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Monthly Archives: July 2012

From Farm to Halifax

There was quite a bit for me to see in two days in Halifax, but most of my attention was focused on food and drinks in between sights. Unfortunately, Halifax is not known for cheap eats–most restaurants I came across were over my budget.

Welcome to the Halifax farmer's market

Welcome to the Halifax farmer’s market

On my first morning, my Airbnb hosts showed me the way to the farmer’s market–showing me the way to some wonderful coffee and a beautiful rooftop view. I didn’t realize that the market had a green rooftop with solar panels and wind turbines.

The colorful rooftop garden on a misty morning

The colorful rooftop garden on a misty morning

I was impressed by the size of the farmer’s market, but I wasn’t surprised–I read up on it the day before arriving. I was told that it was less crowded than usual because of Canada Day. I was, however, expecting a little more variety of produce–there wasn’t much in the way of fruit. There were plenty of prepared-food vendors to keep me happy for breakfast though. Best of all, the vendors offered tastes of their culinary delights. My first taste was from a Turkish vendor who sold some spicy vegetarian snacks (I was too tired and hungry to remember to snap a photo or even write down what I ate).

mmm...Scotch

mmm…Scotch

After parting ways with my hosts, I sampled some food and drinks in the market. It was an unusual feeling being offered liquor and wine at 9:30 in the morning, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to try the only single malt Scotch distilled outside of Scotland. I had heard of this Scotch because my parents stayed at the distillery in Cape Breton when they visited. Unfortunately, I couldn’t bring a bottle back with me as I wasn’t checking luggage (it also was a bit out of my budget for the trip). But, it was a wonderfully smooth Scotch with a great balance of smokiness.

I also found some wonderful spirits from Ironworks Distillery, which unfortunately were not sold at the airport’s duty free shop (it was closed anyway). They make some great fruit-flavored liqueurs, including cranberry and arctic kiwi. These spirits aren’t as thick as cordials, but can still be mixed with desserts–they’d taste great over ice cream or even in a fruit smoothie.

There were plenty of other foods and drinks to sample around the market, including plenty of cheese to keep me happy. It also helped that there were multiple coffee vendors to keep me going.

Nice variety from Ironworks

Nice variety from Ironworks

If it hadn’t been morning, or if I had more time to spend in Halifax, I probably would have spent more time in the farmer’s market sampling food and drinks. I definitely would’ve liked to taste the rest of the Ironworks’ spirits. There were also a few ice wines I would’ve like to sample.

Forbidden Olympics

When I visited Beijing in the couple years before the Olympics, I didn’t see any of the venues for the games. At that time I didn’t even know where in the city they were located. I stuck with the tourist destinations that included the Forbidden City.

The Palace Museum has been replaced by a screen print

The Palace Museum has been replaced by a screen print

Unfortunately, it was difficult to see the Forbidden City. You see, much of the emperor’s former residence was off limits to the public because of restoration work. From what I’ve read, the Olympics forced Beijing to restore many historical sites–I was just lucky enough to arrive when everything was being restored.forbiddencity

And in honor of the London Olympics, I’ve decided to post a second Friday photo of Beijing’s restoration project.

Linguist Olympics

olympic-englishFor a short time before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, I taught at a language center in Shenzhen. It wasn’t entirely legal as the company couldn’t get me a residence permit and had me apply for business visas for which I was labelled a consultant. Fortunately, while stories circulated about visa crackdowns across China, I was never even asked to show my passport.

One of the classes I had to teach at the language center was for the local police. There were 40 English-speaking police officers who were required to show up and learn from the official Olympic Security English handbook that was put together by an officer in Beijing and clearly not edited by a native speaker. In one instance, the translation for an international apartment complex came out as “apartments for aliens.” There’s also a wonderful conversation in which a foreigner calls another person a “rascal”–I told the police in class to call me immediately if they ever met someone who used that word.

Here’s a excerpt from a lesson on “Dissuading Foreigners from Excessive Drinking.”

Security Guard: You’ve drunk too much. Excessive drinking in public is banned because it disturbs others.

Foreigner: So what? Waitress! I want a girl to drink with me!

Guard: Mind your manners! You are drunk, you should leave. Take my advice, or I’ll call the police.

Foreigner: Oh! Please don’t call the police! I don’t drink any more. I’m sorry.

Somehow I doubt a conversation with a drunk would be so clear and logical. I found this short lesson funny because excessive drinking is quite common in China. It’s also fairly common in London.

As in most chapters in the book, the foreigner gives up very easily. Some of the other entertaining chapters deal with “illegal news coverage” and “frighting” (that was fighting misspelled twice in two lessons).

Makes me wonder how the London police will handle drunk foreigners. Or whether they’ve received any language training. At least China made the attempt to improve communication beyond the blank stares I usually got when I needed something from the police, like a foreign resident registration form.

What’s Crossing the Road?

I’ve seen plenty of animal crossing signs in my travels. Some are obvious and others are not. When I was 16 and traveling with my parents through New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, we came across a Bigfoot Crossing sign at Pike’s Peak (I’ll have to scan my old photos for that one). iguanas

I’m not sure why I was surprised by this one in Gamboa, Panama. Maybe it’s because I only saw one iguana from a distance during my trip. And that iguana was nowhere near a road. I came across this sign after my short hike with the biologists who thought it would be cool to play with a boa constrictor. Of course, had I found an iguana along the street, I probably would’ve wanted to play with it. This was the only wildlife crossing sign in Gamboa, despite the fact that I saw a coatimundi scurry across the street about 15 minutes after my arrival.

Airbnb Experiment

halifaxAfter searching for reasonably-priced accommodations in Halifax and coming up empty, I decided to give Airbnb a try. For my readers who don’t know, Airbnb is a service that connects travelers with locals who rent out rooms or enter apartments and houses around the world. There are some interesting listings on the website, including three Frank Lloyd Wright houses.

I was a little apprehensive about booking a room through Airbnb for the first time. I’ve never really liked hostels or guest houses–I’m just not a fan of sharing bathrooms. But, for $45 per night, I decided it couldn’t be that bad–it was the same price as some poorly-reviewed guesthouses and only $15 more than a bed in a hostel.

I found what appeared to be a nice listing in the southern end of the city with Topher and Rae. I emailed the couple that was renting the room and received prompt and reassuring replies. I was still nervous until I arrived. It didn’t help that I arrived late on a Friday night–even some hotels make it difficult when arriving late, which is why I now call ahead if I plan on arriving late.

One of the historic houses in the neighborhood

One of the historic houses in the neighborhood

I was relieved when I met Topher at the door. He introduced me to their beautiful apartment in an historic home–I wish I had a kitchen like that. After a brief introduction, Topher and Rae gave me directions to some local bars, though I only made it to Henry House.

The next morning, my hosts invited me to join them on a trip to the farmer’s market, which was about a 10-minute walk. After showing me around a bit, we parted ways and embarked on an extremely long walk through Halifax. Fortunately, the city isn’t too big, so it was easy to walk everywhere from their apartment.

Some people in Halifax live in miniature castles

Some people in Halifax live in miniature castles

My room through Airbnb was comfortable and quiet–so quiet, in fact, that the birds woke me up every morning. And the room itself was about three times larger than anything I needed for a short stay. They even had a friendly cat that I wasn’t allergic to. The cat had a strange fascination with my shoes–he liked to rest his head on them.

Topher and Rae took their hosting duties seriously–they were better prepared than the staff at some hotels. They had a pile of guides and maps set in the room, and they were more than willing to talk about attractions and destinations.

It was a great introduction to Halifax and Airbnb. I doubt I’d rent my apartment out on the site (mainly because I don’t have an extra room), but I’ll definitely use it to look for accommodations again.

Party Crashing

It was a pleasant coincidence that I booked my trip to Halifax during Canada Day celebrations. I also visited Montreal last year during a fireworks festival that I discovered while searching for things to add to my itinerary. Sometimes celebrations are more of a surprise on trips. queenbirthday

In 2008, I went with my parents for a few days in Bangkok. I convinced them to meet in Malaysia, but they also wanted at least a short trip to Thailand. When we arrived in Bangkok, we discovered that it was Queen Sirikit’s 76th birthday. We had no idea we’d be in Thailand for a celebration like that, and we were pleasantly surprised.

Has anyone else traveled to country only to find themselves in the midst of a national celebration?

Double the Independence

airportBefore booking my flight to Halifax, I wasn’t paying attention to the dates, only the days of the week. It worked out in my favor as I was in Halifax for Canada Day on July 1.

The downside to being in Halifax for Canada Day is that a lot of shops are closed and residents are on vacation. There are still plenty of tourists to fill the void though. There were plenty of events around the city to keep me busy between long walks to see the sights.

One friendly bartender showed me the parade route, of which I caught the tail end. I missed out on the visiting international militaries that were putting on shows. I also missed out on the free concert in Dartmouth (I took the ferry over early in the day and realized there was nothing to do until much later). But I did get a tour of the Government House–they offered free tours for just that weekend.

Bagpipes and drums at the end of the parade

Bagpipes and drums at the end of the parade

Instead of searching for more to do around Halifax, I rested in the late afternoon before heading back out to the roof of the Farmer’s Market to watch the fireworks over Halifax Harbour. I watched the boats go by in the sunset while enjoying a Montreal smoked sausage. The smoked sausage was excellent–it was like a smoked chorizo. It was also one of the cheapest meals I had.smokedsausage

The fireworks were fun, but they were over in 15 minutes. Watching choreographed fireworks just isn’t the same as drunken disorganized fireworks displays that I enjoyed with a hint of terror in China. At least these fireworks were safe.

I returned to New Jersey for July 4. I was prepared to ride my bike along the waterfront in search of a place to watch the fireworks on the Hudson River (it would be so much easier to watch if they moved the fireworks back to the Statue of Liberty), but the heatwave sucked all the motivation out of me. Instead, I enjoyed a relaxing evening at home–really a great way to celebrate independence.

HK at 15

July 1 marks 15 years since Hong Kong was returned to mainland China.

centralI wasn’t around long enough to notice the significant changes, and I’ll let the journalists and long-time expats focus on that. There’s plenty for those writers to discuss about economics and politics. Everything I noticed was the vast differences when I crossed the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

Hong Kong was much more organized, efficient, and friendly. One of my friends commented that he was overwhelmed by the sight of so many foreigners–he was tempted to stare at them the way we were stared at in Shenzhen. Even though the streets were just as crowded as Shenzhen (sometimes more so), there was a greater comfort level in those crowds. And, of course, there was always HK Chief Executive Donald Tsang with his trademark bowtie–you can’t help but like a politician who always wears a bowtie.

The first few times I crossed into Hong Kong, I used the Luohu/Lowu border. On the Shenzhen side, it contains an enormous shopping mall that mostly sells knock-off products. The Hong Kong side has nothing except for the train station that took me to Tsim Sha Tsui. Probably the most striking difference at that border was that as soon as one crossed the physical border, the air conditioning got stronger. The Hong Kong side was definitely cooler.

The Hong Kong skyline from Victoria Peak

The Hong Kong skyline from Victoria Peak

I always found it a bit unusual that I had to pass through customs to enter the same country, albeit a Special Administrative Region as designated by the central government of China. One round trip to Hong Kong required four stamps in my passport–and the customs agents never wanted to coordinate their stamps and found it amusing to use completely empty pages rather than filling up already used pages. It’s all part of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy, which also applies to Macau (does that make it three systems?). This forced me to add extra pages in Bangkok during my second year.

Later on, I began crossing the border at Huanggang because it was slightly closer than Luohu. There were also a few times that I took the ferry from Shekou, but that was usually to go to the airport. When I moved to Nanshan, the trip was easier as I could take a 15-minute bus ride to Shenzhen Bay and another bus into Kowloon.

Lantau from the Ngong Ping cable car

Lantau from the Ngong Ping cable car

One constant at the borders was the unfriendly customs agents. They almost never spoke, even when a question was asked. Even when I brought back a Balinese statue that was the size of a small child, wrapped in paper to conceal it’s face, the officer (who looked rather confused) didn’t say a word.