Sunday, November 30, 2008

Hong Kong

How to describe the city of Hong Kong? All weekend I tried to think of a way to illustrate this remarkable place to those who have never been there. Here is the best that I could come up with. If you have ever been to New York City, think of Times Square. Got it? Now put it on steroids, lots and lots of steroids.

Chris and I flew in on Wednesday evening and, after navigating ourselves successfully to our hotel, decided to explore Hong Kong’s renowned nightlife. Stepping foot out of the lobby, the first thing that we both noticed were the lights. Rainbows of giant neon lights scream at pedestrians and motorists on the streets below. And, unlike most big cities I know, the lights are not limited to one part of town. New York has Times Square, Paris has the Champs-Elysées, and even Las Vegas has The Strip. But, in Hong Kong, every street and every business competes for attention like a high school cheerleading squad. To attract tourists even further, major businesses get together and every night at 8:00, they put on a light and laser show to the great delight of photo-happy westerners.

The second thing that struck us as we attempted to steer through the swarms on the streets was the people. No, it actually wasn’t the number of people we encountered, but instead it was the type of people. We saw more westerners over the last five days than the last five months combined. Chris and I started a new game called “Guess the Nationality” in which we debated on whether the person in question was European or American. By the end of the trip, we were able to play with a fairly high success rate, though there were some Bermuda-short clad limeys that took us by surprise.

Having been initiated into this new city on Wednesday, we got up on Thursday ready to see what we could see and, of course, taste what we could taste. Being Thanksgiving, we knew that we needed to have a really great lunch. So, we asked our hotel to recommend the best Chinese food around. Hong Kong is known for a specialty called “Dim Sum”. In a dim sum restaurant, you are handed a paper menu and a pencil and you simply mark off the items you would like. Each thing that you order comes with two to four appetizer-sized snacks so you get to order several different types of food. If you really like one, just ask for another order! The whole time we ate, Chris and I were trying to figure out why on earth Chinese restaurants in America don’t provide similar offerings. The food was so delicious, we ordered extra for a doggy bad for a snack for later. We figured it could be like our Thanksgiving leftovers.

Invigorated by our tasty lunch, we headed across the harbor in search of one of Hong Kong’s “must-see” attractions, the Ngong Ping Gondola. Suspended high in the air, the gondola provides spectacular views of the city and outlying islands as it conveys its riders to the top of the mountain where a giant statue of the great Buddha awaits. Aided by beautiful weather, the views were indeed breathtaking, but they actually weren’t the highlight of the afternoon. The highlight came as we were standing in line when a bright-eyed dread-locked hippie came rushing toward Chris spouting off some sort of crazy moon language. After a few awkward seconds, it dawned on Chris that he was wearing a shirt proudly displaying the word “Polska” across the front. Ah, this guy thinks we’re Polish. Hating to disappoint the excited traveler, we informed him that we were not, in fact, Polish nor did we speak any of the language. This did not deter our new friend, however, and he sidled right up to us and began to exchange traveling stories. As it turned out, this guy was actually hitch-hiking across the world. He recounted times of being caught by Russian police when his visa was expired and taking a job teaching kindergarten in Beijing after his passport was stolen. Very entertaining indeed.

Our big adventure on Friday came after an unintentional tour of the city while we searched for a bus to take us to Victoria Peak, a bit of a misnomer as it turns out that this “peak” is actually located in the saddle between two other peaks. Riding on the second floor of a double-decker bus was quite an adventure as it screamed around twists and turns where one false move could have sent us either plummeting to our deaths off a cliff on one side, or careening head-on into another bus full of tourists on the other. However, we did make it alive to the top where we snapped some pictures and enjoyed the scenery.

On our last day, we decided to explore different parts of the city. We wandered through different markets and along random streets to see where they took us. We found parks, fresh fruit markets, knock-off purse and watch markets, expensive designer boutiques, and restaurants from places we didn’t know existed. Making it back to our side of town just in time for the 8:00 light show and some ice cream, we headed back to the hotel and put this trip in the books.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Giving Thanks

As the Holidays approach and homesickness starts to creep in, we are constantly being reminded that we are not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Being in a subtropical climate, there have been no red and gold falling leaves, no frost on the ground when you wake up, heck, it has barely gotten below 60º! There have been, however, dogs and babies dressed as animals to shield them from the below 70º frigid temperatures (see panda-dog below).

We have seen no heart-warming commercials about the son in the army who surprises his folks by ringing the doorbell during the Thanksgiving meal with a pumpkin pie in hand. Twinkling lights don’t wink at you from front porch windows nor are your ears assailed with Elvis’ classic Christmas carol I’ll Have a Blue Christmas over and over and over and over again from every radio station on the FM dial. Santa and his eight tiny reindeer don’t wave at you from store windows boasting 20% off the new paraffin wax pedicure set, at the top of every woman’s wish list. We don’t even get the signs that say, “Remember, Jesus is the Reason for the Season”. In fact, the only holiday reminder that we have, other than the calendar, is that Starbucks has recently changed their cups to the red ones with snowflakes and has added the toffee nut latte to their menu.

On the one hand, the lack of a Christmas wonderland leaves us wistfully dreaming of a far away place across the Pacific where friends and family gather over cranberry sauce and can actually read the directions on the can on how to serve it. On the other hand, it is nice to be in a place where we get to tell students why we take one day every year to thank God for all that he has given us and it is actually new information for them. It is fun to explain our “crazy” tradition of eating turkey (which is remarkably hard to find here) and dressing until we collapse into a tryptophan-induced nap while watching the Detroit Lions lose once again.

As we get ready to jet off to Hong Kong tomorrow to celebrate Turkey Day with some dim sum just like Grandma used to make, we are thankful for our sweet friends and family back in the good ol’ USA.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Island is alive... With the Sound of Music

When I say the word “karaoke” what comes to mind? For me, images of sketchy bars that boast a dimly-lit stage and television screens with psychedelic pictures behind song lyrics dance through my head like the infamous bouncing ball. The aroma of cigarette smoke and stale beer is almost overwhelming as tone-deaf singers mumble awkwardly through the verses so they can belt out the chorus of classic tunes such as Sweet Home Alabama, Any Man of Mine, or even It’s the End of the World as We Know it. However, as you may know, karaoke is extremely popular throughout Asia, for some reason. We knew that we would have to partake in this cultural experience at some point during our time here and last night was the lucky night.

Before we even arrived, I knew that I was in for a different experience than what I had in my mind’s eye. We were invited to go by some friends about a week and a half ago because, apparently, you need to make reservations that far in advance. When we strode up to the site described to us by our friends, I had to double check to make sure that we were in the right place. Walking up, it looked like the entrance to an elegant hotel. No sketchy bar here, folks. There was a grand foyer complete with chandeliers and leather sofas for those who had not made reservations and were now waiting for an indefinite amount of time for space to become available. Lucky us with our reservations, we were shown directly to the elevators and to the twelfth floor of the establishment where our private room awaited us. No stage up in front of complete strangers, no listening to Mr. Three-sheets-to-the-wind sing I Will Always Love You for the fifth time (unless he actually came with you). Evidently, this is how it is always done here. Everyone gets a private room with a table, two microphones, and a television. Now, I am getting why this is more popular here.

Shortly after we were seated, our waiter came in to take our order. Orders successfully placed with the aid of our Taiwanese friends, we dove into the singing. We were very pleasantly surprised at the number of English songs they had in their selection. Though the lyrics sometimes were a little off (I am dig in you = I am digging you), we were happy to not have to try to read Chinese characters. Probably our favorite part, however, was the videos that they showed behind the lyrics while we sang. For a select few of the songs, they had the actual music videos. However, for the vast majority of the songs, they had random girls walking through parks or what I could only guess were tourism videos from Ottawa, Canada. Beat It! actually had a girl dancing around a no parking sign the entire time. Succumbing to temptation, Chris and I broke down and actually sang Sweet Home Alabama. But, the best part about it was that throughout the song, images proudly displaying the Australian flag were plastered on the screen. Hey, they both start with an A and speak a strange variant of English, right?

All in all, the evening was dubbed a roaring success and much good, clean fun was had by all. I encourage you all to set up a karaoke machine in your living rooms and turn on the BBC to duplicate the experience. Happy singing!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Just a Game

Written by: Coach
Many of you may or may not know this about me: I am a bit of a sports nut. I have always had a passion for sports. I love watching, playing and coaching sports. Over the years I have grown to love a variety of different sports including soccer, volleyball, ping-pong, water polo and many others. My two loves, however, have always been and probably always will be basketball and football. Among the two, basketball reigns supreme. I have played basketball all my life and have been coaching the sport to junior varsity and varsity teams since 2002.

Growing up in the South meant that one such as me absolutely HAD to follow a SEC football team. I grew up in a family that bled orange and blue and early on decided that I would too. I can still remember my first Auburn football experience. I was 8 years old my first time inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. At the time I thought that it was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen (other than the first time I held my baby sister Samantha in my arms). Since that September day in 1989, I have been a die hard Auburn football fan and have never even lived outside of the state of Alabama during football season. All that has changed, to say the least. At first I was extremely frustrated that the Taiwanese did not see the importance of college football and never offered any games on ESPN. Then I discovered that I was not able to watch any live feeds of the games or even a radio broadcast on the internet. Furthermore, even if I wanted to watch a ticker play-by-play of Auburn games I would have to stay up at the wee hours of Sunday morning. You can imagine then how much more frustrated I became when Auburn began to plummet while Saban quickly rebuilt the Tide to be a powerhouse!

Now, if I was in the U.S. right now, I would be stressed out about the Georgia game clinging to some hope that we can pull off a huge upset against our long time SEC rival. If I was in Alabama I would have watched every game to the bitter end as if that really made a difference. As if Coach Tubs keeps a tally of all the fans who watch every single minute of every single game. I would be screaming at the television every time they turn the ball over (and that has been a lot this year). I would celebrate every touchdown like someone who actually scored it himself.

In Taiwan I feel as if something has finally clicked and I suddenly realize that Auburn will win and lose games whether I am at the game, in my Alabama townhome or my apartment in Taiwan. The point is to enjoy the sport because it is a great game with a lot of drama, color and passion. I can enjoy college football even in a year which I can’t even watch one live game. I can enjoy it when Auburn is 5-5, Bama is 10-0 and is probably going to play for the national championship! My attitude or mood before and after games will never have an impact on how good or bad a season ends up for my beloved Tigers. It is crazy that I am 28 and just now arriving at these conclusions but then again, I know many SEC football fans that will probably never understand what I am writing in this blog and that is totally OK. I am just glad (for my wife’s sake) that I can be a fanatic fan and still just appreciate the game for what it is…..a game.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Ilha Formosa

So, I have definitely caught the bug. I have to be honest and say that I always thought that there was something a little off about people who ran long distances when something wasn’t chasing them. And, maybe something is off. But, I have now officially joined their ranks. This weekend, Chris and I went down to the east coast of the island to a city called Hualien.

We knew that when we arrived in Hualien that someone from the hotel would be at the train station to meet us. We didn’t know that she would bring with her an entourage including a friend, her friend’s daughter and another friend who spoke English. After all of the introductions, they escorted us to dinner where, at the table, the food kept coming and coming as they tried to show the Americans the best of Taiwan. It was this night that I learned a very important phrase for someone living in an incredibly friendly environment. “Wo bow luh!” “I am full!” When we tried to pay for the dinner, our hosts insisted that it was on them.

Bellies full, we went to bed for a very short night. Up with us at 4:30 in the morning was once again our host ready to take us to our race site shuttle and get breakfast on the way. Once again with full bellies, we boarded the bus with our instructions to call the hotel at the end of the race and give them the code word: “hello.” This was the password for them to know to come and pick us up.

When we arrived at the race site, we understood why this race is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the world. It was in Taroko Gorge, a national park here in Taiwan. This time when I ran, I carried a cell phone with me as to avoid the fiasco of being lost and not able to find Chris at the end (see blog about the Human Race). The phone also served a double duty as I attempted to photograph the scenery along the race route, rather unsuccessfully, I must admit. But, you can maybe get the idea. Lush mountains dripping with waterfalls, rocky riverbeds and cave-like tunnels made for a spectacular backdrop for the race. After running, we snapped a few more pictures and headed back to the train station to meet our maître d’hôtel.

That evening, our hosts took us to a show of traditional Taiwanese dancing. We were pleasantly surprised to find the audience full of Taiwanese and not Americans. I’m sure that the show would have been much more informative if our Mandarin were better but we enjoyed the visual part, at least. Sleepily, we headed back to the hotel for a well-deserved night’s sleep.

The next morning, the hotel offered us bikes to ride to a beach not too far away. The path followed the coast and was spectacularly beautiful. When we arrived at our destination, we were reminded that beaches here are very different than those in the United States in that they are the opposite of touristy. We stopped around lunchtime and were hungry from our journey so we wanted to find a place to eat. In the States, the only problem would be which restaurant you would choose from in between tacky airbrush T-shirt shops. Here, however, it was a different story. We had to go into two different stores attempting to get directions to the one restaurant in town. When we finally did find it, however, the view was stunning and the food overpriced. We felt right at home.

Reluctantly, we got back on our bikes to head back to the hotel and go back to Taipei. On the return journey, I snapped a few more pictures as I thought of the Portuguese who first landed on Taiwan and gave it the nickname “Ilha Formosa” or “Beautiful Island”.