Wednesday, September 26, 2012

You Scratch My Map, I'll Scratch Yours

     Before we left California to fly to the far East, we were showered with two lovely gifts from my mother-in-law.  The first was a travel guide to China, which we fully intend to use in the coming years.  The second was a complete life-changer.............a scratch-off world map poster!!  That's right, feast your eyes on this beast:


     It's basically a laminated world map (Mercator projection if I rightly recollect from geography) with a thin gold foil over all of the land masses.  Since I don't play the lottery too often, I can easily get my fix by visiting a new country and whipping out a nickel on that bad boy!  This is the view of our current progress, which doesn't look too impressive since Europe is so daggum small (relatively speaking).  I guess you could say we've got a lot of potential here (um, hello?  Antarctica?).  
 
Here's a close-up of our former home and the damage we did over three years:

It sure seemed like a lot more than that at the time.  Hell if we would've touched down in Moscow just once I would still be scratching away in Siberia, but it would've looked a lot more impressive.  I mean, I nearly developed carpal tunnel working on Canada and the USA.  

And here we are in Southeast Asia, with only a dab of green to show for it.  Luckily we have some time and aspirations to jump all over the place down here.

    So I highly recommend this as the perfect gift for you world travelers.  You can look for it on Amazon or at www.luckies.co.uk.  The only thing better would be if the map were actually a SCRATCH-N-SNIFF world map where each country gives off a distinct odor.  I'd imagine sniffin' a Guiness in Ireland; pretzels or sausages in Germany; vodka in Poland; chorizo in Spain; maple syrup in Canada; cheeseburgers in the USA (except for the dirty south, which would smell like barbecue); tacos in Mexico; mint tea in Morocco (or camels); snow cones in Antarctica; curry in Thailand; and chicken feet in Hong Kong.  
     If you've got other ideas for the scratch-n-sniff map I'm all ears.  From now on, any post on a new place that we travel will include the corresponding location on the scratch-off map.

--Justin

Monday, September 24, 2012

Strollin' Through Hong Kong Park

     With a month under our belts in Hong Kong, we have quickly grown to love this fascinating city with lots of hidden gems to uncover.  One such gem wasn't so much uncovered as sought after.  Before leaving Germany we were talking to some of our colleagues from Frankfurt, namely Kate and Tran, who raved about Hong Kong and were particularly impressed by a park in the middle of the city that had a massive aviary - and it was free!  Needless to say, free attractions always sound great when you're on a budget, so we took off one weekend to find this shindig.


     Sure enough, right in the middle of all of the busyness of Hong Kong Island, in between several high-rise buildings there's a nice park that is built into a terraced hill.  The park doesn't have a ton of green space, but there are waterfalls, ponds with fish and turtles, a small zoo, fountains, and a huge, netted aviary - not to mention a chapel that's popular for weekend weddings.  I'll let the pictures speak for themselves at this point, but keep in mind that this place is totally free and sitting smack dab in the middle of a crazy busy city.

I really liked the contrast of the aviary against some corporate skyscrapers.

These caged birds were still singing with beautiful blue skies around and a huge area to fly around in.

Marisa is highlighting one of the waterfalls in the park.

There were a ridiculous amount of turtles and fish kickin' it in the ponds.

They had a nice little elevated walkway through the aviary.

There were many tropical birds that we'd never seen before, but I can't even try to identify any.  I don't think this one is on my grandma's bird-call clock.

These fellas went to town on some banana and pomegranate.





Besides the aviary we also checked out the zoo which had a pretty big primate collection - here are some lemurs from Madagascar.  We didn't take too many pictures because they were all behind cages and kind of far away.  While it is depressing seeing caged animals in a zoo, we could spend hours watching the monkeys chase each other around their enclosures.

     As you can see, Hong Kong Park is definitely worth a glance for a half-day activity.  If you have a bigger lens than us, then I definitely recommend the aviary - or you could always ditch the camera and just enjoy it.  Thanks for the tip Kate and Tran!


--Justin

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hong Kong - First Impressions

Marisa and I touched down in our new home about three weeks ago after a 14-hour flight from Los Angeles, during which we slept minimally.  We were greeted by a teacher at our school who drove us back to the campus where we'll be living for the next two years.  It was a quiet Saturday morning as we drove across an impressive suspension bridge, past a massive shipping port to the mainland portion of Hong Kong known as "Kowloon".  Eventually we made our way through the notoriously crowded neighborhood of Mong Kok and up a half-mile drive to our school campus.  After a brief overview of the grounds we were led to our apartment..........which was unbelievably bigger than our apartment in Frankfurt!  High ceilings.  Two bedrooms.  Two couches.  Television.  Washer and Dryer.  Big(ger) Refrigerator.  Compared to what we were used to for the past three years, we had made the big time.  Of course, much of our first day was spent unpacking, orienting ourselves, and taking a 1-hr nap that turned into more like 6 hours.  It was going to take some time to adjust.

View of our new city from "the Peak" on Hong Kong Island.

New apartment still needs some furnishings, but we couldn't be happier with the space.  The commute is also much shorter - living on campus and all.

Marisa and I on the Kowloon side near the "Avenue of the Stars", looking out toward Hong Kong Island.

Now that we've had some time to tour a bit of the city and take it all in, I figured that it was time to post some "first impressions" of Hong Kong.

1.  It's HOT and HUMID here - at 22 degrees N of the equator, we're sitting about where Cuba or Honolulu are, with temperatures between 80-90 degrees and a humidity over 60%.  They tell me that it will cool down in a month or so, which sounds legitimate, but for now you just have to plan on taking multiple showers per day.  You literally can't go 100 yards outside of your apartment without perspiring.  That being said, I've probably already beat out the total number of days that I was able to wear shorts and flip-flops in the past three years in Germany. 

2.  You can get lots of Western foods - in Germany we felt like kids in a candy store whenever we got a chance to do some shopping for food at one of the military bases.  However, after visiting a handful of grocery stores here we've found items like Kraft mac n' cheese, bacon, boxed cake mixes, barbecue potato chips, granola bars, Quaker oatmeal, Butterball turkey, string cheese, Philly cream cheese, mountain dew, Teddy grahams, alfredo sauce, the list could go on and on.  In general, we've just been blown away by the availability of Western foods which is awesome because that will definitely help us to mix up the menu on a weekly basis.

Craving for doughnuts?  They've got you covered here, although I'm not saying it's Dunkin' Doughnuts quality.

3.  Everything can be delivered - It took me a year to discover beer delivery in Germany, so we were more aware coming to Hong Kong.  Turns out you can have your groceries delivered for free, not to mention we had California Pizza Kitchen deliver to our apartment last week!  Pretty much any restaurant has a delivery service or there is a company that takes to-go orders from any restaurant you want - they pick it up and bring it to you.  This could be a crutch for us, since it takes a lot of motivation to walk down 184 steps just to leave campus.

4.  Beer drinkers don't have to suffer - I moved here with the expectation that the only beer that I'd be able to find would be a cheap, low quality Asian beer.  In only a few weeks I've come to find that there are many bars/restaurants that serve European and American brands on draft.  We went to a Belgian beer bar that had at least 50 beers to choose from.  I was able to order a Rogue Dead Guy Ale at a place just the other day.  I should also mention that the grocery stores actually have a decent selection of German beer as well as Pabst Blue Ribbon.  Needless to say I've been pleasantly surprised and I think I'll be able to survive here.

5.  LOTS of people - We knew that Hong Kong, especially Mong Kok, was supposed to be a crowded place and that is definitely true.  It hasn't been a big turn-off or anything, but when you walk on the street or take the subway you are definitely aware of the 6 million + people that live in this city.  My favorite time is when the light turns green at a traffic light and hundreds of people from both sides of the street converge towards each other, zig zagging and deftly maneuvering through to make it to the other side.

Typical street scene in Mong Kok.

6.  Dim Sum is divine - a traditional type of breakfast/brunch here is the Cantonese "dim sum", which supposedly refers to the preparation of the food -  primarily steaming.  I plan on doing a separate post on dim sum, but you basically order a bunch of small portions of filled dumplings and share them "family style" with your party.  It's really cheap and very rewarding.

Our first dim sum outing, hosted by students from our school.  I recommend pretty much everything, except for the chicken feet - bottom right.

7.  It's huge and interesting - this place is massive and there are tons of areas to explore.  We've barely scratched the surface, but we absolutely love just getting out and walking around new parts of town.  I love all of the neon signs that hang out over the streets with Chinese characters.  We live in  more of the "locals only" part of town with lots of working class folks.  Then there's Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) where there's lots of malls and touristy things for the cruise ships coming in.  On the island there's Central and Soho with lots of expats and Western restaurants and bars.  There's also lots of beaches but we haven't really made it to any of those yet.  It's fun to just pick a new area and dive in.

I love the huge signs spilling out onto the street.  At night the neon signs have me staring in all directions.  Since I've never been to Vegas, this has been a decent substitute.

8.  People are friendly - most people speak English here and there are tons of expats all over the place, which I would think would get annoying for the locals.  However, we've found that people have been very friendly and helpful for us as we've been figuring things out.  If they don't speak English they tend to grab somebody who does to translate.  Just last weekend we got on a bus and tried to tell the driver where we wanted to get off, but he didn't understand.  At the next stop he asked a lady who got on to ask us where we wanted to go and she translated.  It's definitely encouraging for us to try to learn some of the language.

9.  Fashion is trendy - Marisa insisted that I note that people have a funky/trendy style.  Lots of people have their own put-together style and rock the bright neon shoes without shame.  It's difficult to describe or explain, but we like it.

WTF?  This exhibition is some sort of Japanese cartoon cat and people have been going nuts over them.

10.  Mall-density - if there's one thing that is popular here, then it's chicken feet.  If there are two things that are popular here, then it'd be shopping malls.  I could literally visit a different mall for every day of the month and not have any repeaters.  It's also been surprising to see a lot of Western stores, such as Quicksilver, Stussy, Gap, American Eagle, Abercrombie & Fitch, etc.

On the higher end, near TST (Tsim Sha Tsui) there's plenty of shopping options for the deep-pocketed. Apparently many mainlanders come down for the weekend on shopping trips and eat up the fancy stuff.

11.  Transportation works - like most large cities, HK has a subway (MTR) system as well as a bus system.  While the subway system covers a lot of ground, it can be time-consuming taking all of the escalators down and up.  If you can figure out the bus system then you can get pretty much anywhere in a hurry.  It's also really cheap because you get an "Octopus Card" that works like a debit card.  You pay a flat rate for buses and a pro-rate for the MTR, which usually works out to less than $1 (US dollar) per trip.  This is much cheaper than Germany, where you had to buy a monthly/weekly pass or pay a flat rate per trip, which could amount to around $4 (US) per trip.  I should mention that the Octopus Card (I usually call it an Oyster Card) can also be used at most shops/stores in Hong Kong.

Trams, buses and taxis are everywhere - and relatively cheap too.

So there have been many positive things that we've noticed about our new home so far.  It's not my intention to bash Germany with some of the comparisons, but it's just observations.

Enter the Dragon

Excellent beginning to this adventure and there will undoubtedly be more to come.  I hope to post a few short blogs covering some cultural differences as we explore more of this place.  Stay tuned!

--Justin

Monday, September 10, 2012

Summer in the States

The last month in Germany was an absolute whirlwind between cancelling all of our German accounts, trying to renew my passport through the consulate, finishing out a school year, attending countless goodbye parties and European Championship game-watching events, shipping boxes to the US, and shipping boxes to Hong Kong (and by shipping, I mean carrying boxes 1-by-1 to the post office).  During this time we often had the question "so are you excited about moving to Hong Kong?"  In all cases I couldn't say "yes" because I was mostly thinking about coming home to the States for 6 weeks to visit friends and family.  That also made it difficult to feel the appropriate sadness to leave our friends in Frankfurt, since I was so stuck on being on the other side of the pond for the summer.

And that's exactly what we did.  We flew back to Atlanta on June 29th and were blessed with six full weeks in the homeland.  Instead of giving you way too much detail about our visit, I'll break it down to the highlight reel (with pictures of course):

July

Marisa spent the first two weeks up in Lynchburg, VA to complete two intensive courses for her Masters in School Counseling at Liberty University.  On the weekends she was able to visit her old college teammate, Lauren, up at James Madison in Harrisonburg, VA as well as other college friends, the Tisons, over in Charlottesville, VA.

Meanwhile, I borrowed my old Ford Ranger (no A/C, vinyl seats) and took a road trip up through Blairsville, Ga on to Simpsonville, SC and up to Charlottesville, VA for a reunion weekend.

The first stop in the Ranger was to see Grandma Shirer up in Blairsville, GA.  It was pleasant in the mountains and I was greeted with a Stouffer's lasagna and yellow cake!  I also kicked off a summer of seeing tons of wildlife by seeing a group of six deer in her front yard.

Charlottesville, VA
After Marisa's classes we met back up in Charlottesville and were greeted by friends and good ol' American microbrew!

In order to maintain a certain degree of sophistication, we also participated in a wine-tasting.  We loved Charlottesville and it was nice getting 3/4 of the Ocho together again.

One of my goals since starting school at Tech in 2000 was to visit all of the ACC school campuses.  One of the prettiest had evaded me until now, when we spent a couple of hours walking through UVA.  Here's the founder - Thomas Jefferson.

Marisa and I drove back to Atlanta via Richmond, VA to see my cousin, Jack, and Asheville, NC to see my cousin, Jennifer.  We also spent a romantic evening at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville.

Richmond, VA

 Embarrassingly, I hadn't seen my cousin Jack since his wedding back in 2009.  It was great seeing him and Ashley at their place in Richmond where he's finishing his residency.  I barely stomached through a video of one of his cataract surgeries - mad props to him for being able to do what he does.

 Asheville, NC

Next stop was to see Jennifer at her well-manicured house in Asheville.  It had been just as long since we last saw her and I missed her wedding while in Germany, but she took us in anyways and walked us around the downtown area.  It's a great place to live and has a lot of microbrew pubs to sample.

Marisa and I at the "Thirsty Monk" in Asheville.
 The Biltmore Estate - pretty amazing place for a weekend getaway.  It's about as close as you can get to an old mansion or palace in Europe.

Italian-style gardens

The remainder of July was spent together in Atlanta, seeing some friends and mostly running around taking care of logistical things like storage, bank accounts, insurance, etc.

Atlanta, GA

We kicked off Atlanta by dropping by to see Mel and Chris, have a few beers, play catch-up, and sample some of Chris' culinary concoctions.

 Reuniting with the Dukes' - old volleyball/CCF intern buddies.

We were also able to see Courtney (left), our friend currently serving as a missionary in Puebla, Mexico.

It's always a treat when you're able to stop by and have lunch at Carver's in ATL, but it's even better when you can share it with Mr. E.

Every time I come back my little brother, Jake, keeps gaining on me in height.  If this is how tall he is at 12, I'm afraid he'll be taller than me the next time we're in town.  We got to play some board games at the house, spend 4th of July together, and see about 2 innings of a Rome Braves game before it was rained out.

We had a great time reuniting with old GTVB friends: Bird, Nicole, and Scott.

We got together at the Brazell's for the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics with the other 1/4 of the Ocho.

August

In August we took two memorable trips:  one to Boston/Newburyport, MA to visit Marisa's sister & family, and one to Port Orange, FL to visit my mom & family.  On the way to Hong Kong we stopped for a few days in Huntington Beach, CA to see Marisa's mom and other friends, which was a nice stop before jumping across the other pond to our new home.

Newburyport, MA

Within an hour of arriving in Newburyport sisters were reunited and we had a blast at the "Yankee Homecoming Beer Fest"

At some point we realized that we dressed either in rasta or traffic light colors, depending on how you see it.  Here's our interpretive picture of the occasion.

Kendra and Nolan.  It was nice having a glimpse of family life in New England.

Although we frequently skype, we hadn't seen his guy since he was 6-months old.  Needless to say he's grown up so much and was a lot of fun to play with.

In order to prevent "Re-Patriation Syndrome" caused by overeating all of the delicious, yet unhealthy, foods that you've missed while overseas, we signed up to run the Yankee Homecoming 5K.  I ran as hard as I could, nearly quit, and finished with an unimpressive time of 24 minutes.  Kendra finished just under 40 minutes, but she was pushing a toddler, so I really can't brag.

Yankee Homecoming Parade

Yankee Homecoming Kid's Day - it was entertaining watching all of the kids do gymnastics, especially since we'd been watching the Olympics literally every day while in Newburyport.

Marisa's cousin Kelly stopped by with Dave and Sierra.

Cousins reunited.

We even had a fireworks extravaganza to end the Yankee Homecoming festival.

This just screams "New England" to me.

"Ridin' on a dolphin, doing flips and sh**, the dolphin's splashing, getting everybody all wet..."

Boston, MA
 
We went into Boston one day with two goals in mind:  to visit Boston College (to reach my goal of visiting all ACC campuses) and to take the Sam Adams Brewery tour.  Being a huge Atlanta Falcons fan, I had to see the Matt Ryan shrine at the athletic office.  Here's me and the first-rounder.  Matty ICE!!!

I have to recommend the Sam Adams tour over just about every other brewery tour I've been on....mainly because it's free, but it was actually very informative and tons of fun.  Not to mention you get a free tasting glass and a sample of at least three beers.

Fenway Park - we finally were able to come and see a Red Sox game in one of America's oldest stadiums.




Port Orange, FL

It was great spending more than a couple of days with Jason, Candace and Arden.  Of course it was also nice having a pool nearby.

As a bonus, a large portion of my mom's family came down from Blairsville, Savannah, and Jacksonville for a Saturday at the pool.  My uncle Jackie can't be happier with his new black Lab "Charlie".

The Shirer-Jackson-Grant-Kenney Family: Candace, me, Grandma, Jackie, Sheila, Mom, Ed, Charlotte, Marisa, Arden, Jason, and Chris.

My Savannah family

Like Nolan, I hadn't seen my niece Arden in over a year and they change so much.  It's amazing how much personality she has and she cracks me up with all of the stuff she picks up on and says.  "Crab People!"

Ate at this restaurant in Port Orange on the recommendation of many.  Pretty darn good, and they even throw in a cinnamon roll with practically every entree.  This was one of the last places I ate at before going to the hospital with blurry vision.  While I thought that my blood pressure medicine was causing it, it turns out that I was way off.  I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes and hospitalized for two days in order to get my equilibrium back.  Needless to say, that was a huge freakin' bummer to end the trip and it's been quite an adjustment getting used to giving myself insulin shots.  It's also frustrating hearing that "I'm too young to have hypertension" and I'm "in too good of shape and too old to have type 1 diabetes with no family history".

Jason, Arden, and Candace

Arden and "Ga-Ga"

Mom and I the day after I was discharged.  It was a blessing getting the news of diabetes with her around with her medical background.  She's been a stud using her resources to help us find endocrinologists in Hong Kong and to sift through various insurance plans to help us cover my "pre-existing condition".

Huntington Beach, CA

Randomly our friend Brandon moved out to HB about a year ago and has taken over Marisa's life, living with and hanging out with all of her high school friends.  We interned with "Bran-muffin" at CCF and it was really good to see him again.  If only his work would take him to Hong Kong...

Marisa with Jamie and Juju.  We had plenty of laughs at their place over a game of Apples to Apples.

While we didn't come away with many pictures from California, we had a great time trying to relax before catching a flight to Hong Kong.  We saw a few high school friends, one of our college friends, and of course Marisa's mom, step-dad, and grandpa.  We got to ride bikes on the beach, take a few walks, play some v-ball, and have some real Mexican food.

Spending time in your home country is good for the soul.  For me, it had been about a year and a half since I'd had a decent visit and it was just nice to be there for such a long time.  The only downside was living out of a bag/suitcase and bouncing around to so many places over the course of the summer.  However, that's the only way to see the number of friends and family that we were able to (seven States in six weeks!).  I'd like to give a shout out to all of the people who allowed us to crash at their place this summer, in order of appearance:

Buck and Mae
Lauren 
Grandma Shirer
Jason & Candace
Chris and Liz
Jack and Ashley
Jennifer
Andrew and Meredith
Jeff and Kendra
Melonie and Ed
Susan and Terry

Y'all were a huge help with hosting us this summer and we are very thankful for you.

 and "Thank You" America for being so awesome!!

--Justin
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