Saturday, July 14, 2018

Coming Home

A few months ago I had a moment of conscious about posting on FB and other social media. The dark side of using these platforms was being discussed and I briefly considered deleting my FB page, but just briefly. The thing about social media, despite all its downsides, is that it does what it says on the tin. It connects us. Each time I travel I try to connect with friends past and present. Of course as time goes on this gets harder in some ways. As I’ve moved about, the people I meet become more varied and, as their lives progress they have become more dispersed, but I try to see everyone I can. So naturally coming home in the summer I reach out to the friends I know will be there to spend time with them. Who knows, will they be in our hometown as the same time as I will? Will our paths cross? Would I have been able to help arrange these meeting if it weren’t for social media? Probably not and for this alone the value is immense.

I contacted an old friend I’d seen a few times in the States. Then another. Then another. Then another and the next thing I knew I was looking forward to seeing my oldest friends. As David and I sat in the park, since we arrived first, we glanced around anxiously waiting to see who would come next and guessing as each car pulled up, is that them? It was a bit hard to tell, but as we all came together that feeling faded away. Of course, we are older, and some of us have gained weight, lost a little hair, and earned a few wrinkles (ok, mostly me on three counts), but the people I loved and who were close to me during my most formative years, in the most important respects, were the same or maybe even better than I remembered. They were kind, wise, smart, and funny, with talent and wit that is hard to find. It is amazing to me sometimes that I was so lucky to have these friends with me along the way. So we met in one of the places we held dearest during out teenage years, Sunset Park (Not surprisingly, great place for sunsets). Before smartphones and texting became a thing, we would often meet here, driving to the parking lot to see who showed up, exchange what we knew about what was going on and a host of others things whose details are perhaps better left unsaid. 

One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood (Seneca, not me) and, well, these people understand me, at times more than I’d like. We’ve done all the things good friends will have, from run ins with the police to seeing each other in various states of nakedness to talks late into the night and tears shed on shoulders. It was a special moment to catch up, connect, and understand each other a little more deeply. I hope, and know, that its not a one off, but even if it takes another 10 years to come together I'm sure our understanding of each other will be the same. 

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Macau, Again

Years ago, before I was married (a long, long time ago) I went to Macau with my then girlfriend, Aya, and by buddies John and Richard. We were mainly in HK and spent just a day going around Macau, but here we were back again for a bit more time. Again, we didn't stay in Macau, but Zhuhai across the border. Aya was with me again, but this time it was Reed and Nicole who were with us. We spent some time wandering around the casinos and playing a little roulette. When we sat down to play together we each put in about 10usd to play. Interestingly, a fella sat down next to me and start feeding 100dollar (actually1000hk dollar) bills into the machine. He must have been burning through about 1000 HKdollars every 5 minutes. His wife was standing nearby, not looking too amused. Casinos are a big part of Macau's tourism and everywhere we went that was the main advertisement. Something interesting about the island is that there was and still is a Portuguese presence. While most of the people have gone, there is a requirement for signs to be in Portuguese and for there to be a Portuguese speaker at all major businesses.
Gambling and walking around the casinos was enough for us that day, so we decided to head back for the day, but Reed and I would return the following day to climb to the lighthouse and see St. Paul's ruins. The lighthouse was pretty neat as it is a high point on the island and you can see quite far in every direction. It was a bit humid on the day that we were there, so we couldn't see too far, but still fun. Inside the lighthouse grounds there is a chapel and a stone in the floor with the date of construction. The Chapel of Our Lady of Guia was constructed in 1622. Now, the chapel is somewhat sealed and there are dehumidifiers running to keep the interior frescoes in good condition. 

We headed back to Beijing after just a few days in Macau, but maybe next time we will stay in the city itself and explore a bit more. 

Crossing the Border

Macau side, entrance

"arrival" hall

Gate way to Zhuhai

Zhuhai side

Portal to Zhuhai side

Waiting in the foreigners line

Multiple times when we were in Zhuhai/Macau we crossed the border. Each side was packed with people. In fact, the first time we crossed, from Macau to Zhuhai, was at around 6pm and so people were making their way home from work. There was such a stream of people that we got confused and turned around, but eventually made it across. The process is not a difficult one. We averaged about an hour for the whole ordeal, less if we were using or EChannel passes on the China side.

Many of the people crossing were carrying goods for China/Macau. It seemed like a lot of produce was going from China to Macau and electronics on the way back. As our friend would tell us, Chinese people can only cross once ever two weeks, but it seems like people from Macau can do it at any time.

For me, this wasn't the first time I have crossed a border on foot, but certainly the biggest crossing point. Years ago in Thailand I walked across the border to Cambodia. I've flown across many borders, driven across a few as well. I've even gone by ship on the way to Morocco. By bike, not yet, but maybe someday. 

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Beijing City Planning Museum

This past weekend Aya and I went to the Beijing City Planning Museum. We had actually intended to go to Tiananmen Square first to see Mao, but as usual as soon as we arrived the crowds turned us off from that idea. Lucky for us we were two of only about 30 people in the whole museum, I guess it isn't too popular. 

I was looking forward to coming here for a few reasons. First, I had visited the city and my friend Davis 15(!) years ago and so it would be neat to see some of the changes. The museum did in fact have a section detailing the growth of the city and even from the year 2000 to the present it is pretty clear the city has gotten much larger. When I was visiting him I remember a lot of construction and destruction as the city was preparing for the 2008 olympics. 
The second reason is that I have read a few books on Chinese history and at various points they talk about the city of Beijing. Last year, in fact, I read 400 pages on just the history of the city and found it very interesting to see how it was viewed and expanded through the ages as well as efforts to maintain and restore parts of the old city. 
The third and maybe most silly reason is that I went to the City Planning Museum of Shanghai a few years ago and thought the model they had of the city was pretty cool, so I wanted to check out the Beijing one and see if I could find my apartment on the map. Unfortunately the map stops about 2km south of where I live. 

The museum consisted of 4 floors. Mostly this was devoted to pictures of the city and the people involved in its development, most displays had some english, so that was helpful. The main interest to me was the 3d miniature map. It was pretty neat and I can imagine it took a long time to build it. 

As I walked around the map and saw in various places around the museum I couldn't help but reflect on some of the things I would consider mistakes in planning. Just to name a few, the destruction of the old city wall was probably a mistake. When Mao had won the war and declared Beijing the capital city, the wall came down under his guidance to make room for industry, but he could have picked any city to put industry in or kept it outside the city proper. He torn down the walls against good advice and that makes me a little sad as I am sure they were a site to see. The other thing that really struck me is that I don't see a lot of forward planning in the design of Beijing over the past 50 years or so. It seems haphazard to me. This might be illustrated by the problems that Beijing has with pollution. In planning the city in the 21st century Beijing's city planners met with planners in LA about air pollution and how to plan the city to minimize it. They ignored the examples set by LA in reducing their pollution and the impact is obvious today as the government back tracks on planning measures to make the city more livable. 

Beijing is my home and most of the time I enjoy living here, but looking at that big map of the city I just kept thinking about what if? What if you could go back in time 100 years ago and plan all over? What changes would you make? 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Japan, VR, and Henn Na Hotel

After spending time in the relative warmth of SE Asia, we went to Japan to visit Aya's parents and spend some time in Aizu. It is always nice going back, like going home for many reasons. This time around the house was quite noisy as brother in-law plus family were staying there as well. Most of the day revolved around two energetic kids.
We did also have a new year's day meal with uncle and aunt. Mostly we just enjoyed chilling, eating, and for me, running in snowy Aizu. I spent a good deal of time with Sheri sleeping and getting in some good scratches. I also played a game where I had no idea what I was doing and I think that the rules where changing as Sota made them up. The last day we were there it snowed really hard as Aya's parents drove us to  Fukushima to catch the Shinkansen.

Arriving in Tokyo we had an unusual hotel experience. I had heard about these hotels that were run by robots and, knowing my excitement, Aya booked us at one that had just opened. The rooms themselves were pretty normal business hotel types except that they had a closet sort of thing that was supposed to clean clothing if you hung it inside. It was odd, but we tried it and our clothes did in fact seem to be a bit cleaner. The attraction at the hotel were the animated robots that checked us in and out. It was cool, but not exactly what I was expecting. I don't know quite what I thought would happen, but I guess I thought the robots would be more interactive. What happened was that we approached two dinosaur robots, yes dinosaurs, and then we interacted with a touch screen while the robots moved and spoke to us responding to what we chose on the touch screen. Other than the check in and out interaction the hotel was pretty normal, but still it was kind of fun to go.

We had an afternoon flight back to Beijing, so we decided to try a VR gaming place that Aya had read about. It was really cool. Basically it was two floors of games, all VR, ranging from normal nintendo games like Mario Kart and fishing games to haunted house type games. We tried two games, Mario Kart and Horror Hospital. Mario Kart was pretty neat and since the seat/kart we sat in also moved it added to the overall feeling. After playing the game and taking off the gear we felt kind of weird. Since the games were a bit expensive we decided on just one more and went for the horror one since there were warnings not to do it if you were especially sensitive. Standing in line waiting to play there were many screams coming from the people playing, so I was expecting some really scary stuff. It was scary. Basically you both sit (in the VR world in a wheelchair) and then use a joystick to guide yourself around a hospital trying to find the other player and get out. As you do so people come out at you, but the scariest bit was when blades or things got close or cut you. Based on the VR head gear it really did seem like the blades were plunging into you, an uneasy feeling. I'm sure if we get a chance to we will try more games again some day. 

After enjoying Japan, we chilled at the airport lounge at Haneda, watching the planes come and go and waiting for our turn to return to Beijing.

Thursday, February 15, 2018


We only stayed in Yangon for two nights and a day, so we didn't get to see as much of it as maybe we would have liked. However, we did make it to what is probably the main attraction, Shwedagon Pagoda. From our hotel, the first night, we went to the rooftop restaurant to eat dinner and enjoy the view (the power was off, until the generator kicked in). In the far distance you can see the tops of the pagoda, which we would visit the next day. The sunset, which we would come back for the follow night, was really pretty. Below us, birds and people were gathering for their nightly meal, so it got quite noisy, but still was worth a second visit. 

The next day we got up late and made our way to the pagoda by foot. As we got closer to the temple area it as unclear how to navigate the warrens of alleyways to get to the gates, but we saw 5-6 young monks moving in the direction of the temple, so we followed them and shortly arrived at the temple. There, we had to remove our shoes and cover our legs and shoulders. We then climbed a number of steps to get to the top, which was very busy with pilgrims. 
There were a few odd things about the temple grounds, first, there were stations for the days of the week that you were born on and you were supposed to pray to that day. I picked Sunday, which I am not sure if it was right, but I feel like a 'born on Sunday' type of guy.  Also, the pagoda is supposed to contain some of the Buddha's hair, but I couldn't find out where and Aya wasn't that interested, so we were split on it (huzah!)

The other unusual thing was that there was an inscription that was found on the temple grounds that verified how long the temple had been around. There is speculation as to how old the temple is, but not definitive proof earlier than this insciruption, so we went to check it out. For future reference, go to MONDAY, hang a left, go past the large bodhi tree and you'll find it under an open air canopy with a sleeping guard. There is the Dhamazedi inscription, made in 1485! Whenever I come across things like this, which are very old in human years, I try to think of what else was happening in the world at that time. In that year, the new world of the America's was just about to be cracked by europeans. A lot has changed in the world. 

After spending some time at the pagoda, we headed downtown to visit the old post office and walk around a bit. You can clearly see a lot of the old buildings from the British days still intact, though that is now changing as Myanmar opens and develops. After walking around the streets for a bit, staring upward, we visited a large modern shopping mall, looking for socks for Aya. 

That night, we again sat and watched the sunset on a beautiful day on Yangon. The next day we were off for a couple of days in Thailand and then on to Japan for the new year. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018


Bagan was something else. We've been to a lot of places that are a bit similar in what they feel like or represent, like Cairo or maybe Siam Reap, with ancient architecture  that makes you say 'wow'. We've never experienced something quite like this though. Bagan's temples stretched out before us in every direction. Since the area was not too big, but would take time to travel by on foot, we decided to rent an e-scooter each day to get around, it was quite fun and not too dangerous. I could name temples, but there are just so many of them and let's say that we went to all the main  ones, plus a few more. 

On the first day we arrived in the afternoon so we just chilled and walked to the end of the road near our hotel. This is where the pineapple looking temple was located. We scoped it out as it was supposed to be a nice point to watch the sunset, but what we should have anticipated was that everyone else thought that too. We ended up going nearby to a river boat for dinner, an odd little place where we were the only customers and the owner, a foreigner, was kicking about on the shore trying to do landscaping or something. On the way there we walked through a small cluster of homes and a few kids ran out to try to sell us postcards. Some of them were just crayon drawing, I suppose the smallest kids saw the older kids making money off selling cards and wanted a  piece of the action. However, one girl was selling a set of 10 cards for about 1 dollar. I hadn't seen anywhere near that price at any of the tourist stands, so I went for it. I felt great that I got a great deal, about 75% of what the stands were selling, but I also felt kind of bad because I think the kid maybe just got excited and said the wrong price. Hot off my major deal, stomach full of fish and eyes full of river and mountain sunset, we turned in for the first night. 

Day two we rented the e-scooter and rode to our first temple then on to the local market. The first temple was beautiful, but we had a funny run in before we entered. As we were coming up to the temple on the side we couldn't exactly see where to park the scooter. While we were moving up a side lane some women came out of a doorway and said, "enter, enter" and sure enough, above the door was painted the word "Entrance". So we parked and went in. As soon as we did the women tried to sell us some things and one of them even managed to pin a little butterfly broach on me. I didn't really realize until we had managed to shake them off that the butterfly was a tag so that when I came back for my shoes the lady would have something to pin (like that one mom?) on me and of course she did, but I held my will and didn't buy anything. I've gotten stronger over the years of running into touts and I don't feel so bad anymore, but maybe a little. Maybe I was just hyped from my previous days good buy on the postcards. The temple grounds themselves were beautiful and since we were there somewhat early in the morning there weren't too many people and the air was cool. Right after we rode to the market in town, a crazy complex of a really big covered area. There were vendors of every kind and tourist stalls and local stalls were mixed. We then had lunch and headed back to the hotel for an afternoon rest.

Later that day we headed to the Nann Myint tower going the long way around to cruise a little bit. The tower was about 5 dollars a person, kind of expensive (relative to the service) we thought and for a few minutes we considered sending up just one of us. In the end we both went up because, what is 5 dollars each to spend on something we will do once? Once up to the top floor, I think it was the 13th floor, we had quite a good view of the landscape. However, I think the tower is actually too high. As you look out on the temples in the area they appear more like tiny dots without much detail. We spent a bit of time taking a rest on top and then headed our way down. On the map we were carrying there seemed to be a shortcut to the next place we were going and as we were bouncing down the sandy lanes we started signing 'born to be wild' (me, actually). Less than 5 minutes later our scooter was stuck in deep sand and it was obvious that we had taken a wrong turn. We pushed and cajoled our scooter out of the sand and up a ridge eventually, but by that point the headiness of riding around had faded. We took the long, and safe, way home. As we wound our way along the dusty tracks the sun was starting to set, so we saw a lot of people gathering at the temples for the sunset viewing. Today, we were going to skip that exercise because we had other plans, but the next day we would. 

Early (ish) the next day we hired a car to head to the nearby temple at Mt. Popa. The prior day at Nann Myint tower we had seen it far, far in the distance and from pictures it looked pretty neat, so we decided to get a driver to make the half day journey there and back. Our driver was pretty chill and the ride was fairly uneventful  except when we neared the mountain. Along the road were people in small groups and as we passed they would wave. At first I thought, surely, they are waving for a ride, but as we went on there were more and more people and they weren't gathered in one spot but spread about 50 meters apart. It was really odd. I would find out on the way back that they were waving to tourists and that sometimes people threw money out the windows at them. What a job, if you can call it that. 
Mt. Popa was pretty cool. Our driver dropped us about 1km from the start of the mountain as the road was jammed with buses and people. There were motor bike taxis, but we walked assuming it wouldn't be that far and it luckily turned out that it wasn't. The base of the hill was jam packed with pilgrims, cars, motorcycles, etc. It was a bizarre bazaar of people, animals, and machines. As we approached the staircase we were directed to take off our shoes. This was not unusual as every temple ground asked you to do this. From there forward we started climbing the stairs with the other pilgrims. The 770 stairs to the top were packed with people and the occasional monkey and we often had to stop to wait for people to clear out. Getting to the top was a beautiful view and we spent some time there enjoying the breeze before making the descent. At the bottom of the stairs, after retrieving our shoes, we tried to decide what to do next. Standing at the edge of the churning mass of people trying to figure out how to get to a look out point opposite Mt. Popa, we eventually decided that it would be too far/hard to walk it so we would need to get a taxi. We asked two motorbike driver who were chilling by the road, showed them the map, described the place, and then we each hoped on their bikes. It was a fun ride, but it ended too quickly and Aya and I both thought, what the hell? The bikes stopped on the main road to the town, not near where we were going. As it turns out they stopped right by our driver's car, but how did they know he was our driver? We never told them? It was odd, but we didn't ask what happened. We just kind of looked at each other and said, whatever, lets go back to town, because at that point we were getting pretty tired. Originally we did not have a plan for later in the day, but since we arrived back and had lunch around 2pm we thought we would rent an e-scooter again and just tool around to some temples aiming to watch the sunset. As we did we ran into our friends from Beijing and decided to go together to the sunset. Many of the temples in the area were off limits to people climbing them for pretty obvious reasons like instability of the temple and potential destruction from tourists. We did see some people breaking into areas they should not have been, but we avoided that and eventually we found a temple where people were clearly gathering  and watched from there, a very nice end to the day.

On the third day I got up early and had a run around the temples. It was nice and cool in the morning and the temples were beautiful in the morning light, but there was a lot of smoke from burning garbage and small cooking fires. Overall the air quality in Myanmar was pretty poor. We didn't know this for sure, as there are no official readings, but it was pretty clear by the thickness and smell of the air in Bagan, Inle, and Yangon. After my run we rented the scooter again and took the long route around to see some of the further temples that we hadn't before. It was a pretty leisurely day and we didn't get up to much. In the evening, Christmas Eve, we met up with our Beijing friends for dinner. It was quite a nice way to spend the holiday and our last night in Bagan. The next day, we were off to Yangon. 

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Aung Traditional Puppetry

We had read about this place on trip advisor, or something, and figured that there wasn't much to do in the town of Nyaungshwe at night, so we should come early to guy tickets and secure our seats. Cost was about 5 dollars each, which I felt like it was a bit much as I looked around the small simple theater room, but probably worth it.

When we arrived back at 6:50 pm, ten minutes before the show start, we peeked inside and saw an empty room of about twenty chairs. At first we thought that maybe we got the time wrong, but we were asked inside and sat down with some tea and candies. We were given a book where people had written comments and then the madam disappeared behind a curtain. We thought for sure that more people would be coming, but as we paged through the visitor's book we saw that many of the entries were spaced far apart in date and some of them even said, "I was the only one here". So it was for us too, we got a private show!
The puppet master came at 6:55 and he and madam prepared the stage. They used a recording to introduce each of 20 different puppets and dances. I thought the recording was very cozy as it sounded like it was on a vinyl record and the accent of the woman speaking was kind of like an old English accent. Imagine the old recordings of the Jungle Book maybe and you can get an idea.

After we had watched the show we talked a bit with the puppet master and he told us he was from a family of puppeteers. He also tried to sell us some of the puppets they had on display. It worked! I bought one of the medium sized puppets for about 10 dollars. What a deal really! I would have gotten a larger one for about 35 dollars, but I was thinking about room in my bag so I didn't.
After the show we walked down the dark lanes of Inle, smiling a bit at the whimsical show we just witnessed.