The Hong Kong Chronicles

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Hong Kong Chronicles: The Final Episode

Made in Hong Kong, Born in the USA

It'll be a quickie, because I'm exhausted. Our son, Kai Despard Ratner, has arrived! He's the best souvenir we brought back from Asia, and we are madly in love with our little guy. He's six days old as I type this.

So here's the (condensed) version. Truthfully there is no way to summarize it, but those of you who've been through know what I mean, and you other folks are creative types, so you'll have to imagine. We went to Monterey to the Blues Festival, because my blues-loving wife wanted our Bean to hear BB King inutero. She got her wish, but barely. The festival was dynamite -- Keb Mo, Susan Tedeschi, Blind Boys of Alabama, Taj Mahal, and of course BB. We danced, ate delicious Cajun and soul food, and drew a few gawks of amazement and comments like "is that thing coming TODAY?!"

Bean decided to take the hint. He's a huge BB King fan, so he started making his way to the outside world that morning around 2 AM, after hearing BB's show. Thus began the odyssey of labor. It started on June 30, and lasted an astonishing 57 hours. No, I'm not kidding, or exaggerating. Even the OB described it as "off the charts." It was a slow, sometimes very painful time, and it eventually ended in a Ceasarian when it was judged that Bean needed some help getting here. We had wanted to deliver naturally, but the goal -- healthy mom, healthy baby -- is all that really matters, and we got there. I got to tell Allison the gender, cut the cord, and give Kai his first bath. We were lucky that Barbara, Allison's mom and by an amazing coincidence my good friend, was there with us to help. She's an integral part of Team Kai, and I don't know how we would have done it without her.

The details:

Kai Despard Ratner
8 lbs., 7 oz.
Brn July 2, 2008, at 10:28 AM
21 inches
Eyes: Blue
Hair: Indescribable -- is it blond? brown? red? Jury is out.
Fingers: 10
Toes: 10
Eyebrows and Eyelashes: Not much to speak of
Favorite Food: Come on, you know this one

Kai trivia: Kai's name was "Kye," a variant of the same name, for the first 8 or 9 hours of his life. Then we caucused, and "Kai" won out. Kai means forest in Gaelic (we're both part Irish) and ocean in Hawaiian (where we were married). It's used in China (where project Kai began) and Japan (our last big trip before coming home) as well. It couldn't fit better, and plus we just like the sound of it.

The first 2 or 3 days in the hospital, we were exhausted, and Kai seemed to starving as Allison's milk was still coming in. We questioned our ability and our sanity. I was sleeping on a bed made out of baling wire and tissue paper, Allison just had major surgery, and our little guy was losing weight, too fast -- yikes. Thank God, the next couple of days were an improvement, as Kai's weight loss started to slow,and eventually to start turning around. Now the little champ is nursing like a superstar, piling up personal bests each day. Here are some glamor shots of the little cutie in the hospital, California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

Heading home from the hospital
with Kai was one of the most beautiful and emotional moments of our lives. now we're back at home, still tired, but starting to develop a little bit of rhythm, and just gobbling up our little guy. We could just stare at him for hours -- he's actually quite mellow now that he's got his yummies, although of course, it's just the calm before the storm, but that's OK with us. As Allison and I often tell each other -- "Hehe, we're on an adventure!"

I'm going to put the wraps on the Hong Kong Chronicles, to devote my energies full-time to diapering, my new passion. Besides, we do live in San Francisco now. But Hong Kong will always be a part of us, and who knows, maybe we'll go back one day, with Kai.

Thanks for staying with us, through two years of posts, and all the fish pictures. Let me know how you're doing, and don't be shy about dropping off those casseroles. Allison, Kai and I hope to see you all, soon, in S.F., or another port of call.
This is your grateful Hong Kong correspondent, signing off.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The One Before the Last One

This entry, written on the return flight from pre-Olympics-frenzied Beijing back to our home in Hong Kong, already has a strong retro flavor for me. You see, we're now in SF, experiencing reverse culture-shock. But our last Asia travel fling (for now, anyway) deserves to be blogged for posterity -- or at least for the Bean, the one member of our traveling party who probably won't remember it. So here it is, the penultimate episode:

We’re not hooked on traveling on Asia. We can quit any time. In fact, we’ll give it up tomorrow, I swear. But first, just one more little trip to Beijing for the weekend. We want to feel the Olympic Fever. Come on, just a taste. Then, that’s it. Tomorrow, we kick.

We were supposed to fly up from Hong Kong Thursday night, but, cocky and jaded traveler that I am, I neglected to check my Mainland visa. I knew it was good. Um, it wasn’t. When I finally bothered to glance at it, I freaked. It had expired last week, and we had a flight that night. After an afternoon of stress, I secured a renewal – for the next day. My incredibly gracious and forgiving wife refrained from skewering me, and we left Friday. Let that be a lesson to you.

Our goal was to see some of the places we didn’t have time for last year on our first Beijing trip, when we were focused on running the Great Wall Marathon. We set out on Saturday morning to explore the Summer Palace, and we definitely weren’t the only ones.(BTW, this link, and all the links this time around, are photos, not videos. We're in transit, and not all our computing power is available.) The place was mobbed, even by local standards, on a mild, hazy day (the sun is only an obscure rumor on Beijing). Still we bravely plunged ahead to see this famous lakeside getaway for the Emperors. We entered the East Gate and found there was a live performance going on at Grand Theater, which was Dowager Empress Cixi’s favorite.

Cixi, btw, is my favorite Dowager Empress ever. She was a real piece of work – sort of a cross between Stalin and Madonna, she ran China however she damn well wanted to, and in her spare time she sometimes appeared on this very stage as the Goddess of Mercy, whenever she felt like it.

Anyway… when we came in the acrobats were performing, but by the time I got the video going, the vaudeville acts had switched over to dancing, and then a funky Chinese music jam-session.

Next we strolled along the Great Hallway to Kunming Lake, with the 17-Arch Bridge visible in the distance through the chunky atmosphere, and past the towering Fragrant Buddha Pavilion, until we came to the enormous Marble Boat. Cixi had this made for herself with money she was supposed to use to build the Chinese Navy. The Marble Boat doesn’t actually go anywhere since, um, it’s marble. Too bad about that war with Japan. But, um, really nice boat.

Heading to the North Gate, through gardens and under kites, we fled the crowds and had a great lunch at a little joint that had one of our favorite signs ever in its bathroom – “Piss only please.” Then we did a little shopping (OK, a lot) and bargaining at the semi-flea-market called the Hongqiao Department Store ("In Decoration, Still Open").

In the afternoon we visited the beautiful Temple of Heaven, really a vast park where the Emperor used to come once a year to perform rites that were supposed to ensure good crops and all-around good times for China. Any slip-up in the elaborate procession and rites was said to mean major trouble for the country, and commoners weren’t even allowed to peek at the action (they had to stay home with the windows closed, or else). These days the commoners are making up for lost time – huge groups were singing together in a wonderfully odd assemblage of musical jamborees in the park. We saw the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, before wandering through gardens filled with flowering trees that smelled great.

That night we had dinner with our friends Craig and Anne at a lovely Vietnamese place along Bei Hai Lake (which I once fell into while trying to snag a floating lens cap – I’m sure some of the locals still recall that special day when a crazy Westerner hopped into the muck for an impromptu swim). Then we wandered through a swanky, upscale hutong area, and talked into the night about Chinese politics, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Olympic Fever – Beijing is currently bursting with an extremely virulent form of it, even if the stadiums aren't quite ready yet. Anne told a great story about going to the semi-finished Birdhouse (this will be the main Olympic venue) for its opening event, a race-walking competition, but -- whoops, it was actually held outside the jammed stadium, so the crowd watched it on TV. Then the athletes came inside the stadium – oh boy, will they circle the track for a lap, for a big finish? Nope, they just came in, crossed the finish line, and the crowd went – huh? Cool building, though.

The next day, Sunday, was a sloshy and rainy one, but hey, we didn’t let that stop us, did we? No way, Ho-Sei! Maybe we should have, but we were already signed up for the hutong tour, you see… we were some of the few, the proud, the loonies out there on a bicycle rickshaw, hiding behind our umbrellas. At least we did have the sense to focus on the indoor parts. We had a nice visit with a local hutong resident; hutongs, by the way, are narrow alleyways with little courtyard houses that most people in Beijing used to live in, back in the day. They’ve nearly disappeared now in the long onslaught of new construction, and all the more so with Beijing 2008 just around the corner. But we hung out with one of the diehards, and saw her little courtyard. She still pays 50 RMB a month for rent, about 6 or 7 bucks – hey, I’d stay too.

Then we sat down to a traditional Chinese tea ceremony (we’d been meaning to do this forever) at Prince Gong’s residence. The ceremony, and the tea, were both excellent. But after that, we skipped Prince Gong’s rainy garden and bailed out on the tour.

That afternoon, still clutching umbrellas, we spent a couple of hours wandering around the super-chic art district called 798, as much of it inside as we could. 798 is a cluster of studios and cafes where Beijing’s version of the Fabulous People can hang out in lofts and be Fabulous. We saw some fun, playful, bizarre, thought-provoking, and head-scratching artwork. 798, though, like so much of almost-ready!-just-a-few-more nails-to-go! Beijing, is currently under construction. Some of its streets were giant mud puddles, and it got a little squishy at times.

Before heading home, we taxied to the Beijing Friendship Store to stock up on Olympic T-shirts. The name aside, customer service isn’t really their thing at the Friendship Store – but on the plus side, roughly nine people will gladly get involved in counting your purchases several times for you, and each one will write you out a receipt, (slowly, by, hand, in Chinese of course). This can take some time, but when you have Olympic Fever, it’s worth it. I guess.

Speaking of Olympic Fever, one event that they should have, but won’t, is Hailing a Taxi in Beijing in the Rain to Get to the Airport. Man, it’s an ultra-competitive event, along the lines of WWF Smackdown (and like Smackdown, I suspect it’s fixed). We didn’t medal, but we did eventually make it to the (you guessed it) enormous, new, and practically finished Terminal 3 at the airport, and thence home to Hong Kong.

We really are going to stop traveling now, and go back to SF, and have the baby, and settle down.

I swear. Starting tomorrow.


I'll give a brief update on the present, in San Francisco, and attempt to prognosticate the ever-mysterious future, as we go from bump to baby, in the next, and final, episode of ... The Hong Kong Chronicles.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Cherry Blossom Time in Japan

The airlines have this really repressive rule about not giving birth in-flight, so we’re finishing up some travel before we hunker down back home in SF to have a baby. We recently visited Japan, which by the way is NOT where Hong Kong is. Hong Kong, a former British colony, is a city in China. Japan, same continent, completely different country, a 4-hour flight away. (Sorry, I’m sure you know that, dear reader, but when we moved to Hong Kong nearly two years ago, a shocking number of people said, “cool, have a great time in Japan!” The bank even sent us checks that say, “Hong Kong, Japan.” Amazing, huh?).

Anyway, Japan – we loved this trip. The 127 million people of Japan are our new best friends. It has the best trains, the best sushi, and (at least) the second-best baseball of any country on earth. And, it has the cherry blossoms. We were there at the perfect time, during the one- or two-week window when they’re blooming. Allison’s photos look great, but we both agree they don’t do justice to the knockout colors. I thought they’d be nice to see, but good grief, I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful they are -- it’s like seeing snow for the first time.

Tokyo Drift

We flew into Narita at night, took a variety-pack of transit options to our hotel in Shinagawa, and collapsed. The next day, after fixing up our Japan Rail tickets, we started exploring Tokyo. It’s the largest city on Earth, with 35 million in the metro area, so needless to say, you just have to sample it in dollops. We started at Hama Rikyu, a 300-year-old traditional garden surrounded by skyscrapers, and got our first taste of the blossoms. Then we went up to the Asakusa neighborhood, passing through the Kaminarimon Gate and down Nakamise Dori (which apparently means “snacky-treat street”) to get to Sensoji Temple and its Pagoda. Sensoji, which is Buddhist, is the oldest temple in Tokyo, founded in the 7th C. It’s a great place to get your fortune, too. Just drop a 100-yen coin in the box, shake a stick, and find the scroll with the matching number – it’s foolproof. A friendly guy helped us sort it out, and I got a good one, but Allison got “The Best Fortune!” The guy was really excited by this. We also had our first Geisha spotting here. These girls had to stop every 10 seconds, because everyone wanted to take their picture.

That night we went to Ueno Park, roughly the Central Park or Golden Gate Park of Tokyo, where the Cherry Blossom Festival was in full swing. We went to the Gojoten Shrine and Shinobazu Pond, but mostly we just wandered around, taking in the scene – picnickers, live jazz, swan boats, and the incredible cherry trees. We ate yummy food we didn’t know the name of (a grilled veggie pie of some sort), and stayed to watch the lanterns come on as night fell. Here's a video montage of Ueno.

Hakone – in search of Mt. Fuji

With our train passes in hand, we took our first Shinkansen or “bullet train” to Odawara and started working our way to Hakone. Half the fun of this scenic national-park area is just getting around it. After the bullet train, we took a series of little switchback streetcars up mountains, to a tiny spot called Myanoshita, where we checked in at the oldest hotel in Japan, the Fujiya. It’s big, drafty, beautiful and historic – everyone from Einstein to Eisenhower to the Emperor has stayed there. That afternoon, we checked out the incredible Hakone Open-Air Museum, a sculpture park with large-scale works by Picasso, de Kooning, Miro, Henry Moore, and other heavyweights of the 20th Century sculpture. They even have a much-appreciated hot tub for your feet.

We were hoping for better weather the next day for views of Mt. Fuji, Japan’s highest and hardest-to-see sight. It was cloudy and drizzly, but we had a great time anyway. We took the mountain streetcar up to the Hakone Museum of Art to see Japanese art in a traditional garden, and then a cable car to a ropeway (sheesh!) to Togendai on the shore of Lake Ashi, where we caught the pirate ship (I’m not making this up) across to Hakone-machi. This was a stop on the old road from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo) in feudal days, so they have a Check-point Museum and a Detached Palace Museum that display some of the history – The Shogun used to make the samurai leave their wives and families here as semi-hostages, to make sure they would come back and not rebel against him. We went up to the Lakeside Observation Building, which had a nice view of the lake, but alas, not of Fuji. The friendly woman there gave us a little photo of the mountain that had been taken “just one week before.” Sigh...

We found consolation at Narukawa Art Museum, with a small but fantastic collection of both ancient and contemporary Japanese painting, and we had a 10-course Japanese meal at the Fujiya – yuummmm.

Oh yeah, and the next morning as we left Hakone for Kyoto, having given up on Fuji sightings, the sun came back and we got terrific views of the moody mountain from the windows of the bullet train. This video gives a nice overview of Hakone, including the Open Air Museum the pirate ships, and Fuji.

Kyoto in full bloom

Besides being the capitol of Japan for more than a thousand years (until 1868), Kyoto is also the only major city in the country that the U.S. didn’t bomb during World War II, so it’s the place to see. And with the cherry blossoms out, it’s just unspeakably lovely. Our first day, after arriving by train, we visited Nijo Castle, built by the first Tokugawa Shogun in 1603 (while Shakespeare was writing Macbeth, which Kurasawa would later adapt as Throne of Blood, set in a Nijo-like castle – but I digress…). A great traditional Japanese castle, this place has the famous “nightingale floors” that squeak so no ninjas can sneak up on the shogun. Plus, if you happen to be a little gassy, you can always blame the noise on the nightingale floors.

We stayed in a ryokan (video) in Kyoto – this is the type of hotel where you sleep on futons over tatami mats in traditional Japanese style, and breakfast and dinner are served at low tables in your room. We ate sitting cross-legged on the floor, which was challenging for my pregnant wife and her oversized Western husband, but the food was, um, always interesting, at the least, and sometimes delicious – like the sukiyaki, wow.

Next day in Kyoto we started at the Ryoanji Temple, which has the most famous Zen Rock Garden in all of Japan. We blissed out for a while, mulling the eternal questions (islands in the sea? mountains in the clouds?), then walked around the temple and the thousand-year-old pond. Next was Kinkakuji, or Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which was once burned down by a disturbed student monk (the story is told by Yukio Mishima in his famous novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion). It’s since been redone in dazzling gold.

We also saw Ginkakuji, Temple of the Silver Pavilion, but it ought to be called The Temple of the Under-Repairs Pavilion. We did see the monks working on the biggest sand-castle ever, though, and the cherry blossoms were still great.
Speaking of which, maybe the best blossom viewing of the whole trip was on the Philosopher’s Path, alongside a canal in Eastern Kyoto. People were just strolling through this area in awe, us included. We followed it all the way to Eikando Temple and Nanzenji Temple, both of which are lush, beautifully maintained, and active Buddhist temples.

Our last stop that day was Heian Shrine, with its gigantic vermillion and green Torii Gate, and probably the most beautiful garden we saw in Japan. Allison recognized the stone steps over the pond as a place she’d been with her mom on a girlhood trip to Kyoto 20something years ago – so we took her pictures in the same spot to memorialize her return.

In Kyoto, the hits just keep on comin.’ The next day, we saw the Sanjusando Temple, the longest wooden building in the country (the monks used to hold archery contests in the loooooonnnggg hallway). They needed all the space for the 1001 wooden statues of Kannon, an incarnation of the Buddha with 1000 arms. I’m no math genius, but that’s a lot of arms. Sorry, no pics allowed inside, so you’ll have to check that part out for yourself.

Sometimes, amidst all the splendor of the temples, it’s nice to see a small place, like the Kawai Kanjiro House. Kanjiro was a master potter, and his house was transformed into a museum of his work, but it’s also a great place to see and appreciate the interior of a typical, modern Japanese home. Kanjiro designed and built all the furniture, too, and he had a fine eye for simplicity and beauty.

We then walked through Otami Mausoleum and the hillside Toribeyama Cemetery, to Kiyomizu Temple. This place was founded in 798 – it’s built over a cliff and features an enormous wooden veranda supported by 139 pillars, each 50 feet tall. The setting on the hill, especially among spectacular cherry blossoms, is fantastical – it’s like a fairy-kingdom on cherry-blossom clouds. The temple also has the Jishu Shrine, which has reputed magical properties. We got a special charm here for “Easy Delivery” for Allison, and we sure hope it works. I also walked 30 feet with my eyes closed (I swear) between the two “Lover’s Stones.” This guarantees success in love, which I already have, so I dedicated my walk to a worthy friend in San Francisco (no names, but you know who you are). Add in another Geisha spotting (four of them!) and an outdoor concert by schoolkids, and you have a brilliant youtube video on your hands. If you only have time for one click, make it this one.

Our last afternoon in Kyoto, we checked out the Imperial Palace – lots of paperwork, then a stick-to-the-path guided tour. A nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there, and not even the emperor does, these days. A stroll in the Ginza neighborhood, and through the beautiful, blossoming Maruyama Park, filled with revelers enjoying the blossoms, was much better, even if it was less official. And, they had a Starbucks, too.


Hiroshima is of course famous as the first city in the world to be hit with an atomic bomb. We wanted to go there because, as Americans, we felt it was an important place to see. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was thinking we’d see disturbing images in the museum, and a feeling like visiting Auschwitz or Dachau, which I did in my European vagabond days. What we found was actually a thriving, charming city, dedicated to peace. After all, who could better understand the value of peace than the people of Hiroshima?

The heart of the city is Peace Memorial Park. At its entrance is what they now call the A-Bomb dome – once a government building, now an iron skeleton left in place as a visual reminder of the bomb’s effects. The most moving place in the park, for me, was the Children’s Peace Monument, literally filled to overflowing with thousands upon thousands of paper cranes, made by children from around the globe and sent to Hiroshima as a plea for peace. This is memorial to a little girl, Sadako, who suffered from radiation sickness after the bomb. She believed if she could fold 1000 paper cranes, she could be well again. She didn’t – she died of leukemia; but today, children around the world know her story and honor her memory by seeking peace. Nobody who sees this place would want to try to explain to children why bombing civilians is “necessary.”

The park also houses the National Peace Memorial Hall, which feature a 360-degree panorama that recreates Hiroshima as seen from the bomb’s epicenter, made from 140,000 tiles, the estimated number of people who died from the bomb by the end of 1945. At the base of the park is the Peace Memorial Museum, a difficult but very moving and extremely well-presented account of the effects of the bombing.

Wow. After that, we wanted to see something beautiful, so we walked over to the fine Hiroshima Museum of Art, and saw a small but terrific collection of Japanese and quite a few French paintings, including works by Chagall, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Degas, Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec, Modigliani, Monet, Matisse, and Renoir. See, humanity’s not so bad, is it?

The best was yet to come. It just so happens that there’s a pro baseball team, the Hiroshima Carp, that plays in a stadium right across the street from the park! I got an autograph from one of the players, walking down the street! And hey, they had a home game, that very night! And we got tickets! Because the Carp is a pretty crummy team! And they haven’t won anything since 1975! But hey, if you can overlook that (and I sure can, having grown up a Cubs fan, and rooting for the Giants), then, a Carp game is pretty much the coolest place on earth. These fans really, really love their team (video). They root HARD for the Carp, with synchronized cheering, clapping, stomping, chanting, songs, cheerleaders, and balloon-releasing. We’d never seen anything like it. And there was some pretty good baseball, too. Allison, who is a fan but less rabid than me, absolutely loved the game, and I was over the moon. We were adopted by some friendly fans who shared their fish patties, rice wine, and balloons with us, and taught us cheers. I can speak about 50ish words of Japanese, but my Japanese was, incredibly, better than their English – nonetheless, we had a great time with them. They even gave us a plastic Carp bat as a gift for our yet-to-be-born child. The Carp lost, to the Yokahama BayStars. But, I am a lifelong Carp fan. Go, Ca-pu, go!

Back to Tokyo

We took the bullet train back on Saturday, a 4-hour trip from Hiroshima, and had a short but sweet visit to the East Garden of the Tokyo Imperial Palace that afternoon for, you guessed it, cherry blossom viewing. We saw Tokyo Tower above the Manhattan-esque streets of the world’s largest city. That night, we went to the famous Tokyo Dome, for the game we planned in advance to see -- the Tokyo Yomiyuri Giants vs. the Hanshin Tigers. This is the Japanese equivalent of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. The Giants based their colors and logo on San Francisco (then the New York) Giants, and they’re the most successful team in the league, with 35 pennants in 80 or so years. They also have the biggest payroll, but they haven’t won for the past few years anyway (Yankees, anyone?). Meanwhile the Tigers have the league’s most rabid fans, even when they’re on the road, and they’ve done better than the Giants lately (thus, the ‘Japanese Red Sox’ label).

It was cool to see the famous Tokyo Dome, filled to capacity, with the enormous jumbotron screen, and two mini-blimps floating around inside. But the dome and the artificial turf make for a somewhat canned environment. And with the high-priced Giants team off to another brutal start (they lost to the Tigers to fall to 1-7 to start the season), the crowd was a leeetle cranky. I did chat with my neighbors a bit about who the best players are, but it was nothing like the family-picnic atmosphere we’d had at the Carps game, where the fans had high hopes, low expectations, and a lot of fun. Tokyo Dome has the spectacle (watch the video here), but on the whole, we’ll take the Carps.

The next morning was our last in Tokyo, and we decided to pass on the temples, shrines, parks, and baseball stadiums. Instead, we wandered around the Harajuku neighborhood, the favorite spot for Japanese youth, flashy dressers, punks, fashion leaders and fashion victims. Part Haight-Ashbury, part Rodeo Drive, and all Japanese, it’s where Austin Powers would go if he were visiting Tokyo – it swings, baby. This is the ’hood Gwen Stafani’s Harajuku Girls come from. We hit the outdoor street market, and a couple of trendy shops like Kiddy-land, which is five floors of pop-culture heaven. Watch us turning Japanese here.

After that it was time to work our way back to Narita, where we hung out for ages in the Cathay Lounge waiting out a flight delay, before making it back to Hong Kong before midnight.

Only one more little trip – a last-hurrah weekend in Beijing – and then we’ll head back to the U.S. before the end of the month. We’re working on packing up the Bamboo Grove apartment in Hong Kong now, and having a series of farewell dinners with friends here. The bean is coming along fine according to Dr. Ferguson, and Allison is doing just great, even if she is amazed by what you have to go through to have a baby.

Hope all is well with you – let us know, when you can.



Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Angkor What?

At the end of February we went to Siem Reap in Cambodia, to fulfill a longtime dream of Allison's to see Angkor Wat while pregnant… OK, she really wanted to see Angkor Wat, the pregnancy part was just a bonus. We decided to skip the bikes and the elephant rides and just get driven around in an air-conditioned van – see, we're taking it easy! We took hour-long naps every lunch, and floated in the pool every day.

What people call Angkor Wat is really a whole lot of places – temples, palaces, and ruins left behind by the Angkorian civilization of the Khmer people – modern Cambodians. From roughly 802 AD to roughly 1432 AD, the Khmers had their capitol here, before leaving for Phnom Penh (nobody is sure why – maybe they ran out of water, or retreated from the Thais). What they left behind was a astonishing and highly advanced city, with strong influences of both Buddhism and Hinduism, and it included Angkor Wat – the largest religious structure on Earth – as well as Angkor Thom, and dozens of other remarkable sites, that were all gradually gobbled up by the advancing jungle and almost completely disappeared, until some French colonial archeologist types began pruning, digging, ooohing and aaahing in the 19th century. These days Angkor is a UNESCO world heritage site, the country's pride (emblazoned on the national flag), and its leading attraction by far, and not just because they shot Tomb Raider here. It's awe-inspiring to see what the Khmers built here, what Nature took back, and what human beings are trying to reclaim. Each king built at least one temple, dedicated to the religion of his choice (usually Hinduism or Buddhism) to give legitimacy to his reign. The temple was the link between the gods and the king – some had more money, and more time than others to build.

We started out at Angkor Thom, or "Great City," the administrative and religious heart of the Khmer Empire. It was once grander than any city in Europe, and was home to a million or more people. We loved the giant stone faces of Bayon, the Elephant Terrace, and the rows of garudas (mythical bird-people with lots of muscles) pulling on the stone pillars at the gates. There was the Leper King Terrace with the only nude statute –though they threw a robe on him, which was possibly for our benefit.) and Phimeanakas "Aerial Palace" where legend has it one king had to climb each night to make love to a beautiful maiden who was a multiple headed snake during the day, or ruin would come to the kingdom. No word on whether she's currently dating.

We made three different visits to Angkor Wat, to see it in varied light. It was built by Jayavarman VII in the 12th C. – hey, maybe you never head of him, but in Cambodia he is The Man, with good reason (one of the rich Kings with lots of time to build). He created an architectural masterpiece, and it's still in great condition. It's surrounded by an enormous moat, and then by an outer wall filled with fantastically detailed bas-relief carvings. Most of these tell stories from the great Hindu texts like the Ramayana – the story of Hanuman the Monkey God rescuing Sita from the Demon King (if you don't know it – get with it!). Also included are depictions of the Judgment of Heaven and Hell – that's why you'll see pictures of people getting eaten by crocodiles and elephants. These were the favorites of my sweet, adorable, pregnant wife. Also, everywhere you turned were stone carvings of the Apsara dancers who once inhabited the temples – dancing to bring rain, good fortune, prosperity and protection to the kingdom.

Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat are the most famous of the sites, but there are many, many more that are awesome and very rewarding to visit. We spent more than three days touring them, to get a taste of Angkor. Our stops included:

Prasat Kravan, the "Cardamon Sanctuary," where we had fun giving out pens to kids. This site also includes Srah Srang "The Royal Bath". Probably the world's largest bathtub, measuring in at 800 meters by 400 meters.

Banteay Kdei, the "Citadel of the Cells," originally a Buddhist monastery. We heard a band playing traditional Cambodian music here. The band is made up of landmine victims; landmines have been a major problem in Cambodia. It's getting better, but they'll be dealing with this leagacy of the Khmer Rouge for decades to come.

Ta Prohm, the "Ancestor Brahma." This is where they filmed scenes from Tomb Raider! Why? Because it's extremely cool-looking. The place has trees dripping through the walls all over. I kept imagining New York or San Francisco or Hong Kong after 1,000 years of jungle growth.

Ta Keo and Chau Say Tevoda, both small, lovely, and mercifully untrammeled by crowds.

Thommanon – I thought this would be a group for people trying to give up Thom. Actually it's a tower and sanctuary, with Hindu design, set in a forest.

Preah Kahn, the "Sacred Sword," a temple with excellent Garudas, good colors in the stone, and cool trees.

Neak Pean, the "Coiled Serpents." This was once a large bath set on an island, assessable only by boat. It was a Buddhist sanctuary with four chambers containing an elephant, a human, a lion, and a horse, representing the four elements. Guess which one we are? Hint: it's not wind, fire, or water, my fellow earth-bound mortals.

East Mebon, which has some good stone faces, elephant statues, and views of the sky.

Preah Rup, "Turn (or Change) the Body": this was originally a cremation site, where the body would be changed from flesh to fire to air, so the soul could be released. It's on a high hill, so we climbed it to watch a beautiful sunset.

Kabal Spean, the "River of 1,000 Lingas." A linga is an image of the God Shiva, in the form of a "male organ of regeneration." Nudge, wink. Don't worry, they usually don't really look like that. Usually. Anyway, Kbal Spean was a mile or so hike each way from the road, a bit challenging for my pregnant sweetie, but we made it. The statues are in the riverbed, which is barely running now it dry season – good because you can actually see the statues and carvings. But the waterfall was a leeetle bit skimpy . . .

Bateay Srei ("Citadel of the Women") and Bateay Samre ("Citadel of the Samre," an ethnic group): both or these contain some awesome carving and stone work.

The Rolous Group. Rolous, a short way from the Angkor sites, consists of:

Bakong, a Hindu site that was once the center of a town.

Lolei, unadorned stone, but incredibly overgrown with plant life that won't give up.

Preah Ko, the "Sacred Bull": a beautiful site dedicated by King Indravarman to his mom and dad. Isn't that sweet?

Man, that was a lot of archeological sites! They are truly spectacular, but even the biggest temple buff or Angelina Jolie fan needs to switch it up after a while. In the town of Siem Reap, where our hotel was (about 4 km from Angkor), we checked out a couple of the local temples or Wats. We also spent a part of every day relaxing by the beautiful pool at the Grand Hotel D'Angkor, and, we ate some yummy Cambodian food at some great restaurants, including the strange but very fun Deadfish Tower, that had its own crocodile pool.


Here's a selection of groovy youtube postings to check out:

*A little splice of our tuk-tuk ride, on the one morning it rained, around Angkor Thom.

*An Apsara Dance Show at the Grand Hotel.

*Best of all – we finished off with a short helicopter ride that gave us views of Angkor Wat and a couple of the other sites, with Siem Reap in the distance. This was fantastic, because it really gave us a sense of the monumental scale of the city.

That's it for this installment. Hope all is well with you. All the best from David, Allison, and the little bean.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Everything you’ve heard about India is true, and nothing you’ve heard about India is true: the poverty, the palaces, the traffic, the smells, the riches, the sacred sites, the press of humanity, the profusion of animals, all make for a collision of extremes that’s astonishing, maddening, and exhilarating. We saw beggars, hucksters, brahmins, sadhus, gurus, sari-clad beauties, cows, water buffaloes, goats, monkeys, elephants, camels, donkeys, chickens, pigs, dogs, cats, pheasants, parrots – and that was just the hotel lobby. As Allison said, it makes a lot of sense that meditation developed in India, because the only place to have peace and quiet would be inside oneself. Still, this was our second trip to India, and already I’d like to take three more, or maybe four . . . last time it was South India, so this time we headed North, to the great shrines for Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Tourist pilgrims.

New Delhi
The capitol of a nation with 1.1 billion people, by far the world’s largest democracy, New Delhi is of course sprawling and chaotic, and perhaps not unrelentingly charming – but it has some unique sights, and I don’t just mean the lane-markings on the roads (the only ones we saw in the country, I think). We saw the Lal Qila, or Red Fort, built by the Mughal Emperors. The Mughals were Muslims who conquered large parts of India starting in the 14th C., and held much of it until “the Britishers” stole it in the mid-19th C. Some of them, like Akbar the Great, fostered religious tolerance and got along with Hindus, Parsees, Jains, Buddhists, a few Christians, and the two Jewish guys. Unfortunately some of them were a bit crankier, and the religious tension still exists. But back to our story . . .

We took a cycle rickshaw through the streets of Old Delhi (video) to get to the Jama Masjid, built in 1656 -- it's still the largest mosque in Asia.

It was inspiring to see the Raj Ghat, a memorial on the site where Mohandas Gandhi, the great champion of freedom and non-violence, was cremated in 1948, and it was funny (both strange and ha-ha) to see families arguing over positioning for photos in front of the eternal flame.

Briefly we buzzed along the Rajpath, sort of the Pennsylvania Avenue of Delhi, to see Parliament House, the war memorial India Gate, and the President’s Palace (where a monkey was crossing the front yard). The Rajpath definitely has the best traffic in India. Political Fun Facts: the President is Pratibha Patil (a woman leader? Golly!) The Prime Minister is Manmohan Singh, a Sikh chosen by Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress Party, and an Italian-born Catholic (an immigrant leader? Golly!). She’s the widow of Rajiv Gandhi, who was the son of Indira Gandhi, who was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru. Sonia, Rajiv and Indira are no relation to the Mahatma, M.K. Gandhi. Got all that? (And you thought we had it rough with the Bush/Clinton/Kennedy clans.)

Delhi also has Humayan’s Tomb (Humayan, a Moghul emperor, is not to be confused with Hanuman, the monkey god. I did this once. Once.) The Tomb is the architectural forerunner of the Taj Mahal – and not even remotely as well-maintained or preserved, but it’s still fascinating. Our last Delhi sight was the impressive Qutb Minar, a 238-foot high stone tower built in the 12th C. At its base stands the first mosque built in India.

That night we drove to Agra, passing by the Tomb of Akbar the Great at Sikindra in a near-blur (sorry, Akbar). We woke up very early to see the Granddaddy of all tourist sights, the Taj Mahal. It’s such a cliché that you almost expect to be disappointed, but it’s so stunning that you’re not; it somehow manages to justify all the hype. Built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial to his beloved Queen Mumtaz (his favorite wife), it’s exquisite, audacious, impossibly indulgent – a tremendous tribute to both love and excess. It knocked us out to see it, as we celebrated Allison’s 40th birthday in fine style. On a lark, to celebrate her birthday we took some glamorous Bollywood style shots at the Taj, too.

Shah Jahan, by the way, spent the last seven years of his life locked up in Agra Fort, where he could only look out over the Jamuna River and admire the Taj in the distance, having been imprisoned by his own son. Now there’s a cautionary tale for ya. At least he had the Pearl Mosque to console himself with.

Over a delicious meal of thalis, we caught a cheesy puppet show (video) with musical accompaniment – Frere Jaques, Volare, and the Macarena on Indian instruments. We bought a puppet for 400 rupees, about ten bucks, and soon learned the going rate is one or two hundred. But hey, being scammed is just part of the fun, right? We were comtributing to the local economy.

Speaking of contributing to the economy -- an eternal law of the universe is that there is always, always a "silk factory" (or craft workshop, or carpet museum) to visit on every stop along the way on a tour of India. These thinly veiled buying opportunities can actually be fun, though, if you don't sweat them, and sometimes we learn new things, like how inlaid stonework (video)is made.

Leaving Agra, we stopped at nearby Fatehpur Sikri, a bizarre, beautiful “abandoned city” that combines Muslim, Hindu, and Jain architecture. Here we were passing out pens to some little kids (they love ’em, I swear), and an old guy of at least 80 got in line for his pen. Sure, little fella, here you go!


They call Jaipur the “Pink City,” but it’s really more terra cotta. The highlight of our visit to Jaipur’s Amber Fort was definitely the elephant ride from the foothills up to the fort ramparts. Aside from the photos we took, freelance photographers were shooting pictures of us on spec, looking like maharaja and maharani -- we bought a few of these, and then to my horror I realized I was wearing the worst possible combo of flooder pants and short socks imaginable. Check out the least stylish elephant rider ever, it's good for a laugh. We queued (American translation – “lined up”) for nearly an hour for our elephant, trapped with the other tourists as the hawkers descended on us in a feeding frenzy on par with paparazzi at a Brittany Spears court appearance. (No, for the 47th time, I really, really don’t want the plastic turban.) The ride was worth it, though. The Fort, with its Palace of Mirrors and its sweeping views, was cool to see, too.

Briefly passing the gate of the Hawa Mahal or Palace of Winds (the inside is closed for repairs, but check out the snake charmers on the sidewalk outside), we went to the City Palace and its museum, and the neighboring, awesome (to me, anyway) observatory, built hundreds of years ago by Jaipur’s founder, Jai Singh. At first it looks like a weird collection of giant abstract sculptures, but it’s really a laboratory of huge instruments used by medieval scholars to study the position of the sun, stars, and planets. I liked it so much I bought the book. These people just see me comin’ . . .

That reminds me -- Jaipur had plenty of"silk factories," like this fabric shop where we learned how to do block printing (video)-- and got a table cloth AND a bedspread, and also a carpet workshop (video) where, thankfully, we resisted.

Our next stop was Jodhpur – you know, where the pants come from. It’s known as the “Blue City,” and it’s really lovely, dappled all over with indigo-blue houses. We saw the royal crematorium (much cooler than it sounds), and the Mehrangarh Fort and museum with intricate glass and stonework, and miniature paintings. And, I got a great new polo hat, which you cannot borrow. We strolled down the hill through town, admiring the blue buildings and Krishna's little red footprints.

Leaving Jodhpur, on the road to Udaipur, we stopped off at the Jain Temple in Ranakpur. We thought this would be a quickie, but we were amazed by this stunning 15th C. temple, still active and incredibly well-preserved, with 1,444 carved marble pillars, no two alike. If this place were in Agra or Delhi, it would be nearly as famous as the Taj Mahal, but it’s in the middle of nowhere, and thus wonderfully peaceful. The Jains, by the way, are the people with such reverence for life that many of them will brush aside insects in their path to spare their lives.

Udaipur is justifiably famous as the “City of Lakes,” one of the most picturesque and romantic cities in the world (and remember, I’m from Des Plaines, so my standards are high). At the Sahelion-Ki-Bari, or Garden of the Maids, our guide duped us into believing that the fountains started when commanded by our claps (just like the Clapper, remember?). Actually we just woke up the guy sleeping next to the button, but it was really funny. We checked out the folk museum and made up 50% of the audience for the puppet show (video). Our guide and one Japanese guy were the other 50%. But as you might recall, I’m a sucker for puppets, and this one was better than the restaurant version in Agra.

Then we took a little cruise around Lake Pichola, a highlight of Udaipur. We circled the famous Lake Palace, (video) which seems to rise up directly from the lake (it’s actually on a Palace-sized and Palace-shaped island), and stopped on Jag Mandir Island (where they shot Octopussy, as everyone in Udaipur will tell you) for some lovely, overpriced refreshments, taking lots of pictures and shooting video like we were Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now. Sadly, the video is not yet available for this -- we're struggling to work out the nuances of our new camera. (I wonder if that's what Coppola said? Probably not.) After the cruise we visited the City Palace and museum on the shore of the lake. The courtyards, fountains, and gardens are beautiful, and they couldn’t have a better location.

From Udaipur we caught a flight to Varanasi. OK, actually we had to fly to Delhi, hole up in a dumpy hotel next to the airport where we cringed beneath stained sheets and ate cheese from a can in the alledged "dining room" before flying to Varanasi the next day. But such connections are part of the price you pay for the wonderful package that is India, and Varanasi is truly a sight to behold.

Varanasi (once called Benares by the “Britishers”) is considered the oldest living city on the planet. It’s at least 5,000 years old, probably much older (according to some historians, and/or judging from the roads). Like Mecca for Muslims or Jerusalem for Christians and Jews, Varanasi is the city of holy pilgrimage for Hindus. It’s where Shiva created the River Ganges, the Mother of Rivers, and the devout come here to wash away their sins. Allison and I just took a nice shower at the hotel (much better than our Delhi stopover), but we nonetheless found Varanasi incredible.

Right next to Varanasi is Sarnath, and that’s actually where we began our visit. Sarnath is where the Buddha preached his first sermon after achieving enlightenment under the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya. He came here to reveal the eightfold path to Nirvana, and the place is a great pilgrimage site for Buddhists from all over the world. There’s a giant stone stupa surrounded by the ruins of a monastery that are still being uncovered by archeologists. The museum here is probably the best one we saw – it contains the famous four-headed stone lion that’s a symbol of India (photography was prohibited inside, but it’s on all the rupee banknotes, so just check your wallets for the visuals). We also visited a Sri Lankan Buddist temple with terrific with Japenese murals, and a modest but very touching Tibetan Buddhist temple where the Dalai Lama visits when he’s in town. We got to bust out our five words of Tibetan and flash them for a surprised monk here.

That night, back in Varanasi proper, we climbed aboard a little boat and were rowed down the Ganges to a cremation ground, where several funeral pyres were burning (photography is only permitted from a respectful distance). Hindus cremate the dead to release the soul from the body. It’s considered extremely desirable to die in Varanasi, because it’s a tirtha – literally a “crossing” where mortals, gods and goddesses can move between worlds. Many hope to achieve Moksha here – the salvation of the soul from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

Our little boat then rowed back to the main ghat (steps down to the river) where we watch the Ganga Fire Arti, a prayer ritual in which young Brahmin priests perform an ancient ceremony (half sacred, half Vegas in appearance) with smoke, flames, and conch shells in synchronized movements, accompanied by a drum-heavy band, and hawkers selling flowers and candles. Yes, we got some, lit them, and set them adrift on the Ganges. If you're reading this, consider yourself blessed.

The next morning at dawn, we cruised the Ganges as the sun rose, and saw the faithful taking a plunge in the river along the many different ghats; it’s a bizarre and strangely moving scene. Then we strolled through the streets of Varanasi, and we also filled a plastic water bottle of holy Ganges water that we’re bringing home with us. Sprinkles are available for the low, low price of 200 rupees. All right, for you we make special price, only 100 rupees – very good bargain!

That was the end of our tourist time in India – we flew to Silicon Valley, aka Bangalore, for a few days (and got to havedinner with Eswar, Anu, and their adorable kids Aishwarya and Aryan – hi guys! And Joy from Shanghai too!), and then home sweet home, Hong Kong. At least for a week or so, before Cambodia . . .

Hope all is well with you, blogees. Let us know. Our little “bean” is growing, and we have a 20-week ultrasound scan coming up soon. All best thoughts from David and Allison.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

How can we miss you if you won't go away?

Yeah, I know that's what some of you must be thinking. But we can’t help it, we love being tourists to America, so we visited in January. Our adventures included a belated holiday party in San Francisco -- it was a great party, but we were having so much fun we forgot to use the camera, darn it, so lamely, we only took pictures of the first guests and the hosts. Be forewarned, if you want to be in the blog, show up early. Thanks to Marija, not only for hosting us, but for doing all the cooking, too.

Allison had a few days of work to do Arizona, so we flew to Phoenix where we got to meet up with my Uncle Sol and Aunt Pat (send pictures, Uncle Sol!).

Then we had a little birthday reunion up in Sedona. My birthday, Allison’s, and Barbara’s (my mom-in-law) all cluster together at the end of Jan. start of Feb., and that was our excuse. We stayed at a ginormous (yes, it’s in the O.E. D.) house just outside of town in scintillating Cornville, and immediately started acting like Americans, eating a lot, having people treat us like royalty at the spa, and of course, shopping, at a cool artist community called Tlaqueplaque.

The next day we went to another little artist’s village called Jerome and ate like crazy again. To work off all that eating we hiked Boynton Canyon in Sedona’s Red Rocks area – gorgeous, hot in the sun, and freezing in the shade.

The next day we went to see some Indian ruins that had been around for hundreds of years, though Turk almost managed to knock down the doorway with his backpack. The caves had petroglyphs, including one is thought to be a calendar showing the position of the sun over the mountains at the solstices. We then hiked Devil’s Bridge and almost gave Barbara a coronary occlusion by jumping and dancing on the bridge. She vowed to have no sympathy for us when our own little ones torment us.

The rest of the family departed at 4 am, and Allison and I, loving our sleep a little more, meandered back to Phoenix by way of Montezuma’s Well and Montezuma’s Castle. The early European invaders – oops, I mean explorers – were mixed up about the origins of these ruins (ain’t these some a’ them there Aztec ruins?), hence the names.

Now we’re back in Hong Kong, but about to leave for northern India, the setting for our next blog adventures, some time in February.

Oh, how could I forget? My wonderful wife is just a wee bit self-conscious about the fact that she appears plump in the photos (well, she thinks so). The fact is, we’re expecting. As in, a baby. A sneak preview appears as photo number 4, above.

In theaters July 7th.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

This Christmas we headed to Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, to check out some of northern Viet Nam. After visiting Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta in the South this past summer, we knew Viet Nam was beautiful, and we wanted to see more of it. We traveled with our friends from SF, Marija and Louise, who were in Asia celebrating the first anniversary of Marija’s 39th birthday.

Hanoi, those of you who follow America’s wars will recall, was once the capital of our arch-enemy, North Viet Nam. It’s been around for 4,000 years or so (it’s even older than Baghdad – we sure can pick ’em, huh?), and it’s been the capital for most of that time. Modern Hanoi, home to roughly 3 million people, is a bustling and strikingly lovely city. The French colonial influence is still clear in the architecture, the café culture, the pastries, and even many of the street signs; we stayed next to the Hanoi Opera House, which would have been at home in the 9th Arrondissement of Paris. We spent most of our time exploring the Old Quarter, the French Quarter, and the area around Hoan Kiem Lake (the traditional heart of Hanoi). I tried to get Allison to go to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum with me, but she didn’t want to see his waxy old taxidermied body, so I had to settle for the shellacked giant tortoise at the lake.

A popular stop for dinner is Cha Ca La Vong (video), where Allison, Louise and Marija enjoyed the only dish on the menu, fried fish cooked at your table. I’m not in this video because I spent that night back at the hotel room, “indisposed.” Free travel tip: When the Viet Nam Airlines flight attendant asks you what you want for dinner, just say “Coca-Cola, please!” Except for that one bad airline meal, though, all the Vietnamese food we had was spectacular.

I recovered quickly, so I was able to visit the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre (video). This was a major highlight for me in Hanoi – I’m a sucker for puppets, and in WATER? Sign me up! If you don’t know about it, mui roi nuoc (literally “puppets that dance on water”) is a unique Vietnamese art form that depicts legends and scenes from rural life in a giant onstage pool designed to resemble the banks of the Red River. The performers, also in the water, are concealed behind screens, and they work the puppets on long poles. It’s extremely cool to see, seriously; I’m a Thang Long fan. And, I’m now the proud owner of two water puppets; if you’re good, I might let you see them.

We also took a day trip up the real Red River Delta, to a Buddhist shrine called the Perfume Pagoda. This is one of the most sacred spots in the country, but no road goes all the way to it – instead, you travel the last few kilometers by canoe, rowed by women who are all about 4’ 10”, maybe 90 pounds, and who could no doubt beat the tar clean out of me in a fair fight. I tried rowing, and I got maybe 17 feet before I got blisters and started crying.

We walked up the steps to the Pagoda, then rode a cable car to the spectacular grotto shrine, a large cave (50 meters high) where monks journey daily on foot to meditate. There are three small images of Buddha inside with trippy, psychedelic electric lights behind them, which look like something that would be used to hypnotize a cartoon character – possibly Fred Flintstone. The rest of the cave, though, has a genuinely spiritual energy.

Ha Long has this been goin' on?
Our next stop was a two-day visit, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, to Ha Long Bay – a scenic inlet of the Gulf of Tonkin dotted with 1,969 islands of varying sizes and sometimes bizarre shapes, made by natural limestone formations. We sailed on a nice old junk (it’s a small ship, not a piece of junk)called the Santa Maria and drifted among the islands, playing that game you play with clouds – “doesn’t that one look like a schnauzer carrying an umbrella?”

On Christmas Eve we visited the eerie, lovely Hang Sung Sot Cave (actually three interconnected, echoing caves) with strange stalactite and stalagmite formations.

That night the crew threw a party for us, with a yummy dinner. At one point they turned off all the lights without warning and we were plunged into pitch-black darkness. For about four seconds we thought the junk was about to be boarded by pirates, but then the kitchen crew came in with flaming, hollowed-out pineapples with spring rolls sticking out of them; I think there was a recipe for that in Good Housekeeping in roughly 1967. After the dinner, the crew turned on the obligatory karaoke machine, and Allison, Marija, and Louise cruelly forced me to perform “I’m Too Sexy” (scary video). I had wanted to do something tasteful, maybe some Sondheim…

On Christmas morning we all got into kayaks to explore the bay on our own for a bit. We asked where to go, and the guide said, “anywhere.” So, Allison and I headed off to some cool-looking islands, and didn’t hear the crew yelling at us to turn around. We were apparently on our way into the heavy current of the shipping lanes, the open sea, and next stop Japan. Fortunately, we got it turned around, but yikes… after that, we stayed near the little water village, then climbed back aboard the Santa Maria. No sign of the Nina or the Pinta…

For some strange reason the crew loved me (it must have been the karaoke), and they invited me (video) to eat partially developed duck embryos and do shots with them. Allison and I now have a new Christmas morning family tradition that we hope will endure for years to come.

Back in Hanoi we had an amazing dinner at a French-Vietnamese fusion restaurant called Green Tangerine – two great cuisines that taste great together. After a little shopping on the 26th, we flew back home to Hong Kong, where we’ve just celebrated New Years’ 2008. Weren’t we all supposed to have flying cars by now?

I hope this finds you all well – we send you best wishes for a terrific 2008, and we hope to see you, or at least hear from you, soon. This is your intrepid Hong Kong correspondent, signing off.