Anyway, prior to Bhavya and Jitesh’s wedding, a bunch of us old friends from London decided to do a side trip to Mamallapuram and Puducherry, aka Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry, respectively.
There’s not a lot to say about these two places actually… Mamallapuram was really a day trip, we stopped there for lunch and a few hours of sightseeing before heading to Pondy, where we stayed a couple nights. Pondy was nice for a walk around the French quarter, and it’s much nicer during the day than at night when the whole place seems deserted.
If you’re ever in Mamallapuram, I recommend the Blue Elephant restaurant (pretty good seafood) and the Shore Temple, especially in the late afternoon, when the sun is at its golden best. In Puducherry, I’d just walk around the French Quarter, in particular the boardwalk area and then lunch at the courtyard restaurant at Le Dupleix. Very chill.
Check out my Flickr page for more pics!]]>
And let’s be honest, my pictures do not do justice to what I’ve seen and experienced here so far. My videos wouldn’t. No, the only way to fully appreciate the grandeur and splendour of India in its entirety is to be here yourself.
There are many reasons you should come to India. Maybe you’re a yoga fanatic and you want to check out the real thing. Maybe you’re a humanitarian interested in following the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa. Maybe you’re just looking to get away for a while from everything you know. Those are all good reasons, but I can’t think of a better reason to come to India than the one I have: for a friend’s wedding.
Yup, being invited to a proper Indian wedding in India pretty much ranks up there as the best reason I’ve ever had to travel to some place new (right there with my friends Chris and Yvonne’s wedding in Siena in 2006). Not that I’ve ever really needed a reason to go travelling, but it makes it all the more worthwhile.
The bride, Bhavya, is a very good friend I met during my Masters degree study in London, and it’s through her that I know maybe 85% of my Indian friends. They’re a boisterous bunch (that’s putting it lightly), so I was really looking forward to this trip.
As a friend of the bride, I was invited to the small lunch and mehendi day where the girls (and some guys) got their henna tattoos done. There was the sangeeth, a night where both the groom’s side and the bride’s take turns to outdo each other in song and dance (and where I was expecting to be discovered as a new Bollywood star). And finally, there was the day of the wedding and reception, which I can only describe as an explosion of colour and culture.
I’m not sure what I was expecting before I came to India, but whatever they were, they’ve definitely been exceeded so far. In fact, I now need to find myself an Indian bride, just so I can have an Indian wedding too!
As per usual, you can find these and more pics on my Flickr page!]]>
I, however, as befits a career nomad, see the bright side of this city of lights… the gorgeous skyscrapers, the yummy food, the fantabulous MTR metro system, the old school double-decker trams, the cheap electronics… not to mention the loads of friends and family I have there.
Visitors to Hong Kong are invariably attracted to the multitude of shopping opportunities; I mean, there’s not a whole lot to do there otherwise. The history of the “fragrant harbour” starts as a sleepy fishing village before the Brits recognized the possibility of a deepwater port on the doorstep of the world’s most populous nation. Not a whole lot to do there, before or since, as the Chinese work ethic overruled almost any European recreational influence.
Still, there are a few superb sights of the city, though the loss of Kai Tak airport right in the middle of the harbour took away one of the best. The main picture up top is taken from the Victoria Peak observation station, with the breathtaking views, for my money, better at night than when the sun is out.
The other top attraction is the still-insanely-cheap Star Ferry, which dutifully transports people across Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong to Kowloon and back. With the introduction of more and more road tunnels and cross-harbour MTR lines, the only people who seem to take the Star Ferry nowadays are tourists or those with a lot of time on their hands. Which is too bad, because the views are amazing and the ride does evoke a certain romanticism I associate with old school Hong Kong movies.
Luckily for me, Hong Kong will most certainly be a stop on the Steven Wong’s Life Express. Armed with my Hong Kong ID card, I can live and work in the island territory just as easily as I do in my homeland of Canada. Finally, a place where I don’t need to jump through insane work visa hoops! Sweet!]]>
I’m starting with Madrid, easily one of my favourite cities in the world, and not just because I’m a Real Madrid fan. No, it’s simply a wonderful city, with grand avenues, fantastic museums and that lovely Spanish culture. I can live almost anywhere in the world, but Madrid easily makes my top 5 list of places I hope to call home at some point in my life.
Part of it is the food, which I adore. The best wedding food I ever had was at a Spanish wedding, and trust me, it was shockingly good. There’s tapas and paella and chorizo and sangria and patatas bravas… I’ve always said that jamon iberico de bellota (cured ham from acorn-fed pigs) is probably the best thing that could ever happen to a pig.
Part of it is just how well Madrid is as a city… sprawling parks, extensive subways, public plazas, gorgeous architecture… I mean, just look at the main picture up top, which is from the new terminal at Barajas airport. Beautiful. I’ve been to a lot of nice, posh, modern terminals, like at Chek Lap Kok in Hong Kong, or Beijing’s new Terminal 3, or Heathrow’s Terminal 5 in London… but I think I like Madrid the best. Ok, I’m gushing over airport architecture. Uber-lame.
Part of it’s the lifestyle. The Spanish are the only ones who seem to thrive on the same late-night schedule that I like to follow. Dinner at 10, drinks at 12, club at 2, home at 6… always good times! And didn’t they invent the siesta, that midday nap-time? Genius.
I don’t know… there’s just a certain je ne sais quoi about Madrid – or should that be no lo se que? Like its little buddy Barcelona, the quality of life is awesome, and there’s just something about the place that keeps drawing me back there.
If there’s one thing missing, it’s the water. The beach, the ocean, the sea, a lake, even a river… I do admit that I miss that here in Beijing, there isn’t even a decent river around here, and I don’t think Madrid is much better. But Madrid has so much of everything else, I can overlook that. Me gusta mucho Madrid.
BTW, all the pics here I’ve cleaned up and resized to be wallpapers on my laptop, so if you like one (or more) and want the big versions, lemme know.
Of course there will be a few friends you meet along the way who you keep for life, and obviously your family is your family, regardless of where you are in the world. But by and large, the people career nomads regularly hang out with at any given point in time aren’t going to be the same people they hang out with the year or two after.
Now, I generally don’t have problems making friends (witness the 1366 friends on Facebook), so it’s not something that’s really weighed on my mind before. I understand this is what happens when you decide to move away from the people who you spend most of your time with. It’s not usually something you want to happen, but it just does.
You move to a new place, make some new friends, then you move on to the next place, while hanging on to a few of those friends who really mean something to you. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s the nature of the beast.
But this year, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve made it more and more difficult for myself to have really good, close friends. I know this comes with the territory, but I think I’ve compounded the problem with two main factors – the time between moves and the places I’ve chosen to live in.
The first one is easy to figure out – I’m spending less time in each new place I move to, and thus not able to keep the same friends and develop those friendships over a longer period of time. The solution is equally obvious – stay longer in each place! Sometimes that’s not under your control (work contract length, work visa validity, etc.), but it’s something you can work on.
The second is a bit tougher… because you don’t know what a place is like until you get there. You don’t know how the people are, or what they’re like, or even who you’ll meet.
Aachen, Germany? Really nice, quaint little town, full of families and university students. Great place to live and to settle down. The friends I made there tended to be 50/50 Germans and expatriates, and many of them still live and work there, or at least not too far away in Eindhoven, Cologne or Düsseldorf.
London? Fantastic city that attracts visitors and expats from all around the world… especially Australians, who seem to make living in London a rite of passage. The friends I made there were mostly expats with a few Brits sprinkled in, but I hardly met anyone who was a real Londoner. Still, a lot of people there like it so much, they do end up staying for a while.
Beijing? Well, maybe it’s what I do and where I go, but the friends I have here are almost 100% international people. And worse yet, none are here for the long-term. Everyone seems to be coming here for really short periods of time, just to learn Mandarin. 3 months, 6 months, maybe even a year. But I can count on one hand the number of friends I’ve had here for more than a year. Doesn’t make birthdays or holidays any easier.
And that’s the bottom line really. Maybe I’ve just put myself in a situation where I’m constantly having to make new friends. But I can’t see a solution to this except one that caused it in the first place – another move!]]>
Anyway, I was in London for my dear friend Katy’s wedding back in May, and I saw this sign as I was walking to the ceremony venue from the nearest Tube station. I actually laughed out loud (not like the typical usage of the term these days) because, well, the euphemism is quite apparent.
Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words.]]>
In my case, after finishing my undergrad in Canada, I moved to Germany for work, then London for a grad degree, Kenya for my dissertation research, back to London for more work, and now I’m here in Beijing. All the while, I’ve tried to take the opportunity to travel around those places while I’m there, because, well, why not? What’s the point of going somewhere you’ve already been, unless you’re visiting someone?
So career nomads are avid travellers; that’s usually the reason why they never settle down in any one place. And as cool as all this might sound, one difficult thing about being a career nomad is reaching the point where you finally call a new place “home”.
For some people, it’s around the time they meet a certain number of friends. For others, it’s when the local shopkeeper remembers your name. For others still, it’s when that certain someone is with them. And sometimes, if you’re unfortunate, you may never really get to that point.
But there are usually signs that you’ve adapted to the new place, things that might make you suddenly realize that you’ve established yourself there. Here, in reverse order, are my top 5 indications that your new home is actually indeed your new “home”:
5. Changing your home airport – Most travel and flight websites require you to fill out a profile which contains travel-related data, such as whether you prefer a window or aisle seat. One specific item usually found is the ability to designate a “home” airport.
I have a friend who somehow gets really attached to his home airport. It’s a source of comfort for him, so it usually takes him a little while to change his profile, to acknowledge that he finally feels at home.
4. You know all the shortcuts – Career nomads usually have no problem moving but we’re still creatures of habit and comfort. When you first move, you might have a map of the new place but that’s no substitute for the familiarity that experience brings, the knowledge that you know your way around your neighbourhood.
The first habit to form is the route you take to go to school or work. It’s usually the most logical way to go, but frequently it’s not the shortest or the fastest way. I start feeling at “home” when I know the best way to get home, no matter the time or traffic conditions.
3. Cheering for a local sports team – The ties that bind you to your hometown are strong, especially when it comes to sports. To this day, I still cheer for all my hometown teams, though it’s been over 14 years since I’ve lived there.
However, you’re bound to meet local people wherever you move, and they’ll be fans of a local team, and you might find yourself cheering for the same local team, especially if it’s a different league or even a different sport than the teams you support. That’s a pretty good indication you’re “home”.
2. You start to hate tourists – When you first arrive in a new place, you’re bound to be like any other tourist: you go out to the same places, see the same sights, do the same things. After all, you’re trying to get to know the place.
But at some point you will become familiar enough with the area that you start wondering why tourists don’t obey the local customs and traditions. You start cursing under your breath about all the tourists who get in your way. You get frustrated at how tourists seems to take up extra space with their big bags and cameras and unfolded maps. You know what that means, don’t you? You’re “home”.
1. You miss it when you’re gone – Now this usually comes about with a jarring realization that you do indeed consider your new place your home. It’s usually something you’d think quite insignificant that makes you realize it. Maybe it’s the smell of fresh bread from the bakery on the corner or the smile from the cute barista at the coffee shop near your work.
It happened to me recently after spending 5 months in Beijing before going to Hong Kong for a couple weeks to visit relatives and friends. Midway through the second week, I was already starting to miss the sights, sounds, and yes, even smells of Beijing. I didn’t think I would, but I did.
I couldn’t wait to get home.]]>
If your palette runs a little less adventurous than others, then you probably haven’t sampled in what many Chinese consider to be delicacies: shark’s fin, abalone, chicken feet, jellyfish, beef tendon… you get the idea. However, chances are you may have eaten, or at least seen, Beijing’s eponymous local dish: kao ya, or roast duck. You might know it as Peking duck, after the capital’s old spelling.
If you’re thinking of your local Chinatown and the roast ducks that are hanging in the storefront window… think again. That’s Cantonese-style roast duck, which tastes different to and is eaten differently from Beijing-style roast duck. Even Cantonese speakers call it Beijing duck, to distinguish between the two.
Beijing duck is cooked to order, features much crispier skin, and is usually eaten wrapped in a thin pancake with spring onions and hoisin sauce. Most decent restaurants here in Beijing will serve kao ya, but there are a few which are really quite famous for specializing in the dish.
The granddaddy of all kao ya restaurants is Quanjude, which brought this former imperial dish to the masses starting in 1864. Its reputation was cemented through loyal patronage by the Chinese government, and has even hosted state dinners with foreign VIPs. The picture below illustrates the Quanjude style of arranging the slices of meat.
All that said, I felt a little let down by Quanjude. It’s not that it was bad… it just wasn’t mindblowingly good, which is what I was expecting. It was nevertheless a good meal, and really, when you’re eating Beijing duck with friends, that’s never a bad thing, right?
More recently, I went to Duck de Chine, which has made a name for itself by presenting Beijing duck in a new manner. I think they called it, “a French take on a Chinese classic”, though maybe that’s what I inferred from the name. In any case, the restaurant was very modern and chic, and the service was quite attentive.
The soup made from the rest of the duck we didn’t eat was excellent, and the waitress prepared for each of us an interesting combination of hoisin sauce, sesame sauce and roasted garlic. But the name of the game is the duck. And again, I was a little disappointed by the fare.
I’m not sure if it’s because I have ridiculous expectations, but if you’re paying over twice as much for one duck as you could get in a local restaurant, shouldn’t the duck be at least noticeably better? Methinks yes.
Now, lest you think that Beijing is a culinary black hole, let me relieve your burden by saying that there are many very good restaurants and even a few excellent ones. So in my opinion, if you want Beijing duck, if you want the best kao ya this city, nay, this country has to offer, then you have to go to Da Dong.
The duck, both times i went, was superb. Very light and cripsy skin, with only a hint of the fattiness you’d expect. Eight different condiments to go with the duck, including sugar, which tastes much nicer than you’d think. You’ve even got a very light and tasty pastry puff to try, which I actually prefer to the pancake. Throw in the excellent non-duck dishes and you’ve got yourself a very classy meal (exhibit A: the main picture at the top is from Da Dong).
What could possibly make such an experience better? Go to the Da Dong branch in Dongsishitiao. The two-storey restaurant there matches Duck de Chine for chicness, but you have the option to choose your own duck as they’re roasting. That means you get to go into the kitchen and check out the massive ovens where they hang the ducks to cook. Awesome.
Tune in again next time where I’ll likely be posting from Hong Kong about Chinese New Year! Gong Xi Fa Cai! Gung Hey Fat Choy!]]>
But aside from all the theatrics and digital fireworks, the one thing that kept drawing my attention was the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube. These two magnificent buildings were the highlight of the ceremonies for me (and really, only overshadowed by Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt in the whole thing).
Close friends know that I’m a massive fan of architecture, and coming from that perspective, how can you not admire them? I’ve been to a few of the biggest and best sports stadiums in the world, like Wembley Stadium and Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in London, Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, and um, the SkyDome in Toronto, and the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube are right up there.
Of course, it is now a year and a half after their introduction to the world stage, and I can tell you the Water Cube has seen better days. Maybe it’s the winter sun, or the snow on the ground now, or maybe it’s just the harsh conditions of Beijing, but it only looks a shadow of its former self. The bubble-like panels are dull and lifeless, though I haven’t been to the Olympic plaza at night, so I’m not sure if it still lights up all pretty and wonderful.
The Bird’s Nest, on the other hand, has weathered quite nicely. The geometric wackiness of the nest still leaves me in awe, and a recent tour of the stadium has shown that it must’ve been quite nice to have attended the Games. Seats are generally comfy, lots of legroom, great sightlines… I think the one deficiency I noticed was the general crappiness of the refreshment counters, but maybe they were different during the Games.
I did wonder about what they were doing with the stadium nowadays since China isn’t known for its professional sports (aside from maybe ping pong?). With the freakishly cold temperatures and more snow than they know what to do with, the powers that be decided to put in a winter wonderland thing, complete with an obstacle course, inner tube sleds and a stage for live performances. Only in China.
I’m not the only one who really enjoyed the visit to the Bird’s Nest though. Lots of people were really happy to be there, literally jumping for joy, while others liked to strike the Usain Bolt pose. You knew that would happen.
As always, check out these and other pictures on flickr.
Also, a programming note… Congrats to the postcard winners from my last post. Thanks for commenting and proving to me that you people need incentives to do something like that, hahaha. Unfortunately for my friend Nathalie, who has deemed herself too busy to reply back to my email asking for her postal address, I’m now making her postcard available again.
Let’s see, how can we make this interesting… The postcard will go to the first person to correctly name all the languages (and major dialects) that I can speak with at least a beginner’s level of competence. Previous winners not eligible, except Nathalie whom I will allow to attempt to redeem herself. Have a go in the comments.]]>
So if you’ve known me for any stretch of time, you know that I may or may not have a skill for falling asleep just about anywhere. I’m not narcoleptic, but I can succumb really easily to the urge to sleep, especially after eating and i’m warm and cozy. But my friends know that I’m capable of dozing off in the most random of places: cars, subways, trains, planes, restaurants, bars, clubs, in class, at work, watching TV, in front of the computer… zzz… even while you’re talking to me.
One of the interesting things about Beijing is that there are many apartment complexes. It’s not just one or two buildings. I’m talking about collections of up to 20 buildings that all look similar and offer similar accommodations. Usually these complexes will offer 24-hour security, which seems great at first, but once you understand the reality, it’s not so great.
You see, I’m not the only one who can fall asleep in weird places. So while the guards seem to do stuff during the day like, um… stuff, they will inevitably catch a few Z’s in the wee hours of the night. I don’t begrudge them for doing so, particularly since a friend here said they can work 12-hour shifts, but 24-hour security isn’t really secure if they’re asleep, right? I’m not sayin’… I’m just sayin’.
Ok, so for you hardcore readers (or stalkers… hello!), here’s something for you. If you’re one of the first 10 people to comment on this post, with a real email address I can reach you at, I’ll send you a postcard from Beijing! How ’bout them apples!]]>