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Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Paris & Barcelona

For our honeymoon in October 2011 we explored the museums and famous landmarks in Paris, then strolled around the Gaudi-inspired architecture in Barcelona, and finally returned back to rent a car and drive to Loire valley. Nothing’s nicer than the French countryside, dotted with castles!

Click on the montage below to explore Paris & Barcelona.

Paris & Barcelona
Paris & Barcelona

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Banff in 9 Photographs

As I sit and write on today, Canada Day, I’m reminded of a recent Canada Day adventure. In July 2009 we vacationed in Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, spending a week hiking and trekking the Canadian Rockies. Keeping with tradition, I’ve distilled all the photographs down to nine that I especially like. Coincidentally, they’re all from Banff. (Sorry Jasper, but you had all the thunderstorm days.) So call this Banff in 9 Photographs.

Banff in 9 Photographs
Banff in 9 Photographs

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The Penang Diaries – Ringgits

I’m sitting in my hotel room in Penang, fighting off the urges to sleep. My bed looks invitingly comfortable and warm, but doing so would be counter-productive to trying to adjust for a full twelve hours of jetlag. I’m here in Penang for business for a couple of weeks, and there’s nothing like a bit of travel to get the old blog juices flowing…

I’ve gotten pretty proficient at dividing by 3.2, which is the conversion rate from the multicolored Malaysian Ringgit to Canadian dollars. Wandering through the brand-named stores at the multi-storied Gurney Plaza mall and doing this 3.2 division repeatedly, I arrive repeatedly at what I’d expect the price to be in Canada. (Just can’t escape the law of one price.)

Head where the locals head, and food is cheap. An exploision of hawker stands takes over an area just west of the Gurney Plaza. Dinner: char koay teow, a fried vermicelli noodle with cockles (some sort of local shellfish), pig fat, and duck egg: RM 4.80.

Canada has the worst mobile phone service in the world. It took all of 5 minutes and RM 8.50 to obtain a mobile SIM card to have a local Penang phone cell number. And RM 5.00 of credit for local calls (billed at RM 0.36 a minute). Let’s see you do that, Rogers.

It’s rainy season. Which means freak thunderstorms. Like, torrential rain thunderstorms, the your-umbrella-and-raingear-is-useless type. I learned this the hard way, but was luckily saved by a teksi (taxi) ride back to the hotel. Cost: RM 4.20.

You just can’t beat the prices in Penang. Now I’m out to look for koay teow th’ng¬†and other tasty treats.

California in 12 Photographs

Instead of the usual dreary post-vacation monotony, I’m going to try something new. From over twelve hundred frames snapped during a February jaunt in California, I’m going to summarize my trip with just twelve. Call it California in 12 Photographs. It’s taken a few months to find the twelve, but it’s done, finally done… Read on for a flavour of the trip that they try to capture.

California in 12 Photographs
California in 12 Photographs

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Reflections on Rome

The sun was setting on our first day in Rome. We’d just arrived earlier that afternoon, leaving just a few hours to explore the city in a relaxed, unscheduled fashion.

We’d braved the Roma Metro, infamous for teams of thieves and pickpockets, and made it to Piazza di Spagna, the Spanish Steps. From there, it was a short walk to the famous Fontana di Trevi, the Trevi Fountain. Built during the Renaissance era, both are pretty, and full of people. But quickly boring: a few minutes and pictures and you’ll be wanting to move on.

We started to get hungry. At about nine o’clock, the umbrella-covered al fresco tables lining the streets started to fill with energetic diners, drinking wine and nibbling on overflowing plates of antipasto. We found a restaurant recommendation in our guidebook, and proceeded to get lost in Rome’s twisty labyrinth of side streets trying to find it.

A few turns later, still solidly lost, we found ourselves walking down a narrow street lined with gelaterie and trattorie, and the occasional bar. In the distance, white marble emerged into view as the buildings on the narrow street yielded into a wide piazza. One Corinthian column, followed by another, eight in all, the white marble glowing in contrast with other buildings lit with yellow-tinted incandescents. A beautiful triangular portico framing enormous doors, in front of a wide dome that seemed to dwarf neighbouring buildings, set against a beautiful twilight sky. With each and every step, more of the meter-high block letting slid into view. “M. AGRIPPA FECIT…”

I became rooted to the very spot I was standing, my feet firmly affixed to the cobblestone pavement, my mouth agape as I gawked at the pantheon, beautiful in its simplicity and perfect symmetry. My knees weakened and threatened to buckle. A sea of locals and tourists flowed past me, as a brook parts around a newly placed pebble. Juxtaposed against the umbrellas-lined ristoranti, the hustle and bustle of the piazza, and a street busker playing stereotypical Italian music (for the tourists, of course), the Pantheon surely did not belong. It felt as if the two-millenia old building had been rescued from the past and unceremoniously dropped in the middle of the piazza.

How fragile human life and human civilization are! This building, this mass of marble and stone, has existed on that very spot for a hundred generations of man. It’s witnessed the fall of an ancient thousand-year-old civilization, centuries of turmoil, and recently, the dawn of “modern civilization”. We are but insignificant blips when measured against this relic, a behemoth of time. Where will you or I or “Western civilization” be in two thousand years? I don’t know; but the Pantheon will be in Rome.

A few minutes later, I finally remembered to take a photograph. It’s the one you see at the top of this page. We visited the Pantheon a few more times over the course of the week. Any routes we picked would inevitably detour to the Pantheon, just because “it’s so close” (everything’s close by in Rome). On the eve of our departure from Rome, the final destination of our night walk across was the Pantheon, “one last time”. But even after we forlornly walked away, that magical image of the Pantheon, and all it embodied about Rome, accompanied us on our long trip home.

Recently…

Well, it’s been an awful long time since I’ve written anything on this blog, so I figured I’d throw an update.

Recently addicted. Addicted to Facebook. I’ve been avoiding social networking sites like the plague for the last few years, refusing to sign-up on Friendster or MySpace. Then along came Facebook. And now I find myself checking it multiple times a day, like everyone else. You’re probably reading this blog entry as a syndicated note on Facebook, you addict you.

Recently purchased gadgets. I finally bit the bullet and bought that lens I’ve been eyeing for the last few months: the Canon EF 70-200 f/4L IS USM telephoto zoom. I love it. It’s oh-so-sharp, and I’ve been taking it around on walks around Toronto. It takes beautiful portraits, and great photos of random people, which has been nice with all the nice weather! In the past, I’ve never been able to take pictures of random strangers, but it’s much easier with this lens since you’re usually standing 20-30 metres away. See recent photos, amongst others, at photos.grchiu.com. I’ve also recently loaded up on 10 gigabytes of compact flash. This should be sufficient for about 1400 photos in Rome… enough, I hope?

Recent reading. In preparation for an upcoming trip to Italy (next week!) I’ve been reading Rick Steves’ Rome and Rick Steves’ Italy. Both excellent reads, packed with information and lots of nice maps of the different sight-seeing venues. The Lonely Planet Best of … guides are also nice and small for carrying around.

Before that, I rediscovered the public library system and borrowed Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story by Kurt Eichenwald, a surprisingly gripping and outrageous true store of the boom and subsequent demise of Enron in its corporate accounting scandal. It’s a great read, offering a unique look into the politics and inner workings of big corporations. On the lighter side, Spin, the 2006 Hugo Award winning novel by Robert Charles Wilson, is captivating, with an interesting premise and memorable characters full of vigour. Also recently read was the classic The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. I’m looking forward to reading The God Delusion.

Recent Listening. In the past few months I’ve started listening to vocal/instrumental jazz. It all started when I saw Melissa Stylianou, a Toronto jazz vocalist, perform at Hugh’s Room on the home stretch of her tour. Her latest album, Sliding Down, is great. Check it out.

Italy next week. Some stories and pictures to follow when I return. Arrivederci!

the wonders of San Jose

My co-workers in San Jose have a few nice things going for them. First, and likely foremost, for most, is San Jose is in California. That means it’s unusually warm. By Toronto standards, 20 degrees Celsius (that’s 68 degrees Farenheit, you Yankees you) in the middle of November is positively balmy. If this is November, I can’t wait to see summer, and I can probably accept January and February with no fuss.

There’s one other thing that’s instantly and casually apparent (besides the temperature). Mountains. Everywhere. Although there are probably countless wonderful sights and vistas around that area (none of which I had time to visit during my week-long trip), I am instantly floored by a panorama of mountains surrounding the city, rather large peaks of earth and trees, rising in the distance. Having grown up in the flat-lands of Ontario (i.e. Toronto), this is quite exciting for me. We drive on the freeway, my eyes transfixed on these giants looming in the distance — so large that fifteen minutes of driving does little to change their size. Amazing.

My co-workers are the real lucky ones. The view from the third floor, facing south, of our headquarters in San Jose is gorgeous at 5 o’clock on a crisp and clear Friday afternoon in November. All framed by a bank of floor-to-ceiling glass windows, a beautiful scene hangs like a painting just outside. A tree-lined valley of buildings, houses, parks and roads stretches before you, to the horizon. A mountain to the right, earthy tones glowing red in a Californian sunset. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and I’m instantly envious.

back and forth

So I’m back from my little jaunt in Atlantic Canada: 9 days, 2700 kilometers, 3 provinces, 3 national parks, countless provincial parks, lighthouses, 20 km of hiking total, 6 lobsters and 28 oysters later. It was fun. If you’re a fan of nature and hikes, beautiful scenes, fresh seafood, well, the maritimes are for you. Memorable events from the trip include hiking Fundy, PEI National, and Kejimkujik National Parks. Walking on the ocean floor at Hopewell Rocks. Seafood. Lots of seafood. Lots of pictures.

It took us a day or two, but we figured out the best way to eat seafood while in the Maritimes. Avoid expensive restaurants. What you really want to find is a “fish market”. Look for them near harbours or wharfs at cities, or ask a local. When driving around in the country side, look for bays or inlets where you see fishing vessels. An authentic fish market is just around the corner. Buy a pair of lobster crackers and forks, an oyster shucking knife, a cooler bag, a few rolls of paper towel and some dry ice. Throw them in your trunk, and when you come across a fish market in the morning you can “brown bag” your lunch (and perhaps your dinner).

Speaking of seafood, we went to the maritimes intending to eat a large number of lobsters, but only ended up eating six. Instead I developed a new craving: Malpeque oysters. Be sure to learn how to shuck oysters. It’s a life skill that everyone should know. A nice guy showed us at Carr’s Fish Market, just off Stanley Bridge in PEI. Home of the best (and cheapest) Malpeque oysters ever! Most fish markets will sell choice Malpeques for about $0.75 per.

Regrets? Few, thankfully. Not spending more time in Fundy National Park, which is gorgeous and has wonderful beaches and trails (we didn’t have time to finish the challenging Coastal Littoral trail). Not being able to kayak: our expedition was cancelled due to winds. Not having time to go to Cape Breton Highlands National Park (next time!). And not eating enough Malpeque oysters. Have you any idea how hard they are to find in Toronto?

still reading…

So I just finished reading a non-fiction piece, Edison and the Electric Chair : A Story of Light and Death by Mark Essig. I picked the hardcover book up for quite a steal at $5.39 at the local Indigo. It’s quite an interesting read: in a style not much unlike Bill Bryson (in his famous A Short History of Nearly Everything) Essig recounts almost laughable historic gaffs and misconceptions about electricity; he goes on to detail the great inventor Edison’s struggles in creating electric light and the difficulties in delivering this new product into the homes of the masses; finally he segues into the dangers of electricity and the development of the electric chair: a humane alternative for execution. This morbid curiosity into capital punishment was spawned recently from perusing Dead Man Eating, an addictively grotesque website archiving the last meals of inmates prior to execution.

I’m moving on to read Moon Handbook: Atlantic Canada in preparation for my jaunt in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island later this summer. As of today, travel guides from all three provinces are hurtling towards my mailbox at an accelerated pace. Had I known you can order free travel guides through their respective tourism office websites, I wouldn’t have forked out some exorbitant sum for the book.

Why Atlantic Canada? Lobsters, hiking, coastal scenery and towns, and of course, photography. The only problem is now figuring out where to go and how to spend the oh-so-valuable vacation time. Any trip suggestions from well-travelled readers?