Monday, August 27, 2007

Brotherly Love

You may be wondering why I haven't been more forthcoming with the blog posts recently. Why it's because my laptop has been sent away for repairs again! This time it's because the buttons on the mouse pad weren't working. So far I've been without the laptop for a little over a week. The fact that I am posting at all -- using my slow but undependable old home desktop -- is a testament to how dedicated I am to you, blog readers.

Or something like that.

Anyway, I read an interesting piece today from In an article to be published in September's Journal of Modern History entitled "Same-Sex Couples Creating Households in Old Regime France: The Uses of the Affrèrement," Professor Allan Tulchin of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania (I'd never heard of it either) claims to have uncovered evidence of a sort of same-sex civil union which was sanctioned by law in France and other European nations over 600 years ago.

An affrèrement (which the article renders in English as "brotherment") was a civil contract executed before witnesses and a notary in which two men would swear to live as brothers and share "un pain, un vin, et une bourse" ("a bread, a wine, and a purse"). This meant that the two men would live as part of the same household and that they would jointly own property much like the community property of a married couple.

This contract may have originated when two or more brothers jointly inherited their father's estate and would continue to live together under the same roof. But Tulchin points out that there were also affrèrements recorded between two non-related men. One can only speculate as to the nature of these " brothers' " friendship but Tulchin suggests that some of these relationships were probably romantic/sexual in nature. He concludes that there is significant evidence that men in medieval France used affrèrement to formalize "same-sex loving relationships."

Similar to affrèrement, is a religious ceremony performed in Eastern Orthodox Churches from the early Christian era through to the present called adelphopoiesis (αδελφοποίησις) in which two members of the same sex are joined together as brothers or sisters. In his controversial book Same-sex Unions in Premodern Europe, Yale Professor John Boswell asserts that these are essentially same-sex unions sanctioned by the church and he even goes so far as to suggest that perhaps Christian hostility to homosexual unions is not so ancient as one might think.

Critics of Boswell's scholarship point out that adelphopoiesis was probably more akin to a "blood brotherhood" or a spiritual brotherhood between monks and that there is no implication these quasi-fraternal relationships would be sexual in nature let alone that the church was blessing such sexual activity. I found one response to the book, rejecting Boswell's assertion, in which a female professor relates the interesting story about how she and a colleague were bonded in such a ceremony presided over by a Syriac archbishop at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. After wrapping their arms together using part of his robe and reciting prayers over their heads, the archbishop declared that they were united as sisters and that they should never quarrel.

I believe that Boswell's critics are most certainly correct when they state that this sacrament was envisioned as creating spiritual, platonic siblings, but that doesn't mean that there was no messin' going on between any of the recipients.

In closing, I just think that affrèrement is a fun word to say, and I don't know why gay people today don't use it. I also want everyone to know that I got an 8 out of 10 on's sex quiz.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Faces of War

On Wednesday, the New York Times ran an article (Words Unspoken Are Rendered on War's Faces) on a series of photographs taken by photographer Nina Berman which are collected in the book Purple Hearts: Back From Iraq and featured in a solo exhibition at the Jen Bekman Gallery in Greenwich Village.

These images of wounded soldiers adapting to life back home speak for themselves. The NYTimes online also included a slidehow of 11 of these photos with captions laying out who you are looking at and what happened to them. Personally, I think that EVERYONE should look at these photographs. Most Americans are pretty insulated from the effects of this war -- perhaps we can name one person we know who has served in combat overseas -- and it is too easy for us to forget as we go through our daily routinues that we are a nation at war and that young Americans are in life-threateningly dangerous areas as we speak (or blog I guess).

Whatever your position on the war may be: whether you think we should get our troops out of there as fast as we can, or whether you think we are obligated to see this conflict -- which we started -- through; whether you believe that our soldiers are fighting to spread the ideals of freedom and democracy and to protect our way of life, or whether you have come to believe (as I have) that getting into this war is a mistake and that their sacrifices are basically in vain -- you can't help but be impressed by these images.

Because I'm a huge nerd, this makes me think of what the 19th-century Italian poet, Giacomo Leopardi, wrote about war. Specifically, in his 1818 patriotic poem (canzone civile) "Sopra il monumento di Dante che si preparava a Firenze" ("On the statue of Dante that was built in Florence"), Leopardi wrote about the Italian draftees fighting as part of Napoleon's Grande Armée in the ill-fated 1812 campaign in Russia:

...e lor fea l'aere e il cielo
E gli uomini e le belve immensa guerra.
Cadeano squadre a sqadre
Semivestiti, maceri e cruenti,
Ed era letto agli egri corpi il gelo.

... and on them the airs and the sky
and the men and the beasts made great war.
They fell squadron after squadron
Half-dressed, brusied, and bloody,
And the bed for their illustrious corpses was the ice.

I remember thinking about these verses when I heard about the fierce sandstorms in Iraq. I guess all war is hell. But some wars have to be fought whereas others...

Photo of Spc. Robert Acosta taken by Nina Berman/Jen Bekman Gallery

Monday, August 20, 2007

Rainy Monday

Today was a dreary, rainy Monday. On days like this he realized what a strong pull the weather had on his mood. It was difficult to get out of bed in the morning because even with the blinds drawn it was clear that the sun was obscured by cloud. On a bright day the glare of the sun's rays seemed to wash out a lot of defects, but when the sky was overcast they were sharply visible. On a day like this he looked seriously at his life, and it appeared devoid of vibrancy. He wondered how he arrived at this point. On days like this he found himself breaking with his ordinary routine, even doing things out of character, anything to escape from this bleakness.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Big Buddha

So, yes, after much boredom, sucking in bus exhaust, and dazedly scanning the throngs of Chinese passersby for white and/or black people, I finally found the group.

Our next destination on Lantau Island was the Big Buddha which is more properly called the Tian Tan Buddha, a name it was given because its base is modelled after the earth mound altar thingy at the Temple of Heaven (i.e. Tian Tan) in Beijing. The Big Buddha is by no means ancient -- construction was completed back in 1993 so it doesn't date back much farther than Nirvana's In Utero or the premiere of the X-Files. It's claim to fame is that it is the world's tallest, outdoor, seated Buddha statue -- those are a lot of qualifiers, I know, but it is none the less a fun landmark to visit and an impressive figure.

The northeastern part of the Lantau, which contains Tung Chung, the airport, and Disneyland, and much of which was reclaimed from the sea, is becoming increasingly developed with ultramodern buildings and infrastructure. Yet, much of the rest of the island is occupied by two large Country Parks where development is limited and where Hong Kong citizens can enjoy pristine nature. Come to think of it, I really want to come back here someday and just spend a few days hiking through the mountains (I've been daydreaming about hiking a lot recently) and chilling with the monks and stuff.

The part of the Lantau that's home to Big Buddha is closed to private buses so we needed to take a public bus to the Po Lin monastery . There used to be a ski lift that would take you there as well, but the authorities put it out of commission after it proved to be abnormally prone to accidents.

The contrast between the modernity of Tung Chung (Citygate sort of reminded me of "Tomorrowland") and the natural beauty surrounding the bus route was even more striking than when we travelled from Central Hong Kong up into the mountains to the south. Nevertheless, the city state's benevolent, civilized government was still represented not only by the public transportation but also by the drainage pipes and anti-erosion walls interrupting the landscape.

Incidentally, if you should ever visit Hong Kong for more than a day, you should totally invest in an Octopus Card which you can use to pay for the MTR, buses, the tram, the ferry...

Anyway, the bus took us up and down and up again on a steep, narrow mountain road. Some people in our crew confessed to being a tad bit nervous, but I figured the bus driver probably drove this route like 10 times a day and thus I didn't sweat it (Let the record show this, for reference later in the trip, that I am normally not squeamish about mountain roads).

It was raining when we first arrived at the Po Lin monastery and a few people bought some stylish plastic ponchos. But, fortunately for us, after a couple of minutes the rain ceased. It was still cool and windy though, and the veils of cloud rolling over the surrounding mountains really added a mystical air to our visit. I remember telling Ada that the fog and the wind made it feel like we had reached the end of the world.

Pilgrims have to climb up 268 steps in order to reach the Big Buddha. Pretty much everyone in our group did it including Peso (who was wearing a cast!), Dr. and Mrs. Echetebu, and little Sydney. I kind of felt like the laborious act of climbing the steps should alone be enough earn one some sort of spiritual reward.

Buddha looms above, seated in the center of a giant lotus and wearing a serene expression. His right hand is raised palm open as if to say "Chill..." Surrounding the Big Buddha are several smaller statues of female goddesses or enlightened beings who hold offerings in their hands (Buddha's box, a lotus, a pan flute, uh er... a tiny fountain?). Perhaps just as spectacular as the Buddha statue itself was the awesome view.

After we made our way back down the steps (which wasn't much easier than the climb up, truth be told), we headed to the monastery's temple. Outside the temple were large cast iron pots where incense is always burning so that sweet smelling smoke would waft over to Buddha keeping him relaxed and pleased.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Lantau Island

After a stop at a jade store that didn't really interest me so much, we sped off to Lantau Island. To get there, the tour bus crossed one of Hong Kong's recently constructed suspension bridges. As you can see from the photo below the waters were swarming with commercial ships. We also learned that the upper deck of the bridge was closed to traffic during monsoons. Lantau is a large island to the south and west of Hong Kong proper. It is home to the Hong Kong International Airport as well as Hong Kong Disneyland.

The chartered bus dropped us off at Citygate shopping center in Tung Chung. Here I managed to lose the rest of the group. The courtyard was huge and teeming with humanity, and just stepping foot in the mall kind of made me woozy. Not having slept much the night before was catching up with me plus this complex was huge, so I quickly gave up on finding everybody.

And, as I said before, I didn't have a functioning cellphone here in Asia so there was no way of getting in touch with anybody. It was sort of like a painful flashback to the days before everyone had cellphones, when you would -- say -- lose your Dad in the mall, and it would take 20 minutes for you all to find each other, and it would suck. Or did that sort of thing only happen to me? After awhile I realized that the group must be getting lunch somewhere and that the smartest thing for me to do would be to wait for them by the entrance to the complex.

So that was a frustrating experience, but on the up side I grabbed a bite to eat at this awesome little place in the courtyard. If I'm not mistaken it was called "Rice" and it seemed like it was part of a chain. They served rice balls made with different kinds of rice including like Himalayan red rice and purple sticky rice stuffed with different kinds of vegetables and meat (I remember seeing emperor vegetable on the list and tuna). You could choose your own rice and other ingredients off an a la carte list or order one of the recommended combinations (which is what I did, because it was easier). It all seemed really healthy, and the one I had was great. And as if this wasn't great enough, they had different flavored soy milk drinks to wash it down. They totally need to bring these places to the US: I mean, if there was one by my office, I would eat there all the time.

On the Southside

For the next day, Ada and Zach organized a tour bus to take us all to see some of the sights of Greater Hong Kong. There were a couple of casualties from last night's reveling who didn't make it on the bus, and for many of the rest of us (including yours truly) it was rough waking up early that morning. I think Heather was awarded the trooper award for rallying after (if I remember correctly) staying up all night and taking a diver down the stairs at the McDonald's by our hotel.

First, the bus took us to the mountains on the southern half of Hong Kong Island. Here we got a great view of the city skyline from up among the lush, green vegetation. We also caught a glimpse of some of the monumental high rises and mansions where Hong Kong's wealthy lived above the hustle and bustle, including my personal favorite, the architecturally striking "building with a hole" of Repulse Bay (pictured below). The big hole isn't there for decoration, but rather it was added due to feng shui concerns -- so as allow the qi to flow unimpeded through the building. Given the high price of units in this high rise, this hole literally cost the developers millions of dollars.

Our next stop was Stanley market, an open air marketplace where I picked up a few souvenirs.

After this we headed to historic Aberdeen Harbour where we got to take a boat ride around the harbor. Aberdeen Harbour is home to the Tanka boat people who traditionally live in a shanty town of house boats floating on these sheltered waters and who subsist primarily on the fish they catch. We were told that the government wants to relocate all these people to dry land, and -- from what I've read -- the younger generation has mostly joined the ranks of the landlubbers whereas the older boat people still cling to the old, amphibian way of life. I guess I'm sort of torn on the issue: I am usually an advocate for preserving cultural traditions, but the boat people's floating community did look pretty squalid.

Also in Aberdeen Harbour we rode past the Jumbo Floating Restaurant. All the colorful flags waving in the air were there in honor of the 10-year Anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China.

Ever feel like the Universe is toying with you?

I read this strange article from the New York Times today entitled "Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy's Couch". The author, John Tierney, discusses how Dr. Nick Bostrom, the head of Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute, convinced him that it is quite likely that right now we/you exist only in a supercomputer simulation created by our future descendants -- basically a more sophisticated version of modern day computer games such as the Sims or Second Life.

This bizarre hypothesis is, of course, a new take on the age-old solipsistic supposition explored, for example, by Descartes in his Meditations of First Philosophy that the physical universe as you know it may be nothing more than a dream or an illusion that does not exist outside of your own mind. Several religions, such as Buddhism and Gnosticism, also assert that our world is an illusion which adherents must wake up and attempt to see through.

The logic behind this new hypothesis goes something like this:

  • One must first determine the likelihood that our descendants will someday create supercomputers powerful and sophisticated enough to run a simulation containing all the data present in our Universe. Granted thats an enormous amount of data (potentially infinite), but Bostrom points out that one must either accept that this will one day happen or one must believe that the human race will die out before reaching that point.
  • One must then determine whether or not our descendants would actually run such a simulation. Bostrom notes that there may be moral or ethical concerns that would give our descendants pause. Would it not be unethical to "play god" with sapien creatures in a simulation: subjecting them to natural disasters, plagues, wars, genocide, reality television -- all the tragedies that comprise the human experience as we know it? Sure, present day gamers might amuse themselves by unleashing a tsunami on their SimCity but the characters in those games can't think or feel. (or can they?)

  • If one accepts that our descendants will one day possess the ability to run such simulations and that they will do so then, given the degree to which we today use simulations for scientific research, statistical purposes, and for plain old entertainment, it stands to reason that the number of "simulated ancestors" populating these simulated universes would come to greatly outnumber the "actual ancestors" that once lived. In this case, chances are that you are a simulated ancestor rather than the genuine article.

It's a pretty idiosyncratic line of reasoning (and it's hard to fathom that our imponderably vast universe with all the diversity of creation and all its subatomic complexities could be contained in some supercomputer), but I guess I can put it this way: if our descendants will one day have the power to create a simulated universe just as vast and complex as our own then how do we know that we are not living in this simulated universe? Bostrom himself states in the article that his gut feeling is that the odds we are characters in SimUniverse are maybe about 20%.

In its "today's blogs" section for Tuesday, August 14, 2007, outlines some (other) bloggers reactions to this out-there article. Tierney also futher explores the implications of this hypothesis in his blog. He posits the question "if this is all true how does this change how we should live our lives?" The obvious answer is "not much": whether the physical world exists outside the hard drive of some supercomputer or not the consequences of our own actions are really the same (i.e. even if the Universe is an illusion it still seems real to us). But economist Robin Hanson from George Mason University suggests that if we are living in one huge video game then you might want to try and make your life and yourself as interesting as possible so the big guy keeps you around. The curmudgeon in me can't help but remark "Wow, you might think that the academic who originally came up with this 'life is but a video game' idea was wasting his time, but how about the academics that take this as a starting point and spend their time expanding on the implications?"

I perused a few of the comments to the post on Tierney's blog, and I think one of the most persuasive arguments against all this nonsense was posted in a comment by one Eric Heath. He argues that it is egocentric vanity to imagine that the universe is a simulation much like the video games we play today, that it is contained in a supercomputer much like the machines we use in our homes and offices, and that the demiurge is basically some nerd in the future who created our universe to kill time. This is worse than our ancestors who were conceited enough to believe that God created them in his own image. Well, I take that back, perhaps it's not so much due to vanity as tunnel vision: we assume that those things which are a mystery to us must be akin to the things we are familiar with. But isn't it more like that the Creator or the Supreme Being is so superior as to be beyond that which we can imagine or comprehend?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Kowloon Nightlife

That night a group of us ended up going out in Kowloon. It wasn't really planned, but we ended up going on a mini-pub crawl through some of area's hot spots.

First we went to this club called Aqua Spirit, located on the 29th floor of the Tsim Sha Tsui building, which was decked out with posh, loungey decor and whose picture windows commanded an impressive view of the harbor at night and the lights of Central.

After that we headed to the nearby Felix Bar which is located in the Peninsula Hotel. Someone had read in their guidebook that this was the swankest bar in town and that getting a drink here would make you feel like 007. We really didn't get the full experience, however, since the bar was basically closing up by the time we arrived. I think we were the only patrons in there. The bartender did agree to fix us a round of drinks however. Also, before we left, we ALL made sure to check out the men's room as the guidebook mentioned how it was a sight to see. The whole restroom was needlessly opulent with inch-thick marble doors on the stalls and what not, but the highlight was the view from the urinals. I didn't take any pictures but check out this site to get some idea:

Our last stop in Kowloon that night was a place around the corner called Sticky Fingers which sounds nasty but was really just a regular pub that's open late and had a live band.

That wasn't the end of our adventures that night, however. After we returned to the hotel, I went with Baylor Heather and B. Love to a hole-in-the-wall little restaurant nearby. First we were almost kicked out for being rowdy, then the crazed, mustachioed owner was like challenging us to arm wrestle or something (I have no idea really). There was no English menu, so we asked our "new friend" to chose something for us telling him that we liked vegetables and chicken. I remember I enjoyed whatever he brought out, but Heather wasn't feeling the non-white meat chicken or the duck.

There was a bit more drunken craziness when we got to the hotel before I decided to call it a night. Apparently, the various wedding guests had all kinds of drunkshow escapades.

Meet Mr. Axolotl

As I'm sure my loyal blog readers already know, one of my favorite things to post about -- along with Tatu, shower curtains, and the quran -- are unusual animals, especially sea creatures.

Well when I was at work today (it was a short day for me: first I got up/got in late and then at 4, when the IT people had to shut down the server for maintenance for like an hour, I took it as my cue to leave) I found this blog post entitled 27 aquatic lifeforms you never caught while fishing. It contains some interesting information. The first critter on the list is actually a robo-carp which is pretty cool but not technically a lifeform. It also mentions the mysterious Coelacanth, a throwback from the Cretaceous period which scientists believed to be extinct for millions of years before several live specimens were caught off the coast of southern Africa and, recently, in Indonesia. But the creature that most caught my attention was the Axolotl. Look at the picture of it above: with its happy smiling face (ok, I know its not really smiling) and its wavy red gills it almost looks like an aquatic fraggle.

Axolotls are amphibians in the salamander family, and they are also neotenous meaning that unlike other salamanders they do not proceed to the adult developmental stage as they age. Instead they remain in the larval stage for their entire life where they retain their gills, reach sexual maturity, and grow up to 18 inches in size (most Axolotls are around nine inches). When introduced to hormones Axolotls may actually metamorphose into the lost adult stage where their coloring is more like that of other salamanders.

In the wild, Axolotls are only found in the remnants of Lake Xochimilco near Mexico City. They formerly inhabited both Lake Chalco and Lake Xochimilco, but, unfortunately for the Axolotl, Lake Chalco was drained and Xochimilco is not so much a lake anymore as it is a group of canals. Due to its diminished habitat and pressures put on the population by the growth of Mexico ciudad, the Axolotl is listed as a critically endangered species. In the Aztec language Axolotl is thought to mean "water dog". The Axolotl was also a staple of the Aztec diet and apparently you can still find grilled Axolotl in Mexico city.

Axolotls are widely used as test subjects by scientists due to their ability to regenerate body parts and ease in breeding. Apparently some people keep them as pets too (weird). These facts will probably assure that the species survives even if only in captivity.

For more information on the Axolotl and how to properly care for them (if that's what you're into) check out .

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Hoofing it to Times Square

Another thing that I noticed about Hong Kong was the high degree of signage displayed to tell citizens and tourists where they were and in which direction points of interest were located as well as offering "helpful" advice.

I couldn't resisting taking a photo of the sign to the left instructing pedestrians to "Stay calm and Do not push in the crowd." I think these were posted because of the mass of people who would come here to watch the hand over anniversary fireworks. Anyway, as you might already know, sometimes I need to be reminded to Stay calm and not push in the crowd -- I was joking that I should make this my desktop wallpaper at work. I also found the signs on the subway that said "Show you have a loving heart. Let's care for others! Please offer your seat to anyone in need" to be amusing.

I think that on my first full day in HK just about every five minutes I would mention to whomever happened to be around me how I wanted/needed to get a watch. Since my crappy cellphone wasn't really working over there I had turned it off and left it in the hotel room, and without a watch I had no to way to tell time; plus I figured I needed a dive watch anyway... Reed told me how he had bought a fancy new camera the day before at this big six-story shopping mall called Times Square: he was thinking about maybe buying a pair of sneakers so we both decided to head back there.

We took the Star Ferry back across the harbor to Causeway bay and then, for some reason, we figured we could walk there -- even after the policeman we asked for directions basically told us it was far and pointed to a skyscraper with a big Sharp advertisement at its apex telling us it was near there.

Hong Kong is the most pedestrian friendly city I've ever been in. As densely packed as it was we were able to walk pretty much in a straight line with no problem. We walked down covered walkways, through buildings, past gardens, up escalators, over streets. It was still drizzling on and off. I remember at one point we walked down this long narrow street packed with shops: furniture stores next to butcher shops next to jewelry stores. I felt like it was quite a glimpse into the vitality of life in Hong Kong and also that it was very trippy.

At one point, after we walked through another huge shopping mall on our journey, we came upon a plaza where an old monk in a grey robe was soliciting donations from passersby toting shopping bags. I was kind of fascinated with the monk and probably sort of staring, so I figured I ought to at least stop and give him a dollar coin. He held a tin cup in one hand and what I want to call a prayer stick in the other. As I struggled to fish the dollar out of my pocket the monk gestured with the stick and said something: I'd like to think maybe I got some sort of special blessing, but for all I know he was saying "hurry up, white boy."

So we got lost and had to ask a few more people for directions, but eventually we made it to Times Square. We also passed through or by several other big malls and a few watch stores but we were kind of on a mission. I ended up buying this cool Nike watch there that is waterproof up to 100m and a sort of stylin.

Conveniently enough there was a subway stop right below the mall so we took the subway back. Like I said, it was a bit of trek but I feel like the journey gave me a chance to get to know Hong Kong a little better.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Sightseeing in Hong Kong

Some quick facts about Hong Kong ("HK"): HK is kind of part of China but kind of not. Along with Macau, it is a Special Administrative Region. Under the Hong Kong Basic Law, the former British protectorate recognizes the authority of the People's Republic of China and in return it enjoys a high degree of autonomy: it has its own (somewhat) representative government which governs most aspects of HK life and appoints a representative to the National People's Congress, although it defers to the mainland government on foreign policy and military affairs. The previous capitalist economy and common law legal system have been left pretty much intact. HK also has its own currency, the Hong Kong dollar (which is set at the same exchange rate as the yuan), most people here speak their own language, Cantonese, and they have freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

On my first full day in HK, my roommate Reed and I started out with the hotel's complimentary breakfast and then ventured out sightseeing with Clint and Sherri. We took the hotel's shuttle bus into the city center which was pretty slow. Then we hopped on one of the city's doubledecker trams that look almost precariously tall and narrow. When we got off, we wandered around a bit snapping photos of buildings such as the Convention Centre (above) and the International Finance Centre II (pictured to the left) which is the tallest skyscraper in HK.

After that, we rode the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor to Kowloon. The part of Kowloon right across the harbor from Central is called Tsim Sha Tsui: it contains this Clock Tower which seemed like some kind of landmark so I snapped a picture of it; at any rate, it looked historical compared with all the modern steel-and-glass buildings surrounding us. Apparently the Clock Tower is all that remains of the Kowloon train station constructed in 1910.

In Tsim Sha Tsui, we ended up going to the Museum of Art. The collection is comprised of traditional Chinese artwork and artifacts: stuff like Tang dynasty pottery, ink paintings depicting pastoral landscapes and demons, and steles of fine calligraphy. I always enjoyed the Asian art section of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Freer gallery here in DC, so I dug it. There was also a collection in the museum devoted to old maps and illustrations of China penned by big-nosed Westerners which provide an interesting glimpse of how Europeans of centuries past viewed the Chinese. The day of our visit, it seemed like a good half of the museum's exhibition space was occupied by this big special exhibit called The Pride of China which sounded like the thing to see, but a sign outside said tickets for that were already sold out for the day by the time we got there (apparently you need to get them ahead of time) so that was kind of a big tease.

When we were done touring the museum it started to rain so, in an attempt to wait out the storm, we spent some time browsing the gift shop and we then went to the museum cafe where I had a pot of tea and a sandwich. We were later told that in Southeast Asia the summer ends in June and the beginning of July marks the beginning of the rainy season. Thus the weather for a lot of the trip was much like the weather in Florida: it would rain for a bit almost everyday, although usually not for long, much of the day might be overcast, at some point the sun would come out... To some extent this was a blessing given that it would have been rough walking around sightseeing everyday in 90-degree weather with the sun blazing.

Hong Kong: first night

When Heather and I were standing in line to go through immigration at the Hong Kong airport, we witnessed a minor disturbance. The celebration of the 10th Anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China was a few days away, and it seems a group of protesters had decided to take advantage of the crowds coming in for the occasion (and the freedom of speech enjoyed in Hong Kong) to demonstrate against the government's suppression of Falun Gong on the mainland. We saw a couple of the protesters get picked up and carted away by the airport police.

But the protesters' disruption was nothing compared to the people behind us in the line. These had to be the two most ignorant Chinese American teenagers ever. As soon as the protest ruckus started these two began their running commentary. They were all "What are these people protesting?" "Most of the people in this line probably don't even understand Mandarin, they're just wasting their breath." They couldn't really understand much of what the demonstraters were saying. The boy, who was the younger and denser of the two, was like cheering for the police to take the people away and to bludgeon them (which didn't happen). At one point he also said "are these people protesting against anti-Communism?" (yeah, they're demonstrating in favor of the government, wtf?)

Anyway, after we got through immigration and customs and all that good stuff, Heather and I took the airport shuttle into Central station in Hong Kong. We then took a taxi to our hotel the Novotel Century Harborview. The hotel was pretty decent: the decor in the lobby, the rooms, and elsewhere was modern and clean. It was kind of in a nowhere neighborhood but it was only 10 minutes away from Central train station. The only real bummer is that the hotel's fitness center and pool were closed for rennovations during our stay. At any rate, when Heather and I arrived Ada, Zach and some of their crew were waiting for us in the lobby. After I dropped off my things and freshened up quickly, and after we had a drink or two at the pricey hotel bar, we all decided to go out.

We headed for Lan Kwai Fong which is the nightlife district in Central Hong Kong. It's comprised of two streets (Lan Kwai Fong and D'Aguilar street) lined with bars, restaurants, and clubs frequented by Westerners. I remember being overcome by a wave of exhiliration when I first arrived here. It was nearly daybright with all the colorful signs hanging overhead, and the street was filled with people. It was like a party as far as the eye could see: I was reminded of Mardi Gras back in New Orleans and at the same time I recognized that I was in an ultra-modern Asian metropolis such as I had previously seen only in movies.

We began our excursion in the front room of a pub that had a band playing in the back. Then we finished the night across the street in the Agave tequila bar. I was told that Ada and Wish were regulars there back when they were studying in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong: getting there

My flight to Hong Kong was on Cathay Pacific. Baylor Heather was on the same flight as me so we met at the airport.

It seemed like most of the other passengers were Chinese or Chinese Americans, and (seriously) they were all travelling with small children. I didn't think this boded well, but actually all the children seemed to stay quiet for the duration of the flight.

The flight from JFK to Hong Kong took sixteen hours. I guess Hong Kong is basically on the other side of the globe from the East Coast (the time difference was 12 hours). Our plane actually flew up to the North Pole and then down over China. This of course brought to my mind the Arlo Guthrie song "Comin in to Los Angeles" which starts with the line "Coming in from London from over the pole..."

I had imagined this long flight was going to be hell, but it turned out to be not half as bad as I feared. I hadn't gotten much sleep the night before and was thus exhausted: hence I had no problem sleeping through most of the flight once they dimmed the cabin lights.

Shortly after they turned the lights back on the flight crew started serving dinner (since it would be around 9 PM in Hong Kong when we landed). Heather would later comment on how it was kind of weird to wake up and eat dinner, but my stomach was OK with it. I feel like after being on the plane for 16 hours and sleeping through a good number of said hours my body didn't really know which way was up. Thus -- so I thought at the time -- it wasn't too hard to convince my internal clock that it was now 9 at night.

Foux da fa fa

Ugh! Ok, I'm being super lazy, but bear with me posts are coming.

Tonight I'm pretty tired, but I just wanted to say "have you all seen Flight of the Conchords yet?" It's this very funny new show on HBO featuring Bret and Jemaine, two Kiwis who live in New York and are in a band. They're roommates too, and they're kind of losers (along with their friend and manager, Murray, who works at the New Zealand consulate): their band never gets any gigs, and they only have one fan. The deadpan comedy is interspersed with musical interludes featuring the duo's songs which are often trippy and hilarious.

But see for yourself! If you haven't seen this clip yet this is a song from the latest episode which, in my opinion, is the funniest one to date.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

...and we're back

Hi, everybody, sorry about the extended break there.

As you know I went away on vacation for three weeks, then I was put out of commission for about a week by jet lag and a nasty little cold I caught in Beijing , and then I had to send my laptop away to be repaired.
Here's what happened with the computer: when I got home I was very excited to load all of my vacation photos on to the laptop. In my eagerness, somehow I put the memory card from my camera into the slot on the laptop incorrectly and it got stuck. In my attempts to remove the card I only succeeded in pushing it further in there. And then my laptop wouldnt even boot up because the thing was all up in there and messing shite up. So -- wrapping up this boring anecdote -- I took my laptop to Best Buy, they said they would need to send it away to get fixed, and it came back (the Lord be praised, with the memory card intact) last Friday.

Since then... I don't really have an excuse for not returning sooner, I've just been too lazy and drunkshow to post anything.
But anyway I'm back now. I know how you all rely on me to give you something to read for 5 minutes in order to break up the drudgery and mind-numbing boredom of your office jobs, and I feel your pain! Trust me, I know it all to well.

So I had a great time on my vacation. Several people have made comments implying that they took it for granted that I would blog all about my vacation ("I can't wait to read about this on your blog" or words to that effect). For some reason this surprised me; I guess because up until now my posts have been very up-to-the-minute (i.e. stories about what I did the day of the post or the night before or discussing some article that I read at work that day). But I guess blogging about my big vacation in Asia makes sense for two reasons: (a) so much happened in the three weeks that sitting down with everybody individually and telling them all about it is a daunting prospect and yet there is lots of information I want to share and (b) writing about Hong Kong and Bangkok is lightyears more interesting than recounting the mundane crap I do on most days in DC (cf. the above anecdote about going to Best Buy). So I've decided to start giving you posts about my trip perhaps interspersed with "breaking news" if anything exciting should come along.

That being said, I am about to run to Whole Foods and pick up a few things. Assuming I don't get waylaid by that temptress alcohol, I will start off writing about Hong Kong when I return.

In the meantime here's a pic of me in Beijing. FYI, I've uploaded all my vacay pics to a Picasa web album. Feel free to check them out. I'll try and get around to organizing them better and maybe adding captions so y'all who weren't there can know what you're looking at.

Bye for now. Respectfully yours, Meeg.