Gearing up for New York

July 18, 2007

I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t end this blog. Though I know it has been a while, I wanted to say thanks for everyone who took an interest in my trip. I’d also like to say to all the people who have expressed to me they would like to do something like what I did… you can:) It just takes some planning, saving, and a desire for adventure. Here’s something I wrote for the Tufts Daily a few weeks back entitled “There really isn’t any rush”

Anyway, things happen quickly. I arrived home in Boston on Easter Sunday to my parents open arms. 5 days later I was in New York interviewing for a job in New York city. My first 3 weeks home I slept in 6 different places in the process of seeing family and friends, working on Cape Cod, and interviewing.

The interviewing went well, and almost 3 weeks after I got back, I was offered a job at Cowen and Company as a financial analyst. I’m doing equity research (analyzing stocks) in the restaurant industry. It is something of a leap from spending the summer waiting tables, but the stock market is something I’ve been interested in since I was about 16. So far it is going well and although sitting at a desk all day takes some getting used to, I take comfort in the fact that I didn’t do that for a very long time.

A real job. It might be a disappointment to some who have lived vicariously through me over the past few years, but I’m very excited for the opportunity. I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

In the meantime, I’m going to try and blog about things that interest me. Namely technology, food, and life in NY. You can find the new blog at http://casabian.blogspot.com. Please check it out when you have a moment.

I hope you all enjoyed reading. Do it while you can!

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Winding down in San Diego

May 9, 2007

I always find it a bit difficult the last week or so of a long trip. Suddenly home feels so close, and the focus shifts from living in the moment to anticipating the return.

Though I had these transitionary feelings, I also had family and friends to spend time with in San Diego. I flew in from San Francisco and caught up with some high school friends in Pacific Beach over the weekend before moving to my cousins’ beautiful home in La Mesa.

Pacific Beach is quite suburban, but also extremely close to the beach. It is definitely a collegial atmosphere, and there are plenty of bars to keep one busy. It is also something of a mini-Boston–there are Red Sox hats everywhere. Good late night food is always a plus–I’ve never eaten burritos so consistently.

La Mesa is about a half hour from San Diego, but having my own bed (and room!) was well worth the move. I also had the opportunity to spend time with family and cousins. It’s fun to hang out with 4 and 6 year olds. Coloring easter eggs, making orange juice from home grown oranges, and playing trains were just some of the ways we entertained ourselves

Other highlights included hiking, the TNT at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego where my friend Adam Crossman volunteers, and sampling some quality Mexican food at such places as Ranchos.

If you’re going to San Francisco…

March 30, 2007

In no particular order

  1. Get a cask ale at Magnolia brewery
  2. Take a walk down Castro street while stopping to hear some interesting conversations
  3. Taste some Italian cheese at AG Ferrari cheese shop (in Castro)
  4. Catch a game at AT&T Park
  5. Relax in Japan Town
  6. Take it all in at Union Square (while I was there I had a great nap and woke up to a bum getting lyrical with the statue there “Hey you, get off of my cloud”)
  7. Shoot way too many photos of the Golden Gate Bridge
  8. Watch the kitesurfers and windsurfers cruising under the bridge
  9. Make a trip to Napa (I liked St. Supery the best)
  10. Relax in Crissy Field
  11. Try to find the houses where Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead lived
  12. Stay with good friends. Thanks Mo and Tim and Tee!
  13. Play Pac Man at the Bus Station bar
  14. Explore the quality supermarkets
  15. Spend some time in Los Altos enjoying excellent food. This Greek place was some of the best appetizers I’ve had in the US.
  16. Don’t eat at Nick’s restaurant in Fisherman’s wharf (thankfully I learned this when I suffered a bout of food poisoning at the age of 12–I saw and remembered the very table we sat at.
  17. Don’t buy camera gear anywhere near the wharf. A lens the salesman was trying to sell me started at $499 and the final offer as I left the shop was $99. In some ways, it was kind of nice because I felt like I was back in China!
  18. Eat at In and Out Burger (I guess you can do that one anywhere in California)
  19. See the Xanadu Art Gallery housed in a brick building built by Frank Lloyd Wright. Their is a staircase like the one at the Guggenheim in New York.
  20. Drive down the crookedest street in the world
  21. Enjoy the free samples and gourmet food shops at Embarcadero
  22. View the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin highlands
  23. Take a day trip to Sausalito

I could go on and on, and I think that is what so great about San Francisco. There is an incredible amount of things to see and do.

For those still reading, there will be a couple more posts. Thank you all for your interest throughout the past six months!

Some additions from readers:

1. look for a great white shark in the bay

2. find the full house house

3. get nose pierced or get a strange tattoo in Haight Ashbury (I didnt do this one but put my friends up to it)

4. get chocolate at the wharf

5. ummm hellllooooAlcatraz!!!

Aloha

March 23, 2007

I thought it best to ease myself into a return to the US. Landing in Oahu in mid-March would be far more pleasant than Boston. The morning that I arrived the sun was out and it was 80 degrees. I could actually speak English and know that I would be understood! The customs official was far nicer than any I’ve ever encountered in Boston. It was more of a friendly chat than anything else.

My honeymoon with the U.S. ended quickly. I exited the terminal and began trying to find a phone to call my friend Brendon who would be picking me up from the airport. Soon realizing I had no quarters to make a phone call, I asked a guy with a cell phone if I could pay him to make a quick call. Now I’ve used this line in many countries (some extremely poor I might add) and not once has anyone ever allowed me to pay. I completed my phone call in less than a minute and handed the phone back. “One dollar,” he said. Welcome back. I couldn’t believe it. The good news is most of the Hawaiians I met were far friendlier than my airport cell phone carrier. The drivers of the local bus (called “TheBus”) were particularly friendly.

But I must get back to my culture shock upon landing in Hawaii. It was amazing to see the emphasis placed on an individual’s body in Hawaii. I would say 90% of the people my age have at least one tattoo. When you think about the cost of these things, and then see a person covered in them, it makes you wonder if there isn’t a better way to use one’s financial resources. I do understand self expression and the need to look cool, but at some point don’t you just start looking like everyone else? Is it necessary to have your chest hair removed by a laser?

What does a shirt that says “fired up over Jesus” in flame lettering really mean? Why are people either extremely fat or sculpted like the statue of David? Is a Subway sub really worth $9? These are questions I found myself asking while exploring the island of Oahu.

My culture shock notwithstanding, I had a fabulous week in Oahu. It is one of the more naturally beautiful places I visited in my travels and the beaches are second to none. The surf of the North shore and the Pipeline are a humbling nod to the power of nature. And the seemingly unlimited supply of fresh ahi tuna is something I could get used to. Kailua pork is also a nice culinary contribution.

Some other highlights from Hawaii included a St. Patrick’s day block party, drinking homemade beer, and indulging in some chocolate covered macadamias.

More to come from California…sorry for the delayed postings!

The UN via Hospitality Club

March 18, 2007

25 hours is a long time to be on a train, but that is what is required to go from Shanghai to Shenzhen. With my Chinese visa expiring, I didn’t have the opportunity to break up the trip. Shendzhen is on the border of Hong Kong. From there, it was a short walk through immigration and a 20 minute train ride to the Chinese University in Hong Kong where I would be staying with some Hospitality Club members.

I did a bit of wondering, but ultimately met Bonnie, a Hong Kong native who is a student here. She was accompanied by her friends Henrik (a Swede) and Rachel (another HK native). Henrik and Rachel were cooking a dinner of pizza and Swedish apple pie. Sid, a professor from India who also lives at the apartment returned home and whipped up a curry dish. We all sat down to one of the nicest meals I’ve had in months.

A bit later, David (from Switzerland), another guest from Hospitality Club returned from Macau with some Portuguese wine. Macau was a former Portuguese colony located about an hour’s ferry ride from Hong Kong. We shared in some wine before finishing off the evening with a variety of Indian digestive candies.

Before bed, we all exchanged passports (a hospitality club safety measure). Everyone spoke impeccable English, and I find it wonderful that a group of six strangers can get together and enjoy themselves so easily. It was exactly what I needed after an entire day on a train.

Pizza Hut is Posh! Fast Food in China

March 15, 2007

Looking for a place to celebrate a birthday party or an engagement? Maybe you even need a venue for a wedding party. Why not go to Pizza Hut, where the “McDonalds is always nicer abroad” maxim is taken to another level. While I didn’t dine in a Pizza Hut, it was impossible not to notice the sleek tables and trendy interior design at some of the many restaurant locations in Shanghai.

I’m not just imagining the possibility of a Pizza Hut wedding–my friend and host Tania who lives and teaches English in Shanghai has a friend who celebrated the big day with some personal pan pizzas. In Xian, another teacher I met had students who celebrated their engagement at McDonald’s. Admittedly, these fast food venues are almost entirely different in terms of interior design.

I do find it interesting, however, that during a time when anti-americanism is very high, the demand for American fast food seems to be rising exponentially. I’ve yet to see a McDonald’s that isn’t busy. On my map of Beijing, McDonalds are used as landmarks–I counted 68 in total. In Shanghai I felt like Starbucks was following me around. At the Yiyuan gardens, there was a line of 20 people out the door.

I guess the idea that people are able to distinguish between government policy and the general population also applies to business. In my opinion, I would rather have the hole-in-the-wall noodle restaurant than a McDonald’s selling Red Bean Pie. Or an independently owned tea shop instead of yet another Starbucks.

Alas, things change and nowhere is it harder to hold on to the past than in a place like Shanghai. I just hope the next time I visit I will be able to buy a plateful of dumplings on the side of the road instead of a Big Mac.

Beijing

March 9, 2007

It’s hard picking one thing to write about in Beijing so I’ve decided to give a quick rundown of a variety of things–food, sights, and other experience from the past four or five days.

Pure Lotus Restaurant

Vegetarian food, but with object being to have it taste like meat. It is uncanny how much the “sausage” tasted like sausage. The restaurant, run by monks, is probably the most creative food experience I’ve ever had. The “riblets” used small pieces of sugar cane as the bone. I have my cousin Jimmy and his friend Mike Wester to thank for that experience. Mike runs that’s beijing magazine here in the city and had a wealth of information about life in Beijing.

Peking Duck

I treated myself to a nice night at Quanjude Duck restaurant, where the likes of Pele, Arafat, Bush, and a number of other celebrities and heads of state have eaten the Beijing specialty. It was a tourist trap for sure, but the duck was excellent and Quanjude was the only place I found that served it in a half portion.

Carrefour

I think everyone who visits China should visit a large food retailer. I needed a bathroom and went into the French hypermarket chain. Clean bathrooms, with the added bonus that the supermarket offered samples galore. They actually let you taste the fruit! I could have made a meal out of all the samples. In business news, the Wal-Mart/Carrefour race is heating up in China. Wal-Mart just bought 108 Trust Mart stores, nearly tripling it’s presence in the country.

HanNaShan Korean BBQ
Korean BBQ is a bit lonely by yourself, but fun just the same. I had a great meal that involved lots of meat and grilling my own food. This was about kilometer 70 of my bike ride so it was some much needed sustinence.

Forbidden City
Massive. City is the correct word to describe the area and I was impressed. Unfortunately, the main attraction of the museum is being restored. This was a common theme throughout my stay in Beijing.

The Great Wall
It was bigger than I thought. I know that sounds like a stupid thing to say, but all the pictures I’ve ever seen are usually from up high. I was impressed with the width of the wall. I did a four hour hike where the only other people on the wall was our tour and some Mongolian farmers. It was also the ONLY day the sun even thought about coming out.

Summer Palace

Maybe riding a bike in the drizzle to the site wasn’t the wisest idea, but the palace itself was incredible. Empress Ci’xi was a bad lady who lived extravagantly–Wikipedia her for a little more info and some background on Chinese history

Olympic Village

On the same scale of Dubai in terms of construction. Wow. There is high rise after high rise and crane after crane. I hope they finish in time! This was part of a marathon bike excursion, and I probably hit the Village around kilometer 45.

Temple of Heaven

Maybe my favorite tourist site in Beijing. A beautiful park where you can see Chinese practicing Tai Chi, playing Chinese chess, yelling over cards, and just enjoying life. My one recommendation would be to outlaw the ubiquitous karaoke, but this is Asia after all. There is also a nearly 360 degree echo wall where you can whisper from one end to the next.

HanNaShan Korean Restaurant

Korean BBQ is a bit lonely by yourself, but fun just the same. I had a great meal that involved lots of meat and grilling my own food. This was about kilometer 70 of my bike ride so it was some much needed sustenance.

Forbidden City

Massive. City is the correct word to describe the area and I was impressed. Unfortunately, the main attraction of the museum is being restored. This was a common theme throughout my stay in Beijing.

The Great Wall

It was bigger than I thought. I know that sounds like a stupid thing to say, but all the pictures I’ve ever seen are usually from up high. I was impressed with the width of the wall. I did a four hour hike where the only other people on the wall was our tour and some Mongolian farmers. It was also the ONLY day the sun even thought about coming out.

Summer Palace

Maybe riding a bike in the drizzle to the site wasn’t the wisest idea, but the palace itself was incredible. Empress Ci’xi was a bad lady who lived extravagantly–Wikipedia her for a little more info and some background on Chinese history

Olympic Village

On the same scale of Dubai in terms of construction. Wow. There is high rise after high rise and crane after crane. I hope they finish in time! This was part of a marathon bike excursion, and I probably hit the Village around kilometer 45.

Temple of Heaven

Maybe my favorite tourist site in Beijing. A beautiful park where you can see Chinese practicing Tai Chi, playing Chinese chess, yelling over cards, and just enjoying life. My one recommendation would be to outlaw the ubiquitous karaoke, but this is Asia after all. There is also a nearly 360 degree echo wall where you can whisper from one end to the next.

Split Pants

They are all over China, but nowhere have I noticed it more than in Beijing. The concept, for those unfamiliar, is a split in the back of a child’s pants to enable him or her to go to the bathroom with a simple squat. Chinese site the money saved on diapers as a plus, but it is cold in Beijing–the kids cheeks resemble a sunburn. Additionally, anytime and any place seems to be the motto–I was walking closely behind a mother and her child when suddenly he stopped squatted and let go. That’s enough about that.

Bike Theft

It is a huge problem in Beijing and fortunately I didn’t experience it. I did however, leave 2 bags of gummy bears in my basket while visiting the Summer Palace. Upon my return, they had vanished. If anyone knows the whereabouts of said gummies, there will be a substantial reward.

That’s just about it from Beijing. I had a great time here and I think the city will be a fine host for the 2008 Olympics.

Chinese Medicine

March 4, 2007

In Pingyao, a tour guide named Mr. Liu approached me on the street advertising his tour that included a visit to the Chinese doctor. Since I’m quite interested in different forms of medicine, I decided it would be worth a shot. Additionally, Mr. Liu had a notebook full of testimonies from happy customers and seemed like a genuinely nice man.

We visited a few hold homes, and then went to see the doctor. Apparently this doctor is the most famous in Pingyao. This claim might have some merit considering there were about 15 other people in the office when we arrived, all of whom locked eyes on me the instant I walked through the door.

We were able to leapfrog some of the other patients and soon I was having my pulse taken. The process included one reading on each wrist for about a minute or so. The doctor soon started listing my symptoms. They seemed a bit vague, like a horoscope that works for a large number of people.

“Do you sometimes have headaches?”

“Well, yes”

“And your lips are dry.”

“Yes, but you can tell that by looking at them.”

Just like that I was diagnosed. The cost was about 25 cents for my consultation and it took all of 3 minutes. Mr. Liu looked at me sternly and said, “don’t worry, it isn’t very serious.” That’s a relief I thought, but soon the doctor had scurried off to find my medicine as I protested that I felt fine. After about 10 minutes, he came back a bit disappointed. I was informed that he didn’t have the neccesary medicine for my condition. He said I should avoid sugary foods, and with that we had a photo op, said goodbye and continued on our tour of the cobbled streets of Pingyao.

My visit to the Chinese doctor was more comical than anything else, but it was an interesting glimpse at Chinese medicine. While I was there, “pharmacists” were chopping up a variety of herbs for patients, many of which included five star anise. I don’t doubt that some of these concoctions help people, perhaps more so than cold medicine or aspirin. I guess the true test will be a visit when I’m actually not feeling well.

Happy (Chinese) New Year!

February 24, 2007

My wishes come about a week late, but that is okay because the party is still going strong here in China. I’ve been moving around pretty quickly during the New Year (the Chinese call it Spring Festival) and it has been interesting to see the regional differences and how each place rings in the “year of the pig.” The celebration is quite an event wherever you are, but you can pretty much count on bright neon lights and lots of the noise. Spring Festival is one of the few opportunities the Chinese get to travel and travel they do. There are said to be 4.5 million people taking trains per day during the New Year. I’ve joined in the fun (and chaos) visiting four cities in the past 10 days.

My first experience with the New Year was in Lijiang, a city in the Yunnan province of Southwest China. It is a beautiful old town with cobbled streets and historic architecture. The town is in the process of gentrification and seems to be losing some of its charm to cheesy tourist shops, but it is still a wonderful place to spend a few days especially with the excellent accomodations to be had in the town. I stayed at Mama Naxi’s guesthouse run by none other than Mama Naxi herself. It is organized chaos as Mama runs around referring to herself in the the third person while cooking, booking train tickets, and entertaining the guests. For dinner, the guests of the hostel sit around large tables as Mama brings plate after plate of delicious food. It was great to have other people to share the food with because in China people usually go out to dinner with large groups of people. I was actually denied entrance at a restaurant in Kunming because I was by myself! On the 18th, a special dinner was prepared with traditional foods for the New Year.

Though I appreciated the food at Mama Naxi’s, the noise was another matter. Even the fireworks seem to be louder here. At least they are colorful and fun to look at which is more than I can say for the firecrackers. Turn a corner in broad daylight and BAM! See a couple of innocent looking schoolchildren playing in the street and then BAM! The night of the 18th I felt like I was in a war zone. The firecrackers honestly did not stop; they are said to ward off all of the evil spirits for the upcoming year. I think Lijiang will be safe…

From Lijiang I took my first flight in China to the city of Chengdu in the Sichuan province. Sichuan is known for it’s spicy food, and I was actually introduced to this on my flight. Instead of peanuts, I got fiery hot dried tofu. Interesting was the word that came to mind. The flight was standard enough, but when we hit a little turbulence, the two girls sitting beside me put their head to their knees, closed their eyes, and blocked their ears as hard as they could. I think it was their first flight.

Anyway, Chengdu continued the party, mostly in terms of food. The “civilized tour block–a designated area for ‘good manners’ such as no spitting” had well over 300 food stall vendors selling everything imaginable from the 23 different provinces of China. Some highlights were spicy meat on a stick, a special noodle dish, rice cooked in bamboo, and an ice cream bar in the shape of a Panda. Speaking of Pandas, I saw them in the flesh at the breeding reserve just outside of the city. They are quite cute.

I would’ve liked to spend more time in Chengdu, if only for the hostel. For $3, you get a bed, free internet, free laundry, ping pong, and a movie room with hundreds of DVDs. If you ever make it to Chengdu, stay at Sim’s hostel. He is from Singapore and has a wealth of information about Chengdu and China.

From Chengdu, I boarded another flight to X’ian, a city many of the former dynasties called their capital. X’ian is a huge bustling metropolis. McDonalds, KFC, and Pizza Hut are all here in addition to Louis Vuitton, Versace, and Prada. X’ian’s most famous site is the Terracotta wariors which I found quite impressive. The warriors were discovered in the 70’s by peasants drilling a well, some 2000 years after they were built. X’ian is also noteworthy for its Muslim quarter where food is cheap and delicious. I ate everything, and think my stomach has finally built up an immunity to street food. There is also a mosque which was very interesting. No minarets here; like most things in China, it has been adapted in a decidedly Chinese way.

I now write from Pingyao after a 12 hour train ride. Pingyao is a good stop in the X’ian to Beijing journey and I plan on spending a couple of days here. It is an old city from the Ming Dynasty with all of its walls still intact. It’s more low key than X’ian and I’m looking forward to a day or two of relaxation before starting the big city tour going from Beijing to Hong Kong.

Drinking Tea

February 21, 2007

Tea is serious business in China. In Kunming, the university quarter is a beautiful area lined with cozy cafes. I happened upon an upscale tea shop and decided to pop in armed only with my Mandarin phrasebook. After a brief browse of some very expensive teas, I was soon invited to sit down and sample some of what was on offer.

Two women began to prepare the tea in the most elaborate of manners. The process is all very ceremonius and probably involved well over 10 steps. The first step is to provide the guest with a miniature tea cup and the server must take care not to touch the cup (she used tongs). From there, the cups are first washed with hot water and then washed with tea. The tea must be washed before drinking. Eventually I was able to taste the tea and it was quite good. I took 5 sips and soon learned I should take three. Additionally, the forefinger and middlefinger should be placed under the glass. I learned these things as I failed hopelessly with my phrasebook.

After about about a half hour of tea drinking, my new friend Lingshuntao came to the rescue. He is a chemist by trade and very well versed in tea (and English). He was soon explaining the healing properties of Puer tea, the most sought after tea in Yunnan. Puer tea is a bit like wine, it ferments slowly and becomes better with age. It is starting to catch on all over the world, but the tea all comes from the Yunan province in China.

Another Chinese customer came in who was in the market for some tea and we were able to sample four different qualities. It was interesting to taste the different teas, though I think my palate needs a little bit of work. After about two hours, I said goodbye and “syair, syair” (thank you) and hopped on my bike to return to the hotel after a full day in Kunming, ready to board the overnight train to Dali.