The Spoils of Travel

After a brief morning hike today, I received an email message from a lady I’ve never met, who lives in the retirement home across the street. She asked for my help with setting up her new computer. I had previously volunteered at this retirement home teaching the residents how to use Facebook, Skype, YouTube etc. You know, trying to make them “hip” and “cool” except I was only making them as “hip” and as “cool” as myself, a tech-dinosaur in comparison to the current generation. After these lessons, I gave out an email address asking the residents to email me anytime they had technology-related questions, or if they needed help setting up their computers or phones.

A few months after my last official lesson, my cobweb-filled inbox receives an email asking for computer help. I pop over to the lady’s place and proceed to fumble my way through the process. At the very end, I learned she was a well-traveled person herself. This was evident by all the Spoils of Travel I saw adorning her apartment. There were tiny statues of Buddha and Ganesh. Paintings from Cuba and Peru. Walking sticks from various countries in Asia. A variety of smaller knick-knacks and collectibles which looked foreign.

I started thinking about all the spoils I’ve collected throughout my travels, or lack thereof. There are the Nepali prayer flags. The unframed canvas painting from Malawi of a woman balancing a jug on her head, something I purchased because I gave in to the persistence of someone I wasn’t even sure was the actual artist. The…the… that’s all I got. My apartment is minimalistic in decor and charm. It is basic (read: boring). Anyone who visits will think I’m plain vanilla Ken and maybe I am. They’ll never see (and then ask) about the hand-drawn self-portrait created for me by a 7 year old orphan girl in the mountains in McLeod Ganj, or the rare thousand-year-old smuggled Egyptian papyrus art showing Horus and Seti embracing, or the rare gold medallion I won from a battle with a Shaolin priest in Henan province. They’ll never see any of it because I never obtained any of them. OK, so they are all fictionalized but you get the point.

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve done my fair share of travel but through it all, I did not have room or money to buy many souvenirs. My backpack had finite space and mailing souvenirs home was not exactly economical nor convenient. If you think the US Postal Service is horribly inefficient, wait until you are in Tiny Village, India. All I have are my pictures (why did I not learn proper photography skills my first RTW trip? I’m too embarrassed to print and hang them up), my gradually-fading memories, and this blog.

Finding Equilibrium

With so many negative events happening in the world each day, and me spending most of the day taking in that negativity, I find myself spending more nights finding equilibrium by watching Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and reading books by Robert Fulghum. I was starting to forget that there is so much beauty in humanity; my travels have taught me that. Watching Parts Unknown (a form of travel that will make do for now while I plan for the real thing) and reading the wise, insightful words of old man Fulghum, helps me to end my days with a warm, hopeful smile.

Today, I “went” to Iran. 🙂

Keep Portland Weird

If you took Austin, shrunk it, surrounded it with lush greenery, put a snow-capped mountain in the backdrop, added convenient public transportation, added light rain, and threw in a beautiful beach just outside the city which required a scenic drive to get to, you’d get Portland. It had that laid-back weird eccentric vibe, much like Austin, but with more liberals and fewer gun-nuts.

Cannon Beach

The brunch scene is thriving there, as my Yelp search results can demonstrate. I did not get to try many spots (I am sure this would’ve been my daily Saturday morning routine if I lived there) but I did go to Pine State Biscuits, twice. Reggie Deluxe each time. Large, moist biscuits? Check. Lightly breaded fried chicken breast? Check. Fried egg? Check. Gravy? CHECK.

The Reggie Deluxe

I didn’t get many pictures of downtown Portland. I did find their chrome animal statues on drinking fountains and benches to be charming. The downtown area is small and one could easily walk across town in 30 minutes. The food trucks in Portland surround parking lots instead of being in a parking lot. The trucks served mainly foreign foods from Asia, with the odd German wurst and Greek gyro truck. However, after making a few rounds, I didn’t find anything especially interesting or unique. I will stipulate that I did not visit all the food truck areas in and around Portland, just the one downtown.

Other sites visited: Japanese Garden, Lan Su Chinese Garden, The Grotto (“Catholic garden”), Powell Books (“book garden”). Gardens. Zen. Knowledge. Peace.

I’d say Portland is one of my top 5 favorite North American cities, joining New York City, Montreal, Austin, and San Francisco. I’d love to go back again for another visit. Now, if only the flights weren’t so long.

And who else has watched Portlandia? It’s a brilliant show that pokes (friendly) fun at some of the eccentric personalities that gravitate to Portland; feminists, hipsters, LGBT, environmentalists etc.

Check out the rest of my pictures here:

http://whereisken.com/photos/Portland

Swimming in cenotes

Underground pools of fresh, clear, cold water. Stalactites and stalagmites. Fish.

It’s quite another experience swimming in a cenote. It’s recommended during the hottest and sunniest hours of the day though, because the sunlight that penetrates the holes in the roof is the only element warming up the waters.

Cenotes come in all varieties. The famous Cenote Dos Ojos required us to strap on some life vests and waterproof torchlights and follow a guide deep into a cavern. Cenote Zaci (in the center of Valladolid) was like any other outdoor public pool. (Try not to have a vivid imagination of sea monsters as it’s wide and very deep in the center and you can’t see the bottom.) Cenote Samula and Xkeken are at the ends of steps that lead deep into the underground.

Overall, a very new experience for me, one that is truly unique to Mexico.

Cenote Zaci
Cenote Samula (or was it Xkeken?)

Bug Tacos

The caviar of the Aztec empire.

That’s what they’re calling “escamoles” or ant larvae. Cooked in a buttery sauce and priced the same as actual caviar (not that I would know), escamoles is a delicacy that one has to hunt around a little bit for around Mexico City. Or visit one of the restaurants listed on Lonely Planet.

At Los Girasoles, a fancy joint on Calle Tacuba near the Zocalo, I feasted on a plate of escamoles, chapulines (tiny fried grasshoppers), and gusanos (grubs). While the escamoles was delicious (butter makes everything delicious), the chapulines was crispy and sour, due to all the lime it’s soaked in. The gusanos, devoid of innards, was fried to an oil-soaked moist crisp. It’s funny how bugs are cheap streetfood in SE Asia but here, it was $25/plate. Yes, $25. By Mexican standards, that’s the cost of about 50 chicken taquitos I could buy from the local market.

Nonetheless, it was an interesting dining experience. I would take a fresh hot corn tortilla, spread some black bean paste and guacamole on it, then sprinkle the bugs onto my taco, wrap it up, and enjoy the various textures and flavors; a little crispy, a little chewy, a little creamy, a little salty, a little sour, a little spicy.

Buen provecho!

The original “Queen of Selfies”

Frida Kahlo. She of the unibrow and colorful dresses. Although I recognized her name and have seen multiple pictures of her work, usually self-portraits complete with unibrow and colorful dresses, I never actually paid close attention to who she was and why she was such a big deal. They even made a movie about her, starring Salma Hayek.

A blue-walled museum dedicated to her located in the cozy neighborhood of Coyoacan opened my eyes. This museum was formerly the home of Kahlo’s and her husband, famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. I dislike large museums because I lose interest about an hour in and realize I only covered 25% of it. But the Frida Kahlo museum was just the perfect size. After all, it was a home, albeit a large one with plenty of rooms, halls, and a massive backyard, perfect for any creatives who need space, fresh air, and solitude.

So what’s the big deal about this museum visit and why am I writing about it?

I think it’s because I’ve always been interested in what makes people tick and this museum showed me what made this person tick. I walked past her self-portraits, smirking inside my head at how self-absorbed she was to focus on painting herself most times. (She was the original queen of selfies. No doubt that if she had lived through our age, her Instagram would be filled with plenty of selfies taken by her iPhone.)

But I started reading excerpts of her life story spread across the museum. The more I read, the more my perspective changed about her.

I did not realize she was disabled. She had polio as a child, causing one of her legs to shrivel. She had a bad accident at 18 which broke her body badly resulting in a lifetime of surgeries and also the inability to have a child within her loveless marriage to Rivera.

The various devices Frida wore to help her look “normal” on the outside.

And she had to hide it all; the pain, the embarrassment, the hopelessness. She wore corsets designed to support her spine and hid everything behind her beautiful dresses which covered up her broken body. But one thing that stood out was her steely-eyed determination you saw from her self-portraits. Her spirit was not broken. Her whole life, she was supposed to be just another woman who would become a wife to a husband and bear kids and stay home. She was supposed to fit a stereotype. But she didn’t want to. She wanted to become someone. And life wanted to break her but she didn’t let it.

A shrine dedicated to Frida Kahlo. Love the decorative Mexican skullwork.

Life beneath the waves

Every time I talk to someone about scuba diving, they give me the same reply: “I don’t like being submerged in water”.

Water covers roughly 70% of the Earth. I’d consider scuba diving a form of travel. We are traveling to parts of Earth that can’t be reached by train or plane or walking. To visit the “cities” and meet all its “citizens” in these parts of the world, you have to wear some special gear, your Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Getting Open-Water Certified is like getting a passport to travel to cities beneath the waves.

When you fear what you don’t understand, seek to understand and your fear will disappear.

Stunning video filmed by Eunjae Im (www.ejlabs.net)

Hong Kong

I visited Hong Kong (HK) at the end of 2013 en route to Malaysia for my buddy’s wedding.

The one thing that is important to me about travel is food and HK is one of the best places in the world to get some delicious Cantonese cuisine. Lin Heung Tea House is the oldest dim sum joint in HK and I would highly recommend anyone visiting HK to make a trip there just for the experience of sitting at community tables with strangers and soaking in the chaotic moments when the dim sum carts get wheeled out from the kitchen with a variety of fresh, succulent dim sum dishes before the swarms of hungry people engulf the staff, creating a quick vanishing act for all the dishes. I witnessed a cart not even make it 5 meters out the door before it went back in, empty, within minutes. It’s not for the passive. One has to assert one’s self in these hungry crowds and wrestle one’s way into the front and get the staff’s attention to acquire a dish of your choosing. There is no line. And people expecting someone to attend to their needs at the tables will most certainly go hungry. Be proactive. And don’t forget to enjoy a cup of delicious hot tea served in big, traditional bowl-sized tea cups and nod at your neighbors (or engage them if you can speak Cantonese), most of who won’t pay attention to you as they chat with their family/friends and/or read the morning papers. For more upscale dim sum, visit Maxim’s Palace which is somewhat hidden away (take a taxi if you must). There, one can experience a completely different dim sum experience. There is order, there is peace. People are seated and the carts do reach the masses, wheeled slowly by the staff as they go table to table, asking if you’d like to check out their wares. Be warned: Maxim’s Palace is much pricier. Personally, food that must be fought for tastes better. I would return to Lin Heung the next time I’m in HK.

Lin Heung Tea House

Click for more pictures of Hong Kong…