’s fastest vessel”.

Five hours later, the crowds lined up to disembark off the bridge onto Santorini, the “most beautiful island” in Greece. The port was a bit of a zoo, everyone hawking their guest rooms, hotels, tours and taxis.  Luckily, the hotel shuttle was there to pick us up, and we hit it off with an Italian couple living in Athens on the way. It was time to reap the rewards of the “3 stays = 1 free hotel night” at Starwood (we got 6 free nights by switching hotels every night in South East Asia). The Vedema hotel is a 400-year-old vineyard transformed into a small ~50-room hotel located in a tiny village on the hills. It is built respecting the traditional curvy, minimalist Greek island architecture, and every room is unique and charming…especially ours! Thanks once again to my Platinum status, we were upgraded to the ridiculous Olympian villa, complete with a small private pool, Jacuzzi and unobstructed views of the vineyard and sea in the background! I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

After some welcome champagne and a comprehensive tour of the facilities, we pinched ourselves, did a little happy dance, and quickly changed into our bathing suits to catch the shuttle to its private beach with volcanic black sand. We had an outstanding, fresh seaside lunch with the new friends we met in the shuttle, followed by a long swim in the crystal clear water, followed by a pleasant lounge chair nap, swayed by the sound of waves. Jess even had a massage from a Chinese lady roaming the beach. Once the sun was getting low, the shuttle brought us back to our palace, where we alternated between the pool and the Jacuzzi while drinking our complimentary bottle of local red. The hotel restaurant was way, way overpriced, so we walked out to the village and had good grilled fish in a very good restaurant that clearly feeds off the Vedema tourists.

We woke up just in time to catch the 11am shuttle into Hora, the main town on the island. It is crammed with chic touristy shops and with restaurants overlooking the ocean…and the prices are much higher than anywhere else in Greece. However, the calderas, or steep cliffs overlooking the ocean and volcano, are a sight no one should die without seeing. They are what make Santorini such a famous destination. We had a simple lunch with a great view of the cliffs and ocean, followed by more wandering around and marvelling at the views: cliffs composed of layer after layer of colourful rocks, charming little guesthouses with smiling owners and beautiful small churches with the signature sky-blue semi-spherical roofs. The sun was hot, and overall it was perfect weather for exploring, especially since there were so few tourists compared to the craze and heat of August.

We stopped at Carrefour to buy breakfast for the next day, with some fresh fruit and wine before heading back home to enjoy more of our backyard. That evening, around 6pm, we decided to take out some bikes and head for the neighbouring village, high on a hill, to watch the sunset. The Vedema provided us with pretty good looking bikes, and even pumped up the soft tires. We followed some small little curvy back roads towards the village, until we found the main street—and it was all uphill. My bike was stuck in a high gear, and it wasn’t easy going. As the sun was setting, we were near the base of the village, and the climb would be at least another half an hour of brutality. We called it a day and enjoyed the much more fun way downhill, and rode into the sunset.

Once again, we walked into the village for dinner, but this time we chose a very local restaurant. The decor was kitsch, the music Greek, and we were the only tourists there.  We got to choose our fish from their refrigerator in the kitchen, and the husband and wife served us a great spread. Three kinds of fish, accompanied by tzaziki (yogurt, garlic and cucumber sauce, we had it at least twice day while in Greece), Greek salad (no lettuce, just fresh tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers, olives, a big hunk of feta cheese and olive oil), saganaki (fried or flambéed salty cheese) and a delicious, dirt-cheap house wine, of course! Happy and full, we walked back home for a second night in paradise.

On our last morning in Santorini, we had breakfast on our patio overlooking the sea, then headed to the cavernous gym for a good work-out.  Many back-and-forths between the pool and Jacuzzi later, we were sad to check out of the best digs of the trip, and headed for the port to catch the ferry to Naxos. Upon check-out, our total payment was: zero euros!  Memories and enjoyment at the Vedema: priceless!

London calling (by Jessica)

If the culture shock from Beijing to Cairo was a 7/10, then the shock between Cairo and London was about 8.5/10.  I guess 10/10 would be if you were living in the bush in Africa and then flew to London.  That would be huge.

London is one of the most sophisticated, orderly, beautiful and calm cities I can think of.  Cairo is one of the dirtiest, chaotic, ugliest and busiest cities I can think of.  Not that Cairo is any competition for London.  How dare I even compare them in the same paragraph.  But there.  I did it.  We saw dead camels and mountains of garbage floating in Cairo’s rivers.  We saw pretty boats and ducks on London’s rivers.  Just saying.

So we arrived in London, where I have never been and where I have always wanted to visit.  London, Paris, Rome, New York…I’ve seen them all except London, only the cradle of civilization for the Anglo world.  We were surprised and relieved that our luggage managed to avoid becoming a “lost” Heathrow statistic, and we found the Tube.  The Tube is a lot nicer than what I was imagining.  The cars were new, big, not crowded and cheap.  While in the Tube, I noticed that people were all playing on their iPhone, some of them the new iPhone 4, which we have mostly only seen in photos until this point.  Its Asian release was recent, and most people in the world with enough money to go out and buy a new iPhone are not the Average Asian.

This pricey gadget was the first sign of being in the developed, rich, European world of London, where money has a history of flowing everywhere you look; from the fantastic brick architecture, to the way people dress, to the cleanliness and order that permeates the fabric of society, to the daily problems and routines of its inhabitants.  Their biggest problem isn’t, “My government doesn’t allow freedom of speech or democratic elections,” or “It’s so expensive in Shanghai that I will need to deplete the savings of three generations of my family to gather a down payment for a tiny condo,” or “If I don’t cover all of my skin, society will call me a whore and I will shame myself and my family,” but more along the lines of, “Shit, they cancelled my favourite TV program,” or “I’m sick of eating sandwiches from Pret a Manger, but it’s all I can afford in this bloody expensive city,” or “Oh man, my iPhone 3GS is no longer the best!  I need the iPhone 4.” I’m not saying that Londoners don’t share the same fundamental human problems as everyone else, such as sickness, death, paying for food and shelter, raising children, getting an education, etcetera, because they do.  But the developed world sure does have it easier than most of the Earth’s population.

As you can see, the culture shock was strong.  My biggest, and most visible, revelation was the difference in the way women look and dress.

In China, the nouveau riche women plaster themselves with the biggest, most expensive logos they can find and make a medley with their purse, belt, sunglasses, earrings, scarf and shoes.  “If you didn’t notice that my purse is a Louis Vuitton, then I hope you notice my shoes are Ferragamo and my sunglasses are Chanel.  Don’t hit my new Audi or you’ll be in big trouble.  I’ve got connections.”  Physically, Chinese women make me look like Hercules.  They are so slight, small and flat that their clothes don’t fit me.  Their skin is very white, protected from the sun with parasols and arms covers.  Any skin cream available is labelled as “whitening”.

In Egypt, the women cover up in a variety of ways.  Some wear very colourful, coordinated outfits with jewels, sparkles and sequins, but the skin of their arms, neck, head, and legs are always out of sight, either with baggy pants or a long dress or skirt, with arm covers to match their dress.  Some women wear their clothes tighter, revealing shapes and curves, while many just look like a big potato bag.  Given their roomy clothing and lack of exercise, most Egyptian women, especially the older ones, are quite overweight to obese.  The oldest, and therefore the heaviest, even have trouble walking.  I understand that fancy lingerie and shoes are the biggest fashion items, and most popular gifts, for Middle Eastern women.

Now, switch to London, which is more on the familiar side of the fashion spectrum for me.  These women are experienced at looking tailored, effortlessly put together, and practical, with hints of luxury and expense when they can afford it.  Given the right budget, I would emulate them.  They’re not as overtly feminine and sexy as the French, which only the French seem to be able to pull off, and which might not fly in a Canadian workplace.  Men in London are also fashion conscious, and wear beautiful leather shoes, suits and casual jackets, all pulled together in a sort of “messy” but chic combination of colours and patterns.

***

It was mid-afternoon when we checked into our hotel in the chic Piccadilly neighbourhood.  The Sheraton Park Lane looks grand from the outside, but feels old and dark inside.  Since the Pope was expected in town, they were fully booked and so we were relegated to a tiny, dark room with a view of a wall and no room to open our suitcases.  For once, we were disappointed with Starwood.  Not wanting to spend any more time there than necessary, we put on our warmest clothes and new jackets from China to go explore the city in the cool autumn air.  The temperatures were such a welcome and invigorating change from the 30+ C heat we’d been living in for the past few months.  For once, we weren’t sweating!

We wandered around all of the nearby landmarks, and in London that’s not hard to do.  The city is so compact, perfect for walking, except for the signature London misty rain.  We saw Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the Parliament, Piccadilly Circus and the entertainment district full of musicals and shows.

For drinks and dinner, we met up with Julia, a Londoner who was living in Paris at the same time we were in ‘07/’08.  We caught up over a bottle of wine in a cool cafe attached to a book store, and then moved across the street for an authentic Japanese meal.  It was so great to see her again, and it felt like we’d said goodbye in Paris just yesterday.

For our only full day in London, we took a walk in the other direction, towards the British Museum.  The British Museum is my favourite museum in the world, and was historically the first ever to offer collections open to public viewing.  Over the centuries, the British pillaged great treasures from all the corners of the world and brought them back home for preservation and study.  For free entry, we checked out the permanent collection of Egyptian artefacts and read the detailed, interesting descriptions for each piece.  I learned more about Ancient Egypt there than I did after a week in Egypt.  We continued on through Ancient Greece for a preview of what was in store for our next destination.  My favourite room was the Enlightenment period, showing what people collected, studied, explored and theorized during this period of scientific discovery.

The museum features tactile stations, supervised by a knowledgeable staff member, who gives you the story and significances of certain selected objects.  We were able to touch primitive stones that were carved into hunting points.  These stones are some of the very first tools used by man to kill animals and eat meat.  Once Man discovered fire, their diet could open to include cooked protein, and then this protein made our bodies and brains grow into what we know and love today.  Another object on display was a much more recent invention; an astrolabe, for explorers to find their position in the dark using the alignment of the stars.

The museum was so fantastic and so big, I could have come back every day for a year.  We took a break outside at the sausage stand for a quick and cheap lunch before heading back inside.  We breezed through Asian artefacts and would have liked to spend some time in Mesopotamia, but we were tired and there was still a lot more of London to see!

We walked across town, a good hike along the Thames, to the famous Tower Bridge (freshly painted blue!) and walked across.  Already it was time to go see another friend of ours, this time Tatyana from Russia, whom we’d met at Spanish school in Buenos Aires.  She’s just started her MBA in London and is getting used to her new home.  We met her at a cute cafe and had a light dinner over good conversation.

Our exploring continued after dinner in search of a traditional pub for a pint.  We found ourselves that night in the fancy, very posh area of Mayfair, where every car parked on the street was worth over 100,000 pounds, the houses were big and beautiful, and the shops incredibly chic.  On the main shopping strip of Oxford Rd, we popped into a London department store to see the new shoe department, rumoured to be the biggest shoe shopping space in the world.  However, we were 12 hours too early and were only greeted by plywood covering the doors that would open the next day.  While in the mall, we saw that most of the buying customers were veiled, most likely Middle Eastern women on a shopping trip.

It was the last day, and we had the morning to walk around St James Park, see the Queen’s guard practice their brass instruments, and visit Westminster Abbey…but we didn’t go in when we were repulsed by the 15 pound entrance fee!  A quick sandwich later and we were back at the hotel to check-out.  In order to get to Gatwick airport, we took the Tube a few stations to the spot where the Easy Jet bus makes a stop.  An hour drive through scenic London suburbs, and we were at Gatwick for our flight to Amsterdam, from where we would catch a flight to Athens the next day.

I left London with the regret that we didn’t have more time there, but we’d strategically planned a short trip in order to save some budget damage in one of the most expensive cities in the world.  We both agree that we love London, and we’ll have to go back sometime soon, for a much longer stay.

Our arrival in Amsterdam was rainy and dark.  We took the quick 20 minute train right into downtown’s Centraal station, and we easily found our room for the night about 200m away.  The check-in was at the bar, and our room was directly above the bar.  Ear plugs were provided.  The bathroom was communal for the floor, and we each had a single bed with a thin mattress.  After a touristy wander around the Red Light District, we had a delicious steak and called it a night.  I didn’t sleep much, though, and struggled through the music and loud people below.  All this for the budget price of ~$100!  Amsterdam is not cheap, indeed.

We rolled out of Amsterdam very early the next morning to catch our flight to Athens, via Budapest!  Amsterdam, we’ll be back in a week!

Egypt: ancient land of annoyances (by Olivier)

We slept pretty well on the eleven-hour flight from Beijing to Cairo, so when we landed at 5:30am  (10:30am Beijing time) we were surprisingly alert and ready to roll.  It was an immediate culture change when we landed at Cairo’s brand new terminal, with several planes landing from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. Men were wearing traditional white costumes, and most women were in a full burka or at least a head scarf and conservative clothes covering every inch of skin. We ran to beat two arriving planes to the customs lines and breezed through the visa on arrival process, picked up our bags and hired a taxi to our first Starwood hotel in Egypt: Le Meridien Pyramids. The city is the colour of sand, with lots of garbage everywhere and little plant life.  As we were turning a bend in the road, I nudged Jess and she looked up with an awed smile to see the pyramids looming ahead on the edge of the city.

We arrived at the Meridien before 7am, and so our room was understandably not yet available. We had breakfast at the lounge with a view on the pyramids and were quickly shown to our executive suite with a large terrace overlooking the pyramids. Talk about a hotel with a view!  The room was very spacious but the furniture and décor need some updating. A new wing of the hotel is almost complete, and I believe they will renovate the old one once the new one is done.

Having been to Egypt about 5 years ago, I shared a few words of warning with Jess as we walked out of the hotel. First: 98% of Egyptians around tourist sites want to sell you something, or show you something and ask for a tip. For example, if someone points you in the direction of the washroom, they expect you to tip them. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to meet the nice 2%, as all 100% appear nice and genuine for the first minute, and only then can you tell if you’ve been duped into something (98% of the time) or actually have met someone who wants nothing more than an interesting conversation (elusive 2%). Many touts mistake a polite “no thank you” or “hello” with “please follow me for 10 minutes trying to sell me a mini pyramid or convince me to visit your father’s ancestral perfume shop”. Cynic? No. Experienced? Yes!

Almost all Western tourists come to Egypt on some kind of bus tour. Most people think they are less likely to be screwed on these tours, but it’s not always the case. The tours have their own little scams, which are more clever than the average street tout, but also more costly. The bus will keep taking you to “carpet / perfume / papyrus museums” where high pressure salespeople make you feel bad about how rich you are and how starving their family is. On my first visit, I was on such a tour and our guide would flat-out lie to us about how far and expensive everything was, just so we would book additional activities through the tour agency, versus doing them at a fraction of the price on our own.

We dropped our bags, freshened up a bit and walked over to the Great Pyramids, only about 20 minutes away. One hundred offers for a taxi, papyrus, food, scented oils etc. later, we arrived at a dusty concrete hut where we bought our tickets. Security on the site is quite serious, with a search similar to an airport. The site was surprisingly calm and not nearly as busy as we’d feared.

The pyramids are HUGE. The largest one held the record for the tallest man-made structure for 3600 years! Building blocs were brought from far-away quarries, and stacked many stories high. There are thousands of pyramids around Egypt, but the pyramids in Giza are the tallest, best preserved and most famous. The same site is also blessed with the Sphinx, the large half-man, half-lion statue. One surprising fact about the pyramids is that the city has built right up to them, although law now prevents construction behind the pyramids, where the desert takes over the landscape. It’s therefore still possible to get a view of the pyramids with a desert background. We walked around the sites for a few hours, and it was surprisingly not too hot or sweaty compared to the humidity of China.  We ducked most of the camel ride offers with a firm “no thank you” or “la shakran” in Arabic, which seemed to deter most touts, who were less feisty than usual due to Ramadan fasting.

Craving a non-dumpling, non-noodle meal, we ate lunch at Pizza Hut right across from the pyramids. Being Ramadan, we were the only ones in the place except for the very famous Fijian rugby team. They are by far the biggest stars in Fiji, equivalent to meeting David Beckham. We shook their hands and had a little chat about our recent visit to their country. After lunch, we walked around at random in non-touristy streets, where we exchanged smiles with the first genuinely nice Egyptians of the trip. The rest of the afternoon was spent by the beautiful hotel pool with pyramid view. That night, we had dinner at the tex-mex hotel restaurant, which was pretty good as far as tex-mex in Egypt goes.

On day 2 in Cairo, we took a taxi to the main bus terminal completely on the other side of the city. Our visit happened to coincide with Eid, the end of Ramadan and one of the most important holidays on the Islamic calendar. Unlike the normal gridlock traffic of Cairo, we had the streets to ourselves! Even touts were on vacation. We bought our bus tickets to Alexandria and walked around the city for a bit. Cairo is, bar none, the city with the most ground pollution I’ve ever seen. The city is literally covered with trash everywhere, making Cairo a 16-million inhabitant garbage dump. There are few trash cans, and even when there are, few people use them.

We arrived on foot at the Egyptian Museum, which holds the largest number of ancient Egypt artefacts in the world. It was built in 1905 and has apparently never been renovated. It is extremely poorly organized, is not air conditioned and has visible leaks in the roof. There are very few signs indicating what treasures are rotting in front of your eyes.  If there is a sign, it was written with a typewriter or by hand. At that point, I was grateful that colonial powers robbed Egypt of its most precious treasures, as they are much better looked after at the Louvre or British Museum. The museum does house the tomb treasures of King Tut, which were stunning in their grandeur and beauty, especially his famous burial mask of gold.  Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take any photos in the museum, and all cameras must be checked outside.  Jess decided to see the pharaoh mummy collection for an extra $20, and I sat it out since I’d been five years ago.  You can see their skin, hair, teeth, nails…everything perfectly intact and preserved in modern cases and with real explanations about each ruler.

We spent a few hours in the museum until closing time, and then took Cairo’s underrated subway a good part of the way home for only $0.15. It is modern and safe, yet very few tourists use it. We attracted quite a few curious stares, but non-threatening. A gentleman even offered us some assistance, promising, “I don’t want any money,” before asking us if we were interested in booking a tour with his agency. Not sure where he falls in the 98-2 breakdown; probably borderline good side.

We had another enjoyable swim and beer at the swim-up bar, then dinner at a nearby Egyptian restaurant. I had grilled pigeon, the local specialty, while Jess tried some kebabs.  I finished the meal with a traditional “double apple” shisha, or tobacco water pipe. The server, who had been so nice with us during dinner, tried to screw us on the cheque, insisting we leave him a tip and claiming that the “service charge” line on the bill was actually a government tax (it is not). We left this otherwise great place with a sour taste in our mouths.

The next morning, we took the bus to Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, on the beautiful Mediterranean. At the bus stop, we noticed how everyone waiting just sat there, either doing absolutely nothing or just chatting with their family or friends.  Had we been in Toronto, everyone would be playing on their phones, reading or working on their laptops. Once more, there were no other Western tourists on the comfy Egyptian bus. They prefer to pay 15x the price to be on the exact same buses sitting next to other tourists, instead. The bus trip was very pleasant and ahead of schedule. Alexandria is a major Arab tourist destination, but very few other tourists opt to visit.

We lucked out on finding Alexandria’s newest taxi to take us to the Sheraton Montazah, east of the city. Walking into the lobby was like entering a time capsule: no doubt a fancy place 40 years ago, but in dire need of updating today. The manager at the check-in desk was quite rude, and told me to “wait over there because room not ready”. I asked him if we could wait at the lounge instead, and he lectured me that I had not booked a club room. When I pulled out my Platinum card, his face and attitude changed immediately. He offered me a seat at his desk and within 2 minutes, we had keys to the Presidential Suite. The room was spectacular! Probably 2000 square feet in size, it boasted a 180 degree view of the Mediterranean Sea, a kitchenette, a dining room, 2 bathrooms and no less than 20 seats and couches (yes, we counted!). His impoliteness and crap service were not forgotten, but definitely forgiven.

We had mixed grill meats for lunch by the sea. Jess decided to catch up on blogging on our balcony with a view, while I threw on my bathing suit and went for a long swim in the boiling hot water. I tested out my super cheap and excellent goggles purchased in China, and there was a lot of garbage but little sea life to be observed. I spotted a small octopus living in a Coke can, and called over a family of Asians who were snorkelling nearby. They appreciated my (free) friendliness and we had a long chat. The family of Japanese origin has been living in Cairo for over a year for the World Bank, and used to live in Washington and Cote d’Ivoire before that. The father asked me if we had plans for dinner, and invited us to join the family to a good fish restaurant across town. I quickly accepted, and invited them to our room for drinks beforehand.

Getting to their restaurant was supposed to take 20 minutes, but we had not considered the Eid factor, where every Muslim in town heads for the waterfront to hang out and celebrate all night. It took almost three hours crawling in a cab to cross 12km! Fortunately, dinner was excellent. We ordered about 7 fish for the 5 of us, along with wine and salads.

When we exited the restaurant, the alcohol-free but merry crowd had multiplied. The streets were packed with revellers in their spiffiest outfits. We tried in vain to find a taxi, so one option remained to make it back to our hotel: a horse-drawn carriage! We became the stars of the show—a Japanese family and two “Americans” crammed into a horse-drawn carriage during the biggest Muslim festival of the year. Here we were with three unveiled women, wearing “revealing” Western clothing (arms and lower legs were exposed) and people of such foreign look…it was beyond comprehension.

We received friendly waves, open stares, laughter, people shouting out “Welcome to Egypt!” and a few middle fingers, too. It was a fascinating ride.  I doubt that many non-Muslims get the chance to see this type of celebration, so we felt privileged to get this glimpse into Egyptian culture. Our trusty steed forced its way through the never-ending crowds and cars, but every landmark we hit along route felt like we were not making any progress.  At around 1:30am, when all our backs and legs were in spasm from the cramped seating arrangements, came “Are we half-way yet?” inquired the 13-year-old.  “No, only about 3/8ths” replied her father, in a comical Japanese banker fashion. Note to self: don’t stray from your neighbourhood during Eid. We went to sleep around 3am, much later than we had planned.

We had a very short night, as we had to wake up early the next day to go diving. Alexandria is not a well-known dive spot compared to famous Sharm El-Sheikh, but it does have lots of historical artefacts and wrecks very near its coasts. The dive shop had a nice website, and inspired confidence. However, our experience was very disappointing. Here is the review I posted on tripadvisor:

***

Safety standards are a joke

My wife and I are certified divers and were lured in by the prospect of diving with historical artefacts. This dive shop is conveniently located near the Citadel in Alexandria, and the actual shop and grounds themselves are quite new, albeit filled with trash like the rest of the city. They should have definitely invested in new dive equipment instead of 4 flat-screen TVs, however.

Unless you have your own stuff and are able to look after your own safety, do not dive with this shop. The equipment is old and defective. The first two regulators they offered had leaks in them, and the bottle they set me up on had less than 150 bars, vs. 200+ for all other divers. When I pointed this out, they cussed me out in Arabic. The fins and wetsuits are shredded apart. Once on the boat, the dive master helped me gear up and told me I was good to go. There was yet another leak in my BCD and I lost 10 bars of pressure in 60 seconds. I pointed this out and again was treated like an idiot. However, the dive master offered me his BCD, which was much nicer and newer than the rental stuff.

No discussion about buddy check or any other safety procedures. Good thing I did a little check myself as I found out that he had not turned on the air! Once in the water, the driver kept moving the boat around, with a spinning propeller dangerously close to the divers in the water. We had an interesting dive, however: mostly archaeological artefacts like columns and headless sphinxes. The dive sites are very shallow, max depth of 7-8 meters. The dive master indicated to surface after about 30 minutes, with well over 100 bars left. I was puzzled but quickly found out that we would not be swapping bottles for the second dive, so it’s really two mini dives worth one dive rather than 2 full dives as they claimed when we paid.

The second dive location was near a downed WWII British plane, which is pretty cool, but the visibility was less than one meter. I couldn’t even see my bright yellow fins.

Also, one of the divers was brand new, never dived before. They pretty much geared her up and pushed her in the water. Good thing the dives were very shallow, but still not acceptable.

Conclusion: unless you know what you’re doing and you either have your own equipment or are reckless, don’t dive with Alexandra Dive.

***

After our dive, we lunched at an excellent seafood restaurant nearby, and took a taxi to the train station to purchase our return ticket to Cairo. We felt lazy that night, so we had a pizza at the hotel restaurant, followed by a short evening walk to digest.

On our last morning in Alexandria, we had a good workout in the gym and a quick lunch by the sea. When our train arrived, a train employee aggressively grabbed our luggage from our hands, loaded them on the train and extended his hand. I knew where this was going but tried to protect my wealth by giving him my train ticket. He looked at me like he wanted to rip my head off and said “tips”. I gave him 5 pounds and he was clearly not satisfied. Afraid he would throw our luggage back on the platform or give us more trouble, I unwillingly gave him another 5 and he took off looking pissed off. The rest of the train trip was uneventful.

In Cairo, when our taxi driver started taking tiny alleys, Jessica started sweating bullets, thinking we were heading for trouble. Fortunately, he was simply trying to avoid traffic and we reached Le Meridien Heliopolis, near the airport. We checked into our crappy room and went to the bar to enjoy Happy Hour. We had a very long conversation with an interesting American who has traveled the world all his life for business. At almost 70, he has no plan to retire and still enjoys flying from continent to continent every week. His wife joins him occasionally, if the destination suits her. We had dinner by the pool, where we tried fried veal brains. It was pretty mushy, pretty much the texture and taste that I was expecting. Jess took a taste but was not impressed.

On our final morning in Egypt, we had a rushed buffet breakfast at the hotel and took the 8am shuttle to the airport. Like the rest of the city, even the airport is full of con artists and touts. They pretend to work for the airport or the airline, ask you where you’re going and point you in the right (or wrong) direction and ask for tips. Or they help you with your bags and expect several dollars for a moment of work. We held on to our bags tightly and managed to get on board without further incidents. Along with Jakarta, Cairo was the only city we were excited to leave.

China Rules in the Wild, Wild East (by Jessica & Olivier)

While we spent a little over three weeks throughout China, we compiled a list of “China rules”, or things that the Chinese do differently than we do at home.  Here are our top observations:

1. Washrooms:  This is a whole new ballgame.  Every public toilet was a dirty, smelly adventure, easily identifiable from a distance by the unmistakable smell of pee in 35 C temperatures.

For men: You must miss the urinal with at least 50% of your urine.

For women:  Bring your own TP, squat into a porcelain hole in the ground, place your used toilet paper and dirty pads into the open waste bin beside you (and without TP provided, all those dirty pads are on display…), and flush without spraying all over your feet.  If you’re lucky, there will be soap and running water. In really chic places, like a nice restaurant, communal TP is provided in the form of tissues or table serviettes.

2. Spitting is common:  Men (and a few women) make loud, obnoxious, deep-from-your-throat hoarking noises and spit on the ground regularly. Why is a mystery.  In Hong Kong, you can receive a $5000 fine for spitting on public transit.

3. Breaking plane rules will not result in repercussions:

On our way to Hong Kong, we were sitting next to a Chinese woman, her children and their grandmother.  Our plane had to wait on the ground for awhile before we got clearance for take-off.  Once climbing in the air, this woman’s daughter, who looked to be around seven years old, decided that she couldn’t wait for the plane to level and had to pee during take-off.  The grandmother produced a plastic grocery bag, into which the girl peed while unbuckled, standing, during take-off.  The flight crew, sitting just two rows in front, did nothing.  We were appalled.

In another chapter of the same story, the same woman was preparing to disembark.  She had a very large bag at her feet, and another on her lap.  The flight crew told her that she would have to put her big bag into the overhead compartment until we’d landed.  The only available compartment, however, was a few rows back, and the woman wanted to get off the plane as fast as possible without fighting the crowds to get out her bag.  The crew insisted, but did nothing.

Screaming, arguing and open distain ensued, involving several flight crew members and leaving the woman out of breath and red in the face.  They explained that the bag was a safety hazard in the event of an evacuation, since we would have difficulty exiting the row. This rational argument didn’t seem to impress her.  Still, the arguing continued.  Finally, a woman sitting behind us, fed up with the screaming, told the flight crew, “Do your job and just take the bag.  This is a safety issue.  Just do your job and don’t listen to her.”  That seemed to work.  We fully expected a security team to meet this irate woman on the jet way, but nothing happened.

4. Buses are a free-for-all:  When the bus pulls up, be sure to rush the doors.  Then push and shove through the throng of people and into the vehicle.  Never line up.  If you do line up, expect to be cut off repeatedly, and pushed forward within an inch of your neighbour.  If you have luggage, don’t stow in underneath, but bring it on board and leave it in the aisle.  Hang on tight and be ready to disembark, because the driver will weave through traffic and barely stop once the doors are open.

5. Public politeness doesn’t exist:  Never smile or apologize to others for pushing, shoving, bumping, stepping on toes etc.

6. Anything is food:  The Chinese eat turtles, snakes, pig snouts, chicken feet, tripes…the best, most prized meat is the innards, and all the chewy, fatty, bony parts.  Steaks, fillets and large pieces of meat don’t exist.

7. Smoking is a national past-time:  It is done copiously by all, anywhere you want.

8. Fakes are everywhere:  You can buy anything, including random items such as car seat covers, with a Louis Vuitton, Gucci or Prada logo on it.

9. Roads are the wild, wild East:  Drive your new car (and new driver’s licence) like a scooter or bicycle.  Go through red lights, cut corners, or drive against traffic.  We’ve seen multiple accidents and injuries involving cars and scooters.  Also, there is no pedestrian priority, so don’t expect anything to slow down or stop if you decide to run across the street.

10. Chinglish:  Spelling and grammar rules don’t apply to the English language.  Neither does common sense.  English is translated in to hilarious, inexplicable words and sentences that has nearly become its own language

11. New fashion rules:  If men are hot in the summer weather, they just roll up their shirt under their armpits or simply remove it all together.  Fake glasses with no lenses are big fashion with young women.  Skin toned ankle stockings in high heels are popular among middle aged women.

12. Babies don’t wear diapers:  Instead, babies wear pants with a slit at the crotch through which they do their business freely, wherever they are, or into plastic bags. Think of the saved landfill space and diaper costs due to this practice!

Beijing, last stop in Asia (by Olivier)

We feel very fortunate to know people in many places around the world, and even more fortunate to have friends who can tolerate to host us for a few days. Joyce and Andrew are such friends. Both are fellow students from INSEAD, and Andrew is also a work colleague who used to work at the Los Angeles office and has recently transferred to the Beijing office. It’s very impressive to hear a white guy from Idaho speak fluent Mandarin. Joyce is originally from Taiwan but has spent many years in the US, and is weeks away from getting her second citizenship. They are the proud parents of a cute two-year-old boy named Allan. He loves to “bounce, bounce, bounce” like his Tigger toy, and his favourite word is “shie-shie”, or “thank you” in Mandarin.

We arrived in their penthouse apartment in late afternoon, and after moving into our lofty second-floor guest room, we headed right back out to an excellent Peking duck restaurant. We enjoyed some of the best duck I’ve ever had, along with many other delicious regional dishes. After dinner, Jess and I eloped to Sanlitun, Beijing’s embassy and expat area, and found a nice candlelit terrace featuring a live Brazilian singer to enjoy a few drinks al fresco at the Opposite House Hotel. We then had nice foot massages before finding a taxi who knew where our hosts lived.  Our technique is to show the driver an email that Joyce wrote with their address in Mandarin.  Hurray for the iPhone!

The following morning, we took public transportation, a combination of a bus and then the subway, to the famous Tiananmen Square and spent most of the afternoon exploring the Forbidden City, the capital’s ancient seat of power. The huge complex was home to generations of emperors and their royal family, as well as the governing centre.  Built over many dynasties, it was completely off limits for everyone but the elite visiting the emperors—now it’s open for all to see. The most impressive feature of the palace is its size, truly living up to the appellation of “city”. The clock collection exhibit was absolutely spectacular, with detailed pieces imported from all over Europe over the centuries. The premises were overrun by Chinese tourists, making the visit borderline unpleasant, but we rented an excellent audio guide that automatically sensed our location and gave us the complete stories and commentary.

We then climbed the little hill behind the Forbidden City to appreciate an impressive view of the palace, and we could see as far as the pollution would let us. We finished touring as the palace was closing, and hordes of tourists swarmed the taxi stands. After unsuccessfully negotiating anything close to a fair deal, we decided to grab a random public bus. We were once again lucky, with the bus taking the direct route to the subway station.

That night, we had a nice American-style rooftop BBQ with Joyce and Andrew’s Taiwanese friends. Andrew’s Jack Daniels’ hamburger patties were unbelievable! Andrew, Jess and I then walked down to a nearby foot massage place, this time fully geared towards locals, and had the complete foot spa for ~$10 each.

The foot massage actually begins with a shoulder and back massage, where skilled hands dig deep and crack every joint while feet soak in a medicated solution. Each foot is massaged with salt, wiped clean, oiled and left to relax while the therapist works on the other foot. Then, cups lit on fire are applied to the feet. The fire quickly burns out the oxygen, creating a vacuum which makes the cup stick to the skin. We did not quite understand the purpose of it, but it was pretty fun nevertheless. Finally, a cream resembling tiger balm is applied to the feet and lower legs, the extremities are wrapped in plastic and steaming hot towels are applied on top, making a very strange hot and cold sensation. Finally, insulated wraps concentrate the feeling of the cool burn. We returned home relaxed and ready to sleep.  We said goodbye to Andrew, who was heading to Hong Kong on business the next day.

On our second full day in Beijing, Jess and I took a very long subway ride across the city, then a public bus to reach the Summer Palace, the equivalent of Versailles for the Chinese emperorship. We got off the bus at a random stop to grab some lunch, and found an excellent restaurant which serves grilled fish in a wonderfully tasty sauce. Communication with the restaurant staff was surprisingly very difficult, even with the picture menus.  Even ordering tea, or “cha”, was a challenge.  We tried to pronounce “cha” in various ways and always received a blank look, so Oli went over to a tea pot and pointed.  They presumably then asked which kind of tea… and so the frustration continued.  When verbal communication wasn’t working, they decided to write it down in Chinese characters… as if that would make things any cleared for us!  In the washroom, we spotted a little pearl of Chinglish on a sign in the bathroom: “Be careful of landslides” (slippery floor). After lunch, we visited the beautiful grounds of the summer palace.

When we arrived, we hired a guide to better understand what we were looking at. Unfortunately, I did not interview him comprehensively enough so we ended up with a smiley guide, with terrible breath and rough English skills.  The palace includes a huge man-made lake dug up by hundreds of thousands of slaves, now a charming place where tourists can take boats around the grounds.  Another great highlight of the day was a beautiful 700-meter long covered outdoor hallway, which is made of wood and painted with various scenes of the day. We finished the tour at the marble boat, which the empress had built as a tribute to the navy, whose money she had used to expand and renovate the palace.  The Japanese took advantage of the situation and swiftly defeated the aging Chinese navy.

Back in the city, we made our way through the hutongs, tiny streets bustling with everyday activities: old ladies riding bikes, hole-in-the-wall restaurants grilling up some meat, mothers hanging the laundry etc. Beijing used to be entirely made up of such hutongs, but the Chinese government is rapidly destroying them to “make way for progress” – building overpriced condo buildings… We wanted to have dinner at HouHai Lake, but ended up completely at the wrong end of the lake. Since we were hungry and exhausted, walking the 2-3km was out of the question. We waited around for a bit to find a taxi and finally one pulled up. We tried to explain where we wanted to go but he quickly lost patience and kicked us out. We hung out by a huge map of the area, figuring we would point on it when the next taxi would come by. After a few more minutes of waiting, we flagged down a security golf kart who agreed to take us over to the “cool” end of the lake for 10RMB (~$2), probably overpriced for the 5 minute kart ride but we were just happy to get going. We had bad Peking duck at a smoky and touristy place, and a drink at a laid back bar near the narrowest part of the lake, a mere 2 meters wide.

On our last full day in Beijing, Joyce and baby Allan drove us to the Great Wall. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant and I got to catch our lunch in a small concrete pool filled with fish over various sizes and species. The simple outdoor kitchen grilled our fish and we also made side dishes with veggies from their garden.  This sort of organic, “back to nature” meal might cost a fortune in California!  It was so fantastic, and so cheap.  At the Great Wall entry site, Joyce and Allan took the cable car to the top while we decided to do the ~30-minute hike up the mountain.  We finally reached the wall and walked a kilometre or two. The impressively built wall is 10 meters high, 5 meters wide and, get this, 5000km long! The manpower to build such a wall by hand is unfathomable. We were lucky to catch a sunny day with very few tourists, and at some point we could see a deserted wall for miles on end.

We all took the cable car back down and were immediately bombarded by touts selling “I walked the Great Wall” t-shirts and other souvenirs.  They also carried some pretty nice things, and so we bargained hard.  Bargaining in China is a long process, because their first asking price is always so ridiculously high.  It’s their “how big of a sucker are you” test. For example, Jess tried on a traditional Chinese dress, which fit her well. The first price the seller gave was 1000RMB, or $150!  We immediately knew this would be a long haul. We emphatically said no, and we stated a much lower number. This is China, after all, where all of these clothes are made in the first place. She finally came down to a reasonable price, but I stuck to my guns and said I wouldn’t pay more than 60RMB, or $10. She refused, so we walked away.  Sure enough, she yelled after us, “OK, OK for 60RMB”.  And that’s how business is done.

We all had naps on the long drive back to Beijing.  After a shower, we went to visit a Taiwanese friend of Joyce’s who breeds bugs in his nearby condo. Not little bugs, but huge, rare beetles which can reach 15-20cm in length, imported from the Amazon, Indonesia and all other parts of the world. What started as a hobby is now big business for him, and he sells the critters on the Chinese eBay for several hundred dollars per pair, netting hundreds of thousands per year. One bedroom in his apartment is dedicated to the breeding, with dozens of live and dead bugs neatly organized and labelled. He apparently also has a whole second apartment where the larvae are kept. They take 1 to 4 years to hatch, so he needs to skilfully predict demand well ahead. A little gross, but so cool and profitable!

For dinner, we met up with one of Jess’s friends from journalism school and his girlfriend. He has been living in the Chinese capital for almost 2 years, working as a copy editor for one of the major English-language newspaper in China, while she is a teacher at an international school. It was fascinating to hear their stories about censorship, internal politics, expat life and other random stories from their life in China. The food was delicious, the company was pleasant and we had a terrific evening amongst Canadians.

Since our flight did not take off until midnight the following day, we had lots of time to explore the city a bit more. The four of us went to a huge market where they sell absolutely everything, from restaurant supplies and commercial appliances to seafood and tea accessories. We shopped around and purchased a few cheaply priced clothing items, and got lost in the rows and rows of cheap and often counterfeited merchandise.  Unfortunately, Allan was not a happy shopper and so Joyce took him home while we checked out the tea market, seafood and meat markets. On the way back to the condo, we visited a nearby ultra-luxury mall, where all the usual ridiculously priced brands could be found (Louis Vuitton, I’m looking at you). The grocery store in the mall carried out-of-this-world expensive imports: $15 for a toothbrush, $45 for 18 Tampax, or $2 for a bottle of water (vs. $0.15 anywhere else). We grabbed some dumplings at the fancy food court, as well as some Starbucks and walked back near Joyce’s place, where we got much-needed haircuts for $4 each! Jess also got a pedicure done by two women, one for each foot, for another $5.  Back with Joyce and Allan, we ate delicious homemade dumplings for dinner.

When checking on our flight before we left, there was a brief moment of panic when the Beijing Airport website indicated that our flight had been cancelled. The EgyptAir website’s flight status service was not available, and I was not able to reach EgyptAir’s offices in Beijing. I did reach the Paris office and they told me that the flight was still on. A speedy taxi ride and two beers later, we were on our way to our only Middle Eastern / African stop of the trip: Egypt!  We’ll visit the Great Wall and the Great Pyramids within 48 hours!  We’re sad to leave Asia, our favourite continent, and Jess shed some tears as the plane took off.  Such good memories, adventures, and fun!

Shanghai walks with a swagger (by Jessica)

Our flight from Xi’an to Shanghai was delayed for awhile, and so we waited around the surprisingly boring airport until boarding, about one hour late.  Unfortunately, this small delay meant that we arrived too late to take the famous Maglev train from the airport into the city, one of Oli’s must-do experiences.  The train travels at speeds above 400km/hr and is being demonstrated as the future of transportation.  Stupidly, it closes at 9pm, as does the subway, and so we found our way to the bus area.  With a rough idea of where our hotel was located, we stared at the bus route map and figured out which bus line would take us the closest.  After waiting in the extremely humid, hot evening weather for half an hour, the bus pulled up.  People didn’t seem to check their luggage under the bus, so we followed suit and battled the pushing and shoving of the frantic “line” to pass our bags up the stairs.

The bus sped through the dark, empty streets and didn’t announce its stops.  Oli spoke with a guy in his 20s next to us who spoke a bit of English.  Which stop would take us closest to the hotel?  The guy worked his smart phone and found a map for us.  He told us when to get off, and we clamoured over the aisle full of suitcases and out in one piece.  We were on a major street, but everything was closed and quiet.  We flagged a taxi and gave him the name of our hotel.  Of course, he didn’t understand.  We had thought ahead and printed the reservation email, so he called the hotel.  A short exchange later, and we were off in what we knew was the right general direction.  The street signs in Shanghai are excellent, written in Mandarin and English, labelled with the direction of the street with a little “W” and “E” on each end of the sign.

Sure enough, our trustworthy taxi took us to the Manhattan Bund Business Hotel.  The hotel was well rated on Trip Advisor and it has a perfect location in the Bund neighbourhood near the river.  Ok, it looks like it hasn’t been renovated in 40 years, but the aging glitz has its own charm.  As usual, businessmen were smoking in the lobby and there was no clear line for check-in; just a crowd of people standing around.  By now it was midnight and we were ready to collapse.  The first room they issued was tiny, with no windows.  We had booked and paid for a room with a window and a king sized bed, so we went back to the lobby and asked for the room we had booked.  Since none were available, they gave us a free upgrade to the biggest suite, known affectionately as the “Administrative Suite” (Chinglish never fails to keep us entertained; they obviously meant “Executive Suite”) complete with a bar, mirrored walls and the feel of former grandeur.  We had left our hotel in Xi’an at around 1pm, and finally we had reached our destination, a full eleven hours of travel later.  Oli went to the general store to buy some Tsing Tao beer and Pringles, we relaxed with a shower and we were soon out like a light.

The day’s weather promised to be very hot and humid, with a chance of rain.  We headed out to walk around the French Concession, the former French area of the city when it was just a small international trading post during the 19th century.  Compared to Xi’an, Beijing and other ancient cities, Shanghai is a newborn, but it’s growing at mind-blowing speeds and is already home to around 20 million Chinese.  The river is lined on the Bund side with stately white stone European buildings, with grand columns, symmetrical facades and clock towers.  The opposite Pudong side is filled with the new skyline of daring modern architecture, tall buildings in every shape and size, and the iconic Oriental Pearl tower.

We spotted a few nice sounding areas in the Lonely Planet and set out to wander.  The first area was a refurbished set of old buildings, gutted and turned into a very international and chic restaurant and cafe hub.  It was pouring rain, and so we ducked for cover at a sheltered outdoor patio for an excellent dim sum lunch.  I’d say we saw more foreigners during that lunch—a combination of working expats and tourists—than during our whole time in China.

The rain let up and the humidity was heavy.  We continued on to what the LP guide described as an artsy neighbourhood filled with artists’ studios and a warehouse full of galleries.  Since modern Chinese art is supposed to be avant-garde and coveted, it could be a cool chance to see what the hype’s all about. We ducked into an alley and voila, we were in the labyrinth.  It wasn’t nearly as authentic as I’d hoped, though.  Instead of artists, we found boutiques selling all manner of women’s clothing and accessories at outrageous prices.  Bargaining wasn’t welcome, and so I was turned off.  Oli, never a fan of overpriced shopping, chilled out on a cafe patio while I continued to browse.  It was a pleasant wander, though, and we had fun checking out the excellent photography of the city on show in two galleries—the only art in sight.  At the end of our tour, we stumbled upon the “warehouse” of artists.  Instead, it contained a few shops selling lovely clothes at very high prices.  So much for artist studios!

For dinner, we were set on finding a good local restaurant.  A lady at the tourist information centre gave us directions to her unpronounceable suggestion, and fifteen minutes later we found what we thought looked to be a good place that could fit her description.  It was packed with locals, always a good sign, and so we waited for five minutes before getting a table.  We leafed through the colourful picture menu, the excellent Chinese system of seeing what you order and the saviour of the trip for choosing our meals.  We quickly figured out that this wasn’t the place for Shanghai cuisine, since all the items were from Beijing and Canton.  As soon as Oli spotted the Beijing duck on the menu, our choice was made.  We also ordered a few side dishes for fun, including a mushroom soup served in a hollow pumpkin and a dish that came with its own flame to keep it bubbling.

Sitting next to us was a Shanghai native who lives half-time in LA for business.  We chatted for awhile and he explained that the restaurant is in fact a successful chain with several locations.  Sitting nearby was a table of two young and scantily dressed nouveau riche Chinese girls with one guy.  Their skirts were so short that they couldn’t sit facing the restaurant or risk becoming the main act of a show every time they crossed their legs.  We saw this two-women-for-one-guy phenomenon often and wondered if all men in Shanghai have the luxury of being fought over?

When we surfaced from dinner, it was pouring so hard that we were soaked just from crossing the street.  There were no taxis, and so we took shelter in a nice massage spa.  The menu displayed two options, offering a three-star or five-star masseuse.  I asked sarcastically why there weren’t any three stars or six stars, but most Chinese don’t understand sarcasm.  They replied that the CEO has seven stars, but that he wasn’t available.  We then endured the most painful massage hour in memory, and I had tender and bruised neck and back muscles for several days following.  My initiation to Chinese massage wasn’t exactly gentle.

On our second day, we checked out of the Manhattan Business Hotel and moved over to the very nice Westin for two nights.  The hotel was obviously pretty new and grand, and they were welcoming a large amount of foreign delegates for the World Expo.  Once settled, we headed out to walk down the famous pedestrian East Nanjing Road full of international shopping brands and therefore full of Chinese people out spending their plentiful Yuan.  We tried to seek out a restaurant that wasn’t a KFC and only somewhat succeeded at a Japanese fast food chain that could pass as a McDonald’s in disguise.  We each pointed at the photo choices on the wall and crossed our fingers.  Unfortunately, my meal looked like something a dog wouldn’t eat.  I picked at it but didn’t want to risk being sick all night over some shitty noodles.

We walked and watched modern China pass us by until we reached the main square that used to be the sight of a British race track, now a massive garden and public square.  Nearby is the Shanghai Museum, a must-see, world-class modern space that contains several storeys of China’s fascinating history…all for free!  We spent a few good hours escaping the awful heat and enjoying the well curated displays of Chinese minority groups’ costumes, ancient calligraphy, currency development, furniture, jade and ceramics.  The display cases are made of special non-reflect glass, making photos easy.  I left with a sense of wonder at the Chinese civilization that was so far ahead of the rest of the world—in culture, in manufacturing, in trade, and in cuisine—thousands of centuries BC.

Back at the hotel to rest our feet for cocktails and snacks at the lounge, we couldn’t believe our eyes at the spread before us.  A colourful aquarium of ethereal jellyfish greeted us at the door, and we were led into a greenhouse space with a glass ceiling, natural light and a huge open area of comfy chairs, couches and gourmet food—all for free!  Steaming baskets full of fresh dumplings, buffet style hot dishes, salads, free flow of wine, fruits, even four flavours of gelato—it was the best lounge ever!  We camped out there and ate our dinner with a view of Pearl tower go from sunset to sparkling lights.  Back at the room, we used the DVD player to watch Toy Story 3 (highly recommend).

Day three and we planned to check out the World Expo that everyone has been talking about.  We’ve heard about the architectural wonders of each country’s pavilion.  We’ve also heard about the horrible line-ups to even get into any pavilion.  After a leisurely breakfast, we went online to the Expo web site, which showed the amount of people they had already admitted that day.  They were breaking attendance records daily with around half a million people showing up, and it promised to be another scorcher outside.  We considered our options and decided to visit more of the city instead of standing in line with 500,000 of our closest Chinese friends.  Good move.  I agree with those who say that an Expo is an outdated concept.  Expos were great when travel between countries wasn’t as accessible as today, so the countries could come to you.  In the case of the Chinese and the hurdles they face to travel, I can understand the draw, which is exactly why this Expo is such a success.  Location, location, location!  We preferred to see more of China instead of cultural stereotypes of other countries.  I hear the Canadian pavilion was filled with maple leaves, and the Argentinean pavilion featured a tango dance.

Instead, we took a taxi to an electronics super mall, with levels and levels of independent stall vendors selling everything from cameras to computers to a Chinese version of the iPhone 4.  The phone looked and felt like an iPhone4, albeit a bit bigger, and the screen functioned in the same way, but with a lower quality resolution.  It couldn’t sync with iTunes, but they had innovated another function—two SIM cards!  The phone could make and receive calls from two separate lines, forever solving the problem of having to carry around both a work cell and a personal cell.  Apple, are you paying attention?  Oh, and the whole phone cost…$50!  We browsed, we bargained, and we emerged victorious with a shiny new digital picture frame as a “thank you” gift for our upcoming hosts in Beijing.

Another delicious lounge dinner later, and the sun had set on Shanghai.  We set out to the nearby river walkway, a huge public area, which was filled with Chinese tourists getting night shots of the opposite modern skyline.  We asked around ten different people to take our picture, each time with a varying bad result.  We’ve learned that even though the Chinese have big, fancy, expensive cameras does not mean that they know how to use them, or even how to take a decent photo with a point-and-shoot like mine.  The photos cut off the top of the skyline, were blurry (quite the feat with auto focus), were filled with sidewalk and retaining wall, or simply let us fill the frame, head to toe, with no background whatsoever.  Finally we got lucky and found someone who put in the effort to take a few good shots.  Thank you, stranger!  We walked for about an hour along the wall, admiring the flashing colours, the building-sized projection ads, the passing flashy tour boats and the masses of people.  To celebrate the night, we went to the LAN club, where we were almost alone on their laid back rooftop lounge for some French rosé wine.  Cheers to Shanghai!

Next day: fly to Beijing, our final stop in China!

Xi’an, kingdom of the terracotta warriors (by Olivier)

Some say time flies when you have fun, and we couldn’t agree more. We were sad to leave Ting and Ying behind, yet excited to visit Xi’an, an ancient Chinese city which once stood as the capital for several dynasties. We have become experts at figuring out the cheapest and usually fairly efficient way to get into town from the airport. In Xi’an, there are several well-organized shuttle buses taking passengers to different spots in town. We took a one-hour shuttle to the Drum Tower, then the public bus to the Sheraton.

We were greeted by a terrific suite with a huge separate living room, as well as a formal dining room. A quick walk on our large but bare outdoor terrace revealed that pollution and particles in the air in Xi’an are terrible, and on some days it’s hard to see 100m away! After several days of running around, we needed a lazy day so didn’t plan on doing very much that day. We had excellent dumplings at a nearby restaurant, then a nap and a hard workout at the hotel gym. We then had our usual “pre-dinner cocktails and canapés turned into dinner” at the executive lounge before passing out.

The next morning, we planned to visited the Terracotta Warriors, commissioned by an Emperor who wanted to bring his army into the afterlife to protect his kingdom. Construction began when he was only 7 years old, and ended abruptly upon his death 37 years later around the year 210 BC. The vaults contain 8000+ life-size pottery warriors, horses and chariots, each individually modeled from some of the 700,000 artists and workers enslaved into building the site. We took the public bus to the train station and took the local bus out to the Terracotta Warriors, about one hour away and probably $50 cheaper than hiring a formal tourist tour.

Upon “alighting” from the bus, we were swarmed by touts selling all kinds of trinkets and guides offering us tours. We turned down a first lady because her Chinglish was incomprehensible, and then hired a second one whose English was much better. We began by visiting the museum, which stores rebuilt artefacts found during the excavation of the various nearby sites. We then visited the three pits in crescendo, starting with the smallest one, then the officers’ headquarters, and ending with the massive pit #1, larger than two soccer fields and containing more than 6000 individual warriors.

Our guide was quite helpful in explaining different anecdotes, and mentioned that many other pits have been located by satellite but have yet to be explored. Each statue was vividly painted but unfortunately the color oxidizes just two minutes after exposure. It is unfathomable how much labour was required to build these masterpieces and we were truly overwhelmed by the grandeur of it all. The tour ended with a visit to the obligatory gift shop, where “official” crap is being sold at 10x the price of the nearby unofficial kiosks.

Jess was lured over into the jewellery gift shop, where hundreds of jade pieces were for sale. We were taught the difference between real and fake jade, and told of all its “healing” and health properties. Jess found a nice bracelet and was quoted 1000RMB or $150…outrageous by Chinese standards.  To play the bargaining game, Jess countered with 200RMB, much lower but apparently not out of reach, since the saleslady was about to accept when I ripped her away from the table, as she was about to become the owner of a highly discounted, yet still highly overpriced, piece of jade. We actually purchased a slightly damaged statue from an old lady through the bus window for $0.30, but ended up throwing it away because it was too heavy to carry through the rest of China, Egypt and Europe.

We returned home in time for another free dinner, and have sweet dreams of one day commissioning our own grand tombs.

On our third day in Xi’an, we had a dumpling lunch before walking over to the massive city walls and renting bicycles to tour the 14km of almost perfectly flat surface surrounding the city center. It was great fun and decent exercise, especially on the one speed Chinese bicycles. We then walked over to the Great Mosque, a relic from the trading days with the Middle East but still very busy five times a day. We have visited many Muslim Asian centers in the past few weeks, including Indonesia and Malaysia, yet it’s still surprising to see Han Chinese practice the religion of Allah. We happened to visit right at prayer time, so many men dressed in various forms of Muslim wear showed up for the early evening prayer. We then walked around the tiny streets in the area, a highlight of our time in China. Every sense was awakened, from delicious to disgusting scents and sights at every turn. We headed back to the hotel content with another rewarding day in the ancient city.

On our final day in Xi’an, we took the public bus to the center of town, then the cheap shuttle to the airport. Xi’an had by far the worst airport lounges we’ve ever seen anywhere in the world, featuring colourful plastic couches and polyester flowers. Our flight to Shanghai was delayed by an hour, so we had a late lunch at the decent airport restaurant with free internet access. Thanks, Xi’an!

You’ve got a friend in Chengdu (by Jessica)

Most people are surprised when we tell them that Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, is on our itinerary.  Deep in China’s interior, Sichuan is best known for its spicy food, as the home of pandas and for the 2008 earthquake that destroyed much of the province and killed nearly 70,000 people.  Chengdu was left intact, but work is still ongoing to rebuild the ravaged communities in the internationally known disaster.

Besides the obvious draws of eating some of the world’s hottest food and seeing some cute pandas, our main reason for going to Chengdu was to visit my former Toronto roommate, fellow UWO alum and good friend, Ting, and her newlywed husband Ying.  Ting grew-up in Chengdu, but went to university and worked in Ontario for seven years, making her the perfect guide to translate Chinese culture, language and food to Canadians.  Since I hadn’t seen her since Fall 2007, I was excited for a reunion.  It’s always been my dream to visit her in China, and to meet her husband, family and city!

Our evening flight arrived to a much cooler, less humid climate than the sweat-fest we’d experienced in Guangzhou.  Waiting for us at the arrivals gate were Ting and Ying, smiling and waving.  I rushed over to say hi while Oli picked up our bags.  Two big hugs and some excited chatter later, we were off in their new car, headed to their new home.  We peppered them with questions about their lives, catching up on events.  As it turned out, our timing was perfect since Ting was free for a few days before starting a new job, and so she could be our tour guide!  We were a bit hungry, so they took us to a mall food court for a snack.

Malls and food courts in China are definitely unlike those in Canada or the U.S.  The stalls are mostly independently run, serving fresh and delicious food for cheap.  The remaining open stalls were serving classic Sichuan snacks—mini hot dogs and chicken feet on a stick, soaked in spicy sauce, to name just a few.  I mustered my courage to try a nibble of the chicken feet.  Frankly, I find it gross.  The feet have all bones, nails and skin intact.  The look, taste and texture are all pretty nasty to me.  But then again, Chinese palates love them and eat them like we would potato chips.  After a nibble, I stuck to some noodles and we headed to their new condo on the outskirts of the city.

The new low-rise condo complex is in a very green, quiet area and looks like it could have been built in any North American city, complete with interlocking bricks, ponds, and a security gate.  Their unit is on the second floor, with two bedrooms, one bath, a large balcony and a laundry room—a fantastic place.  Since everything is new, they could customize to their tastes and have taken real pride in their home.  They share their home with a puppy named Shaow-Shaow, meaning “Tiny-Tiny”.  His cute furry face greeted us enthusiastically.

Our first morning was spent sorting out booking an overnight train from Shanghai to Beijing, a task that was best done with the help of Mandarin speakers.  Since we weren’t able to book online, Ting took us downtown Chengdu to the train station.  The real adventure was in getting there.  Chengdu is growing so fast, and the amount of new cars on the road is astounding.  They are still working on building the subway system, and the overcrowded buses are the only mode of public transit.  The traffic is very slow, congested and challenging to navigate without hitting something or someone hitting you.  Since most drivers are new to cars, they drive like they’re still on a bike or a scooter.  Newly built roads, traffic lights and painted lanes are all mere suggestions.  We saw so many scooters and cars doing crazy and dangerous things, to name just a few:

  • Going through red lights without slowing down
  • Moving into the oncoming traffic lane to turn left before the left-turn lane, cutting off oncoming traffic
  • Cars backing up on exit ramps or other random spots
  • Cars, scooters and tuk-tuks driving on the shoulder…going the wrong way!
  • Buses weaving through downtown traffic
  • Scooters driving on sidewalks with pedestrians, honking all the way

The train station’s ticket office was as big as a soccer field, filled with dozens of ticket booths and hundreds of people waiting in line.  The train is a big deal in China, and it’s the cheapest way to get around the country…but not the most comfortable or efficient.  There was actually a foreigner line, which we recognized since they were the only words written in English, so we stood patiently with everyone else (we were the only visible foreigners in that line, I might add) until we realized that no one was working at that particular window.  I went to stake out another line-up that apparently sold non-Chengdu tickets while Ting and Oli waited for the attendant to return.  My line ended up being faster.  Finally it was our turn and Ting communicated with the unpleasant ticket lady, only to learn that the sleeper cars on the overnight train we wanted were full; only seats remained.  Since the train would take around 12 hours, we weren’t ready to sit up in a smoky car for that long.  After all that, we decided to skip the train and book more expensive, yet cheap air tickets online, to save ourselves the time and back ache.

It was mid-afternoon, and the dumpling restaurant across the street was close and tasty.  Afterwards we jumped into Ting’s car and crawled through the downtown core.  We passed through the main square at Tianfu, complete with its giant Mao statue, saluting down a wide street lined with mega luxury shopping chains of Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci and company.  We see these so-called luxury brands everywhere we go in Asia, so much so that they’re becoming just as common as McDonald’s or KFC—just much more expensive and with the out-of-reach “upper class” cachet that the newly rich Chinese crave to splash around.  We arrived at Jinli Street, a quaint refurbished area of Old Chengdu featuring traditional wooden houses now filled with food stalls, souvenir shops, bars and cafes, including the ever-present Starbucks.  We snacked on some interesting spicy dishes from a variety of booths, most very tasty, except Oli’s daredevil choice of an entire little fried bird on a stick, and wandered the busy streets.

We were by far the only non-Chinese in the area, and we received long stares everywhere we went.  At several points along the way we were stopped by Chinese teens, asking us if they could take our photo, sometimes posing with them as if we were best friends.  Oli was wearing his Argentina national soccer jersey, which proved to be especially popular.  Ting taught us how to say a few key phrases in Mandarin, including the word for “foreigner”, which we heard many times, and “I am Canadian”, which we had to repeat several times before we could make ourselves understood.  Mandarin is extremely touchy on the specific sounds and emphasis you put at each part of a word or phrase, and what sounds right to us might sound like something completely different to a native speaker.

At six o’clock we were invited to a traditional Chengdu variety show, including free flow tea, sunflowers seeds to snack on, and an hour and a half of different performances.  First up were two tea pouring acrobats, who twirled their tea pots around without spilling a drop.  Next were two actors performing a physical comedy involving doing a limbo balancing a flame on their head.  There was also a great shadow puppeteer, a musician playing several songs on what I think is a Huqin, and a knife-throwing skit involving an audience volunteer.  And then, the finale!  Chengdu is “famous” for its face-changing dancers, magicians who change colourful face masks faster than the eye can see.  It’s hard to describe, but it was truly fantastic to see and pretty exciting, too.

The second day we decided to visit the Panda Breeding Facility just outside the city.  While the panda might be China’s national animal, its habitat is shrinking due to human environment interference.  Both Ting and Ying had never been, so the four of us went to see the pandas.  I was expecting to see a few distant pandas, sleeping in the shade.  Instead, we saw dozens of pandas, young and older, and even some tiny mouse-sized newborns in incubators.  They were playing, eating and generally very fun to watch up close.  We also saw red pandas, which look like racoons and live in trees.  The park was huge and filled with large, natural habitats for the pandas, so it was a great experience and much better than what I’d been expecting.

Chengdu is all about eating spicy, and so we followed suit.  We went for a really great lunch featuring various dishes at various levels of spice, and that evening we went out for the classic, not-to-be-missed hot pot, a sort of spicy fondue of meats, veggies and mouth-numbing peppers.  In Chinese style, many large dishes are ordered for the whole table to share; courses and individual plates do not exist here.  Personally I love the free-for-all of having a bunch of tasty things on the table, to compare each one and always have a fall-back option; if one dish isn’t your favourite, there are always a few more to choose from.

On our final day, we decided to go to the humungous downtown market.  Many Asian markets are filled with tourist-oriented items, such as souvenirs, fake designer purses and Polo t-shirts.  This market, however, was the real deal, for the locals looking to buy anything under the sun.  We wandered the alleys of stationery, red wedding decorations, shoes, bags, socks, car accessories and more.  I bought a cute pair of red leather loafers and Oli found a glasses case.  Unfortunately the loafers turned my feet red; not from pain, but from colour dye!  Well, they were the cheapest shoes I’ve ever bought…

After the market we went to meet Ting’s family at a traditional Sichaun restaurant for dinner.  They had reserved one of the many private dining rooms that are so typical, in order to have a quieter, more private meal than as part of the boisterous open concept main room.  We dined on pumpkin, spicy tofu, and many other delicious meat and vegetable dishes that are difficult to describe.  That’s why we take pictures!  I finally met Ting’s parents, brother, and brother’s girlfriend, none of whom speaks English, but there were many smiles all around as Ting translated the essentials.  While the ladies drank apple juice, Oli and Ying drank Budweiser, a premium beer in China, and there were many “Gambai!” and “I respect you!” cheers around the table.  It was fantastic to be so welcomed by locals and meet my friend’s lovely family.

Since it was Friday night, we headed to some happening streets of restaurants, tea houses and bars along a refurbished section of beautiful old wooden buildings.  We wandered the shops and people watched the TGIF atmosphere.  Chengdu is known for its laid back people who walk slowly, unlike their stressed out compatriots of Shanghai.  It was indeed a very chill and quaint place to be, with obvious effort put into preserving these heritage spots and putting them to good use for everyone to enjoy.

Our stay ended early on a Saturday morning, when our hosts kindly drove us to the airport for our flight to Xi’an, ancient capital of China and home of the Terracotta Warriors.  We hope to see our friends again soon!

Mainland attraction (by Jessica)

Taking the train is a very Chinese experience.  Since the huge city of Guangzhou (pronounced Gwang-jo, aka Canton) is only two hours of rails away from Hong Kong, we bid farewell to our Marvelous suite at the W Hong Kong and navigated the Kowloon subway to the train station.  Once we had settled down into our seats, we surveyed the lay of the land.  Next to us was an expat family of four from what we deduced to be Russia and Portugal, speaking Portuguese and English together, who were going home to Guangzhou after a weekend in Hong Kong.  The rest of the train was filled with Chinese and their odd shaped souvenir parcels, either heading home after a weekend of shopping in HK, or business people gearing up for a work trip.  A particularly loud businessman interrupted the car every few minutes when his ridiculous ring tone went off once again, and he would proceed to speak at the top of his lungs with whoever was on the other end.  Welcome to China!  Discard any images you have of shy, demure people.  This is the Wild East of pushing, yelling, and spitting.

Unlike many things in China, the train was not modern and made even ViaRail in Canada look futuristic.  Around half way through the ride, it was nearly dinner time and I was getting hungry.  I took a wander back to the dining car, complete with men heavily puffing away on cigarettes, thin frilly curtains hanging limply from the windows, and a scowling young waitress in what used to be a white apron.  To complete the Mad Men scene, there was a full kitchen whipping up fish, beef, noodles, soups and other simple meals and snacks.  I pointed at some beef with rice on the picture menu and three minutes later my order was up, piping hot.  OK, it wasn’t haute cuisine, but it sure beat a squished ham sandwich from ViaRail.  I’m always impressed with the speed at which the Chinese can whip up a decent, healthy meal with minimal effort and at a low price.

As we pulled into the third largest city in China, population 10M, the rain was coming down in absolute sheets.  We ducked for cover into the station and rushed past the crowds to the customs line-up when we officially entered mainland China.

We decided to skip the taxi after we attempted to explain where we wanted to go but only received shrugs of indifference.  Guangzhou is a thriving metropolis of trade, with a brand-new subway system that makes the city so much more accessible than other major Chinese cities, which are still drilling holes underground to get some of the gridlock off the increasingly luxury car clogged streets.  The subway was fast, and a handy map lit up the station stops as we went.  At our stop we waited for the rain to die down and then walked the rest of the way.  The chain JinJiang hotel was clean and modern, but the “river” out front was a mere stagnant stream of stinking sewage.  “Location, location, location!” said Oli as we walked in.  Actually, the hotel was pretty close to most of the major sites and the room was great for the $35CAN we paid each night.  There wasn’t a safe in the room, and so Oli found a loose ceiling tile in the bathroom where he stowed our laptops wrapped in a towel. By this time it was around 9:30pm and my train snack was a distant memory.

A hotel desk girl spoke good English and pointed us towards a good restaurant very nearby.  It was a simple place, with a frantic team of servers shuttling food and drinks, and tables full of friends and families slurping down tea and eating Cantonese dishes.  We pointed to a few items and crossed our fingers.  A big kettle of hot water over a flame was set on our table, and a basket with tea leaf sachets was offered.  We each ended up with a different tea, which we stuffed into miniature clay tea pots and steeped with the hot water from the kettle.  A banquet of delicious dim sum arrived.  All was well.

Some fellow diners, however, were not so happy.  A young couple sat down at a dirty table, hoping it would be cleared.  I guess the boyfriend got fed up with waiting, and so he took the entire tablecloth and its contents and lifted them down into a heap on the floor.  That got a waitress’s attention and she ruefully cleaned up the mess, which included the glass hot water kettle and flame stand.  We watched this scene unravel with fascination.  Would he get kicked out?  Nope.  Shortly after their table was set, they were given menus, and the girlfriend lost her pissed off expression for a few minutes until the guy mustered an awful throat gargle and spat a big one right there on the restaurant floor.  Again, no one did anything.  Was this normal, we wondered?  Isn’t the girl disgusted with her date by now?  The restaurant must be poisoning his food by now, right?  Nothing of the sort.  They proceeded to eat and all continued as per usual.  Another client decided it was too hot to wear a shirt, and chain smoked his way through his meal, shirtless.

The next day we braved the hot and humid weather to go walking around the nearby attractions.  We found a charming park where old men were playing board games under huge mature trees and ladies danced together beside a pond.  For lunch we stumbled upon a great restaurant serving stacks of steamed dumplings, with a big display to choose from.  They also displayed all manner of live seafood in tanks, ready to order, cook and eat in a variety of ways.  After eating we found the city’s famous museum, home to a 2000+ year old mausoleum of a former King that was only accidentally discovered in the last 40 years.  The amazing collection showed the kingdom’s wealth in technology and culture, featuring huge jade pieces, intricately carved art and jewellery, weapons, musical instruments, pottery, and even the remains of silk, tapestries and more.  These impressive objects and the civilization they represented made the Incas of the 1500s look like kindergarten.

After a break at the local Starbucks (where we saw more Westerners than anywhere else in the city), we checked out the nearby orchid garden, which was lovely except that there were zero orchids in bloom, but the mosquitoes were out in force and ravaged my legs.  Major bummer!  Back on the subway, we decided to visit the Chen Clan Academy, built by many Chen families as their base for commerce and culture.  The Academy was a huge old wooden building in traditional style, with numerous courtyards, open walls to the outside, and subdivided into many large rooms.  Each room displayed the various regional arts and crafts techniques from over the centuries, as well as examples of what furnished rooms would have typically looked like just 100 years ago.  I wish I had come to China thirty, even ten years ago.  It would have been a different experience altogether.  To get to the Academy, we passed through a rare glimpse into the old China of small, winding roads and sparse little wooden houses.  Now these neighbourhoods are mostly disappearing to give way to high rise concrete apartment buildings to house the huge population growth to the city.  Modernization and Westernization are words that many nations embrace as progress, and while they do improve the lives of many, these concepts also rob countries of their history, heritage and unique personality.

The entire day, I felt the long and open stares of the locals who aren’t accustomed to seeing foreigners in their city, never mind curly blonde-haired, blue-eyed foreigners.  I’ve never experienced such curiosity in any other place we’ve been.  The stares became uncomfortable, but no matter how many times I would meet their eyes, they wouldn’t turn away.  They weren’t embarrassed to be caught.  Once they saw my blue eyes, they would stare more.  I tried smiling to show that I was a friendly foreigner, but received no smiles in return.  Was I breaking social customs by smiling?  Was I unknowingly hitting on hundreds of Chinese strangers?  Maybe.  I decided to keep smiling anyway.  At least the other tourists were 98% Chinese, making our experience more authentic than if we had been surrounded by fellow “white guys”.

I was surprised by how clean the streets and sidewalks are in Guangzhou, and how efficient and modern the city runs.  Whatever romantic ideas I had about hundreds of bicycles, quaint wooden buildings and repressive Communism have been shed for hundreds of thousands of new luxury cars, an explosion of construction and housing developments, and full-blown consumerism.  Guangzhou is a particularly rich city due to its strategic location along the coast and its ancient ties to international trade, and its residents are busy chasing the almighty yuan.

On our last day in Guangzhou we took a taxi to the business centre of the city in order to catch a bus to the airport a few hours later.  We decided to take the time to search for an appropriate host and hostess gift for Ting and her husband Ying, who would be welcoming us in their home in Chengdu for four nights.  We found a mall and combed the shops for something a couple could appreciate.  I was happy with a glass tea set and some premium tea.  While I was shopping, Oli was stuck in the bank with an extremely complicated transaction: changing some remaining Hong Kong dollars into Chinese Yuan.  Half an hour and reams of paperwork later, the deal was done.  Maybe the Chinese banks need some efficiency consultants?

Mission accomplished at the mall, we found a restaurant across the street that turned out to have a complete “Western style” menu, as well as the usual Chinese dishes.  I spoiled myself with a grilled cheese sandwich and a big salad.  You may laugh, but there is no cheese, nor many vegetables, served in China.  After so many bowls of delicious noodles, rice, dumplings and soup, I was dying to sink my teeth into something with more texture and crunch than baby food.  A steak was a bit too pricey, but I plan on eating a large one at The Keg once back in Canada.  Argentina, where is your steak when I need it?

We headed to the airport bus stop a bit too late, only to find that it was full.  Another guy in the same boat shared a cab, and we were at the airport well ahead of the bus.  It was time to go to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, home of spicy chilli peppers and numbing spices, and native land of China’s famous pandas!  Most importantly, it’s the home of my good friend and former roommate, Ting, and her husband Ying, who will be hosting us for four nights.  It’s always been my dream to visit her in her home town, and my excitement was high.  Ting and Ying, here we come!

Great fun in Macau and Hong Kong (by Olivier)

We landed in Hong Kong around 8pm, hoping to catch the skypier ferry directly to Macau. As the name suggests, the skypier seamlessly integrates plane and ferry services, treating the ferries as a normal plane connection. The well-organized ferry desk takes your luggage tags from the airline, somehow finds and retrieves your luggage and loads it onto the right boat. HKIA, the Hong Kong International Airport, is a spectacular building filled with excellent shopping and food options. We had a bowl of noodles and a cup of Starbucks while waiting for the boat.

The uneventful ferry ride took approximately one hour to the Macau maritime terminal. Macau is a Special Administrative Region of China, similar to Hong Kong. SARs have broad autonomy, except for defence and foreign affairs. Macau has a long history as a trading post between East and West. It was largely developed by the Portuguese, who left a very distinctive European flavour to the architecture and layout of the city. The tiny city-state has over 20 large plazas, as well as churches, monasteries and other structures.

Portuguese is still an official language, which can be seen on all store and street signs, along with Mandarin, but few people still speak it. Macau is most famous for its spectacular casinos, attracting gamblers from the mainland and all over Asia. It has long surpassed Las Vegas as the world’s largest gambling city in terms of dollars gambled (and lost!). We dropped our bag at a decent hotel I had found on expedia.ca and immediately headed for the casinos. We first walked through the fancy Wynn, and then sat down at the cheapest roulette table we could find (HKD$10 per bet, or CAN$1.50) at the MGM. We spent an hour chatting with an American/Canadian couple who now lives in Guangzhou, and turned our original $30 wager into $100! Happy with our winnings and ready for bed, we walked past the countless jewellery and watch stores, selling both new and used treasures, some worth over $500k.

The following morning, we walked through Macau’s charming little streets to the excellent Macau museum. The first exhibit describes how the Eastern and Western civilizations have converged over time, in terms of religion, science, alimentary habits etc. The museum also contains interesting reproductions of old Macau streets, fishing docks, bed and dinning rooms, as well as animated displays of traditional jobs such as fireworks factory worker. We learned a great deal about the West’s colonisation of China. Being located in an old fort at the top of a hill, the rooftop deck presents a spectacular view of the entire city.

We then visited the Church of St Paul, or rather what remains of it. After a devastating fire in the 1830’s, only the front façade is still standing today. We had lunch at a traditional noodle restaurant, and spent the afternoon walking around the “Street of Happiness” area, an old red light district transformed into a tourist area. Most tourists in Macau are mainlanders. Each and every Chinese tourist has the annoying habit of purchasing the exact same “famous” souvenirs. In the case of Macau, the must-buy items are moon cakes and some kind of pressed meat sheet made of pig snouts. Exhausted from walking around in the scorching heat, we grabbed our bags and headed for Hong Kong on a fast ferry

We arrived in HK and checked into the Marriott Courtyard (which I had booked “opaquely” on priceline.com for $75 a night, versus the $240 listed on expedia.ca)! I chatted up the reception manager and received a free upgrade to a harbour view room. We went out into the decidedly local neighbourhood and had a delicious noodle and dumpling dinner at a tiny nearby restaurant for under $10. The next morning we ate some cereal we had bought from 7/11 the night before as breakfast and jumped into the “ding ding”, or classic two-storey streetcar, to explore the city. Our first stop was at a “famous” (everything is famous in China) dim sum restaurant, particularly known for its roasted goose. We then took the “famous” mountain tram up to Victoria Peak, which offers some of the best views of the metropolis. The tram climbs the hill at a very steep angle and is quite an exciting ride. We were amongst the few non-Chinese tourists, and we quickly learned how to defend our spot in “line” and push and shove with the best of them while feeling instinctively un-Canadian.  After a great walk through the cool and quiet forests around the peak, we took the tram down and checked out the free Bank of China observatory for another good view of the city. By then it had started raining hard, so we headed back to our hotel for another cheap and delicious dinner, and watched a hilarious and fitting Russell Peters video where he does a classic stand-up routine about the fine differences between different Asian accents.

On our second full day in HK, we took the metro to Tung Chung to experience what must be the coolest cable car ride in the world! It’s over 5km and 30 minutes long while offering unbelievable views of HKIA as well as the greener side of HK. It leads to a corny touristy village which originally served as a monastery. At the top of the hill, a giant Buddha awaits! Visa Infinite cardholders were offered free access to an animated short-film on the history of Buddha and Buddhism. The story begins with Buddha giving up all material comforts to find spiritual well-being. However, the story ends in the middle of modern Hong Kong with the logo of one the exhibit’s sponsors gleaming into Buddha’s eyes. Then, the lights come on and a dozen corporate logos fall from the ceiling on big panels. The weird combination appeared to us like a rape of the religion’s history and its true lessons, but the other Chinese visitors did not seem to react strongly, perhaps one more proof that China’s official religion is wealth.

Still disturbed and amused by the movie, we rode the cable car down to the outlet mall to check out the potential bargains, but when it comes to sizes, both Jess and I are considered giants. After some frustrating searching, we bought comfortable and chic shorts from the Callaway outlet and headed back to the city. From Central Station, we walked a few minutes to Lan Kwai Fong for Friday night madness, a small street packed with bars catering to expat bankers looking to blow off steam and pay checks on imported booze and Western food. We were hoping for a steak or something along those lines, but the prices were prohibitive (think Toronto prices) so we settled for excellent pizza and Stella on tap at a small Italian place. Corona was having a promotion so we ended up drinking completely free beer at the “Lux” bar. After some fascinating people watching, a mix of Western businessmen, backpackers and skanky women from around the world, we caught a ding-ding home. This must have been the cheapest Lan Kwai Fong night out in recorded history!

The following morning, we had terrific dim sum at a restaurant near the hotel. We were the only non-Chinese in the entire gigantic restaurant. Our dim sum experiences in Hong Kong confirmed that our favourite Chinese restaurant in Toronto, Pearl Harbour Front restaurant (silly name but good food), is very authentic and excellent. We checked out of the Marriott and checked into the W Hong Kong across the harbour in Kowloon, an over-the-top hotel I was able to book on points! Our “Marvelous Suite” (normally a CAN$1500+ room) was not quite ready when we arrived, so the hotel offered us $20 signature cocktails in the lobby bar. We finally moved into our palace; 1000+ square feet of stylish luxury. The room boasted 3 TVs (1 fully integrated into the wall, 1 Bang & Olufsen and 1 in the bathtub. The bathtub and bedroom faced an unobstructed view of the HK harbour, and the living room was large enough to host a 50-person party. We dropped our bags and grabbed our gym clothes for a hard workout at their 76th floor sky gym, followed by a dip in the infinity pool on the 78th floor. The pool even had underwater speakers so guests wouldn’t miss of beat of the chilled out tunes playing throughout the hotel. That night, we had dinner with friends from Brazil whom I had met on my first exchange to Paris almost ten years ago, and who now live and work in HK. We caught up over Arabic food in Soho, complete with a belly dancer, and then had drinks on a cool rooftop patio overlooking the lights of downtown. It was a terrific evening. Little interesting factoid: my Brazilian friend survived the “shoe bomber” flight in 2001.

After a very restful night in our palatial digs, we got together with our Brazilian friends for dim sum at Maxim’s, a wildly popular restaurant located inside the old city hall. The food and company were excellent, and we were sad to say “obrigado and chau”. Our time in Hong Kong finished at the train station where we boarded a two-hour ride to reach Guangzhou in mainland China.

Come on and sing, sing a song for Singapore! (by Jessica)

There’s this song stuck in my head. It’s that catchy. It’s that moving. It’s the National Day song for Singapore’s 45th birthday, and it was broadcast on TV, like, a bazillion times, at least once per commercial break. We were in Singapore during the huge National Day festivities, and the pride-for-country propaganda was at its flag-waving best. Every Singaporean was given a flag to hang from their state-sponsored apartment window, making nearly every HDB (Housing & Development Board) building checkered in red.

Not only were we in the thick of celebrating Singapore, but it was also the build-up to the inaugural Youth Olympic Games (YOG), and the city was preparing to welcome the world. Believe it or not, we felt more excitement and saw more hype over National Day than we did for the YOG. It wasn’t until near the end of our stay that we saw official buses shuttle down priority lanes between events, volunteers decked out in purple, and young athletes in uniform on the subway.

Never heard of the YOG? Neither had we, until we arrived. The Olympics Committee head Jacques Rogge is behind the new Games, and while some say it’s a great new competition that will prepare athletes for the real deal, some call the Games too much pressure on young people, favouring children who train too hard, too young.  Whatever your take, the thrill of feeling the city be host to the world made tiny Singapore  puff up just a little bit more.

And it is a small world. Even on the other side of the world from what we know, after all this travel and flying and seeing new places and experiences new things, the world really is small. It’s small and packed with people, all from different places and spaces, but all striving towards a common goal: to live a good life, and to give a good or better life to their children.

Speaking of children, most expat families who raise their children in Singapore have live-in maids who do groceries, housework, laundry, childcare and cooking. All of these helpers are foreign workers from Malaysia, the Philippines and other South-East Asian countries. Most condos in Singapore are built with an outdoor space off the kitchen to house these helpers, featuring a small room that can just fit a single bed, and a tiny attached bathroom. Since Singapore schools have a different curriculum versus the standard of education in Europe and North America, expat children attend private international schools to keep up with their homeland peers; I’ve heard that their high tuition rates, even at kindergarden level, can make Canadian university fees look cheap.

With two weeks in one place, I was thrilled to do laundry on a whim. Laundry on the road is not glamorous. There is no choice to delicate wash or air dry anything—all goes in the industrial dryer. This forces me to do a lot of hotel hand washing and air drying of stuff that can’t go in the dryer (bras, for one), which can sometimes still be wet by the time we need to check out and roll on to the next. So for me, the luxury to do my own laundry, whenever I wanted, with ample drying rack space and a dryer at hand, was fun. If I wear something and it goes sweaty? Guess what? I don’t have to wear it a few times more before washing. I can move on to the next clean top without worrying about running out before our next clean clothes run.

Something else we loved was chilling out on the couch and reading books we borrowed from the library, or just watching TV or movies. With a bit more choice than the standard hotel CNN, and with enough bad Singaporean TV to keep me groaning in pain, I was once again chuckling at America’s Funniest Home Videos or watching reruns of 90210. The INSEAD library was another luxury. Suddenly faced with rows upon rows of choice books, all in English, I was overwhelmed. I’ve grown used to grabbing the best looking airport English books, or hunting down a city’s only international book store and combing through their scattered English school book collections of Old British classics and shiny John Grisham novels.

As a couple travelling together, we’ve gotten used to spending a lot of time together, some of it relaxed and some quite stressful. It’s brought us closer than ever. That said, it’s always great to hang out with friends, meet new people and take turns telling and listening to each other’s stories. Our French flatmates were fantastic friends nearly instantly—I say nearly because I’m not sure our wine-crashing arrival endeared us right away. We were both married on the same weekend, we’ve both lived in Paris, and we all love a big laugh and some mocking humour. On top of these similarities, he and Oli share the common bond of an MBA spent at INSEAD in Singapore and both guys work in consulting. Small world. And of course, we all speak French and English. But Oli and I speak “Quebecer” French, which can be nearly a different language at times, and the Frenchies speak their charming version of English. This led to some impromptu language lessons along the way, always ending in a chuckle and a mental note.

In my last post about Singapore, I said that there’s no charm in Singapore. I take that back. There is charm in the way that taxi drivers always want to chat along the way in their challenging Singlish. There is a charm in the many signs and publicity campaigns about how to become a better citizen, from allowing people to “alight” from the subway before entering, to encouraging everyone to sing the national anthem at 8:10pm on National Day. There is charm in their huge tropical green spaces and industrial ports, and there is charm in its constant will to improve and be an even better place to live. With extremely low income taxes (below 20%), swimming pool weather 365 days a year, modern infrastructure, friendly people, every kind of food you could wish to eat, an exciting economy, affordable domestic help, world-class shopping, a clean city, and Asia at its door step—what more could you wish for?

So come on and sing! Sing a song for Singapore! It’s a pretty fantastic place, and the country deserves its big birthday party, fireworks blazing in red and white.
We’re sad to leave, though the land of China beckons!

A well-deserved break in Singapore (by Olivier)

We had been traveling non-stop for about two and a half months, switching hotels and flying from city to city every few days. A well-deserved break of two weeks in my beloved Singapore was in order. I had spent 6 months in the city-state while studying at INSEAD in 2005-2006, and thought it would be a place Jessica would appreciate.

We rented the master bedroom of a shared flat from an INSEAD student who’s currently on summer vacation. The unit is located in the very same building I was living in 5 years ago, so it felt a bit like I was coming home. Upon arrival at the very efficient Changi airport, we purchased two bottles of French rose wine and a big bottle of port, knowing full well that booze is pricey in Singapore. We arrived at our condo around midnight, excited to meet our new flatmates. I rang the doorbell and as soon as our flatmate opened the door, the bottles fell into the condo and crashed on the floor, shattered. Fortunately, the shopping bag contained most of the mess and so the wine spilled on the floor was limited. Quite a spectacular entrance!

I grabbed the bag and brought it into the staircase, hoping the wine would pool in the corner while I figured out how to clean up my mess. I walked back into the flat and we apologized while we introduced ourselves to our new flatmates: a shy Chinese PhD student and a French couple from Paris. While Jess started to mop up, I returned to the staircase. The wine had not pooled in the corner as anticipated, but rather dripped down and repainted the entire 12 storeys below… I spent the next hour mopping the stairs, sponging the handrails and deodorizing the air. This is one mess I could have done without…

Our flat consisted of three spartanly furnished bedrooms, two bathrooms (plus a tiny “maid” bathroom outside, in true Singapore style), a well-equipped kitchen and a large living-dining room. We were glad to have the master, with room to spread out our stuff and our own en suite bathroom. It felt good to actually unpack and settle in for a full two weeks.

Our stay in Singapore was a mix of visiting attractions, meeting with old friends, catching up on administrative tasks and just plain relaxing by the pool. It was a pleasure to show Jess around my old Holland Village expat neighbourhood, which is full of restaurants and bars, as well as the more Singaporean hawker centers, where you can purchase a full and delicious meal plus a drink for under $5. Other activities included:
• Visiting Sentosa, a small island across from the downtown full of tourist attractions such as a casino, a Universal Studios amusement park, beaches (featuring soft imported sand and a view of hundreds of tankers), bars, restaurants, cinemas, zip-lining etc. We tried out the “luge”, riding down a hill on a paved track on something of a go-kart / toboggan mix and going back up on a chairlift with a view of the city
• Catching up over a Sunday Dim sum lunch in Clarke Quay with a group of friends from INSEAD who are living in Singapore
• Spending hours online to book the remaining flights and hotels for our trip. Everything is now mapped out, which will make the rest of the travelling a breeze
• A lively Lau Pa Sat satay and beer dinner with a couple of friends from Toronto who are living in Singapore, and again a few days later with our French roommates. Lau Pa Sat is a huge indoor/outdoor food market, where an entire downtown street is closed to accommodate hundreds of tables and chairs for hungry night revellers
• Big buffet breakfast at the Holiday Inn with another couple of Toronto friends who are also on a round-the-world trip, but heading in the other direction. Luck would have it that we crossed paths for a morning!
• Shopping (browsing!) on Orchard Road, certainly one of the fanciest shopping streets in the world. There are at least 3-4 Louis Vuitton stores within a couple of blocks! We also turned off our brains for two hours and caught the action movie Salt
• Checking out the brand-new and very swanky Marina Sands Bay casino with our French flatmates. Singaporeans must pay $100 to get in, but it’s free for foreigners. We looked around and gambled all of $4 in slot machines. The machines won
• Making a batch of my signature spaghetti sauce and enjoying it with the whole flat family. Note that cooking anything at home is much more expensive than eating at the omnipresent hawker centers, but we had a great time grocery shopping, cooking and entertaining, something we miss while travelling
• Eating dinners cooked with care by our flatmates; we indulged in a Chinese banquet spread and a lovely French meal
• With all that eating…Working out almost everyday in the gym, cooling off with laps in the pool, or running up and down a multi-story parking lot for variety
• Watching the National Day Parade on TV at home (we couldn’t get tickets). Each year, NDP is celebrated in the form of a huge and impressive military display, showing off the state-of-the-art equipment to remind the neighbours “not to mess with Singapore”
• Breaking the airport Terminal 3 record for the strongest punching force on the punching bag. Since Singapore is currently hosting the first ever Youth Olympic Games, there were several free games at the airport. I put all my North-American weight into it and set a new record, earning a nice gold medal and some congratulations from the carnies who cheered my score: “Seven hundred, seven hundred!”
• Checking out the old Chinatown, which included exhibits describing what Singapore was like two hundred years ago.

We were sad to leave Singapore. We couldn’t have asked for nicer room mates, and hope to stay in touch with them. But then sadness quickly dissipated, replaced by the excitement of travelling through China for a month.

Borneo, our last stop in South East Asia (by Olivier)

Wishing to discover a tiny bit of the world’s third largest island, we landed in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia and checked into a fabulous and free suite at Le Meridien. By the time our bags were dropped, it was past 10pm but we hadn’t had dinner yet. We walked across the street and discovered a charming ocean boardwalk lined with restaurants serving grilled satays and seafood. As we enjoyed delicious grilled prawn and red snapper, I felt a strong sense of contentment and satisfaction – temporarily setting aside all outstanding issues and decisions to be made to focus on the freshness of our meal.

In the morning, I snuck out a big plate of food from the buffet to serve my favourite wife breakfast in bed. We walked around the town for a bit. “KK” is a small and pleasant town, with a good mix of tourist and local shops and restaurants. Given that it’s small, it is possible to walk just about anywhere. The weather was warm but not unbearable, and the short rainfalls are quickly replaced by sunshine. After dropping off our dirty clothes at a doubtful nearby laundrymat, we settled down at a local restaurant for large plates of seafood and noodles costing around $1 each. We visited several dive shops conveniently located next to each other to investigate the possibility of going diving, our main concern being the poor underwater visibility given the monsoon season. We finally chose a PADI 5-star certified shop to take us out to the islands the next day. We ate bulgogi and kalbi in an authentic Korean BBQ restaurant near the hotel. The day concluded with excellent Borneo massages delivered by powerful Philipino hands.

Next morning:  diving!  It was sunny and no signs of rain were in sight.  We reached the “jetty” a few minutes late to meet our diving partners for the day:  a guy from Manhattan and his brother, who is currently working as a science teacher in Bangkok. The plan was to complete two dives in the morning, and one in the afternoon; the first time we’d do three dives in one day. We boarded a small diving boat and headed out only ten minutes to nearby islands for our first dive. We geared up and jumped into amazingly warm 29C water! The visibility was very good on the first dive, and mediocre on the second. A simple but tasty lunch was served on a small beach island teeming with Korean tourist groups wearing life jackets; many Koreans do not know how to swim! A couple of impressive meter-long Monitor lizards wiggled their way near the picnic tables to sniff out a snack. The third dive was a disappointment. The visibility was less than 3 meters, and we mostly saw sand, save a very cool color-changing cuttlefish and a large stonefish, the most poisonous fish in the world!

We had originally planned to leave KK that night but decided to extend our stay by one day. Unfortunately Le Meridien was oversold so we relocated to the King Park, a simple nearby local hotel. We walked around a fascinating wet market beside the water, where many of the fish we saw underwater were available for purchase, either fresh or barbequed on the spot. We finally had dinner in a sushi bar followed by dirt-cheap foot massages.

After lunch the following day, rather than brave an ~8-hour bus ride, we boarded a $50, 45-minute AirAsia flight to Brunei, a tiny Muslim country on Borneo. As soon as we landed, we noticed the adoration for Their Majesty the Sultan, one of the richest men in the world. The tiny country once controlled a large part of South East Asia, but lost much of its hegemony over the years and was at some point colonized by the British. Fortunately, and without knowing at the time, they maintained control over a very oil-rich area, explaining why Brunei is one of the richest countries in the world.

Brunei is by far the most boring Sultanate I’ve ever visited. Alcohol is completely prohibited and the streets are deserted after sundown. A few teenagers were hanging out in an arcade, screaming their lungs out in karaoke booths and playing video games. We decided to join in the fun and shot at zombies and sang a few karaoke songs. We tried to visit a huge mosque surrounded by a moat in the center of town, but were told that it was closed for non-Muslims visitors after 5:30pm. With absolutely nothing else to do, we found a coffee shop with free wifi and spent 2-3 hours planning the next two months.

In the morning, we visited the Regalia Museum, where the Majesty’s gifts from other heads of state, as well as various other treasures, are being displayed. We had to remove our shoes outside and walked around on marble floors wondering how much the Sultan had spent on the lavish and modern museum. A significant part of the museum is dedicated to the Sultan’s greatness, smarts and accomplishments – his Koran teachers praising how quickly he learnt etc. Brunei is expected to run out of oil within one generation, but they can likely hold a huge garage sale to fuel the economy for a year or two. To reduce their reliance on oil money, they are also trying to develop tourism but they have a long way to go. Perhaps legalizing gambling and boozing could help their cause?

Walking out of the museum, I spotted a couple of tourists and ran over to ask them if they wanted to share a water taxi to visit the water village. They agreed and so we walked over to the docks while going through introductions. The English couple was on a month-long vacation in Borneo, and had just landed that morning. They complained that Royal Brunei Airlines does not serve alcohol on board, making the 12-hour flight in economy that much more painful. The water village was extremely different from Cambodia’s floating village. Well-built houses rested on concrete pillars, with satellite dishes and flat-screen TVs flashing through the windows. From the boat, we also caught a glimpse of the Sultan’s palace, the largest residential palace in the world. The palace is over 2 million square feet of strictly residential space, three times the size of Versailles! The Sultan also holds the record for the largest car collection in the world: 3000 to 6000 cars worth over $4B, including 500+ Rolls Royce. During the 1990s, his family accounted for almost half of all Rolls-Royce purchases! Perhaps his car collection could help boost his country’s tourism?

Next stop: Singapore for 2 whole weeks in the same room! We rented the master bedroom of the condo of an INSEAD student in the very same building as I was living 5 years ago!

Riding the ups and downs of Jakarta (by Jessica)

Most people who have been to Jakarta visit either for business, shopping, or to experience the joys of being stuck in immovable traffic for hours on end.  It is decidedly not a tourist or traveller destination.  For the first time of the trip, I can say with conviction that it’s a place that I didn’t like, and that we wouldn’t recommend it to other travellers.  This is a city inhabited by a majority of extremely poor people living in slums and an extremely wealthy minority, who live, eat and shop in luxury towers and fly around in helicopters to avoid the snarled traffic below.

Indonesia comprises an astounding 17,508 islands.  With a population of around 230 million people, it is the world’s fourth most populous country, and has the world’s largest Muslim population.  Jakarta is located on the island of Java, home to the most influential political and religious power.  Next door to Java is our beloved beach island of Bali, but the two are very different.  For one, Bali is a Hindu island, which has made it a terrorism target of extremist Muslims.  Second, Bali is a relaxed tourist haven while Jakarta is a bustling business centre.

Our arrival to the airport went smoothly and we met our shuttle driver at the arrivals gate.  Ten minutes and a water bottle later we were checking into the Sheraton, a hybrid airport, resort and golf hotel.  At the main door we had to pass through a security scanner and my hand bag was quickly opened and passed back—our first brush with the heightened security of Jakarta.  I was a little annoyed, having already gone through the whole spiel at the airport, and it was close to 1am and we were ready to collapse.

The room was damp with humidity and the furniture was all stained, including some bird crap on one of the chairs that must have been sitting outside.  An odd addition to the room was a very old kitchenette tucked into a corner.  Given its remote location beside the highway, surrounded by lush tropical greenery and with no nearby town, we wondered vaguely what we were supposed to cook?  The hotel was very convenient to the airport, though, and for that it won full points, since it can take anywhere from one to three hours of drive time to make your way downtown.  The hotel amenities were nice, too, with a big pool, a big gym, an on-site spa and tennis courts.  We stayed there one night, then left for the city for two nights, and returned back at the airport Sheraton for one more night prior to our outbound flight.

The bed was comfy and clean, which was the most important part.  We slept well and packed up to go into the city.  Our Blue Bird taxi, the only credible and safe taxi service in the city, moved pretty well along the toll highways.  We noticed that many huge, black SUVs with black, mirrored windows rule the road, while motorcycles weave through traffic in packs.  As soon as we pulled off the highway and joined the city, traffic drew to a halt as it snarled and fought its way into the packed roadways.  At all particularly slow merges and intersection, armies of touts fill the lanes with trays of food, drinks, toys and random stuff for sale.  Since most Jakartans spend so much time on the road, I can see why food and drinks would be very useful.

Our taxi pulled up to the downtown Sheraton and a team of security guards searched the back seat, trunk, under the hood and looked under the car with mirrors.  We exchanged glances, surprised by the professional routine but also glad that they took the hotel’s safety seriously.  Again at the hotel entrance, my purse was checked and this time all our luggage was sent through an airport-like scanner.  Routine as usual—and it was starting to creep me out.  It wasn’t until later that we researched the reason for the high alert level and found the evidence—two international luxury hotels had been targeted by bombs in July 2009.

Regardless of the macabre past events, our hotel was very pleasant and we were greeted with big smiles.  Covered in sun screen and armed with water bottles, we set out to visit the old Dutch Colonial district near the water.  The concierge told us it would around 40 minutes to get there by taxi.  Discouraged, we asked how long it would take on foot.  Hesitant, he told us it would take maybe 20 minutes to walk there, but that it might be too hot and difficult.  Ignoring his advice as overly cautious, undoubtedly meant for inexperienced tourists and sheltered business travelers, we set out on foot with a rough idea of which direction to follow.

***

I’ll tell you right now:  We really should have listened to him.  Jakarta is not a city for walking.  The first major problem we encountered was the total lack of sidewalks in the area.  Walking along the side of the busy three lane artery quickly became a bad idea, since the nasty tuk-tuks that use the edge of the roads spew black exhaust in our faces.  Desperate to escape the traffic, we sprinted across a brief lapse in vehicles and made it to the median that separates the bus lane from the rest of the cars.  It was then we realized that the modern buses seemed to be the best way to get around, but we didn’t know which bus to take.  Once we cleared the bus lane we were on something of a sidewalk, more like a dirt path, that followed a brown river lined with slums, garbage and the stench of rotting human waste.

We took a diagonal route towards our destination through an interminable baking parking lot of scooters while ducking passing motorcycles as they zipped along the narrow access path.   We turned left along a major road.  I was suddenly overwhelmed by the air pollution.  My throat stung and my voice turned raspy.  I dripped with sweat in the open sun and trudged along the side of the dirty road, once again without a sidewalk or even a shoulder to cling to.  We followed the other local pedestrians on the edge of the right-most lane and crossed our fingers not to be hit by a tuk-tuk, scooter or car breezing by.

The locals, obviously very used to the noisy chaos, pulsing heat, endemic filth and spewing pollution, gathered alongside the side of the road, sitting around in the dirt on top of concrete slabs that covered the road-side stream of sludge.  I felt them staring as we walked by.  Twenty minutes came and went.  We weren’t there yet.

The assortment of strong smells came and went.  Then the worst smell in the world hit me.  My throat burned.  My eyes stung.  The combination of what I can describe as boiling chemicals and human waste was overwhelming.  I kept on walking, trying to focus on getting there, trying to block out the world around me, while trying to choke down the gag reflex.  Then I looked up and took in the poverty, despair, filth and concrete and cursed over and over again.  This place was void of anything that could be interpreted as beauty, any sign of green, or any friendly smiles.  This was quite close to hell.  Then my hot tears blinded me.

I had to stop as I gasped through the onslaught of tears.  This was it:  My Travel Break-Down.  Immediately I hated myself, the privileged white girl who can’t handle the mean streets of Jakarta, while these people live and breathe this every day; it’s just life as usual.  Still, the sobs overtook me and I fought the nausea and let the disgust course through my body.  I wanted to take a taxi the rest of the way, but we were almost there and we were on the wrong side of the street.  Crossing the six lanes of traffic would be next to impossible.  And so we kept walking.  My tears clouded my sunglasses as we passed through more of the same hell.  I thought of taking photos to capture the scene, but I didn`t feel comfortable taking out my camera.

Finally, we turned onto a cordoned off section of cobblestone street where a film crew was shooting a barber shop scene.  We continued up the way, suddenly in a comparative oasis of calm without traffic, fumes or sewage.  Then a large square opened up on our right-hand side, surrounded by symmetrical stucco buildings that could have been plucked out of Amsterdam.  Children in school uniforms were laughing and playing on old-style Dutch bicycles for hire.  Still feeling a lingering sense of disgust with the world and with myself, we went for refuge in the landmark Batavia Cafe, a Dutch Colonial tradition of rich dark wood, tall ceilings, arched supports, elegant shuttered windows and views on the square.  I washed up in the bathroom (It’s clean!  There’s toilet paper!  The walls are covered in art!  There are soap and hand towels!), took a few deep breaths and sat down for a pint of beer in the air conditioned upstairs dining room, where white linen tablecloths and portrait photography art completed the decor.

My body began to relax and my negative thoughts slowed once in familiar territory.  Suddenly I really missed Europe (the cafés, the art, the pedestrian lifestyle, the beauty in everything), then I missed my mother (who would love the Batavia and who taught me to appreciate life’s little pleasures), and then I really missed home—Canada (the cleanliness, the familiarity, the security).  I had won the country lottery, and I slyly thought that the Dutch could have done more to improve Jakarta than build a few stucco buildings that represent the comfortable lives they led amongst the poverty of the locals, much as the international hotels are the modern symbols of foreign wealth enclaves.

***

Not that all of Jakarta is like this.  After my little break-down, I was determined to finish the day on a good note.  We asked a few locals about the new bus system and found the line we needed not far from the Batavia.  The bus systems work on most major arteries, thumbing their noses at the traffic with their very own priority bus lanes.  Public transit has improved life considerably for Jakartans, who have cut their commute times and have a cheap and reliable means of getting around.  We lined up and saw that women and men were asked to board into different parts of the bus.  In reality no one paid attention and rushed for the available seats.  Since we were waiting at the first stop of the line, a transit worker carefully controlled the amount of people who could board at one time.  This way there was guaranteed room for the rest of the stops along the line, instead of filling one bus that would have to refuse passengers the rest of the route.  Very smart.  (Toronto’s subway has the problem where office workers fill the subway at Bay St station, and no one can get on until after the main connection at Bloor St, where many people get off.)

There weren’t any route maps or stop announcements, but a friendly local told us when it was our stop.  We were getting hungry for dinner and we’d read about a tasty restaurant that we wanted to try.  We got off the bus into a completely different Jakarta.  There were sidewalks, for one.  They were filled with smoking food carts whipping up Nasi Goreng and other fried noodle dishes, alongside makeshift outdoor restaurants of folding tables and tiny plastic chairs.  Around us were modern malls, filled with Western conveniences like Chili’s restaurant, coffee chains and a movie theatre.  The people were texting on cell phones, wearing fashionable clothes and ducking into the air conditioned world of Jakarta’s elite.

We walked around in the night heat for at least an hour in search of the fabled restaurant.  No matter how many locals we asked, no one wanted to admit that they didn’t know where it was, and so we were sent on many leads with no final destination in sight.  Finally we guessed that the restaurant had closed, or had moved, or that we had come to the wrong place.  The other options looked either empty (never a good sign), or pricey, or just plain risky. The last thing we wanted was to be in Jakarta with food poisoning.  Defeated, we walked through the electronic doors of the sparkling mall and took a seat at a casual “fast-food” Chinese restaurant.  This wasn’t fast food in the traditional greasy, unhealthy way, but in the literal way of receiving a delicious meal a mere five minutes after ordering.  We checked out the movie theatre but we were between showings.  We decided to call it a night and flagged a Blue Bird taxi back to the hotel, and once again went through the security drill.

***

The next morning we awoke to pouring rain.  Not feeling too motivated to go out, we took it easy and had a great $10 all-you-can-eat Thai lunch at the hotel…arguably more traditional Thai than what we ate in touristy Phuket!  We fill our downtime by managing my hundreds of photos (editing, organizing, labelling, uploading), writing this blog, posting the blog and photos (can be a long haul depending on the internet speed), planning our future flights and hotels (lots of research on TripAdvisor, Expedia, SPG and HostelWorld), reading up on things to see and do, calling family and friends, going to the gym or for a swim, or just reading for pleasure.

That evening we were looking forward to meeting with one of Oli’s friends from Singapore who’s living and working in Jakarta.  We were eager to get a more local perspective on the city.  She pulled up to our hotel with perfect timing, which astonished us given the unpredictable traffic.  Little did I know that she works for the Singapore Foreign Service, and so we were chauffeured to dinner in her black diplomatic vehicle.  Très cool.  She took us to one of the city’s top luxury malls, a little city within itself of designer shops, exotic car dealerships, international restaurants, and any other amenities you could imagine.  We took several escalators up as I tried not to gape at the concentration of luxury brands in one building.  This could be an air conditioned Rodeo Drive.

The Balinese restaurant was comfy with its long cushioned benches and private U-shaped booths.  Our host ordered a delicious spread of traditional dishes in perfect Indonesian.  She had gone through months of rigorous language training before her three-year post began, and told us her stories of living in Jakarta.  We learned that 80% of Indonesia’s wealth is owned by around 300 extremely wealthy families.  With so many natural resources to choose from, Indonesia is being milked for all its worth with little regard to the environment or sustainability.  In one extreme example of the extent of this wealth, she told the story of a woman who booked a hair colouring appointment with Singapore’s top colourist, took her helicopter to the airport, then flew the private jet to Singapore, had her hair done, and went back home all in one afternoon.  Routine.  More insight revolved around private buyers for coveted and custom Hermes purses.  Welcome to the world of the super rich.

After dinner we had a cute assortment of little cakes from her favourite Japanese bakery, and we headed to a hip bar for a fancy drink to soak in the scene.  Oli ordered a very cool tea pot of spiked tea, complete with vodka-soaked orange slices on the side.  Even in an upscale bar, where everyone was dressed in the latest hip Western fashions, I still felt self-conscious about my ever-so-conservative cleavage in the very conservative country.  Oli and I avoided holding hands or showing any public affection while in both Malaysia and Indonesia, out of respect for their customs and to avoid uncomfortable stares.

Back at the hotel, it was still early and we decided to check out the Canadian band playing in the basement club.  In Asia, all the hotels have nightlife in the form of either a bar, karaoke or live music. All of them are smoky, dark and weird.  This place was all but empty, except for a few scantily clad local women who weren’t there for the music, and the band was awful.  We chatted briefly with one of the band members, who hailed from Vancouver, and wondered what a crummy Canadian cover band was doing singing for a room full of call girls in a hotel basement in Jakarta.  Talk about living the dream.

***

Our last night was spent back at the Sheraton airport hotel, far from the haze and craze of the city.  We settled into a much nicer room than the previous stay and tried to hit the ball around the tennis courts.  We also went to the gym, had a swim, and then found a poolside barbeque dinner of fresh seafood and meat.  We met a couple from Hawaii who were also on a round-the-world trip, but they were hitting all of the world’s top surfing destinations and dragging their surf boards in tow.  Another nice couple, this time vacationing Quebecers, struck up a good conversation and they shared their highs and lows of their three-week trip to Bali.  They’d just come off the 30-hour bus ride from hell and were both sick with food poisoning.  A relaxing night at the comfy Sheraton was just what they needed before heading back to Montreal via Hong Kong, Taipei, Anchorage and New York.

We left Jakarta the next morning, and looked forward to landing in the big town of Kota Kinabalu on tropical Borneo island.

Memories of the American war in Saigon (by Olivier)

After picking up luggage from the carrousel, we headed out into the chaotic arrival area and lined up for a taxi. I struck up a conversation with a nice Dutch guy ahead of us, who invited to share a taxi into town – saving us at least $3-4! He is currently living in Taiwan and visiting Ho Chi Minh (Saigon’s post-war name, for the former revolutionary and President of North Vietnam) on a business trip. Our Dutch friend, quite the interesting cynic, railed against his relatives back home who moan about their mortgage payments, when he sees people with much worse problems on a regular basis. He got off at his hotel and the doorman asked our taxi driver to turn on the meter for the remaining kilometre to our hotel. For some reason, this enraged our driver and he started yelling at us and throwing things around his taxi. We gave him a dollar and got off in the super-foreigner neighbourhood of Pham Ngu Lao.

We checked into the “Mini Hotel 5”, a small, clean and affordable hotel I had found on Hostelworld.com. Our room turned out to be exactly that: very clean but so small that we couldn’t both open our suitcases at the same time. We had lunch at Pho 24, a rapidly growing chain serving Vietnam’s famous soup. I had a “Pho All”, which contained noodles, fresh herbs, meatballs and other meat cuts from just about every part of several animals – tendons, stomach etc. Jess had the more conservative fillet beef slices version.

We then walked over to the War Remnants Museum, which was disturbing yet fascinating. The museum contains everything from real fighter jets and tanks to recreated torture chambers and holding cells, accompanied by detailed descriptions of the violence that humanity committed. Most disturbing were hundreds of pictures of war victims, some from direct fighting while others from the nasty effects of Agent Orange and other biochemical warfare tools. While the story is told in a very one-sided manner – Communist Vietnamese good, American invading enemy bad – there was no doubt in my mind that both sides committed unspeakable atrocities still affecting the Vietnamese population, and American families, to this day. It’s hard to believe that all this happened just before I was born.

Shaken from the grim visit, we began walking back towards the center of town when we got caught in a massive, massive monsoonal downpour. We found shelter under an awning as the drain pipes overflowed and waited 20 minutes for the storm to pass. We walked through a large indoor market, with hundreds and hundreds of stalls selling the usual assortment of fake goods, this time including knock-off jeans. The sellers were extremely pushy and grabby, pulling us into their stalls, forcing us to physically shove them off of us. We walked around some more and had a look at the Notre-Dame Cathedral, one of many hints of past French colonialism in the city. By far the most striking feature of Vietnamese cities is the number of scooters and motorcycles zipping around, pushing the cars aside and filling the entire width of the street. We were told that there are four million scooters in Saigon alone, and it felt like we saw every one of them. At each street light, scooters pile up in front of the cars by the hundreds – no exaggeration.  When the light was red, scooters still shoved their way through, reinforcing the long-held mother’s notion to “look both ways before you cross the street”.

After a drink at Highland Coffee, the local Starbucks, we found a very cool restaurant which replicates typical Vietnamese street food stalls but serves it with flair on comfortable chairs and candle-lit tables. We met a Canadian who is currently working as a geologist in Australia, and had a good chat about diving spots in South-East Asia. Total damage for a mountain of tasty food and a bottle of Australian Chardonnay in an upscale setting: $25! Upon returning to our hotel, we booked a half-day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels for the following morning.

After a decent made-to-order breakfast at our hotel, we waited a while for our pick-up to the Cu Chi tunnels. The bus finally showed up about an hour late and we headed slowly out of town to visit this wonder of warfare ingenuity. The 200km of tunnels were dug by local farmers during the American war to protect their families, hide during bombing raids and sneak up on invading troops. The visit began with a propaganda video, which was black-and-white but probably produced much after the war. It described the lives of several “American Killer Heroes” who courageously fought the enemy with basic, home-made weapons such as traps with bamboo spears, booby trapped doors and other prehistoric weapons. The guide enthusiastically described how each worked wonders to take out Americans. He then showed us trenches where the Cu Chi region fighters hid and surprised the enemy, and how it contained tiny trap doors where they would hide once their position had been compromised. I attempted to squeeze in for a good picture opportunity, and just fit. I asked that he close the trap, and for a moment found myself in total darkness a few feet underground. It was perfectly silent and peaceful.

After climbing out and dusting myself off, the group was ushered to the shooting range, where tourists can fire all kinds of fully-automatic weapons recovered from the war. I opted for the classic AK-47, a Russian made assault rifle produced by the millions and still the preferred weapons of many paramilitary groups around the world. The sound of the guns was deafening and Jess cringed at every round and hated every second.

We finally got to the highlight of the tour, the actual tunnels. All were invited to go down and crawl through the 100 meters of tunnel accessible to the public. It was extremely small and claustrophobic, so they built exits every 20 meters so visitors can climb out at their convenience. I made it all the way to the end, including the last section which was barely larger than I am. It was a very strange feeling to be crouching through a tunnel 10 meters underground, and nightmare scenarios were racing through my mind as my legs burned from the uncomfortable position. Jess started to go down in the first tunnel, but turned back when she saw how deep and narrow the tunnel was going to be. She decided against a mid-tunnel panic attack and waited for me at the end.

We opted for the boat option back to the city to avoid traffic, and boarded a small craft for a pleasant cruise on the Mekong delta. The boat trip gave us time to reflect and digest what we’d just seen, and we imagined what the lush green area had looked like during the war.  By the time we were dropped off at our hotel, it was past 4pm – a long half-day tour! We had a late pho lunch and much needed showers at the hotel. That night, we walked around the foreigner district and had difficulty finding a decent Vietnamese restaurant, as most eateries specialized in pizza, Indian and other international foods. We walked up and down the main drag several times before settling on a decent place with a terrace overlooking the crowded street. After dinner, we had the best massages since the beginning of the trip, an excellent investment of $5 for an hour of bliss. Vietnamese massages are highly underrated!

The next morning, we packed our bags and headed for the swanky Sheraton, where we checked into one of the nicest suites we have had since the beginning of the trip. Cost for the night: precisely $0, as we used one of our precious “free weekend nights” earned by switching properties every night… The huge room had two bathrooms, a walk-in closet, wall-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city and even our very own gong! With torrential rain all day, it was the ideal place to take a break from the frantic visits from the last few days. We had dim-sum lunch followed by a long workout at the hotel gym. We used the afternoon to nap and plan the next few weeks’ hotels and flights. Free dinner was once again provided in the form of “pre-dinner canapés and cocktails” at the lounge.

In our final day in Vietnam, we had another good lunch at Pho 24 and walked around the fancy downtown area. The inequality is very obvious in this country claiming to be communist, with Bentleys and BMWs muscling their way through the sea of scooters. We visited a brand new mall filled with imported luxury goods. It doesn’t cease to amaze me how large the market for $10k handbags is in Asia. Who can afford these? Not us. After another excellent workout at the hotel, we braved the traffic to the airport and took off for the Indonesian capital of Jakarta.

Temple hopping in Siem Reap (by Jessica)

Cambodia is a fascinating place, brimming with poverty yet very upbeat and friendly.  The people have been through so much, but they are rightfully proud of their Khmer heritage and work hard for each dollar.   Our time there was some of our most relaxed, cultural, and memorable of our trip so far.  We had booked two nights in Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat and the many surrounding temples.  Two nights turned into three, four, and five.  Then six.  We couldn’t get enough of the town, the temples, the people, and most of all, the intoxicating ease of staying in one fascinating place for awhile and really taking our time to soak it all in.

We arrived from a very early morning flight and had too few hours sleep the previous night.  We whisked through the new temple-styled airport, smiled at the visa officials, and our taxi driver eagerly greeted us.  He told us his name is “Visa, like Mastercard”.  We in turn introduced ourselves and knew we were in trouble when he began telling us about his life; he, his wife and his baby son live together in the countryside.  He used to drive a motorcycle taxi, but has since moved up in the world to a car.  He likes driving his taxi.  It’s comfortable and air conditioned.  This all-too pleasant chatter was soon followed by the predictable pre-sales question.  “What you doing today?”  We replied that we would take it easy, go into town, and plan the next few days.  “Do you need driver?”  We said no, thank you.  Then he offered to drive us around the temples the next day for $25.  For a more authentic experienced, we knew that we wanted to rent bikes for $2/day or hire a tuk-tuk for half the price of a car.  We hoped to reach the hotel, open our trusty Lonely Planet guide and chart our days.  We kindly declined his offer.  His incessant offers grew from friendly to unpleasant in about 30 seconds.

He then tried to guilt us into hiring him—he has a family, a baby.  He wants to work.  We stuck to our guns and again declined, this time asking him to please stop the sales pitch.  Then he switched to anger.  He berated us as cheap tourists, and said that we should be careful in other countries where our attitude would not be tolerated (huh?).  “When you travel, you spend money!” he insisted.  “I no like tourists like you.  You not good tourists.”  He vented his anger all the way to the hotel door, where he took off quickly as soon as we’d closed his trunk.  Visa welcomed us to the Cambodia of tourist touts, but thankfully we didn’t meet any more angry locals.

Our gorgeous hotel, Le Meridien, made our stay so much better, and was another reason why it was so easy to stay a week.  We booked with a mix of cash and points, making our stay very affordable and giving us a huge suite and a huge buffet breakfast to start our day with fresh juices, fruits, eggs, cereals, pastries, or an Asian noodle soup.  Oli’s favourite feature were the inventive oatmeal soufflés served in little ramekin cups, a signature dish from the famous chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

While our hotel was very