Oct 04 2010

Shanghai Expo 2010

A perfect October morning in Shanghai. Against all advice I’m determine to see the city’s heavily advertised World Expo.  Advisers warn of lines unacceptable to the “western mind” coupled with lots of offensive smells, bumping, spitting… how bad can it be?

North gate #2; ticket lines are nearly nonexistent, especially surprising given this week’s National Day holiday bringing 8 million more souls to the city, many (most?) expected to visit The Expo.  I’m directed to walk the skyway to the cross-river tunnel bus, (the bulk of the expo pavilions are south of the river). The skyway’s a raised 50ft wide pedestrian walkway (which crisscross the expo) but appear sparsely used as the expo streets only have a few buses on them.  Ground transport (and potable water) are free, a nice perk, there are 5 sq km to cover.

Reaching the southern expo grounds, I discover an ocean of humanity.  Dress code is American teenager, regardless of age; T-shirt/jeans might to be required for admission… but then sunny 23C (Yank: 73F) encourages light, easy apparel. I’ve landed by the Iranian pavilion… line-less — I foolishly give it a miss (also North Korea’s) assuming I’ll be back once I’ve gained some expo legs.  I pop my “pavilion experience” cherry in the Uzbekistanian pavilion. A nice sampling of Uzbek wear, cultural artifacts and a healthy dose of propaganda (ref: Iran/NK regrets 🙂

I’ve googled “must see” pavilions, and I tag the nearest.  Most pavilions are sponsored by a specific country, but there’s a sampling of .org ones (think UN, global warming).  Saudi Arabia’s $200 million pavilion is a huge, floating silver bowl, engulfed in an equally impressive line… hundreds of feet wide, 10+ rows deep (more on this later), and doesn’t appear to be moving. At. All. Ouch, moving on.

I spot the pink “eared” Japan pavilion (sushi!), and see further acres of people.  Clearly, pavilion size determines line length. Must think smaller.

Much effort has gone in to the external design of these pavilions, and even if I can’t enter some, standing before these monstrous creations more than justifies modest entrance price.  I determine to see at least a few on my “special” list, and decide to head towards the China pavilion.  As I approach what I think is the line, a teenager intercepts me and asks if I have a “reservation” — No, no reservation, just a need to find the end.  “You must reservation for line” he informs me; oh dear, I’m definitely in over my head here.  “It’s Ok, I have one sell you!”  My scam feelers start to twitch, but more chatting (and a quick web check) confirm that yes, actually, the China pavilion requires a limited standing-in-line ticket which must be acquired first come in, yes, another line.

I also learn that the line I’m staring at is the line for the Saudi Arabian pavilion!  I’m a good half kilometer from the beginning, and yet it continues all the way back here.  “More than 8 hrs,” the early riser pipes up, “more today.”  I watch these poor souls move forward in a spurt, clawing at each other and the handrails, pushing a grandmother to the ground only to have her forced along with the throng; it’s loud, it’s high pressure, and looks dangerous.  “I have a ticket to bypass the Saudi line!”  $250.  I can see why.  It can’t be that good, can it? I pass, and opt for China. We negotiate $35 for it; I figure I’ll never get up at 3am for this, so what the hell.

The reservation works (I had doubts, but was willing to risk it), and I’m shuttled into a cattle run of perhaps 50 people, stacked next to parallel cattle runs, perhaps 20 in all… but they’re emptying routinely.  No problem.

20 minutes, and we’re in; not bad.  I’m scolded for taking pictures in front of the pavilion (not allowed here, only at the top of the escalator… huh??), we head up and then I get a view of “the rest of the line.”  An acre or more of people in the area below the pavilions floating inverted red pyramid… packed in tight, snaking back and forth for as far as I can see.  It takes a reservation to get into this?!?

I look around, not a non-Chinese face in sight.  This expo is definitely for the locals, not the tourists.  And they’re are perfectly comfortable in line.  Nobody’s on the cell phone, no one’s reading, listening to an ipod, or basically doing anything but standing in close quarters and perhaps chatting with their neighbors.  And do they ever stand close! I have my backpack with me, and the people behind me are pressing on it.  No personal space here. Less than none. I have an ipod, and lots of things to listen to; I feel self conscious with my ear buds, and wonder if it’s some kind of faux pas to sport them… I decide I don’t care, I’ll be here for hours.

There’s a limited stage show up towards the front of the crowd, a megaton displaying a guy dancing now, and girl playing the flute next.  Not high art, but it’s better than just crowd noise.  Most people watch.

2 1/2 hours, and we’re in a lift.  Another big room… we’re lining up again.  Good lord.  Doors open, people race into an auditorium and the lights dim long before people can sit.  Three screens light up with a video (subtitled in English, but below eye height) glorifying the migration of Chinese from the countryside to the cities, building the futuristic city, and enjoying the fruits of their creation.  Very patriotic.  People are beaming when the lights come up; there’s pride here, loads of it.

We round a corner to view a huge wall-height, animated scroll hundreds of feet long depicting a 12th century village brought to life.  It’s very well done, but most people race past it.  I’ve been in line for hours, so I linger and watch the small caricatures wander the streets of this ancient town.  I’m basically alone for a bit.

The following rooms have a new “super-rice” display and an odd room full of light poles (why?); next up, a spread of children’s drawings depicting China (I think). Many are really excellent, some so good I question if the 11 year old credited could have accomplished it… but then China has a billion people, there’s probably quite a few 11 year old Picassos.

We’re in line again! Most people seem to have run from the last line to this one, and I wonder if there’s some unofficial race to the exit.  This line feels like the Saudi looked… humanity pressed tight enough to constrict breathing. I wonder how often the compression results in injury. We’re loading onto a Disney fun ride styled tram next.  It paths us through a series of rooms whose purpose completely escape me, a room of bridges, one filled with stylized trees lit in rotating monochromatic colors, and so forth…

The final room is dedicated to green tech.  Walls display CO2 emissions for travel by car, train or air. Light bulb techs are compared, and so on.  There are promises that China will lead the world in green tech.  I hope so… the math otherwise is ugly.

And unceremoniously, it’s over; an escalator down over the the ocean of reservation holders.

I stick to smaller pavilions after that, especially enjoying the Chilean (lots of wood, and an excellent wine bar, all recommended by a French Canadian couple I met at the Russian vodka bar).  Many pavilions have spectacular designs, (eg. the Belgian with small houses hanging in a chaotic stack over a brightly lit kids playground), but most defied description, which is just as well, as I think I’ve written more than enough on the subject.

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Aug 06 2008

Cappadocia from Above

My old friend Mark joined me in Istanbul, and after a few days being good city tourists, we made for the Turkey’s interior.

I hear Cappadocia is one of the premier locations in the world for ballooning. Since neither Mark nor I have been pulled off dry land purely by the power of hot air (jokes notwithstanding how much hot air we ourselves are responsible for), we decided to jump at the opportunity. For all good things, a proportional price must be paid: the dollar amount was not nearly as steep as the pre-5am wakeup call (at least in our opinion).

While the bus ride to the meeting point is only a foggy memory, the serving of strong coffee did wonders at bringing the morning into focus. We were packaged into groups of about 10 and the vans plotted a 15 minute journey ‘upwind’ to find a takeoff field that might return us somewhere back in the same county.

The balloon setup was fast, bags out and inflation fans running in about 10 minutes. We were given the basic “don’t fall out” briefing, and soon the burners were lit and flames were blasting into the dirigibles. Mark and I agreed, we like fire! We could feel the heat from 30 feet, and as the balloons took shape their sheer size and the massive pyrotechnics had us grinning like school kids. A few technical glitches had the team taking a few cracks at getting the massive sack inflated, and we wondered if we had a dodgy craft – but their second try was a charm and we were soon hopping in the basket.

An especially long burn had us lifting off so gently I barely noticed we were airborne. For some reason, my expectation of hanging below trapped warm air involved a lot of swinging around like a ribbon on a hydrogen party ballon (probably colored by my experiences under a parachute), but the reality was so smooth and controlled that I had difficulty convincing myself that we were actually flying and not standing on a steady building.

Balloon flight is basically at the whim of the wind gods. Our pilot, Lars, could control only our altitude, but used that to skillfully navigate the various currents and direct our travel. We started by rocketing up several thousand feet, granting us a commanding view of the whole Cappadocia landscape.

Lars started chatted on the CB with our companion balloon, and they agreed to head towards ‘Love Valley’ to our right. Down we went as he guided us expertly over and then into the surreal landscape. Lars deft mastery of our craft had us so precisely positioned that he soon had us within only a few feet of the tall rock chimneys that sprouted from the valley floor like so many enourmous asparagus. At times we could have jumped from our basket carriage and landed easily on the top of some towering pinnacle (from which I’d imagine it’d be a challenge to rescue us!)

After awhile exploring the valley, up and out we flew, high into the blue sky to new adventures. Our travels continued in much the same manner, and I soon felt at home in the sky – gravity really does bind us so unfairly to the ground, stealing from us so many wonderful perspectives that we normally may only dream of.

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Jul 31 2008

Istanbul Haircut

I like my CA barber, but when I’ve been on the road long enough, the stragles and tangles start to get old. And so I again have a chance to put my appearance for the next month or so in a complete strangers hands in a foreign land.

My last haircut was expertly conducted by a backstreet Venetian barber who spoke not a word of English, and cut my hair flawlessly without any instruction whatsoever – I sat, he cut. It was excellent.

However, I’m in Turkey now, and these guys are nothing if not talkative. As I’m leaving my Istanbul hotel for dinner, I round a corner and am asked by a kindly, grey haired gentlemen if I’d like a haircut, 20 lira. Sure, what the hell.

I take a set, and he starts pulling scissors, razors, blades and all manner of attachments out of his drawer. He dives in first with the electric sheers, and I have a sudden panic attack of a flowbie haircut. He hacks at my hair roughly, chunks falling to the floor, and I figure at least I’ll have a story to tell to explain the nightmare. He yells to the boy at the door ‘Touriste!’ and the boy runs in and offers his hand ‘I’m Ali!’. I shake ‘I’m Scott’ ;). He shouts some more to what I now gather to be his son, and the boy runs out. The sheers have been replaced by regular scissors and the cutting is furious – all I can think of listening to non-stop rapid snip-snip-sniping is ‘my god, he’s Edward Scissorhands!’

Ali is back – tea! – of course, how could I forget where I am. Yes, I’ll have some tea… No, just one sugar! Ifta’s having an argument with Ali now, and still chopping furiously at my hair (I start to worry if my ears are at risk – don’t cut angry!). The tea’s cooling in a small plastic cup on the counter, and the cutting is slowing to a hum of trimming. OK, breaktime. Ifta takes a few sips and talks authoritatively to the barber cutting the nearly balding gentlemen’s hair in the next chair. Tea breaks over, and he’s trimming around the ears, and shaping my sideburns – and I suddenly realize this guy is precise beyond reason. What I took for a quick, scruffy chaotic cut at the beginning was calculated to get the rough out of the way. Now we’re in detail territory, and he dons his specs and is really focusing on individual hairs, all the while continuing his discussion with our neighbors.

After 10 mins or so, it’s time for another tea break. The tea’s still surprisingly hot, but I’m really beginning to relax now, and it tastes wonderful. I listen in ignorance to the raging debate, and notice that a few young ladies have settled in to watch the show. Ifta starts a little show with some cotton balls and wraps them expertly around the end of some scissors… and lights it on fire! Oh crap, what the hell is this?? He’s waving this thing near my head, and I make the quick judgement call to trust him – he holds up a comb and expertly waves the flaming blades near and around my ears, painlessly searing off all the small hairs on the outside. All I could think was ‘Michael Jackson!’ but there was no need to worry.

He’s got my hair in a center part, and I’m starting to wonder if this is the way it’s going to stay. The girls watching laugh together at my concerned expression and giggle amongst themselves. I start to worry again. He’s out with the straight razor now, shaping the hair around my ears, and now shaving lightly the hair off my central part. Aha, he’s ‘texturizing’ !

Tea break. I could totally get used to these. I take a chance to chat with Ali, learning that he knows almost no English, but the ladies behind me are happy to act as translators. Ifta’s now scrutenizing my face and reaches for a roll of twine and starts creating some strange string finger twist with it – and then he’s brushing it at my cheeks, *snap* *snap* *snap* and I wonder what the hell? Then I grasp it, he’s pulling the small hairs on my upper cheek away! Now he’s back with a light hair gel, whisking it through my hair, and the hairdrier’s out and suddenly – as if by magic, my hair looks great!

… and I start to wonder, how can I get this guy a visa to CA?

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Jul 15 2008


OK, I’ll admit it. I love pickled herring! I’ll have to confess though, before today I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about – some crazy, historical Scandinavian fetish that was born out of need for food in the winter or something. Bull. It’s heavenly. I reached this particular enlightenment at Prinsen (The Prince) here in Stockholm; they serve a mixed herring platter tapas style with 5 small dishes of herring in various sauces, and a few extra toppings for fun. Now I’m a huge sushi fan, and I’m particularly picky about my fish, but these flavours blew my mind. I’m going to enjoy hunting down some more ‘traditional’ style restaurants here…

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Jul 12 2008

Salzburg Night Out

A visit to Salzburg is always a welcome surprise of exciting (drunken) excursions. Tonight, Tini, Margit and Oliver are taking me downtown to meet up with a few of their friends, Helmut and Uta. As always, the evening starts with a few healthy glasses of prosecco, and we even mix in a little champagne. Once sufficiently warmed up, we motor into town. Salzburg is just spectacular at sunset, as the light plays on the castle walls and the steep cliffs overlooking the city’s baroque church domes.

We meet Helmut and Uta (whose name I get at Ulga, apparently not a favorable name in Austria 😉 and we wander a bit looking for a nice bar with outside seating. There’s a festival in town (which always seems to be the case in Salzburg) and there’s live bands entertaining the crowds of revelers as they wander between the myriad of street cafes. We finally settle at Havana Bar and Tini and I challenge each other, alternating between Caipirinas and Mohitos until we’re well and truly blitzed.

Talk turns to spicey food, and Margit insists that we try something called ‘fire water’ at a bar around the corner. We catch the place just as it’s closing, but Margit manages to convince the bar tender to fix us one if we buy him one! The shot looks like tequila, but really does taste of fire (as in out these flames out!). I think it’s lovely, but everyone else has gone very red in the face and are in some real pain! ;). I have a few more for the road (something I will seriously regret the following day!).

Our latast adventure has left us with the munchies, and we seek out a local wurst-mobile and order a few tasty Kaiser Krainers – cheese filled sausages sliced into cocktail-sized bites and served with a sweet mustard, a heavenly delight gauranteing the early-onset of coronary heart disease. Tini and Ollie are beat (it’s almost dawn) and so they head for home, but Margit suggests a late night bar up the road where we can drink until well past closing.

The early hours find Margit and I relaxing on a bench in Mirabell gardens in time for the fountains to start up. It’s been a long night, and we finally call it and catch a bus back home.

All and all, a pretty typical Salzburg night out – I really wish I had some Solpediene left!!

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May 31 2008

Waiter in Venice

Observations of a waiter in Venice.

Italian waiters really are a breed apart. My hotel suggested a wonderful late night cafe a few turns from Piazza San Marco (Bistrot de Venise for reference). I’m greeted with a warm double-pawed handshake by an impeccably dressed man (in tails!) with a deep, Italian tinted, almost operatic ‘Buona Sera!’ He engages me in a few pleasantries before offering me a table with a casual view of the pedestrian traffic (no cars in Venice!). He offers up an aperitif and is back in a flash with a cool glass of prosecco. As I glance over the menu, he makes a quick round of the tables. If the table’s quiet, he offers a few choice comments, and quickly has them laughing, proficiently switching between French, Italian, English, Russian? is that Japanese!? At tables with lively chatter, he swiftly refills glasses and clears a bit. A tall blonde in what appears to be an Oktoberfest outfit stops by and he’s (from what my limited German makes out) comfortably chatting about how her studies are going; by the time she’s retiring to her apartment across the passage, he has her giggling like a schoolgirl.

He’s back to take my order, and soon has me talking about my past travels and future plans. He suggests a few ‘off menu’ specials, and has my table laid with a few pre-appetizer nibblies before I even notice. He’s soon back near the kitchen chatting with the cooks in an animated Italian style – his demeanor much more casual – he’s one of the them now, spinning on his heals with his hands fluttering in the air as he tells some tale for his small audience. Something catches the corner of his eye, and in a second he’s out front, grasping the hand of (quite clearly) a tourist he’s spotted passing by – must be a previous patron – they’re both laughing and smiling like old friends together after a long separation.

And so as the evening passes, he drifts between the tables, flowing effortlessly and expertly amoung languages and worlds (and as far as I can tell, always correctly), a chamelian at ease with any company that passes within his small domain, always smiling, the epidome of charm and sophistication, never laying a dish or foot wrong, and always leaving them laughing.

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May 28 2008


Ah Rome!

The land of endless cafes serving perfectly prepared espresso, meandering narrow streets where each window holds an epic tale that the American mind cannot hope to comprehend, mesmerizingly stunning women with musical accents, cuisine both subtle and delectable, buildings scared by a history older than most religions, mind-bendingly complex discussions of politics and romance over Chianti, art the envy of all civilization, wonderfully diverse and beautifully stacked piles of mostly rock (some marble), street traffic that makes NY a walk in the park, warm weather that becomes a thick sticky sauna in minutes, prices that cause physical pain, pushy Nigerian hawkers that won’t (no can’t) comprehend ‘no,’ bars trying to charge you 350 euros for a bottle of crappy fizzy ‘wine,’ ugly Americans screaming on their cell ph… Ah screw it, perhaps the espresso is as nice in Venice…

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Oct 27 2007

Luang Prabang, kayaking

Another very early morning to catch the van for a river trip to see the Kuang Si waterfalls. First stop, though, is the elephant camp. We pile onto the elephants two-by-two, and tromp through the forest, very slowly (elephants appear to travel about the same speed as turtles). We stop briefly for the elephants to wallow in the river (us still astride), and return in time for lunch (the elephants anyway ;).

We’re exploring the river by Kayak today, and we drybag our cameras and Janise and I work out the kinks on steering. We don’t have far to go before we reach the waterfalls, and we’ve worn our bathing suits for the occasion. The water is refreshingly cool, and we explore the multiple levels of the falls taking an opportunity to cool off in each pool in the shade of the Banyon trees. With a little downtime in the water, we have a chance to get to know the other kayakers, and become fast friends. Before we know it, we’ve spent several hours swirling in the currents and climbing the vines, and we’re behind schedule.

We jump back in the boats and resume down river. Here we find the beauty I sometimes forget exists outside Hollywood movies and filtered photography; it’s real, and the real thing cannot be captured on film (or CCD). The mist rising over deep waters, deep green jungle drooping into the bourbon river, the wide, total silence only broken by the sound of our paddles cutting the water – I try to recall how many times I’ve heard such a delightful “nothing,” not even the distant, low white noise the seems to always accompany mankind, not even the background of insects (oddly)… just peace.

We take a quick break to see the gravesight of a French explorer, and decide what to do – if we continue down the river, we’ll be in nightfall long before making out port, so we decide to travel just a little further to hit the rapids, and pull out early. Janise and I reverse kayak spots, hit the rapids and immediately flip over. These are pretty tame rapids though, and we have fun struggling to right the boat, and we don’t so much as lose a hat 😉

After loading the kayaks into the van, we decide to all meet for dinner. We find a nice table BBQ joint, and sit down and trade stories over beer, sizzling meat and boiling veggies. We have a fantastic time, the food’s delicious, and for $3 each, a real bargain.

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Oct 26 2007

Luang Prabang, festival of lights

The weather’s beautiful, and we decide that it’s a perfect day for a trip up the Mekong. We rent a boat to take us up the river to see the Pak Ou caves. The river is quiet and calm, and we motor up it and watch life along the banks. There are lots of pretty huts (and the occasional mega-mansion) scattered between the trees, but It’s sad to see that with modernization has come with the curse of the plastic bag, and they litter the banks hanging off the bamboo stalks and sticking in the reeds.

Our trip includes a stop at the whiskey town (where they make some local firewater that tastes more like port than whiskey), and we take some time to explore a bit and stretch our legs. I’m reminded of the country towns in the Philippines, the only real difference being the silk scarves on sale here.

We travel a bit further up the river and reach the caves. The entrance is spectacular, and filled with hundreds of little Buddha figurines. We decide to hike to the upper caves, every few feet passing a small saucer-eyed child trying to sell us a small caged swallow (I wonder who the swallow racketeer is behind it all). The upper caves are deeper, but not nearly as awe inspiring as the lower ones. Back down the path, we see a French couple buying the first swallow they’re offered and releasing it – little do they know what lies ahead; I wonder if they’re homing swallows.

By the time we get back down the river, the town is buzzing in anticipation of the festival of lights. We’ve really lucked out with the timing of a second festival, and the firecrackers and candle lanterns are everywhere. We find a nice table overlooking the river just after sunset, and watch in awe as the river slowly fills with tens of thousands of floating lights. The most popular vessel is a small disc covered in flowers, incense and candles, but there are larger makeshift bamboo boats almost ablaze with their carriage of candles, and a few local riverboats decked out in Christmas tree lights. Fireworks pop and sparkle (and even starts a small fire in the jungle next to our table that our waiter deftly leaps over the railing to stomp out) and everyone is smiling and having a wonderful time.

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Oct 25 2007

Laos, Luang Prabang

We’re off again before dawn to catch our boat to Phenom Peng. I doze awhile, waking occasionally to admire the crooked Cat-in-the-Hat straw stilt huts in the lake. I can’t imagine how these survive a typhoon.

In town, we’re immediately accosted by about 10 touts trying to get us in their taxi – there so aggressive that Janise, usually unflappably cheerful, loses her cool and tells them to “back off!” It’s just as well we’re headed straight for the airport, P.P. hasn’t made a good first impression.

The flight to Luang Prabang is short and sweet, and as soon as we land, we feel the difference in the atmosphere. Laos is very laid back, quiet and friendly. We find a simple and clean guesthouse right by the Mekong River, and immediately fall in love with the town. The hotelier suggests we head up the river for the annual boat races, and as soon as we’re showered, a van and driver are waiting for us.

The boat races are packed. When the traffic finally grinds to a halt, we strike out for a 20 min walk to the action. People are here from all the surrounding villages, many in their town’s team colors, and all chomping on some kind of green weed (the seeds actually) that we can’t discover the name of, but tastes a bit like peanuts. The races down at the river themselves appear much less popular than the party by the road; I can only guess that the locals only show up to cheer for their colors, and then head back up to where the party is. We find a prime spot right by the finish line and cheer as two boats filled with about 15 paddlers each finish the 1km run only inches apart. Eventually we, and the few other clueless tourists around us are politely asked to move aside as we’re blocking the VIP box (what!?…) and we watch a few more races from a slightly less glamorous spot a little way up the river. Most races are fierce, and very close.

Having our fill of the river, Janise and I head back up to the street, and grab a beer and enjoy the party. I’m especially impressed with the dance floor: every few minutes, a new signer appears, and as soon as the music starts, people jump up from their tables and crowd onto the raised dance floor, swaying politely to the music; then, as soon as the song ends, they quickly scatter off the dance floor back to their beer and “peanuts.”

We start talking with a nice young girl from Germany who’s been in the Laos/Thai/Cambodia area for months, and I’m amazed that despite her time in country, she doesn’t have much more of a clue what’s going on than us (including not knowing what everyone’s eating, but happily shares some with us). She loves the area though, and appears ready to stay until the money runs out. We finish our beer and have a try bouncing on the bamboo dance floor.
Back in town, we wander down the main street near the hotel. I can see why this town is on the World Heritage list with monks wandering between the temples and lots of old French colonial buildings nestled between the local domiciles. It appears to be developing rapidly though, and I wonder if the charm will survive the tourists.

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