Being a Conservative Traveler

Politics is an issue from which I have promised to steer clear on this website and an issue I will continue to avoid on this website, as it is my travel website. Those of you that know me in real life, on twitter, or via other channels know that politics is one of the most important facets of my life, alongside my family, my friends, travel, Japanese language, and a few other interests. During my life in Japan and my travels through Asia over the past five months, I have met some interesting people both on and off the travel circuit. My fellow travelers are often cordial. They are often nice. Many times, we share great experiences and memories on the road and at home. There is, however, one thing that I notice what is often different when I am on the road and meeting people, choosing what I will do, where I will go, etc. during my trips: politics. 

Do not worry. I am not going to discuss my views on Obamacare, gun rights, or any other political issue on this website because it is my travel website. However, today I am going to discuss what it is like to be a (politically) conservative traveler and how my experiences may differ from liberals who travel or even from other people I meet on the road who do not disclose their political affiliation. I have not seen any other articles on this topic, so I hope it is interesting, engaging, and thought-provoking. 

Let’s start. 

During the last two weeks in Southeast Asia, a common theme of discussion in hostel common rooms, at the bar, or just with other random people has often risen: travel motivation. This discussion has often led to contentious discussions and is one of the issues I would like to discuss in this post. Many of the young backpackers I met on the road often had similar answers to the question: “Why are you traveling?”

The common theme amongst many of these answers had to do with a dislike of their home country (usually the United States), hatred of their country’s own culture and customs, a desire to leave home and their family forever, and a desire to see cultures that are “better” than their own culture. These answers were quite different than some of the standard answers I expected to hear on the road: “to take some time away from my life at home,” “to experience and immerse myself in another culture,” etc.

The latter, while I consider them liberal, are totally reasonable and acceptable. After all, I have done road trips in the United States and I am living (for the second time) in a country and culture that is very different than the United States. I have immersed myself in the Japanese language and culture, but there are some things I will not do. For example, Wearing a kimono (traditional Japanese clothes) is one of the cultural elements I do not feel comfortable embracing as a Westerner and choose not to do when I have the opportunity to do so.

It was extremely hard for me to bite my tongue when I heard the former answers to this question, but I did so because my trip was not about engaging in political arguments. It was about travel, photography, eating local fare, and meeting people along the way. 

When I travel, I do not travel out of dislike of my home country’s culture, a desire to never return home, or see “better” cultures than Western culture. As a matter of fact, when I travel, my motivations are completely different. I tell everyone that I am proud to be an American and that I am proud of Western values and do not subscribe to cultural relativism. I travel to see the sights of the world, see locals interact and live in their own environment, to try local food, and then recount and share these experiences with my family, friends, and others whom have never been to these locations. Not once have I considered another culture to be “better” than mine, nor have I wished never to return home while on the road. I would not know what to do without my family and friends back at home. 

Critiquing and criticizing one’s own country while on the road has never been high on my to-do list as I have traveled, but I ran into some in Malaysia who were eager to discuss nothing but how awful the United States is. It all started with a  discussion about how superior the Malaysian medical system is to the American system because of how cheap some prescriptions are. The discussion devolved into how they were a superior nation because their monarchy could suppress dissenters and force legislation through their government even if members did not want it to happen. Others quipped about how more taxes needed to be paid, yet either did not pay their own taxes or did not have an answer when I asked if they enjoyed paying taxes. 

I think these viewpoints also help determine where we go on the road, as well. Some of my fellow travelers had a field day talking about economic inequality out on the road and used their experiences living and backpacking in squalor in some corners as a great way to criticize capitalism and the free market.

I don’t know about you, but when I travel, I usually do not go out on the streets looking for a political agenda or trying to find and explain “economic inequality.” I would much rather walk down the back alley, say hello the the local merchant, and buy as much food as I can at his stand to help his family and his business! I never thought anything of those people with less except marvel about how hard they were working to better themselves and their family.

I had a great time in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Macau, and Singapore because these cities offered great historical lessons on a subject in which I have great interest (European influence in Asia as well as 19th Century history as a whole). Some other travelers did not know how I went to these cities because they were “too developed to gain a perspective” or because they were “ruined by European influence.” If anything, the European influence in these cities makes for an even more interesting and fascinating journey. The aforementioned cities have such an interesting array of architecture, street names, food, etc. because of their time as European colonies. I certainly recommend trying some of the Macanese food in Taipa, Macau. You will be in for a real treat with the Cantonese take on Portuguese food!

It was too bad to find out that some people were so jaded by their economic and political beliefs that they would not go to some of the “Asian Tiger” economies or couldn’t fully enjoy destinations because of British influence.

Travel motivations seem to be one of the main differences between conservative and liberal-minded backpackers I have met while out on the road over the past five months. 

Most of the conservative travelers I have met on the road also had a strong connection with their families and their homes as opposed to the more liberal travelers I have met. Answers ranging from “never wanting to come home again” to “at least five months so I can forget about home, return to renew a visa, and then get back on the road” to “I don’t know; I’ll go home when I run out of money,” were prevalent when I spoke with many of the liberal backpackers out there. The conservatives I met always had a goal of returning home once their trip was over, either to be with their family, to plan their next trip, or to enjoy being back in a familiar place even if for a short period of time. 

I don’t know how some of the backpackers are out on the road for months at a time without contacting their loved ones or longing for one of their mother’s home-cooked meals. I always send postcards to my family and friends when I am on the road to help share the experience with them and explain what it is like in a far off land. Even though I have been away from home for more than five months, I cannot wait to have the next home-cooked meal when I get home, and I look forward to seeing all of my family and friends at all times. Maybe we are just wired differently. 

A fellow traveler I met from Scotland said it well last week in Hong Kong when he basically said that we were able to separate our cultures from others while out on the road and see what parts of other cultures were good and which other elements were bad. Instead of coming with a completely open mind without a sense of norms and values, we come with a perspective- a perspective that has guided us through our lives and will continue to guide us until we die. I don’t think I could have said it much better than he did.

It is always hard for me to relate with other travelers on the road when they do not have a respect for their own culture and their own nation and when they lack a basis with their family and their homeland. Certainly, this is a conservative perspective. 

All hope for friendship out on the road is not lost, though. I made some truly amazing friends in Singapore last week as we discussed our previous travels and our desires for future travels. I met with these people in different locations later on in my trip and we had a great time sharing new experiences and making new memories. I do not know their political orientation, nor do I care what it is. 

Even though I vehemently disagree with some of the motives behind these travelers I met during my trip, I will continue to provoke discussion and find out why people travel. It always ends with interesting and fascinating answers. You never know which traveler will be fascinating and which traveler will take you on an amazing trip through a city they know like the back of their hand. 

At the end of the day, perspective makes a big difference when it comes to traveling. As you know from my previous posts, I bring a unique perspective to each city I visit, the people I meet, and the foods I try. I hope you appreciate my perspective and I look forward to sharing posts about my destinations this week as time allows. 

Look at my tagline, it tells the whole story: “Travel is the only expense that makes you richer.”

Have you ever met a conservative on the road? What is your travel perspective? Please share and add your comments in the box below:

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The Amazing People I Met on My Journey in Asia

I have just returned home to Japan (as strange as that still sounds when I say it) from a grueling, non-stop trip through seven different countries in Asia that started at the end of December. When I travel, I always enjoy taking photos, sampling street food, and going to the famous places. On this trip, however, one thing stands out from everything else as to why I will remember this trip: the amazing people I met at all points during my journey. 

I have had my fair share of encounters with travelers back in the United States and Canada during a number of road trips and day trips I have taken over the past few years. My friend Andrew and I always had a knack for meeting interesting folks. During a 2000-mile foray into the Northeastern United States and Canada’s Maritime provinces, we met interesting characters at rest stops in New York, inside custard stands in the rolling hills of Vermont, at the dance club in Montreal, and at a nice cafe perched atop Quebec City on a rainy and blustery July morning.

The nice things about these chats with fellow travelers is that they were short, sweet, and fleeting. It brought a breath of fresh air to our travels, and even revitalized our travel spirits. One of these encounters actually saved one of our trips in its entirety. We were actually planning our swift (and earlier-than-planned) return to the United States in the face of sleep deprivation and unprecedented tropical moisture in Quebec City this past summer.  We were seeking out a cafe with WiFi to plan our return trip home until met a couple and their daughter from New Brunswick that inspired us to keep going and make it the whole way to the coast. From that point onward, I’ve made a point to chat with people I meet along the road or in the airport. 

Almost from the beginning of this journey in Asia, I had some fascinating encounters with other travelers and even ended up making some new friends along the way. They were good omens for what was to transpire on this trip. 

The encounters all started during my flight from Hong Kong to Bangkok early last week when a gentleman sat down in the middle seat next to my window seat. I thought he seemed a bit rushed and in a hurry so I contemplated not saying hello and turning on my iPhone for the duration of the flight. Fortunately I trusted my instinct to say hello and strike up a conversation. After a few minutes of casual chatting, he ended up giving me the best travel advice for Bangkok and the surrounding areas. As it turned out, he had made many trips to Thailand and his advice helped me make the most of my stay in the Southeast Asian nation.  Add to that the talk we had about international business, marketing, politics, and the beers we enjoyed at 10,000 feet, and it was a flight I won’t soon forget. He gave me his business card and I am sure we will remain in touch and keep up with our future travels as we o across Asia and the globe. 

This conversation was just the beginning. During my second night in Bangkok, I had just finished up a day tour which included riding elephants. I was quite exhausted but decided to head out into the city instead of taking a nap at my hotel. After a few hours of walking, I ended up winding through some of the red light district and settling down at an outdoor bar to enjoy a drink in the warm evening and do some people watching.  A middle-aged Westerner was sitting at the seat next to me, so I decided to say hello. After a few Jack and Cokes, we had ended up discussing his military service, my life in Japan, his current life in another, very different, Asian country. We ended up making our way to another eating establishment in the city and shared stories like we had known each other for quite a long time. At the end of the night, we exchanged e-mails and I am sure we will continue to be in touch. Just a few kind words made for quite an interesting and memorable evening. 

The following night in Bangkok was by far the most unlikely of all. In an earlier post, I remarked on how I made friends with two Japanese-speaking girls in Hong Kong in the most unlikely of circumstances. The new friendship I made in Bangkok was even more unlikely! While waiting for some famous street noodles, I sat down across from a middle-aged couple that was just finishing up their noodles. As fate would have it, they were Japanese. Just before they got up to leave, I asked, in Japanese, 「それはどうでしたか。」(How was it?). With a  look of befuddlement, they sat back down and we had an engaging conversation about my life in Japan, their life in Japan, and what it was like to be in Bangkok. We never used any English because they could only speak Japanese. After teaching me some of the Hiroshima dialect, the gentleman’s wife retired to the hotel and her husband and I continued on for some more drinks and food at various different establishments. He used to live in Bangkok several years ago, so I had another unlikely tour guide for what to see in my final day in the city. As it turns out, he works as a schoolteacher for the same age group of children that I teach. We had talks about Japanese school life and really had a good time. We plan to meet in Japan in the near future to continue our discussions.  

Things went rather well in Bangkok, but I could not have expected how well they would go in Singapore when it came to making new travel friends. 

When I arrived in Singapore, I was excited to tackle the city about which I studied so much in college for one of my final papers. Seeing British landmarks, examining the skyline, and going to the top of the Marina Bay Sands were at the top of my list. After quickly checking in at my hostel, I was on my way to the Sands to take in the tourist-only view of the city and had zero intentions of getting to the pool and bar which only awaits hotel guests. 

While I was taking a photo of the view of the city from the photo deck, a woman bumped into me and ruined the scene I had tried to capture using my miniature tripod. She was very apologetic and I was eventually into a discussion with her and her husband about traveling in Asia and my life in Japan. This was our first night in Singapore. They were at the Sands and I was at a hostel in Clarke Quay. They graciously asked if I wanted to join them in going to the pool. How could I say no to the chance to see somewhere I had always wanted to see and would never get to see unless I could afford a room at the hotel? 

With an enthusiastic “yes,” I accepted their offer. We shared a drink at one of the bars overlooking the harbor and we took photos of each other atop the building at the pool. They retired to their room and I remained on the roof at the pool until it closed. Yet another unlikely encounter with other amazing travelers that took me to the most unlikely of places. 

I had met a new, exciting, traveler on each night of my trip and knew this would have to come to an end at some point, but I was mistaken. The new encounters just kept coming. 

The following evening after my day trip to Indonesia, I returned to the hostel looking to experience some of Singapore’s nightlife and hoped another solo traveler would be looking for the same thing. A lonely looking girl was sitting in the lobby so I struck up a conversation with her. As it turned out, she already had plans for the evening with another person she had met at the hostel, but would be in Kuala Lumpur the same time I would be in Malaysia. We exchanged e-mails and decided to meet there for some street food since we were both solo travelers and were looking for other interesting people to meet along the way. 

Shortly after she left the relaxed lounge, another person arrived and sat down next to me. He seemed eager to speak, so we started chatting about our stay in Singapore (it was also his first time)- the sights we had seen and what we planned to do over the next two days. After a while, we decided to head out into the balmy Singapore night. It was a great decision and we had a good time at one of the most famous nightclubs in the city. The following morning, we headed out to Merlion Park and some other sites around the city before returning to the hostel later that afternoon. 

As we sat in the lobby killing time before our checkout and departure, another fascinating person walked into the room. This person was not a backpacker at our hotel, but rather a Singapore native who was there to meet up with a friend and give a tour of her hometown. After a brief conversation, the three of us found out that we would be in Hong Kong for New Years’ and made separate plans to rendezvous in the city if time allowed. Nothing like this had ever happened for me during previous hostel stays.  

Not only did I meet some awesome people in Singapore, we would meet yet again in different cities in the future. 

I rendezvoused with the first girl form the hostel in Kuala Lumpur and we enjoyed an evening of sampling the interesting street food all across the city after going to SkyBar and checking out the amazing Twin Towers. As it started to rain, we split ways and were on to our next destinations the following day. I couldn’t get over how we had just met in Singapore the previous day and then toured and ate our way through Kuala Lumpur the next day. We may meet again in Seoul when I go to Korea later this year to visit friends from college. 

More of the same transpired in Hong Kong as I met up with the other girl from Singapore on New Years Eve after the fireworks. A group of us went out into the city and enjoyed some of the post-fireworks festivities after having only met a few days earlier in Singapore. It was a great time and yet another completely unlikely scenario. 

How often do you meet someone from a totally different country in one city and then meet them again in a totally different country mere days later? It always pays to be open and talkative at hostels or at other places when you are on the road. You never know anyone’s story or what they may be doing next. 

My last night in Hong Kong was just as interesting as the previous five nights. Two Scottish guys rolled into the dorm room at the hostel as I was preparing for an evening of sightseeing and photography in Hong Kong. They were very interesting fellows who had just arrived in Hong Kong after a few days in Vietnam. We were telling our stories of travel in Asia and I decided to join them on their trip to the night market in Kowloon and then head back to Hong Kong Island to watch a soccer game with them at one of the British expat bars in the area. After a few drinks and a few other stops along the way, I returned to the hostel for a few hours of shuteye before heading to the airport and returning home. These engineers were some of the most interesting and intriguing people I met on this while journey. 

When it is all said and done, the things I will remember most from my most recent adventure will not be the food or the sights, but the people I met and the friendships I made in all stops along the way. Whether they were a fellow American Expat, an American businessman, a Japanese teacher, a Korean university student, a Hong Konger living in Canada, a Singaporean local, Australians on vacation, or Scottish engineers, it was great sharing conversations and stories with them along the way. Unlike other people I have encountered on the road in the past, I have a distinct feeling I will cross paths with more than one of these folks again during our travels. 

Speak to people as you travel. You never know which person will lead you to an unforgettable adventure or the place off the beaten path in your next destination. Hostels and planes are invitations to meet some of the most interesting people on the planet. I met some amazing people on my journey through Southeast Asia.

 

Hong Kong: A Photographic Essay (Day 2)

When I visited Hong Kong earlier this month, I had a lifetime of expectations and anticipation about the city. I never thought these expectations could be met. Not only were these expectations and travel visions met, they were far and away exceeded by the time the first of three days in the region was completed. Here’s a look into day two in Hong Kong and why the full day in Hong Kong and Kowloon was so enjoyable and different than our first day/evening on Hong Kong Island. 

Following our late return from Macau on the last train the previous evening, my friend and I agreed that we would sleep in for our third day in Hong Kong. We wanted to be fresh and well rested for what would be a grueling day on foot throughout the Asian metropolis. After waking up at around 10:00 and enjoying some quality breakfast, we were off and on our way to Admiralty Station to begin our day on the northern part of Hong Kong Island. At the station, one holdover of British rule hit us right in the face. We had to “mind the gap” as we entered the subway car. 

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Mind the Gap – (c) 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

Following the advice of one of my seasoned traveller friends, our first stop of the day was the IFC Mall, located right on the Hong Kong Island side of Victoria Harbor. On the roof of the mall, there is a nice park that provides stunning views of the Hong Kong skyline, Victoria Harbor, and Kowloon. Even better than that, the IFC roof allows individuals to bring food and drinks to the top. We took advantage of the supermarket inside the mall and took up some refreshments and snacks to enjoy a few minutes overlooking Hong Kong to get a different perspective than we had at Victoria Peak the previous evening. It was a great view and great late morning activity. 

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IFC Roof (c) 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

After a while enjoying some drinks and snacks, we passed the entrance to Hong Kong Station and continued, on foot, through Hong Kong Island to make our way to one of Hong Kong’s most famous noodle shops, Tsim Chai Kee. Along the way on Hong Kong’s long, steep, and interesting streets, I could not stop thinking about how much some of these streets resembled a cross between New York and San Francisco. The architecture and layout were certainly different than any other city I’ve seen in Asia to this point. Image

Steep Hong Kong (c) 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

Given that my friend and I live in Japan, we are more than accustomed to having delicious ramen and noodles almost whenever we want it. True ramen and home cooked noodles are some of the most delicious Japanese and Asian foods and I enjoy getting them whenever I get the chance. From Seoul and Tokyo to Hiroshima and Kobe, I have had more than my fair share of delicious noodles. When we read reviews about Tsim Chai Kee online, we knew we had to go to see what all the rage was. As soon as we arrived, we knew we would be in for a treat. Tsim Chai Kee and another Japanese-style ramen shop were the only wo shops on the whole street that had lines of patrons waiting to get in to enjoy lunch. More than that, this place was definitely not a chain restaurant. It was a family run institution. 

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Tsim Chai Kee Noodle (c) 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

I ordered the noodle bowl which offered a smattering of all the meats the store had to offer and was not disappointed. The purely family restaurant feel of sitting with strangers at the table and the ambiance of hustle and bustle inside the store made for a great atmosphere. The food was even better. Once the steaming hot noodles and cans of Coca-Cola made it to the table, we knew we were in for a treat. The spicy and homemade flavor of the noodles was amazing! It looked pretty good, too. Image

Noodles for All (c) 2013, Erik Jacobs erikabroad.com

From Tsim Chai Kee, we were off to another Hong Kong institution, the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator. While researching Hong Kong, I had read quite a bit about this escalator and walkway system which traversed through the heart of Hong Kong Island. For full disclosure, we had completely forgotten about this stop on our trip until we saw it out of the corner of our eye while we were on the way to Tsim Chai Kee Noodle. We reshuffled some of our plans and made time to take the entire escalator route through Hong Kong. I won’t soon forget the experience of riding an elevated escalator through one of the world’s biggest cities.

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Central-Mid-Levels Elevator (c) 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

As we climbed through the city, we passed by all kinds of shops, stores, construction, and streets to our right and left. There were entrance and exit staircases and escalators on both sides of the route so it almost felt like we were riding on a highway back in the United States, except this highway was one big escalator. The bars, restaurants, and stores were all teem ping with life as people hopped on and off the escalator.

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Entrance and Exit (c) Erik Jacobs, 2013. erikabroad.com

Once we reached the end of the escalator ride, my friend and I agreed to stake a taxi back to Victoria Harbor to take a ride on another one of Hong Kong’s most famous attractions, the Star Ferry. As one of the world’s oldest and the world’s most busiest ferries, you have to ride if when you go to Hong Kong. Given the price (less than 50 cents, USD), skip the subway ride from Hong Kong to Kowloon and take a ride across the Harbor. I won’t forget the view from the boat as we passed through Victoria Harbor. CI also got to cross off one more thing from my travel bucket list in the process. 

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Star Ferry (c) 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

As the photographs show, the ride across the harbor provides some spectacular views of the skyline and other ferries. I finally was able to capture that photo I saw many years ago, hung on the wall of the Chinese restaurant in my hometown. It was as breathtaking as I thought it would be. 

After disembarking the ferry, my friend and I headed to the harbor for one final look at Hong Kong Island from the famous Clock Tower. The view was remarkable. The high buildings contrasted with the harbor and passing boats made a great scene where we just sat and watched passing boats for about thirty minutes. Even the sun burst through for a brief period of time. 

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From there, we stumbled into another ritzy and unforgettable shopping center much like the one I mentioned in my previous postings. All the name brand designers and watch makers were there. This one, however, had a unique twist: there was a park and green space on the roof near one of the entrances. A high school graduation ceremony was taking place and I was fortunate to capture a moment of pure joy as some girls remarked on their time as students together. 

 

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Pure Joy (c) 2013, Erik Jacobs erikabroad.com

Following some more street food and some browsing in the shopping centers, we made our way tom more Hong Kong Landmarks as our stay began to wind down to its conclusion. We returned to Jordan Street to see the famous Hong Kong Night Market, browse some more of the local shopping stores and take in one of Hong Kong’s most famous images: neon signs overhanging the streets. We were not disappointed, and I was able to pick up a Hong Kong t-shirt for all of $2.50 US. It was a great way to wrap up an unforgettable trip. 

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Neon to End the Day (c) Erik Jacobs, 2013. Erikabroad.com

When I look back on the trip to Hong Kong, I will never forget the nighttime scenery, the views from Victoria Harbor, or spending time with one of my new friends at another relocation in Asia. Very rarely do travel destinations live up to all of our expectations and then surpass all. Hong Kong certainly did that for me. I will be back in less than three weeks as Hong Kong is the starting and ending point for a forthcoming trip which will be more grueling and three times as long as the four day trip to Hong Kong earlier this month.

I look forward to bringing you along with me on another Asian adventure. I just hope the next one is as enjoyable as this one was.  

Speaking Japanese in… Hong Kong?

One of the first things that comes to mind when you think of communication in Hong Kong is most likely the British legacy of the English Language. I will certainly admit the English ability in Hong Kong was a major plus and benefit for someone like me in Hong Kong. If I said I used more Japanese than English on one evening in Hong Kong, I am sure you would be surprised. I certainly was, too.  The ability to speak Japanese in Hong Kong is another experience about my time in Hong Kong I will not readily forget. 

This unlikely evening all started when my friend and I made our way from our hotel to the Victoria Peak Tram station located near Hong Kong Park on Hong Kong Island. We were there to take in the view from Victoria Peak. Once we passed through the turnstile, we saw the long line and were a little annoyed with how long the wait to ride the tram and get to the top of the peak would take. Image

Waiting to go to Victoria Peak. © Erik Jacobs, 2013. erikabroad.com

After waiting for about ten minutes, something very unique caught my ear. I heard a language that was certainly not English and most definitely not Cantonese coming. The two girls in line in front of us were either speaking Japanese or Korean, we thought, so I tuned in to find out what they were speaking. After a few seconds, we instantly recognized they were speaking Japanese and listened in to the discussion for a little bit. These girls had come from a place between Osaka and Tokyo and happened to be in Hong Kong just for the weekend to do some shopping and sightseeing. After a little bit of deliberation, I decided that I would just go up to them and ask the following question: すみません。日本人ですか。(Excuse me. Are you Japanese?)

We certainly knew they were Japanese, but I always like to ask Japanese people I see abroad in their mother tongue. The reactions I get, as a taller white male with light hair and light eyes are always fascinating. They just turned around and looked at us with a look of befuddlement. I am sure they were thinking whether or not we actually knew Japanese or just were joking around with them. After a brief discussion about Japan and our travels to Hong Kong, we boarded the tram together and went to the top of Victoria Peak as a group of four. 

One of the nice things about traveling alone or with one or two friends is that you always meet interesting people whenever you travel. Whether it is at Acadia National Park, a roadside diner in Vermont, a rest stop in New Hampshire, at the Subway in Quebec City, or on the hard benches at an airport, I have met some fascinating people on my travels. The exception here is this was the first time I ever met some fellow travelers who did not speak any English. This was certainly a different dynamic, but one certainly worth exploring. 

After about five minutes of chatting, I realized I was having no problems and there was almost no language barrier. I was so grateful that I studied at Middlebury the previous summer and continued to study Japanese each night in my free time because those opportunities opened up so many doors for new friends, acquaintances, and conversations. Our new friends helped us take photos and provided some nice company for the evening atop the tower at Victoria Peak. 

One of the bonuses that goes with studying language is that you never know when you will have to use your other language. This time it happened to be in Hong Kong, of all places. I was grateful to have made some new friends for the evening as well getting in some solid Japanese conversation. From travel to college majors to interests and thoughts on the scenery at Victoria Peak, we were able to discuss things in Japanese with no difficulty. Certainly a moment I will never forget. 

There’s just one catch to this whole story: they bid farewell in English at the end of the night. 

All I can say is that if you are studying a foreign language right now, do not give up and keep pushing yourself. I push myself each night in anticipation of the next unexpected moment when I can use my Japanese ability. The moment is often magical and unforgettable. I went to Hong Kong and ended up speaking Japanese for a whole evening. I never would have conjured up this situation in my wildest dreams, let alone three years ago when I did not speak a word of the language. 

Had I never taken Japanese studies seriously, I know I would not have had the chance to engage in a conversation like this outside of English. Keep studying. The end result will be worth all of your effort!

Have you ever had an experience like this? 

 

 

Unforgettable Hong Kong (Day 1)

My one friend once told me, “There are only three great cities in the world: New York, London, and Hong Kong. Someday you will see for yourself.” I had my doubts, but once I moved to Japan I knew I had to go to Hong Kong to see if my friend was a soothsayer or if Hong Kong was overhyped. My friend certainly hit the nail on the head when it came to Hong Kong being one of the world’s “great cities.”

Before I travel, I often create expectations and conceptions about how places will be, how the people will be, and how enjoyable a certain location will be. Sometimes I am dissappointed and other times my expectations are completely destroyed as a destination outshines even my highest expectations. I must admit that Hong Kong destroyed all of my expectations and then some. My journey to Hong Kong with one of my close friends (and Macau in its own right) is an adventure I will never forget.

Things got off to an interesting start- a start that is only possible in Japan. Because public transportation in Japan shuts down between basically midnight and between five and 5:30AM, it was impossible to make it to the airport in time for checkin and security clearance prior to our 8:30AM departure to Hong Kong. The trip to Kobe would have taken too much time. As a result, my friend and I pulled and all-nighter on the cold, hard, wooden benches of Kansai International Airport Terminal 2. I will undoubtedly have to do this again because of the early nature of some of Japan’s international flights, but this is something to which I do not look forward, even in the slightest. We took advantage of the free rental blankets at the airport, made some new friends who were bound for Korea, and slept as best as we could for about four hours.  Once the terminal filled with people bound for Taiwan and South Korea, we were alive, awake, and ready to take on Hong Kong. Following a quick money exchange and an old school walk on the tarmac, we were onboard and ready to start our adventure in Hong Kong. I had to do the obligatory Richard Nixon wave and peace symbol before boarding. Image

Walking on the tarmac towards the Hong Kong-bound plane. © 2013 Erik Jacobserikabroad.com 

Four hours and one long nap later, we touched down in Hong Kong and it was so exhilarating to know I had finally arrived to one of my top travel destinations! Ever since I have been a child, I wanted to visit Hong Kong and I knew I was only a few minutes away from getting the coveted passport stamp to finally verify I had made it to the former British Colony! There was one catch- Hong Kong (and Macau) STOPPED issuing passport stamps in July! I was so disappointed when I passed through immigration and a flimsy card stating my permitted length of stay was stapled into my passport. One of my favorite things about travel is getting passport stamps and I was robbed of the Hong Kong stamp! The disappointment quickly faded as we headed towards our first destination of the whirlwind trip: Hong Kong’s famed Big Buddha. Image

Hong Kong International Airport. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

Following a short and remarkably easy ride on Hong Kong’s MTR, my friend and I exited and “minded the gap” as we made our way toward the Big Buddha. After a stellar hour long wait in the serpentining lines, we made our way onto one of the crystal cable cars for the unforgettable ride going through Hong Kong’s rolling hills and lush forested areas en route to the Buddha. If I can make one recommendation here, you MUST pay a few more Hong Kong Dollars and get the crystal carriage cable car for two reasons: First, the line is much shorter than the standard carriage line. Secondly, you can see through the bottom of the carriage and view some winding trails through the mountains, several inlets, and various other cool spots during your ride. The view was amazing. Image

Cable cars. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

After a trek through a heavily tourist area filled with nick-knacks, trinkets, and fake souvenirs, we had finally arrived at one of the most iconic images of all of Hong Kong: the staircase leading up to the 1996-built big Buddha statue. The view was completely breathtaking when you reach the bottom of this staircase. Unfortunately due to bad lighting with the sun directly behind Buddha, the photo cannot give this scene the justice it truly deserves.

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Even though this Buddha was only finished in 1996, the amount of tourists and locals alike at this site was incredible. Buddhists praying, Asian and Western tourists taking photos, and the Korean comedy group outside one of the shops along the route there stuck out the most to me. Of course a trip to this Buddha would not be complete without a photo posing just like the largest sitting Buddha statue in the world.

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Posing with big Buddha. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

After another breathtaking ride on the cable car (this time at sunset) and checking in at our hotel on Hong Kong Island, my friend and I began our journey to another one of Hong Kong’s must-see attractions: Victoria Peak.

I had always heard fables about Hong Kong being the shopping Mecca of East Asia but never truly gave those claims the credence they probably deserved. After having lived in Tokyo for a few months in early 2011 as a study abroad student, I though nowhere in Asia could possibly beat Tokyo when it came to glamorous stores, ritzy stores, or sheer opulence. I was resoundingly incorrect. The walk from our hotel to the famed Victoria Peak Tram took us through a shopping mall which hosted stores like: Marc Jacobs, Burberry, Cartier, Gucci, and other top dollar stores, stores I had never seen before outside of a magazine or New York City. I was in awe at the wealth I had only started to see in Hong Kong. Things got even more interesting when we made our way to the tram.

I had never ridden a vehicle on such a steep incline in my whole life. Last summer, I attended language school in Oakland, California, and frequently went to San Francisco for sightseeing, eating Japanese cuisine, and visiting Fisherman’s Wharf. During that time, my friends and I took an obligatory ride on the outside of one of San Francisco’s cable cars. While those streets were steep, the Victoria Peak Tram took steepness to a whole new level. The tram ride felt like it was on more than a 45 degree angle for the entire ride up to the summit. As the car increased speed, the steepness also increased to the point where people were holding on for dear life as they attempted to stand in the cable car. I have added a photo from the inside of the car to give you an idea what this ride resembled. Image

Inside the Victoria Peak Tram. © Erik Jacobs, 2013. erikabroad.com

Following this ride, we had finally arrived at Victoria Peak, although a clear view of the city was not yet available from the tram exit. Already only in our first few hours of our four day excursion to Hong Kong and Macau, I felt our trip had met its moment of truth. Ever since I saw the first photo of the nighttime view from Victoria Peak, I knew I had to go there. I had pumped up this view to be as good as the Grand Canyon, but in a different way. The lights, the buildings, and the view had to be breathtaking, didn’t they? On the ride up to the top, I had noticed that the Bank of China lights were off and I feared for the worst. I will let you be the judge of how the view was at Victoria Peak before I write any more. Image

Stunning Victoria Peak. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

As you can surely see from this photo, reaching the top of Victoria Peak and peering over the handrail was one of the happiest and most rewarding travel moments I had ever experienced. The view there was everything I had imagined, and then some. The glistening skyline off of Victoria Harbor, the twinkling lights in all directions, the cool wind coming across the viewing balcony, the messages on the International Commerce Centre, and the moving lights on the Bank of China Tower combined with some new friends I made (more on that in a later post) to make this a night I will never forget. While this world seemed expansive, I was also reminded that the world is such a small place. A friend of mine from Japan happened to be there at the exact same time with his parents! We said our hellos and continued onward with our evenings. Moments like that are just one more reason why I love to travel.

I even went ahead and purchased one of the commemorative photos they had for sale. Someday I will proudly hang that in my room alongside my photo atop Roppongi’s Mori Tower in Tokyo. Image

Me with Hong Kong and Kowloon in the background. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

While the next morning called for a 4:45 am wakeup to make our ferry to Hong Kong, that did not seem to matter at all during our first night in Hong Kong. Never in my wildest dreams did I think Hong Kong could live up to the expectations I had built for the better part of 15 years. Happily, the city destroyed all of those expectations on the first night. From the rural and cultural Buddha to the urban and unforgettable Victoria Peak view, I had a feeling that the best of Hong Kong was yet to come. After a long walk back to our hotel, I settled down for a short night’s sleep.

Why Postcards Matter

Do you remember what it was like before e-mail and text messaging when you were younger and rushed home to check the mailbox or when out to the mailbox for your parents to check if there was any mail? I am 23 years old and I sure remember that. Of course I never received bills at that time, but it was always a rush to receive a letter and open it with a sense of anticipation. Every time I got mail or a postcard, a few questions always raced through my head: From whom did the letter come? What was inside the letter? Why did they even send me a letter?

When I was younger (and to this day) I also get similar feelings when I am posting mail and slipping it into the mailbox (all the while hoping it either a) arrives at its intended destination or b) wondering how long it would take to arrive in the recipient’s hands.

I will also readily admit that I like the taste of the seal on envelopes and even the taste of the old-school lickable stamps. I think there is something uniquely human intrenched within each of us that wants to send a real letter (or post card) instead of a text message or e-mail, and that is why I am writing this article.

Whenever I set off on international travel or domestic travel to famous or interesting destinations far from my hometown (in the United States) or in my current base (Kobe, Japan) there are a few things that I must take with me. First of all, my camera and my phone (for GPS) absolutely must come. Secondly, my passport comes along. The third thing I bring with me is a small notebook in which I keep with the addresses of my close family, friends, and a few other people with whom I exchange travel correspondence via snail mail. Other than that, all other things (except toothpaste and deodorant) are either optional or can be acquired on-site if there truly is a need.

I am sure many people think the concept of carrying an address book or list of addresses with me on my travels is quite odd, but I will explain why it is so important and overlooked. Many times when we travel, getting caught up in the moment of snapping the perfect photograph, practicing our language skills, sampling local street food, or just hustling from point A to point B allows us to escape from our troubles with work, stress, relationships, etc. That stress relief is a great thing, but one of the most important aspects of travel (at least to me) is sharing the experience with our loved ones, our friends, and others that may have an interest in our travels or experiences. Anyone can take five seconds and fire off an e-mail saying they are in such-and-such city and they are thinking of you. Even more people can take two seconds to send a text message and let their friends know they will be out of touch for a while.

Sending a post card to convey your thoughts, feelings, and emotions about your travels takes time, energy, and thought. Not everyone is willing to expend the energy to actually make a personal connection with people when you are out on the road. I find this interaction one of the best ways to truly enjoy travel and take in everything that may have flown over your head or passed by your eyes on a high-paced trip.

I always try to send postcards from interesting places when I travel. Nothing beats the response I get from people that did not know I was traveling. Receiving a postcard from somewhere like Seoul or Busan, South Korea, Kyoto, Japan, or Quebec City, Canada, truly made their day and sparked a genuine interest in travel. Their responses always focused on how kind it was to take the time to write the card and share what was happening at that moment with them. Those on the receiving end of the card really enjoy receiving the card, but the whole act of writing the card can be rewarding in itself. This came to fruition for me for the first time on Saturday  when I was writing cards to my family amidst controlled chaos in Senado Square, Macau.

My friend and I had settled down near the fountain in the middle of the tiled plaza to sample some San Miguel beer (famous Hong Kong/Macau drink) and just take in some sights and sounds when I remembered I had a few postcards to send back home. This triggered an interesting journey where I had to go to a stamp vending machine to get some stamps for my recently purchased cards due to the post office being closed on Saturday. Once we had settled back down at the Square, I finally had the chance to take in and gather all of my thoughts and transfer them to the old postcards I had purchased in one of Macau’s back alley. The most challenging thing about the whole process was figuring how much saliva to put on the stamp to make sure it would stay on the card! While the message itself would not be instantaneous, the true message and emotion of that day will certainly be evident when my family receives those cards. Everything from the cantina bar song playing in the background at the plaza to the architecture of the square to the crookedness of the lickable stamp should come alive when the recipients receive their cards in the next few days. When they read that card, see the foreign stamps, and know it was actually written where the stamp says it was, I know they will start thinking about the destination and what it is like.

I like to send handwritten letters, but the postcard will always have a special place in my heart. It helps you gather your thoughts and helps those you love truly understand what your travels meant to you at the time you wrote that card. Who knows? Maybe your card will inspire your family and friends to go somewhere, someday. I know when my parents received a card from the Turks and Caicos several years ago, my mind has been set on going there ever since.

Just remember this: The thought REALLY does count.

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Mailing a card from near Senado Square, Macau. © Erik Jacobs, 2013. erikabroad.com

To make a long story short, take a few minutes out of your trip to send a postcard to your friends and family. It will mean more to them than you can ever imagine. You might even enjoy gathering your thoughts for a few minutes.

Postcards still matter.

Why Macau is as Good as Hong Kong

For anyone who has never been to the two Special Administrative Regions in China, what I am about to say could sounds shocking to some. The same could also be said by those of you that have been to Hong Kong and Macau. I am going to say it anyway, though. I liked visiting Macau as much as I liked visiting Hong Kong last week. Both cities are great, but for very different reasons. The fusion of European and Chinese history and architecture, the different parts of the island and accompanying lifestyles, and the amazing photographic opportunities on the streets highlight some of the reasons why I loved my time in Macau. 

The whole day started off bright and early as my friend and I left our hotel in Hong Kong at 5:15 AM to start the walk from the Admiralty Station area to make it to Hong Kong – Macau Ferry Terminal in time for a customs check before our 7:00AM departure. The sun still had not risen and this offered a unique look over to Kowloon across Victoria Harbor. Image

After the most cursory of all security checks (literally presenting a passport and walking through a line without metal detector check or bag inspection), we were aboard the TurboJET ferry with an 8:15 arrival time in the former Portuguese colony. As the boat swayed at the dock in Hong Kong, I worried about sea sickness, but that fear did not come to fruition. Nearly as soon as we exited Victoria Harbor and began passing through the many smaller Hong Kong islands, the easy and smooth ocean lulled me to sleep. 

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After dealing with some pushy mainland Chinese at the immigration stop in Macau, we were through but there was one big problem: no currency exchange desks or information desks were open. It sure was weird to see Portuguese on a sign in Asia. I had read in several places that you could literally travel through all of Macau for free on casino busses, but we wanted to have a map to make sure we knew where we were going. After getting our map, we found out the worst-kept secret in Macau was true: you can travel virtually anywhere on the island, for free, on a casino shuttle bus. We boarded the shuttle bus to the Wynn to position ourselves for a morning and afternoon traversing the famous Portuguese parts of town. 

After a brief taste of the opulence and wealth that pervades Macau inside the shopping areas at the Wynn and on the casino floor, we began our walk around Nam Van Lake (past the Grand Lisboa) towards the government house to start our journey. Almost as soon as we arrived, I was enthralled with how well the Chinese had preserved the Portuguese and European architecture in Macau. Unlike Hong Kong, many of the older buildings from colonial rule were still in tact and vibrant. The colors on the administrative government building are something you will have to see to believe. I felt like I was somewhere in the middle of a Caribbean colony. It was odd to see a Chinese flag atop this building, but the colors were so vibrant.  Image

 

After a few more photos of the surrounding gardens and lotus pond, my friend and continued onward to the famous St.Lawrence Church where I witnessed something you could only find in Macau.

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Amidst the bustle of mopeds and motorcycles on every corner, a Catholic nun walked down the street with several other people. Here is a photo of that unforgettable moment.Image

You could never capture a moment like this in Hong Kong. The fusion of East and West was so evident outside of St. Lawrence Church. I loved watching the bicycles and motorcycles make the hard left turn in front of the church to continue down some more narrow streets where other bikes and pedestrians waited. Here is a shot of the area surrounding St. Lawrence Church. Image 

The sounds of a lively colonial city still emenated as we walked up the tiled slopes of this part of Macau with our sights set on finding Senado Square and then taking the famous walk through Macau to the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Fortunately for us, we were sidetracked and encountered even more mosaic-covered plazas and beautiful churches along our meandering route. 

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There were more bikes along the way, too. Image

 

As we walked through more cobblestoned streets where Asian-style architecture was right next to European architecture, I fell more in love with Macau as I took each passing step. Originally my friend and I had planned this trip to Macau as a nice excursion to gamble a bit and check out the view from Macau Tower, but we quickly realized that we needed to spend an entire day making our way through the “other part” of the city, away from all of the glitz on the south side of the island. It was a great choice and one I will never regret. Over time, the number of tourists and other people picked up and we knew we were nearing the famed Senado Square in the heart of Macau’s Portuguese-influenced area. Just like that, the iconic mosaic-tiled square was upon us. As if it was a scene from a movie, we entered Senado Square as a band on the street played the song from the Star Wars cantina bar and here is what we saw. Everything from the teeming energy on the square to the architecture made me think I had been transported to Europe. It was impossible to believe that we were seated in China. I wished I had a time machine to go back to the mid-19th Century or the early 20th Century to see this location in its colonial heyday. Image 

Down on the square, my friend and I even ran into one of our friends who lives in Japan by mere coincidence. The world is such a small place. 

From Senado Square, my friend and I navigated through the quintessential Asian street market to make it up to St. Paul’s ruins. As bartering for a fresh Portuguese egg tart happened on the left, more negotiating over the price of famous pork happened on my right. A couple tried to push their newborn up the hill in a stiller, and I saw a Dairy Queen store and Nike outlet near the end of the passageway. This controlled chaos is one more reason why I loved this walk through old Macau. European streets were dominated by some of the best street food in all of Asia.

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As soon as this chaos broke, the reason why we began this journey appeared on the horizon: the ruins of the beautiful St. Paul’s Cathedral, destroyed by fire centuries ago. The scene was beautiful. An immaculately constructed Catholic facade sits atop several flights of stairs in the middle of the bustling Asian market. Behind it all, you can see the high rise buildings of new Macau. I only wished that I could have seen this church before its destruction. At that moment, the sun broke through the crowds and offered up an even better view of the ruins. At that moment, I was convinced that Macau would continue to be one of my favorite travel destinations– and a place I would want to see again in the future. As much as I loved Hong Kong, I did not encounter these types of cultural treasures during my two days walking the streets of China’s other Special Administrative Region.

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My friend and I did not stop there. We visited the fort adjacent to St. Paul’s to see another Portuguese legacy in this part of the city. The key component that helped the Portuguese stave off a Dutch invasion  in 1622, Fortaleza do Monte offered more stunning views of the Macanese skyline and helped emphasize the unique fusion of East and West, new and old, that Macau has to offer to even the historical novice or casual day traveler. 

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In between a stop at the Grand Lisboa and taking in a show at another casino, my friend and I also ventured to Taipa to see some more colonial sites and take the chance to sample some Macanese and Portuguese food on the streets. As well preserved as the Senado Square district was, I thought Taipa was even more well preserved. Whole blocks were painted to period colors. Colonial artwork and buildings dominated the landscape. There were even numerous Portuguese restaurants lining the streets. This type of neighborhood is another site you would not be able to find in Hong Kong because of the development and expansion the city saw since the change in economic policy in the 1970s. We even stumbled upon a Lusophonic festival in this part of the city.

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Of course a day in Macau is not complete without a trip to the Grand Lisboa to gamble and a trip to Taipa Island to see a show, but I wanted to focus this post on all of the unique historical sites that Macau has to offer, making it one of the most interesting and memorable places I have ever visited. Growing up close to Gettysburg, Washington, DC, Antietam, and Harper’s Ferry, I have always had a deep appreciation for history and historical preservation. When I came to Macao, I expected much of Portuguese colonial legacy to be eliminated for a host of reasons, but I was pleasantly surprised to see much of it in tact, preserved for future generations to appreciate. Something about the cobblestone, the mosaics, the buildings, and prevalent appearance of Portuguese give the world’s most densely populated city a different vibe. This fusion of cultures, languages, foods, and architecture makes Macau a photogenic city with so many unique experiences around each corner. I loved Macau for very different reasons than why I loved Hong Kong, but it is a very worthwhile destination in the region. I went to Macau skeptical about how good of a place the island would be, but I left knowing it was an amazing experience that I will never forget.   I will put a post in the future about how nice the casinos and Macau Tower were, but this post is dedicated to why Macau is as good as Hong Kong and why any traveler to Hong Kong has to take at least a day trip to Macau if they have the time. It is an unforgettable destination. 

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Chess, Cheers, and Chinese in Macau

Chess, Cheers, and Chinese in Macau

Chinese men laugh, smoke, drink, and talk as they play Chinese Chess in a park in Macau on November 2, 2013. (c) Erik Jacobs

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Pure Hong Kong

Pure Hong Kong

I have returned from Hong Kong and will have extensive posts about my time in Hong Kong and Macau in the coming days, but needed to share this photo of the famed Nathan Street before I go to bed and prepare for work tomorrow. I loved everything about Hong Kong from the glitz and glamor in the shopping districts to the street food and the Star Ferry, but taking in the local sounds was also amazing. Take a moment and be taken into the heart of Hong Kong.