Apollo 21

*This is part 1 of 2 of Guatemala.  Part 2 is in a different post above.*

Bump.  Surrounded by roofs of a thousand colors, ramshackle homes meet the grey fog hanging low over the city.  Bump.  Green and black volcanoes loom, watching, over the valley, like a cat in vacant wanderlust on a river’s edge.  Bump.  As American Airlines 983 from Miami descended into La Aurora International Airport, the plane bounced on small holes on the third world runway.  Welcome to Guatemala.

Upon landing and clearing customs, my dad and I relished in the smell that is third world Latin America.  Just like you associate some places, like home, with a certain smell, poor countries in Latin America all share a similar one – one of diesel and the gentle hint of distant fruits.  Having travelled extensively in Central and especially South America, Guatemala is no exception.  It’s not the most pleasant smell, but you know that adventures await whenever you come across it.  In that sense, it was invigorating.

Our home base was the colonial city of Antigua (pronounced an-ti-gwa, not like the island pair with Barbuda), the Spanish’s capital for Central America.  Antigua is what Guatemala City isn’t – it’s exceptionally colorful, it abounds with native Guatemalans and Europeans alike, and it has an Old World charm reminiscent of Charleston or Savannah.  Women covered in traditional fabrics carry baskets of bottled water on their heads as children wander near their feat.  On street corners, elderly people offer their wares to people navigating the cobblestone streets.  The city is full of magnificently designed and fairly well preserved churches, given the tectonic rumblings of the past.  La Catedral, the largest cathedral in Antigua, glares alabaster in the mountain sun, facing the west side of the busy central park.  Inside, people pray, and outside, tourists (however few) stare in wonder at the remains of the giant monolith.

The next day, my father and I climbed Volcán Pacaya, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.  About an hour away from Antigua, the mighty peak stares down into the bowl that is Guatemala City.  Given it’s proximity to the main population center, Pacaya occasionally disrupts life in the capital.  In fact, in May, the airport was closed after an eruption killed many and spewed ash and lava down its fiery crag.

If I had ever been to the moon, I would say Pacaya was mighty close to resembling it.  Having just erupted a few months prior, we literally climbed and hoisted ourselves over pumice-like rock, feeling the soles of our shoes warm as we neared the summit.  Nearly as far up as you can (legally) travel, we saw it – lava flowing through an underground chasm, mere feet away.  A blast of heat, as if opening an oven, blew from from the inside of the rocks, from the bowels of the earth itself.  At another spot, fire emanated right below the surface.  We stuck our walking sticks in the porous ground only to see them engulfed in flames moments later.

Guatemala is an extraordinary little country.  Known in the recent past for extreme violence, the country has been welcoming off-the-beaten path travelers for years.  In fact, one of the best travel tips I ever received was: if you show up with a smile, are friendly, are not overtly touristy, and make an effort to say “thank you” in the local language, you are welcome literally everywhere in the world – in Afghanistan, in Iran, Yemen, and the Sudan.  Be a traveller, not a tourist.

Anyway, pictures…

Arriving in Antigua, the colonial capital of the Spanish's reach into Central America. When Madrid was the crown, Antigua was the scepter.

Colorful alleys like this abounded across Antigua, all without street signs...

You know I love signs

La Merced, one of the many churches around the town

Lots of color

El Arco, the defining testament to the Madrid's reach into Guatemala that survives to this day

Many buildings, surviving the earthquakes that plague the country, show their original foundation

El Arco again

Traditional clothing worn by Guatemala women. Interestingly, unlike other places where (some) tourists go, like Phuket in Thailand, locals actually live and come to Antigua to visit, just like the bloodshot Germans arriving from Frankfurt and the ever-present Israelis from Tel Aviv.

All the streets were cobblestone, which made walking a little more arduous

Me in front of the main fountain in the city's central park

The great facade of La Catedral, the main cathedral in Antigua. On the back, we explored the giant ruins (built in the early 1700s) for 3 quetzales, or about 40 US cents

A busy street

An old government building (also from the 1700s). The green flag on the right is the state flag while the blue one on the left is Guatemalan national flag.

Side view

Much like Israel, Guatemala is full of colorful fabrics

A great chicken-cheese dish made by a lady on sitting on the curb for 5 quetzales (around 40 US cents). The CDC recommends not drinking the water and making sure all food you eat is peeled, boiled, and/or thoroughly cooked. Oops. While you can minimize some things, like brushing your teeth with bottled water (like I did in Egypt), you cannot not eat food made by locals. I ate fresh vegetables, juice, and mysterious meats from Quechua-speaking natives on dusty streets.

Exploring the ruins of San Jeronimo's school, built in the early 1700s, near Antigua.

She wanted a picture with me...

A volcano in the distance (Guatemala has 38 active volcanoes, with most of them on the Pacific side, where we were)

The aptly named Volcán Fuego

Climbing the ruins. 450 horses were kept here?!

I love signs, especially in ancient ruins in rural Guatemala

Ladies exercising in the ruins. Not sure this would be allowed in America...

Trying to find the local produce market, an area which we knew would be completely devoid of Westerners. We were right.

She made me a spicy chicken salad pita thing for a few cents. That is one thing about the Guatemalans - they are incredibly friendly people.

Leaving the ruins of San Jeronimo's school and the local produce market, we head to La Catedral before we ascend Volcán Pacaya in a few hours

People actually legitimately still get around by horses

Inside the colossal ruins of the La Catedral that collapses in the early 1700s

More cathedral ruins. They were felled by a massive earthquake in the 1730s.

Making our way back to the hotel where we would start our adventure climbing Volcán Pacaya. Antigua is exceptionally colorful, abounding in the profusion of colonial and traditional life.

Another

Outside our hotel, my dad bought a kilo of sugary pecans for a dollar. Probably way too expensive.

Reaching the base camp of Pacaya. Because the volcano erupted in May, killed quite a few people, and closed the country down to aviation due to lava and ash reaching the Guatemala City international airport, it is now required to have a guide.

The 5k-each-way path was like dragging your feet through a desert uphill

The caldera lagoon, a deep lake that used to be an active volcano

Children on horses tried to rent their animals to us and sell us sticks and marshmallows. We fashioned our own sticks from wood found on the trail.

Climbing...

...and more climbing

Almost there...already coming across recently scorched earth

Ah, the smoking beast itself - Pacaya, one of the most active volcanoes in the world

Close-up of the crater

Danger = exciting (most of the time)

Me in front of Pacaya

My dad and I, wielding our walking sticks (soon to be thrown in lava), in front of the volcano

This is probably the closest I will ever get to experiencing a lunar-like landscape

The sun came out and lit our path along the pumice rock. We climbed through this - there was no trail

The camera can't capture it, but there was intense heat coming out of this crag and warping the air, like looking over the surface of a hot shopping mall parking lot. Inside, lava flowed fairly close to the surface.

Blurry, but my camera can't really capture fast-moving magma in a dark abyss very well. It was really hot standing near it. You could feel the soles of your shoes getting warmer as we approached this hot spot.

Another crag, but this time, we went inside. It was an intensely hot sauna!

Throwing our walking sticks into a lava spout near the surface

Little dogs lived on the volcano. Where do they get water?

Descending another 5 km; soon, we would be hiking downhill in absolute darkness, save the radiant moon. Good thing we brought flashlights!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Long Shadow

For now, World takes a break.  It will be updated in October when I get back from 4 days of volcano-climbing, river rafting, and ruin-exploring in Guatemala.  Also, I’ll be spending 3 months in China starting in March, so World will definitely be getting another go-around then with hopefully the PRC, Korea, and Japan.

Stay tuned.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Prophet Still, If Bird or Devil

*This is part 2 of 2 of Sydney.  Part 1 is below.*

More than any other city, Sydney is the place where Paul and I explored the most (which is saying something, because the motto for the trip was “sleep when we’re dead) and experienced the widest breadth of cultural nuances sheathed in a cover of Western familiarty.

K-pop blares from a nearby convenience store while a Bob Dylan look-a-like hands out “Save the Reef Now!” flyers.  As children spread Vegemite onto pieces of toast, preparing for the watery commute on the ferry, the Australian flag is hoisted proudly into the air across this gilded city.  A respect for the past – the monarchy, the British Empire, and very long trips to Liverpool – greet the excitement and challenges of the future – now the first fully elected female Prime Minister, vast environmental degradation in the arid interior, and dealing with an aging population – spilling out into the profusion of Sydney itself.  The very pathos of the country beats like a tell-tale heart hidden under the planks not of oak, but of steel and glass.

From the sepulchre of so much bleak history rises one of the most vibrant and liveable cities in the world.

After walking through a neighborhood that my travel book said not to walk through (those are always the best to see on foot), we finally reached the University of Sydney in the southwestern point of the city

Gate

Campus

Lago

Looks like UC

Definitely Ravenclaw

Giant tree in the quad

Hmm

Cool-looking building on the University of Sydney campus

Same across all campuses

We explore a neighborhood called Newtown (pronounced "Newton") during the evening. This area is the "alternative" area, filled with lots of society benders. A fitting hang out is this book store.

Guzman Y Gomez, a renowned taquería in Newtown

Darling Harbour had a MASSIVE FIFA set-up. USA vs. Ghana had huge crowds even though it was on TV at a crazy early hour.

Darling Harbour by night

That next day, we woke up at 6 AM to witness that madness that is the Sydney Fish Auction, the second-busiest after Tokyo's. People that want to watch are limited to the bottom floor, but I told the cleaning lady upstairs that Seth (I just made him up) said we could come up here. She opened the doors. We were the only people on the upper viewing deck. We even sat in one of the auctioning booths while the tourists were below.

It was a Dutch auction, so the price starts high and goes down.

At 6:30 AM, these fish had just arrived in a few hours ago before being bought to various restaurants and stores.

Later in the morning, I decided to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Paul didn't want to, so he took my camera instead and walked on the (free) south pylon and took some great pictures of the city.

The Rocks

I climbed this!

Great pic of the Opera House

The pylon at either end of the bridge

Climbing the bridge. They gave us a jacket, gloves, and a beanie - it was 5˚F up there! This was one of the best moments for me of the trip.

Me in front of downtown Sydney, Australia

The Rocks with the Opera House

Later on that day, our last, we took the ferry to the far northern suburb of Manly, an old town resembling Charleston, SC. This beach rivals Bondi Beach for surfers.

Hello, Manly

Manly Town Hall

Wuddup Australia Post

Getting closer to the beach

Looking back at the ferry wharf. Manly is about 45 minutes on a boat from Sydney.

"Downtown" Manly. We had some great fish 'n' chips here.

Odd...

The Manly shore

In the sand. June is way too cold to go in the water, though!

Pine trees and palm trees live in harmony in Manly

We went hiking (this part wasn't hiking) on the Northern Head several miles away from Manly to try to spot some whales...

Cerulean waters

Malibu? No, Manly. And yes, I jumped over the fence and played on the rocks. Oops.

Very nice houses overlooking an amazing view of the South Pacific

Ah, a saltwater sea pool!

I'm very tired. And 6 inches from a steep cliff. Gasp!

Climbed up here, too

After roughly a mile and a half, we finally made it to the Sydney Harbour National Park. From here, we trekked through actual wilderness (we saw maybe 2 other people) as the sun melted on the bottom of the world.

Wild blue

We hiked through this. Sometimes there wasn't a clear path, so we made our own through the bush. I don't think too many people make it out here, which is too bad.

Exploring deserted prison cells

SLOW DOWN!

Long distance zoom of the distant eastern edge of Sydney from the Harbour National Park near Manly. This looks like a cross between Dover and Maine.

Sydney from 12 miles away. Sadly, we didn't see any whales.

Finally making our way back to Manly, to the ferry, to Sydney, to America.

This looks like something Emily Brontë would have written about.

Our final meal in Australia. Touristy, yes, but we couldn't leave the country without saying we ate some juicy kangaroo.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Spirits of the Wise Sit in Clouds and Mock Us

*This is part 1 of 2 of Sydney.  Part 2 of 2 is above.*

After being delayed for over six hours, JetStar flight 38 from Denpasar (Bali) to Sydney finally took off.  Leaving Indonesian airspace, we cut south towad Perth then east, passing over the Bight and near  Canberra, the nation’s capital, before descending through a lazy mist down into this internationally celebrated port city.
We made it.  Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe.  Kangaroos.  Q’s prounced like K’s.  The final frontier…at least of our trip.  For a city that started as a penal colony for some not-so-lucky Brits, Sydney, and Australia as a whole, has reinvented into something magical. At 33 degrees below the Equator, the city battles with Buenos Aires and Cape Town for the most cosmopolitan city at the bottom of the world.  When people look at a map of the world and see Australia, they see Sydney on the far southeast corner of the continent.  However, the city is oriented north-south, rather than east-west facing the Pacific.  Sydney proper is south of the Harbour, so many of the landmarks and means of getting there are referenced as such.  The country is about as big as the continental US but has only a 14th of the popluation (22 mil).  For comparison, Los Angeles County has about 10.5 million residents.
It is an incredibly fascinating city – 50% London, 40% Seoul, 10% San Francisco – in that all types of people you wouldn’t expect to live there (or speak with like a good ‘ol Aussie) call the smallest continent but one of the largest countries home.  Asians screaming for the Melbourne-Darwin rugby match are drowned out by Samoans and Afghani refugees-turned-Australian nationals in an epic shouting proxy match for Labour vs. Liberal.  Surfers on their way to Bondi Beach jaywalk in front of the busy Art Gallery of New South Wales as Hindu monks and Chinese Maoists pound a cold one in an Irish pub.
Australia, you rock.
Here are the pictures of the first part of our trip down under.

After a 6 hour delay in Bali, we finally arrived in Sydney. The Sydney News 7 building was near our hotel.

Exiting the subway from the airport to downtown Sydney

Old building

Exploring the area where our hotel was located (The Rocks). Had a nice "Australian" cappuccino in the nearby park.

Sweet hospital

Back that truck up...

Downtown Sydney

Approaching the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the state in which Sydney is located

Close-up of the gallery

Our hotel was in the nice business district called The Rocks. Exploring the nearby Sydney Botanical Gardens on our way to the Opera House and Darling Harbour.

Where is the opera house?

Later that evening, we walked back through the park and there were bats hanging off the fountain.

Still trying to find the opera house...

Exploring Sydney in late June was pretty cold (the middle of winter in the southern hemisphere)

Ah, there it is

Almost

Finally, the world-recognized Sydney Opera House. Paul and I saw a comedic presentation of Macbeth in here.

Dark picture of me + amazing background

More views on the wintry June afternoon

Yes, I have lots of pictures of the same thing. But it's awesome!

Hello mouth-of-the-Sydney-Opera-House

The Sydney Harbour Bridge, which I climbed on the outer arc, as viewed from the Opera House complex

The surface resembled '60s bathroom tile

Darling Harbour, a large recreation/commercial/pedestrian area in downtown Sydney

Me in front of the Harbour Bridge

The top of the bridge - I was up there!

Another

The southern portion of Darling Harbour is called Circular Quay (pronounced like "key"), an area where you can catch a ferry to all points near and far

Later in the week, Paul and I took a ferry to the northern suburb of Manly (named after a British captain saw bug guys on the shore)

Past Circular Quay and on the other side of Darling Harbour, we were able to get a great, albeit cloudy, view of the Opera House

Me in front of the landmark

Some crazy science museum in Darling Harbour (is that a neuron?)

Nearing the bridge

We found an awesome weekend market. I bought an old travel poster, hidden among authentic Aboriginal art stuff and handmade home crafts.

Lots of didgeridoos in the market (pretty expensive)

I want one of these lights for my room in Chicago

Upon exiting the market, we encountered a street "fayre." Ate some great food while wondering among the scents of fruit and flowers.

Just having been in Istanbul, I can say these Turkish cözelmes were great

I really like this picture for some reason

Coming into port

Sunset over one of the most naturally beautiful cities in the world

Lots of these parrots were playing around the Sydney Opera House near sunset. So...

...naturally I tried to get them on my shoulder. Fail.

Silly Australians and their crazy city names

Morbid update: recession around the world

Harry's Cafe de Wheels, a true Sydney classic that sold all types of hearty foods, like pot pies and beets

I think I can say on Paul's behalf that this was our best meal in Sydney - a great great meal at Nepalese place that was well worth the extremely long walk through southwest Sydney at 10 PM.

Cool-looking building

Walking along Darling Harbour the next day

Lots of boats anchored in the Harbour. Nicole Kidman's house isn't too far from here.

More Darling Harbour

The Cochlee Bay Wharf AKA place for Aussies to drink. Excessively.

The Rocks from the west

Palm trees probably can't live much farther south...it was cold!

Our first of two visits to the venerable Sydney Fish Market. It is the second-busiest in the world after Tokyo.

Best fish and chips...and spicy oysters...and fried burundi this side of London.

Catch brought in that morning

More freshness

To order sashimi, you told the fish monger lady how much (in kg) you wanted. She cut it right there from a huge slab.

*sigh* Dumb kids feeding the birds.

The Ian Thorpe Aquatic Center

A view of the building

The pool. They circle swim on the left - that would be really confusing!

Thorpie Burger...isn't Ian Thorpe in LA trying to make a theatrical debut? That's working well.

A view from the side of the pool

I look borderline narcoleptic

From the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Center, Paul and I were making our way to the University of Sydney. Most people take the bus or train, but we like to walk to places that say "you shouldn't walk through here." Along the supposedly route we found an amazing chocolate place. This is Nutella hot chocolate.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Bali Hai

Finally, Bali.  After 3 hours of sleep from Paul and I’s recent excursion to Singapore, we landed in Denpasar, the capital of this small, lush Indonesian island.  My uncle flew with us on the flight from Malaysia, and after clearing customs and immigration, we entered out cab for a 2.5 hour to my uncle’s house.

Most tourists experience Bali through the wild bloodshot eyes of a buzzed Westerner dancing to Euro beats with sweaty Australians around them.  However, my uncle and aunt have a home in the state of Karangasem on the far north-east side of the island.  The provincial capital, Amlapura, is relatively close, making it “the city.”  Out here, there are no tourists.  The irregular Westerner that passes by on a motor scooter is someone that you want to talk to, the adventurous type.  Out here, there is no English.  There isn’t even Indonesian, only Balinese (which is really hard, because it is written with some crazy script that looks sort of like Thai while Indonesian is written with the Latin script).  Out here, there is only…unspoiled tropical Eden…Bali.

There is no road to my uncle’s house – you have to walk among rice paddies to reach the entrance.  From the airy covered rooftop, one can see the cerulean seas and the foggy peak island peak of Lombok in the east and hear the whistle of carrier pigeons framed against a dormant volcano in the west.

Paul and I spent our five days in Bali hiking, exploring, swimming, and of course, eating.  With my uncle as a guide (who speaks the language), we trekked for hours among old Hindu temples and shrines.  Of course there were no paths – we merely walked through rice fields and gentle streams.  One day we climbed a 3,000 foot peak, one of the most sacred Hindu temples in Bali.  We had to wear the sarong, the traditional Hindu kilt, while scaling this mountain (the mountain was hidden in a cloud, so the path was very slick).  Women in sandals carried at least 50 lbs. of water and crackers on their heads while they used their hands to balance against the wet reeds growing alongside the stairs.  On the way down, we each got on the back of a crazy Balinese motorcycle driver as they attempted to race the 5 km or so down the slope.  Too…fast…too…many…turns!

Another day we went to a variety of pools.  Tirta Gangga, literally meaning the “holy pool of the Ganges,” is a fresh water pool complex that used to be used by the medieval king.  Surrounded by intricate statues and fountains, a koi pond, and Javanese bridges, we swam with large fish (that weren’t afraid of people) in the pool.  Another one, just called Tirta (“holy pool”), could easily be at Angelina Jolie’s house in Maui.  There are no signs to it – in fact, my uncle only discovered it a month ago by just jalan-jalan (Indonesian for “walking around”).  As you are walking in a flat rice paddy, suddenly the ground gives way to a deep and incredibly tropical aquarium.  This is Tirta.  It really was like swimming in an aquarium.  There are huge fish that scuttle among the pebble bottom as children and adults alike play in the literally crystal-clear water.  Paul and I went back our final day, too.

Of course, we went to the beach.  While the water isn’t as blue as the Caribbean, the atmosphere might make up the difference.  Palm trees grow right up the edge, almost dangling their verdant arms into the persistent sea.  Scores of narrow boats lined the shore; here, Balinese fishermen return in the morning and evening will a fresh catch of fish.

Our time in Bali was incredibly relaxing.  I have never been somewhere where the people are so genuinely nice.  It is possible some of these people have never seen a Westerner before.  If you think about, if your job was to haul saw grass on your back all day and you have done that for decades and suddenly you see 3 Westerners walking down the street, you scream.  And yes, they did.  Several people screamed in joy when they saw us, so excited to shout “Allo!” at their rare guests.  Rural Bali, not the Aussie/Euro crowd in Denpasar where 99% of all tourists hang, really was an experience unlike any other in the world.

Pictures!

To the west from my uncle's open-air second floor, the dormant volcano

To the east, rice paddies and the great blue Java sea

The Java Sea from the 2nd story

The closest road to my uncle's house in rural northeast Bali. From here you have walk 100m through rice fields. Very very very few tourists come here.

From the road. The red-roofed house on the right is my uncle's house from afar. Paul and I climbed one of those peaks in the distance, the site of one of the holiest Hindu temples in Bali

Tirta Gangga, the massive fresh water pool complex that used to be used by the medieval kings on the island

Descing into the pool complex. We swam all throughout here with fish. And yes, that's pretty much the only Westerner we saw.

Graceful statues line the pools

Medieval bridges fit for a king

Silly pig fountain

The main swimming pool. The water was nice and cool and there were small fish swimming inside. As shown, no tourists in what you would think would have many.

Paul and I in Tirta Gangga

A lot of our trails were like this, narrow strips of walkon-on earth next to old walls and rice fields.

A rare semi-paved path and a small dog. He was not nice.

Old buildings + someone's laundry out to dry set among pristine, perhaps the best in the world, tropical scenery

A nice home that my uncle and aunt used in their design of their current home. Great palms, too!

We were just jalan-jalan, an Indonesian term for "walking around." My uncle has explored these paths many, many times. We were on our way up to a good hilltop vantage point of the area. This was the typical path.

So much rice!

We saw hundreds of women carrying huge sacks of rice or containers filled with bottles of water of their heads.

Hello, little dog.

Hiking up a dry streambed

Another tropical view on our hike

Another

Someone's home among the jungle brush

Entrance to the Hindu temple on the hill

Part of the Hindu temple, presumably to hold offerings

The view from the top of the hill

Me on the stairs going down

Ducks! Several hundred of them quacked as they watched us ambulate around their pen.

Returning to freshwater pool complex, Tirta Gangga, after an afternoon hike

Women washing clothes in a small channel

Traditional Balinese instruments

Me in front of tropical paradise

Coconut husks are used for fuel in rural Bali

Paul and I were able to attend a local Balinese festival courtesy of my aunt

The Hindu offerings. Lonely Planet is awesome, but those guys can't tell you how to get invited to a rural Hindu ceremony!

Walking around the offerings, throwing holy water as they pass

Crazy little kid didn't want to be part of the ceremony

Another shot of the offering. Yes, there is rice in the pig's butt.

Cock fighting is popular here. Here, razors are wrapped around the legs of the chickens.

Another of the Hindu ceremony

Leaving the Hindu ceremony, we explored nearby temples on our way to the shore

Ah, the beach. My uncle calls it "the secret beach," as there are very few people here, including the Balinese.

It reminds me of the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean

The length of "the secret beach"

Just walking about, jalan-jalan, in a rice field...

...and then suddenly the land gives way to a tropical pool, Tirta.

The water was literally crystal clear. In here, large fish swim among the bathers.

Paul and I were quite the attraction here at Tirta. Some of these people may have never seen a Westerner, so everyone was excited

Another view of little, but absolutely amazing, Tirta

Our final day, my uncle led Paul and I up 3,000 feet to one of Bali's most sacred Hindu shrines. Wearing the sarong on the mountain was required.

Ominous...

Built hundreds of years ago, the statues still show their intricate details

Balinese (in the fancy script) and Indonesian below it (in the Latin script). The sign says to leave donations here.

Much of the hike was like this...slippery stairs hidden in fog

Some construction work, apparently

The smoke from an offering and the fog mix lazily on the mountainside

I love this picture. A Balinese prayer flag at one of the offerings near the summit. At the top of this sacred mountain, people carry jugs in an effort to collect the holy water, one of the only places on the island where it can be found.

The path leading to the summit. On either side there are cliffs.

He was chasing me because I was eating rice in a banana leaf. Bad monkey!

Mysterious volcano + clouds

Another mysterious temple shot

Balinese ladders consists of narrow bands of bamboo barely wide enough for one foot!

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Virgil Was Actually a Singaporean Tourguide

Acting on the advice of my uncle, Paul and I left Kuala Lumpur a day early and decided to visit island city-state of Singapore.  Only 45 minutes from KL to Singapore, this was easily my shortest international flight.  Arriving at Changi International Airport…wow.  A joke in the region is that Skytrax, the company that rates airlines and airports, does the search for the world’s second-best airport, because Changi is always number one.  Free WiFi, free Xbox stations throughout, a free giant outdoor pool on the top of Terminal 3, and one of the world’s largest slides…all in the airport.

Singapore, an country located on a small island at the end of the Malay Peninsula (and in fact used to be part of Malaysia before it became independent in 1965), is ranked among the world’s best countries in many metrics.  Beyond Changi International being arguably the nicest and one of the busiest airports in the world, Singapore has the 4th highest GDP per capita in the world, one of the highest standards of living (Singapore was #11, the US was #13), and one of the busiest ports in the world.

Known as a futuristic world city, the island nation certainly lived up to its hype.  The subway is quiet and exceptionally fast.  Signs are in 4 languages.  An automated voice speaks most commands at intersections and other points of interest.  Downtown Singapore is a massive cluster of supertall skyscrapers.  It’s very surreal – it’s almost as if I was in Dubai, as many of these huge structures seem to be built merely for someone’s unique perception of aesthetics.  This gives Singapore a modern feel unlike anywhere in the world.

Along with this, Singapore is immaculate.  There is not a piece of trash on the ground and the subway is perfectly clean.  Really.  I was surprised when I saw a few leaves on the sidewalk.  While a robust democracy, Singapore is very intent on its laws.  Remember a few decades ago when that silly American guy got caned in Singapore?  Yeah, they don’t mess around.  They post signs around the city/nation that gently remind you of the laws’ strictness, such as “Value Life, Act Responsibly.”  Hmm.

Paul and I had a great time in Singapore.  The country is known as a culinary hotspot – we ate all kinds of Chinese food dishes (Singapore is a Chinese city) and neat Indian deserts and drinks.  We needed those drinks, too.  Singapore might have been the hottest I have ever been.  It’s summer, it’s winter, it’s January, it’s July…in Singapore, it doesn’t make a difference – it’s hot and so incredibly humid.

Oh well, off to Bali!

Changi International Airport, the coolest airport I have been to (Istanbul's Atutürk International comes close, as does Madrid's Barajas International)

Singapore Airlines offers the world's longest flight: nonstop from Singapore to Newark.

Getting off of the subway in super-modern Singapore

Semi-authoritarian and slightly scary...These were all over the city.

Amazing subway - A lit sign, spoken instructions in 4 languages, but very small for big people like me!

The outside of the subway station. We got off at Orchard Road, the main commercial avenue of the city/country.

Walking down Orchard Road at 7 AM. I'm surprised there were a few leaves on the ground. Really.

Since we got to Singapore so early, we wanted to check out the Botanical Gardens, one of the best in the world.

Yup, tourist

The Gardens were expansive and beautiful, all perfectly manicured and maintained.

People doing some sort of yoga

Hello, sign.

More public exercise!

More great paths in this giant Botanical Garden

The palm valley in the Gardens

Crazy trees that look like they belong outside a witch's hut

A little piece of South Carolina in Singapore

Walking out of the Botanical Gardens along Orchard Road to the downtown core and the river

Like KL, Singapore is full of giant glass and steel malls. They themselves are architectural and culinary attraction.

"Wait for Green Man"

I felt this way throughout my time in Singapore: I have no idea what this building is, but it sure looks neat.

Ah, hello sign.

The National Museum of Singapore is an old British building converted to a more prosaic function.

St. James' Cathedral, the largest church in the country

Me in front of the Singaporean Parliament. Since the country is a city, the Parliament here acts as sort of an expanded city hall with obviously defensive and diplomatic functions. The skyline is in the background.

Walking down from Parliament towards the river

Me in front of downtown Singapore. Paul and I took a river boat tour seen on the left side.

Another

Riverside path

On the rive boat learning about Singapore's humble past and its rise to global prominence

Another shot of downtown from the river showing the immensity of the skyscrapers

"Old" Singapore is a new trendy area with lots of quaint shops and restaurants

More bars in more places

More neat little shops on the riverfront

The Singapore Opera House

The Singapore Flyer, the second-largest Ferris wheel in the world

The big fountain is the national symbol of Singapore, the Merlion.

Umm...what? A boat on top of 3 huge skyscrapers? This felt as if I was in Dubai.

Merlion, you crazy.

Docking the boat

Me on the second part of our boat ride

I ❤ Singapore - all over the city/country

Singapore's "Chinatown" was very odd, because the entire city is Chinese. This area was just a little more Chinese than the rest of the entire city.

Apparently President Clinton got his suits tailored at this small shop in Singapore? Hmm.

Great, great, great Chinese food, certainly the highlight of any visit to Singapore

You aren't allowed to bring durians on the subway!

Old meets new, traditional meets modern, and in a sense, East meets West

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Are There Koalas in Kuala Lumpur?

Leaving London, Paul and I began the impetus for the entire trip – to visit my uncle and aunt in their homes in Malaysia and Indonesia.  Saying goodbye to London on a day with the best weather yet, we made our way to Stansted Airport.  London has 5 international airports – Stansted is the 4th largest.  From there, we boarded our nonstop flight to Kuala Lumpur, the often forgotten capital of Malaysia.

One surprising thing about Malaysia (and Singapore) is the notion of shopping malls in the public psyche.  In the US, if someone said they were going to have dinner at the mall, you would think they were going to have a greasy slice of pizza at Sbarro’s or some MSG-laced orange chicken.  Here, in southeast Asia, the opposite is true.  “Going to the mall” implies you are going to have a quality meal.  The food courts can hardly be called “courts” – instead, they are like giant complexes with people mulling in all directions.  The malls are packed, a tribute to their status in Malaysian society.  Naturally we ate here often.

Kuala Lumpur lacks a lot of “must-see” attractions.  Beyond the Petronas Towers, there is little else to “see.”  But that is what makes KL a very interesting city.  The food culture, based on street vendors of every variety, is unlike anywhere in the West.  When people think of Southeast Asia, maybe they think of Singapore, or beautiful beaches in Vietnam, or perhaps Ankgor Wat in Cambodia.  Few think of Kuala Lumpur.  That’s too bad, as the city itself and its inhabitants are the attractions to see.  And, of course, to taste their delicious food.

Departure board for Terminal 2 in London-Stansted for our 13-hour nonstop flight to the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.

At the Pavilion Mall. Out first meal in Kuala Lumpur, the national dish of nasi lamek, consisting of coconut rice served with any number of sides like chicken, duck, beef lungs, eggs, and assorted vegetables.

Unusual tea with unusual seeds - the menu was in Mandarin so I just pointed at the picture

A great food night. What is locally known as the "food street" is 2 blocks from my uncle's apartment. Restaraunts and streetcar vendors sell amazing food for incredibly cheap, at least by US standards. Spicy beef and pork with a fried egg = $1

While Malaysia is a developed country, there still is a fairly large portion of the population that lives in shanty buildings like this.

Making our way to Chinatown. We have no idea what this says.

A Chinatown street. It's very odd for KL to have a Chinatown - the city is almost 50% Chinese.

Drinking a coconut along Jalan Petaling, Chinatown's bustling artery

Another view of Chinatown

KL, unlike neighboring Singapore, lacks a lot of the original local and British architecture. This is one such extant example, a giant mosque complex for an "officially" Muslim country.

KL's mass transit system is very odd. Back in the day, the city planners gave grants to anyone willing to build mass transit lines. Today, the city is covered in several lines, but they do not connect nicely and its a combination of LRT, monorail, and a subway.

Side of the monorail

The land transport station for moving about Malaysia, KL Sentral (the word for "central" is Malay is spelled with an "S").

The KL Tower and the famed Petronas Twin Towers in the distance

Another, though of unknown purpose, Islamic building

Old British buildings remain in the main historic square of the city

Another view of the top of the KL Tower

The Petronas Towers

The central pivot of KLCC, the main mall in Kuala Lumpur located at the base of the Petronas Towers

Inside a crazy Japanese bookstore (found all over Asia) - the books were packed very tightly!

Most food in Malaysia is deemed Halal, the term for objects and food prepared under Islamic law

Eating more nasi lemak and some crazy fruit and tapioca smoothie in KLCC at the base of the Petronas Towers

The Malaysian flag looks, at first glance, a lot like the US flag. They are adorned at the base of the Petronas Towers.

Looking up at the Petronas Towers

Me in front of the the Petronas Towers and KLCC at the base. The Petronas Towers are the tallest twin towers in the world and the 3rd tallest overall buildings in the world.

Walking through Little India - many Indians, Sri Lankans, and Bangladeshi make KL their home.

Action shot - people in Little India making some Indian sweets

Yeah....tourist-mode

Leaving Little India, we discovered more British buildings

Flowers frame a view of the river and downtown.

Downtown + cool sign

Hello, KL Tower...again

Oh, herro monkey. He wanted to go inside!

That evening, we were able to climb as far as we could up the Petronas Towers to the skybridge.

As the rain started to fall on the Petronas Towers skybridge, a view of the sprawling city

The other side from the skybridge

Our final meal in Kuala Lumpur before we left for Singapore. This is gado-gado, the national dish of Indonesia, consisting of rice, vegetables, various meats, and a trademark peanut sauce.

More great Indonesian food

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Rabbit Hole

On our final day in London, Paul and I explored some of the leftover must-sees.  You could spend a lifetime in London and still find something new and interesting to explore (or eat).  London, as the capital of the empire on which the sun never set, is a giant onion – peel away one layer of history, culture, and food to merely find something deeper, more intriguing.  Down the rabbit hole, but this time, it never ends.

Out first stop was Trafalgar Square, a huge public plaza in front of the National Art Gallery.  Named after the Battle of Trafalgar in which British Admiral Horatio Nelson defeated the combined navies of the French and the Spanish in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars.  Not a single British ship was lost in this decisive tactical victory.  Survivor takes a lot of cues from the Brits – they outwit, outlast, and outplay their enemies throughout thousands of years of history.

Next, we took the train to Camden Town, a neighborhood to the north of the City.  Here, “alternative” is normal – people covered with piercings and tattoos intermingle with old British people taking river boat cruises down the river.  Great food and interesting people – a great afternoon spent in an underappreciated part of the city.

The pictures illuminate more than what can be explained in words.

Nelson's Column, a huge monument to the British hero of the Battle of Trafalgar

Nelson's ship-in-a-bottle

The National Gallery of Art at Trafalgar Square

Fountains reminiscent of Paris or Rome

Me in front of St. Paul's (giant) Cathedral

The main entrance to St. Paul's

Taking the Tube north to Camden Town

A lazy street market in Camden Town

Goths and punks intermingle with casual British tourists

Camden Town is built upon a series of locks to move up and down the river. Much like the Panama and Suez canals, a ship moving up the river enters into a lock, which then is filled to match the waterline of the higher water plateau. The bottom part of the picture is one such lock.

Down the river

A neat looking Camden building on a corner

Harrod's, the famous London super department store that allegedly houses everything

The Princess Diana memorial inside Harrod's. The ex-owner of the store, a wealthy Egyptian businessman, built the memorial after his son and the Princess, who were dating.

Tea time at Bea's - Earl Grey tea, so many scones, and lots of slices of pie

Eel at St. John's, a prized London restaurant specializing in the slightly oxymoronic category of British cuisine

An unusual English dessert - gooseberries, cream cheese, and biscuits

A typical English breakfast - toast with baked beans and an egg

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

High Street Kensington

The Tower Bridge…one of London’s most iconic landmarks.  On a chilly, stormy day, Paul and I ventured to this site, also shared by the medieval Tower of London.  We climbed into the Tower and across its majestic elevated footpath.  As the rain splattered against the window panes, the whole of London was visible, framed by an angry sky.

Afterwards, we explored the south side of the River Thames, passing by the modern City Hall.  Docked on the riverbank is the HMS Belfast, the cruiser is now a permanent museum ship.  The ship suffered heavy damage when it hit a German magnetic mine but after it returned back to service as arguably the most powerful ship in the world at the time.  However, the war ended almost immediately afterwards, so the ship was changed to protecting convoys through the Arctic Ocean.

Anyway, the pictures tell the story better.

The Tower of London

We didn't go in the Tower, but viewed it from the outside before scaling the Tower Bridge

The side of the Tower of London. A tour group was watching performers launch medieval weapons at a target.

The Tower of London with the Tower Bridge on the side

Walking towards Tower Bridge with a stormy sky in the background

One of the massive towers in the eponymous bridge

Me on the Tower Bridge

Intricate iron designs on the bridge trusses

A silly street name

The neighborhood to the south of the bridge

A clearer view of the bridge

Me in front of the Tower Bridge

A view of downtown London with the north edge of the bridge on the left side

London City Hall

The HMS Belfast. We went on and toured the Royal Navy's most famous battleship

The HMS Belfast's turrets

A side view of the ship

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Movin’, Learnin’, and the Circus

After the Marylebone market, Paul and I wanted to see the University College of London, the central college at the greater University of London.  UCL sits on prime London real estate – it is exceptionally close to downtown but still retains a unique neighborhood charm distinct from the hustle and bustle of downtown.  Because of this, though, the school lacks a lot of green space.  I was on campus on a lazy Sunday afternoon, so the college was devoid of the midday buzz of academia (or at least supposed academia!).

The University sits adjacent to the British Museum, one of the world’s greatest collections of Egyptian artifacts.  Having just spent 9 days in Egypt and visiting the renowned Cairo Museum, I was actually surprised at how neat the museum was.  The Rosetta Stone, the Greek-to-hieroglyphic translation stone, is the museum’s most famous permanent artifact.

After a few hours in the British Museum, Paul and I went to Piccadilly Circus to hang out with Londoners.  At the confluence of major streets and a main Tube waypoint, Piccadilly Circus is sometimes dubbed the Times Square of London.  Large neon signs on the sides flash Coca-Cola ads while a graceful Cupid statue sprays water into the warm air.

Anyway, pictures…

Hello, Tube

The trains, like the tunnel, were rounded, hence the tubular name

Neat platform sign

The British Telecom (BT) Tower. Where's V?

Our first glimpse at the old University of London

Ah, UCL at last

The UCL main quad. Space is at such a premium in central London, so UCl quad was incredibly smaller than the UC quad

The façade of the British Museum, one of the world's great collections

This new exhibit was sponsored by BP...at least if they don't know about oil rigs, they know about art.

The most famous item at the British Museum, the Rosetta Stone. Found by Napoleon's soldiers, the stone contains text is both Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphics. As the largest find in Egyptology, this allowed for the deciphering of the once-impregnable hieroglyphic language.

Bad cat

The British Museum is perhaps the greatest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, much to the consternation of the, well, Egyptians

Native American totem poles in the main atrium

An ancient Moai statue from enigmatic Easter Island

After the British Museum, we left for one of the main public areas of London, Piccadilly Circus. Along the way, we passed this proudly French restaurant.

A famous old pub opened in the 1700s

Meandering to Piccadilly Circus via Chinatown

Whoa, lots of Chinese prep students

Dubbed the Times Square of London, Piccadilly Circus is a popular hangout spot for Londoners, especially at night

Another view

Street sign at Piccadilly Circus

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment