Sunday, January 31, 2010

Biting Your Tongue Hurts

I met an extremely opinionated older German man named Fred on a sleeper train from Sapa to Hanoi late last night. Upon entering our sleeper cabin, Fred and I exchanged quick glances and a friendly smile as I placed my luggage on the bottom bunk. After preparing my bed, I turned towards my new cabin mate and Fred immediately asked me, "Vere are you from?", to which I swiftly replied, "the United States", while simultaneously taking a seat. "Ohhhh..." he replied, "Vere in the United States?" I proudly stated, "San Antonio, Texas." Fred then looked me directly in the eye and said quite emphatically that he did not like Texas. I immediately thought, "I really don't give a crap, Fred", but fortunately my response remained silently in my mind. Instead, I asked him "Why?" To which, he bluntly responded that George Bush was from Texas. He then proceeded to explain all of his problems with Americans and the United States.

I immediately considered giving this man, who was forty years my elder, a quick history lesson on Germany and their role in the first half of the 20th century, but I wisely decided that arguing would ultimately be counter-productive. So Fred blabbered on, and I answered his seemingly endless questions about the economy, politics, foreign policy, and social awareness of the US, until I finally suggested that we all get some rest (it was a "sleeper" train). I assured Fred that I had no direct control over Washington or Wall Street, and we promptly retired to bed.

Our conversation reminded me of the important lesson that a person's character should never be judged by association, especially when those associations come from baseless assumptions and ridiculous stereotypes. That being said, I think it is safe to assume that all men from Munich, Germany are over the age of 60 and staunchly hate the United States. I will let you know for sure once I have had a chance to visit the area in a few months.

In addition to the hour of crucial sleep that Mariana and I lost, I also found out that the Kuhl's are most likely from some area in Northern Germany...thanks, Fred.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pride Comes Before the Fall

We just returned from two days of trekking in the mountains of Northern Vietnam that border China. During our time there, we visited three villages that were inhabited by minority populations of an indigenous tribe known as the Black Hmong people (as well as a handful of other smaller tribes). The landscapes of terraced rice fields that smother the steep terrain are visually stunning, but it is the kindness of their caretakers that make Northern Vietnam absolutely unforgettable. Vast numbers of Hmong women hike up miles of muddy hillsides each day, dressed in traditional hand-woven garments and multi-colored head dresses, to guide foreigners like myself to their villages where we are encouraged to learn more about their unique culture. They make this trek in the hope that we will help support their impoverished villages by purchasing products and supplies from their local artisans. Many of the women have an array of dye stains on their hands and faces from the hours of painstaking craftsmanship that they put into their beautiful creations. In addition to the female guides, men also assist in providing for their villages by plowing the rice terraces with water buffaloes and homemade blades. The fields are currently dormant and the Vietnamese New Year is rapidly approaching, so most of the men were off in the mountains gathering fire wood when we visited the towns. Every New Year, the Hmong people build huge fires and have a parade of sorts, where they flaunt their newly made creations for all of the village to see (sounds very similar to a fashion show). They then wear those clothes for the duration of the year, until it is time for the following year's "spring collection" to once again be revealed.

The villages were accessible only by steep dirt roads, stone pathways, and bridges that bounced questionably over rivers below as you traversed across them. Mariana and I welcomed the exercise after two days of gorging on fried spring rolls, but we sorely indulged ourselves with leg massages after only our first day of hiking. The second day of hiking was an all-day affair, which due to a perfectly timed thuderstorm the night before, became more like a slippery mine field of red clay puddles. I refused the help of my guide, as I assured her that I had been hiking many times and that my strength of balance was excellent. I did not want to offend her by telling her that she was simply too small to be of help to me anyway. She then offered her guidance in regards to which pathways to take, which I again refused. Always "take the road less travelled by" has been like a mantra to me for the last few number of years, and I sure wasn't going to change that to follow the orders of an 85 lb woman with blue dye on her face. That thought was going through my head right around the same time that my feet gave out from under me. I proceeded to fall directly on my ass in to red clay muck and slide uncontrollably down a steep slope. I was laughing uncontrollably as I came to a sudden halt when an extremely strong hand set an iron-clad grasp around my wrist and pulled me upwards. I wanted to thank the kind man who helped me up, but when I turned around, I saw no one. That's when I looked down and saw a petite woman with darkened skin and a partially blue face accompanied by a gentle smile. My guide did not shame me or even tell me "I told you so", rather, she firmly took me by the hand and led me safely down the remainder of the muddy mountain. I realized two things at that point: 1) Pride always comes before the fall and 2) My 85 lb female Black Hmong guide had FREAKISH Hulk-like physical strength and an even stronger heart.

The Black Hmong people truly have an amazing culture and Mariana and I feel extremely blessed to have experienced it first hand. The land that they live in is breath-taking and we will post more pictures of their surroundings via Mariana's Facebook.

"Talk to Me Goose..."

A few of you have said that they have had trouble commenting on the stories, so I have now changed the blog settings to allow everyone to comment if they want to (apparently it was set to Google account holders only). I am not sure if allowing unrestricted banter from my family and friends is a good idea, but go ahead and fire away!

Monday, January 25, 2010

"I am the hand wash...I am the spin cycle...Cuckoo Ca Choo, Cuckoo Ca Choo!"

That's right, marriage is about sacrifice, and one of mine is that I am doing all of our wash by hand in the shower every few days. Thought all the moms would like this post.

"Pho"-getta About It..."Bun Cha" is Better!!

They say that you go to Southern Vietnam if you want good clothes, and that you go to Northern Vietnam if you want good food. Forget the four custom-made silk suits, shirts and ties...I want some good food! Who really wears silk anyway?

If you know me, then you know that I absolutely love "Pho", which is Vietnamese noodle soup flanked with everything from beef and chicken to cow stomach and snails, all served in a heavenly broth. Well, sorry Pho, but I have a new love and "love thy name is "Bun Cha"! Bun Cha basically consists of tender chunks of beef and pork barbecued to perfection over hot coals on a Hibachi grill out in front of the restaurants. The meat is served alongside a large bun of cold rice noodles and a variety of condiments (fresh peppers, cilantro, basil, lettuce, cucumbers, bean sprouts, and garlic). Your server provides you with a bowl of fish sauce blended with flavors from the fats of the meat, as you sit in quite possibly the smallest seats in the world and mix your meat, noodles and condiments at will. Throw in a cold beer and a filthy mug and you have paradise on Earth.

That being said, the Pho here is absolutely amazing and the days have been cold and rainy...YES!! In addition, to all my Pho buddies, the spring rolls in Hanoi are very similar to Pho Cong's, which I have discovered is unique to Northern Vietnam.

Oh...we also went to a temple in the middle of a lake where a giant turtle gave a sword to a King 1,000 years ago.

Ho Chi Minh and the Scholarly Turtles

I looked far and wide for the bronze bust of Senator Joseph McCarthy, but it was nowhere to be found. I scanned all of the guide books, walked for hours along major thoroughfares, meandered down every side street I could find, and checked each city park that I came along, but in the end, I settled for a few photos of Lenin's monument and a journey through the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum. The museum was incredible, as it was filled with artifacts documenting the socialist revolution and Ho Chi Minh's rise to Vietnamese leadership. Surprisingly, the overall theme of the exhibits was very modern, with a few sections higlighting everything from a life-sized model of Ho Chi Minh's humble beginnings to recreations of battle encampments from the "American War". I could not help but think of the perspective that my parents must have held towards Vietnam from the 1950s through the 1970s as I walked down the vivid and sometimes graphic exhibits within the museum. I found it refreshing that located just outside of the building, was a Pagoda with many people mumbling prayers and making incense-cleansed offerings. In fact, there are a number of temples and even a Catholic cathedral that are located within walking distance of the memorial, displaying the fact that Hanoi is a modern city much like any other in Southeast Asia.

One of these sites is known as the Temple of Literature, which was built to honor a vast number of famous scholars. Each scholar has a large stone turtle dedicated to his memory, which is flagged by a stone tablet that highlights their many achievements in a variety of fields. The tablets (and the temple itself) also pay homage to the many teachings of Confucious, one of which basically states that all strong societies must have men of knowledge.

We were stampeded by a mass of young students as we walked through the temple. Apparently, it is good luck to rub the heads of all of the stone turtles for those who want it or need it. They seemed like they needed it...must have been exam week.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

I pride myself on many things when I travel, like being able to decipher maps (most of the time) and sampling local dishes, no matter how weird or exotic they are, but perhaps my greatest talent is calculating exchange rates. This was true until I went to my first Vietnamese ATM and was provided the following choices for withdrawal: a) 600,000 , b) 800,000, c) 1,000,000 , d) 2,000,000. Let's see there are 18,300 dong to the dollar, carry the one, divide by ten, damnit Ryan there is a line accumulating behind you, just make a choice. I closed my eyes and withdrew one MILLION Vietnamese Dong. Despite the funny sounding name of the currency that I had just received from the ATM, Mariana and I were hoping that I did not just break the bank upon making our withdrawal. After a little sweat and some swift long division, I realized that I had withdrawn roughly $55 USD. I checked my math again and sighed with relief while simultaneously cursing such a ridiculous exchange rate.

Many of the hotels and nicer restaurants prefer US currency, so having some dollars on hand is a must in Vietnam. Unfortunately, there are plenty of times that you need a sizeable amount of dong in your pockets - (*aside - I will continue to make these tongue-in-cheek comments until I leave this beautiful country, so if you don't like it, then you don't have to read my blog) - like when an old woman wearing a traditional cone-shaped hat and carrying a long pole with fruit baskets hanging on both sides runs up to you demanding that you take a picture with her. These pictures are a lot of fun, but they always require some kind of compensation, so she asked for 100,000 dong and we paid it to her. We did not mind being gouged for probably 90,000 dong over the normal price of 4 baby bananas and a few slices of pineapple, simply because Mariana and I knew that our $5.50 payment probably made that woman's week. I am not sure, but I think I heard her cackling loudly as we walked away. When the day was finally over, we realized that we spent somewhere in the ballpark of 450,000 dong or $25 USD.

Mom and Dad - please send money!!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Gooooooood Morning Vietnammmm!!!

We woke up at 3:30 am this morning to catch an early flight to the Vietnamese capital city of Hanoi and all went well as we landed at 8:30 am. Foreign visitors are immediately handed a pamphlet warning of taxi and hotel scams, so finding safe transportation took us over half an hour and was quite intimidating. The ride from the airport to our hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi was 45 minutes long and allowed us to get a true feel for the agrarian Vietnamese country side, as well as the busy streets of the city. By busy, I mean insane.

Mariana and I have taken some crazy cab rides in countries like Costa Rica, Colombia, Cambodia, and Thailand, but Vietnam certainly takes the cake. As we were flying around slower moving motorcycles, moto-scooters, rickshaws, ox-driven carts, cyclists, and unfortunate pedestrians, I could not help but imagine what the driving test (if there is in fact one) would be like here. So, fortunately for you, I am going to allow you exclusive access to the one-act play that unfolded within my mind:

Instructor: "Ok, let's begin. Have you adjusted your rearview mirrors and checked for all of your blind spots?"

Student: "No."

Instructor: "Fantastic, a lot of students get that question wrong...well done. Now make sure you hit the gas pedal as hard as you can and don't worry about merging, because the other vehicles will move out of your way long before they will hit you."

Student: "Ok."

Instructor: "I really liked the way that you just ignored that traffic light back there, you should never let such things as rapidly moving right-of-way traffic deter you from motoring through a busy intersection."

Student: "Thanks."

Instructor: "Now let's practice some parking. Find a spot and pull the car in quickly."

Student: "How's this?"

Instructor: "Perfect, you have parked in the middle of the street at just the right angle to block all thru traffic, and on your first try...incredible."

Student: "Thanks, I practiced some with my dad."

Instructor: "Well although I would have liked you to honk a bit more and perhaps frightened a few more pedestrians on the sidewalk, I don't see any reason not to grant you a license. Just remember to never look in any direction except directly in front of you while driving and you are going to make a fantastic motorist. Well done."


Friday, January 22, 2010

Farewell for Now Thailand

Bangkok is a city full of eccentric side shows, bizarre gastronomies, and down-right ridiculous practices, but more importantly, it is a city inhabited by mostly loving and humble people. Even the truly down-trodden, disenfranchised poor will consistently greet you with a passionate "Sawasdee Ka/Krup" and a traditional "wai". They hold a deep respect for those around them (friend and stranger), which I am assuming stems directly from the eternally ingrained teachings of Buddha. In addition to their humility, they revere their King with such vigor that it is completely incomprehensible to almost every outsider. There are many ways that I could improve upon myself, but perhaps the virtue that I desire the most from the Thai people is their passion. Mariana and I will always cherish our travelling experiences wherever we venture, but we will move on to our next destination with a profoundly enhanced respect for the nation of Thailand and its beautiful citizens.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Date Night (Dinner and a Movie with a Slice of Physical Torture for Dessert)

Let me begin this session with a statement of fact - Thai food is incredible! Whether you are eating roasted duck, pork, chicken or beef with rice, rice noodle, glass noodle, or yellow noodle does not matter. They are all incredible by themselves or in some delectable soup broth. My hands down favorite though, is the ability to subjectively add "phet" or "spice" as we know it to any dish that you choose. That being said, we began our date with roasted duck over rice served with oyster sauce and a bowl of tom yum with yellow noodles, beef, pork slices, three mystery meat balls, and extra phet. Each dish comes equipped with a variety of vegetables, but our personal favorite is fried morning glory (also served with oyster sauce). We then followed the main dishes with iced thai tea served with condensed milk and mango with sticky rice. YES!! All together, our dinner cost 120 baht, which is roughly $4 US. After dinner, we decided to go to the mall at Siam Square to see if we could catch a movie.

After watching Avatar with Thai subtitles at the local cineplex, Mariana and I both decided that we needed a good massage and we knew just where to go. We had seen a Thai massage business right next to our hostel that offered a 60 minute Thai massage for 200 baht. We walked in and I immediately said "So let me get this straight...I pay you $6 US and you will give me an hour long massage?" The lady at the front of the store smiled sweetly and said "Yes". I swiftly agreed to her offer and immediately booked two massages. Within 5 minutes, two fairly large Thai men walked downstairs and summoned us to the changing room with extremely calm and pleasant demeanors. This is where I need to explain the difference between a 60 minute Swedish massage and a 6o minute Thai massage.

Your experience begins harmlessly enough with a gentle washing of the feet, a changing in to loose robes, and a sizing of ridiculously comfortable sandals. You are then escorted to a dimly lit room full of comfortable beds that even Goldilox would envy. You lay down and begin to relax as soft Thai music eloquently lulls you to sleep. Then the masseuse walks in and you soon realize that life as you have known it for the last 15 minutes is over. Your date with the "Dark Lord" has been made.

A Thai masseuse is actually a sadist who hides their desire to inflict bodily harm to their patrons behind a warm demeanor and trustworthy smile. Mariana and I spent the next hour having our body contorted in to positions that I would have cerainly thought to be impossible prior to our torture session. Grown men walked on our backs and applied immense pressure to areas of the body that never did anything to ask for such treatment. I was left speechless by the end of the silent, yet extremely physical interrogation, and Mariana was left crying from laughter as I exited the massage shop whimpering in pain.

Caveat Emptor.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What the Crap was That??

I may not be in Kansas anymore, but their music is alive and well in the capital of Thailand. I have seen a plethora of classic rock bands in my life ranging from Blue Oyster Cult to Steppenwolf, but I can safely say that tonight was the first time in my life that I witnessed an all Thai band cover "Dust In the Wind". Moments like this occur often in Bangkok and they can only be followed by the simple statement of "what the crap was that?" Please allow me to offer a few more examples of this phenomona during our first "crap-filled" day.

Example 1: "The Costly Act of Kindness"

- A street person approaches you with a smile on their face, grabs your arm, hands you a bag full of bird seed, and wishes you many blessings in the new year as a swarm of pigeons attack your entire body. An unsuspecting person will take the seeds gratefully, feed the birds, and try to move on. Ahhh, but this scheme comes with a catch. As soon as you feed the birds, your new year's blessing becomes a monetary obligation as smiles turn in to demands for cash. I am torn by these circumstances, so my usual stance is to refuse the bird seed, move on, and avoid confrontation. Unfortunately an unusual amount of traffic cornered me between freedom and the pigeon lady on this day and I was immediately accosted. My wrist was painfully grabbed, seed was forced in to my hand (which I immediately dropped), and an old woman yelled at me for refusing her "blessings". When I was finally able to cross the street, I turned to Mariana and said "What the crap was that?"

Example 2 - "Public Transportation"

- You can become over-stimulated by the sounds of Bangkok as you walk down Her streets, but certain sounds tend to really catch your attention. These are the sounds of the infamous salesmen known as tuk-tuk drivers. The revving of an engine, cat-like meowing, or a simple grunt are their main means of drawing your attention, but if you remain vigilantly ignorant they will resort to more physical tactics like tapping your shoulder or grabbing your arm. Whether verbal or physical, their actions leave you asking "What the crap was that?" By the way, I was fortunate enough to almost get run over by the actual "Night Bus" from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when I mistakingly assumed that all modes of transportation in Bangkok followed the rules of right-of-way.

Example 3 - "Street Vendors"

- I always find it deliciously intriguing and slightly disturbing to gander at the food available from street-side vendors. Simple items like beef, chicken, and pork satay are availble alongside pig heart, bbq squid, and you-name-it intestine. These items generally have one thing in common -they are served on stick. The satays are fantastic if fresh and fried bananas with sesame seeds are a no-brainer, but I can tell you that after having questionable squid and mystery meatballs, most street food is better left alone. If you have to ask "What the crap is that?", proceed with caution, because you don't want to eat it first and then have to ask "What the crap WAS that?"

As a side note, I entered a street vendors booth entitled the "Siam Fish Spa" where I proceeded to stick my feet into a tank where small fish fed off of my dry skin. The sensation is indescribable and certainly falls under the realm of "What the crap was that?" My feet are the softest they have been in years, but I am now scared of jumping in to any kind of water.

Example 4 - The Odd Couple

Bangkok is unfortunately infamous for its sex trade and it is hard to visit without taking notice of odd pairings of men and women. I will keep this section short, because I hate it, but I always question the legitimacy of a couple when the girl is young and attractive and the man looks like the walrus from Sea World's "Clyde and Seymour Caper Show".

Example 5 - The Wild Card

These are my favorite. Western culture has some of the most hysterical ways of creeping in to eveyday Asian life. I think all people enjoy sporting t-shirts with foreign writing, whether they know what it says or not. For instance, a good friend of mine has a great shirt that says "Tu Eres Un Pendejo" with the statement "You Are My Friend" written below it in parentheses. Today I saw a shirt on a 50 year old woman, that I doubt she understood, which simply stated in English that "Accountants do it with Interest!"


Those Bastards Got Me Again

I hate admitting to being an idiot, but it is certainly a plausible concept for those of you who know me. It had been almost a year and a half to the day since I was first approached by a sharply dressed, english speaking Thai businessman on the streets of Bangkok. He could clearly see that I was attempting to decipher the complimentary map from my hotel, and immediately offered his assistance. Mariana and I were appalled at the prices for a massage near our hotel ($10 US), so we naturally asked him for any suggestions he might have for cheaper alternatives. He told us of a place that had the best massages in all of Bangkok and assured us that their pricing was far superior to our intial option. He even flagged down a tuk-tuk driver and provided him detailed instructions in Thai, as well as negotiating a fair price for our transportation. The Gods were truly smiling upon us. Where else could you find such simple hospitality but in the "Land of Smiles".

One hair-raising ride later, we found ourselves on the second floor of an inconspicuous building far from our hotel that specialized in "hand-crafted suits and ties of the highest quality for a fraction of the price". NO!! We firmly demanded that the tuk-tuk driver take us to get the cheap massage that was promised and we said our peace with conviction.

Fifteen frightening minutes later we were entering a back-alley massage parlour and handed a brochure with massages beginning at $15 a session. I attempted to haggle and was swiftly asked to leave. NO!! We then firmly demanded our tuk-tuk driver to take us back to our hotel and he begrudgingly obliged...we thought. Twenty horrific minutes later we were looking at crappy jewelry in God-Knows-Where Bangkok, praying that we were not going to be abducted by some Southeast Asian mob syndicate. Finally exhausted by our lack of motivation to purchase anything from any of his business partners, our tuk-tuk driver reluctantly dropped us off back at our hotel, and we payed $10 (US) for a massage. I vowed then and there that I would never fall for such under-handed trickery again.

So much for promises. Mariana and I were twenty-five minutes in to a long walk to visit the King's Palace when we were approached by a nicely dressed Thai man claiming to be a teacher at a nearby school. When we informed him that Mariana was a teacher his eyes lit up and he immediately asked us if he could be of any help. When we told him where we were going, he looked saddened because I was wearing shorts and we were both wearing flip-flops. "Oh, today is a Buddha holiday and the Palace will not allow you to enter without long pants and close-toed shoes." This is in fact true on occasion, so Mariana and I had reason to trust him. He explained that the Palace would open to the public in a couple of hours and he suggested a few other temples to visit in the meantime. He also explained that we should only trust government licensed tuk-tuks (recognizable by their yellow plates), and that we should not pay more the 40 baht ($1.25 US) for our trip. His story was plausible and his demeanor was trustworthy, so we again enlisted the kind generosity of a stranger to help us in our journey.

Our first stop was a lovely temple that was extremely unique and devoid of any western tourists. This is just the kind of side trip that Mariana and I cherish when we are trying to experience other cultures first hand. Our second stop was a store filled with middle eastern tailors promising "hand-crafted clothing at a fraction of the price"...damnit, they got me again.

One more temple and one more jewelry factory later we finally arrived at the King's Palace. We walked past the twenty sharply dressed Thai men offering their assistance and walked in to the King's Palace only to find that I did in fact need long pants to enter. Fortunately they were available to rent for a 200 baht deposit. So, I rentedt my pants, entered the palace grounds, interacted with some local Thai students, and opted to walk all the way back to the hostel. Mariana rubbed an unfortunate blister on her foot during our long sojourn home, but it was worth it to not have to deal with any more tuk-tuk drivers.

Three lessons learned:

1. I have a lot of "friends" willing to kindly assist me in Bangkok.
2. The temples we visited were still worth the cheap tuk-tuk fare.
3. You get to meet plenty of other Westerners at the tailor shops and jewelry stores.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Hostel Environment

"Welcome to Thailand!!" Now take off your shoes and try not to get the toilet seat wet when you shower.

The last time that I was in Bangkok, Mariana and I stayed at a five star hotel on the 54th floor overlooking downtown and the Chao Praya river. My taxi driver had to go through a security check point where they searched the car for bombs before he was let through to the lobby drop off. I was greeted by four people who quickly grabbed my bags, checked me in, and whisked me away to my 900 square foot hotel room. The suite came equipped with a plush king size bed, two flat screen televisions, a kitchenette, a walk in shower, a bath tub, and a living room. Mariana and I had dinner at a renowned restaurant on the 74th floor and grabbed a drink at the uber-chic bar overlooking the entire city. Ahhh, life was good.

Fast forward to today and...our taxi driver could not find the place, it is located in a dark alleyway in central Bangkok, we are on the second floor in a four story building, a cat AND a dog just walked out of the restaurant across the street, and the lobby is open (quite literally) to all public passersbye. Our room has a queen bed that feels much like the floor, you can take a shower while simultaneously using the toilet (literally), and there is NO television!!

So I will take my shoes off when I enter, I will try not to get too much water on the toilet when I shower, and I will actually sit and talk with my wife about our day's adventure when we return to our room tomorrow evening.

Life is great.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Ohh...That's Why Some People Don't Like Americans

Our feet were tired after another day of exploring markets and parks in Hong Kong, so Mariana and I decided to go to Lan Kwai Fong and SOHO, which were both bar districts on Hong Kong Island. There are not a whole lot of things in life that are better than having a tasty beverage with good company and slowly watching the World go by. That is until your company begins blaring the US National Anthem (followed up by a 9/11 montage) and flicking off the middle eastern bar owners across the street in an attempt to incite some kind of local war. I am not sure if the guys we met (one from California and the other a self-proclaimed Texan from Sweden???) were simply drunk, or if they truly hated Asian culture. My gut feel is that it was a little of both. Trying to avoid bloodshed barely in to our second week of travel, I convinced them to simply play some Johnny Cash, which would still be VERY American, and to sit down with us. Two "Fulsom Prison's" and one "Walk the Line" later, we dicovered that the two guys were extremely intelligent business men who were frustrated with what they proclaimed to be the arrogance of Beijing.

Normally this is where my anxiety kicks in and I pull the Irish goodbye by exiting stage left, but another American woman and a British woman happened to enter the bar just as Mariana and I were paying our bill. One worked as a foreign correspondent for a very well known news provider and the other worked with her consulate. They provided a much less jaded perspective of the World in general (especially Hong Kong) and gave me a small dose of hope for humanity. In an interesting twist, I was assured by the correspondent that she has never had a story censored to meet the views of her superiors (she does not work for a Chinese news outlet). I found this intriguing, because I have had many discussions on media bias, but this was the first time that I had actually held a conversation with a reporter or anyone in the news industry for that matter. We even had a laugh as she discussed covering Sarah Palin's visit to Hong Kong and China. What in the WORLD is Sarah Palin doing in China? Not speaking on my behalf I hope. At the end of the night we exchanged emails and happily parted ways.

Mariana and I went to sleep that night with a newfound understanding and acknowledgement that as visitors to foreign lands, we are in fact ambassadors for our country, albeit in a small way. I feel that we have an opportunity to show other cultures that we respect our differences and hope to learn from them in order to be better citizens of the World.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

How Could You Not Have Skype?

And on the seventh day, Mariana and Ryan looked back at what they had done and they were pleased, so they rested.

Then they got on Skype and called a few family and friends. I am a little behind on modern internet resources, so when Mariana's cousin introduced me to Skype last spring, I was immediately suspicious of how he came to possess such alien technology. So let me get this can sign up for free, talk to other skype users ACROSS THE WORLD for free, and you can SEE is this possible? I don't know, but you are an idiot if you don't use it. You can also call a persons cell phone from HONG KONG, and it is $0.02 per minute. I have only just begun to scratch the surface with this new tool, but I am extremely pleased with it so far.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Buddha on the Mountain, Mao in the Market

We woke up early this morning, ate some more delicious wonton soup, and headed to the long subway ride south to Lantau Island. Lantau Island plays host to Hong Kong's International Airport, but it is also Hong Kong's most mountainous island. A number of years ago, an engineering firm designed a 3 mile long cable car ride known as the Ngong Ping 360, which takes you high in to the mountains to a Buddhist monastery. Aside from beautiful views and an elaborate temple, the monastery is now best known for its 34 meter tall bronze statue of the sitting Buddha that resides at the pinnacle of a hillside. The pictures of this adventure speak for themselves, but I can say that we enjoyed our time there immensely.

Later in the afternoon, Mariana and I took the subway to an area known as Lady's Market. The market is large and provides shoppers with the ability to purchase an array of souvenir crap. I am not much of a shopper, but I do enjoy the people watching and the shock that a walk through these types of markets provide to the system. Each vendor has their own stall filled with items ranging from picturesque paintings of Chinese landscapes to crab-shaped thong underwear. Two items in particular caught the eyes of Mariana and I; for her it was a large Chinese fan that would look "great above our bed" and for me it was a t-shirt with Mao Zedong's picture on it. There is a very important rule in Asian culture that requires the vendor and shopper to haggle, so I think this is best expressed in a dialogue.

Me: "How much do you want for that big red fan?"
Vendor: "Oh...that is very nice, yes. $200 Hong Kong Dollars."
Me: "Ok, thanks." (we try to exit)
Vendor: "Wait...for you I make deal (pulls out calculator and writes 150).
Me: "That's ok, we are just looking, but thank you"

I walk out of the tent and continue to walk down the street when I hear...

Vendor: "Wait, mister, wait." She grabs my arm and pulls me back in to the tent. "How much? You tell me."
Me: "We are just looking. We will come back."
Vendor: "You no come back....ok,ok, $90)
Me: "No."
Vendor: "$80."
Me: "No."

I once again leave the tent and begin to walk down the street when I hear...

Mariana: "RYAN!!"
Vendor: "I have your wife. $70."

I turn around and the vendor is physically constraining Mariana in the tent. I head back to the tent, where the vendor proceeds to hold me hostage.

Vendor: "$70 very good price. You buy. We have other colors if you like."
Me: "No, and I will drag you along with me kicking and screaming down the rest of the market if you do not let go of me."

The vendor reluctantly lets go of me and as Mariana and I move further down the street I hear a faint yell of "$OK, OK, $50!!!!!!"

And, scene...

On the flip side of the coin, I actually offended a vendor 3 minutes later when I offered her $21 HKD for my Mao shirt when her original asking price was $69. I hate ALL countries.

We proceeded to have another bowl of noodle soup for less than $2 USD and we finished our day by watching a beautiful light show in the harbour from the main ferry station.