Reflections

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” ~Mark Twain

I’m still a little sad it’s over. A month ago I landed back in The States from my 30 day trek through parts of Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong. I’m back in New York now: back to the old rat race.

I wouldn’t necessarily call it culture shock, but whenever you come back from a long trip there’s going to be little realizations about where you call home – similar to living in New York City and then going back to Maine, or on a smaller scale, moving away for college, and coming back home. There’s a verbose linguist named Bruno della Chiesa who has a good saying, “A fish doesn’t know what water is.” Hence, when you leave the fishbowl, your world, your perspective, opens up.

The bulk of my time was spent in Japan, so a majority of those realizations and comparisons that pop up in my head stem from that experience, but of course also to a certain extent Korea and Hong Kong. I won’t go into a long list, but there’s a lot we could do better at here, from infrastructure projects, to public education, societal politeness, etc…

And that’s not to paint New York or America in a bad light. Returning from such a trip also broadens one’s perspectives on what they appreciate about their home. Our country certainly enjoys greater liberty. In New York, the diversity, depth, and concentration of culture is a special conglomeration and chaos that’s hard to find anywhere else Earth. The definition of beauty here is broader than anywhere else because of it. There is more at your fingertips here than anywhere else because of it: food, art, experiences, people, you name it.

I managed to unplug from American politics while traveling. Unfortunately political scandal and criminal justice failures in Trumpistan, U.S.A. have been running at full-tilt since I’ve gotten back, and it’s exhausting. To avoid a long political diatribe, I’ll repeat the Mark Twain quote I led off with, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

To me that quote embodies a large reason why I travel, but preceding even that is simply curiosity. What’s it like in a another part of the world? How do they live there, and perceive their world? There’s a fatality in closed-mindedness. An anti-intellectualism leading to rugged individualism has spread across a large swath of America and is doing real damage to the world we live in. Travel, can be part of the antidote. I’m hoping my generation, as it grows in this globalizing world, can do better.

I’ll leave it there. I’ve still got hundreds of photos to sort through, and a healthy portion of my brain filled with excellent memories. I’m feeling creatively rejuvenated now that I’ve gotten that out of my system too. There’s just one itch I need to scratch, and it’s, “When do I go back?”

There's a reason they call it the #goldenhour in film. New York and a rainy, hazy sunset. #nofilter

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Final Hours in Hong Kong

I’ve mentioned before that Hong Kong has a beautiful skyline. It wasn’t until the 90s and 2000s when most of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers rose high above its land. One of the best ways to appreciate the architectural jungle of steel, cement, and glass is from the Star Ferry that runs between Kowloon and Hong Kong. The historic ferry dates back to the late 1800s and is a classic way to travel between the two islands.

When the sun sets, the cityscape transforms into a galaxy of lights. Speaking of which, nightly, there is a light show involving more than 40 buildings on the harbor called, “A Symphony of Lights.” Allegedly it’s the world’s largest permanent light and sound show.

I’ll be honest, the show isn’t terribly spectacular. The music it’s set to sounds like cheap midi ripoffs from video games, and the light show itself will probably leave you murmuring a resounding, “Well, that was nice.”

The cityscape lit up at night, looking at Hong Kong Island from the edge of Kowloon, is beautiful, not to mention you’ll see the Star Ferry, and probably a couple junks lit with colorful, ambient light. A gaudy light show is unnecessary, and doesn’t improve it.

I had a final dim sum dinner with a couple of people from the hostel I had only just met on my way to the light show: Taewoon and Sherri. They were both nurses coincidentally. Taewoon had served his 21 months with the Korean military and worked largely with troubled psych patients after getting his nurseing degree after that. Sherri had recently quit her precious position and was on her way to a development summit in Kuala Lumpur. Nurses are always in demand.

I had thought about going to Ozone afterwards, The world’s highest bar, located in Hong Kong’s tallest building. But I still needed to pack for my flight the next morning, which had been bumped up an hour in time, and so I’d get precious little sleep. I opted to pass on it. It’s always good to leave something for next time. I also felt a tickle in my throat. One of the guys in my hostel room had been sick and coughing in the night. I hoped he hadn’t infected me.

I woke bright and early the next day to quietly exit the hostel and make the hour long trek to the airport. Now that it was daytime I was able to really appreciate the surrounding beauty of Hong Kong’s airport. Surrounded by tall, lush, green mountains the modern structure was spacious and easy to navigate.

I gotta say, in relation to New York, the airports and public transportation were far better in Japan, Hong Kong, and even Korea. New York’s transit systems are old, and run 24 hours a day, but in terms of reliability, facilities, customer service, and ease of use, it has some major upgrading to do.

As we taxied on the runway and took off, I felt a wistfulness over me. My journey was coming to an end. I knew it was time to get back to business in New York, but one month had gone by too fast and part of me wanted to keep going. I had a layover in Japan. I could jump ship if I really wanted to, but no, it was time. I can go back to New York and plan the next one better than jumping into it on the fly and improvising.

I took a deep breath, sighed it out as the plane rose above the clouds and Hong Kong disappeared below, and settled in for the long, long journey home.

So long Hong Kong

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Delicacies and the Return of Helen from Canada

I took a “Hong Kong Delicacy” food tour, also offered by Alla, though this was a paid tour, not a free one. We sampled a large amount of various foods that Alla said locals eat regularly.

Every culture back in the day basically had their way to “use the whole buffalo” so to speak. Offal, tripe, blood, bone marrow, tongue, eyes, brains, etc… a lot of it used to be the cheap leftover portions from the butcher or fishmonger and the poor would buy up the unwanted cuts and innards, figure out how to best prepare it, and incorporate it into their diet for some necessary protein and nutrients. As certain places become more affluent, the cheap meat falls out of common use in favor of the better cuts, but then in many places chefs bring it back as a “delicacy,” painstakingly prepared, and inflated in price.

This was a mix of all that, in addition to a bit of Chinese medicine. Which, on another note, I think there’s a good chunk of Chinese medicine that was created as a bullshit way to sell odd leftover bits or typically worthless animal parts to suckers, and when people buy into it, the results can be catastrophic for certain species and food webs. But we won’t get into that here.

Here’s the night’s menu:

  • Spicy pig flesh -cooked down to basically collagen, it looks almost like beehive sans honey
  • Congealed pig’s blood – little brackish cubes with a gelatin texture
  • Cow lung – spongy, a pleasant texture and flavor not unlike liver, but subtler
  • Cow stomach – Surprisingly tasty and tender. Little fibrils coming off it almost make it look like a type of seaweed
  • Cow liver – Not uncommon in the U.S. and tastes like liver does
  • Cow intestine – Better than the pig intestine I had in Korea
  • Deep fried stinky tofu – Its cooking is now regulated by the government because the process is so stinky. Spongier than normal tofu, I’ve had it before, but not prepared this way. Some people hate it, but I found the crispy outside, spongy inside, and overall flavor enjoyable. Dip in mustard and hot sauce.
  • Duck tongue – Duck tongue has a bone in it! Otherwise, tastes like duck in a tasty sauce
  • Pig’s ear – Tender boiled flesh slides off a tougher cartilage in the center. Not my favorite
  • Goose – Delicious. Cooked in very old, concentrated broth
  • Fish air bladder – Had one that was kind of tough, but another that was quite good. Typically
  • Century egg – Aged for weeks or months in alkali liquid that cooks the egg without heat. It also turns it black
  • Deep fried frog – Sort of like bonier chicken nuggets
  • Fake shark fin soup – Slimy and dark colored, comprised mostly of mushroom shreddings and glass noodles
  • Doggie soup – No dogs were harmed in the making of this soup. A light colored seafood broth with udon noodles
  • Snake soup – Very similar to fake shark fin soup, only with five types of snake meat added, venomous snakes
  • Snake penis wine – The dried penises of some unlucky male snakes are added during the aging process. Distilled or fortified, it tastes closer to whiskey than wine, and is about 25-30% abv. Supposedly will give men extra nice orgasms
  • Herbal tea – A black herbal tea, I forget the main ingredients. It was a “cool” food to balance the “hot” we had earlier. According to Chinese medicine you need a balance of cool and hot characteristic foods else you’ll be afflicted from some sort of ailment from acne to ulcers
  • Herbal tea & turtle shell gelatin & coconut milk – I felt kind of bad, but the turtles were farmed. Really tasty! The coconut milk was very sweet. The gelatin part was basically the herbal tea from before, but boiled with a turtle shell in it
  • Bird spit – Yes, really bird spit. It comes from a specific type of swallow with a crazy amount of collagen in its spit, which it uses to make nests. The nests are harvested and served as an expensive delicacy, usually for desert. It breaks down into a slippery liquid that feels like it has jello bits in it
  • Frog vagina with pickled plum – Similar texture to bird spit, but larger. The plums weren’t that great, but the rest was. This and the bird spit are supposed to be great for women’s skin

I actually liked it all! The pig ears were perhaps my least favorite, a tender meat, surrounds a tough, cartilage, the combination of which is a little underwhelming. But the rest was all enjoyable to try, and some I’d definitely order more.

But Helen, oh Helen. She had been on my two walking tours, and talked incessantly when I was trying to listen, which got on my nerves. Her comments during the Kowloon tour seemed very ethnocentric and closed-minded, but the annoying thing on this tour is that she commented how happy she was to be trying everything, but these delicacies were just too delicate for her. The joke got old about the 5th time. I think she only enjoyed the goose and one or two other things. She looked pretty miserable. I had also caught a subway with her during a particularly busy time on it. She barged in before others could get off. Inside she told me about how she knew how to ride a subway when it was busy. I held my tongue, because In absolutely loathe people in New York who don’t step aside to let others off. Anyways, good riddance Helen. I shouldn’t be so hard on you because you seem like a perfectly polite Canadian, but man, you got on my nerves.

After the food tour I checked out the Temple Street Night Market. Not a whole lot of interest to see, but if you need some cheap purses, usb cords, other odds and ends or kitchy things, it would be a good place to haggle for it.

Meh-cao

I spent about a day in Macao. I’ll keep it brief: it wasn’t worth it.

Macao is an odd place. Originally a Portuguese colony about an hour ferry ride from Kowloon, it never reached the renown (or economic success) of Hong Kong. These days, and I guess historically, it mostly consists of huge casinos, an old town area, a few beaches, and some more generic districts that look similar to smaller neighborhoods in Hong Kong.

The interesting part of Macao is that the Portuguese influence is strong. Walking down some streets in the old town especially you could swear your were in Lisbon or Porto from the classic looking pastel, Portuguese architecture. Portuguese food is popular, and the population is still likely to speak it (most signs are in Chinese, English, and Portuguese too).

But then, there’s not much else to see. Perhaps it would be a fun vacation if you planned to hit up the beaches, take a leisurely stroll through the lovely old town, and party at some of the opulent casino resorts, but for me, it felt like a wasted day. Oh well, one wasted day in the whole trip isn’t much, but I wish I had spent it in or around Hong Kong instead.

Oppa Gangam Style

For most of the world, an indelible image of Seoul was probably created by Psy when he released his song Gangnam Style. I thought I’d check out the district.

And you know what? It’s a little overrated. Gangnam is basically a big, upscale neighborhood where you can see fancy offices and go shopping at Louis Vuitton. Granted, it’s a huge ward so I didn’t cover it all, but there are local markets as well, a temple (Still tired of temples), and Samsung D’light.

Samsung D’light is where you can go look at and use the latest Samsung technology, some of which isn’t available to the public yet. On a couple floors of their store they have some interactive exhibits, and some VR exhibits you can try. I rode a VR roller coaster, played around with some gadgets, and called it good. They also had an Olympic torch collection.

On my way back I checked out a market. Koreans seem to love socks with fun designs. They might look like cartoon characters, or have some fun design on them, or have some special tailoring done to make it look like a little cat or video game character might be hopping out of your sock. I picked up a few as souvenirs.

The Hongdae area around where I was staying is near Hongik University so it’s got some cool shops and galleries to check out, but one thing I particularly liked, and that wasn’t on the map, was a brand new park they had built where some trolley tracks used to run. The sunken park was a little valley of green and quiet among the surrounding neighborhood, and was dedicated to literature. Little cubes with books you could take out and read on the benches peppered a stretch, as well as what looked like some art studios. Along the edges were small cafes, restaurants, and convenience stores. Just another one of Seoul’s huge amount of urban re-engineering projects it looks like they’ve undertaken recently. It’s crazy how much construction there seems to be happening, or looks like it was completely within the past year.

Strange taxis in this neck of the woods.

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Hong Kong Round Two

My next day in Hong Kong I decided to check out the famous view of the city from Victoria Peak, one of the highest points on the lush, green mountains overlooking the Hong Kong skyline.

It seems like most cities have their version of, “Let’s climb to a high place and look at the skyline.” I’ve gotten tired of things like that to be honest. However, the view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak is worth it. There’s also a historic tram that will take you up there. Or you can take a hiking route and drench yourself in sweat due to the humidity. I saw a couple brave women who had finished the Old Stone Road hike, the steeper of the two options, and it looked like they had taken showers. 100% humidity will do that to you. At least it was a mostly overcast, cloudy day.

I’m glad the sun wasn’t beating down on me, and the clouds were a picturesque touch. There was a risk of no view because of them, but all of us up there got lucky with the weather. Someone told me the humidity and heat started only a few days ago. Not lucky in that regard.

There’s also a lot more to do up there than take in the pretty view, and take pretty pictures. There’s an old estate and garden you can hike up to, a shopping center, restaurants; they’ve built up the peak to be much more of a destination than a high view of the city.

After returning from the peak I walked around the old town area of Hong Kong. I checked out a small, famous Taoist temple that was thick with incense smoke, and wandered along “Antique Street.” I didn’t buy anything though, as most of what I liked looked bulky or heavy, and I had some carry-on requirements to meet on my upcoming flight. It’s hard to tell what might actually be antique, and what’s a reproduction too.

I headed back to the hostel to rest and refresh myself with a shower before heading out again. I was meeting a couple friends, Alvin and Jenny, whom I knew through Global Citizen’s Initiative at the Dragon Boat Festival on the Hong Kong waterfront.

By the time we arrived the Dragon Boat races had just ended, but I had caught a few earlier in the day. It was Sunday and this was the last hurrah for the festival as well. On our way in we were handed a number of free beer coupons from people leaving (score!). San Miguel beer was a sponsor, so Hispanic beer in Hong Kong was the drink of the evening! It tasted great on such a hot, humid day. There was a slight breeze from the waterfront as well.

The dragon boats themselves are like long canoes, manned by 22 people: 20 rowers, a drummer in the front, and one on the rudder in the back. The gunshot sounds, and 4 boats take off in a sprint along the harbor, paddling their guts out. The paddles are like canoe paddles as well, not like the oars on a scull.

The rowing teams being done, filtered into the festival itself and grabbed some pitchers of beer themselves. There were food trucks, some entertainment tents (saw a couple creepy clowns for the kids), and a main stage for music performances that started a couple hours we arrived and the sun set.

We enjoyed the atmosphere and caught up on our lives, then decided it was time for some dinner. I had heard about Tim Ho Wan, a nearby dim sum place, and cheapest Michelin Star rated restaurant in the world. They had never been, so I thought it would be a good place to go.

The line was big, but went quickly. They hustle people in and out fast. You fill out your menu in line, and food hits your table shortly after you sit down. I let Jenny and Alvin take care of most of the ordering. I think we had at least 12 small plates of various kinds of dumplings, rolls, and other Chinese dim sum specialties. I’ve never been a big fan of chicken feet, but the ones I had there were very good (though Alvin said he’s had better haha). Overall it was a fantastic meal. We had gotten there close to closing time, and ended up being the last to leave the restaurant. They supposedly closed at 9:00, but we found out by that it means they really close down, as in the last orders are probably taken no later than 8:15, and they start cleaning up shortly after. One Chinese server came around to take our empty plates and told us “to step up our game,” as Alvin interpreted it. We ate a lot, and managed to finish our plates. Absolutely stuffed, we said goodbye, and parted ways. It was great to see them again.

An Ode to Onigiri

Onigiri is a marvelous, on-the-go food. It’s a thick triangle of rice, filled with fish or meat, and/or pickled vegetables, and wrapped in seaweed. Healthy, filling, it’s the perfect food to stash in your bag when you’re trying to see and do to much in Japan and don’t have time for breakfast or lunch. It’ll give you some good calories while hiking. It’s delicious. And it’s cheap. What more could you ask for? It’s been a staple of mine this trip and nearly everyday I’ve found myself grabbing at least one from a convenience store as a snack. I’m going to miss them when I’m back in the states.

However, not quite as much as I’ll miss the matcha flavored everything.