I live in DC, which is a great place to live and visit. I try to make the most of it. However, I also love to leave my home and see what the world has to offer. Come and join me!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Vegetarian Buddhist Nirvana and Fountain Friends, Thursday 27 March 2008

I had a very brief awakening around 4 but went right back to sleep. I am finally adjusting to the time! The anti-malarial dreams are starting to kick in, though. I haven't had an apocalyptic dream in years (I was raised in a household that believed very much in the apocalypse and the dreams plagued for years and years, even after I moved out) but I dreamt of a reprise of Noah's flood. I was trying to decide to which of two cabins in which I had a share to flee. Also, the anti-malarials apparently bring references from the TV show Friends to all my dreams. Odd.

I had my yogurt, fruit, and bread for breakfast. Yay for yummy breakfast! I hadn't scheduled myself to give any presentations on the last half day, because when the trip was first planned the e-commerce seminar was set to overlap. However, they rescheduled the e-commerce seminar to accommodate me and I had an easy morning. Lunch was more marigolds. These had the flowers included, which I hadn't had before. They were a little like the tender inner leaves of an artichoke.

The minibus on the ride back was a tad rickety and I feared for its power of forward motion, but we arrived without incident. J and S were going back to the Renaissance Riverside hotel, and I was checking into the Majestic Hotel as it was my conference location. It was quite nice, with a complimentary fruit bowl and water. The lovely wooden floors did rather accentuate the endless tapping of high heels above me (I later learned I was below the ballroom, which was being prepped, I can only assume for a wedding). The bathroom was hilariously opulent.

I emailed J and S, as we had planned to go to the market together. Two hours later they still hadn't responded so I set off on my own. The market's location seems evident on the map, but I couldn't quite triangulate myself to the right location. I kept wandering down shady looking (but well-populated) streets that smelled of either sour milk or urine. I later learned that the renownedly stinky durian fruit is experienced by some as sour milk, so that mystery was cleared up. I willed myself, with some success, not to feel uncomfortable. I live in a neighborhood that an outsider might find uncomfortable, but it is not actually dangerous and I just assumed it was the same in Vietnam.

I finally oriented myself to the circle and realized I had to cross it. Here's how you cross the street: you just do it. The traffic never stops, not even for red lights. They will swerve around you (usually), but they won't stop. So you just step out into the road into oncoming traffic. Seriously, without even getting hit it really diminishes your life expectancy because of the sheer strain on your heart. By this time, the market proper was closing so only the outdoor stalls of knockoffs and such were open. I had noticed some purses covered in fabric roses in shop windows. I found one on the street and the asking prices was 100.000 Dong. I talked the girl down to 50.000, around $3.50. I wasn't sure whether this was good or bad, but later I checked out prices on the purses and they were 100.000 everywhere, so think my first bargaining experience was successful.

I also found an alley of food markets, which was full of locals. Here is where they hide all the vegetables! There was also much meat. There were no beans anywhere. They appear just not to be eaten here. I really don't think I could live in Vietnam because I freaking love beans. They are a vegetarian's best friend--a low fat, high fiber source of protein. Well, with that nutrition profile they should be everyone's best friend. As to the side effects, your body's enzyme balance quickly adjusts if you eat a lot of them and they have no ill effects on my digestion system whatsoever.

I had to re-cross the circle to get to the Tin Nghia (Buddhist) Vegetarian Restaurant. I took a break in the park that wedges into the circle, where some sort of aerobics was going on. But it just involved holding your arms above your head and waving them in time to clubby music, and then making a quarter turn and doing the same thing. There were a lot of people participating, but then they all sort of realized that there was not going to be any more to it than the waving of the arms (I, too, kept waiting for the dance portion to kick in) and people started to drop out.

The restaurant is the epitome of a hole-in-the-wall, literally. While it has a metal grate they can close at night, it does not have a wall for a door facing the street. I ordered a spring roll, stir fried mushrooms and snow peas (the latter were DIVINE), and mushrooms and wheat gluten in pepper sauce--actual spicy food! woot!, rice, and a large water. I'm sure this was more food than one person should politely order, but I'd been starving in the provinces all week! I was finally full and only felt semi-gross about it. The total was around 50.000.

I walked back to the hotel along Dong Khoi. I stopped at the little strip of park with a fountain in front of the opera house. It was kid central and the sellers of balloon animals on sticks were cleaning up. I sat at the fountain, which I later noticed was one of those abstract family sculpture things, just enjoying it.

A woman sat next to me and we had a nice conversation. Her English was impressive, though I sometimes had a hard time with her her pronunciation. She asked me if I was married, of course. We turned out to be around the same age. It was a very pleasant encounter. I think she invited me back to her home, but (1) I couldn't really tell, and (2) it felt weird. Thinking back on it, I can see that if I ran across a French speaking tourist in DC who was helping me practice French and seemed nice and normal I might invite her home so I guess it's not that weird. She let me take pictures of her daughter, who loved seeing herself on the camera.

I stopped into a store with this really cool pleated gingham silk skirts. The pleats were gathered so that the yoke of the skirt appeared to be solid and then opened out from there, similar in concept to Vogue 8353. I asked the price and was told "Ninety-five." Only later did I realize this was in USD and was glad they hadn't had my size.

I sat in the hotel lobby and had a "Happy Saigon," some sort of fruity cocktail, while prepping for my conference the next day. A hilariously mournful jazz band played and Russians sat next to me. I was so caught up in it all that I accidentally went to bed late.

You can see all the photos of Saigon, and all photos from this trip if you'd like.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Houses on Stilts and a Bride in a Box, Wednesday 26 March 2008

I woke at 4 and took a melatonin, but it didn't help this time. I laid there for a couple of hours, then got up and did some yoga. A rooster began to crow and workmen began to bang but somehow I fell asleep again.

I brought a yogurt and dragonfruit down to breakfast and was so much happier than I had been with the greasy runny eggs!

The morning program went smoothly, and at lunch we got the Vietnamese food rather than the "special" Western meal. I had tofu and rice to go with my marigolds this time, and it was much better.

During the siesta period we went to the market area to get S some shirts. We had all packed for business attire, but when we got to the conference they told us it would be business casual! I was all set because I could just throw a jacket over the dresses I'd brought for the tourist portion of the trip, and J (the male co-worker) is a casual dresser and I don't think brought any suits anyway. But S had only long sleeve shirts and was dying.

Judging by the fact that this was among the three questions *everyone* asked of me, being married is a huge part of Vietnamese culture. And therefore *getting* married is a big deal and big business in Vietnam. There are bridal stores everywhere and elaborate weddings every night of the week. My first night in HCMC I walked by a restaurant that was having a wedding during the processional. I didn't get to see the bride, but she was preceded by two flower girls in white dresses wearing silver angel wings and tossing white flower petals as they went. The weddings are westernized, but not wholly western. The bridesmaids all seem to wear white, for instance. This confused me the first time I walked by a restaurant with eight "brides" standing outside to greet the guests! I finally figured out these had to be the bridesmaids. Anyway, the bridal stores have these freestanding plexiglass cubes out on the sidewalks that hold a mannequin wearing an elaborate dress to advertise the store. Even though the mannequins are obviously not real people, it still weirded me out somehow to think of a person in a plexiglass box slowly suffocating. I was hoping to get a picture of one, but alas once I was *looking* for one I didn't see any more.

After lunch, unfortunately there was no participation in the practicum I was teaching. It's hard to get people motivated after lunch, no matter what culture you're in! I did a unit on consumer education, which was a little more successful because I passed out consumer ed tchotchkes so people had stuff to play with to help them keep awake. The swag was a huge hit.

We finished the day's session at 5, and were to meet at 6:30 for dinner, so J, S, and I headed down to the river. Although I had gone on the boat tour the first night and been to the waterside restaurant the night before, somehow I had missed the coolest part of the river which was the houses--well, shacks really--built on stilts on the opposite bank. Very photo-oppy. The little kids all stared and said, "Hello!"

We walked along the bank and saw a ferry loading to take people home at the end of their day.

The boats gliding through the river saw their way with eyes painted on the prows.

We crossed the bridge at rush hour just for the death-defyingness of it, and watched a little boy launch a kite from his balcony. It took many tries, but he was persistent and eventually got it up into the air.

Finally, we watched the sun go down over the colonial decay of this French-style building.

At the restaurant, same as the night before, I just wanted stir-fried vegetables and rice rather than the feast that had been ordered for me the night before. Which I got. It was perfect. They also ordered some fried dough in the shape of mushrooms; it was a little sweet and quite good. There is nothing bad about fried dough.

The translator guy sat next to me and was kind of like a really good boyfriend, making my life easier in a totally unobtrusive way by making sure I had the food I'd ordered, my water glass stayed full, that sort of thing. I could get used to that!

There were 11 of us at dinner and it was really nice to socialize with our Vietnamese colleagues. I'd been feeling like we had been missing out on the most rewarding cultural exchange part of the trip, based on what people had described from past experiences of late night karaoke and learning a few of one another's words. We had been pretty segregated for the most part and that had disappointed me.

I was less ready to drop into oblivion at 9 on the dot. I think the day before had been the worst of the jet lag. Day 3 is always the worst jet lag for me, no matter where I am or how much the lag.

You can see all the photos of the Mekong Delta, and all photos from this trip if you'd like.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Time to Work, and a Visit to the (Super)Market, Tuesday 25 March 2008

I woke around 3, but a melatonin put me back to sleep. Don't even tell me it's a placebo because it's a placebo that works! My dreams were vivid, but not noteworthy. So far no anti-malarial nightmares, which was a huge relief. I am very lucky not to have many nightmares, but my dreams are very vivid and realistic so when I do have nightmares they are *terrifying.*

For breakfast we had the choice of meat-ful pho or runny fried egg. And I do mean fried. I think they were deep fried. Puke. I ate as much of the white as I could choke down plus a baguette-ish roll. I am going to be hungry yet gain weight on this trip. I asked for fruit, but it is only for dessert in Vietnam. I was told that I could go to a store at lunch.

The conference center was nice; the meeting room looked like a chapel with elaborately carved wooden chairs and quite convincing silk flower arrangements everywhere. Ho Chi Minh presided. At tea break I ate a sickly sweet roll because I knew I had to (based on my food experiences so far), plus 1 1/2 mangoes. Yay fruit!

At lunch the Westerners were served grayish-green hot dogs and fried potatoes. Double puke. Eventually we got the same Vietnamese food everyone else was having, including some stir fried marigold greens. I ate greens. I felt bad seeming like such a sourpuss for just eating greens, but I just can't eat meat. It will make me sick at this point, as it's been 15 years.

After lunch the translator guy took me to buy fruit. I assumed we'd go to one of the many stands selling the most beautiful looking fresh fruit but no, we cabbed to a supermarket at the edge of town. It's funny, I think this is always our instincts with tourists, to provide them with what we think is familiar to them rather than the local experience they crave. The produce did not look great and the stickers indicated it had been imported from Australia. I got oranges, tangerines, grapes, strawberries, and some sort of Laughing Cow-type soft cheese spread triangles and yogurt. There was no dragonfruit, which was the one thing I really wanted! I asked the translator if the dairy was pastuerized, but this was beyond his vocabulary and experience. He went off to find me a small folding knife and I paid. The cash register screen showed my change as 2000 some VND. The cashier gave me 500. I pointed to the screen and she swapped my 500 for 600. Hmph. We're talking a few cents here, but it irked me.

We got back barely in time for the afternoon session. I felt bad because Vietnamese generally have a long lunch with a siesta and he got no rest because of ferrying me around.

My first presentation was in the afternoon, the dryest one I was to give *and* the last presentation of a long day. But amazingly people were engaged and asked a ton of questions. I had whipped out a few of my Vietnamese phrases earlier in the day and I think people really liked me for it. I'm sure I was their favorite. `-)

After the day was over we went to the market. It was the same as any market in a poorer country--not rich handicrafts drawn from millenia of tradition, but cheap plastic crap from China, just acres of it. I spotted a fruit stand, where I got some dragonfruit. Yay!

We also spotted some beautiful, huge, waxy red flowers at the flower stand. The flowers were about 10 inches in diameter and the petals radiated from a central cone. The stems were about 3 1/2 feet tall. We got three of them at a dollar each and J and I shared custody.

As we were leaving a spotted a fabric stall. Yum. I couldn't resist. I got two meters of orange polka dot cotton batiste swiss dot. It is so cute! It was $2/meter.

Then we were off to a waterfront restaurant for a sunset dinner (that's the view from the table). I was ordered stir fried marigolds, tofu, and stir fried vegetables. It was a lot of food. It was as good as it could have been--though some chili heat would not have been amiss--but I just didn't like it. It was greasy, and if I'm having greasy food the grease better be coming from cheese. Otherwise I just wanted steamed or roasted vegetables. I ate it and smiled, of course! I wouldn't dream of appearing ungrateful for effort put out on my behalf.

There were tons of tiny geckos along the outside of the frosted glass upper windows. Only on the outside and only on the frosted glass. Funny.

You can see all the photos of the Mekong Delta, and all photos from this trip if you'd like.

The Mekong Delta in Half a Night, Monday 24 March Cont.

The minibus had a/c and the ride took less than two hours. I expected some picturesque countryside but it is suburban strip mall the whole way. Not the Old Navy and Home Depot and Target strip mall that is now all of America, but still not so exciting.

In the center median was a marsh with gorgeous purple water lilies in bloom. I couldn't get a picture of any until nighttime when the flowers were closed, but you'll have to take my word on it that they were pretty. We passed some cultivated water fields of some sort--rice, fish, I don't know. We saw some cows, and they looked pretty fat and happy. They are smaller and leaner than our cows, but in a good way, like their DNA hasn't been contorted for a preference for one cut or the other.

I enjoyed talking to J, and I tried out the words I had painstakingly learned from the Pimsleur tape on one of our translators. He said my accent was very good. I'm pretty sure that was mere politeness (and a little bit of a crush) on his part, but I felt good nevertheless.

We arrived in My Tho city in the Tien Giang province. The hotel was state run. I assumed that it was just a cheap alternative to a commercial Western-style hotel, but I later learned that it is a great honor to stay at a People's Committee Guesthouse. Only high ranking party members and honored foreign guests are permitted. It was still under construction, which appeared to require a great deal of vigorous banging on water pipes, and had a smell I found...unpleasant. To put it politely and mildly.

We checked in and somebody carried my heavy ridiculous suitcase up the stairs for me. I was simultaneously relieved and guilty. I had packed for two weeks and three completely different trips--work, pleasure, and a wedding on the way home and I just had so much stuff. It was insane. I'm never traveling with a suitcase that big again.

We had 30 minutes to unpack and refresh before our tour of the Mekong Delta. We piled into a minivan cab and drove all of 1 km to the river. It would have taken less time to walk there than it took us to wait for the cab! At the pier there were tall pikes sticking up, and kids were jumping off them to make spectacular splashes. They were so cute! I think often this kind of spectacle is put on for tourists for tips, but there hadn't been any other tourists around when we arrived and they didn't ask for tips so I think it was just for the sheer joy of it.

We got into our riverboat and headed out into the Mekong. Our first stop was Unicorn Island. It's a well-touristed island but people really actually live and make their living there, so it was kind of the best of both worlds.

We went first to the honey place, where we were invited to hold up a screen of bees, as demonstrated by the apiarist. I declined, though they were quite calm. My parents used to keep bees when I was a kid. There is nothing like fresh honey eaten off the comb. We sat at little tables and had tea with honey and the juice of tiny limes the size of kumquats. It was delicious. We also had coconut candy, candied lotus flowers, candied ginger, dried banana, and peanut candy. All of them were great. The men were offered banana wine to increase their male potency. J and I insisted on having some too. I don't know about male potency, but it was quite potent. It was like drinking sweet mouthwash. I bought some coconut candy, which was wrapped first in clear edible rice paper and then wax paper. It was pretty greasy.

We left the honey place and walked along the path to the fruit place. We had dragonfruit, pineapple, and little things the size of large grapes and the texture of tapioca pearls with a big stone in the middle to be peeled and eaten. I think maybe they were called may apples? In Vietnam, fruit is eaten with toothpicks and served with a (dry) mixture of salt and hot pepper that you squeeze a lime over and then dip your fruit into. It is so good. I never would have thought of it, but what is not to love about fruit, salt, and heat? I love all of those things. While we are busy eating the fruit we are mostly left to ourselves, except one very curious young girl. She LOVED digital cameras, because you could take a picture of her and then she could see herself.

There was traditional singing accompanied by two-stringed instruments. The adorable four year old girl who loves to have her picture taken sang first, then four women sang. The men played the instruments. There was a girl of around 8-10 "backstage" (behind the picnic tables where the singing was) but she didn't participate. I wonder if she used to be the adorable one and how she feels about it now. Somehow, as the oldest child, I really identified with her. Of course, maybe she is just shy and didn't want to sing! The women didn't wear full ao dai, but fitted shirt with raglan sleeves that are similar to the ao dai. They were cute.

Next we got into canoes and were rowed down the canals. Mostly women did the rowing. The woman rowing at the front of our canoe sat with her feet tucked under her on one side and was incredibly strong and fast.

It was very dreamy and surreal to be riding through the canoe at dusk with bats criscrossing the water, reeds on either side, and palm fronds dipping into the waves. I felt like I was in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. It's funny how a new reality feels less real than a familiar fake world!

We got back onto the riverboat and were given green coconuts with straws. I was saddened to discover that while I love coconut, I don't really care for green coconut milk. The coconuts were in honor of our next stop, Dragon Island, home of the Coconut Monk. He started his own religioun after subsisting solely on coconuts (possibly) for 3 years (or 10). As with any good eccentric, lots of stories circulated and it was impossible know which was true. During the American war his sect was quite popular, as being a monk excused you from conscription. After the war all the followers drifted off and the religion trailed to an end.

He had spent his last years building for himself a fantastic mosaic funerary urn, at least 10 feet tall. The (new) government decided he couldn't be buried in it, though. I didn't ask where his body was instead, but I was curious. It was full dark by now so we couldn't really get the full feel for it, but I love it. It's huge and gaudy. There were also nine dragon towers on what felt like a basketball court, one male and (natch) his eight wives.

Then we were back to the mainland and dinner at the hotel. There was a hotpot of fish and a plate of fish. I got an egg and fried potatoes. This was not at all good and will make me fat. If I'm going to get fat I want it to be off cheese and ice cream! I dipped a potato into what I thought was a chili sauce. Oh dear! I discovered the source of the hotel's unpleasant (to me) smell. Vietnamese fish sauce is not my cup of tea, to say the least.

Jet lag was catching up with me and I was quiet at dinner. After dinner I had a shower and ran out of hot water halfway through. Bummer. It took me several days to figure out the hot water heater situation. I was asleep in a heartbeat!

You can see all the photos of the Mekong Delta, and all photos from this trip if you'd like.

Ho Chi Minh City in Half a Day, Monday 24 March 2008

My coworkers S and J had arrived the previous night so we arranged to meet in the lobby at 9 for breakfast. I woke at 6 and couldn't go back to sleep. I did some yoga. Obvs, I was desperate. It helped me relax, but I still couldn't sleep.

I got up and ate the fruit that had been left in my room as a welcome. There were some tiny bananas and tiny tangerines. Both were delish. I dressed and met S and J in the lobby. They wanted to do the hotel breakfast, which is so not my style ($20!!!). I told them there were plenty of Western style coffee shops on the Dong Khoi right outside our hotel (Starbucks, Gloria Jean's) but they didn't seem interested. Oh well. I knew it would be a substantial breakfast, at least. I had an omelet, baked beans, hash browns, and some unusual fruit that was white fleshed with little black seeds that looked like kiwi seeds except for evenly dispersed. It seemed a little like a melon. (I later realized I'd had my first dragonfruit, which was my favorite new fruit of the trip.) I also had some orange fruit that I thought would be mango but I think it was passionfruit.

We headed out for sightseeing and hit the Opera house first and then on to the People's Committee Building, which is the city hall of HCMC. It is a very elaborate wedding cake style and the small grounds are quite lovely and well-manicured. I guess something is always blooming at the equator, but it sure looked like Spring here. I was missing the cherry blossoms in DC, so I had to enjoy all the flowers I could!

Next we went to the Mariamman Hindu Temple. Even from the outside it is fantastic--bright and colorful like children's blocks. My savvy traveler ego was again wounded when I had incense shoved in one hand and a flower bracelet placed on the other. Normally I am so good at Tourist Defensive Maneuvers, but Asia is getting the better of me. The key, I later realized, is to have both hands full--map in one, camera in the other. Then there are no hands in which to shove unwanted souvenirs. The goddess honored by the temple offers fertility and love, so I waved the incense around, hoping for both. It actually took a little work to get accosted by whomever had shoved the incense in my hand but I gave her 25,000 VND or whatever and moved on.

We walked over in the direction of the post office and the Catholic cathedral and stopped for some cold drinks. It was a hot day. I was drinking my bottled water when I spotted an HSBC bank across the street. I tried my ATM card there, and thank goodness it worked! Every time I got cash I had to try two ATMs. A lot of the banks are not on the international network. So if your card doesn't work don't panic! Just find another ATM.

The Notre Dame Cathedral closed its doors just as we got there (I can't believe this was merely coincidence!). It's quite large and looming, but somehow its placement on a busy traffic circle seems not quite right, especially since you have to cross the traffic circle to get to the statue of Mary and the little gardens.

The Post Office has great tropical colonial architecture, with a high arched ceiling that makes it look like a train station. But I felt very Western-centric for liking it and being impressed. It's a very Western building and I was there to appreciate Eastern traditions and sensibilities. Well, really I was there to work, but you know what I mean.

It was time to go back to the hotel where we needed to check out. We regrouped for lunch. S wanted to go to a restaurant with air conditioning, but all of the "nice" Vietnamese restaurants were quite expensive. We went to Gilray across from the Opera, a diner-type restaurant with a mish-mash menue. I got the only vegetarian item on the menu, the Spaghetti Napoletana, which was surprisingly quite good. The noodles were perfectly al dente and topped with a tangy tomato sauce, bell peppers, and possibly zucchini. With a bottle of water it was about 100,000 VND ($6). The pastries looked delicious, but as I had just eaten a whole plate of simple carbs I figured I should pass.

Back at the hotel we had about an hour before we would be met by our hosts and head to the conference site so I made a beeline for the rooftop pool. I didn't bring my camera, which was a shame, because it is just lovely. The pool area is very nice and it has an amazing view of the city. The chairs were quite comfy and I had no trouble finding shade to protect my pale self from the sun. I recommend this hotel if only for the pool!

Down in the lobby I met everyone from our host agency. The introductions were flying fast and furious and it was all names that are not familiar to me. I knew I would never remember everyone...or anyone. I am bad with names to begin with! Included in the party was J, who works for a sister agency and is living abroad for two years under the aegis of the Commercial Foreign Service (I never knew there was such a thing). She would be presenting on a topic in which the Vietnamese had great interest and which my agency doesn't cover, so it was very nice that we could get her. And plus, that way I didn't feel so outnumbered (S and J are both men).

You can see all photos of HCMC, and all photos from this trip if you'd like.

First Night in Vietnam and Australian Food, Sunday, 23 March 2008 Cont.

The flight to Vietnam was fine and uneventful. The seats were so spacious! And they even serve you a little snack. It was quite a luxury. In Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) you have to go through x-ray screening at nothing to declare before you can leave the airport. They weren't even looking at the screen to see if people were not declaring that which should be declared.

I had read about the taxi rip-offs in Vietnam and thought I was prepared. Ha! I walked outside of the airport and a guy asked me if I wanted a taxi. I said yes. He took my suitcase and put it in the cab. He said it would be $15. I said I knew it was supposed to be around $7 and he had to use the meter. He said, No, it's $15. You buy a card and it's $15. And flashed a little card, about the size of a business card with a little clear plastic window with a hologram. A pretty official looking card. I said meter. He said it was broken. I gave up, defeated and annoyed. I feared this trip would get the best of me, despite my savvy traveler ego.

After bidding a bitter farewell to my cab driver at the Renaissance Riverside Hotel I crossed the beautiful lobby to check in. I hit a snag when they asked for my government work ID so I could get the government rate. Well, I don't travel with my work ID! For goodness sake! I use it to get into the building but not outside of work. They were all, "Just get your husband to fax it over." UGH! I don't have a husband, people! Or a boyfriend, or a partner, or a significant other, or anyone who can do this for me. I have nobody. I am alone in this world. Do you really, really want to make that any worse? Finally I asked them whether the official passport I'd already handed over wasn't enough? Oh yeah, sure. Goodness!

I was very tired. The city was overwhelming. It was very busy and I wasn't quite sure what there was to see, and where I was in relation to what there is to see. I rallied myself to go to an ATM--where my card was declined! Oh crap. I didn't have enough cash for two weeks in a cash economy, by any stretch. My podunk credit union does not have an out-of-country collect number to call or 24 hour customer service. I went to the hotel business center to email them, knowing it was only Sunday morning in the States and it would be a loooong weekend of waiting for an answer.

I again rallied myself to leave the hotel. I walked up and down Dong Khoi, sort of the high end tourist main drag. I didn't take one single photo, so this is a very boring post.

I was foraging for a restaurant when I remembered that I kind of don't like Asian food. Hmm. I found Jaspa's, which had been mentioned in the English language magazine in the hotel. It is random foods of the world by some Australian expats. Perfect. I had a lentil, beet, and goat cheese salad, a pina colada, and a bottle of water for 250,000 VND (about $16) including tip. This is a lot to pay for a meal in Vietnam, but less than you'd pay in the States so I figured it evened out. I love legumes and they're not much used in Vietnamese cooking, so I was glad I'd had lentils while I could.

I finally let myself collapse in the hotel, where I accidentally wet my toothbrush with tap water. Dang! I rubbed some hand sanitizer on it. I took the first malaria pill of the trip, wondering what kind of trippy dreams it would give me.

I turned on the TV and proved the theory that at any given moment there is an episode of CSI on somewhere in the world. And then I went to sleep.

You can see all thephotos I later took of HCMC, and all photos from this trip if you'd like.

Hong Kong Walk of Fame and On to Saigon, Sunday, 23 March 2008

I had no trouble falling asleep night but jet lag woke me up at 3. I tried to fall alseep on my own for about half an hour then took a melatonin. I don't want to hear that it's a placebo because it totally works for me. I went back to sleep and then made myself get up at 8.

For breakfast I ate the yogurt I bought in the Chicago airport (I have a casual attitude toward refrigerating yogurt) and an apple from home while sitting at the little table in front of my picture window with harbor view. It's another gray day, but it doesn't seem to be too cold.

I headed out around 9, walking along the water in a southerly direction. It wasn't too chilly and the view of the Hong Kong skyline was spectacular.

My walk along the boardwalk soon brought me to the Walk of Stars, Hong Kong's answer to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. There were lots of tourists and they were going crazy for the photo ops! In addition to the stars in the sidewalk there are also bronze still-life statuary groupings, such as a director's chair, someone with a megaphone, and a light. People were having a blast posing in the still lifes. I didn't know most of the actors, but I got Jet Li and Jackie Chan, just for fun.

I arrived at the pier/harbor at the end of the boardwalk where there is a lovely clock tower and these awesome huge lanterns/balloons of the olympic figures just stacked up in front of the tower all topsy turvy. Another girl and I take pictures of one another in front of them. To horribly generalize for a moment, I love that Asian tourists are so into picture taking, because she felt no compunction about telling me exactly where to stand and exactly what she wanted included in her picture, and she did the same for me. Since I am generally traveling alone I rely on the kindness of strangers to take photos to prove I have conquered something, and Western tourists usually just snap and go without thinking about framing or scale or composition or what have you.

I headed up to the observation deck and asked another girl to take a pic of me with the skyline. Quel surprise, elle parle seulement le francais. I really need to work on mine. And after insulting Western tourists' photography skills in the previous paragraph I should say the she asked me if I wanted a face shot or "entiere," and she did a great job with the full length photo.

It's a little before 10 and nothing is open yet, so no shopping for me. I wasn't that keen on it anyway, as I don't buy expensive clothes at home and am unlikely to do so abroad. If I want something expensive-style I'll make it. The Hong Kong Art Museum is nearby and opens at 10, so I hang out on the observation deck for another 20 minutes. More French tourists, this time a dad with two little kids. I wondered if the mom was off somewhere or if he'd brought them to Hong Kong by himself.

Entrance to the art museum is $10 HKD, less than $1.50 and a small price to pay for the bathroom alone. I went first to the Hong Kong artists contemporary art exhibition, including a large installation piece by Kwok the Frog King. It's fun--very colorful street art style and I like that the museum is open to that kind of thing. The rest of the contemporary art was also interesting--lots of men leading lives of quiet despair. There were also displays of Chinese calligraphy, Chinese painting, Chinese ceramics, Chinese jade, and Chinese gold. As I wasn't heading to China, I appreciated the chance to see some of the artifacts. As would strike me again and again throughout the trip, I loved that I had gone so recently to Greece and could compare what was going on in the different civilizations at different times. The technology and even the motifs and some of the styles were remarkably similar. There have always been people with itchy feet, I guess. It is a nice space and the collections are not overwhelming. I highly recommend a visit.

In the courtyard of the museum there were the five Olympic figures representing the five Olympic rings. These girls were going nuts over them and I kept waiting for them to move aside so I could get a clear picture. But then I decided their enthusiasm was kind of cute and just took my pics with them in them. Olympic fever is definitely sweeping China and its possessions.

After about an hour at the museum I headed back down the boardwalk to the hotel. As I was crossing the pedestrian bridge I was greeted by an Indian man. Not wanting to be unfriendly I said Hi back and he then proceeded to tell me my fortune. I was annoyed that I had gotten taken in--it's not like me to be so gullible--but I listened. He wrote down something on a scrap of paper and had me hold it. He said that 8-8-08 would be lucky for me. Well, I assume it will be lucky for everybody if it's lucky at all. He looked at my palm and told me I was lucky in love. If you call 33, hopelessly single, and childless "lucky," well I suppose he's right. It is not, however, the conventional definition of lucky in love. Then he asked me my favorite color. I said "Blue, I guess." I unfolded the paper, which said blue. Considering I was wearing a blue dress and blue glasses, it was not too much of a leap. I thought he was saying something about I should go stay with his sister, but then I think he was calling me "my sister." Anyway, at the end of course he told me to give him money. I said I didn't have any local currency. He said my currency was fine. I gave him a dollar. He was pissed. I was like, whatevs. A dollar for a wholly inaccurate unsolicited fortune seems fair to me.

I went to a bakery and picked up a custard corn bun and strawberry cake for lunch, each about $15 HKD ($2.50). The bun, unfortunately, was gross--the only corn kernels were on the outside, about give of them, and the custard was a sweet orange paste. I was hoping it was a savory cheese bun. The strawberry cake was pretty good--it was filled with a thick strawberry jam-like substance that tasted like real strawberries. In fact, when I was first eating it I thought it was real strawberries until I looked. I also picked up a mango sago, which was just as good as the coconut and the same $6 HKD.

Checkout at the Nikko was easy, but I had a 20 minute wait for the shuttle bus. At the Airport Express station you can check your bags! It was fantastic! I had no problems checking in at Vietnam Air with my paper ticket and they took my bag and tagged it through to Ho Chi Minh City. It was great not having any baggage wrangling on the train and at the airport.

The train ride was quick and easy. Once I got to the airport passport control took a bit of time, but I still had plenty to buy a fashion magazine (only about $2 US) and get lunch. After checking out all the food court options I got a mushroom rice bowl and a bottle of water from one of the places for $85 HKD ($14, your typical airport markup). It was more greasy than it appeared in the photo, but I appreciated the mushroom variety and soy chicken (?-it wasn't animal, but it wasn't vegetable either). There were like 2 cups of rice in there! I don't care for rice so I didn't eat much of that.

You can see all my Hong Kong photos, including lots of Olympiana, and all photos from this trip if you'd like.

Hong Kong Trendy, Saturday, 22 March 2008

We left Chicago about 20 minutes late because it was snowing there (the horror) and our 20 minute descent into Hong Kong took an hour so we landed about 40 minutes late. Not that I had any pressing engagements.

Passport control in Hong Kong was easy--they have little hard candies at each station, which I thought was a nice touch--and my bag was...wait for it...the FIRST bag off the conveyor belt. Never in my life has that happened. It was amazing. I took it as a good omen.

I bought my ticket for the Airport Express train at the ticket counter, though I could have used one of the machines. A two-way ticket is $160 HKD (about $23 USD) and my eerily smooth sailing continued as I jumped on the train within moments and was on my way to Kowloon and the Hotel Nikko. The train route is pretty nice--lovely views of the water. I never really realized that (1) Hong Kong is a collection of several islands, and (2) the islands are quite small. Huh.

Several of the nicer hotels in Kowloon run shuttle service in conjunction with the airport train, including the Nikko, so I made my way to the buses. I just missed mine so had to wait over 30 minutes for the next, which was kind of a bummer but I had my book and snacks and I was trying to will my feet to unpuff.

They have British road rules--the driver is on the right and they drive on the left side of the road. The drive was only slightly terrifying as the minibus driver swerved through tight spots but I survived and less than 24 hours(!!!) after leaving home I arrived at the hotel.

It was quite nice and I was upgraded to a 12th floor water view room. The view was cool (left), though it was a bit noisy from the traffic expressway that runs along the water.

I had a shower and it was brilliant. I wasn't sure what to do about brushing my teeth but finally decided, Eh, Hong Kong is practically British. Surely the water is safe.

I dressed and wandered around for an hour or so, soaking it in and looking for food. Nothing looked appetizing. I was almost tempted to go really lazy and eat at a Western-style hotel curry buffet for way too much at $158 ($22.50) but I decided to give it one more try to find more authentic food for cheaper. I went into a little "shopping mall" of resturants, lured in by the sign for Indian food. The Indian restaurant was having a private party, so I went further upstairs to check out the menu for the Japanese restaurant Tonikaka.

It looked good so I got myself seated and ordered cold tofu ($36), a seaweed and cucumber salad ($38), and asked if the chef could make me an avocado roll. When talking with the chef about my avocado roll the water asked me if sesame seeds were ok? And seaweed? Erm, yes. I'm not sure what he thought I wanted if I didn't want sesame seeds or seaweed!

The food was really delicious. The tofu was the creamiest I've ever had. The cucumber was paper thin and well-flavored. The sushi was stuffed with avocado. Total came to $136, about $20. A little less than the hotel curry buffet and I'm sure a lot better. I don't know about tipping here and my change comes in 20s, so I just left the coins. I hope I didn't stiff my waiter.

With some real food in me I am feeling much better and wander around some more. Oddly, I don't feel like I stick out here, even though there aren't that many Westerners. It's partly height--here I'm not freakishly short, I'm just normal-sized--and partly it's that my style is Hong Kong Trendy. Seriously, I've never been anywhere where people are dressed like me, but that's all I see. It's funny. I don't know whether I'd want to move there or not. Question of the Day: Is it better to have my own style but always feel a little bit off, or to feel cute but look like everyone else?

I get a coconut sago, sort of like a bubble tea but with much smaller tapioca, from a street vendor for $6 and it was divine. I was really hoping the water was safe to drink. I wandered with my coconut sago and took some nighttime skyline pictures from the pedestrian bridge near the hotel and then finally sank into bed, asleep within moments.

You can see all my Hong Kong photos, including a couple more nighttime shots, and all photos from this trip if you'd like.

Departure for Asia, Friday 21 March 2008

What a difference DCA makes! Unlike my Dulles Debacle for my Greece trip, I left home two hours and 15 minutes before the flight, got on the metro three blocks from home, got off the metro at the airport, and voila.

I was booked into a middle seat for the long flight from Chicago to Hong Kong so I asked the woman working the desk if anything could be done about that. She said, "I'll put you in seat 55J!" and said it was an aisle. Only later would I learn of her perfidy.

I arrived in Chicago a bit paranoid because I thought it was 12:00 and my flight to Hong Kong was at 12:50 and I knew I'd never see my luggage again and I hadn't had the foresight to put any clean underwear in my carry on. Turns out, Chicago is on Central Time and my Blackberry doesn't automatically adapt itself to local time so I was fine. I got a pizza, which was no Chicago pizza but I think being in Chicago elevated the quality of the frozen airport pizza from "necessary calorie packet" to "edible."

I boarded the plane only to find that 55J is a middle seat. Darn you check-in lady! Luckily, the guy sitting next to me was nice so I didn't feel hemmed in. But because I had been changed to an "aisle" seat they didn't have my vegetarian meal request. Luckily, they had an extra one--I suspect it was supposed to have been mine in the first place but who knows. The luncheon curry was actually quite good and even came with yogurt to stand in for raita. There was fruit for dessert, of course. Just because I'm a vegetarian doesn't mean I don't want cake like everyone else! The later lunch-ish meal was stewed vegetables and a whole wheat bagel with cream cheese, also not bad.

I had never taken a sleeping pill in my life before this trip but had asked my doc to write me a few Ambien because I knew I couldn't survive jet lag PLUS staying awake for 24 hours. I cannot sleep on planes unless I am at utter exhaustion so I needed some help. I took one at home just to make sure I wouldn't die of anaphylactic shock (not that this was necessarily a smart move--I live alone so there would be nobody to call 911 as my throat slowly closed) or sleepwalk (I put a large suitcase in front of the door to trip me should I try to leave the house) or sleep eat (I do enough of that while awake, apparently). I had heard it fells grown men mid-sentence so I took it after I was already laying in bed in case I lapsed into unconsciousness the instant it passed my lips. It took me half an hour to fall asleep and I was already pretty tired anyway, so I couldn't really tell if it worked.

On the plane I readied myself for sleep and took the Ambien with fear and trembling of sleep so deep I would accidentally fly back from Hong Kong to Chicago because the flight attendants wouldn't be able to wake me. Nothing!!!! Ambien sucks! I dozed off and on (mostly off) for two hours before giving up. Later I drank a mini bottle of wine and the (verboten) interaction between the two put me out for a couple of hours.

There is no seatback entertainment--boo hiss. I slept through Elizabeth and the sound on Becoming Jane was bad so they switched to No Country for Old Men. I don't watch movies with violence so no movies for me.

At one point I got up to use the bathroom and we were flying over polar ice!!! It was so cool. I didn't see any penguins marching, though.

By the time we landed my feet had swollen to twice their normal size and I really needed a shower.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Vietnam 2008!

So feel free to hate me, but I went to Vietnam for work. I went to do a couple of seminars--one training their government people in what I do, and one open to the public on data privacy and security in the e-commerce sector. After the work part was done, I took another 5 days off to see what I could of the country in such a short time.

Because time was limited, I decided to go to Da Nang and use it as my base for day trips. Da Nang is well poised for day trips to Hue (the old imperial capitol), Hoi An (a World Heritage site), and the Marble Mountains. Well-poised, I learned when I arrived, does not mean that it's easy or excessively possible. They seem to be building a lot of luxury resorts in the area, so give it three or five years and I think everything will be smooth sailing. For now, it's still a little challenging.

Here's my itinerary:

Friday, 21 March: Leave DC
Saturday, 22 March: Arrive Hong Kong, overnight stay
Sunday, 23 March: Arrive Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon)
Monday, 24 March-Thursday 27 March: My Tho, a city in the Mekong Delta
Friday, 28 March: Ho Chi Minh City
Saturday, 29 March: Arrive Da Nang
Sunday, 30 March: Day trip to Hoi An
Monday, 31 March: Sights around Da Nang, including Marble Mountains
Tuesday, 1 April: Day trip to Hue
Wednesday, 2 April: Return to Saigon
Thursday, 3 April: Depart Vietnam

Pre-Trip Logistics

International Air Transportation

As I was traveling for work I didn't have to worry about (or have much control over) my flights. United Airlines got me there safe and sound, but that's about all I can say for them. Coach class is pretty intensely miserable for such a long flight and they don't do much to make it better.

-The flight attendants were reasonably nice and friendly
-The alcohol was free when the Ambien failed me
-I lucked out and sat next to nice people both directions

-Teeny seats that don't recline much
-The vegetarian food, predictably, was protein-free and quite inedible
-The "entertainment" is a joke. In coach class there is one screen at the front of the cabin. At my height and from my seat about halfway back I could see approximately the top 2/3 of the screen--unless someone was standing in the aisle in which case I could see 0/3 of the screen. I missed the fight to be king of the Panzerbjorn in The Golden Compass and the part where the water horse escaped in The Water Horse because of this. The sound sucked. Both directions there were two good films and two horrible schlocky films (e.g., Garfield, Alvin and the Chipmunks) so if you can't sleep on a plane and don't have the fortitude to carry 20 pounds of books (like me) you're kind of screwed. Even the sucky kind of seat back entertainment that is not actually on demand would be a major major improvement.

Be prepared. It took me over 24 hours each direction.

Domestic Air Transportation

I booked my flights to Da Nang and back to Ho Chi Minh through ivivu.com the week before I left. It is apparently the only website that allows booking of domestic flights in Vietnam from outside the country. I found one blogger who said he'd used it but no real information. There weren't any complaints about it being a scam. Since the score was 1-0 I decided to do it, reasoning I could challenge the charge on my credit card if it didn't work.

It worked, so I can highly recommend this. While you can book in Vietnam, both flights I was on were completely full and for one of them I had had to purchase a more expensive ticket because the cheaper tickets were sold out (I didn't get a better cabin class, though). I printed out my email confirmation that had my e-ticket number and had zero problems checking in or getting a seat. Total round trip cost was $143.90, which I suspect is a bit more than it would have cost to book in-country but the convenience of having this taken care of before I arrived and getting onto the flights that I preferred was totally worth it.

Viet Nam Air was totally modern, totally safe, and still serves food on short domestic flights (no veggie option though). Kinda made me nostalgic for the good ol' days of American air travel.

Hotel Booking

For the two hotels I stayed in that weren't for work I booked through hotels-in-vietnam.com. I didn't find anyone online who'd had experience with them, good or bad, so I took the plunge knowing it wasn't high season and I'd be able to find a place to stay if the bookings didn't work. They worked, and this is another website I can highly recommend.

For the My Khe Beach Hotel in Da Nang I had a reservation. My price was the posted price for the class of room I had--the website hadn't jacked it up to take a cut.

For the Duc Vuong Hotel in Ho Chi Minh I prepaid (I assume it's just the participating hotel's preference whether hotels-in-vietnam makes a reservation or collects the money), again at the posted price. My total was $25.75--$25 for the room and a 3% international currency fee. Most hotels charge this fee; My Khe did as well. It showed up on my credit card statement as "CTY TNHH DL TUNG NGOC HA NOI VN," which isn't exactly intuitive, but given the date and amount and the fact that Duc Vuong didn't ask me for any more money I'm certain that's the right charge.


I didn't get a chance to get an Asian system adapter/converter before the trip and I was wary about getting one there because of quality issues. Luckily, it was a non-issue. All the hotels I stayed in--expensive Western-style, state-run, cheap backpacker-style--had plugs that would accept both an Asian plug and a European two-pin plug (example). Luckily, I'd tossed my European adapter in with my stuff and didn't have to worry. The only electronics I brought were my Blackberry charger and my battery charger. Both of them accept up to 240 Volts and generally the voltage was 210 or 220 (and always listed on the outlet) so I didn't need a converter at all.


At this point I've done enough traveling that I bring most of the right stuff and little of the wrong stuff. Everyone has their preferences but a few things I'd brought I highly highly recommend:

-sun hat

-good sunscreen

-bug repellant with DEET (I should have gotten some more intense mosquito repellant because mine had DEET but didn't deter the mosquitoes very well)

-Cipro just in case

-Melatonin to take when jet lag wakes you up at 4:00 in the morning and you can't really take a real sleeping pill

-lots of granola bars and trail mix for when I couldn't eat the food. I brought two boxes of bars and two bags of trail mix for a 10 day trip and ate them almost exclusively for the last 5 days.

And a few things I *didn't* bring that I dearly wish I had:

-probiotic pills, in case you can't find yogurt with active cultures (if you believe in that sort of thing, which I do)

-Gatorade powder for dehydration from traveler's diarrhea (which you *will* get unless you eat only at western-style hotels)

-mosquito net, maybe something like this. I really needed one at the My Khe and it had a headboard I could have tucked one into without needing to hang it from the ceiling or have some kind of complicated frame.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

New York, New York

K spent last year in Kosovo, during which time I took care of her mail and stuff (we are neighbors). Taking care of someone's mail for a year is more trouble than it sounds like, which K, being the awesome person that she is, realized. So to thank me for my services she got us tickets to ... wait for it ... XANADU! The Broadway musical! On Roller Skates! Based on the cheesy/hilarious/awful 80s movie. This movie was hugely influential on my childhood. I thought it was the height of artistic achievement and it created a dream of roller-dancing in me that has not yet died. When I found out they were making it into a musical I immediately set up a google news alert for it. So for a year I'd been DYING to see the show and was so.excited about it. In addition to tickets, K cashed in her Marriott points to get us a swank room on Times Square. It was deluxe.

I had to go fabric shopping in the garment district, of course. I saw Ricky of Project Runway fame, who was *not* wearing his signature mesh hat and therefore it took me a while to place him. The garment district has a strong Orthodox Jewish influence, so most everything is closed Saturdays. I did my shopping there on Friday (here's what I got) and spent Saturday sightseeing.

On my sightseeing day I finally went to Liberty Island and Ellis Island. Though I have been to NYC many times by now, I haven't done too much touristy stuff because I'm always visiting friends or there for a specific event like Mermaid Parade. I took the subway out to Battery Park and got ferry tickets to see the Statue of Liberty and the immigrant's entry point.

The ferry runs every half hour and once you get on the boat it's a quicker ride than I would have thought. You get nice photo ops of the shoreline as you travel, as seen in the panorama above.

Liberty is both smaller and more beautiful than she looks on TV. The island is quite small, it's just her and a path around her. The issue is that since 9/11 they have severely limited the number of people who can enter the Statue. If you don't order online ahead of time or arrive at the ferry ticket booth before 8 am you probably won't get to enter. As I had done neither, I had to content myself with walking around. It was COLDFREEZINGCOLD so it was a little unsatisfying. Had it been a nice day it would have been lovely to read a book in the park, but of course the park would have been mobbed so that probably wouldn't be possible. The Museum is in the Statue, which they should really do something about if so few people are going to get in, so I only spent half an hour there until the next ferry came. Luckily, despite the variable weather it didn't rain and I got a cool backlit photo from the strong sun. I also found someone with whom to exchange camera favors (and for serio nobody goes there alone--it was hard to find another single) so I got my photo in front of her, but it's impossible to get a person and all of her into the frame at once.

The next quick ferry ride was to Ellis Island. They have restored the main building to the form it took during the height of its use as an immigration reception center in the nineteen-teens and made it a museum. I don't know of any relatives who came through Ellis Island (I'm sure there were some, but it's not a big part of our family history), but I did spend a summer in law school researching the stories of Chinese immigrants during that time period for a professor so it was cool to go there. The building is GORGEOUS. Lots of open space inside, and elaborate gothic detailing outside.

The museum is excellent--it offers interesting tidbits but not information overload. I loved loved the large format photo prints on the second floor. Most of them were taken by an employee who was an amateur photographer and they're just amazing. I was cold and hungry so I only stayed for half an hour--one ferry cycle--there, but I definitely see myself coming back just to soak in more of the building. I mean, check out this dome!

To warm up from the cold I went to Magnolia Bakery and waited in line for half an hour for some cupcakes. I am well-aware that this is insane. On the way back to the subway I stopped at a restaurant and picked up some lentil soup, thank god.

I highly recommend the ferry trip out to Liberty and Ellis Islands. The ticket was $12, inclusive of boat and admission. It would be worth some forethought to get up into Liberty, and I'd recommend this for a warmer day than my barely-above-freezing experience.

Marriott Marquee. Our 26th floor room had a view of Times Square. The hotel has a nice gym, though I hadn't brought my gym clothes. The Marriott family is Mormon and there was no mini-bar (not sure if this is standard as there was a spot for one) but there was pay porn. We didn't purchase any. The beds were comfortable and the toiletries outstanding. I took the shampoo and conditioner to keep in my locker at the gym.

Artisanal. This is the restaurant outpost of the famous cheese shop and damn did it smell like cheese. I love cheese, but the ripe odor was almost enough to give me a headache. The wine list was nice. All around us people were ordering rose bubbly but I just got a normal varietal. A friend and I split the artisinal fondue with apple pieces for dipping (yum) and the spinach gratin which was fucking amazing. Seriously, the spinach gratin warrants the f-bomb. K ordered the beet salad, of which I had an excellent bite. We were in a drama corner, apparently. The first couple near us was having a horrible fight. When the second couple was seated the girl excused herself to the bathroom and the guy put a gift box on her plate. It was a pair of expensive pearl earrings. She acted weird about them and he was obviously disappointed by her reaction.

Pommes Frites. As the name suggests, this spot serves only french fries. They are in the Belgian style. I'm not sure what that means really, as I didn't have fries in Belgium, but they are medium sized and frenched. Frenching is the practice of frying twice with a cooling period in between; this results in a crisper fry. That is why the whole Freedom Fries thing was SO DUMB. French fries are named after the process by which they are cooked, which is named after the chef that invented it, NOT after the country. Dumb. Anyway, the fries at Pommes Frites were quite good. I actually favor skinny limp McD's fries but I wasn't turning my nose up at these. Their schtick is dipping sauces. Basic ones are free, fancy ones are 75 cents each or three for $2. I got parmesan peppercorn (best), sambal olek (a nice spicy chili dip), and bleu cheese (too creamy for my taste--it tasted like bleu cheese mixed into mayonnaise). There aren't many dine-in spots, but for the few that there are they have holes cut in the bar and tables to hold your paper cone of fries, which is cool. The small size was plenty--the portions are American sized, not European sized.

Juniors. This is a Brooklyn diner with a location on Times Square. It was good for a quick bite after the show, but I wouldn't seek it out. The mac'n'cheese looked and tasted orange. However, the grilled aspargus was delish and the complimentary beets and pickles were yum. They are "famous" for their cheesecake. I got a strawberry piece to go. The "strawberry" goo was horrible, but the cheesecake itself was rich but not too sweet. The crust was cardboardy.

XANADU!!!!! I don't think it's actually capitalized or followed by exclamation points, but I must shout its name. OMG it was so funny. It perfectly treads the line between being ironically hipster cool about the movie, and being flat out campy fun about the movie. And it's on roller skates. Can one hope for anything more?

The Eastern Travel Chinatown bus. It picks up near Gallery Place metro stop in DC, drops off near Times Square in NYC four and a half hours later (with a stop in Baltimore to pick up passengers). At $35 round trip (well, $36.50 with a fee for booking online), it's cheaper than tolls, much less gas. And the train? It's two.hundred.dollars. When I was in private practice and therefore rich I took the train. Now it's bus all the way. The only bad thing is that you have to either dehydrate yourself or use the scary, awful bathroom on the bus because there are no stops (the stop in Baltimore is just for passenger pickup).

All photos, including many more of Liberty and Ellis Island, are here.