Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Wide world of sports

It started with Thai boxing back in, well, Thailand. Then I tried rugby (the sevens variety, which is the better kind) in Fiji, and footy in Melbourne (that's Australian Rules Football for those not in the know... or not in Australia), and sumo in Japan

I love the man-mountain of sumo

South America added tennis in Buenos Aires and futbol (gooooaaaaaalll!) in Sucre, Bolivia. Coming into Hong Kong, I wasn't really expecting any big spectator sports, but I was wrong. There's horse racing over here, and apparently it's a really big deal. So, on a rather gloomy and overcast day I made my way up to the Sha Tin Racecourse up in the New Territories to explore the local sporting obsession

It's all very royal and British around horse racing here

Going into the racecourse

In spite of having lived in the State of Kentucky, which is only slightly less obsessed about horse racing than it is about UK basketball, and even knowing people (ok, a person) involved in the horse racing industry, I'd never actually been to a horse race, so I didn't really know what to expect, nor I can really compare Hong Kong racing against the American variety. So, basic impressions: I don't know anything about horse racing, so there are giant tableaus with all kinds of information, but I don't know what most of it means. As far as the locals seem concerned, there's really no sport here except for the betting - people barely pay attention to the race itself, but everybody bets and focuses on their stat and information sheets. I didn't care to bet. I just figured I'd take some pictures, and hopefully some wouldn't come out totally blurry:

Getting ready for the race

Around the turn they come!

Down the straightaway towards the finish line!

Now closer to the action, armed with my big lens, I got a few interesting shots

Pushing for position to the very end

After three races, I took off to find an ultimate frisbee game in Hong Kong - racing was interesting, but without betting, it doesn't look like you can really get into it. On a nicer day, you can probably just sit around and enjoy the day, but on a rainy day, I figured I'd rather be playing frisbee!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Next time you need something colonized

or Manila vs. Hong Kong: a study in contrasts

Manila is the capital of the Philippines, a nation that had been a Spanish colony for three centuries until gaining independence at the start of the 20th century. Hong Kong has been a colony of the United Kingdom since being ceded to the British crown by the Chinese emperor in the middle of the 19th century and until it was formerly handed back over in 1997. Both cities lie in South East Asia, straddling the two shores of South China Sea, and share an extensive history of European influence, so they should have some similarities based on their colonial pasts? Well...

This is Hong Kong

So is this - modernity with a slight nod to old Chinese culture

Season's Greetings, celebrating a Christian holiday, Hong Kong, however, remains almost strictly all business, as the tower in the background might suggest

This, on the other hand, is Manila. The St. Augustin Church in the old town section of Intramuros.

Fort Santiago protecting Manila

So, what does Hong Kong remind me of? Well, a little London, a little Shanghai, a little Singapore, a little New York - a mixture of East and West: a distinctly modern, developed, Western city with an unmistakably Eastern influence. What does Manila remind me of? Certainly nothing in Asia. It's certainly closest to Cartagena, and Cuzco, and Panama City - other Spanish colonial capitals. The church plays a big role in former Spanish colonies, just as long as it's the Roman Catholic church.

The Manila Cathedral - it may have been destroyed a few times (fire, earthquake, WWII), but it'll always be rebuilt!

Hong Kong has a cathedral too - St. John's, an Anglican Cathedral, so not quite acceptable to the Roman Catholics, but close enough for our purposes

Hong Kong is a little more diverse - including several Buddhist temples, such as Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin, pictured here, nestled in between the sky scrapers

Religious insignia inside the Manila Cathedral

And incense burning in Hong Kong

Want more religious symbols? How about a big Buddha on Lantau island

There are no Buddha's in the Philippines

Well, how about just going out on the streets of the two cities? Perhaps some monuments to inspire the local population?

Manila. I don't actually know whom this statue commemorates. I'm going to say she wasn't that good at kung fu though...

Hong Kong celebrates its own heroes - Bruce Lee could take the Spanish down all by himself if he wanted to!

Old and new juxtaposition in Hong Kong at the Kowloon Walled City Park

And something not entirely Spanish, or Catholic, in Manila - not Filipino either though: the Chinese cemetery.

A couple more sights from the streets of Hong Kong

At this point I was going to make a complicated point comparing the different colonial approaches Britain and Spain had taken (Spain: full totalitarian control, flatly imposing Catholicism vs. Britain's more freedom embracing approach, which allowed for the local religions to remain) and the results: the British colonies have, at times, achieved greater economic propsperity (Hong Kong, USA), but the Spanish ones have almost certainly ended up being more stable, easier to govern, and much more similar to the home country in the long run (South America may not seem particularly stable, but it's got nothing on formerly British India and the Middle East). However, I don't like making that point, and I don't really know what I'm talking about when it comes to geo-political issues, and it's not really a true apples-to-apples comparison - after all, The Incas and Aztecs in South America may have been the most advanced local cultures the Spanish had encountered (the Philippines didn't have much of a developed nation-state prior to the Spanish), whereas the British colonies got to deal with long-established cultures like India, China, and the tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So, instead, let's just say the two European powers took very different approaches to running their colonies, and the results may be most obvious in the Philippines. This is a country in SE Asia, but it may as well be in Latin America. The currency is the peso, the language has a strong Spanish influence to it (mas barato por favor! = cheaper please! both here and in Bolivia...), the names of streets, towns, and people are often Spanish based (Fort Santiago, Puerto Princessa, etc.), and not only is Christianity (Catholicism especially, even though other branches are popping up, probably due to the last 100 years of American colonial influence) the undisputed state religion, the thing I found to be truly surprising was the almost complete absence of Buddhism, in a region where Buddhism dominates all the neighboring states. Islam, by the way, is present down South, stemming from nearby Malaysia and Indonesia, where Islam is the primary religion (even though there's a lot more signs of Buddhism in both of those countries than there is in the Philippines). The opposing Muslims were apparently quite the annoying discovery to the invading Spanish a few centuries ago, as Spain had just finished fighting off the Muslim forces (the Moors) back in the Spanish homeland and in Northern Africa (this random historical footnote brought to you by Lonely Planet).

Well, that's probably enough geo-political musings and ramblings for the moment. Today is the last of my six here in Hong Kong - tonight I get on a plane bound for the beautiful beaches of Thailand to celebrate New Year's in style. Goals for today are to find a replacement camera (still! Hong Kong's been refusing to repair mine...) and meet up with Tim for more delicious local cusine - the food in Hong Kong is excellent as it is, but yesterday he and his parents took me out to a couple of really good local restaurants (that I would have never picked out myself), and the food gets to be even more amazing when you're with people who know what they are talking about, as opposed to me just randomly pointing at things on a menu!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The City of Lights

If Paris is the City of Light, then Hong Kong is certainly the City of Lights, as in lots and lots of brightly-colored neon lights that burn through the night.

A skyscraper lit up at night

A night-time overview of the city

And a nicely lit fountain near the waterfront

There's really not a lot of places I've seen that can rival the sheer magnitude and audacity of the neon here. Las Vegas, centered on its big casinos, seems downright organized, almost subdued, in comparison. Tokyo's Shinjuku and Times Square in New York are probably the best comparisons

An overabundance of advertising just off of the main thoroughfare of Nathan Road

Nathan Road itself

It's a neon arms race out here - if you don't advertise your restaurant with a gigantic neon sign, your competitors will just drown you out with theirs

Admittedly, the city is even more lit up than normal (even if that does seem virtually impossible) around Christmas

Hong Kong, generally, is two very distinct cities, separated by Victoria Harbour. There is Hong Kong island - the major financial and business center, with its gigantic high-rises, upscale restaurants, and the atmosphere more reminiscent of New York and London than any part of Asia. And this is really what I had expected of Hong Kong. But, there is the other side of the harbor: Kowloon City and Tsim Sha Tsui - this is the busy, bustling, crowded, fragrant (smelly!) part of town on the peninsula that's connected to mainland China. And it's connected in more ways than one - it's unmistakably Asian. From the 'wet markets' selling fish that's been caught, but hasn't been killed yet to the 'No Hawking' signs on the waterfront, which are quite necessary, as a block away, there are crowds of people trying to sell you anything you can ever imagine. I wouldn't say wish for, because I don't actually wish for a suit or a Rolex knock-off, but I keep being offered them anyway... And, of course, at night, both sides of the harbor are brightly lit up putting up a light show of proportions that can only be measured in Megawatts. Gigawatts?

So, my first impressions of Hong Kong? Well, the very first impression was that it smells! Or specifically, the rooms I had on my first two nights smelled. Especially the first one, but I arrived at 3 in the morning, so I didn't care all that much. I promptly moved to a guesthouse in the ubiquitous Chungking Mansions, where my first room also smelled (but less pungently), and by night 3, I was in an odor-free environment! Chunking Mansions itself defies description - it is a 15 story apartment complex, where each apartment has been converted into a hotel/guesthouse - it is the budget accommodation in the city. It is also quite old, home to a variety of small Indian and Pakistani restaurants downstairs, and generally not all that well maintained. The clientele has a smattering of backpackers lost in a sea of mainland tourists and laborers from India, Pakistan, and a wide variety of other British colonies. This evening I ran into a couple from Bogota, Colombia too (who were trying to find an exit...) - it's kind of like a model UN, except poorly-run former British colonies are over-represented.

All that being said, I'm quite happy with the room, I've finally ended up with - it doesn't smell, I have a window to the outside world (the previous one had a window also, but I'm not sure what it led to - certainly no the outside though), there's hot water, and even constant and free internet access, so not all that bad. As for my overall impressions of Hong Kong - oddly enough, I actually found the place rather relaxing and a little lonely.

The lonely is easy - yes, there's a gigantic, vibrant mass of people populating this town at all hours of the day and night. And some (probably large) number of them are even fellow backpackers, however, lacking hostels and other such obvious ways of meeting other travelers, they immediately blend in and dissipate into the background, and you're back on the street surrounded by locals, mainland tourists, and Indians offering fake Rolexes. Fortunately, I was able to solve this problem first by meeting up with Tim (he of wine tasting in Mendoza last March fame), who's currently in town visiting family, and then further by finding a pickup frisbee game.

As for relaxing? Well, admittedly, I'm certainly in the minority in finding Hong Kong relaxing, but honestly, my concerns in the Philippines included:
- there's Malaria on Palawan, have I taken my malaria pills today yet?
- if I have a flight out of Puerto Princessa at 8, and the bus ride there is supposed to take 7 hours, how early should I leave to account for the inevitable delays and breakdowns?
- the traffic in Manila is so bad, that getting to and from the airport requires budgeting a good two hours extra just for the traffic

Those are potentially difficult problems. Here? The place is tiny - in 7 hours you'd be well into China no matter how many times your bus broke down. The traffic is awful too, but it makes no difference as there's a very fast and efficient (and relatively inexpensive) subway system in place, not to mention the cross-harbor ferries, which don't get you there as fast as the subway, but offer reat views of the harbor along the way. The biggest problem here has really been finding a place to stay that I liked, and I had a ready-made choice of 100 or so guesthouses just here in the Chungking Mansions, along with internet recommendations for which ones people have liked before. The runner-up problem is deciding if I should have Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Indian food for dinner. Maybe it is just me, but I call this relaxing! As for the people persistently trying to sell you something, anything, on the streets (which has been know to annoy people before), I've learned to just take it all in stride by now and laugh about the fact that somebody thinks I'm a good candidate to try selling a Rolex and a suit to! It sure beats the army of Nigerians assaulting you with offers of marijuana and every other substance in the world on every street corner in Kathmandu, not to mention the guys in Cartagena, Colombia, who'll hook you up with a tour, chicas, and cocaina. You decide the order in which you want to prioritize the three! Ok, to be entirely accurate, hashish is on offer here in Hong Kong too, but the would-be sellers, at least, seem a bit surreptitious about it.

Relaxing in Hong Kong!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Life Aquatic (without Steve Zissou*)

A giant school of little yellow fish, which all got of our way very reluctantly

A colorful fish, which almost looks like a flower. We figured out the name after the dive, I wish I'd remembered it!

A little blue eel working his disproportionally large mouth open and closed... unagi us tasty!

Found a humangous lobster in a little cave - he was waving all of his claws and antannae around agitatedly. I figured he had come to seek revenge for his brothers and sisters we had for lunch back in the San Blas...

So, I went diving! And took lots of pictures after having invested in an underwater case for my camera. How would you describe diving in El Nido? Well, personally, I like seeing the big things - sharks, eels, turtles, rays, etc. (a place called Donsol, on the East side of the archipelago is a place where you can snorkel with gigantic whale sharks, which reach up to 20 feet in length(!). drooling...). None of those live here on the Northwestern tip of Palawan, so I wouldn't describe it as spectacular (that would be nearby Borneo), however, even a non-spectacular dive site in the South Pacific still happens to be amazing - the coral reefs, the myriads of fish, an occasional surprise like a big, angry looking lobster, beautiful warm waters, I don't know how much else you can really ask for! Of all the places I've dived (and I'm now apparently up to 25 dives!), the South Pacific sites have been unmistakably the best - Fiji, Borneo, Thailand, Japan's Okinawa chain, and now the Philippines. New Zealand is just as good as far as diving goes, but it's quite a bit colder in the water. Vietnam's Halong Bay is crap because there's absolutely no visibility and the dive shop was incompetent (and I didn't like Vietnam...), but I hear there are some amazing sites down the Southern coast. So, really, you have to wonder why you'd dive anywhere else (and I have, and will again, but it just won't be as good). Costa Rica was good - we saw rays and turtles, but it still lacked the ridiculous assortment of fish and coral. Croatia is just crap in comparison, and that's one of the better sites in the Mediterranean... I hear Egypt's famous for the wrecks, but I have a hard time imagining it can match the wildlife. Well, you shouldn't take my word for it, I suppose - I haven't been... you should go and find out, I eventually intend to, even if I don't think it can live up to the South Pacific.

There's also the price - two dives, all equipment and lunch included, here on Palawan was about $60 USD, or at least 40% less than I've paid anywhere else so far! Next time I'm here in the Philippines (and like just about every other place I've been to, I want there to be a next time, even if I don't have any idea if or when it might happen), it'll need to be between March and June, so a trip to the outlying Tubattha reefs will be possible on a live aboard, as those are considered the absolute best dive sites in the archipelago...

In between the dives, we had lunch on one of the islands, where I snuck away briefly to snap a few pictures of the crazy karst formations making up these islands:

So that was the diving. That evening I debated catching a ferry [an expensive ferry] to Coron island the following day to dive its famous ship wrecks, but after some internal debate, I concluded that it would just be too rushed, and El Nido was too nice, and the people running our guesthouse were too friendly, so I stayed for another couple of days. The next day, Till, Hannah, and I met up with Ria, whom I had met on the diving trip, and we went on our little motorcycle tour of the Northern part of Palawan island. I drove one of the bikes, Ria trusted me not to kill her, holding on sitting behind me (and I only dropped the bike once... at slow speed... we were both unscathed!). Till drove the other, and failed to kill himself or Hannah as well, and we all happily returned just in time for dusk. More on all that in a previous post.

The day after, our merry band swelled to five when we ran into Marty (he's in some of those Sabang pictures, as we met him there a couple of days ago and parted ways when he didn't want to pay 2,000 pesos to sail up to El Nido...), and all of us headed back out to the islands for a so-called island-hopping tour - basically a full day spent on the boat and on the islands, visiting some pretty locations, snorkeling, having lunch, and generally enjoying the beautiful day. Pictures are worth a thousand words (and I don't want to write a thousand words):

Five of us walking across the shallows towards the boat

First stop at the Secret Lagoon - a little rock outcropping surrounding a pool about 25 feet squared. You climb through a little opening in these rocky walls to enter

Entrance to the Small Lagoon. Not really all that small actually. Featuring a spectacular cave, skylight included. I didn't bring a camera to the cave though...

Four of us in the bluish-green waters of the Big Lagoon, after we had a bit of an arguement with our boat driver as to whether or not it was possible to get to the Big Lagoon on this day. It was. And they are no match for Till's German bargaining powers!

Ria striking a pose in the Big Lagoon

More islands on the horizon as we sail back

That evening, we all gathered back at the Makulay Lodge, where Hannah, Till, and I were staying for dinner because Rose, the owner had offered to cook us a farewell dinner. The delicious five-course dinner for a grand old total of 200 Pesos (about $4.50) each was very much a perfect conculsion to the week on Palawan.

Cheers! we figured we'd bring some wine for dinner too...

And the following morning, I was on board this here bus heading back South to Purto Princessa in order to catch that evening's flight back to Manila (no jeepney this time for the seven hour journey).

Marty, who was on the same bus, and I deliberated how many breakdowns would be required to cause me to miss my 7:30PM flight (estimated bus arrival: 2PM) and settled on about three (breakdowns aren't all that uncommon as the road isn't all that paved). We arrived at 2 o'clock on the dot. So, I'm actually typing this up at the Puerto Princessa airport where I've got three hours of free time waiting for my flight. Posting will happen eventually later, as there is a Wi-Fi network here at the airport, but nobody knows the password... Later tonight, I'll be back in chaotic Manila, and late tomorrow, I should be in Hong Kong! Where first order of business will be arranging my visa to China, but, unfortunately, a close second will be repairing my camera, which got dipped in the salt water during the island-hopping tour... Considering my underwater case is specifically designed for this camera model, and I fully intend to do more diving in Thailand, Burma, and maybe even Hong Kong itself, I am going to find a way to get it fixed. Fortunately, if ever there was a good place for electronics repair, Hong Kong is it!

* Life Aquatic with Stephen Zissou was a highly underrated movie. Only in small part because Owen Wilson's character dies in it...