The best US bank for travel in Asia? Citibank.

I opened a Citibank account when I moved to New York back in 2004. It seemed like a good option for ATM access in the city, but I came to regret my choice when I moved to Dallas and then back to California. Citi was not everywhere and was often difficult to come by– luckily I was never a big cash user, preferring to use my credit card for monthly cash management. Still, it was inconvenient and I often thought of switching to BofA or another major branch when I enviously spied these locations much closer to home and work whenever I went.

In fact, today I do most of my banking with Chase. Their bank branch expansion has been nothing short of explosive over the last few years and they’re now everywhere. In addition, they seem to have the most advanced ATMs which can read and deposit checks directly with OCR technology and an app that can also handle check deposits under $2000. I realize other banks (such as Capital One) offer similar technologies and I think maybe Citi and BofA have ATMs that are as capable now as well but my point is that Chase seems to offer the best overall package, domestically.

However, in the three Asian cities we’ve visited, Citibank has been hands down the best option.

Now, I keep a decent balance with Citi so I get their Citigold service. This means I am entitled to ATM fee reimbursement at non-Citi ATMs and I get their best forex exchange rate with no forex fees. When we traveled to South America three years ago, I pulled cash from local ATMs (I don’t remember spotting a Citi there, maybe in Santiago or BA but I don’t remember) and never had to go to a money exchange like Travelex. The rest of the time I just ran my debit card when it was an option and I got the same benefit– pay for the meal, ticket, whatever, at the best exchange rate with no fees.

In the three cities we’ve visited so far, Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore, I’ve found a Citi ATM within two or three blocks of our AirBNB as well as around the city while walking. Even better, in Hong Kong and Singapore I found Citi ATMs in the baggage claim area of the terminals so I had cash for cabs, airport trams, etc. immediately upon arrival. I probably could’ve found one in Taipei as well but didn’t bother checking as we were being picked up by relatives and I planned to exchange money with them.

My Citi MasterCard debit card has been accepted anywhere the merchant offers credit card payment services, which has been just about everywhere but local food stands and some cabs.

I haven’t seen one other major US bank ATM or branch office here– no Chase, no BofA, no Wells Fargo. However, there are a TON of local/regional banks, it is actually amazing how unconsolidated the banks in Asia appear to be even with dominant local giants such as Standard Chartered and HSBC. This is something I read about in “[amazon text=Asian Godfathers&asin=0802143911]” by Joe Studwell. Asia in general is kind of overbanked because every crony capitalist wants his own bank to play financial games with his holding companies.

As I don’t have any substantial BitCoin holdings I didn’t explore how using BitCoin might work out here but my suspicion right now is that it doesn’t make it any easier or cheaper.

For a “globalized” world such as the one we live in, with so many people traveling for work and pleasure, isn’t it amazing we don’t have one, market derived currency of choice?

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.