Tuesday, January 23, 2007

hoping, dreaming

Grandma Ma is back in hospital again. Very weak, low insulin levels, vomiting and the rest of it. She gets professional care there but "it's not home." Here's a small pic of her in her apartment on the couch just a few weeks ago. I hope she recovers soon and can go home and relax on her massage chair. You certainly can measure the distance in kilometres and time zones a lot more acutely when a loved one is not well.

Apparently there is snow in Ottawa now! Not like it was years ago where snowbanks would be taller than me, but at least the ground is covered in a beautiful white blanket. One day, and i hope in my lifetime, we will be able to travel instantaneously to wherever we desire. I would beam myself to the frozen Ottawa River and watch the mist rise from the surface at sunrise.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

"you should be scared"

It's back to school, and i've got mixed feelings about my classes, tutors, assignments and just the teaching profession itself. It's been so necessary to hash it out with my fellow classmates, and this weekend provided the opportunity for us to get out and socialize outside of class, over drinks, amongst the madness of HK nightlife. And as it happens (unfortunately), i feel i can only truly be understood by other 'foreigners'.

I never realized nor expected the cultural divide to be so great, but it's there and well, it's there. It's somewhat of a relief to know you are not alone but it makes it that much more difficult to bridge the gap as our Chinese tutors, who of course only have the best of intentions, are treating "us foreigners" as the difficult ones with perhaps too many opinions about everything. But i ask, aren't we supposed to question and inquire and 'deep-learn'? As a classmate of mine (who's been having a lot more confrontation and conflict than i have) said to me the other day and to which i agree, I see clearly how i was meant to embark on this program not really to obtain my PGDE, but to study and investigate and explore myself. In this context. At this time in my life.

Well, it's Monday morning and I'm off to class again. I wonder what i'll discover today.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Rocking Anniversary Concert

Tonight we celebrated our Paper Anniversary. A little late, but definitely worth the wait. Matt surprised me with tickets to Eric Clapton's Far East Tour 2007 last September: front row seats on the balcony, the best view by far i thought.

Playing to a packed crowd at the Asia-Expo Convention Centre, Eric Clapton and his hand-picked band were simply brilliant.

The crowd was as diverse as anything: young, old, older, locals, expats, businessmen (i doubt Clapton has ever seen so many suits and ties at one of his concerts!), students, housewives, so on.

Besides the classics like Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out, Running On Faith, and a brilliant Electric Blues solo, they performed one of my favourites, Wonderful Tonight, played with such emotion i could not help but weep.

At first they were playing to a pretty stiff and rigid crowd (only 2 people were up and dancing from the get-go), but there was a lot of toe-tapping and head-nodding and when the band broke out with a rockin' Layla, the whole arena was up on their feet - too bad it was the last song!

And just when you thought it was all over, they leapt back onstage for a 10+ minute encore of Cocaine and Crossroads. Excellent night in all.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Nagano Hakuba dai ski-des!

We're back and i can barely walk up or down stairs, i'm in so much pain. But it was fantastic: the powder snow (now i know what all the fuss is about for snowboarders who yearn for a fresh overnight snowfall!), the soothing onsen (hot spring) baths each night, the delicious food, everything!

We arrived at YK and Tomoe's new apartment, a cute place they rented from Tomoe's friend. Apparently the friend's husband is super obsessed with audio/visual equipment and their living room had a projector, a huge television, absolutely enormous speakers, track lights, the works! We brought them some homemade hummus in our leak-proof container as a house-warming present. Their furniture and other belongings were due to arrive in a week or so by ship ... apparently YK packed some bottles of Boddington's, his all-time favourite beer, into the shipment too as they are incredibly expensive to get in Japan.

After a yummy okonomiyaki dinner in a local restaurant (see pic) we headed off to Hakuba in our rental car, a 3+ hour drive. Even though we were told we should have snow chains, we made it up with no problems. Arriving at the hotel at 3am, we had to wake up the poor security guard to give us our room key. Excited at having arrived, but exhausted, we set our alarms for 6:30am in order to ensure an early start on the slopes.

All in all, it was a grand weekend. I can still count on one hand the number of times i've been snowboarding, but after the initial fear of speeding down a steep hill whilst standing on a thin board, it's not so bad. The first day i had a couple of major wipeouts, turning 2 or 3 times over, landing usually headfirst in a snowbank. Lucky i spent most of my time in soft powder or it would have really hurt. Soaking in the onsen afterwards was what i looked forward to most, and i was never disappointed.

On our last night we had hot pot and udon noodles in our room (see pic), and washed it all down with enough beer cans to create a mini tower. After a few rounds of Uno, we drifted off to sleep on our tatami mats.

The next day we made the drive back to Tokyo. To help pass time, we sang along to ABBA and I practiced my Katakana (the Japanese 'alphabet'). Matt taught me on our first day and i was attempting to read, albeit very slowly, words on billboards, magazines, restaurants, etc. I was so excited at the thrill of learning a new language and having the world of words open up to me, even if it took me forever to make sense of a single character.

Once in Tokyo, we stopped by a curry shop YK and Tomoe both used to frequent in Chiba. Unfortunately they weren't opened yet and the owners said they were due to be closing shop in a few days!

No matter, we took a jar of their famous curry back with us and after a hot 'n steamy lunch of ramen (see Matt inhaling his noodles with sun blazing in), we were on our plane back to HK again.

Arrigato gozaimasu

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Hiking in Tai-O and (un)lucky horseracing

After a relaxing morning, we spent Sunday afternoon hiking Part 6 of the Lantau Trail in the western part of Lantau Island. We hopped off the bus at Man Cheung Po and made our way leisurely towards Tai-O, a fishing village-turned-tourist-town. We passed country parks, catchwater drains, overgrown bamboo forests, gorgeous seemingly-out-of-the-way temples and pagodas and then all the way down down down towards the shore.

At Tai-O we strolled through the narrow winding streets, passed lots of fresh fish being hacked, weighed and sold (while still wriggling and squirming! see pic), and saw the stark difference in local houses (concrete 3 storey-buildings to miniscule tin shacks).

We stopped for a drink while watching the sun set into the sea, rode the bus (with a driver who must've thought he was driving a Formula One race car - at one point we ALL went airborne after hitting a huge bump), and had a delicious Italian dinner in Mui Wo at cozy restaurant La Pizzeria. We made it back home, in another hair-raising bus journey, just in time to catch the new episode of The Amazing Race Asia, our new weekly staple.

For Sue and Guy's last night in Hong Kong, we were off to the horse races to try our luck again! My grandfather, Aunt Jenny and cousin David came along also. We reserved seats at the Stable Bend restaurant, with an open patio and an outstanding all-you-can-eat buffet, it's probably one of the best places at Happy Valley Racecourse to take in the city view, place your bets, eat in luxury and hopefully win loads of cash. We did it all, except the latter. Oh well, sweet memories of winning in Macau were still fresh.

See pic of Guy and Sue in front of racecourse and incredible HK skyline; Grandpa Ma and I displaying my (un)lucky ticket.

We stayed until the very last race "just in case" and also because we wanted to bet on a horse called Great Guy, but unfortunately it just wasn't his night.

Back at home now, and Matt and I are doing our usual late night, last minute, packing. We're leaving for our long-weekend in Nagano tomorrow morning; YK and Tomoe have just moved back to Tokyo and the 4 of us will be staying at YK's company's dormitory in Hakuba. Snowboarding, onsens and Asahi beer, here we come!

As it so happens, Guy and Sue will be flying back home a few hours after we take off. After their hot/cold 'Down Under' Xmas and HK New Year I'm sure they'll have a lot of stories to tell. It was great to see you again! Bon Voyage! xx

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Racing with Beginner's Luck in Macau

We spent Saturday in what seemed like a mini one-day vacation from Hong Kong: Macau. We caught the 8:45 am hydrofoil ferry, a smooth and picturesque ride and arrived to find the old Portuguese influences still quite obvious in the infrastructure, food and culture. Macau is a most interesting mix of Europe and Asia, quite possibly the best of both worlds. Especially the food.

We started our adventure in Taipa island, wandering the old town as shopkeepers and restaurant owners were beginning to open up for the day.

We gorged on a delicious Macaunese seafood lunch at Pinnochio restaurant. I had bacalhau (codfish) which is an essential part of Portuguese cuisine. Before cooking, the fish slices are soaked in water for 20 hours to get rid of salt. It can then be served baked, grilled, stewed or boiled.

After lunch, we went back to a cafe we passed earlier, as we promised the man (who had helped us tremendously in finding the restaurant), and treated ourselves to Macau's famous desert, serradura. Made of condensed milk and cracker crumbs covered with soft egg white, it comes in different flavors; Sue and i shared the coffee one. It was way too rich for me, but definitely one of those things that is a must-try when in Macau.

We then headed towards Coloane and jumped off the bus right after crossing the bridge where there was a go-karting track. We had 10 short minutes of adrenaline-pumping fun, whizzing around the track in our karts, squealing tires (not me), and being overtaken by almost everyone else (me). Here we are pictured in our finishing positions.

We took the bus back towards the main part of Macau, stopped off at the Macau tower, teased ourselves about doing a bungee jump off of it, and then taxi'd to the famous Domingo Square, the central area where shops and churches abound. It was interesting to see the Body Shop, Esprit, KFC and other major name brand stores amongst traditional herb and tea shops, antique stores, snack bars.. We strolled up to the famous St. Paul's cathedral ruins (see pic), destroyed in a fire, but one can imagine how magnificent it must have looked whole. We picked up some Pastéis de Nata to munch on, Macaunese egg tarts that are truly out of this world!

Of course, no trip to Macau would be complete without a visit to one (or several) casinos. We decided to hit the newest and hippest one first: Wynn Casino. Impressive inside and out, we wandered the entire floor where every roulette, pocker and baccharel table were occupied. We watched for a bit and then wanting to be part of the action, changed some cash for chips. We hit the roulette table since it's a pretty simple game to understand: you put your chip(s) on the number you think the ball will land on. First time gambler Guy put his 2 chips on number 30 (the only one left on the table) and lo and behold - he won! We didn't realize the extent of his win until we cashed it in at the counter. What a great start to the night! See pic of Sue and Guy proudly holding their winnings outside the casino hall.

After visiting StarWorld Casino (not as swank as Wynn) we had a lovely Japanese meal and headed back to HK on the late night ferry, collapsed in bed and dreamt of zooming go-karts and dancing dollar signs.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

good food and fresh air post-cold

Alas, it was bound to catch up with me. That nasty hack every few minutes, that terrible throbbing ache and the feeling of absolute and utter exhaustion. Ugh. Well, after a few days of rest, i was ready to climb out from under the duvet and venture outdoors.

We met up with my Mom's side of the family for a yummy Chinese meal at one of Hong Kong's most reputable restaurants in Kowloon,

Spring Deer. We had pre-ordered two days in advance the "Beggar's Chicken", which is basically a whole chicken stuffed with mushrooms and pork, wrapped in clay and baked for what i assume is a long time. See pic of waiter opening up the clay case with Uncle Michael looking on. The meat was tender, juicy and melted in your mouth. A must-try!

The next day we went to another one of HK's famous islands, Cheung Chau. Shaped like a dumbell, there are no cars driven on the tiny island, only bicycles and little motorized carts. Here, you did not feel the usual hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, instead there was a sense of calm and peacefulness. Very pleasant.

We were astounded at the number of fishing boats and sampans in the harbour. With the bustling harbourfront markets and seafood restaurants, the place is a complete photographer's dream. Besides fishing, tourism is the other main industry and I was happily surprised to see how readily marked (in English and Chinese) all the streets, trails and temples were.

After a hike up to the lookout point north of the island, we had a most delicious - and MESSY! - lunch of fried spicy codfish, sweet and sour prawns, deepfried seafood eggrolls and local veggies cooked with garlic.

We walked off our lunch by strolling down the beach where Hong Kong's first Olympic medalist for surfing, Li Lai-Shan, practiced, wandered the "Mini Great Wall", saw "Human Head Rock", meandered our way through the tiny alleys, shops, restaurants, gutters...

Apparently Cheung Chau is one of the most densely populated place in Hong Kong, and one can see how since the island is basically all steep slopes with no flat land, and so most live in the centre of the island, crammed together, on top of one another. See pic of Sue and Guy walking down the street under everyone's washing. No shame here in hanging out the dirty laundry for all to see!

Monday, January 01, 2007

foon-ying 2007 on deserted beach

Arriving back in HK after 30+ hours of delirious travelling, it was nice to see Sue and Guy (who had just returned from their month in Australia) again. We celebrated a second Christmas and opened our presents from family in Jersey. Thank you all!

A day of extended sleep followed with New Year preparations. And on the 31st, loaded with smoked salmon salad, leak-proof hummus and various other assortments of food and drink, we trekked out to Tai Long Wan beach on south Lantau island to welcome 2007.

Still jet-lagged from returning from Canada, we unanimously agreed to leave our watches at home and celebrate midnight on our own accord - hey, we thought it's bound to be midnight somewhere in the world!

It was a picture-perfect setting: the entire beach and campsite to ourselves, clear skies and bright stars, sparklers, huge beach bonfire, and lots of wine, beer and champagne. The only people we saw were 2 fishermen who climbed down the hill early the next morning and walked out onto the rocks around the bay to cast their lines.

New Year's morning brought an absolutely gorgeous sunrise and we even spotted a few dolphins dancing and jumping in the distance, a show just for us! We then braved the chilly waters for our traditional New Year's swim and managed to warm ourselves with the bonfire that was still smoking from the previous night. After some frisbee tossing, toasted croissants and tea, we packed up our gear and made the hike back to 'civilization'.

See pic of us huddled around our campfire cooking sausages; Matt chilling our drinks in the stream; YK gazing into the empty sea at dawn; me, YK and Guy cautiously venturing out into the waters; Sue and Guy, forever young at heart, warming up by the morning fire.