The Asia AirBNB host profile

Here’s a quick observation that may or may not be generalizable.

All three of our AirBNB hosts have been women. One appears to be somewhat artistic or design oriented (based on her clothing and reading materials on her shelves) but the other two appear to be masters-level students or graduates with professional careers in finance or banking.

All three, obviously, speak English and have fairly well traveled, “international” attitudes about culture and values by looking at various objects and keep sakes in their apartments. They all have TVs with satellite type cable service. They all have very modern, Ikea-like living spaces (could be selection bias on our part though).

The last two hosts have had copies of novels from the “50 shades” series on their bookshelves, along with serious business and philosophical matter likely for school.

They’re all been young, likely early to mid 30s.

By way of comparison, in South America we stayed at a hostel run by a business, a hostel run by a middle-aged couple, a BNB run by a middle aged couple, an apartment run by a late middle aged man and an apartment owned by a young man whose family are the investors. I believe the last two in Argentina were AirBNB and we mightve made the rest of the arrangements directly via the enterprises’ websites.

And we are going to stay at a young man’s AirBNB here in Singapore but found out last minute that his building owner wouldn’t renew his permission letter letting him run the AirBNB legally.

Dressing For Travel Success

Packing for this trip seemed challenging. Southeast Asia has a subtropical climate with high average temperatures and high humidity. We knew we were likely to be uncomfortable with long sleeves and pants.

However, we also knew it might rain, and that being in short sleeves and shorts might be uncomfortable in wet weather.

From the standpoint of footwear, neither of us had anything we thought would be great to walk around in a ton, or that wouldn’t look funny with shorts. For example, we both have sandals, but would those be comfortable to traipse around in for hours in big cities? But they’d work well with shorts.

Finally we wanted to have a few light cover options in case it turned out to be cooler, and also something we could dress ourselves up slightly with in case we wanted to go somewhere more civilized than a street vendor.

Despite our best efforts, I think my packing, anyway, was a failure. The critical failure has been footwear. I brought a new (brand new) pair of Sperry leather laced moccasin style shoes in brown and a black pair of leather loafer Eccos in black. My thinking was the Sperry’s would be comfortable to walk in and would have a measure of wetproof if it rained. The Eccos I thought could be useful on light walking days or times we wanted to dress up more.

The Eccos turn out to not be a great fit. They are maybe a half size too big for me which I never noticed back home because I wear them casually and don’t walk distance in them. That extra room allowed my feet to move around quite a bit and in the humid conditions in Taipei I developed a blister on my heel about ten minutes after we started walking. I haven’t worn them since as it has rained most of the time we were in Taipei and all of the time we’ve been here in HK, plus I don’t want another blister. So that was completely wasted space and a misfire from a packing standpoint.

The Sperry’s are an interesting story. I began to break them in on dog walks for three weeks before our trip. The first few days were rough, I developed blisters from the stiff leather and my soft feet which have mostly been inside socks and well worn dress shoes since last summer. But after a week my feet had toughened up, the leather broke in slightly and they became comfortable to dog walk in and I began developing confidence they’d be good for the trip.

For the first few days in Taipei this was the case, and they were surprisingly comfortable to wear on the 13h flight over. But once it rained, the shoes became water logged after sloshing around the streets for several hours. I figured a Sperry product would be water proof or highly water resistant but that just wasn’t the case with these moccasins. The interior sole got damp and when the exterior leather dried it stiffened up considerably. I then began developing blisters on my toes as the newly stiffened leather rubbed against my feet.

Too much detail? I haven’t even started.

Here in HK it has rained both days. Our first day here we went on a walking tour around 2pm and we were out in the rain for three hours. My shoes got totally water logged and restiffened again. Today they were still not fully dry and it rained again. In several places my feet didn’t even bother blistering, they just rubbed raw and it became painful to walk, but a quick stop for bandaids at 7-11 got me through the rest of the day. But man, coming down from the top of Hong Kong island back to our apartment 1/3 of the way up was pretty brutal!

As for clothing, the shorts and t-shirts have been okay for the temperature and humidity but I think we’ve looked very grubby and casual, not like respectful visitors. Eating out at even mildly casual+ places has been a little uncomfortable because we look like people who just wandered in off he street. I’ve used one of my pullovers ONCE and it wasnt really necessary then. The pullover hoody I haven’t used at all. My rain jacket zipup has worked well for repelling rain, but it’s also worked well to trap the heat around my body so I sweat more. Not ideal.

I haven’t figured out what the solution to any of this might be in the future. Mesh synthetic cross trainers would also get waterlogged, but they might be easier to walk miles in especially with socks. An even more light weight rain shell might have been an improvement. I’d probably bring only one pair of shoes and plan to look and feel grubby. Maybe a really light pair of pants to dress it up a little without feeling uncomfortable.

But t-shirts are going to look kind of overly casual no matter what else you wear.

I think the real tough part is being out walking around so much of the day, particularly in the rain.

The No-TV Travel Approach

When I used to travel overseas with my family, I’d often turn the TV on at the hotel while taking a break. Typically the English language TV would be CNN for that region, or the BBC. The rest of the TV would be in the local language and I usually wasn’t interested in watching it even out of curiosity. Having no mobile phone or wifi internet service, I got a uniquely local entertainment sensation when watching the TV.

On this trip, despite having a TV with cable at each of our AirBNBs so far, we have not turned on the TV and likely will not. We have been avidly using wifi, in our place and about town when available.

The lack of British-voiced media personalities discussing “world news” and the easy accessibility of websites, email and other data I’d follow back home has contributed to a unique sense of place and a different kind of culture shock, or lack thereof.

Why Do We Travel? 2

I still don’t know the answer but I think I’m slowly getting closer. But I had this thought and I think it’s relevant.

On our walking tour yesterday afternoon we met a couple from Chicago who had recently gotten married. The wife is ethnically Chinese and is a medical resident. The husband was ethnically Indian and works for PwC as a consultant in the healthcare industry. They had come to this part of the world on their honeymoon. It sounds like they were married in India and went to Hong Kong and now Taipei on their honeymoon. A Taiwanese friend who was in the wedding party was accompanying them on the tour (and helped my wife buy me an umbrella when it started to rain, apparently Western tourists sometimes pay different prices, an interesting form of price discrimination).

The husband described his 8 years so far in the consulting world as not terribly enjoyable. His routine is to leave home on a plane on Monday morning and come back Thursday evening. He is compensated well, but doesn’t find the work satisfying.

Now, if he essentially travels for a living, why does he travel on his honeymoon?

Here is another question: he and his wife are clearly highly intelligent and well educated people, how come with all his intelligence he can’t figure out a way to earn an income he’s satisfied with, in a manner that he enjoys and finds fulfilling?

This is not a criticism by the way! I am not about to claim I’ve necessarily figured that out myself, if it even can be figured out. I have a feeling there’s a flaw in the premise of the question itself.

I’ve never met a consultant who likes his work. So why do they do it? And why do I always meet them when I’m traveling?

What The Taipeiese Do With Bagels

Breakfast is not a well developed concept in Taipei. If breakfast is eaten at all, it is typically something savory and for many involves takeout of potstickers, bao and soymilk congee.

We arrived early to Good Cho’s on a Saturday morning, 730am. Due to jet lag we had been up since 5am. They didn’t open until 9am. So we walked around the neighborhood, grabbed fresh guava from a street market and sat and blogged in the plaza outside a tall building by Taipei 101 before returning still 10 minutes early. Eventually we got inside and found ourselves in an artsy, creative space unlike most we’ve encountered so far.

The menu was simple and, as we’ve found to be the case at many restaurants with a more Western approach to decor and service, the prices were significantly higher and came with a mandatory 10% service charge.

While there is some sticker shock going from a 165NTD (about $5.50) breakfast for two like this morning’s take away from the soymilk shop and stepping up to a 770NTD meal for two (about $20), it’s still cheap when you put it into comparison with breakfast at home, where an entre and coffee plus tax and tip can easily cost $15+ per person. Which is why we don’t eat out that much, besides the fact that we think we make better food than what we can find at most eateries.

So this is what the creative restauranteurs in Taipei do with their bagels. And it was a great bagel, with a tasty black coffee.

Why Do We Travel?

Why do we travel?

Meeting other travelers, it’s often the first thing you ask, and are asked in return.

In many cases, travel fulfills that common desire to investigate whether the grass is greener, what some term “wanderlust” but which is really no more glorious than being convinced despite the evidence that if you just search a bit further and farther you’ll eventually find a place that is significantly better for you than where you are, if it isn’t perfection itself.

For others it is to gain a new perspective on people, places, history or culture. What is the food like and why do people make it like that? How are people dressed and what makes that customary or comfortable? How do people behave toward one another in their community and why? How do they get around and where do they go? Sometimes these become notches on the travel belt– “Oh I’ve been there, here and over there… I’m very worldly and can appreciate others in a way you’d only dream of if that was the kind of thing you yearned for for some reason.” The really psychotic ones almost make it like a race, “I’ve been traveling for X months and I’ve seen Y places, I’m way ahead of you on the quest to see it all and make myself comparatively more enlightened.”

We’ve only been at this for a few days on this trip but already we’ve been asked several times, and we’ve asked several times as well. This would include ourselves, I’ve been wondering, why are we traveling, and to these places in particular?

One gentleman we met on tour yesterday has been traveling, on his own, throughout southeast Asia for the better part of a year and change. He’s middle aged and a friendly fellow but the fact that he is alone and doing this relatively late in life makes you wonder if he’s looking for something, or simply lost. Why did he come here?

On our second tour last night we met several more travelers, all younger, female and apparently traveling on their own. They were each on an itinerary similar to ours– several weeks to a month total, visiting major developed economy cities, college educated (world travel doesn’t seem to be for the uneducated these days, which seems strange) and each seemed to have some personal heritage, identity or family connection to the region. But again, in the short time we met I couldn’t tell, why were they here?

It isn’t enough to simply ask the question. It is too philosophical and most people will reply with something shallow and obnoxious “to eat the food” or “to learn more about history”.

So, why do we travel? And why did we travel here?

I’m still formulating my thoughts on this, but I will attempt a response in the near future.

In the meantime, here is a picture of a handmade candle we found at a local designer mall. The young saleswoman told me it was called the “melting baby head”. I almost bought one but I think a picture will suffice and I didn’t feel like lugging it around the rest of the trip.

In Taipei

Our first full day in Taiwan yesterday. After settling in at our AirBNB in the Da’an Park area, we headed to the Yongchun stop to meet with Quincy, our tour guide for the following 3 hrs on the Taipei Eats tour.

The subway (MRT) here in Taipei is interesting to me having ridden on many metro systems around the world. It is much cleaner than many (Paris, London and of course NYC) but not quite as clean as Tokyo’s whose floors seem like reasonable places to test the 5-second rule for dropped food. No one eats or drinks on the subway and I didn’t see anyone transporting bikes or other dirty things from outside which is common in NYC. No vagrants, graffiti or other undesirable activity. And yet I haven’t seen a cleaning crew so far, and like the wider world above there are no trash cans available in the stations. So how does it stay so clean?

The routes are easy to use and are based off of terminus points rather than compass directions. If you can figure out where you are, where you need to go and what’s at the end of the stops line in that direction you can find your way. Trains arrive and depart every few minutes.

It’s a much safer system than others I’ve used, too. Every station we went to had one of these kinds of security wall systems. There is no simple access to the tracks and when the train arrives the doors line up with the wall doors and you can safely get on or off. Notice also the queuing lines on the ground, set to the side of the doors. People getting off the train have ample room to maneuver before those on the platform shuffle on board. And none of the handles and bars inside the train feel greasy, sticky or dirty. I still wash my hands when I reach my destination but it certainly feels cleaner.

It’s also a very musical system. Entering and exiting the turnstiles results in musical chimes. When trains are arriving in the station, a gentle red light flashes as cheerful, almost classical sounding music begins playing to hearken it’s arrival. It makes riding very much a civilized event contrary to a system, again like the NYC MTA, where trains coming and going can often split your ear drums with loud clatter and screeching, not to mention split your body if you’re so unlucky as to get knocked onto the tracks.

Another delightful innovation is the numbering of all exits of the station. Instead of trying to figure out if you want the West or east southbound corner of Fifth Avenue, you just figure out what number exit is closest to your destination and go there. We found it was really easy to find our tour groups because they always gave a numbered exit at the stop at which to meet them.

Our food tour began at an outdoor market where we sampled the flavors, sights and smells of local produce, meats and fish. Most of the food available in Taiwan is sourced from the island, which is interesting given how relatively small the island is in relation to its total population, how large the urban areas are and how much of the total surface area of the island is covered by steep, wooded mountains. It’s also mostly conventionally grown. That means it’s safer than food sourced from the Mainland (though there is some of that as well) but there isn’t much of a popular “organics” labeling and eating movement from what I learned.

Most foodstuffs were served in small plastic or wax paper bags, but there are no municipal trash cans to throw the waste in. Recently a mayor (or maybe it was the president of Taiwan?) decided that people should carry their own trash bags with them and to dispose of their waste, so Quincy helpfully walked with a plastic trash bag for the duration of the tour to ensure we had a place to stow the wrappings we accumulated.

At the outset of the tour, Quincy advised us that we’d be eating a lot and it was okay to not finish our portions as we went. We were thankful for that suggestion because it was somewhat overwhelming to keep consuming so much food, especially with the ambient heat and sun as we walked.

These signs can be seen throughout Taipei and we learned on our walking tour that they signify the location of a “beetle nut” stand. These little nuts wrapped in a leaf and coated with calcium hydroxide are chewed for their stimulant effect by cab drivers and other blue collar workers who need a little extra pep in their step through out the day. They come in small boxes about 1.5x the size of a cigarette pack and apparently are hand filled at the local beetle nut shops. I tried one and decided I didn’t need to try another. True fiends can be spotted by their orange stained teeth.

We ate so many things on the tour in the space of 3 hrs, I tried to write them down but I couldn’t keep up with it all: Taipei “burger” (shredded pork, cilantro,  peanut powder inside a steamed bun), baked street market vendor onion pancake, stinky tofu (raw and fried with a fermented plum juice chaser), baked and steamed soup dumplings from Kao Chi (a Din Tai Fung competitor), pineapple cake, egg custard pie, Japanese cold noodles in peanut sauce with Chinese style egg drop Miso soup with meatball, shredded pork and soft peanut rice bowl with house fermented veggies and finally, lychee and plum and pineapple flavored shaved ice. I enjoyed just about all of it, except maybe the stinky tofu (never going to be my thing despite the health benefits), but on a hot day after stuffing our faces for three hours straight with a lot of bread and noodles, something about that light, cool, naturally sweet flavor of the fruity shaved ice tasted like accomplishment.

A few more notes about food in Taipei so far. First, as seen above, dogs can often be found in restaurants and usually belong to the proprietors. They leave the patrons alone (unless they want to play with them) and no one seems to be bothered by the potential interplay of dog hygiene and human food. Second, food is, for the most part, extremely cheap in Taiwan. Three to five dollars (USD) for a meal is not unusual, and sometimes it’s far less. For someone who has become used to the idea that $10-12 is “reasonable” for lunch for one of a decent quality, I find myself doing a double take when getting the bill. Finally, expensive restaurant buildouts and branding efforts (inside and outside the establishment) seem to be unusual in Taipei. Many restaurants can be missed simply because they’re so plain looking from the outside, and inside they’re often nothing more than a 2-300sqft plain room in the floor of a large building with a few food prep tables and equipment set up and seating for 20 people or so. Menus are simple and the savings appear to be largely passed on to the patrons.

From Zonghli

We arrived in Taipei around 1030pm last night, which was on time despite an hour delay in departure time. We were picked up by an extended family member and stayed overnight at their town home in Zonghli city, a suburb outside of Taipei (approx 80km?) And another 40km from the airport.

I found out this development was constructed 30 years ago. There is another development across the way in the process of finishing up construction. There are 6 floors and each floor is to be sold for $5M NTD. At 3200 NTD/100USD, this is about $150K for a floor of 5-6 bedrooms. A similar size townhome across the street rents for $1000USD equivalent per month. So this is about an 8% gross income rate. I have no idea what utilities and taxes cost.

I would call the urban design aesthetic in this area “eclectic”. American fans of the “walkable city” would be aghast, mopeds and small cars seem to dominate the traffic planning mindset.

Despite little sleep on the 13h flight and going to bed around midnight on the top (3rd) floor in humid 80 degree weather we awoke around 6am, well ahead of our planned 7am alarm. A short walk into the town proper for some steamed pork bun and potstickers for breakfast. Also tried soy congee and fried youtiao. I got a few looks from some of the patronage trying to figure out what I was doing in their breakfast spot at 7am.

Heading into Taipei to check in to our AirBnB and take a food tour.

For me it is challenging to “observe without judgment”. I find myself looking around at everything trying to “make sense of it” when it’s a bit soon for such reflections. Still, I think one way for describing the concept of culture is to say that if you are in a new place and it isn’t immediately obvious to you why things are the way they are as you observe them, you are bearing witness to different culture at work.

Also, my first Chinglish sighting!

Off to Taipei!

We arrived 5 hours early for our 5pm flight which is now delayed until 6pm (but the plane is here and the flight crew are standing by). The ticketing agents didn’t show up for almost an hour. Then we had an enormous family of 8 with 3x as many pieces of luggage ahead of us in line who took 20 mins to check in. When we finally got checked in we were disappointed to learn that same day upgrades on EVA Air where significantly more than we had anticipated. We got our tickets and headed for the TSA manhandling and were greeted a very long line.

So that took awhile to get through.

Now we just need to get on our plane and wait another 13 hours to arrive in Taipei right before midnight.

A day of waiting! It’s like being at Disneyland, but no roller coasters at the end.

Inca Trail Day 4 & Machu Picchu (Peru)

We’d dunnit!! We finally reached the last day (9/4) of our four-day journey and was going to see the revered Machu Picchu…

The night before, our tour guide, Elvis, explained the itinerary for Day 4: we were to go to sleep early after dinner that night with no coca tea, and then we will get our wake up call at 3 am and be ready for breakfast at 330 and hit the trail as soon as possible bc the porters need to catch the 500a train back to the city. I don’t know about our fellow hiking mates, but I was definitely holding my breath as I listened to Elvis, both from nervousness and excitement!

Our dinner that night was wonderful, as always. The chef even carved pretty things out of vegetables that he had brought, including a condor from a cucumber and pretty lily flowers from bell peppers! The best part was dessert, of course, where we had some jello with fruit and a cake! After dinner, the porters gathered around the meal tent and introduced themselves to us. It was so sweet to finally get a chance to meet them, albeit for only one night. Ideally, we would’ve met them the first night, but due to time constraints, we had to wait. Many of our porters weren’t a part of our tour company, Llamapath, but were actually hired from Ollantaytambo, when our guides realized we were short on help. A representative of our group thanked the porters, and we headed off to bed (read: sleeping bags) shortly after.

The next morning was a mad rush to get ready. Not to mention, we were trying to get dressed and ready in the dark, literally two or three feet away from a sheer drop (we camped on a cliff ledge…). Somehow we all managed to get up and ready for breakfast. We anticipated a simple breakfast of carbs, but the chef and his sous chef actually prepared quite a spread, including fritatas!

After brekkers, we head off. The porters stayed behind, scrambling to clean up after us and head to the trains. We bid them farewell, and walked for literally five minutes to the entrance of the last part of the trail. When we arrived, we found that we were the first ones in line, hooray!! With that in mind, I decided to stumble back in the dark with another hiker to use the restrooms… Thank goodness for his amazing flashlight. We ended up waiting in line (aka sitting in the dark, freezing our butts off) for a couple hours, umtil the gate opened up at 530am…

…And then we were off! It was a mad dash to The Sun Gate, with the hope that we would make it to the gate to see the sun rise and shine through the gate to Machu Picchu. Needless to say, I didn’t make it, but of course, Elvis did, as did a couple of other people in our group. The trail to the Sun Gate was not any less intimidating or difficult. We were still walking thru the rainforest, and the early morning dew and the birds and butterflies made me feel like I was in a jungle! …with a lot of tree roots sticking out waiting to trip you, random rocks and mounds of dirt for you to climb over, and and all kinds of bugs swooping into your face. There was one set of steps that was particularly intimidating; it towered over me and  literally went straight up. I’d learned to just keep my head down and step up without looking up to see how much I had left… Seeing that you had 4647392 more steps to go was just too depressing, it was easier to just keep pushing up and forward. But we finally made it to the Sun Gate! And Machu Picchu was just a large speck in the distance… We stayed for a bit, catching our breaths and taking some pictures, and then we were off again, more steep steps with no railings:

After another hour (?) of hiking (why doesn’t the government fix up these rocky trails?!?!), we had finally reached Machu Picchu… And it was such. A. Relief. We made it!!!

And man, was it crowded! There were tons of people who had taken the train up to the site and other hikers who took different trails than us, and it was so odd to see so many people when we had just spent the last few days with only our fellow hikers and tour guides… I suddenly became self-conscious of how I must have looked to these people who had showered in the last day, didn’t smell bad, and were free of aches and pains and not hobbling around…but I got over that quick–“I just hiked the GD Inca Trail for the last four days and survived!!!”–but I was still looking forward to my next shower 😉 There were also a lot of alpacas at the site, as you can see. Part of me wonders whether the alpacas were there or if the park directors had alpacas moved there to liven up the park a little…

We left the park to use the restrooms and eat our snacks, and then we all went back inside for a tour with Elvis and David. Apparently, the Incans did not know about the wheel, so all the rocks used to build Machu Picchu were moved by people. We saw the rock quarry that they had broken stones from; the Incans would do so by pouring water into rock crevices, wait for the water to freeze, and then break the huge stones into smaller pieces with force. They also drilled holes into rocks (and probably used this method of cutting stones, as well) by pouring some water and sand onto the site where they want to drill and then vigorously rubbing a bamboo stick between their hands (the end result is pictured below).

We saw the Inca king’s bedroom (pictured below), and his closet, which was 2x the size of his bedroom because he never wore the same outfit twice in his lifetime (Elvis told us that one Incan king had a cape made completely of bat wings…!). I don’t think this is pictured below, but the Incan builders had left these niches in the walls of the buildings to serve as shelves, as they didn’t use shelves that stuck out of the walls like we do. Also, the reason why these Incan ruins are still intact today is because they employed a “Lego” method of building, where they would carve a niche in the bottom of every rock and a nubbin on the top of every rock that would fit perfectly into the niche so that the blocks would stay tightly together. Elvis claims that there are some walls where not even a knife can get in between two rocks because the rocks are so tightly put together.

And I don’t know if the pictures I included here can help clarify this distinction, but the builders of Machu Picchu distinguished between “sacred” buildings for gods and the king versus housing for servants, civilians, etc. by using different materials (…much like we do today, I suppose!). You will see in some pictures that some terraces, the steps, and some buildings have more “shoddy” handiwork, where stones of different sizes are kind of “jammed” together to form the wall or object. In contrast, some buildings (like the Inca king’s bedroom) have more rectangular blocks of rock that are smoother and more “put together.” The picture of the ruin that’s falling apart is presumed to have been the beginnings of a temple that the Incans were working on before the Spaniards came (note the niches for god statues, the texture of the stones, and the uniformity of the blocks).

We spent a few hours exploring the ruins and teasing the llamas, and then took a charter shuttle bus down to Agues Calientes, a town adjacent to Machu Picchu, for lunch. There was a cool-looking statue (below) where they let us off the shuttle. I’m not sure exactly who the guy is, but I presume he is suppose to represent an Incan king. As you can see, he’s flanked by a a condor, a panther, and a snake. This is because the Incans believed that there was three religious realms, the heavens, the earth, and the underworld, which were represented by the condor, the panther, and the snake, who the Incans believed lived among these respective places. These three types of animals were considered sacred by the Incans and thus were not hunted or eaten (at least, you weren’t suppose to). In one picture above (the one just below the temple that’s falling apart), you can see three tiers, thought to represent the three realms or worlds.

Soon we had to say goodbye to David and Elvis and our 11 other hiking buddies, though we vowed to keep in touch. I felt sad–we had just gone thru a lot together!–but I think we were all ready for some privacy too… This was definitely a trip of a lifetime, and I’m so happy that I have a blog to document it all. I hope to write more posts on Machu Picchu, perhaps a reflection and/or a “tips & tricks” entry!…