Saturday, December 21, 2013

Corrupt Thai Police

Meet with friends, getting late, excuse myself, take a taxi home. Driver pulls onto a side-street connecting to the main road. Police shine a light onto the cab, and seeing me, order the taxi to pull over.
Testily, they command me to exit the car. Not amused, unsure what’s going on, I see little choice. 

“Where’s your passport?” they demand.
“Back at the hotel,” I reply. I make it a habit to keep my most valuable travel position under lock and key as much as possible.
I’m wearing short sleeves and shorts. “What have you got in your pockets?” 
“Show us,” they order.
I pull out a small wad of cash, and a black credit card. “What’s that?” they ask accusingly. “My hotel key,” I respond, “Why are you searching me?” This isn’t America where the police must have probable cause.
“Empty other pocket,” they order. 
“I don’t have anything.”
“Empty pocket.” 
Two cases, one small green plastic labelled 'Glide,' and the other a metallic black emerge.
“What’s that?” they demand. 
“Dental floss dude.”
“And that?”
“My camera, would you like me to take your picture?”
They glower at me. “Where are you going?” 
“Back to my hotel to get some sleep.”
Unhappy, they tell me to get back into the cab and go. I don’t delay. Undoubtedly they were hoping to find some contraband substance, likely drugs, not so they could haul me away to jail, but so they could extract a bribe from me.

Not feeling great about the encounter, part of life I guess. 

the not always honorable Thai police

Three Taxis from the Airport Plus a Hike

After an exhausting 34 hours of travel time, which included frequent long-winded announcements spanning multiple languages interrupting my Tetris games played on the in-flight entertainment system, at long last I arrive at Bangkok’s international airport.

Taxi #1
Make it through immigration, lengthy wait for bag I shouldn’t have checked, I head to the public taxi area, driver starts meter and it reads 2450 baht ($76) or so after the first kilometer. I question the accuracy; “Meter, meter,” he insists.
“Let me out of the car.” Understanding I’m not falling for his game, he explains, “Oh, meter broken. I take you, I take you, you give me 500 baht”-- double the going rate.
“No, 250 baht,” I respond.
Moments later he drops me by the side of the road just outside the airport and circles back for an easier mark, as a new driver picks me up.

Taxi #2
Before I throw my bags in the back, I state clearly, “Taxi meter.” He agrees, we’re off.
Now, Bangkok traffic can be notoriously heavy, but we seem to be making okay time despite going an unfamiliar route. Arriving in the heart of the city, we find the arteries clogged.
“Are we close?” I inquire. “Yes, very close,” he answers, “Suhkumvit (the main drag) just up there.” After nearly a day and a half of travel and an hour locked in the cab, I’m admittedly getting impatient as the only thing I want to do is check in, take a quick shower, and stretch out.
Half an hour later, we’ve moved 100 yards (a very poor 40 yard dash time time, even for senior citizens) and have finally successfully merged. Now we’re moving, and well, we keep moving. Around, and around. “Why aren’t we on Suhkumvit?” I ask, as nicely as I can, but undoubtedly with an edge.
“No, no, we are close,” he responds. Traffic ebbs and flows. Five minutes later we’re still driving, he’s taking me for a ride both literally and figuratively. I inquire, and receive the same recycled BS answer.
“Pull over,” I command, trying to compose myself.
“No, no, we close.”
“Pull over now and let me out!”
He’s not pleased, but I’m out of patience and he knows it. The cab stops, the meter reads 270 baht. I give him 250 and walk away. Though I would have been justified in paying him zero, I didn’t think it was worth the risk of exacerbating the situation.
A local chef chops vegetables at her food stand, I inquire how close Suhkumvit is. “Oh, very far,” she replies slightly surprised to see me there with my luggage. I was right about my driver giving me poor service- Hooray, right?

Taxi #3
I hail a new taxi, get in, tell him where to go. A few minutes later we’re back at the exact same narrow road as before with the long, long line of cars waiting to merge onto the main drag. I make the decision not to take this sitting down.
“Let me out,” I tell my poor driver, who has done absolutely nothing wrong.
“Huh?” he answers surprised. 

The Walk
Pay him with a tip, exit, throw my bag over my shoulder, start walking. It’s hot and muggy, sweat starts pouring.
Passing a mound of trash on the side of the road, I see rats weaving their way in and out of it. Twenty yards later there’s a coconut stand. I purchase one and eagerly await its opening via machete. I inquire where Suhkumvit is. “Not so far, that way, that way,” she points down the long line of cars.
I’m moving so fast now I’m passing cars on foot like they’re standing still- either I’m Superman, or the cars are literally, standing still; you decide. I get to the front of the line, turn right, and find my hotel.
Next time I’m just going to walk from the airport and avoid the hassle.

taxi meter, Bangkok

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Panda Style In China- Seeing them Live!

Bamboo- its what's for dinner
Project Panda

The zoo met all of me and Drew’s requirements for straight up perfection, a ten out of ten, the best zoo ever.
1)   it had tigers we could see up close
2)   PANDAS!!!

I had never seen a Panda in person. Pandas are fascinating animals with three entirely different speed settings.
1) sleep
2) eat
3) eat while sleeping

In fairness, the zoo’s young cub was more energetic. He had climbed a tree, and faced with the dilemma of finding a supportive branch that would lend to his descent, calling on his entire accumulated knowledge and wits, and this is why you want a panda around to help you next you are faced with a stressful decision, he fell asleep. (on some very shaky branches.)
Why do people spend literally tens of millions of dollars on panda upkeep and procreation, when panda’s themselves, could frankly, care less?
Take a zoologist who places a young male panda, call him Ginseng, into the habitat of a  female in heat.
Zoologist: “Go to her Ginseng. Go to her.”
Ginseng:   “Man, you aren’t a panda, cause if you were you’d know that is one ugly panda bitch. I wouldn't touch her with an elephant’s dick.”
Zoologist: “Ginseng, the survival of your species depends on you mating with her. Don’t you want insure—

If it weren’t for the Panda Sperm Bank ($5 per ATM withdrawal for non pandas) the species would be done for. So why do humans continually pay $5 ATM fees, that amount to millions a year? Pandas are cute! Looks matter, end of story.

Panda video, stuck in tree!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Kamikaze Baseball in Kyoto, Japan

During World War II Kamikaze Piloting was introduced to the Japanese by military planners as the world’s first “extreme sport,” but for unknown reasons, its small group of loyal enthusiasts often met with an early demise, thus when baseball was popularized during US rebuilding efforts, it caught on rather quickly, giving America a huge assist in Japan having the world's longest life expectancy of any country.

While riding my bike around the Imperial Palace of Kyoto, I came across a group of college students taking infield practice at a nearby dusty diamond.
Japanese baseball buddies
Dressed in about the nicest clothes I had taken with me, not having taken a ground ball in years, I naturally volunteered to play. Surprised, one of them tossed the guy in the blue button up shirt a glove, and watched him trot out to the shortstop position.
POV view of taking groundballs in Japan

They speak little English (one of the surprising things about Japan) but when I make a high velocity throw to first they chant in unison, “pitcher, pitcher, pitcher.” I play with them for about a half hour before we break and get together to talk and take pitchers … er, I mean pictures.

Team and I posing for pictures

I find them friendly, and grateful that I took the chance and played with them. They say they are a team, and from practicing with them for the brief amount of time I did, I can definitively tell you not to expect to see them hoisting a tournament trophy over their heads any time. However, I refrain from suggesting they switch over to kamikaze piloting, they are far too nice. 
Thanks guys!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What To Do in Los Angeles for Tourists

Being a Los Angelino now for quite a while, I thought I would eradicate some myths for you tourists out there visiting the city and give you a list of things you might want to see.
First of all, unlike the majority of European cities, there is no “center.” Los Angeles is urban sprawl at its worst, extending nearly 50 miles in any direction. Good luck seeing the city in a few days.

There are definitely areas you do NOT want to tread, nor for most purposes, unless you get lost visiting USC, will you have any reason to step foot into South Central or East Los Angeles ... unless maybe you have a relative in the Crips, Bloods, or MI-6. If so, tell them I say hi.

Also unlike most European cities, the public transport system in LA is poor. In order to see it properly, you really need a car, preferably one with GPS (or use your phone). If you make a wrong turn, especially during rush hour, it can take you twenty minutes to get back to your original location.
Driving in LA is Not fun. You simply want to be OFF the road during rush hour, lest you spend all eternity and then some in your auto. To boot, you need to read and re-read the street parking signs to insure you don’t get a ticket. Parking enforcement in Los Angeles is about as efficient as government can be, and is a primary revenue driver for the city. The tickets ain’t cheap!
Hollywood parking notification. You need a PhD with hours to kill to decipher it.
this is the top part of the same sign, not visible in the above photo

What’s Great About LA
The weather. Best thing about this area of the world, and why so many people choose to live here. I can’t imagine intentionally living in an area that is cold and rainy or gets a lot of snow. When you come to LA, make sure to choose outdoorsy activities.

Where to Visit

Venice Beach -- one of the coolest things in Los Angeles. Go get a T-shirt, some junk food, get some custom made clothing/ shoes with your photos on them at The Ave. on Winward (right by the beach), rent some rollerblades and go up the bike path, get a boogey board and jump in the water, watch some of the free shows put on by performers, tip if you like them, or just people watch. Either way, you’re going to have a fun time.
Venice Beach bikepath

The Getty Museum—If you’re a lover of fine art, you can’t go wrong with the Getty. Best of all its free!

LACMA + The La Brea Tar Pits—Situated side by side to one another, you can get into the La Brea tar pits and see fossils of ancient mammals, and the actually oily pits where the animals encountered their demise by venturing in. 
Also there are several museums with fine art and artifacts of the world (LACMA) for those of you into that sort of thing.

Comedy Shows- I kid you not, the comedy shows in LA are likely the best in the world, and you can often catch celebrity comics like Joe Rogan, Dane Cook, amongst others. You want to go to either the Comedy Store, The Hollywood Improv, or The Laugh Factory. They are all fairly close to one another in West Hollywood (the gay district of LA) and are usually a lot of fun. Please don’t heckle the comics.

Mann’s Chinese Theater + Hollywood Walk of Fame- Here you will see all the stars and handprints of Hollywood, from Lucille Ball to Jim Carrey. Outside Mann’s you’ll see many people dressed up as comic book/ movie characters trying to earn a living. Parking is an arduous task in this area of town, so be prepared to pay. This is a highly touristy thing to do, but if you've never been in town, go ahead. 

3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica- Great upscale place to walk around, and grab some food. The Apple Store is located here.

The Grove- Similar to Promenade, but a little bigger. A big shopping center in the Hollywood area. Very popular and busy. Nice place to walk around.

Skidrow- Want to see where they put all the homeless people, it used to be skid row in downtown LA (right by the Staples Center) … police used to pick up vagrants and just drop off ‘em off in the area. Now that downtown is being developed this is changing, but the soup kitchens and shelters are still there, and you can go volunteer if you want to spend a day this way.

Disneyland + 6 Flags Magic Mountain-  Although Anaheim is technically not part of LA, and at least a good hour away, Disneyland is a must see for those of you travelling here with children. Magic Mountain, in Valencia, is great if you are into roller-coasters. Be prepared for long lines in both parks of course. 

Universal Studios- Definitely, without a doubt, worth experiencing once. It's fun, but quite expensive for one day, so make sure you've saved up.

Self Realization Fellowship/ Lake Shrine- Located in Pacific Palisades and by the ocean, this is a crown jewel of Los Angeles. Hidden, and not as visited as other sites, it's a breath of fresh air and tranquility in an otherwise super busy metropolis. It's free, and the grounds are stunning. Walk around the lake or just sit down, talk, or meditate.

Celebrity Insider Tour-- You see so many of these tours going around LA, this one was voted #1 on trip advisor, and I have seen the host perform around Los Angeles, and he is very funny and witty. The tour doesn't go everyday, but if you're into this sort of thing, I advise you try it out over the others. 

LA Does have nightlife, but everything closes down at 2 AM  with last call @ 1:30 by city ordinance. The “happening clubs” are always changing, but you can definitely see some pretty people in them. LA attracts the best looking people from around the world, generally with severely needy egos, who want to make it in the entertainment industry.

Believe it or not, LA has some excellent hikes. Go up to Malibu (a bit of a drive) and take this trail. You’ll see some gorgeous views of the Pacific.
Or go hiking in the Temescal Canyon area. You aren’t likely to see a lot of wildlife, but maybe the occasional snake, rabbit, or deer might be spotted.

Bottom Line
LA is a huge sprawling metropolis, and it’s not a place to play by ear, with everything close by like Prague might be. You can definitely have fun here, and the weather's great, but avoid rush hour traffic, and bring some sunscreen.
Thoughts, leave me a comment below.

Racism in Kyoto's Red Light District

Having obliterated the rappers of Kyoto in our rap battle, I head out to explore more of the city’s nightlife. I come to what appears to be the red light district. The Japanese are famous for their nose to the grindstone work ethic, countered by a polar swing to hedonistic drunken debauchery, so I thought it would make an excellent investigation for all of you out there in Readerville. (honest Mom!)
Japanese brothel- outside 

Looking up at the photos of scantily clad Asian women laying on their sides, looking lasciviously back at me, I approach the door where a large (by the standards of Japan) man stands in my way. He crosses his wrists over one in an X, his fists pointing at the sky, and speaks to me in Japanese. I pretend not to understand.
“Just want to take a look,” I respond, trying to sneak around him. Again, he X’s me out, his voice more stern.
“You don’t understand, I’m American,” I explain, with the firm belief that such diplomacy and name dropping will gain me immediate entry. A third X in the frame, I have struck out, yet I walk away feeling giddy. “Wow, this is so cool, I just experienced racism!” I remark to myself.
I walk to the next X-rated boutique and receive the same treatment. Suddenly racism isn’t as enjoyable.
I venture to restaurant row, finding an American sipping on on a Sapporo beer, to whom I relate my tale of woe. He explains that foreigners are considered unclean, and should it become known that they are being allowed in, the locals would quickly steer clear of the establishment.
“Yeah, we said the same thing about allowing blacks into Southern diners in the 1950's,” I remark ruefully, “The world still has a long way to go.”
He laughs, “I’m not sure if it’s the same as letting you into their women,” he retorts.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Epic Rap Battle in Kyoto, Japan

I arrive in Kyoto in the late afternoon, check into my accommodations, rent a bicycle, and immediately pedal away, ready explore the city.
Darkness quickly falls as I arrive in the center of town. I see Japanese queuing up at the Golden Arches of the local McDonald’s, I go inside to investigate. Very pricey, but full of different entrees than America, including the Ebi Filet-O (filet of shrimp-O). ... Given that I eat at most one bag of small fries a year, I defer from ordering, deciding to go try some Japanese food.

Upon stepping outside I hear the faint sounds of the Pied Piper- hip-hop is playing nearby, in Japan? I investigate and sure enough, a beat box between them, Japanese Eminems are battling each other. Though I have no idea what they are saying, they're talented, certainly more so than I.
I never imagined this would be the first thing I’d experience in Japan, a rap battle on the streets of Kyoto. 
I sit and watch in admiration. A rapper, who has, as his chosen fashion accessory- a batting helmet, steps off stage. I approach to compliment his abilities.
He doesn’t understand me, instead in broken English challenges me to get out there and sing (rap.) My head swings back at the thought, and I warn him that I am not going to be up to snuff, but he’s not hearing it (nor does he understand) It reminds me of World War II, with America back to do "battle," except this time we're invading the Japanese streets. 
“Yo, give me da mic. Hey Hiroshi, drop me a phat beat. Yeah, that’s right, Rich from America, coming right at ya!”
You can see my highlight in the following video. I actually battled a couple times, and realized brevity in the video will make me look far better.
Some people like my friend Vanessa can rhyme all the time to the point it’s sublime. I haven’t yet mastered this art.
I exit the stage to applause from the Japanese. I have to think this is the first time an American has done battle with them, and I get the feeling they are appreciative of what they might consider brave. I am rarely a shrinking violet though, and see no risk in making a fool of myself because I rarely, if ever, care what anyone thinks of me.
In fact, to the contrary, I believe it’s my duty to go out there and express fully the energy inside me. In doing so, it’s my belief that I unconsciously give others permission to release the energy of joy and love inside of them.

It’s also the reason I was recently complimented, told by someone I am the greatest dancer in history. Don’t believe me? I have proof- Rich declared Greatest dancer ever- here's why visit link.
Thank you Japaaaaannnnnnnnn!!!! I’m outtie.

(For a much longer version of the rapping, including me, you can visit this video. Yes, I am not good, I know.)

Japanese Bullet Trains- The Shinkansen, the only way to travel Japan

Getting to Japan

My passport has run out of pages, and the airline insists the Japanese need enough room to plant their larger than normal entry stamp/ visa on arrival. They’re refusing to let me board my plane!
I’m saved only by the fact that the page with my Chinese Visa, has no stamp on the page itself, allowing me to gently pull off the affixed visa and re-present a passport with a blank spot. The bureaucrats quite nearly extracted a significant pound of flesh from me.
Bullet train pulling into station
The Shinkansen
Upon arriving in Tokyo, my first step is to go to the train station and present my voucher for my pre-paid one week JR (Japan Rail) pass I purchased in America. I had to carry the voucher around with me for months before getting to Japan, lose it and I would be out not only the $300 or so I paid, but additionally having to shell out in excess of $100 per ride in addition. The passes are only available overseas, and proved to be a wonderful and highly unusual moment of pre-planning for a guy who once tried to ride through Laotian quick sand on a bicycle.  
An electronic sign announces the appointed arrival time of the train taking me to Kyoto. The Shinkansen (the name of the Japanese high speed train line) is never tardy. I mean, if that train gets in 2 minutes late, it’s considered a national disgrace; the entire nation literally walks around with their head held low in penance for several days.
The ibside of a bullet train- clean comfy
The Shinkansen is an incredibly efficient form of transportation, immaculately clean, and travelling in stretches at 180 mph, you reach your destination in a hurry. The fact that such high speed rail exists over much of the industrialized world and not in America does not sit well with me. Each and every single ride I took in Japan was quite comfortable and quiet, making the trains I have taken through Eastern Europe and SE Asia a hazy laughable memory.
I'm gently dreaming of this train's distant cousins as we gently decelerate, and pull into Kyoto station.

Train going by Mount Fuji
On the whole, the Shinkansen was the best way I have ever traveled around a country, and if you are going to Japan, and want to see it easily and inexpensively, then truly, you MUST get a JR Rail Pass before heading over. That would be my #1 travel tip for Japan. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Wild Water Adventure in Lisbon, Portugal

Walking back to my hotel, thirsty. A Chinese grocery store miraculously appears in front of me; still open this late in the evening.
After far too long of sifting through packets of dry noodles, canned fruits, and soy sauce, I finally notice a hidden cooler with bottled water. Hurriedly I walk to the counter with my prize.

The clerk is on the phone, making it clear through her body language and facial expression that I’m imposing on her conversation and my attempt to help the store to stay in business must not go unpunished.
Turning away from me, she continues her conversation in Chinese, a not so pleasant sounding language, especially when it reaches argumentative tones, which is constantly. 
Impatiently, my foot taps the ground as I wait. At one minute I’m about to leave, she turns subtly towards me, raising her index finger, commanding my patience. At a minute-thirty I’m curious how much longer she can go- another 45 seconds.
Turning towards me: “One euro,” she demands sternly … What a rip-off. I’d have paid it right away, but I’m not going to reward horrendous customer service. I leave the bottle on the counter, and walk out without saying a word.

A block up is a larger grocery store. I enter and find the water, return to the front of the store. The line is a half mile long with a dawdling elderly clerk from the 1950’s, his bi-focals falling to the edge of his nose, readjusting them before he picks up each item, stopping intermittently to make conversation  with a dark skinned 60 year old woman he seems to have known since birth, both for whom time moves at ¼ speed.
The pace of impatient tapping of fingers across the folded arms of patrons increases with each passing year, as we all slowly go grey. At last the elderly lady grabs her stuff, allowing the line to inch ahead.
A decade later, I’ve moved up to third in line, my singular bottle of water cradled in my arms like a child. I might have spent a decade here, but I'm set to save half a Euro- I certainly showed the rude clerk in the Chinese store what's what. 
In the midst of my pride, a 50 year old man, unshaven, inebriated, a ballcap low over his face, slides to the front of the line and hands his 4 items off to his friend. The line in unison shouts at him, even in his half-drunken stupor he’s knocked a step back by its force.
“What?” he asks with weaselly innocence. As the crowd continues to express its displeasure, his friend comes to his defense like a tobacco lawyer riding in on an ashen horse, proclaiming his amigo blameless. The crowd's not having it, as the two sides growl at each other like packs of wolves ready to fight over a kill, I feel as though I'm about to get torn in half being in the middle. The good natured clerk folds his arms in protest of the quarrel, releasing them only briefly every few seconds to readjust his bifocals. 
Instinct tells me to leave before the situation gets worse. Without a word, I drop my bottle of water on the counter and hurry back to the Chinese grocery store.
Closed” reads the sign on the front door. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Gaudi, one of the greatest architects who has ever lived designed perhaps the world's most beautiful church, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

This video show you what it's like inside the church- the video is probably better than the pics below to get an idea of the beauty and awe the church.

It's $20 to get in, the city continues to make residual revenues from the amazing work created by its most famous resident, a century and a half ago. It's hard to get an idea of the scope, size, and beauty without going there in person, but it's definitely worth $20 for the visit.

Gaudi's work imitates nature, where he spent much of his childhood waling and contemplating. He was fascinated by nature's seeming perfection and symmetry and was the first architect to employ it to his work.

Note the tree like (branch) structure of the columns
If you go to Barcelona, make sure to stop by!

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Joy of Seeing FC Barcelona + Lionel Messi in Person

I get off the Metro with the large crowd and blindly follow them to what I assume is Barcelona stadium to see the most famous Spanish sports team play in La Liga, perhaps the top soccer league in the world.
A half kilometer later the stadium unfurls itself, flags waving from atop the structure as the crowd pours in.
I purchase my ticket from a scalper for 30 Euros (about $40) definitely not a cheap ticket and a demonstration of how soccer crazy the Spanish are.
warm-ups at a FC Barcelona game
I find my seat at midfield., much better than expected, and am taken with the friendly nature of the fans. As they announce Barcelona's starting line-up the crowd cheers after each name, as opposed to  England where the hooligans smash beer bottles on each other's heads.
It's quickly apparent that Barca is the superior side, just a matter of time before they put one into the net; Messi hits the crossbar with a free kick.
Scoreboard at FC Barcelona game

check out this video and get a feel for the atmosphere at Barcelona stadium

My favorite moment of the game was when an opposing player believed he had won a ball cleanly and was called for a foul, expressed his displeasure by booting the ball far out of bounds, promptly earning him a yellow card, and a derisive chant of "Loco, Loco, Loco," from the crowd. (crazy, crazy crazy) I'm proud to say I participated in the chant.
FC Barcelona on the pitch
Watching Messi Play

Watching Lionel Messi play is probably like watching Babe Ruth play baseball in the 1920's, or Michael Jordan play basketball in the1990's. He is so superior to the other players, you sense it immediately when he touches the ball, and you don't even have to know soccer to aware of it. He scored twice and assisted on the other in Barca's 3-1 victory.

And by the way, to all you people who say soccer is a boring game to watch; it is Far better in person than on TV. In being able to see the whole field, you understand why players make the decisions they do. You gain a better feel for the speed at which the game is played, and the skill involved.

Should You go?
By all means, if you are in Barcelona when a game is played, and can afford the price, absolutely go. The atmosphere is far more family friendly than England, with their famed soccer hooligans who are only looking for an excuse to fight and cause mayhem. That just doesn't exist here.
All the fans seemed to enjoy the game, and it was definitely a highlight of my time in Spain!
"Barca! Barca! Barca!"

The Pick-Pockets of Barcelona + A Feel for the City

Beauty and Danger Mixed

Barcelona, one of the world's most beautiful cities. Set your bag down on the ground and gaze around at the gorgeous architecture, take in a breath, look down and discover your bag has ran-off. Pick-pockets and thieves are a HUGE problem in Barcelona, exacerbated by the economic crisis Spain is plodding through.
Barcelona architecture
I race into a bathroom to take a leak, dropping my bags by the door, inside a hostel, re-emerging 25 seconds later, and am immediately scolded by the staff for leaving my bags in the open, warning me that this was the pick-pocket capital of the world and not to do so again for my own good.

You must be extremely attentive at all times, and locals recommend that you if you have a bag, when on the subway, to wear it in front of you and hold onto it. Don't think, even in a crowd, that someone bumping into you was just a random occurrence, thieves work in teams and while one distracts you, the other pilfers your belongings.
Anyone who has been in Barcelona for any length of time has been a victim. My friend Robert had his iPhone stolen out of his hand on the subway, my father said goodbye to his wallet, my friend Anna had someone try to steal her phone while in a restaurant. Every single person I met had a war story to tell.
You don't leave your stuff out at the beach, you don't leave your bag hanging on the chair behind you, if you're suspicious of someone, tune in to it, there's a reason.

The challenge is, there is little disincentive for such behavior. The worst punishment from being caught usually comes from the intended victim, in the form of a bloody nose, and even then, those targeted by crime rarely do so for fear of retribution from larger numbers of bandits working in teams.
If, by some miracle, the perpetrators are arrested, a small fine is paid and they are back out on the street.

Economists believe that you can control most human behavior through incentives and disincentives, and the Spanish police and legislature do an extremely poor job of influencing would be thieves with them.
While Saudi Arabia's cutting the hands off of thieves might be extreme, you don't for a second have to worry about the safety of your possessions while there. The same cannot be said in Spain.

The Cost of Living
To live as a local doesn't cost much. The price of rent has decreased over the last couple years as the Spanish respond to an economic crisis, which, being tethered to Euro, they cannot print (inflate) their way out of. To make matters worse, the government raised the VAT (Value Added Tax) by 3 percentage points, to 21 percent, so in addition to making less money in their jobs, and unemployment hovering around US 1930 depression era levels of 25% (even higher for young people), the Spanish are paying more for their goods and services, leading to less money being spent, and furthering the vicious cycle.
This is what happens after bubbles (real estate)- a retraction, paying for the excesses of the past. It hasn't hit the United States as hard in part because we are the world's reserve currency, thus our money is in demand even as the Fed prints. China and Brazil recently tried to strike a deal to bypass the trade in dollars.

Indeed, you can get by living modestly for about 700 Euro a month here (about $950)
Vegetables and fruits are far cheaper than in California. At least the people can eat.

Spanish Manners
I generally found Spaniards to be quite direct, and in general friendly, but definitely not as polite as in, say, England. In fact, I met some Londoners teaching English in the country who complained about the lack of "please" or "thank you's" being circulated through Spanish society, and confessed that they wonder whether they are considered socially weak because of their knee-jerk polite attitudes.

check out this beautiful fountain in the middle of the park in Barcelona

Waste Not
In America many escalators go around the clock, leave a light on and it will continue to burn. Not so in Spain, who have installed motion detectors in many public areas. Alone at the airport? Think the escalator must be out of service? Wrong; it turns on when you step on it, and off when you reach the top. Lights in a public bathroom, motion detector; there definitely seems to be a conscious attempt to reduce waste here. They have plucked the proverbial low-hanging fruit of conservation, and the world would do well to follow suit.
monument by the ocean
The clubs and party scene in Barcelona is fantastic. Unlike Los Angeles, where last call is 1:30 AM, clubs stay open until 4 or 5 AM. The crowd is generally quite welcoming, and it's easy to make new friends.
The club scene is supported by the Spanish tradition of "siesta" where everyday from about 1:30-4 PM, the city sleeps.
While it might increase the quality of life, it's certainly understandable why the Spanish can't keep up with the economic output of the United States and Germany.

Tapas- or small plates of snacks are the popular choice for most Spaniards. Paella, seafood, pizzas, coffee, and vegetables make up the majority of Spanish cuisine. The Spanish generally eat in moderation, as opposed to America, I saw very few fat Spaniards.

Barcelona is perhaps the most beautiful city in the world, with a friendly atmosphere, clean, and while lodgings might be somewhat expensive and the taxes high, if you can handle insecurity in regards to your belongings, it is one of the few must see cities of the world, and one I could honestly contemplate living in.

The Beautiful Architecture of Gaudi and Barcelona

Barcelona, Spain

A lot of the notable buildings were designed by the architect Gaudi in the middle to late 1800’s. Gaudi blended nature into his designs, from floral patterns to pillars modelled after trees to support the structural integrity of the building, nature is beautifully infused into each creation by Gaudi. 

House of Gaudi-  Note the skull like balconies, and the floral pattern on the outside of the building. 

More of the stunning architecture you'll see in the center of Barcelona ..

check out a video of the architecture here!

Note the curviness of the building

The Palace of Justice, Barcelona
What is The World's Most Beautiful City?

Two cities rise high above the others in terms of physical beauty and architecture: Barcelona and Prague, both vying  for the #1 spot. In my estimation, it's a close race. While Prague, in its very center, is more beautiful than any Disney fairy tale animator could conjure, Barcelona is stunning over a greater area of land. I'll call it a tie, with Budapest a very distant third.
If you have a thought, leave a comment below.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

High Class- High Tea at The Savoy Hotel- London, England

In order to fully appreciate the stiffness for which the Brits are hailed worldwide, one must look no further than the experience of High Tea at the newly remodelled, opulent, Savoy Hotel in London, where, as fate would have it, my new highly-placed friend, Sir James Phillips, using his plethora of connections, managed to make us a reservation, in effort for me to gain a glimpse into British “high society,” which coincidentally, is the name of the magazine my hotel clerk is thumbing through as I exit.

Now, I don’t want the Brits to believe they have a monopoly on class, so I imitate the classiest American icon I know- Mr. Peanut. 
Mr. Peanut- he might not have  European class, but  he's the best America has to offer
I walk out of my hotel with my top-hat, cane, and monocle and hurriedly stroll down the foggy, cold British street, until I’m confronted by soccer hooligans who promptly mug me for my accessories (not classy at all!!) ... Maybe they want to look in top-form for their next drunken brawl.

The Tea Room
I’ve anticipated the day like a bride does her wedding, and arrive at the Savoy early. Of course, I’m outdone by Sir James and his wife Abigail, who are already seated, patiently waiting for me, “Delighted to have you,” they greet me as I sit down, politely nodding my head back at them.
I survey the room, which is simply exquisite- from the chandeliers, to the fresh flowers, to the grand piano in the center, it reeks of class. The only curious choices I note is the artwork featuring iconic American film stars from yesteryear; Carry Grant, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart ... Using my Einstein like mind, I interpret this as a nod of respect, an acknowledgement from the Brits that we kicked their butts in a couple of wars, an added touch of class, that would make even Mr. Peanut proud.
check out the surroundings of the tea room @ Savoy Hotel, London
Of course, class does come with a price- to experience High Tea at the Savoy costs $75 per person. So what does one get for this dip into the wallet? Lo and behold- tea; from oolong (the Queen’s personal favorite) to jasmine, to red currant (which is what I ordered for those of you keeping score at home)

Sir James Phillips explains tea drinking etiquette in this video

Tea is accompanied by a round of scones and finger sandwiches.

scone etiquette video

Now, don’t let the term “finger sandwiches” fool you. As you will discover from the video below, that’s just a name. In proper society, these sandwiches are to be cut into small squares, not more than one inch per side, and eaten with your silevrware.

Watch as I become an embarrassment for Americans around the world. Finger sandwiches, this one is pretty funny

Now, British tea traditionally is accompanied by sweets, and the Savoy is no exception; truly delectable pastries followed by a variety of cakes, positively scrumptious morsels, and the only immediate limitation on consumption is sudden onset diabetes. A bevy of choices, ranging from "Fake Wedding Cake" (the Savoy tried to replicate the cake from William and Kate's wedding) to small cream filled ├ęclairs. 
Perhaps we should take the influence of France in the Savoy, from the pastries offered to our French waiter (highly unexpected,) as a sign of the world becoming more harmonious ... personally however, I see it as a sign of just how much the British Empire has declined.

The Russian Mob Infiltrates
Now, it should be noted, the Savoy has a strict dress code as to what must be worn to High Tea. As I am without a doubt one of the biggest stickler for rules and propriety on the planet, I wasn't about to let a tattooed, skin headed, T-shirt, sneaker wearing man, one I clearly identified as Russian mob, so brazenly flout English conventions!
Immediately, at risk of personal harm to myself, I called a waiter over and urgently urged him to deal with the  scoff-law. 
Getting the Russian mob booted from High Tea @ The Savoy

As he was escorted out, I received a standing ovation from the other patrons. Talk about something to put on my soon to be written headstone. 

Who's Superior
All in all I had a wonderful time in the several hours I spent at the Savoy conversing with Sir James and Abigail, the jokes just kept being fired back and forth, but after lobbing several unprovoked cultural grenades in James's direction, I finally had atone for my boorish behavior by admitting, once and for all, when it comes to manners, the British are vastly superior to their American cousins, even if we did save their ass in World War II. 

And in our final video, I finally have to admit, when it comes to manners, the British are far superior to Americans

Should You Go?
If you are in London, and want to experience a fine piece of British culture then by all means visit the Savoy for tea, and in a place where image, manners, and your company mean everything, make sure class it up; go with Mr. Peanut. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Physical Edge, London- Rhys Chong's Physio Services

I rarely do this, but sometimes I feel like taking out a page of my travel blog to recommend a friend's services.
When I was in London, on a still sprained ankle, my buddy Rhys  helped me out by doing some physical work on my foot, both acupuncture as well as moving my ankle to release stiffness, and giving me some exercises to do.

The truth is, the man is super honest, hard working, and really cares about the welfare of his patients. For these reasons, I whole heartedly wish to recommend his services to those of you in need of physical therapy in London.
Rhys did not ask me to do this, and offered nothing in return. I have recommended (as of now) only one other business in all my travels, in 160 or so posts, so I absolutely mean what I say.
You, as a client, will definitely benefit from Rhys's work. I know I did.

I introduce Rhys here in this jokey video, but my sentiments are 100% true. 

or contact them

The Physical Edge
2 Pelham St, South Kensington, London, SW7 2NG
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7581 4222
Mobile: +44 (0) 77 2361 2514

sincerely hope this helps you, if you found this on Google or whatnot. Cheers!

The Sights of London- Museums, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, etc.

I want to give you a flavor of the sights that London offers, which are plentiful. I rate each site on a 1-10 scale, with 10 being an absolute must-see in my subjective mind.

The British Museum
The Rosetta Stone- 
Awesome! The greatest museum I have ever seen, with apologies to the Louvre which I saw as a child. Many many artifacts of ancient civilizations' rest here, from the Egyptian Pharaohs, to the Assyrians, Turks, Persians, and Greeks, the British Museum is the current collective resting place for them all. Compare and contrast these empires of yesteryear.
One of the highlights for me was the Rosetta Stone, from which English linguists were able to decipher the Egyptian Hieroglyphics.
To top it off they have many artifacts from mid-evil Europe to present day, including a collection of time pieces, ancient money, you name it, they have it.  To top it off, entrance is FREE for everyone.

Ancient statue- (actual size)
Must See Scale- 10+

Big Ben and Parliament
Parliament House
Splendid architecture, amazing. You can’t go up Big Ben without the help of a British member of Parliament, I am told, but you can take a tour inside the parliament house.
Big Ben
However, just being able to witness these amazing buildings from the outside is worth the journey, and definitely a must see as long as you are in London.

Must See Scale- 10

Natural History Museum
Fantastic. From dinosaur skeletons to Charles Darwin to gem stones and minerals from around the world, the Natural History Museum is fascinating for all ages. I highly recommend going, and best of all, admission is FREE for all.

The British Natural History Museum- from the outside

Full dinosaur skeleton

Must See Scale: 9.5

check out the T-Rex they brought back to life using Jurassic Park technology

Science Museum
James Watt steam engine propels industry

Should be called the “British” Science Museum as there are large tracts of space devoted to British contrbutions to science, from James Watt, who developed the steam engine, to Alan Turing, who broke the German communication code during World War II and was instrumental in the British prevailing over the Nazis.
Without a doubt I enjoyed it, and it is situated right next to the Natural History Museum and again, admission is FREE.

Must See Scale: 7.5

The War Rooms and Churchill Museum
a poster depicting Churchill
During World War II, Winston Churchill planned and conducted the war against Hitler in top secret offices not far from Buckingham Palace. In them is a history and feel of what it was like to be conduct the planning of the war, including the offices exactly as they were left at the end of the war.
At the end of the tour they have a rather large museum devoted to Churchill, who, even today, is still seen as demi-God in Britain, and it describes his life, numerous triumphs and failures, as well as his policies and outlook.
Cost- 17 GBP (about $26) 

British War office as it was left (including body)

Must see scale- 7  
(I found it super interesting, especially as I was considering writing a script about a WWII spy and I had read about the war rooms, for me it was a must see, however, I understand if the rest of the public might be less inclined to go.)

Westminster Abbey
Tomb of the Unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey
A beautiful medieval church that has become a graveyard of British notables, including kings and queens, various knights of valor, and scientists, including Isaac Newton.
To me it felt slightly macabre being inside, and although it was architecturally fascinating, it didn't match my personal tastes. It’s my opinion your money is better spent elsewhere, but if you enjoy this sort of thing, the interior is quite splendid as well.

Cost- 18 GBP

Must see scale- 4.5

Buckingham Palace
Royal Guard in winter grey- by Buckingham Palace gate

You can only tour the inside from July to October and it will cost you to do so, however, you can still go there and see the changing of the guard, but beware, crowds are extremely heavy to the point that I showed up and quickly left.
monument just outside Buckingham Palace

Must see scale: Incomplete
So, there are some of the main sights of London, a city definitely worth visiting once in your lifetime. However, do yourself a favor and go in the summer, when it might not be cold and foggy.