Jen & Dan Summer Tour 2008

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

And we're back

We made it home safe and sound late yesterday afternoon. It was a long flight back, though we got back before we left, thanks to the international date line. We actually managed to sleep OK last night, though we were up and about with coffee going by 4:30 AM, so I think it will take a few days to firmly readjust.

While I hope that this blog has been enjoyable to those of you who have kept up with our adventures this summer we have been inspired to try to leave something more here than simply a record of our journey. About the only thing that we consistently did in each country (besides butchering the local language) was fervently search for Mexican food in any form. If an establishment had tacos or even nachos on the menu Jen and I would be drawn in and would, in the name of international relations, try the food. I mean you would expect a country to be good at making their local food (which was really some of the best we had wherever we went), but the true measure of the gastronomic skills of a population should be measured using a consistent barometer. Therefore, I humbly submit for your review:

Jen and Dan’s Guide to the Quality of Mexican Food in Several Foreign Countries, Abridged

Bali (Indonesia) – While we had to search down several alleys to find TJ’s Mexican Restaurant we were rewarded for our diligence. The salsa had a mango-y taste to it, but the cheese was authentic and the vegetables in the fajitas were cooked just right. Grade: A-
Botswana – We were actually fed several times a day (like eight), while on safari so we never felt the grumbling in our stomachs that drove us to search out a restaurante. Grade: N/A
Cambodia – We were excited to find a Mexican joint on the main Pub street and made it our first stop. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it past the chips and salsa. The good news is that I think the chips were authentic, as in actually made in Mexico. The bad news is I think they were sent to Cambodia by slow boat, possibly under sail. Grade: C-
China – We were about one week without salsa when we first spotted nachos on a menu, so I would have expected our analysis to be more biased. While they got good marks on the quality of the salsa, the pollo tasted a little more like gato, so we said, “no mas” and skipped the burritos. Grade: C-
England – While at this point we had been salsa-less for nearly three weeks the little taco shop we found in Cambridge really wasn’t very good no matter how much we sat there and tried to pretend otherwise. The owners had obviously visited a Chipotle in the U.S. and got points for trying to recreate the magic on the other side of the pond, but really the food was terrible. At least the chips were really chips and not french fries. Grade: C
Hong Kong – Like New York, you really can get anything here, so it was of little surprise when we found a fantastic Mexican food joint in the heart of the city. The chips and guac were outstanding and the tacos had some of the best chicken we had tasted in quite some time. The margaritas were sweet and juicy and combined with the good selection of Mexican beer were enough to fuel a hangover the next morning, which, though possibly unfair to the establishment, influenced the judge’s scoring decision. Grade: B-
Japan – We did not find or try Mexican food while in Japan. It could have been because we were only a few days away from our known haunts back in Chicago or because we enjoyed the local food so much, but regardless, we fell down on our duties in this country, and we apologize. Grade: N/A
Macau – Surprisingly we were in this Special Administrative Region of China for an entire three hours and didn’t seek out a Mexican restaurant. Perhaps we were becoming seasoned travelers by this point in the trip. Grade: N/A
South Africa – I imagine that there has to be some nachos somewhere in this country, but we failed to find it. To be fair we were at the start of our trip so we were a little less inspired (read: the cold sweats of withdrawals had yet to start). Grade: N/A
Thailand – On a drive to the city from the airport Jen saw a sign for Sunrise Tacos from a cab going 60 MPH in the driving rain – such is our dedication (or obsession) Making a note of the tall buildings in the area we commenced our search the next day to find the advertised eatery. We were rewarded by the best Mexican food in all of Asia. Run by an American ex-pat from Florida, Greg Barnes, Sunrise boasted real guacamole, a fresh salsa bar, and tortilla chips made on sight. As a portly gentleman, Mr. Barnes had to squeeze to fit through the door and I knew that if anyone could appreciate how to get an enchilada just right it would be him. Yes, we ate there twice in one day. Grade: A
Vietnam – While I am usually leery of restaurants that advertise “The Best Mexican Food in the World” next to a sign that says “The Best Italian Food in the World,” Al Fresco’s Restaurant in Hanoi was a welcome relief of chipotle goodness. The Fajitas came on an authentic looking skillet and were even sizzling at the table. We were so impressed that we sought out the sister property in Ho Chi Min City to test if the magic could cross the former DMZ zone. The chain was consistent, though the margaritas left something to be desired, tasting more like sprite and rubbing alcohol mixed together then spiked with green food coloring. Of course, we finished the whole pitcher. Grade: B
Zimbabwe – The only non-local fare was to be found at the British-run Victoria Hotel which, shockingly, had menu absent of anything tasting good, I mean, tasting like Mexican food. Grade: N/A

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Touchdown Tokyo

Crisis averted – we made it safe and sound to our hotel in Japan thanks to an extensive amount of signage in English and the extreme patience of many Japanese citizens who helped direct Jen and I as we barreled through trains and escalators with baggage in tow. Japan is a beautifully clean and organized country. After being in so many countries where things like sidewalks are a work-in-progress it seems almost shocking. Every visible surface whether a car, road, building, billboard, etc. is dirt free, polished and manicured.

The people have been among the kindest and most considerate that we have come across in Asia. On the train to Kyoto the other day I received a small brush on my shoulder and found a note being passed to me. I looked back to find the smiling face of an elderly lady nodding at me. The note said (in English), “Sorry, Mt. Fuji is hidden in cloudy, right-hand side,” and included a hand drawn picture of the famous Japanese landmark with its top masked in clouds. I think she must have been working on the note quite a while as after thanking her it became apparent that her English was not conversational. It was very sweet and the note has been safely saved for posterity.

As mentioned we took a side trip to Kyoto. This stunning former capital of Japan is the home of many gardens, temples and brick lined streets that look straight out of a movie set. After walking through the serene gardens and poking our noses into the meticulously kept yards and private gardens, we began the serious business of Geisha hunting. We had heard that these performers could still be found in Kyoto slipping through the alleys in full garb on their way to tea houses, so we decided to put all the skills at tracking that we had learned in Africa to the test. With no guidebook (still too cheap) we had to rely solely on our instincts. Our African guides would have been proud. About an hour into the hunt we were walking down an alley just wide enough for a bicycle when we heard a small bell ringing behind us. We turned around just in time to see a white faced young woman scurry past us in broad daylight! Unfortunately I was slow on the draw with my camera and we were only able to get a picture of the back of her head as she rounded the corner. This thrilling sighting gave us energy for many more hours of the hunt and in total we saw eight more confirmed Geishas and one lady that was either a Geisha or just hadn’t seen the sun in a while and was wearing a brightly colored bathrobe.

The sighting of the Geisha’s in their natural habitat has caused us to try to come up with a list of “big five” sights in Asia based on our experience. This is unofficial and probably politically incorrect and we welcome the nomination of other sights or just comments in general.
  1. The Great Wall of China
  2. The Forbidden City in Beijing
  3. Angkor Wat in Cambodia
  4. Geishas in Japan
  5. We were undecided between Ha Long Bay in Vietnam or the working women that line the streets in Bangkok – its really quite shocking
This morning we headed back to Tokyo via a train. Today and tomorrow morning we will we will see the sights of the big city before getting ready to board a plan tomorrow and fly back to Chicago. This trip has been amazing, and Jen and I feel so fortunate to have had this opportunity. After being on the road for so many weeks we are excited to return to see our friends and family and even to get back to work.

The elusive Geisha escapes as I fumble with the camera. Despite only moving each foot about 3 inches when she walked she moved quite fast...

Here is a street scene from Tokyo in all its glory.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai, etc.

This post finds us back in Shanghai China after a whirlwind four countries in as many days. A few days ago we left Bangkok for Hong Kong, made a side trip to Macau (technically a separate country) and flew this morning to Shanghai. Tomorrow we head to Tokyo for a short stay in Japan on our way back home. Somehow this schedule all seemed like a good idea back when we booked it.

Hong Kong is spectacular and we instantly fell in love. It has all the charm and energy of other cities we have found in Asia while having many more trappings of home, including tap water we can drink and many, many English speakers. I have heard it described as New York on steroids and I think I would agree. It is amazing how many huge buildings are packed tightly together on such a small piece of land. Thankfully some of the terrain is too steep for humans to safely live on, which gives the island a decent amount of greenery as well. We had a blast wandering through the streets, riding the train to the top of Victoria Peak, and enjoying good (albeit expensive) food. When the happy hour prices are about $6 a beer you know you're in trouble.

Perhaps this picture (of about 1% of buildings in Hong Kong) will give an idea of the sheer size of the city.

We decided to take a side trip by ferry over to Macau about an hour away. We were expecting to find a Las Vegas on steroids. What we found was more like a Reno that took too many steroids in the 60's and is now suffering the consequences. Actually, it seemed very quaint and nice but we really didn't have enough time to give a full, fair exploration. We did go to the Wynn Casino, which is nearly identical to the Vegas property.

We got into Shanghai early enough today to spend some quality time in the city. Let me translate - we made one more mad dash to the market for stuff we couldn't live without and had to buy a bigger suitcase to bring it all home. I wish I was kidding. We were able to get to the river's edge for our last meal of Chinese food in China. At night the sides of the buildings in this area are utilized as giant electronic billboards, which we tried to capture with this picture.

Jen and I got cheap a few weeks ago and decided to forgo purchasing a travel book for Japan since we are only going to be there for four days. I have now spent the last two hours trying to figure out the Japanese subway system from information online so that we can get to our hotel tomorrow. I am so confused as I am not even confident that our hotel is even in Japan. Consider this fair warning that my next post could be very angry and full of expletives...

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Briefly Back in Bangkok

Jen and I are back in Bangkok for about 36 hours in route between Bali and Hong Kong. We have had a much more enjoyable experience this time and have found the city quite charming. Third time's a charm, I guess.

Today we went to an aquarium here that rivals the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. It has a huge tank with about 50 sharks swimming around (along with about 200K small other fish swimming much faster) and featured large glass walkways where you could walk underneath the swimming beasts. Plus, we found the best mexican food we have had in all of Asia at a mall in a food court. Don't worry, we ate there for two meals. I think we can make it till we get home now.

We spent the rest of the day running errands, which mainly consisted of picking up the clothes that we ordered from a tailor last week. I say "we" with a slight reluctance, since although I would love to say that it was Jen who bought all the clothes, it turns out they were all mine. Which really means that the most exciting and challenging adventure of our relationship will be when we get home. It will be called, "will Jen cede closet space to Dan for all the new clothes he bought in Asia?" We're gonna sell tickets and popcorn to that one.

As we were flying from Bali to Kuala Lumpur yesterday we saw this volcano erupting somewhere in the South Pacific/Indian Ocean (not sure which).

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

More from Bali

I thought that we should write a few more words about Krabi as most people consider it a beautiful place. Looking at the picture below, you can easily see why.

What really turned us off to Krabi and the Phi Phi islands was the shear number of people. It seems that everyone in the world that can travel has discovered this paradise. We took a speedboat out to the Phi Phi islands one day and were jumped from cove to cove and beach to beach at break neck speed. When we got to the enchanting cove where the Leo DiCaprio film The Beach was filmed a few years ago (about a supposed Utopia), they told us to quickly jump off the back of the boat for our 35 minutes on shore. We scrambled off to find a beach about 200 feet long with something like 500 other tourists who came in on similar speed boats. The water was too dirty to swim (besides you would have to try to dodge the incoming boats dropping people off) and it was hilarious to see everyone standing around with the same confused, lost look on their face. Even some teenage Italians who were on their third beer of the day before we boarded the boat were saying, "what-a are-a we-a doing-a here-a?"

So, Krabi didn't have much magic for us, but Bali does! Yesterday we took a tour of the interior of the island up into the mountains. We were picked up in a Land Cruiser, which I figured was mainly so tourists like us could feel a little rugged. In fact we very much needed the four-wheel drive as we climbed up the jeep trails into the interior of island on the side of a volcano. We visited a quarry where the locals were cutting bricks for the building of temples and houses, and saw the beautiful rice terraces that seem to make up the building blocks of the island as it stacks toward the sky.

Here a man cuts the bricks out of the rock face with an axe.

This is his wife, carrying the bricks out of the quarry to sell in the market.

This is a view of some of the rice terraces as they march up the side of the mountain.

Bali is by far the cleanest place in Asia that we have been. There is some garbage on the side of the road in the city, but the whole countryside seems well manicured and maintained.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Bali Ha'i

We arrived in Bali last night after a quick stopover through Kuala Lumpur. This place is every bit the paradise I have imagined it to be. Luckily, we have the entire week to explore and enjoy.

Our second stay in Bangkok did not change our impression of the city that much. It seems that every transaction is a negotiation, even when the price has already been agreed upon. For example, there may be a sign that displays the cab fare to a particular destination, such as 600 bhot. You tell a cab driver that you want to go to this place as you get in the cab and he says, "800 bhot." You explain that you are paying 600 because you just saw the sign, and after some complaining it seems agreed upon. You then get to the destination and the driver says, "OK, 800." It's like they want to see if you are paying attention or have the mental capacity of an armchair.

Furthermore, it seems to be common to make it an emotional spectacle. In trying to pay for a dinner where I found we were overcharged the owner tried to explain it was for ambiance. Hmmm, that wasn't on the menu. After explaining that we are not paying the extra fee he leaves his perch behind the counter to circle around and start shouting things at me. So I have what appears to be a very pissed of restaurant owner who is on his tip toes trying to reach the height of my chin and all I can think is some bad Kung Fu movie that was on TV the night before and how much this guy looks like the lead character (the one who won). Little did he know that we are packing a secret weapon when it comes to negotiation...Jen. By the end of the "negotiation" we paid less than our bill should have been, had a few free coupons and nearly had a free ride back to our hotel. Well, not quite, but we made it out with all my teeth, which I enjoyed.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Still Trekking

Sorry for the delay in posting and to those of you who have reached out to wonder if we are still around. We are clicking along on our Asia adventure, making our way though Vietnam, Cambodia and into Thailand.

From Hanoi we took an overnight train down the coast of Vietnam to Hue, just a few miles south of the old DMZ. We thought that would be a lovely way to see the Vietnamese countryside. What we didn’t count on was getting a first hand experience in the finest luxury a communist country had to offer. From the moment we got to our “deluxe” sleeper we knew we would be in for a treat. We first noticed was that the A/C we upgraded for consisted of an oscillating fan stuck to the ceiling and sounding like it had last been greased when people were using whale oil. We then proceeded to kill all the cockroaches in the berth before greeting our new sleeper mates from Singapore. The beds were arranged in a bunk style, with Jen taking the top bunk and me on the bottom. It was very cozy as I could (if I would have wanted) reach out across the small isle to tuck in the other person sleeping on the bottom bunk. About the time the train was to start from the station we heard a rumor that there might not be a meal car, so I ran of the train to by overpriced Oreo’s and beer from an opportunistic vendor. I guess the market economy is starting to take hold after all.

The train was off and after a couple of beers and a few card games we were ready to settle in for the night. I got to sleep around midnight, about the time we made a stop at a station. I awoke around four to find the train also at a stop, learning later that it was the same one. Thus began our 24 hour experience on what Jen lovingly calls the “prison train.” There were bars on the windows, we couldn’t get off whenever the train did start moving and came to stops, and though there was a kitchen it had a menu with one item on it for each meal – usually something meant to represent meat.

Here is a picture of a not-so-happy Jen in captivity.

Those travails aside we made it to Hue to find a lovely little beach side town, though we didn’t get to stay there long. We decided that we were done with the Vietnam trains, so we opted for a bus to our next destination. The bus was large, greyhound style, new looking, full of other western travelers, but, of course the A/C consisted of a few gerbils blowing at us from behind a vent screen. Luckily this trip was only three hours and most of our other trip mates had showered fairly recently. We arrived in Hoi An, which to date has been our favorite part of Asia. It is a quaint place, and we were able to fill up our suitcase with souvenirs and I found a tailor that found it very easy to get money out of my pocket for hand made items. There was one incident that occurred after we had two bottles of wine (supporting Chile this time), though I won’t go into details I think I might be getting a few more shirts in the mail when I get home…we’ll see.

After a few days supporting the Hoi An economy we took a flight to Saigon (we learned our lesson). We only had one night in Saigon, but we managed to make the most of it. After finding dinner we were wandering around in search of a Karaoke club as after almost three weeks in Asia Jen had not had her singing debut. Our search seemed to be in vain, until we noticed just underneath our hotel a sign advertising Karaoke, Slots and a Bar. Eureka! We went up stairs, told them we were looking for Karaoke and were quickly whisked down to the main lounge. I thought it was very strange at first that all the guys and girls in the bar upstairs were seated in opposite groups, but I figured it was a cultural thing. It looked like mainly business travelers (again 99% men) in the bar, which made sense considering we were downstairs from a Marriott. Before long we were a few beers in and Jen was singing a Neil Diamond (Sweet Caroline of course) duet with a businessman from Malaysia. Suddenly there was a group of attractive women surrounding a table across the bar from us. I’m thinking, “way to go guys, the ratio could use some help in here.” Several of the girls go sit with some of the guys, then the girls move on to the next group. An elderly woman walks to each guy, says a few words, points at a girl or two, then either points at another girl or moves on to the next gentlemen as the first girl goes and sits on his lap. Here is about how the conversation went between Jen and I:

Dan (tugging on Jen’s shirt tail): Jen, I think we’re in a brothel!

Jen: Sweet Carol….What?

Dan (slightly louder): I think we are in a brothel.

Jen: Good times never felt so…A what?

Dan (At the top of his lungs and out of tune): WE ARE IN A BROTHEL. LET’S GET OUT OF HERE BEFORE WE GET PROPOSITIONED!

Jen: I’ve been inclined…(dead silence)…really?

Dan: Do you think the 60 year old dude over there got those two girls to sit on his lap on charm alone?

Jen: Oh.

With that we paid our tab and left, laughing all the way at what idiot tourists we must have like to everyone else in the club. Our Asian experience is getting more and more full!

Here is the scene of the almost crime.

The next morning we were ready to put Vietnam behind us and head to Cambodia. We got to the airport with plenty of time to spare, only to find that the airline we booked several months before no longer flew out of Saigon. Needless to say, a slight panic ensued. The only number we had for the airline was in Thailand, but there was no place at the airport to buy an international phone card (Communist, remember). Luckily the guy who ran the mail counter was more than happy to let us use his phone to make an international call, for a fee of about $1 per minute, paid in cash of course (another example of the power of free markets!). Do you know how frustrating it is to listen to hold music in a foreign language when you are paying $1 per minute? After some exasperating phone conversations and a cab ride back to the downtown of Saigon we were on a flight several hours later, and finally landed in Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat.

Our time in Cambodia was fantastic, though mild compared to Vietnam. We spent two days visiting the ruins of the ancient temples (from the 12th and 13th Century) and were able to take some amazing photos. We also were able to go to a local orphanage and play with the children for a few hours each day. On the first day we were there we played some games of duck-duck-goose and laughed with the kids, touched at how bright and smiling their faces were. We were so moved that the next day we went back, this time with paper, pencils, packets, fruit and other things we picked up at the market. The woman who ran place showed us the “feast” of curry and meat that the kids were having for lunch thanks to the small donation we made the day before. It was very heart wrenching. Thanks to Angelina Jolie Cambodia has very strict laws about foreigners adopting children because I don’t think I would have had the heart to tell Jen that she couldn’t bring one home.

Here we are outside of Ankor Wat a little after sunrise.

These trees are fighting with the rocks for space.

There were 44 children at the orphanage.

Maybe it would have been Jen that would have had to tell me, "No"

We left Cambodia and flew through Bangkok on our way to Krabi Island. After being in Vietnam and Cambodia the size of Bangkok was a little shocking to us. Krabi has been a blur of fun and sun, though we did manage to take a speed boat around some of the Phi Phi Islands. There are tons of people here, and though the water is beautiful it seems very dirty. It has been my turn to fight a stomach sickness, so that doesn’t help. Tomorrow we head back to Bangkok for a few days before going for a week’s stay in the supposed paradise of Bali. After all this traveling, we really need a vacation.