Thursday, August 30, 2007

Day Trip to Macau

I took a day trip via ferry to the island of Macau (about 65 km each way and US$40 round trip) Macau is a former Portugese colony that served for a couple of centuries as the main trading outpost between the West and China until a couple of hundred years ago when Hong Kong assumed that role. After that, Macau gradually became less and less important.

Since I had to take the ferry from Hong Kong to Macau in the morning and head back in the early evening, I had to explore the island during the middle of the day when it was HOT and there really is no way to avoid a lot of walking on such a day trip. For the locals, motorscooters are the way to go and they are everywhere.

Macau is the Las Vegas of Asia and it is growing incredibly fast. Land is being reclaimed from the sea to build more casinos and expand existing ones. Gambling on this scale is not legal in Hong Kong or China, and so tens of thousands come every weekend to gamble by ferry and plane. The ferry passengers were at least 60% male since men are the primary gamblers. New casinos are going up all over the waterfront.

One of Several New Casinos Going Up

I splurged on an excellent multi-course traditional Portugese dinner mid-afternoon (US$22). The menu was written in Cantonese, Portugese and English, as are many things on the island (Portugese is also an official language here).

St. Paul's Church

Macau was an early outpost of Christianity in Asia. A group of Japanese Christians suffered persecution in Nagasaki when Christianity was banned from Japan near the start of the 16th century. They came here and established St. Paul's church which is now a major tourist attraction. The church is mostly in ruins now, but the front facade still stands and inside there is a mausoleum containing the bones of the original martyrs.

Above is a painting of the original martyrdom in Japan that led to the emigration of the Japanese Christians to Macau to establish the church there.

One of the Many Beautiful Streets in Macau

Macau is a beautiful city. Notice the Portugese-type tile design underlying the street above. It is a great place just to walk around and I really enjoyed the scenery and vibe of the island.

Hong Kong

Adding a note: This blog is apparently banned in Mainland China (but not Hong Kong) -- so I may not have too many updates until I leave China. It appears that I can update the blog but not view it in Mainland China where I am currently located.

Well, it is hard to believe that I woke up in the morning in California, flew to Asia, and was out exploring Hong Kong later that same evening. A round trip costs less than a week's median wages in the US and when I got to the HK airport, I stuck a little card in a machine and accessed my own funds in local HK currency which were instantly dispensed to me -- Marco Polo would have been impressed.

Hong Kong is just a fascinating city -- think San Francisco but with 5 times the density and commercialization. The street scene is full of life. And the sidewalks are a swarming sea of humanity.

25 Meters From My Hostel

This city is more expensive than most that I will be visiting so I am economizing here with a small and extremely clean private room in a hostel for US$23 per night in an almost perfect location in the Kowloon section of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is a very safe place and with seamless public transport -- I can get almost anywhere I want quickly for an average of about 1 US dollar using the underground subway. And I took the long trip from the airport to my hostel by air-conditioned bus for about 5 US dollars.

Both Hong Kong and Macau are Special Administrative Regions of China as of 1997 and 1999, respectively. When ranked as a separate country, Hong Kong has the fifth highest per capita purchasing power in the world. There is every manner of electronics shop here lining the streets for blocks on end and the night markets sell anything you could imagine -- although I have seen most of the same goods already at the Dollar Store and Walmart in the US.

Hong Kong is a great place to shop.

On my first night a storm came out of nowhere while I was out walking. As my five dollar Walmart umbrella popped inside out from the wind/rain burst I felt as if I was holding up a banana skin to protect myself from a hurricane. I thought to myself, I have got to get a new "Hong Kong quality" umbrella able to take this kind of weather. But then I looked and the guy in front of me had the same *exact* umbrella -- after all, you know where all this stuff is made. . . .

Thank goodness for the fact that many speak some English here because my Cantonese is basically non-existent. I spent several hours studying on the plane, but without someone to help me with pronunciation, my efforts are completely useless so far. I couldn't even make a lady at the hostel here understand the Cantonese word for towel -- so I gave up and used a simple hand communication which she instantly understood -- she then said the word which was pronounced quite a bit differently than my attempt.

There is a whole section of businesses run by Indians downtown here selling food, tailored suits and shirts, etc. And yes, my favorite Indian restaurant is expanding (laughs)!

Now for the first time, I fully understand the Opium wars of the 19th century that led to British hegemony in Hong Kong and trade matters and transformed the region. The Hong Kong History Museum really does a great job of communicating the history of the island in what seemed to be a mostly unbiased fashion (although playing down the popular discontent with the undemocratic Chinese adminstration of Hong Kong)

Seeing the sights and experiencing the city of Hong Kong has been a great way for me to ease into China. On Friday, August 31, I am leaving for Guangzhou in Mainland China to meet up with my friend, Helen. It is about a 3.5 hour bus ride from downtown Hong Kong. Since Helen speaks Cantonese, she may be able to tell me what I am eating sometimes -- I think I tried octupus sushi tonight with a mustard and soy type sauce, but I am really not sure . . . . I met up with a couple of Korean girls who wanted to practice English during my last few hours here but I had to get going to catch the bus to the Mainland.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Saying Goodbye

Mom and family friend Laurie took me to the airport in San Diego for my flight to the Bay Area to visit friends for a couple of days before leaving. Laurie was my childhood babysitter back when I was young enough to not talk back.

Travis and Mom

Travis and Laurie

Good friend Surendra kindly hosted me in the Bay Area for a couple of days before my flight to Hong Kong and Dave joined us for dinner two nights in a row. The final dinner just had to be at Shalimar, our favorite Indian place. Surendra and I refer to Shalimar as our "default eating location".

All of us at Shalimar

Dave and Surendra after satisfying meal

I also spent Saturday afternoon with wonderful friend, Irina, in San Francisco but we forgot to take pictures again -- next time, Irina!

My flight leaves in just a few hours and I am sure that I won't be posting for awhile.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

What am I packing?

It takes a lot of planning to figure out what to bring on your trip. Take too much and you become vulnerable to theft, reduce your transportation options, reduce your trip enjoyment and maintain the obligation to carry a heavy brick everywhere you travel in a tropical climate.

Take too little and you may not have what you need when you really need it and, if it is a specialty item, it may not even be available to buy later on the trip.

I have posted photos and detailed captions of everything that I am bringing at:

My final pack and all books weigh about 15 Kg (33 pounds). The size is probably 1.7 times the size of a strictly legal carry on. I really thought I could pack things lighter and more compact than that, but it is what it is. Everything that I own that matters for the next few months will be on my back.

Other things not pictured are all of the paperwork: ATM cards, Credit card, International Driving License (I might rent a motorbike at some point), passport (and paper copies), US drivers license, eye prescription, vaccination records, photos, postcards to show folks abroad what it is like back home, some US dollars, traveler's checks, pictures of loved ones, etc.

I scanned in my important documents and store them in a secure email account. And I have gotten just about every vaccination over the last couple of years, including a few boosters a month ago. I am ready to go!

Life Changes Summer 2007

Yes, Life Changes

Welcome to my journey through Southeast Asia. You mean you thought that was me!

The last few months have been a whirlwind of activity as I quit my job and then moved from San Jose, California to San Diego County in Southern California. I took some fantastic camping trips with friends to Yosemite Valley and Baja Norte, Mexico. After some extensive research, I acquired good, inexpensive, and portable health insurance. I even took a motorcycle riding class and got my motorcycle license! But my main task this summer was helping my mom move into her newly remodeled manufactured home (just moving her took over a month!) and helping to resolve various unfinished business affairs for her after my father's death last year. I am happy to say that we completed just about everything we set out to do.

Saying Goodbye to Friends

Speaking of downsizing, I sold or got rid of most of my stuff. Everything that I own, except for my car and what I am packing on my trip, is captured in the picture below (there are no hidden boxes or items). My goal was to be able to place all of my possessions into a 2 meter cube -- a space measuring 2 meters of width, depth, and height. I am happy to say that I got it all in about two-thirds of that space. In fact, I cleaned out and rearranged my mom's little shed and then put all my stuff in there -- and there was quite a bit more space left in the shed than before I began.

Travis' Stuff

I also spent a lot of time this summer preparing for my trip to Southeast Asia. The countries I plan to visit include China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and possibly Myanmar (Burma). This will be my first visit to Asia. Nothing is set in stone and I am doing most of my planning on the road. Some friends may be joining me along the way. During my journey I hope to document some travel adventures, mistakes(!), strategies (like finances, technology, etc. on the road) and convince my family that I won't be kidnapped after all.

I am making so many last minute preparations before leaving that it feels like I am in front of the computer during one of those late night coding sessions with disposable coffee cups strewn on my desk as my head turns to view the whiteboard which is now cluttered with ever growing data structures. Boy I miss those days or . . . maybe scratch that! Anyway, I arrive in Hong Kong on Monday, August 27, via a one-way $550 ticket and hope to make the most of it. It is getting real now, more than an idea or plan -- the cell phone account has been turned off for good, there are no keys to carry because I no longer have a home or room where my things are located, my car is stored with a car cover -- it's really happening. But I feel really blessed to have the time and the health to go to such distant and exotic places about which I have been so curious for so long.