Monday, July 18, 2011

Chengdon'ts in Chengdu!

May's trip was particularly special because one of my best friends, Lauren, accompanied me. Lauren was supposed to visit in June, and we had planned to travel to Thailand. Then I was told I would be summering in Malaysia, so those plans went out the window. Lauren was able to change her ticket and come to Hong Kong earlier. We decided that, with less time, we would forgo Thailand and see the giant panda in Chengdu, China. A few people had said that Chengdu is hard to get around without speaking Mandarin, but I ignored them. I knew people who had been there who did not speak Mandarin and they enjoyed it. Plus, I wanted to hold a baby panda. Language was not going to stop me.

The day before I left a man at the office asked me how I was going to communicate with the people. I told him that it would not be a problem. He chuckled and said OK. Another lady did not say anything about the language barrier but made a face of disgust when I told her that I was going to Chengdu. She informed me that "Pandas' butts are dirty." This revelation forced me to yet again change my plans, as I no longer wanted to play with panda butts.

After a great few days in Hong Kong, Lauren and I took off for Chengdu. I was looking forward to a relaxing trip. I thought we would stay at a nice hotel, escape the heat of Hong Kong, see some pandas and enjoy the city.

The man sitting next to me on the plane asked me if I spoke Mandarin. When I told him no, he asked how was I going to communicate with the people. After being asked this question for the second time, I began to get a little nervous. The man offered to help us get a cab upon landing, and I immediately started thinking of the movie Taken. But my gut told me he was not in an Albanian gang (and I am alive to write about it). He told the cab driver where we were going and did not come back to kidnap and force us into prostitution.

Chengdu was gloomy, gray and overcast. I was surprised that at our hotel nobody spoke English. Getting information out of the concierge took forever because of our lack of Mandarin and her lack of English. Somehow we managed to get some recommendations for places to eat and things to do. The next few days were not necessarily relaxing, but they were fun. We ate Sichuan food, explored, shopped and experienced the joy of squat style toilets sans toilet paper. (Always wipe with your left hand!) Meals were always a bit stressful because we did not know what we were eating. We lucked out in one restaurant that had an English menu. Another restaurant had communal seating, and the other people at our table happened to be visiting from Hong Kong and helped us order. Oddly enough, the place where we had the most trouble was my favorite restaurant, Pizza Hut. I thought Lauren was going to strangle out waitress.

As usual I did make a purchase on this trip! It might be the best purchase of the year – a panda costume, complete with paws.

The highlight of the trip was definitely the Chengdu Panda Base. Actually, following some advice, we arrived when it opened. It was not yet crowded, and the pandas were out for feeding time and not hiding from the public. After watching some pandas chow down on breakfast, we dashed to the nursery to hold a baby panda. While we waited in the short line, we paid the fee, which goes to panda conservation, and put on scrubs: a surgical smock, plastic covers for your feet and plastic gloves. I was a bit disappointed about the gloves because I wanted to feel the panda's fur. The panda was so calm. He did not seem to mind being held. He was gnawing on a stalk of bamboo dipped in honey so that might be the reason for his mellow disposition. I asked five times what his name was but could not understand the reply of the panda keeper. So I decided to call him Kim Jong Panda. I think it goes well with Chairman Meow. Lauren wanted to steal Kim Jong Panda, but he was too large to fit in her purse. We each got to hold Kim Jong Panda for three minutes and take some photos with him, and then we explored the rest of the grounds. I am happy to report that the Kim Jong Panda's butt was not dirty. No skid marks on my surgical smock.
The Panda Base is well manicured and an enjoyable place to walk. There are peacocks wandering the grounds and a few red panda enclosures. The red pandas cool but not as exciting as the giant pandas.

The remainder of the trip was spent with Winnie, the tour guide we hired to make things less of a struggle. Winnie took us to the giant Buddha, the wet market in Leshan, Mt. Emei and, finally, a performance of the famous Sichuan mask-changing opera, Bian Lian.

The Buddha is the largest carved stone Buddha in the world and a beautiful site. You can climb it, but we viewed it from a boat, avoided the crowds and got a better view of it. The only drawback of the boat is you are forced to wear a large life preserver.

It was fascinating to walk through the wet market and observe the local people buying their food.(. . .wet market = open food market). Definitely different than a trip to Farmer Jack. (My Michigan roots are showing. Farmer Jack was the first grocery store that popped into my head… and it doesn't even exist anymore).

Mt Emei is beautiful. There are Buddhist monasteries to tour, cable cars to ride, trails to hike and out-of-control animals to dodge. Beware, the mules and monkeys are dangerous. The mules trot up and down the mountain carrying supplies to the monasteries – and they will run you over. They are not on leads or harnesses. The monkeys are just plain scary. I have never seen Lauren scared of any animal. I have seen her feed diseased dogs in third-world countries. When a monkey approached she said, “Let's get the f*ck out of here!”

Bian Lian was touristy but really fun. The performers change masks right in front of your face in a millisecond. As we sat in our Morticia Adam's chair, we were served tea, and for a few RMBs more, you can also get a massage while you watch the opera. Lauren even agreed during this performance that Chengdu was better than Thailand. Of course, she had had a few lychee martinis in her.
I am glad that we went to Chengdu, and it is on my recommended list, but have a Mandarin speaker with you or hire a guide.

Ho Chi Minh is a son of a bitch!

For May's public holiday weekend, my travel partner, Cheryl, and I headed to Vietnam. I kept thinking about Full Metal Jacket on our flight. As a child I always remember the song the soldiers sing about Ho Chi Minh, thus the title of my blog. I kid you not, when deciding whether to go to HCMC or Hanoi, I decided on HCMC because of the song. Plus Hanoi makes me think of Jane Fonda, and who wants to be reminded of 80's aerobic workouts?

Again, flying out of Hong Kong, even on a holiday weekend, was painless. The train to the airport was a bit more crowded than usual, but I got through security and to my gate with no issues, and the plane took off right on time. Moreover, when we arrived in Vietnam, we landed, picked up our visas and were at our hotel in no time. If you go to Vietnam and opt to pick up your visa at the airport, I recommend having exact change in Vietnamese currency, the dong(!). The immigration officer attempted to rip me off by giving me nowhere near the correct change, but I demanded he give me the correct change and wouldn't leave until he did.

Besides my little tiff with Immigration, the rest of the trip was smooth sailing. We had no problem getting a cab to our hotel, and there was relatively no traffic. I recommend arriving late at night for this reason. We stayed at the Legend Hotel, which I was a bit nervous about, as I had convinced Cheryl we should save money and not stay at a Hilton or Sheraton. It turned out to be lovely. First off, it was in a good location. The buffet breakfast was wonderful, the pool and spa were top notch, and there was free wireless in the rooms. The lobby also has some small but nice shops. I particularly liked the jewelry shop, where I bought my mom a present… and, of course, I got one for myself as well.

Cheryl and I spent three full days were exploring the HCMC area.

Except for the fact that it was 110 degrees inside, the city market was fun. My favorite purchases were the colorful shoes I bought at US$4 a pair. I could have bargained more, but at a point, I felt bad. The pho place right across from the market, Pho 2000 (a fast-food joint not affiliated with the place of the same name in the USA), was surprisingly tasty.
If you are not into crowded hot markets where you have to bargain, there are great shops on Dong Khoi Street. The linen at Khaisilk is fantastic. I bought two linen dresses for a great price that I pair with the jade and pearls I bought in Shanghai. I call them my communist outfits. Also, Dong Khoi Street is manageable to walk down without getting hit by a moped. I have to admit crossing the street was a problem for me the first few days. Traffic laws seem to be more suggestions than rules. Drivers pay no attention to traffic lights, and the mopeds tend to drive on the sidewalks with no regard for pedestrians.

Outside of the city we visited the Cao Dai Temple, which was quite interesting. We got to observe a religious service and walk around the colorful temple. We also went to the fascinating Cu-Chi tunnels, which were used by the Viet Cong during the war. Despite the welcome video being extremely anti-American, the oppressively hot weather, and the mosquitoes, the tunnels are certainly worth a visit. We also rode through the country side, which was nice, despite the numerous dogs we saw in cages strapped to the back motorbikes on their way to be slaughtered.

Viet Kate

Speaking of motorbikes, I learned it is Vietnamese law that children under the age of seven are not to wear helmets. The rationale behind this law is that the helmets are too large for the children and often end up hurting them rather than protecting them. Has nobody thought to make smaller helmets there? (Isn’t that where most of our helmets come from?) Another law is that a Vietnamese woman is not allowed to check into a hotel with a man she is not married to. I understand that law, but there are quite a few ladies of the evening working the street. I'm not sure who they're fooling.

I could have stayed another few days in Vietnam. Despite the traffic and the heat, this American war machine gives Vietnam a thumbs-up! Next I will try Hanoi.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Happy Anniversary

Today is my grandparent's anniversary. This is usually a big occasion. In the past, there have been big parties and trips but this year the celebration was an intimate family dinner at their home. Everyone was asked to list three things they learned about marriage from Grandma and Grandpa. I decided to go with a top ten list and went with a general memories theme as I try to avoid speaking to my grandparents about marriage. Last time, that type of conversation resulted in my grandfather writing an internet dating profile for me. I was not able to make it back to the States to attend the dinner but I did send my list to be read. Since my grandparents are my most enthusiastic readers, I publish the below list. Also, my grandparents are kind of travel bloggers for their generation. If you don't believe me I have 4 published volumes sitting in my apartment in NYC.


10. Playing tennis with Grandma and Grandpa.

9. Horsebacking riding with Grandpa and Grandma teaching me how to walk in heels.

8. Boat rides and fishing off the dock with bamboo fishing poles. I guess you were getting me ready for Asia by exposing me to bamboo.

7. Slide shows of Grandma and Grandpa's trips.

6. Bingo at Knollwood.

5. Trips to Florida - inlcuding one where we were going to have dinner with Lorlei and Carl. Grandma and I went to wait in the car and sat there for about 20 minutes. Finally, Grandma went to see why Grandpa was taking so long. He was sitting inside reading. He did not know we had left the house. Somehow, we made it to dinner on time.

4. Grandma and Grandpa holding hands when they walk in NYC. (Ok, I will be honest, this is really Missy's memory. When I told her what we were doing for the anniversary, this was the first thing she said.

3. Making french toast and fresh squeezed orange juice.

2. Watching the last episode of Sex and the City. I would like to point out, not only did I watch the last episode of SATC with my Grandparents but also with Auntie Selma, Jack, Betsy, Hilary and the Groners.

1. Grandma and Grandpa coming to visit me at work. I think I am the only person in JP Morgan Private Bank history that was lucky enough to have their grandparents come visit them at work. People still ask how my grandparents are doing.

Happy Anniversary!

Shanghai Surprise

Do not worry this entry is not a review of the Madonna/Sean Penn flick nor am I going to discuss a tryst with a person who was a different gender than once believed… although that would really liven up this blog.

One of the best things about working in Hong Kong is the plethora of public holidays. From January to June, there is at least one long weekend each month. For April's holiday, I went to Shanghai with my fellow secondee, Cheryl. Air travel in Asia is such a pleasant experience compared to the US. Even on a holiday weekend, there are no lines at the Hong Kong airport. Also, the planes are boarded in 10 minutes or less, and once the plane leaves the gate, it actually takes off. I calculate I have spent at least six days of my life on the tarmac at JFK or LaGuardia. No more waiting for this gweilo!

Within an hour and a half of landing, we were checked into the Shanghai Hilton. I cannot say enough about the efficiency in Asia. The bullet train from the airport to the city is quick and easy. The subway, which we took from the bullet train to the hotel, was rather easy to figure out too, though I did need help using the ticket machine. Lucky for me, a deaf man, who I had an entire conversation with before realizing he was deaf, helped me.

My four days in Shanghai were spent sightseeing, shopping and eating, and visiting with my friend Emma, who had recently moved to Shanghai. Emma speaks fluent Mandarin and was a great tour guide.

The food in Shanghai was fabulous. I strongly recommend a restaurant called Lost Heaven. It was the first – and best so far – Yuannese food I have ever had. The Mexican food at Cantina Agave was quite tasty as was the Indian Food at Kaveen’s Indian Kitchen. Of course, we had the famous dumplings at Wang Jia Sha – and they were fantastic. Also, the lychee martini at the Peninsula Hotel rooftop bar is not to be missed.
We had so much fun shopping. We spent quite a lot of time at the Taobao Market on Nanjing Road. The market, also known as the fake market, has everything and anything: underwear, pearls, fake luxury goods, and all sorts of electronics, even the iPad2. It was a bit overwhelming at first because the vendors are quite aggressive. They are not afraid to pull your arm and drag you into their stall. The first thing we purchased was coats. Shanghai was quite cold compared to Hong Kong, so we each purchased a faux Moncler puffy jacket. Now, I can look like the Michelin Man in style! We bought a lot of odds and ends and had a ball doing it. The bargaining is the best part. Whatever price they seller names, you cut by about 40 to 60 percent.
We also shopped in the boutiques on Xinle Road and in Xintiandi, but thought they were overpriced so we did not buy anything.

The sightseeing was great. We saw the Bund, the Pearl Museum, People’s Square, and Shanghai Old Town. We went to a traditional tea ceremony and then to an authentic restaurant where nobody spoke English and there was no English menu. The food we were served was not bad but we left the restaurant still hungry and ate again two hours later.

We also got reflexology. Like everywhere in Asia, there are tons of reflexology places. Ending the day with a foot massage is always a good idea. There is a foot massage place right across the road from the Hilton. Go see number 23, or Mike as one of his clients calls him. My guess is this client is a Michael Jordan fan. One thing I should mention about traveling with Cheryl is that people talk to her. If there is a survey to be taken, Cheryl is always selected. If there is one person who knows English in an entire city, they will find Cheryl and talk to her. Mike was the only person in the foot massage place that knew English, and he did not stop talking to Cheryl the entire hour. He told us his entire life story about how he learned English in middle school and the only job he can have in China is a masseur because he is blind.

I loved Shanghai and I even got a little bit of work done thanks to Cheryl’s assistance.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Nothing to See in Seebu… Cebu

I am finally posting an entry on my first real Asian trip, to Cebu, Philippines. How did I end up in the Philippines? The idea of a nice resort, the Shangri-La, an advantageous price, sun, beach and a short two hour flight was too appealing. Also, when I went in March, Hong Kong was still a bit cold, and I was ending an exhausting week long off-site. So my colleague, friend and travel buddy Cheryl and I hopped an early morning flight to ensure that we got the most bang (i.e. sun) for our buck.

Day 1 was great. The flight was smooth, and the hotel picked us up and drove us directly to the resort. We hit the beach right away, swam in the wonderful pool, enjoyed two delicious meals and slept amazingly well in the large comfortable hotel beds.

On day 2, we decided to venture outside of the resort gates and explore the local area. I was hoping to try some local food as well. As soon as we walked outside the gates, there was a souvenir shop with some old swim goggles, t-shirts and, strangely, Envirosax. There was also some sort of massage place, a restaurant and a not very well stocked convenience store. We felt very local as we mixed and mingled with chickens, goats and random children roaming around the side of the road. The children asked me to buy them ice cream… and if I was gay. At that point we started walking back to the resort but not before I was able to see a man exposing himself.
Now a normal person would probably not leave the resort again, but we found out there was a shopping mall nearby and a hotel shuttle to take you there. We caught the shuttle and started making the hour long drive to the mall. As we were driving, Cheryl asked me if something had happened in the area around our hotel. It looked somewhat like the pictures of Haiti. Cheryl also remarked if I noticed that a lot of the men were not fully clothed. Unfortunately, I did. I understand it is hot and all, but it was really odd that men were not fully clothed. This was definitely not an if-you’ve-got-it-flaunt it situation by any means.

Upon arriving at the shopping mall, I immediately noticed there were separate men's and women's entrances, with security guards and metal detectors at each. I contemplated not going into the mall and staying on the shuttle, but it was driving another hour to a different shopping mall. I was not sure I wanted to see more of Cebu or go any further from the safety of the resort. However, we manned up and went in.

Inside the mall, it was surprisingly rather nice. There was a great duty-free store with a good selection of bags, a Haviana store, a Technomarine store, a Sanuk store, a health food grocery store, many jewelry stores and a Fit Flop store, to name just a few. There was also a pretty good selection of Western food, including KFC, Pizza Hut, and Auntie Anne's Pretzels. Immediately, we decided to eat with the locals… at Pizza Hut. So much for trying Filipino cuisine!

We ended up having a good time at the mall. We both bought Fit Flops. I know some of you think they are ugly, but I promise you they are the most comfortable flip flops ever. I also purchased a Bally bag and some tea -- another weird combo. The biggest disappointment was that Auntie Anne's only accepted cash. Neither of us wanted to withdraw Filipino currency.

The mall trip concluded with another ride through the beautiful Cebu scenery. The shantytowns and half-naked men urinating in the street were glorious. We also spotted the local public transportation of choice: the Jeepney. Jeepneys are open buses made from Jeeps left behind by the US Military in WWII. They are all colorfully decorated and very crowded -- so crowded that people ride on the roof.

The rest of the trip was thankfully uneventful. I am happy I went. I had a lot of laughs with Cheryl and came back to Hong Kong well rested and ready to work. However, I do not think I will be going back anytime soon.

P.S. As we were leaving, we regretted not using the Spa Services… until we returned to Hong Kong and learned that a coworker spent a week in the hospital after a visit. He was cut while receiving a pedicure with unclean tools and was admitted to a hospital upon returning home.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Fly fishing Argentina 2011

travel blog by Dave Marinaro

Saturday January 15th –

Rising at 3:30 AM, the two hour trip from Bonita Springs across alligator alley finds us arriving at Miami International Airport in time for our 13 hour flight to Buenos Aires (BA). Although difficult to find someone at MIA that spoke English, that is not a problem as we arrive in BA --- “welcome” says the passport control agent. Many in Argentina are proud that they speak English. Hmm!

Hotel Check-in

After a non-eventful hotel check-in, its time to go to one of my favorite BA charascarias -- enjoyed a small filet accompanied by a bottle of Alamos malbec. Pop that cholestoral pill because this was only the start of two weeks of hedonistic consumption of beef and wine. Fiera San Telmo and Porto Madiera

Sunday January 16th–

Sunday means the fair at San Telmo. One of the oldest sections of BA, San Telmo hosts a weekly event featuring antiques, street vendors and entertainers, including tango dancers, mimes, and puppeteers that capture your interest while you shop for unique treasures from the trip. Have lunch with friends at one of the many second floor eateries. Dinner at Marcello’s in Porto Madiera that evening --- this was the second finest Italian dinner that I have ever had (sorry Ricardo(our waiter), but our family Ravioli are a bit superior -- ask Kate how good they are), but I must admit, your recommendation of a Rutini malbec was a keeper.

Monday January 17th –

Shop til you drop!

There is probably nothing more amusing than watching a group of male travelers with 8 business hours to find a few special gifts. Unless they have a plan! Then it is an art form. Aided by our model and fashionista Betty Breedlove, we finished in less than five hours.

Then off to the Tango show -- the dancers and singers were amazing. Their hair slicked back with 10w40 vaseline, the male dancers tossed the women like weightless dolls. With impeccable timing, it was easy to see that this was an event that must been seen live -- an Argentine cultural treasure.

Tuesday Jan 18th through Friday Jan 21st -

Dave’ sTravel rule # 1 -- Never trust the airline and always check your departure time

Dave’s Travel rule #2 --- Arrive early

We almost missed our flight!

Saturday Jan 22nd

Travel Day

11:00 AM -- Time to leave for Challhuaquen and the next fishing stop. Fin del mundo -- at the end of the earth - literally to one of the final settlements before the end of the South American continent.

Our driver, Ricardo shows up on time with a brand new van and a greeting --- good morning he says! English! Oh yes, it is important that we learn for our visitors.

About two hours into the trip Recardo inquires if we would like to stop for lunch --- needless to say that we have not eaten enough on the trip so far --- so yes. We stop in Bolam, Argentina in the middle of the Andes -- a small hippyish town with a street fair in progress. We have a wonderful lunch --- a little Argentine beef, a little Altos las Hormigas malbec followed by local raspberries with cream, and it is time to visit the fair.

Did I mention that they have outstanding food and wine in Argentina? If you are keeping tabs, I will summarize the best wines of the trip later.

As we depart Bolam, Ricardo asks did you like the raspberries? --- why yes. Then we will stop at my uncle’s farm and get a few baskets to eat on the journey. Is life good or what?

Challhuaquen - fishing place in the native language

Sunday January 23th through Wednesday Jan 26th

After the four hour drive ----

It was like meeting old friends. Guillermo, our head guide, was joined by Pablo, his assistant, and others from the lodge who greeted us with friendly handshakes, bear hugs and words of recognition and remembrance. Dave Breedlove and I had been her three years ago.

Guillermo points to his Keenes (fly fishing shoes) that I gave him on our last visit and smiles to show that he remembered us.

After a quick tour of the facility for the newbies and an introduction to our rooms, we adjourn to the lounge for a greeting beverage of champaign with cassis. The staff is introduced --- our Chef Hermann, hostess Veronica, and manager Gustavo.

We then enjoyed four days and five nights of the greatest fly fishing, world class meals and bottomless glasses of Argentine malbec imaginable. The fish were bigger and stronger than I remembered, the weather was summer-like and the meals were unforgettable. Nightly, Hermann, would announce the evening’s dinner offering with a big smile in his best Spanglish before service began --- we understood; then after dinner he would come bursting through the swinging service door like a bull with two thumbs up inquiring, OK? The best!

Each catch took 20 to 30 minutes to land. Big, tricky, and strong, unlike anything we have caught elsewhere. Guillermo and Pablo took us to the best fishing holes on the river. And to my delight, the flies that I had tied worked like a charm! On the last day I caught 13 fish on one of my lures --- that was exciting.

It was interesting to note that about 2 1/2 years earlier this entire territory had over 20 inches of ash from a Chilean volcano that erupted less than 50 miles to the West. All evidence of the event was gone and the earth had fully recovered. Wow!

We hated to leave.

Aunt Pam asking for chocolate

Monday, May 2, 2011

Pescando en Patagonia

Dear readers,

I am not being held by the Chinese government with Ai Weiwei; I have just been busy with work.

It turns out that my company did not send me to Asia to party and sit on the beach. Major bummer.

Entries will be posted soon describing a few of my Asian adventures. Until then, please enjoy Pony and Trap's inaugural guest blogger.

¡Vamos a Argentina con mi tio, David!