Sunday, February 28, 2010

New Plan for now

After speaking with American Airlines this (Sunday) afternoon in China about my Monday morning flight, I decided to push back my travel plans several days. The airline rep told me that LAN Air that operates the flight from LA to Santiago had put out an announcement that all flights going in and out of Santiago were cancelled, although mine hadn't been cancelled officially yet. "There is a 99.9% chance it will be cancelled, "she told me, so I went ahead and booked an open flight for Saturday. I am now set to leave Hong Kong Saturday morning at 10:20 am and arrive in Santiago Sunday morning at 6:45 am. Those travel plans, of course, will be contingent on what I hear from my university in Valparaiso.The program I am studying abroad through, ISEP, has sent word from their U.S. office that they are trying to contact ISEP coordinators in Valparaiso and will send out an update when they can get through. I have not received a reply to the email I sent to my Chilean host family yet. I'm gluedto my computer as I wait for information. I am hopeful that the devastating pictures and clips I've seen on the news are the very worst of the damage.


As I'm sure you all know, a massive earthquake struck central Chile in the wee hours of the morning on Saturday, February 27. The aftershocks have been intense and widespread, with significant damage to roads, homes, airports...My prayers are with my Chilean host family in Vina del Mar as I wait for email updates from them, my soon-to-be university in Valparaiso, and the airline. I'm scheduled to leave Hong Kong Monday (HK time) morning and to arrive in Santiago, Chile Tuesday morning at 6:45 am. The Santiago airport is currently closed due to damage and flights are being re-routed to Mendoza, Argentina or cancelled. I'm feeling rather wide-awake at this news as I sit on my computer at 1:23 AM in China, now Sunday morning. I've seen pictures now on the internet of some of the damage, including to homes in Valparaiso. I'm feeling very worried and anxious as I wait for more updates, any news. I'll keep everyone updated as I hear more, but for now I'm still safe with my family in China.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Selamat Datang

Welcome to Malaysia. Last week in celebration of the Chinese New Year holiday, my family and I travelled south to the island of Penang, just off the west coast of peninsular Malaysia. We spent three days in the historic and cultural hub of Georgetown before ferrying to the beautiful island of Langkawi for the second half of our trip. In summarizing this vacation, I don't really know where to begin. In anticipating this trip, I also didn't know what to expect. When my parents shared our travel itinerary, a whole series of thoughts went my mind: "We're going to Malaysia?! Hmm...must google Malaysia. Where exactly is this place? What do the people look like? What do they eat there? Any famous sights? Good beaches? Average weather?" I didn't know the answers offhand to any of these questions. I did a little pre-trip research (you can count on me, always ;) but I still felt rather unprepared when we touched down last Monday at Penang International Airport. So what was my first impression? Well, I as we landed I heard a British accent behind me say, "Look, says it is 39 C outside currently." 39 C?? Hmm okay what is that in Fahrenheit? (Yes after 2.5 months of being in Celsius countries I still am in adjustment mode)Whatever, not sure but wow I think that is really hot. (102 F I later figured out). Momentslater when I stepped off the plane I was greeted with a suffocating blast of heat. Hello 39 C!

This trip was a little different for me than it was for the rest of the fam because they vacationed in Thailand in November and had that experience to compare everything to. With no particular expectations of my own, I thought Malaysia was awesome! It was hot, it smelled pretty bad, the western meal options were limited, but come one, we were still in Asia after all. On this trip we all had our moments where we had to remind each other that, "We are in Asia still, so don't let this shock you." The bar is certainly set in an altogether different place when one is travelling in Asia, but I don't mean that in a bad way. Western standards just don't apply, in cleanliness or infrastructure or anything else, but this reality has its advantages. The standard of living is collectively lower, but the result seems to be a more widespread contentedness with one's particular position in society. From our first encounter with our chatty driver to our hotel in Georgetown to our last,we all agreed that Malaysians were on average very happy, friendly people who were proud to be where they were.

Rather than babble on too much, I'll break this up with some of my favorite pics from the week.

Question 1: What are the people like?

The city of Georgetown hums along happily with its mix of Indian, Chinese and native Malay peoples, peppered by evidence of former British settlement and the ever-present western influence. Here, some locals play checkers on the sidewalks of Jalan Penang, aka Penang Ave.

Go Guinness go!

And some more street shots:

The pharmacy tech in me enjoys the random drugstore and home remedies sold on the side of the street. Prickly fitting.

The lovely sis in a sidewalk fabric market

Teksis...the Malays' languange was fun to listen to. It had the typical Asian sound but with this nice island flair that reminded me of the Carribean.

Some British influence:gorgeous government building in Georgetown.

Now let me share some shots of the different cultures that mesh in Malaysia...

Lion dance-clutch for the Chinese New Year celebrations

Crowds outside the Chinese Goddess of Mercy Temple.

The culprit behind all that smoke at said temple. Let me just say that the incense was the thickness of a baseball bat and some sticks were taller than me. After we got back to the hotel from this walk, I found ash all over my arms. That mixed with the sweat and general street smell of Georgetown was enough to make me have an AHH Asia! moment. Whole new level of dirty: achieved.

Beautiful mosque in Georgetown. The Muslim presence was strong in Malaysia.
One of the cultural differences that made the largest impression on my family was the great number of women that wore burqas. Covered from head to toe in black and showing nothing but their eyes, I struggled to come to terms with this ancient custom in 100 degree heat. I couldn't help but stare at the mysterious cloaked women walking past me at airports and in hotel lobbies, curious about the person that was underneath. At times the cultural gap feels very, very wide.

Mmm, I think I smell some vegetable samosas! Score Little India.

When Em and I walked through Little India in Georgetown, we came across several shops and signs such as this one. The colors were vivid and the music was loud and Slumdog Millionaire style. The whole place had this wondeful rhythm that renewed my desire to travel to India someday. My favorite encounter with a local also happened in this area. Em and I were in an Indian grocery store, mesmerized by the rows of spices and bulk ingredients-7 different kinds of lentils...when a store clerk walked up to us. We made small talk and he asked where we were from. When I said the United States he looked right at me and said, "America? Are you Christian?" I smiled and said yes and he smiled back. "Very nice to meet you, Justin."

Indian temple c. 1830's

We found some westerners...hehe I thought it was funny that all the white people we saw on this whole street for half a mile were all hanging out in one place: Kafe Monaliza BBQ Cafe. ..what does that even mean?

Cathedral of the Assumption

A favorite pic of the Ell and Em within the walls of British built Fort Cornwallis, with the Georgetown clock tower in the distance.

I suppose you're beginning to get the idea...there are a whooole lot cultures mixin' it up in Georgetown!

This was my favorite historic site in Georgetown. We took a great tour of the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion, led by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide who engaged and entertained the group through a quick and educational hour walk through the historic home. Cheong Fatt Tze is known as the Rockefeller of the East, and I was quite impressed by stories of his ambitious and successful career as an international businessman and diplomat.

The tour guide told us the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion hasn't always been this blue, but the home is just more memorable in this color. The mansion now functions as a bed and breakfast, and if I ever return to Georgetown, a night or two at this place is on my short list.

The detail on the house was incredible! The ceramic artwork is made from broken dishes that they had sent to the house, cracked, and formed into beautiful scenes.

Trickshaw outside the mansion. These are all over the streets in Georgetown, many decked out in flowers and various other ornamentation, offering rides to sweaty tourists wiped out from the heat.

And now for my favorite part, the food, of course!

Day one we dove right in and had a late lunch at an open-air type Indian restaurant a short walk from our hotel. We were all really hungry and just walked in and sat down at these picnic-like tables. Our waiter came to take our order...but hmm no menus? There seemed to be menu items on the wall. "Can we start with some naan?" "No." Okay...we all looked around and shrugged. Rice?Okay yes we all want some rice. Did we just ask for five orders of rice? Oy...I'm not sure how, but within 10 minutes or so of going back and forth we ended up with all this great food including lentil coconut sauce and curried bean sprouts and cabbage masala. I had the best watermelon juice I'd ever tasted and the fam enjoyed tons of delicious dishes.

Total price: 13 USD..."If we don't feel sick later, this was a great deal!"

In case you hadn't realized, Nestle is taking over the world. If they wanted to they could probably bring down the human race because they have a stronghold in the food system everywhere. Seriously, the company does their research and creates products specifically tailored to every regional preference. Apparently Nestle asked and Malaysia voted...sweetened condensed milk flavor! Meet Milo, Nestle's creation for Malaysia. The stuff was available at every eating institution we went too, even random Indian place above! Although I felt a little bad about voting with my consumer dollars for another one of Nestle's processed concoctions, I had to try it this stuff. Em and I bought a can at the grocery store and took one sip each before pitching it. The taste? Watered-down sweetend condensed milk with a hint of powdered chocolateyness. Maybe the powdered, boxed, candy bar, nugget, or ice cream form was better...but canned Milo just wasn't doing anything for me.

Look at the flavor...yam and coconut?

The pineapple flower.One of many crazy fruits spotted in the grocery store.

The city and the culture were really the most interesting parts of our trip, but I can't help but share some snapshots of the resort we stayed at on Langkawi Island. When I say stayed, I mean we stayed there. For 3 days. No leaving. That is not how the Grohs usually do it. We like to get out and see stuff. But it smelled sooo lovely there! So we arrived and we remained until check-out :)

View from my reading spot on the rock

The rock. Aren't those umbrellas just beautiful?

The fitness room with a view. I should have spent much more time here than I did. One thing I haven't mentioned is the breakfasts. In Asia if you stay at a nice-ish hotel that includes a breakfast buffet, they don't mean continental breakfast like the one you have at the Holiday Inn. They mean breakfast buffet that includes "western choices" such as omelette station and cereal and fresh yogurt or muesli or pancakes or waffles or assorted pastries and asian options like rice and meat and sushi and congee and steam buns and fresh squeezed green guava and watermelon and mango juice. And a Malaysian addition...Indian food! Roti and vegetable curry and coconut rice with dal...yep I did that, every day! The buffet at the Sheraton Langkawi was voted best yet by my family, because their Bircher muesli was phenominal and their croissants, well, perfect. Mom voted their butter croissant as one of the top 5 things she ever ate. That good! Okay so now you see why I should have gone to the fitness room more.

Ell in the infinity pool. Love it!

Ell and I with braids :)

The fam enjoying happy hour seaside

That's all for Malaysia, but stay tuned for a big China summary soon to come...time to share my last Asia pics because I leave for Chile in 4 days!!!!! Yes, I am freakin out a little bit!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

China meets Portugal meets Vegas, Welcome to Macau

Last weekend (in honor of my 21st birthday, hooray!) my family and I hopped on the Shekou ferry and headed towards Macau for a night. The decision to go was sort of last-minute, but I had done my research and was properly excited to see this "Vegas of the Orient." Trip planning aside, I struggled to envision exactly what this place would look like, with a demographic of 95% Chinese and 5% Macanese=Portuguese, and both Chinese and Portuguese as official languages. Even though the Portuguese population is small, the Macau peninsula boasts a great many Portuguese restaurants and historical ruins-namely cathedrals. The area is known for its casinos, food and history, I'd say in that order. Needless to say, this eclectic SAR (special administrative region) of China is full of contradictions and cultural blends that I had no idea existed.

In all my travels, I never expected to see "edificio" and "China" on the same building.
"Macau dresses in green to receive the 2005 Asian Oriental Games." Asian kids + Portuguese + Chinese characters. And I can read it because it kinda looks like Spanish...Only in Macau.

Some lovely pastels and Portuguese architecture to go with your Chinese New Year's decorations...

For me, this is picture says it all. Portuguese inspired pastel building? check. Crowded high rises? check. Sea of Asian people? check. The Grand Lisboa casino sparkling proudly in the distance? check.
And what was behind me:

Ruins of St. Paul's Cathedral...former church, here? Yes, this is one of many in Macau.

We walked through the lovely Lim Leoc Garden located a few blocks from our hotel in Macau. I remeber commenting that this garden was the most "traditional Chinese" looking place I'd been yet in Asia. The pagoda on the left of this picture is situated in the center of the garden, accessible by the winding walkway partly pictured here. The paths curve throughout the garden up to the central pagoda because it is believed that evil spirits can only travel in straight lines.

Since my family isn't exactly the gambling type, we opted to spend our time at the Venetian a little differently-with tickets to Zaia Cirque du Soleil! It was my first time seeing a Cirque du Soleil performance, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. The acrobatics, music, costumes and lights were all incredible. The Venetian itself didn't disappoint either :)