Archive for the 'travel' Category

Nostos means homecoming

Saturday, October 17th, 2015

“Nostalgia” is composed of two Greek words: the first means “homecoming” and the second means “pain”. A year seemed like an impossibly generous amount of time to travel when I was setting out, but impossibly short when I was sitting on the beach in Bali at the end of it. Although there was a lot I missed about home, I thought I would never have the opportunity to take such a long trip again, and so decided to extend it for two more years.

I returned to Shanghai and continued my Mandarin studies through 2010, traveling extensively in Asia to practice. I then took a year to do another full circumnavigation, this time including South America in the itinerary, and visiting all the scattered friends I hadn’t yet seen in the first year of travel. After three years of travel, six years in Tokyo, three years in London, and studies in France, Germany, and Shanghai, I had lived abroad for 14 years. I was ready to come home.

Some common objections to taking time off include worries that your skills will atrophy, that interviewers won’t take you seriously, and that it will be hard to explain the “gap” in your resume.

I think it is worth mentioning that exactly one person I spoke with did in fact embody all of these prejudices, but he was a rarity — most people I met when I started thinking about employment again were both enthusiastic and intensely curious about the trip, and in at least one case (Amazon), it was the single most important factor in their interest. I don’t know how many potential employers rejected my resume without contacting me, but within three months of starting my search I was in late-round interviews with Amazon, a bulge bracket bank in Manhattan, and two established startups in the fintech arena. I ended up choosing from multiple offers. I mention this for the benefit of people who might be contemplating their own extended trip — you can come back!

I took a job in Boston which had the benefit of being near my family in addition to giving me a chance to do extremely interesting work in analytics; but as is apparently my fate, after three years in Boston and a month after finally moving in to my own place in Cambridge, my new firm asked me to move to New York City. To borrow from Thoreau, “at present I am a sojourner in civilized life again”, living happily in Manhattan for just over a year now, and very, very glad I took this trip.

One year anniversary

Saturday, August 1st, 2009

It’s been one year since I quit my job. I’m going to Bali on August 15 for a month to mark the occasion by learning to surf.

Taipei, Taiwan

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

The day after the eclipse, Andrew and I flew to Taipei to visit Mike, who was having a housewarming party.

Taipei is a fun city, the area where we stayed reminded me a lot of Harajuku in Tokyo, quirky shops, striking fashion, and colored contact lenses. I think it would be a great place to study Chinese. There is definitely an accent, but Taiwanese people speaking Mandarin are much easier to understand than Shanghainese speaking Mandarin.

The night before we left, we went to a party at a club called LAN in Shanghai, and met some Taiwanese who suggested the National Palace Museum as a good place to visit. So we went there, to the huge memorials to Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek, and we wandered out west to the river to see the local temples, all of which had intricate carved dragons at the entrance.


We went to the top of the 101 building to see the view. There is a mediocre restaurant up there, where we had something to drink while we looked out at the lights of the much smaller buildings below. The 101 building is higher than both the JinMao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center, but it seems a little lonely without any friends around.

At Mike’s party, all but one of the guys were entrepreneurs. One (25 years old) owned a frozen yogurt shop, one ran a television channel, one imported wine, another imported prepared foods and exported tea. Even at the LAN party, many of the people were entrepreneurs, including a former banker who now owns a gallery in New York, and a former lawyer who makes handbags.

Yangtze trip

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

We got back from Hong Kong via Shenzhen on July 13th, and had a week to recover from all the recent traveling. On the 18th we took a three-hour cruise up the HuangPu to where it meets the muddy Yangtze, the longest river in China, apparently just 15 miles longer than the Mississippi.

It was definitely worth it, though we had some difficulty finding the correct dock behind all the shoreside construction for the World Expo in Shanghai. We found it just in time, and enjoyed the view of Pudong on the way out and the Bund on the way back. The cost was 150 RMB.


This is the lighthouse that marks the boundary between the two rivers — I didn’t have my camera, so here’s the credit.


Saturday, July 4th, 2009

On the 4th of July, we took the ferry to Macau for a day trip.


My newest T-shirt.

We had Pasteis de Nata, just like the ones in Lisbon, and a tasty Portuguese-style filet sandwich. We wandered around the many casinos after Andrew’s girlfriend helped him find some closed-toe shoes so the casinos would let him in.

The most impressive was the Venetian — it’s so huge. I won $300 at poker, then lost it learning to play craps. This is my second craps experience (the first was in Vegas with Manny), and I’m 0-2.

The facade of St. Paul’s is worth visiting. It reminded me of St. Dunstan’s in the East in London, only without the greenery. We saw some girls using YMCA arm-spelling to write MACAU with the facade in the background.

I’ve been to several Portuguese or Portuguese-influenced places now: Macau, Lisbon, Brazil, and Goa. There does seem to be a representative character. I would like to know if it extends to Chinese people in Macau taking siestas.

Hong Kong

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

On July 3, we walked across the border to Hong Kong. You have to fill out two or three forms on each side, and there is this no-man’s land in the middle where you’ve filled out all your forms to leave China and haven’t filled out any to be admitted to Hong Kong yet.

On the Hong Kong side, you can just get on the metro and ride in to Central.

We stayed for the first few nights on Ice House Street, which is right in Central, close to where I met Tibor and Eric for drinks on the roof of Prince’s Building. For the rest of the trip, we stayed at the YMCA in Kowloon, which has a spectacular view.

Looking at a trilingual map, I saw that the simplified Chinese for Kowloon is 九龙, which means “Nine Dragons”. Dragon wouldn’t be a very useful word to learn in English, but it’s very handy in Chinese.

We went to see a New York comedian named Ted Alexandro for a very funny show, and made it to Lan Kwai Fong or Wan Chai most of the nights we were there.

Hong Kong, like Singapore, is small enough that you can run into people you know randomly. We were there for just ten days this trip, but it happened several times.


Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

It’s about a third cheaper to fly to Shenzhen and walk across the border than to fly direct to Hong Kong, so that’s what we did.

We arrived very late on July 2 (actually the morning of July 3), and stayed at the Queen’s Spa, a Chinese version of a Japanese onsen. For about USD $20, you get access to the various pools, free fruit and frozen yogurt, recliners with individual TV’s, and a place to bunk for the night. Most of the movies playing on TV haven’t been released yet.

There must be a fair amount of crime in Shenzhen because all the doors and windows up to the fourth floor are covered with metal grills.

We had lunch at a place across the street from the spa — it had a different loss leader every day: one dish that only cost one yuan (about 17 cents).


Thursday, June 18th, 2009

I flew to Singapore on the 18th, returning on the 23rd. I stayed in Little India, across from Mustafa Center, near Nelson’s new apartment. I was really happy to be able to eat my lunches at the vegetarian restaurants after so much meat in DongBei.

I got to see Nelson and his family. His place has a great pool, a bowling alley and an in-house karaoke room. I tried out the first two.

The trip was well-timed, since Cathal and Tibor were in Singapore for work. I saw a bunch of other former colleagues, including a group of six or seven who walked in while we were sitting in the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel. Running into people you know is a feature of Singapore, I hear.

We went to Clark and Boat Quay, to the Stamford Hotel for the view, had chili crab at a place called No Signboard, and went to the aviary, where we heard a parrot count to ten in Chinese, and then in English with a Chinese accent.

Singapore is a sweaty place, but there’s plenty of air conditioning to make it tolerable. The thing that most impressed me is how much faith the government has in the power of economic incentives. The complicated taxi pricing, tolls for busy roads, and threats of fines seem heavy-handed, but the result is a cleaner, more civilized city than Shanghai.

When we arrived home, we had to sit in the airplane while a crew went through pointing a gun at everyone’s head to take their temperature.


We were glad when the Quarantion Authomites finally cleared us to disembark.



Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

Haerbin is famous for having a standard Chinese accent. Between that and the fact that almost no one speaks English, I think you could learn Chinese really quickly here. The Korean signs disappear by the time you get to Haerbin, but Russian is everywhere. Haerbin was originally a Russian settlement, as the cathedral attests:


Dragon bollards for when you really want to discourage people from parking on the sidewalk:


One night we were just walking down the street when two guys pulled their car over to practice English with us. One was an English teacher at the local high school, the other taught gym. We chatted with them for about five minutes. He wanted to know if I thought Haerbin was better than the US. I said I thought Haerbin was great, and didn’t mention that parts of it looked a little post-apocalyptic with downed power lines blocking the streets:


Continuing our meat-eating adventures, we went to a local restaurant that served fried ham hocks and other pork parts. I believe we were the only foreigners ever to eat in this restaurant — every single person stopped talking and stared at us as we walked to our table. It’s a big place too, at least a hundred customers. All of them were intensely curious.


This is one of our plates of fried pork. They give you a straw to suck the marrow out of the bones. I normally try everything, but I couldn’t bring myself to drink marrow that night.

We found the local club called “D+ kiss”, and a “DJ Friday’s”:



Train to Haerbin

Monday, June 15th, 2009

We took the train from Jilin Province to HeiLongJiang Province, destination Haerbin.


The trip was fairly comfortable even though the bunks are too short for anyone over six feet. It was also fairly quiet, until our fellow travelers woke up in the morning and started a chorus of hacking and spitting.

I was having trouble remembering how to pronounce HeiLongJiang until I saw it written in Chinese characters: it means “Black Dragon River”, and I know all those words. This is the first time that Chinese characters made it easier for me to learn something.

To pass the time at the beginning of the trip, we tried to memorize the Chinese zodiac in order: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig.