Monday, July 21, 2014

A Feel of Stockholm, Sweden- get a Taste

Massive and lush forests extend further than the eye can see.  As our plane approaches, Stockholm's buildings blend pleasingly with the green below.

Barkaby area, 20 kilometers from the city center. Hares the size of medium sized dogs hop away from me, a rare and momentary interruption of the stillness existing here. Residing in the Swedish suburbs is life on Valium.

The train to the center takes 25 minutes, the same distance in LA- double. Public transport here makes life very easy, and far cheaper than using heavily taxed automobiles.
in the middle of Stockholm
Comprised of numerous islands and waterways, Stockholm was founded where battling currents made further progress inland too difficult, forcing ships to stop and unload their goods, a city forming around the port.

fishing in the middle of Stockholm
Beautiful shot of Stockholm, probably around 10 PM- note the sky
The Swedes are ultra-proud of their clean waterways, pristine enough to allow its citizens to fish its canals, in the city center. Singapore might be the world's cleanest city, but Stockholm runs a close second, the difference being $500 fines for littering are unnecessary. In Scandinavia there is an expectation to follow the rules of society. The Swedes walk in lock step with each other. March to a different beat, and scorn will be heaped.

The city is incredibly quiet by any standard. On this summer evening, few cars pass us as we traverse the streets; still, Swedes don't cross at a red, I find it absolutely mystifying. 

Reading aloud the sky-high prices would make even Martin Luther King Jr. stutter . A wage-flation exists, as unions have successfully gained unskilled workers salaries two to three times their US counterparts, the celebration is tempered by the fact that goods in Sweden rise by the same multiple. A simple HDMI  cable runs $30 to $100 depending on length. On Amazon, the longest is on sale for $7. Eventually you numb yourself into acceptance so you don't go crazy.
like most of Scandainavia, Stockholm is very bike oriented
Swedes- blond, tall, and beautiful as a whole. Doctors here commonly treat tourists with cases of whip lash.

Midsummer, darkness battles to overtake light, never completely successfully. As I doze off at 3 AM, it's seems like more of a daydream.

Stockholm at 2 AM- sunlight

Monday, July 7, 2014

Denmark Tasted. Copenhagen in a Nutshell

Energetic windmills wave their arms excitedly, greeting our plane from the Baltic Sea below.

Metro- clockwork. People helpful, calling my host to inform her I have arrived.
Put away luggage, venture out. Shwarma and fruit stands abound, working class. Graffiti marking the walls of all the buildings, Islamic hijabs on many of the women; neighborhood more Othello than Hamlet.

Walk a kilometer, graffiti sparser, streets nicer, though that's relative, short squat buildings mainly comprised of dirty brick and stone; Prague it's not. Several decimating fires mark Copenhagen's history.
The most interesting building I found in Copenhagen; statues built into the walls
Bike paths on every street, cyclists abound. Pedestrians walk the sidewalk encased in a bubble, eye contact actively avoided.

Runners in workout attire, dichotomous with the numerous smokestacks lining the sidewalk cafes and bars, spewing fumes de cigarettes, fires quenched by liters of alcohol.
Blonde is common, habits aging them quickly.

In the middle of the city is Tivoli, the world's oldest amusement park, the inspiration for Disneyland. Small, yet utterly charming and beautiful, impossible not to instantly adore and love.
Tivoli's Peackcock Theater
A rare, warm, midsummer day, numerous people laid out in a grassy park by the lake absorbing the rare rays of Scandinavian sun, tans absent, vegetation lush.
Many decorative statues line public areas, some magnificent, adding decor otherwise lacking, especially compared to other European capitals.
Taxes high, VAT (Value Added Tax) 25% on all items on top of the 50% citizens pay on their salaries. Building a healthy bank account impossible, but medical care guaranteed by the state.
Safety- certain; crime- scarce, and why would there be? Wealthy society takes care of everyone, most Danes proud of this, even with awareness that some abuse the system. People here fear little, except perhaps social interaction.
Cold and dark days invariably minimize social contact during the winter months. People thaw a little in the summer, but personalities here rarely bloom.

Christiana- the "green light" district. Unlike Hollywood, cameras are not welcome in this druggy enclave as distributing hash and marijuana is still illegal, though large blocks of Moroccan black are cut right out in the open by sun-glass wearing dealers, some shrouding their faces further with tall, stiff jackets.
Throngs of stupid looking customers sit in dilapidated structures baking their brains and numbing themselves further. Their right to do so.
on the canals of Copenhagen
A boat ride through the canals. Much of Northern Europe has them, Amsterdam, St. Petersburg, Stockholm.
Check the over-hyped statue of The Little Mermaid from my list.
Our guides voice is drowned by my cooing over a golden retriever someone brought aboard. This being Denmark, I missed nothing important, and on the off-hand chance I'm wrong, the slobbery, grateful kiss I received more than made up for it.
My Danish best friend- Mavin

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Hot Comedy Show in a Finnish Sauna- Birch Branches

Even at the height of summer, the weather in Finland equates to a dreary wintry day in Los Angeles. "Anything to warm up," is the unspoken Finnish motto, explaining my host's description of a visit to the local sauna as "a highlight of Helsinki."
Being a Yes Man who accepts of 95% of all suggestions, and having earlier declined a drunk teenager's dare to play chicken with an oncoming  train, I was statistically cornered.
Like all else in Nordic countries, saunas here aren't cheap--
Entrance: 12 Euro for that privilege alone.
But where they really make bank are the up-sells that add a uniqueness to the experience, and here I am referring to the 6 euros they charge for frozen, plastic wrapped branches of birch.

"What do I do with the birch branch?"
"Well first you remove the plastic wrapping," explains the owner.
"Sounds intriguing," I remark.
"Then you thaw the branch in a bucket of warm water."
"Excellent plan."
"Then you head into the sauna, and you hit yourself with the branch."
"And this custom is a by-product of the Finnish predilection for high alcohol consumption ?"
Ignoring my pointed question, "You keep hitting yourself. You hit yourself hard and it feels so good."
"And are there any other benefits?" I remark, as I carefully root through the freezer, picking my branch in the same loving manner an executioner might choose his axe.
"Oh God yes," she excitedly explains, "It makes your blood circulate, and it makes you smell so good afterwards. It's amazing."
"A remarkable sales pitch," I remark as I reach for the Euros necessary to participate in this sado-masochist ritual.

I enter the sauna with my now thawed birch, sit, and begin hitting myself with the branch.
If it sounds remarkably stupid, that's because it is.
First of all, I exercise so to maintain good blood circulation, secondly, under normal circumstances I'd consider being hit with a branch abuse rather than pleasure. Plus, it hurts.
But I'm not describing all this to show you how the Finns pull down the big bucks they are so famous for. There's a story here ...

Now, I don't open my mouth so there is little reason for others to believe I am anything but a local Finn. No one really pays any heed to the normal everyday, run in the mill branch whacker ... the exception being a Chinese tourist, who is doing his best to keep a poker face regarding his surprise about this insane practice.
THWHACK. I smack myself and watch his face register a bemused look on it.
THWHACK- the slight grin amplifies.
THWHACK- it grows again.
Now, honestly, the hit stung, but the echo of the TWHACK reverberating through the chamber nearly makes our Chinese customer lose it. He rises and exits the sauna, barely able to stifle a laugh, which is audibly released as the sauna door shuts behind him. I chuckle to myself and put down the branch, having zero interest in continuing this masochistic practice.
But lo and behold, minutes later, refreshed from a cool shower, our Chinese friend re-enters. Instantly, I pick-up my branch and start repeatedly hitting myself. THWACK, THWACK, THWACK, THWACK ... he's walking back to his seat, but now he's totally losing it, laughing out loud, hard.
The harder I continue to hit myself, the harder our Chinese man laughs, until the Finns inside realize what's going on and my chorus of laughter grows. Me, hot, and likely covered in welts, rises up, walks down the sauna's stadium like stairs, stands in the center of the room, takes a small bow, and exits.
I might have got ripped off of my 18 Euros, but everyone else in the sauna got their money's worth. Be sure to tip your waitresses.
selfie with the tool of comedy afterwards

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Costa Rica- One of the Most Beautiful Countries in the World

Costa Rica. One of the most beautiful countries I have been to and a tropical paradise, full of mellow and warm people.
The axiom in Costa Rica is "Pura Vida" -- pure life, and largely it is.

The scenery and flowers are bright and vivid, and I highly suggest you make your way there. Check out the photos below.

The Arenal Volcano

Me and Andrew in front of the Arenal volcano

Cascading Costa Rica waterfall

Lush Costa Rican forest

On the beach

Guaranteed Monkeys

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Stunning, Gorgeous, Take Your Breath Away Landscape of Krabi, Thailand

Monkey see, monkey do. They're a little too used to people
People always ask, "What is the most beautiful place you have seen? Where should I go with one week of vacation?" The answer, Krabi, Thailand.

Watch the reaction on the face of a girl seeing the Ao Nang area for the first time

At midnight, on a deserted beach, I would strip off my clothes, jump in the warm water and lay upon my back, my ears submerged in water creating a nearly perfect silence around me as I gazed up at the starry sky and the sheer vertical cliffs rising above me. Thought vaporizes, a deep relaxation come into being, it feels as though one is back in the womb, no care, no worry, only the beauty of nature and being.

Tsong Tsai/ Railey Beach Area of Krabi

The Jungle of Krabi

coastline view of Krabi from ocean

Approaching Railey Beach via Boat

All I can say is if you get the urge to travel and see a beautiful, stunning, gorgeous, take your breath away tropical area, definitely book a trip to Krabi. 

Note on the above video: A moment of inspiration during a gorgeous sunset in Thailand. My sanity and eccentricity of making + posting such videos was recently called into question, and I was interpreted as "narcissistic/self involved," by someone who had never met me.  If such a video elicits a positive emotional change in even one of you out there, it's a price worth paying a hundred times over. Like the sun behind me, if you have warmth and light to give the world, isn't it your duty to do so before your own being sets? 

standing offshore with my camera

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

American Retreats From Vietnam

I wave goodbye to my Hmong guides from the back of a motorbike taxi they've arranged for me as we accelerate away down the dodgy road back to Sapa. Swerving around potholes, the cold air rushing by us, we reach town as the sun descends behind the mountains, the temperature dropping in sync, reaching zero as the sun sets.
Darkness envelops the town, street lamps few and far between, the biting cold and heavy fog creating an excellent setting for a ghost story.
Poor timing, I'm sick for the first time in three years, coughing as I ascend the stairs to my sparse room. I search for a thermostat, a radiator; none, no central  heating, not only in this hotel, but anywhere in Sapa. Weigh my options, it’s almost as cold in here as out, maybe there's a nearby business which is warmer.

I find a "spa" still open. They bring a bucket of steaming water, I dip my feet in and out several times before my nearly frozen extremities adjust to the temperature.
I welcome the touch of human hands on my head, shoulders, legs and feet. I pay and linger, doing my best to converse between my coughs with people who know little English. Eventually it’s time for me to go.
Night life absent, I return to my room and start coughing- phlegm, no fun. The only thing I can do to stay warm is remain clothed in four layers and hide under the covers. I try to fall asleep but my cough prevents me.
One thing for sure, it would be unwise to remain in these freezing temperatures another day. I wake in the morning, check out of my room, and purchase a train ticket back to Hanoi which will arrive there in the wee hours of the morning.
I consider taking a trip to Haolong Bay, which is pretty much on every tourist’s itinerary in Vietnam, but that would mean another night in ultra-noisy Hanoi. Instead I book a plane ticket via Bangkok to the beaches of Krabi, the thought alone warming my body.

Winter is definitely not the right time come here, especially the Northern part of the country, my poor decision magnified by the fact I fell ill. Another American retreats from Vietnam, beaten, unlikely to return. 

My last view of Sapa before I took the bus to the train station

Friday, January 31, 2014

May Art Gallery- Worth a Look in Sapa, Vietnam

Vu Thang artist in Sapa, Vietnam

Exploring Sapa, I come across May Art Gallery. While I am definitely no art critic, curiousity draws me in and am immediately blown away by the work of the resident artist, Vu Thang, who I am told is quite famous in Vietnam and has had his work exhibited several times in Europe.

Given the fact that Internet is new in this mountain town, and he’s had little exposure to the outside world, I take it that some art critics/ experts, were also drawn to his works.
Vu Thang artist- amazing work

I look at every single painting in the gallery, most of which were created by Vu, though there are some which painted by his friends. I really like them, I leave to get something to eat, but am unable to get the images out of my mind. I walk back in, gazing upon art I wish I had the talent to create.
Vu Thang artist (photo poorly framed by me)

Vu Thang, artist, May Art Gallery in Sapa, Vietnam
I enjoy getting local pieces to decorate my place and supporting the artisans, so eventually, rather than just stare at them, I choose a small piece and purchase it from Vu’s wife who runs the gallery while he creates more work.

May art gallery, by Vu Thang 

Putting my money where my mouth is- here is the painting I purchased

If you’re in Sapa, I highly recommend dropping by. Hopefully you’ll find the art as appealing as I do.
May Art Gallery in Sapa, Vietnam. 

You can contact them at mayartgallery at (I have to space it out so spiders don't pick up and spam them if you have any questions. When they get their website back up and running I will include that as well.)  

Trekking to a Black Hmong Village through the Mountains

I walk with my Black Hmong guides who have offered to take me to their village. The word “Black” is self-referential as this is the traditional color of their clothing. We stop on the edge of town at a small restaurant, pho is the order.
While I don’t think Vietnamese fare compares taste-wise with Thai or Indian (I find it bland) the diet here is exceedingly healthy, consisting of rice, vegetables, pork, chicken, and some fish, all of it fresh and local. Vietnam has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world standing at 1.7% as of 2008, and that figure falls precipitously in these distant elevations.
My Hmong guide near her village

No Write, No Read
The bit of English my guides know they’ve pieced together from verbal interactions with tourists over the years. In fact, the Hmong tribes have never had a written language of any kind, and last year with the government bringing schools into the region, the current generation of Hmong children will be the first ever to learn to read or write.

Snow the destroyer
We leave town and start trekking up a steep mountain path. I've chosen the worst possible time to visit. Only one week earlier, snow fell in the area for the first time twenty years. While no doubt the children were immensely excited, the trees, not so much.
Many of them lie bowed to the ground, unable to cope with the subfreezing temperatures and snow that recently adorned their branches. Vegetation has perished, unused to such conditions. 
Our path is steep and rocky, but by no means are we climbing K2 in the Himalayas. My guides tell me that the trail is regarded as too tough to traverse by the local tour companies, who prefer the main road on the opposite side of the mountain.
here's what I see winter trekking around Sapa

Hours later, on our descent, I see steps carved into the mountain where in the summer, yellow and green rice stalks spring, adding color and depth to the area. Unfortunately, today there is nothing there but stagnant, muddy, freezing water in their place. Undoubtedly visiting here in the summer would offer more of a visual spectacle.
In this vid, you'll see the rice fields, currently with stagnant water, and a view of a small village nearby

We pass two villages whose pigs, chicken, and ducks are given free reign. There are no predators left in the area to snatch them away, and these creatures won’t run far from the structures which provide them food and shelter.

Local limestone cliff being excavated for profit
A water buffalo walks by, grunting. I nod at him as he passes. They are used as beasts of burden, helping to plow the fields as they have for thousands of years. Not every family owns one, as it’s an expensive investment of about $1,500 (a year’s salary for some.) Each family works for itself and keeping what it earns, with no mandate to share with their fellow villagers. Vegetables and fruits grown are sold at the Sapa marketplace and their trinkets and clothing are marketed aggressively to any tourist in town.

The path eventually connects with the main road and I see people on motorbikes carrying roofing materials for a new house. Obviously the amount of material a couple of individuals can carry on these roads via bike is a fraction of the total needed, thus making building a house here both labor intensive and inefficient as compared with the machinery and infrastructure available to builders in the west.

Cash crop + spending
Eventually we reach the village of my guides. We’ve walked almost five hours to traverse these ten miles, I sit down with a French couple who smoke the local marijuana they’ve purchased (cash crop). They offer me some, I decline as always. They tell me it works, but it’s not very potent.
I ask my guides whether the government ever makes problems for them over the mari-j. “No, the government doesn’t care what we do here, we never see any government officials.”
I ask what they do with the money they work so hard for. Well, believe it or not one of their biggest expenses is fertilizer, as she points to the bags stacked in the corner. They also use left-over funds for things like building materials/repairs, and Western clothing.
Video: Cute kids, village, and copious amounts of marijuana

Change afoot

A year and a half ago electricity arrived, and soon after cellular access. My guides boast of the advantages, telling me that when there would be a big event such as a wedding they used to have to walk miles to neighboring villages to invite their friends. Today, they are just a click of the button away. Combine that with the new schools, and it’s safe to say this distant region of the world, is slowly but surely being homogenized. One day, maybe 20 years from now, it won't likely be terribly different than any other location on earth. 
Travel will be very different for my children. 

Black Hmong children at play