Sunday, October 28, 2018

China: Chinese Hot Pot

The cold weather has me thinking about my trip to China 4 years ago.  It was for work and I am glad it was because it meant it was a short trip with purpose.  I didn't enjoy China like elsewhere I've traveled but that's a story for another day.  What I DID enjoy was the Chinese hot pot meals I had.
Chinese hot pot dates back over 1000 years when the Mongolians invaded.  This just shows  how much food transcends borders since the Chinese built a wall that can be seen from space to keep the Mongolians out, but absolutely love their hot pot. My colleagues could not stop talking about it and ate it multiple meals while I was in Beijing.
It's not hard to see why it's such a star of Chinese cuisine.  I was in China in November and it was colder that usual with a strong, biting wind.  After a 14 hour flight, I met my local colleague for my first taste of it.  He and I had met before, but hadn't worked together extensively.  The hot pot served as the perfect icebreaker (especially given the jetlag).  When there was a lull in the conversation, you could focus on what was going on in the pot.

SO - what is a hot pot?

It's a simmering metal pot placed at the center of the table with raw ingredients (meat, veggies, etc) to be cooked placed around it. Part of the fun is trying to fish out the food you put in and potentially lost after it starts to boil. There are of course regional variations with what the broth is made out of and what you put into it. I tried the Beijing mutton hotpot and the Sichuan hotpot.
First experience was the mutton hot pot in a restaurant near my hotel in Wangfujing. This area has a lot of students in the area so it was a more modern vibe in the restaurant. The hot pot was a very simple metal pot with bone broth and spices such as shallots, ginger, loganberries, and dried shrimp.  We asked for extra spice so they threw some peppers in there, but it didn't add too much heat.  Thank god for Chinese Fire Water. ;-)
The last hotpot I had before leaving Beijing for Shanghai was the Sichuan hotpot which embraces the spicy flavors of that region. I was with my colleague and a partner from another company.  I had been fortunate to visit during a time when foreign dignitaries were in Beijing which significantly reduced the traffic. This was huge. It means I finished two days of supplier visits and meetings in one day.  That meant I got to visit some different areas that tourists visit and in effect, seeing some tourist sights.  With this, I went to three different sections of the Great Wall of China.  Recall that I said earlier in this post that it was November and colder than usual.  While I loved seeing these different areas, I was frozen and wanted nothing more than to take a hot shower and go to bed.
My colleague said we were going to lunch about 2 exits in the opposite direction to go to a town that was known for their hotpot. I was irritated, but didn't say anything.  We pulled up to a place that looked like a banquet hall from the 1980's with cars parked haphazardly in front of it.  We went inside, the host eyed me up suspiciously but I kept my mouth shut (OK, it was frozen because I was so damn cold).
My colleagues graciously asked what I wanted and I said "hot" because my bones were frozen at this point. They were delighted! One of them was a little nervous about the spice so they decided on a split pot to have half with the Sichuan hot pot and half with something milder.
This was definitely authentic. Children (as well as adults) STARED at me as the only Westerner in the restaurant. We got to our table and it was filthy.  Food from the last customers were cleared.  No one seemed bothered by this. We were served new chopsticks and the hotpot was placed there with plates of thin sliced lamb bits and vegetables to cook.  The interior was delightfully humid where I could warm up and shed some layers.  All the windows to the outside were fogged up from the hot pots.
I wish I remembered the name of the town because it was well known for that, but not something tourists would ever find.  I also wished I wrote down all the different things we put into the pots, plus the sauces etc.  But these were the days before Instagram for me so the below is all I have of my hotpot culinary adventure.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Travel Planning - International date line

I'm really shocked that I don't hear about more people getting lost on the international date line.  I haven't been posting much here trying to figure out where we're going to travel next year.  Take this with the knowledge that I am still not done planning all the details for our trip to Bali & Hong Kong in about 6 weeks.  I like a little bit of pressure to really get my focus on planning all the details plus starting to get excited about the upcoming trip.  The other, less emotional part of it is wanting to have the most current info since I plan everything down to the restaurants that we eat at to the shops, the time to visit the museums to exact hour.  I realized that one of the tours that I had planned time around in Hong Kong (Kung Fu in the park) is no longer available and now I am desperately trying to find an equivalent replacement.

The other version of planning is the FAR out planning.  I found this to actually be more difficult because I get so excited about a trip and then realize that I still have to wait a really long time for it to come to fruition.  Then I start to think, what if I want to change my mind?  What if there is a better deal?  Last year I actually had to change 2 sets of our airline tickets to not only different dates but different gateways. 

Yet, future planning is unavoidable.  I have to have some semblance of a plan as Mr. Thief and I do have actual jobs and can't just jet off whenever we want (though we have been accused of this frequently).  It takes a lot of man hours just to figure out how much I can cram into seeing a destination in a short amount of time, how likely I will be to go back, etc.  Then I have to compare the seasonality to when we can get to these places.  THEN I have to figure out how to actually get there.  Take the example of FIJI.  Mr. Thief lets me dictate where we are going, but I badger him until he picks something or keeps saying "I don't care.  I don't care. IdontcareIdontcareIdontcare..." and so on.  Or Germany.  He always picks Germany.  Color me delighted when he sent me an email out of the blue and said "Here is a bird-watching resort in Fiji that popped up in my feed.  I'd like to go here".  I was incredibly happy - A week in Fiji!  Great!  I can so do this!  And then I started to look at how to get there.  There are like a bajillion islands that make up Fiji and there are basically zero ways to easily get there from the US...or I should say few ways that don't include a hundred connections, layovers or a bunch of $$$.

Which brings me full circle to my international date line comment.  I am so confused about what days the flights operates and arrive to the US - I think there's one that departs Fiji on a Friday early AM and then arrives to the US on the previous Thursday night.  Then, trying to move the flight a day later, there's a connection through Seattle back to Honolulu and then the US.  I don't even know what day that got back because it was all "I before E except after C" and I tried to use PEMDAS that I learned in match class to puzzle it out.  If my flight plans work, it is going to be super crazy, but an affordable adventure with a lot of things.  More content coming soon. At the very least, some exciting trips on the horizon!

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Feeling Squirrel-y? Airline emotional support animals

Not even going there about the emotional support squirrel bit (OK, in posting this I guess I AM going there ;-)) but how emotionally fragile are you if you are flipping people off after being kicked off the flight?
Personally, I think there are probably a small subset of people that desperately need these animals because of some trauma, but most people are just trying to get their pet on the flight.  Someone even tried to get a PEACOCK on a flight in Newark.  I am an animal lover, and if the squirrel was properly contained, it's less offensive than other animals...
....Such as the small furry dog that was jammed under my seat by the woman behind me on my flight from Athens to Crete this Summer.  The dog was generally fine except its owners: Wealthy grandma who kept blabbing about chartering a private jet and yachts blah blah blah AND bratty teenage granddaughter who whined the entire time and was super rude to Grandma and the flight attendants.  Then SuperBrat proceeded to drag the fluffy dog out of the terminal after we landed as it peed all over the floor and didn't tell anyone.  She did notice it and I went to look for someone...and then a cab driver stepped in it. Ugh.
Woman Kicked off Flight For Emotional Support Squirrel
Let Me See Your Peacock

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Newark: United Polaris Lounge

OK, the Thief is having serious travel envy right now as Mr. Thief travels for work to Prague. He gets to fly business class because he is a VIT (Very Important Thief). Only kidding, he just works hard and is lucky. We do tend to travel from Newark Airport on United and have visited the lounge a few times. This is the first time visiting since United redid its business class lounge in Terminal C. The prior United lounge there was comfortable, but underwhelming compared to other carriers and airports globally. Previously, the only real pros were the staff and the actual size/layout of the lounge space. The places where it really showed a lack of polish were the bathrooms and the food offerings. It's been going under a major overhaul for what I think was a year and it finally opened this June.  Actually, Newark airport had undergone it's own renaissance recently and with an array of nicer restaurant options available, the United lounge was lagging behind.  You can find some more of the details here.

Take a look at some of the pictures below to see the new lounge in action!  The Hubs was very impressed with the new food and it definitely is an improvement to have a proper buffet now.  He was also very excited that there was craft beer instead of the previous options which were limited as far as included beers. It also seems like the seating has improved from comfort, style and availability of options for solo travelers to keep to themselves. And, I am happy to see that the bathrooms no longer look like you are visiting a high school locker room.  I can't wait to visit for myself though I think my next flight is on a different airline alliance.  I, of course, know what my next scheduled flight is, but that doesn't mean that I won't sneak something else in before then. ;-)



Thursday, September 27, 2018

Could this be more Irish?

I say this in an bemused sort of disapproving sort of way of how stereotypes come about. The fact that this guy got out onto the tarmac to chase a plane (Like it was really going to stop) is ridiculous in itself.  THEN after being charged and leaving court on bond, he moons the press and takes a swing at them with his suitcase.
I feel my Irish heritage (many generations removed) identifies with this sort of bad behavior and I find it on the humorous rather than horrifying side of things.

Oh, and it was a RYANAIR flight from Dublin to Amsterdam  What did that cost him anyway?  like 20 Eur?

Morocco: Bahia Palace Marrakesh

You cannot visit Marrakesh and not visit the Bahia Palace. It is a massive complex with over 160 rooms built for Ba Ahmed over 100 years ago in the late 19th century. It is ornate with Islamic patterns though they are a little simple compared to other Moroccan palaces. What is most impressive is its sheer size. My pictures don't do it justice because I was so tired at this point from the morning touring. Even with all the space, it was still pretty crowded and make sure to leave enough time to see it.
The name "Bahia" translates to 'Beautiful/Brilliant" which is a bit insulting to Ba Ahmed's wife when you consider this was built for his favorite mistress and concubines. I mean the wife got an expansion on her residence with him for her and the kids but she would probably like her own space too - like an ancient day She-Shed? ;-)
The same French general that discovered the Saadian tombs also made this palace his residence while he was in Marrakesh.  He added fireplaces, heat and electricity.  See what I meant by saying that my favorite thing about the Saadian tombs was that they were hidden away from human interference for so long?
Enjoy a few of the pictures from the palace and make sure to wear good walking shoes to explore the extensive rooms and walk over the tiled floors.  It's open daily from 9AM - 5PM (17:00) and the entrance is very affordable - converts to about $1


Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Morocco: Saadian Tombs Marrakesh

The Saadian tombs are another must see when visiting Marrakesh. What I most adore about their story is that they were sealed away for 300 years.
As the name suggests, they are in fact a burial site for members of the Saadian dynasty. Headed by Sultan Ahmed el Mansour in the 1500 and 1600s, there are something like 200 members of his family group buried here.  In the late 1600s, Moulay Ismail had taken over Morocco and went about erasing all the evidence of his predecessors to solidify his own power.  However, he didn't destroy the tombs and respected the sanctity of the dead intact by instead sealing them off.  There was one entrance still available from inside the Kasbah Mosque, but it was largely forgotten about. In 1917 a French general located the tombs and they were restored from that point.  Why I like that they were sealed off from the public for that long is that there wasn't the opportunity for anything to happen to them over the years, whether it be actual vandalism or well meaning restoration gone wrong.

If you locate the Kasbah Mosque, you'll find the tombs.  It's really quite peaceful and the decoration of the tombs and mausoleums is amazing.  There's also some greenery with roses, citrus, palms and rosemary.  If I remember correctly, there were some bats nesting in one of the corners of the walls, but that might be something that only appeals to me :-).  Enjoy some of the pictures from my visit below.
Kasbah Mosque



Thursday, September 20, 2018

No one gives an F...

 What do you think of the Cathay Pacific spelling mistake on their own plane; mistake or publicity stunt? It's possible someone was lazy, then someone else overlooked it especially considering Chinese and English share 0 letters in common. Buuuut the fact they have someone on social media draped in fairy lights in their first class it is possible they thought it was a way to generate buzz.
I really don't care, I'm still excited to fly them this year when I go to Hong Kong and Bali!

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Morocco: La Jardin Majorelle Marrakesh

Taking a little break from Egypt posts, but staying in the Middle East / Northern Africa neighborhood, I'm shifting gears to my trip to Morocco in this past year.  Morocco is one of those wondrous places that blends multiple cultures while maintaining its own identity. It's a little French, a little Arabic and a little African but totally Moroccan.
I'll start with one of the last things I visited on this trip. It's one of my favorite sites, the Le Jardin Majorelle in Marrakesh also known as the Yves Saint Laurent garden. It's a main place to visit but maybe not one you immediately think of for visiting in Morocco. The 'Majorelle' comes from the name of the French artist who originally created it on his property that he lived on. Yves Saint Laurent came on to the scene when he purchased it in 1980 after it had fallen into disrepair over the 30 years that Majorelle no longer owned the villa and grounds.
I love gardens, but what was really striking is the use of the bright cobalt blue paint. It's actually a patented color bleu Majorelle inspired by the tiles on Berber houses. There is a small museum of Moroccan/Berber items that were curated by Majorelle.
The plants themselves are also quite beautiful. Typically, I enjoy foreign gardens that are full of native plants, but this garden has a contained amount of plants suited to the environment but not from Morocco.  Bamboo is what you'll see immediately upon entering the garden and it sets the mystical tone.  Cactus play a big role as there are something like 1800 different species in this small space.  Other botanical beauties include yucca, bougainvillea, hibiscus, cypress and water lilies.

More Cactus
Bleu Majorelle paint & Bougainvillea
I went later in the day and it was still very crowded even shortly before closing. The grounds are small, and paths narrow, for the amount of people that visit it. The part that was especially hilarious for me was that most of the visitors were SO CLASSY.  Not because they were classy, but because I was in attendance at a place of such high fashion. I said "so classy" in caps because I am obviously not classy evidenced by my friend S and I acting like four year olds while we were in the garden. We had a great time making sophomoric jokes and falling over giggling but we definitely did not fit in with the polished crowd that was there. To the credit of all the well-heeled Europeans in the garden, whose quiet solace we interrupted, they didn't judge us more than a polite 'excuse me' or a sympathetic smile of "Oh those wacky tacky Americans."
If you plan to visit, it's open daily from 8 to 6 with a break for lunch.  Early and late are probably the best times to visit based on visitors and being there an hour before closing during a winter months definitely worked.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Egypt: Things to See in Cairo

Perhaps you've heard of a little thing called The Pyramids..?

And we're done here with things to see in Egypt.

JUST KIDDING.  The pyramids are great, but there are so many antiquities and other interesting things that sometimes get lost behind these giant 3D triangles. You shouldn't try to just check something off your bucket list and not see the other things Cairo has to offer.

So there's not much I'm going to say about the history because that is not what I am here for.  I do recommend not to go it alone - book a tour. Yes, you can arrange things while on site to take a camel or horse between the pyramids, but honestly, the sites have gotten a little less relaxed about just strolling though. Even at the first pyramid between the last time I visited and now there was some scuffle about payment and wanting to walk through.  Well, we found out because there is a shopping street between the entrance and exit.  My driver and friend got into a "discussion" we'll call it when we didn't want to go up to the 1st pyramid.  Plus if you are on the tour you are not waiting for the ticket in a line etc.

If you are wondering about walking between the sites, I wouldn't recommend it though I have not tried. Normally I walk any place I absolutely can. It's not that it's a particularly long distance or that the desert itself is taxing (which it was this last time in August) but there's something uncomfortable about it.  The narrow road is for the tourism vehicles, the sand is not that dreamy Sahara texture you can stroll through. There's bound to be constant hawkers trotting up to you offering services.  It's not a picturesque walk because you can see the Pyramids from anywhere.

Can you go in them / on them? Officially "no" on the ON them but the guards will let you climb up a little bit if that's your thing.  My first trip to Egypt I pretended to do so because what was the point of climbing up a few blocks vs staying on the ground if you couldn't climb to the top?
IN them is a yes, but you'll have to pay an extra entrance and there's really not much to see.  Been there twice, been in zero pyramids.  But, if this is your only trip to Egypt ever and you want to say you've been in a pyramid, then do it.  I didn't want to wait in line, climb into a stuffy stone structure and deal with getting money out after I had been in the tombs in the Valley of the Kings (totally worth it).

"Which Creature has one voice and yet becomes four footed and two-footed and three-footed?
In mythology, the sphinx had a head of a human, a body of a lion and sometimes wings of an eagle. If you cannot answer the riddle the sphinx places forth, you will be devoured by the sphinx.

I have no idea how you would get between the Pyramids and the Sphinx if you were not in a vehicle to be honest.
I want to prepare you for the Sphinx. You've gone to the Pyramids and they have been amazing. The Sphinx is not as impressive as pictures. It is smaller than you think and normally with a standard number of tourists you are vying for a spot at the fence. Having already been to the Pyramids, you're let down.  Then, because it is a fragile beast, it is almost always under some sort of scaffolding for restoration. Please set your expectations low so you can enjoy because it is impressive when you really think about it. I was so fortunate this time to see it this time at the point of low tourism and went in with the expectation from having visited before.  As a second time visitor, I enjoyed it more this time around, maybe more than the pyramids even because it was more tranquil.  
Something to note is that you will need you ticket from the pyramids to enter. This last visit, the ticket checker was the most hilarious and friendly person I met in all Egypt which is saying something since the Egyptians have a lot of character! You will go through a stone temple that doesn't have much to see at this stage of its life. When you depart, you go through the typical tourist shop alley.  Oddly enough, this time no one approached us to buy the sun-baked, dated souvenirs they had probably from before the revolution.  Either it was too early in the day when I was there or they are the only vendors in Egypt that were getting a decent amount of business as being in a tourist and the chronological end of the visits.

Memphis & Sakkara
Another must do in Cairo is to leave the downtown area and do a tour of Memphis & Sakkara.  The Sakkara site consists of some of the earliest Egyptian funerary structures. The Step Pyramid of Djoser is the main reason you are here and you can see that 'earliest' equals constant restructure/renovation.  I think at one point you were actually able to climb on the pyramid.  I could be making that part up... Regardless, this is all to say don't be disappointed in the site after seeing the pyramids in Giza. There are some other smaller pyramids and tombs there too and a lot of neat history.
On to Memphis. This was once the capital of Egypt (See?  I gave you some history even though I said I wasn't going to!).  Compared to the other sites, I consider it calm with some greenery and statues.  The main thing to see is the giant statue of Ramses II. Here it is pictured from the second floor of the open air museum.
Yes, I am five, picking Ramses nose

Nile River Dinner Cruise 
You have to be careful that something like this doesn't turn out to be cheesy. I have to be honest, Cairo is not somewhere that I would be going out on my own at night. As much as I loathe to do anything that involves a boat and dinner show, the one I went to was enjoyable.  There aren't many landmarks that you float by down the river. I consider it's really a chance to escape the oppressive traffic and have nice glide down the river.

I had a nice dinner with a salad bar buffet plus a plated meal of my choice.  There was live music, though some of it was versions of contemporary songs and not traditional tunes.  The entertainment consisted of of the 'whirling dervish' which is nothing like what you would see in Turkey.  The ones you see in Egypt have colorful outfits and do more acrobatic moves.  There's also a belly dancer which can be entertaining or awful.  Mine was the former.  She danced very well and wore tasteful outfits.  Was not the case of the belly dancer I saw during the Nile cruise in Upper Egypt...
Cairo Citadel
The Saladin Citadel is located in central Cairo, but up on a hill.  This gives the opportunity for stunning views of the city and another chance to play the game "Can I see the pyramids from here?".  The citadel consists of a few different complexes but you are mainly here to see the Mosque of Muhammad Ali AKA the Alabaster Mosque. If you've been to Turkey, you'll note similarities between this mosque and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.  Same architect!
It is beautiful and not to be missed.  This is something that you could definitely do on your own by grabbing a cab to and from the site.  There's something to be said though for having a guide to explain the history and architecture. As mentioned, there are other sites in the complex, such as the military museum.  I have not personally visited that one, but have seen others mentioned they enjoyed.  Something to add to the list for next time!

Egyptian Museum
Officially known as the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities. This is an old museum, but hey, all of the artifacts in it are old too so it's in good company. ;-)  It's stuffy, dusty, it smells funny and it was definitely looted during the revolution, but you can't find these items anywhere. It is well maintained for what it is. 
The future of this museum depends on what is actually going to happen with the NEW museum that is being built out in Giza.  That museum started back in 2012 (I think? I'm terrible with dates which I why I'm no historian!) and the projected opening keeps getting delayed.  Some say the end of this year (2018).  I'm seeing notice about a soft opening during Spring of 2019.  I saw the building site and I think there's no way it's going to be open even next year. I also don't think that they will completely shut down the current downtown Egyptian Museum once the new one is open.  Some of the items will definitely move, but I think for historic value the old museum will remain operational.

Khan el Khalili Bazaar
Look, I'm not a shopper so unless it's purely a food market, I never enjoy these places. I've seen multiple people go gaga for shopping or haggling in these markets. The atmosphere is neat as you feel a bit like you are transported to another time.

Cairo Tower
This isn't one that you see on most tours - and for a good reason.  The access would be very difficult.  I went with 25 Egyptian colleagues and it was a tight squeeze to get us all in the elevator even in shifts. Plus the bus couldn't go down the access road making it a small walk down the actual road and I don't recall sidewalks. The views are stunning on the outdoor terrace (Yes! You can see the pyramids but the haze makes it difficult). There are two places for food; One being more a cafe style option and the other being a more upscale restaurant.

That sums up my very brief synopsis of Cairo sites. Hopefully this gave you a little tast of what there is to do in Cairo. I'll circle back a little later on to the sights to see in Upper Egypt but I didn't go to Luxor or Aswan on this trip.