Friday, August 21, 2009

Will man bite shark? Or will it taste like chicken?

KOTA KINABALU -- Last night, we saw one of the most amazing fish markets ever, just two blocks from our hotel. Surrounding a vast collection of restaurant tables were fish tanks containing every imaginable critter that lives in water: clams, oysters, groper, lobster, etc. And yes, Shark.

I liked the idea of turning tables on those cold-blooded creeps, but if shark taste anything like dogfish, forgettaboutit.

I took a video of one little sharkey trying to find an exit from the water tank.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Almost marooned in Borneo

KOTA KINABALU -- Dark clouds were approaching the harbor at noon today when I took a launch out to Sapi Island. I swam a bit in the warm water and watched exotic fish wiggle around the corral. (One irate fish attacked me, no doubt an escapee from the fish-chew-feet salon in Kuala Lumpur.)

The clouds overhead got darker, and thicker, then dumped rain. Then came lightening. Shuttle service to Kota Kinabalu was shut down because of the risk. Were we all about to die? And how long till Sally and Michaela, shopping for knick knacks in town, would notice my absence?

Naturally, I panicked, fearful I would spend the rest of my days semi-alone on a desert island, stranded in solitude but for several dozen Japanese, Australians and French, plus a small restaurant with cases of cookies, chocolate and ice cream. No matter, panic crawled up my spine like a poisonous crustacean (I've been reading cheap novels). I looked around for a volley ball which I could name Wilson, while I made plans for losing weight, growing a beard and preparing for "Castaway II: the Sunburned Edition."

Recalling survival training I took in high school, I kept calm, placed my clothes where they would dry, developed a strategy for making fire and cooking fish. And yes, I ate a chocolate bar.

With an hour, the storm had passed and I had not starved. I might have gained a pound. Even so, I faced down the THREAT of the IDEA of death. Attached is an image of Sapi Island.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Blogging blather from Ubud

UBUD, Bali -- On our last night in Ubud, Sally and I brought the lap top and connected to the world wide web. In this exotic destination, for dinner we had chicken sandwiches. Don't you just love globalization?

I've come to realize that Ubud as some fabled destination for old-style spiritual awakening is a tad overstated, what with Rolling Stones music blaring from a nightclub and a Ralph Lauren Polo Shop just down the way on Monkey Forest Road. Perusing the local nightclub listings, I find that Ubud is one of Bali's top places to party. The hamlet is overrun with small motor bikes and cars driven by men offering you a ride. Auto fumes drifts into the restaurants. "Taxi?"

Monday, August 17, 2009

Monkey Madness!

UBUD, BALI -- Dawn in Ubud brings some unusual guests. A family of Monkeys climbed to our 2nd story room and walked about our balcony looking for food.

One large male picked up a container of water and growled at Sally when she ordered him to put it down. Having established his rank, he then ignored her, calmly unscrewed the cap and drank.

Sally woke me up and I caught on tape other members of the group.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The view from our room

UBUD, BALI -- Sally and I are now in Ubud, a town known for its artistic and spiritual character.

Proof? Mick Jagger supposedly stayed here, but not in this congested little burb but likely out in the countryside, where 5-star hotels were built for sophisticates with bank accounts.

Shown here is a photo from the balcony of our room, overlooking the pool at our hotel.

In the Department of Pandemics, I'm still feeling the ill effects of my respiratory infection.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Two feet in heaven

BALI -- Those are not Brad Pitts' feet, though the confusion is common and understandable.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Just dump the rice here on my banana leaf, thank you

KUALA LUMPUR -- We stopped at an Indian restaurant tonight where food was served without utensils or plates. The server brought rice and small bowls of chicken, beef, spices or other items that you dumped onto a banana leaf. You eat with your right hand and afterwards wash your hands at a communal sink. The only mystery is how they stack banana leaves in the dishwasher.

Not many tanning booths in this town

KUALA LUMPUR -- It's hard to find any sort of skin cream in this town with out skin whitener, often bleach.

Dining out, Kuala Lumpur style

KUALA LUMPUR -- Michaela's landlord, Soo Yoon, took us out to dinner last night in the Bangsar neighborhood. Joining us was Michaela's co-worker and housemate, Maddy, a fellow student at the University of Oregon. The slight haze in the image comes from the sizzling sate grill in the street. That sate and peanut sauce was better than what we ate today poolside at our hotel, Le Meridien. My favorite part of Malaysian restaurants: beer served in giant bottles. Yum.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Meet some children of Kuala Lumpur

KUALA LUMPUR -- Sally and I criss-crossed an ocean to meet the children served by our daughter, a volunteer at a shelter run by the Women's Aid Organization of Malaysia.

They are adorable. They greeted us with a song from their school and gave us a hand-written welcome card. They called us "auntie" and "uncle."

Roll the tape.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Fish, like weasels, ripped my flesh

KUALA LUMPUR -- We flew on Asia Air from Hong Kong and met up with Michaela, who gave us a sophisticated tour of Kuala Lumpur.

She took us to the Central Market, where at the Cute Fish Spa, 5 rm bought you 15 minutes of time with a peculiar fish that enjoys nibbling on human feet. It's supposed to be a kind of massage and after walking for several hours, I was ready to surrender my toes.

Soon as my feet went under, they swarmed, ferociously chewing on my flesh with their tiny -- and harmless -- teeth. It tickled. I yanked my feet out, as others shrieked from their own surprise. Check out the Italian guy (pictured).

I put my feet back in and watched them return. A big one eyed me and swam around and began his feast. What exactly were they eating? Sweat? Toe jam? Bits of flesh? Where was the blood?

Who cares? It felt good. And perhaps, it tasted good.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Another big thought on globalization

HONG KONG--A friend who grew apples in Manson, Washington, once complained about the vast acreage of orchards being planted in China, subsidized by the World Bank. Why would the U.S. government fund competition for our own farmers? he asked. Good question.

But on this trip, walking near the Temple Street Night Market, I spotted empty apple boxes from several grower cooperatives from Lake Chelan, including Trout-Blue Chelan. My late friend, John Picken, would have been pleased.

Finger lickin' good at the Temple Street Night Market

HONG KONG -- It's hot and humid. People semi-wash dishes on the sidewalk and serve up strange, spiney fish that eye you as you manage your chop sticks. Don't ask. It's the Temple Street Night Market. Enjoy!

A brief musing on wealth, class and coach class

OVER THE PACIFIC -- This item is being written retroactively, two days after our arrival in Hong Kong. But the memories of undeserved luxury linger.

We came here on Cathay Airways, flying Business Class, thanks to cashing in about five years worth of Alaska Airlines credit card miles. If you were to book this trip through Expedia, the price for Business would be about $4,153 versus about $1,163 for Coach. Is Business worth four times as much as Coach? Well, it's 10 times as much fun. For me, its the difference between sleep or no sleep, between 13 hours of someone's elbow in your gut, between French Champagne and seltzer, and lay-flat seats (pictured) with massaging magic fingers that remind me of La-Z-Boy recliners. (Check out Cathay's dreamy introduction to its service.)

I have one friend who prides himself on traveling around the world in coach, even as far as Africa from the West Coast. A fairly good sized person, especially when his girth approaches 190 lbs., he can't always sleep on flights but is happy to read books. To him, privation is more interesting than luxury. I once traveled with him to Limerick, Ireland, where we landed in the middle of the night and checked in to a hostel and were escorted to a crowded room full of double bunks of snoring men. Recoiled, my mind immediately went to the steerage scenes in "Titanic" and I felt the presence of disappointed ancestors who had traveled in steerage to America. To the contrary, my friend inhaled the odor of 16 men in a confined space and chuckled in the darkness. He welcomed what he regarded as adventure.

And to that, I say: nuts. I am not a greedy person. I don't envy the rich... except on a few occasions such as air travel. The rich are different from you on me. On airplane flights, they are treated to real plates, French wines, chocolates, more booze and a vastly improved chance of arriving in a distant place refreshed and ready to enjoy a vacation.

You experience these distinctions especially on Cathay, the Hong Kong-based airline with some of the best service in the world. (One exception: my daughter had a lousy recent experience; another story.) On Cathay, coach has the same hip-hugging seats found everywhere but the food in the rear cabin is excellent, the service is warm and there's an open bar with booze and good snacks for the entire flight. In Business, riding in the upper deck of a 747-400, you might want to stay on the plane and skip the beaches of Bali.

I especially enjoyed how the flight attendant addressed me by name, "Mr. Gore, would you like more champagne?" I said yes three times. Then switched to a French red for the meat course, followed by a glass of Port with the cheese service. I hadn't enjoyed Port as much since my brief days at the Bodleian. I think I made a grab a little too quick when she came by with chocolates in a wooden box. I made a mental note to blog about this extraordinary service. How could she remember my name with so many others Business?

On her third pass, though, I discovered her secret: a slip of paper taped to the service cart. No matter. At least she took the time to write it down.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Meet Hong Kong's finest tailor

HONG KONG -- Back in the early 1990s, when U.S. journalism reached its peak of wealth and global ambitions, I paid a visit here to tailor Ash Samtani Clothing Ltd. Back then, the word in the Seattle Times newsroom was, when in Hong Kong, stop at Ash for shirts, suits or a dress overcoat.

In 1991, I was on a trip to document container shipping with my friend Barry Wong, a Times photographer and a great travel companion. Barry, whose parents were born in China, entertained me greatly on that trip by pretending to not know Chinese and telling me afterwards what our translators and interview subjects had said about us.

On that trip, Barry bought a black overcoat he still wears. He looks terrific. I bought 4 dress shirts that lasted some 20 years, far longer than anything purchased from Lands End, Macy's or other suppliers. Nice fabric. Great fit. Reliable buttons. I would still wear those shirts but for the effects of age, my Hogarthian lifestyle and gravity.

On this trip, I considered and rejected a visit to Ash Samtani, minding our shrunken 401ks and figuring I lacked the time on our 3-day visit, even though the tailor claimed a world record for the fastest-made suit. But when Sally and I noticed our hotel was a half mile away on Nathan Road from Ash, we walked down. I meant to buy only a couple shirts. But driven wild by the inducements of my spouse and anxious to stimulate the world economy, instead I bought 7 shirts and three suits and got a free tie as a gift from Ash Samtani's son, Luke.

I could write a long post just on Luke's masterful and elegant process of greeting a customer, offering a refreshment and unrolling the luxury fabrics. It's all so sensual, running your hand across cashmere blends, taking in the subtle weaves and the interplay and coordinated colors, having him drap the fabric across your chest, and making all the choices you had no idea were possible: 2 button? 3? Two vents? One? None?

Whether all this time and expense is worthy of the body intended for these clothes is one thing. But another is the pleasure is meeting Luke, whose family has owned this shop in the same location for more than 50 years. The Samtanis once lived in an area that is now part of Pakistan; the British partition of Pakistan and India created conditions that forced the family to leave. Some landed in Hong Kong, where Ash Samtani, Luke's father, and others created a tailoring business. Another landed in Hawaii, where a Samtani cousin has long been the tailor of Hawaii's governors and senators.

Luke Samtani, who maintains homes in Singapore and Hong Kong, has two children. His son lived in England to study law and is now in Hong Kong studying business and computer science. His daughter lives in London, where she just took a coveted position with Goldman Sachs, a legend on Wall Street for its handsome bonuses. Samtani counts amongst his customers people in Seattle, Washington and elsewhere in the world. For years, he traveled yearly to the Westin in Seattle to fit customers but he had to give up that practice because it took too much time to travel.

The company still maintains contact with customers in the U.S. by sending Christmas cards. I've gotten a hand-signed card every year since 1991. I'm looking forward to another.

Can China Save The World?

HONG KONG -- A new issue of Time asks if China's roaring market can save the world by creating a "trickle around" effect for economies elsewhere. Of the biggest 10 economies, only China's is growing. The article raises some cautions about an economy dependent on government cash -- sound familiar? -- but notes that China is on track to overtake Japan as the world's second largest economy.
Beijing, before the crisis, was already rising, its global reach and influence expanding. As the rest of the world falters, that is truer than ever. China is not yet the leader of the global economy. But it's getting there.
Hong Kong is not the best place to see China's astonishing evolution. Hong Kong has long been a hustle-bustle city. To see the pace and scale of change, you must visit cities like Shanghai, where the equivalent of a Manhattan has been built in a decade, skyscrapers springing from rice paddies. Amazingly for such change, the architecture is good, a point made long ago by Rem Koolhaas.

Hong Kong nonetheless conveys the pulse of capitalism animating a culture and a nation. Here you see streets jammed with new cars, well-dressed business people crossing streets, jabbering into cell phones, ignoring the honks from impatient taxi drivers. You also notice a culture that sustains, side by side in jarring contrast, ultra modern subways and night markets where fortune tellers read palms and faces for signs of a person's personal and financial fate.

For the bird's eye vantage, Sally and I rode the tram to the top of Hong Kong island. Up there, the August sun broiled my skin. Smart vistors carried umbrellas as personal shade. A haze partially obscured the vista, but the image posted here shows one of the most amazing harbors in the world, China's second busiest in container shipping after Shanghai, only a relative blip in trade statistics 20 years ago.

This trip may be tax deductible

HONG KONG -- As an employee who does marketing, and whose employer logo must have drawn thousands of eyeballs just in today's walkabout in a targeted market, and whose primary purpose in crossing the ocean was to achieve said marketing objective -- I get a tax deduction out of this, right?