Thursday, May 28, 2009

Fluffr Nutter - with xtra nutz

I have nothing to write about, but I am happy. I am embracing everything that is me and just really enjoying smiling. I am happy and giddy and excited about the weeks ahead. My friends are incredible and that makes me happy. I feel so proud to know the people in my life for their numerous inspiring accomplishments and goals for the future. And these spectacular people embrace me - exactly as I am - even when I can't find the energy.

But not today. Today I am beside myself with smiles, despite the rain. Happiness is incredible because it makes all my senses come alive. Colors are brighter and food tastes better. I can hear crickets and frogs and birds chirping through the pounding of the rain. The textures of every day objects (my keyboard, keys, book, pillow...) feel sharper and softer, and warmer. I can smell the fresh miso soup being made from the home economics room across the school and the light aroma of rice steaming.

When I try to think today and nail down my happiness to find its source, I can only think in smiles and all-consuming warmth. I can hardly sing for smiling so much, but the sound of music catapults me even further. Everything is bliss.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Just a thought from nowhere

So often we refuse to take responsibility for the things in our lives, the good or the bad. We wander though the day thinking that life HAPPENS to us, that we have no control. The reality of life is that in every decision we make, we push our life in a new direction. We have control over the path in which our life takes, and all too often people relinquish that control to pity themselves instead. The odd thing about have it until you give it to someone or something else by allowing their words and actions to affect your mood absolutely. And while you're still in control, you often feel like life is whizzing by and you can't keep up.

After a while, when you've given up control, you see so clearly that it was yours to give up and you did so willingly. Clamping back down on control lost can be such a painful and tedious process because it means taking responsibility for your emotions again. You can no longer blame anyone or anything else for your sadness or misfortune. There are so many reasons we relinquish, laziness, LUST, desperation, self pity. None of these reasons are particularly good - especially not love. Maybe you can argue that in love everything is worth it - every step you take. Sadly, that just isn't true. When true love exists you should never feel any desire to give up your control to appease "love." Love is one of those amazing occurrences in life that should mold to you. Good love is like papier-mache. It shapes to the priorities and goals of your life, but the delicacy of it makes it special and a thing to be revered and respected. A good love will never ask you to change course or lose sight of your ambition. It will never require that you sleep less or cry more.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Time is running out

I posted the video that Lauren took of me singing in Shanghai. It is at the bottom of my blog page, so check it out if you haven't already seen it on Facebook!

Since returning from China life has quickly gotten back to normal. I've been working and teaching some, having dinner with Chika and Mari and Hideki, etc. I had a meeting in Mito last Friday for JET to discuss the procedures for finishing up my contract here and leaving Japan. I guess the finality of it all is starting to settle in. I have read through and highlighted all the information packets they have given me and now I need to schedule some time with my crazy busy supervisor to tie up loose ends. Turns out, I may not have internet for the last month in my apartment - but I will keep you updated on the reality of that when I find out for sure.

I have so much to do before I leave, not only in terms of packing and stopping my bills, but saying my goodbyes. So many people here have touched my life in such a kind way that I am afraid of losing them in my life. When it comes to my other JET friends, I have confidence that we will stay in touch and probably even meet up again somewhere in the world. When it comes to my Japanese friends, I am a little more worried. I could not have gotten through this year without the selfless friendship of so many teachers and friends in the community. Of course there is Chika - I will feel like a little piece of me will always be here in Japan with her. There is never a time when I am not happy to see her or want to make a plan to spend time with her. And then Heartful and Pela Pela - I look forward to seeing them each week. Even when I am tired and don't feel like leaving the house, seeing them is always worth it. I learn so much from the members of these groups and I feel like I have a family here. They share their lives and special events with me, and are always interested in what I have to say.

It is safe to say that I have learned without a doubt that I am not cut-out to be a teacher, but my co-workers make my time at school happy and fun. Sanwa has been such a security blanket for me. If I have a question about travel, my apartment, trash pick up, mail, culture points of Japanese life - I can ask someone at school. The teachers who don't speak much English, help me to practice my Japanese. They want to speak to me and they want to make me part of their school life. And most significantly, Aritoshi, Maya and Hiromi...they are my life-savers. Aritoshi is like Superman, he can tackle any question and always gives special consideration to my feelings and my preferences. Hiromi helped teach me and got me through my JET Japanese Language Course. Not only was she a great English teacher for her students, she was a great Japanese teacher for me. I miss her terribly since she has moved to a new school, but thankfully, I can call her whenever I want to have dinner or just chat. And Maya has taught me so much about the importance of travel and family. She is so intelligent and driven and she acts on those feelings, something that is kind of rare in Japanese women. She has patience with me and is always incredibly accommodating. I respect all of my teachers in a huge way.

I am ready to move on to the next step and I am ready for changes to happen. My heart is going to ache as I prepare to leave Japan, but I will use that heartache as motivation to make sure the friendships I have forged here and the experience I have gained are not in vain. It is thanks to these people that my life here has been so special and will continue to shape me in the months and years to come.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

All things Beijing

The afternoon of May 5th, Lauren and I touched down in Beijing for the final and longest leg of our journey. We were greeted at the airport by my Uncle Tim and Mr. Gao. Uncle Tim had arranged for a car to pick us up and take us to the apartment where we would be staying. Because Lauren has fabulous friends all over the world, we didn't have to shell out for a hotel in Beijing. Instead we stayed with her friend Jimmy at his three bedroom place in Wudaokou, near Beijing University (BEIDA). There are 18 million people in Beijing, so traffic while getting from one place to another is a given. It was a nice ride from the airport, but once we got to Wudaokou, Lauren and I were beat. I made plans with Uncle Tim to have dinner that Friday and then said our goodbyes.

It also happens that the day we arrived was Jimmy's Birthday/Cinco de Mayo. Lauren and I rested up that afternoon and in the evening we went with Jimmy to celebrate the big day. Naturally we went to a Mexican restaurant called La Bamba - and I must say that the Chinese do Mexican so much better than the Japanese, but no one does it like they do at home. Anyway...At La Bamba Lauren and I were introduced to some of Jimmy's wonderful friends from all over the world. First I should mention that Jimmy is French. We met Carlos from Chile, Marie from France, Ehe from Turkey, Helaine from Holland, and Jamie from the USofA. After being in Japan for so long, the diversity at our dinner table was so refreshing! The food and drinks were overflowing (literally, the waitress proceeded to spill tequila shots all over me!) and the party was just beginning. After our meal, we moved to a "beer garden" that is a seasonal fixture across from Jimmy's apartment. Every summer they set up this beer garden with tables and chairs and it turns into a huge out door party. After some more drinks and discussion there, we again moved to a pizzeria/bar/club called Pyro. The music was great and the place was celebrating Cinco de Mayo in full swing, so the margaritas were a plenty. There was even a little slide show of famous Mexicans looping! We were at Pyro for about an hour and then decided to call it a night.

The next day Jimmy had to go to class (he is doing intensive study of Chinese), so Lauren and I set out with our map and an big agenda for the day. First thing is first, and we grabbed some breakfast at a little diner called Lush. It is a great little place with cheap food that is delicious! After a veggie bagel, we caught a taxi to Jingshan Park. It is almost in the center of Beijing and lies on the Dragon Line. This is an imaginary line that stretches all the way through Beijing in which all the most historical points are located including the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Jingshan Park is the site where the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty hung himself. The best part is that from the top of the highest hill, you can look out over the whole Forbidden city (and if it weren't for the smog you could see all the way to the Olympic Stadium along the Dragon Line).

After our hike through the park, we kept walking south to the Forbidden City. This place is a total maze. Jimmy had given us some advice to enter the city and just walk due south. However Lauren and I were easily distracted by the architecture and a mini art show, so we got lost inside the city for a bit. Once we found the correct path again, we marched along through temple after temple and watched each grow larger than the last. The Forbidden City is so named because until 1925, no one aside from royalty and their servants could enter the walls of the city. Since then it has been open to the public for tourism. Just to the south of the Forbidden City is a gate whose literal translation means Gate of Heavenly Peace. This is the thresh hold into Tiananmen Square. We were able to get a good look at the portrait of Mao Tse-tung and walk down the length of the square. Surprisingly it wasn't very crowded. However to get into the square, each person much go through security and metal detectors.

After the square (and a very long day of walking) we hopped in a cab to a section of Beijing called Hou Hai. This is a place situated nicely on a river jam-packed with restaurants and bars. Lauren and I stopped off at a jewelry store to check out their jade items and then we sat on an out door patio and enjoyed some pumpkin soup. The restaurant with the soup was a little sketch, so we finished and then quickly moved to another restaurant with a perfect menu and perfect atmosphere called Buffalo. In the Hou Hai area there were three restaurants all called Buffalo right in a row - each served a different type of cuisine (Chinese, Western, Asian fusion). We chose the Chinese section and had a fantastic open window seat overlooking the river. We ended up sitting in our window perch for nearly 3 hours enjoying course after course of delicious food including some more Peking Duck.

Tangent story: At the airport in Shanghai trying to get to Beijing, we were in line in front of a couple from Canada also on their way to Beijing. We spoke to them for a few minutes while waiting to check-in and then did the obligatory, "Well, maybe we'll see you in Beijing." *laugh, laugh* So funny story, while Lauren and I are enjoying our Peking Duck sitting in Hou Hai, we spot the Canadian couple walking down the little road! Since we are sitting there in the open, we call out to them and strike up a nice conversation! Of 18 million people in Beijing, we in fact do happen to run into the random couple we met at the airport in a different city! I like stories like that.

We did a little more exploring down the streets of Hou Hai after our dinner and discovered that every bar up and down the road had live music and bad karaoke! Each new place was competing for the sound waves and Lauren and I just wished the singing would find the right key! After a short saunter, we grabbed a cab and went back to Jimmy's apartment to call it a night.

The next morning we woke up to quite a surprise. Jimmy had already headed off to school for an exam, but Lauren and I had no running water of any kind. The faucets wouldn't work, no toilet, no shower. This is the day we decided to pull back our hair and rough it a bit. Leaving early than expected, not having to take the time to shower, we went to the northern part of the city to check out the Olympic sports center. We started by walking through the Water Cube. The architecture of this thing is really cool and you feel like you're in a bubble when you're inside the building. From the outside I think it looks like a drop of water ready to burst. It was really neat to go inside and take pictures of the pool where Phelps made history. Afterward we went over to the Bird's Nest and looked around a bit. It is a much more exciting and impressive building from the outside because of the unique architecture; on the inside it is like any other wide open stadium. One day I would really like to be in attendance for an Olympic event.

Once again we were on the move and we went across town to the Summer Palace and gardens. This is a very wide open expanse of gardens right on a small lake. Since we hadn't eaten yet, the first thing we did was each grab a bowl of real Chinese ramen; during lunch we even had a show! Just outside the little restaurant there was an incredible Chinese man painting kanji on the sidewalk with long sponge brushes. They had long handles so he could stand up while he was painting on the sidewalk, and at the bottom very absorbent sponges to hold all the water he was using. The most impressive part of what he was doing was that he would paint with both hands at the same time! Sometimes he would write the same kanji with each hand, but mirror them; and other times he would write two completely different kanji at the same time!!! Once we were finished eating, Lauren and I went to get a closer look at what he was doing. He noticed us admiring his work and started to draw some for us. In English he explained what he was drawing - China, America, People, Friendship, Happiness, Power. Afterward he gave us each a small souvenir of the same kanji written on delicate tissue paper for us to keep.

We continued walking through the Summer Palace searching for a boat ride through the lake. After walking forever, we finally found a dock and a big boat to tour people around the lake. The boat was shaped like a dragon, and it was packed with Chinese tourists. After the boat ride we decided to call it a day and we went back to Jimmy's to hang out with him a bit and take it easy.

By our third day in Beijing, all the traveling was catching up with us and we made it a point to sleep in late! We lounged around in the morning, wrote postcards, checked email and bank accounts, and around lunch time we finally headed out into the big wide world with Jimmy and his friend Carlos for lunch. Jimmy loves fancy places and to call the Lan Club fancy would be an understatement. It was the most intricately decorated restaurant to which I have ever been. It was designed by a man named Philippe Starck and is beyond decorated. The whole place is practically a museum! The paintings are on the ceilings and the banquet rooms are blocked off with burlap. Lauren and I walked around (as though we were in a museum) and took some pictures. I don't know if my words can paint the most accurate picture of how COOL this place really was. The food was good too and thank goodness we went there for lunch because it is crazy expensive for dinner! After lunch Lauren and I got back on the tourist wagon and rode it all the way over to the Hutongs. Hutongs are traditional Chinese villages that have been largely destroyed in Beijing. Of the 10,000 that used to exist, there are only 3,000 left and the Chinese government has finally decided that it is important to protect these wonderful historical buildings. Hutong literally means narrow road, so the best way to tour through them is on foot or by rickshaw - we did both. We didn't have a lot of time to spend, so we hired (waaaay cheap) a private tour guide for a one hour over view of the Hutongs. We even got to meet a local woman who lived in the Hutongs and speak with her about daily life there.

After our tour, we ran back (and by ran back, I mean we were in a slow cab during rush hour) to Jimmy's place so that I could change clothes and Lauren could take a nap. I had dinner plans with Uncle Tim for the night and I had to meet him on the other side of town in less than an hour. I quickly changed clothes and did a quick primp in the mirror before I decided to jump on the Beijing subway instead of endure a long and slow taxi ride. I got to the hotel where Uncle Tim was staying and found him in the hotel lounge. We enjoyed a drink together and started to plan our excursion to the Great Wall for the next day. After our drink we walked over to the tour reservations desk and booked a private car and English speaking tour guide for the next day to take us to the Great Wall and back to the Hutongs for a real, in-depth tour.

Once the plans had been made (mostly in Chinese which was cool because I had never heard Uncle Tim speak Chinese before), we went to dinner at a Korean bbq place that he really enjoyed. Now there are a lot of reasons, but in my life I had never spent any real, quality time with my uncle getting to know him. I discovered quickly that there was so much I didn't know, but really wanted to. There were overwhelming amounts of food, but the best part of the meal was the conversation he and I were able to have. I learned about his past jobs, more about his education, and a lot more about the direction he wants for his life in the future. This dinner was so special for me because for the first time we were able to see and acknowledge one another as so much more than extended family members. I feel a closeness to him now that I feel I can count on for the rest of my life and embarked upon the beginning of a relationship that I am hoping will grown and evolve through the years. I am such a believer in the closeness of family and in taking the time to understand learn about all the amazing experiences that someone else has had. Dinner ended with a great hug and a, "see you tomorrow" and then back to Jimmy's I went.

Once there I was greeted with one heck of a wild party happening. To continue celebrating his birthday, Jimmy was throwing a party for 50 of his closest friends in Beijing at his apartment. I had already had plenty to drink that night, so I hung around the screaming people throwing back the beer for about 15 minutes before I went back to my room and fell asleep.

Bright and early the next morning, I woke up to take a shower and get ready for a full day with Lauren and Uncle Tim! Upon walking out into the hallway, I was greeted with the stickiest floor I have ever felt on my feet and the debris of one crazy party. I'm really glad I slept through it. Around 8:25am, Uncle Tim and the private car he hired pulled up outside Jimmy's building and the three of us were on our way to Mutianyu - an historical section of the Great Wall complete with a cable car ride. The car ride took about an hour and a half, so after the tour guide introduced herself and gave us some background about the Wall, Lauren and I were zonked out!

The first thing we did was hike up a hill lined with vendors all selling the same Chinese trinkets. At the top of the hill was a cable car that gave a nice view of the wall on the way up to where tourists can climb it. Just so happened that we got into car #58. The significance of car #58 is that former President Bill Clinton rode in that exact car when he visited China in June of 1998 - boy did I feel lucky - *cough* At the point where the cable car drops you off, you can begin climbing up the wall to either the left or the right. MeiMei (the tour guide) informed us that the right section was much more level and easier to climb (called the parents' trail) and the left side was more rigorous and challenging (called the heroes' trail). We were guilted into the heroes' trail. Uncle Tim had already climbed the wall, so he hung back and waited for Lauren and I to get to the end and back again. You may think that this is just like walking on a straight path....NO! This is like serious climbing in certain parts and the smoggy air isn't really helpful for a fully oxygenated climb. But in about 45 minutes Lauren and I made it to the end of the Mutianyu section and took a few minutes to take in the scenery. The view of the wall from way up there is really wonderful. It is so hard to believe that ancient Chinese people began building this wall nearly 2000 years ago! MeiMei told us a story about how when the laborers were building the wall, they would often die of fatigue and malnutrition and their bodies were buried inside the layers of the wall because there was no time to dig a proper burial.

We took a ton of pictures and then started making our way down the wall, back to Uncle Tim. We met up with him at the bottom and grabbed the cable car back down. You'd never believe, but the cable car we got was none other than #58 - the Bill Clinton car - again! We met MeiMei back at the bottom and got in the car and made our way back to the hotel where Uncle Tim was staying to grab a quick lunch before our excursion that afternoon. We had a quick Italian meal with salad and real pizza and then took off down the road for the Hutongs! The tour with MeiMei was a three-hour in-depth tour that included the bell tower (on the Dragon Line) and Prince Gong's Mansion. Prince Gong's Mansion was really impressive because of how large it was in addition to the wonderful tea house we were able to visit. Inside the tea house, Lauren and I sampled four different kinds of Chinese tea - Oolong, Jasmine, a modern fruit tea, and a cherry tea with rosebuds. The woman inside the tea house taught us how to do a traditional Chinese tea ceremony (which is much less involved than the Japanese one) and also showed up some magic. I am always a sucker for magic, so all her porcelain tea ware that would change colors when heated made me oooh and aaah. I even ended up getting a couple "magic" mugs as souvenirs!! After our tour through the Hutongs, the car took us back to Wudaokou and Uncle Tim and I parted ways. I am so thankful he was there and I was able to spend such a nice time with him. I am really looking forward to being home and visiting with him some more!

Once inside, Lauren and I watched a movie to avoid packing. We grabbed a Japanese dinner with Jimmy and his friends to finish out our incredible Chinese vacation and then packed and went to bed. The next morning was an early one and little did we know what was in store for us and our long day of travel. But that is for another post.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

How hai? Shanghai!

On May 2nd, Lauren and I woke up in Hong Kong, grabbed a great dim sum breakfast with Becky, and then hopped on a couple planes for Shanghai. The currency between Hong Kong and mainland China is different, so Lauren and I decided to change money once we got to the airport in Guangzhou for our layover before Shanghai. However, because of the Swine Flu scare, our three hour layover proved to be just long enough to go through the quarantine rigmarole and get to our gate. New plan, Lauren and I are going to change money once we get to Shanghai. Given our long day of traveling and complete forgetfulness, we got into a cab at the Shanghai airport without any cash. Luckily we had a really great cab driver and he had no problem letting us change money once we got to our hotel.

Once at our hotel, we collapsed under fatigue. We took a nap from 7pm-9:30pm, and then woke up pretty hungry. Our hotel was in an excellent location right on Nanjing Road - a popular street for shopping and night life. Lauren and I ventured out and realized that there was a Haagen Dazs right next to our hotel. We had ice cream for dinner, just like real adults....hahaha. Afterwards, we took a short walk down our fantastic little street and made the wise decision to get a sandwich from Subway to supplement our ice cream dinner.

This is also the night we were introduced to the pushiness of mainland peddlers and vendors. Just walking down Nanjing Road we were approached by no fewer than ten people trying to sell watches, purses, shoes, toys, all kind of fake stuff for "good price." We quickly discovered that the best way to get them to stop following you all the way down the street is to ignore them completely.

The next morning, we got up and with Lauren's good research headed over to Fuxing Road. This is a really quaint part of Shanghai that's not too crowded and is part of what they call the French Concession. It was such a fun street to walk down and the trees lining the road were very pretty. As we walked, we came across a nail salon. Lauren had been dying to get her nails done, and I was no opposed, so we walked in and discovered that the prices were phenomenal. And by phenomenal I mean that in Japan to get a full manicure is upwards of $70 (the same thing at home I can find for $25 or $30) and in Shanghai at this salon we could get it done for about $35. We relaxed and left after a couple hours with beautiful manicures and a hungry appetite.

While walking down the street, we found a wonderfully decorated Thai restaurant with outdoor seating. After months of craving Panang curry, I finally got some and it totally hit the spot. We got some nice pictures of the outdoor scenery and flowers and then after lunch we were on our way to explore more of Fuxing Road.

Before I left for Shanghai, I was told by one of my teachers at Koga First to see the acrobatic show in Shanghai. As you all know, I just saw my first Cirque show at the beginning of April, but that experience did not dwarf the spectacle of the Shanghai acrobats at all! This performance was in a regular theatre space and the technical aspect was not the most impressive part of the show. At first they started slow to ease the audience in with some basic tumbling and flipping. But they progressed quickly into an incredible contortionist act. This woman was more flexible than the actual Gumby! She balanced mini plastic chandeliers on her hands and feet and proceeded to roll all over the floor without dropping anything. It's as though the directionality of her joints were merely a suggestion to which she was in no way bound. There were high fliers and awesome feats of strength. I got a couple blurry pictures, but I will try to get some up here soon.

Lauren loves the night life, so after the awesomeness that was the acrobatic show, we went to the Park Hyatt to check out a bar Lauren had read good reviews about. Sadly the bar we wanted to go to on the 93rd floor of the World Financial Center was closed on a Sunday night so we went to the bar on the 91st floor instead. This would have been incredible except that it was on the verge of rain and way overcast, so up on the 91st floor all we saw was fog! The drinks were great though, and I ended up having something with gin (of course) and also egg whites. Strange. We also met a Japanese man who had just moved to Shanghai to be the manager of the bar at which we were drinking. We spoke to him for a while and he asked where our next destination was, "House of Blues and Jazz," we said. Since he had only been in Shanghai for a few days, he didn't know where it was, but he immediately went over to a computer and looked it up online for us. This turned out to be incredibly helpful because the Jazz club had moved from its original location and while driving around in a taxi, we had to use the driver's cell phone to call the club and get the new address.

The Jazz club, once we finally found it, was great! There was a band there on a three month booking from The States with a guest trumpeter from Tokyo! After a few songs, Lauren got the idea for me to sing with the band! I told her this then, but she reminded me so much of my mother at that moment, "How cool would it be if you could sing with the band! You should really do it! I will go talk to them for you!" That was paraphrasing, but you get where I'm coming from. It was fun and encouraging, but I am shy as all get out when it comes to my singing, so I let Lauren go talk to the band leader. After just a couple minutes, she comes back to me and asks what songs I know. I throw out some titles, Gershwin and Over the Rainbow. She plays the mediator and before I know it, I am up on the stage singing Over the Rainbow in a real jazz club with a real jazz band in a foreign country!! It was such a crazy thrill, I was on top of the world! And Lauren got a video of it on her camera, so I will try to post that as soon as I can.

My song with the band was the last song of the night, so after that Lauren and I hung around to chat it up with Igmar (the band leader) and Nori (Japanese trumpeter). In fact, Nori had another show he is playing in Tochigi (the next prefecture over from Ibaraki) at the end of May and I really hope to go. Not much later Lauren and I went outside to find a cab to take us back to our hotel for the night.

The next morning we got up to do some serious temple scouting. We began at the Longhua Temple and Pagoda. The temples in Shanghai were all yellow with brown roofs. And while walking through Longhua we saw a huge open pile of trash just strewn in a corner. I thought it was a pretty interesting social commentary to have such an ugly display in a place for reverence and prayer. Next we moved to the Jade Buddha temple. Again each building was yellow with very similar decorations and gardens. The Jade Buddha was rather impressive however. We were unable to take pictures given that white jade is prone to easy deterioration. Outside of that particular statue however, there were more Buddhas that we could capture on film. One of which is called the reclining Buddha for the relaxed position in which the statue is carved. The whole time through this temple, Lauren and I had been following a German tour group. Lauren knows German, so any time she has a chance to practice listening or speaking she really enjoys that. But while we were trying to get our pictures of the reclining Buddha, a German man behind us did not approve of us trying to snap a good shot and quite purposely said, "Shit Americans." Lauren was livid and we were both ready turn around and show him how ugly we could be, but good sense got the best of us and we just moved on and fumed to ourselves.

Next we moved to a section of Shanghai called Old Town. It is a location with very traditional architecture and wonderful shops and food everywhere. We had typical Chinese lunch of dumplings and rice and then started looking around the shops. This proved to be quiet and enjoyable experience and a real chance for Lauren to keep working on her haggling skills! I purchased a few souvenirs for some friends and I got a small journal for myself with a silk outer cover. There was one woman in particular that was just so much fun for me to watch as she and Lauren went back and forth on the price of six little Buddha statues. At the end of it all, we got a picture with she and Lauren!

Lauren and I were pretty beat after this, so we went back to the hotel to get ready for our dinner reservation at New Heights - a chic place in a section of Shanghai called The Bund. The Bund is the banking and financial district of Shanghai with classy restaurants and bars. The night view is wonderful and New Heights is the best place to go for the atmosphere but not the exorbitant prices. Our view from the roof terrace was wonderful as it looked out over the Huangpu River. We were able to sit there for a couple hours just chatting and eating slowly enjoying the scenery and taking it all in. After dinner we ventured over to yet another bar Lauren had researched called Glamour Bar. We each enjoyed a drink - I a Long Island peach tea and Lauren a glass of wine. The music was great, so we got up and danced in an open area next to the bar. We were the only ones dancing, but we didn't mind! And just after that we went to Rouge Bar. The decor was cool, but the place was pretty dead, so we decided to call it a night. Lauren probably could have kept going, but I was so beat - I just don't have that kind of stamina! The next morning we hopped on a plane for Beijing and my adventure will continue there...

Monday, May 11, 2009

And my story begins on an island

The name of this island is Hong Kong. After a long day of travel - six hours on a plan that was supposed to be a 4 hour flight - Lauren and I arrived and I made my first new friend. In Hong Kong we stayed with a friend of Lauren's from college named Becky. Becky has been living in Hong Kong since January as a temporary transfer for the law firm she works for in Chicago. In short, I really loved Becky. She is funny and easy going and really generous to have let us crash in her place for a few days.

April 30th was our first day of touring, so Lauren and I got up pretty early and set out on what proved to be a really great adventure and vacation. Becky had to work that first day, so Lauren and I were on our own. Luckily Lauren is the queen of research for new hot spots and great places to see when traveling, so she had everything all mapped out. First we went for breakfast at a great place that Becky recommended called The Flying Pan. We had been warned that the portions were large, so we split one eggs Benedict meal that was incredible. It was served Greek-style with feta cheese and spinach.

After breakfast we walked around the streets of the Wan Chai district where Becky lived. There are so many luxury shops and incredible malls here that Lauren and I got lost a bit and just let the time slip by. Once we realized that the afternoon was fast approaching, we got a move on and found the ferry boat that takes people to Kowloon. Once off the ferry we grabbed a taxi to the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas. The temple itself is on the top of a huge hill and leading up the hill is a path lined with larger than life Buddha statues. According to the Hong Kong image of Buddha, he was a fun guy! All the statues are hilarious, but when you get to the top, you realize where the 10,000 Buddhas come into play. There are different buildings at the top built very close together that each have one large statue in the center of the room, but along the walls are very small Buddha statues packed into little cubby holes covering all the walls. The sheer enormity of it all is overwhelming. And I did wonder whose job it was to dust the top shelves!

After our Buddha adventure, Lauren and I hurried back over to the Hong Kong via the ferry and met up with Becky and some of her coworkers for dinner. They had chosen quite a nice Chinese restaurant. We all ended up getting a 10 course meal with Peking Duck and a Beggar's Chicken. Now, Beggar's Chicken has a cool little story to go along with it. In ancient China, a beggar stole a chicken from the Emperor's estate and quickly took it away to be cooked in the nearby village. So as to keep the chicken from emitting a savory aroma as it cooked and giving him away, he first plucked the chicken and wrapped the meat in lotus leaves for flavoring. Next he slathered the lotus leaves in a thick layer of mud to seal in the flavors and smells. Once the chicken had been cooked, he had to use a hammer to beat his way through the hardened mud case to unwrap the lotus leaves and finally eat the cooked chicken. In this particular restaurant, they let the customers use a hammer and crack the outer shell and then they give you a little souvenir hammer. They took our picture and put it in a nice little frame with the story printed on it as well.

After our decadent dinner, we ventured on to a wine bar that was owned by friends of Becky's coworkers. Did you follow that? The wine bar has a simple loungy atmosphere and was a really nice place to hang out and chat with our little group. Lauren and I also met the owners of the bar and spoke to them a bit. Shortly after that, Lauren and I crashed back at Becky's.

The next day was a holiday in Hong Kong, so Becky was able to go with us touring! The first thing we did was to buy some fresh egg tarts at the bakery below Becky's apartment building. They were hot and really delicious! After that we went for a real breakfast at the Flying Pan again! Once we really got on the road we headed over to the cable car station to take a car up to the top of Victoria's Peak. It was a really great view of Hong Kong, the surrounding islands, and all the wide open mountainous land that Hong Kong has. Also at the top of Victoria's Peak, there is a Madam Tussuad's Wax Museum!! After my excursion last July at the new Madam Tussuad's in D.C., I really wanted to go to the one in Hong Kong! Turns out Becky had never been to one and Lauren had gone many years ago to the one in New York. We had such a blast there, and I am forever amazed by the incredible likeness they are able to achieve to the actual subject. We dressed up in certain areas and Lauren decided to wear a pink tutu around the whole museum!

Victoria's Peak and the museum were a bit tiring so we cooled off a bit with some quality ice cream and homemade waffle cones. Afterwards, we took the cable car back down the mountain and caught a bus for Stanley - another town down by the ocean. There was a market in Stanley and a crazy number of restaurants lining the street. After walking through the market a bit, it began to close, but Lauren and I were on a mission. Lauren really wanted a silk robe and I wanted a Chinese dress and in the end we both came away happy. We found one little shop that was still open with two very nice women working inside, they helped us with styles and colors and sizes and at the end Lauren tried her hand at bargaining and got us a nice discount on our respective souvenirs. Through the trip Lauren turned into a master haggler and we walked away with some great deals and nice keepsakes. After our shopping adventure, we got a table at an Asian/Western fusion restaurant and all enjoyed some curry.

After the bus ride home from Stanley, the three of us got all dressed up again and went out to a bar that Lauren had been dying to try called Felix bar. As I said, Lauren loves her research and found great reviews and good word of mouth feedback about this particular bar. Once we got there, we all decided that it was a nice place, but all the hype was a bit much. One thing however was incredibly confusing....the bathroom situation. When you got off the elevator for this bar, to the left looked like double doors into another hallway and to the right was the large seating area and wine room. After being showed to our seats and chatting a while, I got up to use the restroom. I asked one of the hostesses where the restroom was and she pointed me down the hall to the double doors I mentioned. I walked down and instinctively took the door on the right into what I thought was another hallway. Turns out, I just about walked into the mens' bathroom! I then shifted to the left door and was in the right place. The bathroom was beautifully decorated and very chic. When I came out again, I looked at the doors to see where the markings were to signify men and women. Looking very closely, I saw that there was a small bronze disk on either door and a light shining from the ceiling at an angle reflecting on the disk a small M or F. It kind of made me laugh out loud how minimalistic this place was to make the bathrooms so inconspicuous!

The next day we got up early and headed out to the airport to fly our way onto mainland China and Shanghai.