Toronto in the Wintertime? No Problem.

On a lark I flew up to Toronto for a quick getaway with a friend. Since it’s wintertime and most sane people travel south, we scored some cheap tickets, booked a cute airbnb, stuffed our wool socks into our weekenders and shoved off.

First timers to Toronto will instinctively try to compare the city to any other western city that they’ve been to (thoughts of New York and Chicago crossed my mind), but the truth is that Toronto is actually a definition unto itself. The city is brimming with culture and character, an amalgamation of old buildings, urbanization, and cultural diversity that stands out.

Toronto is big. Not New York big in the high-rise sense, but it will take you time to cross from one end of the city to the other. Street art is all over the place. In fact I’ve never been to a city with more urban expressiveness.

Another thing that struck me was how diverse the people are, perhaps due to a more forgiving and less paranoid immigration policy. The presence of Asians and Africans is solid, and every person you meet goes beyond friendly, a trait that Canadians have defined for themselves in the world.

As a result of the city’s size and diversity, the burgeoning food scene in Toronto is incomparable. Everything you eat is good, and anything you want can be found. (Once again, apologies for not including food pictures, but that’s what instagram is for).

Our airbnb was located in one of the many old neighborhoods that cover Toronto. The houses all looked weathered and experienced, as if they’ve been around long enough to tell you stories.

Being avid drinkers, my friend and I got to explore some of the night haunts. The bars we found were lively and full of character. Toronto is definitely a place to have a good time, day or night.

So, definitely planning on going back when its warmer! Here’s to you, Toronto.

Bali, the Second Time Around

I ended up in Bali for another vacation trip and wanted to post some snaps from it. I’m going to forego a full writeup of Bali since I’ve already written about it in Terimah Kasi Bali! (Bali Pt. 1) and Sambal For Life (Bali Pt. 2).

Thanks for looking!

Hong Kong

Throughout my life I’ve found myself back in Hong Kong, visiting close family who have lived there since I was wee. I’ve always touted Hong Kong as being my favorite city in the world, and I’d say that the sentiment still stands to this day.

Hong Kong, China

Aside from being one of the most modern cities in the world, Hong Kong is also one of the most photogenic that I’ve ever seen. The city is built on the coastlines of giant mountain peaks that rise up from the water to form islands, towering up from any space that the mountains don’t already own. The resulting skyline is a breathtaking view no matter where you are in the city.

What truly makes Hong Kong unique though is how absolutely globalized it feels, being on the bleeding edge of modern society while still struggling to break any old world shackles, remnants of being owned by two old sovereign countries (Great Britain and China). The resulting culture of Hong Kong is a melting pot, with traditional Chinese butted up against a more transient and international population of Europeans and Asians.

Hong Kong is very much a consumerist culture. Every part of the city has beautiful malls or sprawling markets. The transit system is the most efficient and impressive that I’ve ever seen, and every public utility is wiped down regularly due to fears of viruses, remnants of a bird flu epidemic years ago.

At the time of my visit, Hong Kong was and is going through a major identity crisis, where questions about how the mainland Chinese government rules the city has popped up. This has created an underlying level of dread that purveys everywhere, and local Hong Kongers are rising up in protest against the corruption that has crept into the local government. I wish Hong Kong good luck in their fight, since it’s a fight that everybody seems to be facing these days.

I’m choosing not to gush about the food in Hong Kong, but it’s perhaps my favorite cuisine. For food pictures, feel free to check my Instagram page!

One thing that really strikes me about Hong Kong is how it is one of the few giant cities that has almost no traffic congestion. I believe that this is because their public transportation system is run so meticulously well, so timing your commutes becomes a science. Its really impressive!

I will end this post with an image of dim sum scientists engineering the best food I’ve ever eaten.

Red or Green Chile? (New Mexico)

After a month of procrastinating, I decided that I needed to create a post about my recent trip to New Mexico. The place left such a lasting impression on me that honestly caught me by surprise, since we don’t really hear much chatter about the state over here on the East Coast.

A panorama taken on a random road going nowhere.

New Mexico struck me as a hidden gem of the American southwest, where those who know, know, and those who don’t know are told about it but passively nod off the recommendation for seemingly more exotic travel destinations.

Once you get there though, you realize that you’re in a truly magical place. I felt that the land and the people had this spiritual elevation that was both attractive and strange to my sensibilities.

The tone of the place is set by its terrain, large swaths of flat desert plains interrupted by random plateaus, red cliffs, and mountains. Everything is red and blue. The rusty clay that’s in every rock, the turquoise that they mine from the mountains, the gorgeous clear blue skies that must be quite intense in the summertime.

My pictures might convey a lonely place, there are in fact many, many people that live in New Mexico, strewn across the countryside and living in beautiful adobe homes. There is a large Native American contingent there that have separate tribal reservations, most inaccessible to the general public since they are private territories.

Our trusty steed, who I named Salazar.

Although the food is heavily influenced by the neighboring Mexico, New Mexico’s cuisine is unique in its palette and presentation (sorry I don’t have pictures, but you know, google). The first thing they’ll ask you when you order something is if you’d like red (hatch) chile or green, and they put that stuff on absolutely everything. Delicious but eventually overbearing, since you can’t really get away from it!

They also love their beef since it’s prime cattle country there. I had a burger there that almost moved me to tears.

The people there are so friendly and engaging, and not once did I perceive a negative emotion or sentiment. The roads are very fast, and everybody knows to stay out of the fast lane since the speed limit is 75 on major highways.

I left New Mexico feeling relaxed and peaceful. The big beautiful skies and exciting terrain was such a breath of fresh air to this city slicker. Definitely intending on going back, multiple times.

Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Just got back from a trip down to Punta Cana. I don’t have much to say since my trip was just straight beach time and I did not get a proper exposure to the culture there, but man is Punta Cana beautiful.  Cheap to get to, cheap to stay in, completely worth it.  We chose to not do the resort route, but instead to get an Airbnb to save some money. Punta Cana is very safe and tourist friendly, so deviating a little bit does no harm.  Don’t be afraid to try the seafood, and make sure you buy a lot of drinking water to keep yourself hydrated!  Also, be aware that there is a problem with coastal seaweed there. Beaches must be cleaned daily.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pete Cage, Master of Amps

Recently I had the need to get an old guitar amplifier repaired, as it was starting to crackle and spit at me every time I wanted to play.  The amp is an old Fender Twin Reverb from the 70s and it has such a beautiful wholesome sound.  Since I use the amp for recording music, I decided I needed to get it sorted out.

I reached out to a guitar aficionado friend of mine, James Finnerty, who just released a book on Gibson pickups.  He informed me that I should bring my amp to Pete Cage, an amp repairman out of Maryland who is notorious for his craft.  So I did just that!


 

 

Pete only works on vintage, all tube guitar and bass amps, so if your unhealthy amp fits the description, he’s your guy.  I was struck by Pete’s workshop, and told him that I’d like to fire off some pictures of the space since I found it so photogenic.

 

 

 

 

Pete keeps his work space organized and tidy, which enables him to be thorough at his craft.  I was impressed with his professionalism and candor.  He explained what he was going to accomplish with my amp, why some changes needed to happen, and how I would eventually benefit from his work.  And true to his word, I couldn’t be more pleased.

My amp sounds so much more lush and beautiful, and feels solid.

 

 

 

For those in need of Pete’s services, here is the link to his site.

Cage Amplifiers 

Thanks to Pete for letting me into his space and also making my amp sound angelic.

Charleston in Charge

I just got back from a trip down to Charleston, South Carolina to visit some good friends who had recently moved there. I’d been hearing some great things about the city; how it’s steeped in history but has become a burgeoning cultural gem in the South (USA).

 

 

 

 

We ran the gamut on that town.  Charleston’s slow paced, Southern culture is being revitalized by an influx of vibrant young transplants.  There are moments where cultures clash, but overall I think that it’s doing wonders for the city.

Right now there is a purity to Charleston, something magical and mythic.  You feel like your imagination could run rampant if you let it.  All that Spanish moss in the trees, man.

 

 

 

 

My photography professor in College was adamant about never taking photos in cemeteries, due to the potential for your photos to be tragically banal.  While I somewhat agree, I couldn’t help but want to capture the beautiful old cemeteries around Charleston.  Most have graves that are 200 years old, beautifully worn into the marshy terrain.

History is very important in Charleston, and its hard to ignore its bloody past as a slave port.  My impression of the locals is that they are in a transition period of remembering the mistakes of the old world, but trying to move forward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The pace is slow, the people are polite, and the heat is hot.  We encountered mercurial weather, with periods of downpours in between hot sunny days.  I’m told this is normal.  Fortunately I love this kind of weather!

 

 

 

 

Thanks to Alison, Mike, and my Moms for being great travel companions.  We ate too much, and I’m still feeling full!

Takk Fyrir Iceland!

I just returned from a week and a half winter adventure in the beautiful island country of Iceland.  Right now the tickets to fly to Iceland from the East Coast of the United States are averaging around $300-400 RT, so it’s a no brainer for those looking for a spontaneous getaway.  I chose to fly the discount airline WOW Air, which offers you the cheapest flight ticket but charges you for literally everything else.  It’s a good idea until things go wrong, and then you have to deal with their lackluster customer service, which I had to do.

My friend Inna and I flew into Keflavik Airport, which is about a 45 minute drive from the capital of Reykjavik.  We chose to rent a 4×4 vehicle instead of using one of the many bus tours that the country has to offer.  There were upsides and downsides to this, but ultimately we were thankful to have the freedom that renting a car provides you.  We had organized a road trip across the southern part of the island, following the primary highway that circles Iceland, Route 1.

 

 

 

 

 

For those that are unfamiliar, Iceland is full of volcanoes, glaciers, and lakes.  There are dried lava fields randomly peppering the landscape, and the ridiculously majestic mountains pop up across giant fields of flat terrain.  Most of the population lives on the fringes of the island, with 2/3rds living in the capital of Reykjavik.  It’s sparse and extreme country. Inspirational and terrifying at the same time.

Driving in Iceland in the wintertime is challenging. There is no denying it. Your vehicle must be prepared for weather, and you have to be comfortable driving in rough situations.  With that said, it’s completely worth it.  You won’t see this kind of otherworldly terrain anywhere.  The fast island weather just adds to the atmosphere.   My senses were constantly overwhelmed, and I came home with a sense of enlightenment.

Here is Priscilla, our rental.  She ain’t pretty, but she’s stalwart and sure footed.

 

 

 

 

 

The people who live in the countryside are very acclimated, and are undaunted by the vastness that surrounds them.  They are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met while traveling, and are unhesitatingly helpful.  There is a sense of ease that Icelanders carry, something that I am constantly seeking.  Obviously the lack of traffic and noise has its perks!

 

 

 

After reading blogs and write-ups about what time of year is best when exploring Iceland, I felt that winter would offer me a degree of contrast and intensity that could shake some cobwebs from living comfortably in the modern world.  My takeaway is that there are different comforts here.  Aesthetic beauty moves to the forefront.  Nothing is cluttered or crowded. Buildings compliment the landscape instead of dominating it.

 

 

 

 

My favorite thing about this trip was the glaciers.  I’d never seen a glacier in person, and it was beyond what I expected. They are huge oceans of ice that carve through the landscape over thousands of years.  And they’re distinguishable from regular snow and ice by their beautiful blueish hue.

 

 

 

I couldn’t help but be constantly reminded that there is volcanic activity all around me.  From the geothermal hot springs and geysers, to the beautiful black sand beaches that sprinkle the coastline in pockets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other things of note:

  • There are waterfalls everywhere
  • The hot water may smell of the sulfur springs they come from, but the cold water out of the tap is cleaner than the bottled water being sold in stores. You can actually taste how pure it is!
  • If you go there, don’t forget that wintertime means less daylight due to your proximity to the arctic circle. And of course, the complete opposite in the summertime.

 

 

 

 

Bienvenidos A Miami! (and the Keys)

For the holiday season, my mom and I decided that a trip down south would be the perfect respite to the blinding cold that has hit our area.  I had mentioned to her that I haven’t been to Miami in a long time and that it’s one of my favorite cities.  On top of that, I’ve always wanted to drive the Overseas Highway to the Florida Keys. So we threw some flip flops into bags, summoned an uber driver, and jumped on a Southwest flight to Fr. Lauderdale (airport code FLL).

 

 

 

 

Miami always struck me as such a fun and diverse city, a giant bubbling spicy stew of Hispanic, Caribbean, and American culture, with a heavy dose of Cuban flavor.  It makes the culture and vibe interesting and colorful, and you can see that mix of culture infused in the music and art that have come out of the city for decades.  And of course, the food.  If you go there, try to get away from the bland, homogenized areas and get into the weeds a bit.

 

 

 

 

With that said, my mom and I stayed in South Beach for the first few days of our trip.  Although the area is hyper developed and whitewashed, its gorgeous and lively and always a pleasure to revisit.   We took a trip into Little Havana on Christmas Day just to get into the meat of some of that culture. Unfortunately most things were closed for the holiday.

 

 

 

We left Miami in our rental and headed down south towards the Keys, a chain of islands south of Miami that are connected by a (mostly) single lane highway that runs all the way to Key West.  The entire region is still pretty devastated from the hurricanes that hit them in April, with giant piles of debris lining the entire length of the roadway waiting for dump trucks to do the dirty work.  Here are some key points (or should I say, Key points) that I gleaned from this journey:

  • The drive is grueling but worth it.  The single lane highway is not enough to sustain the amount of people traveling on it, but the scenery is gorgeous. If you’re going to do it, perhaps aim for the off season.
  • The hotels are hit or miss. Do your research. We stayed at a beautiful one, and we stayed at a terrible, terrible one.  Both price gouged us.
  • Everything in Key West is meticulous and beautiful, and expensive. Gas up in the run down areas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sambal For Life (Bali Pt. 2)

This is the second post about my recent trip to Bali.  The first post can be found at Terimah Kasi Bali! (Bali Pt. 1).

So lets talk food.  Particularly, Balinese/Indonesian/Malaysian food.

 

 

 

One of the most popular regional cuisines in Indonesia is Padang fare.  Padang food  is usually served in a series of small plate portions of deliciousness, and is somewhat akin to dim sum or tapas in that you are presented with all of the options at once, and you pick which ones you actually want to eat.  The cream of the crop though is rendang.  Oh my god, its easily one of the best foods I’ve ever eaten.  Unfortunately I got food poisoning for the tail end of the trip and only got to eat rendang twice.  Other than padang, Indonesians like fried food, and they do it very well.  Nasi goreng, their fried rice, is hugely popular with tourists (including myself).  Then there is satay, which is principally prepared the same way across southeast Asia.

 

 

So yeah, food poisoning.  It was expected, and it was painful.  I went into the trip knowing that I’d get food poisoning at some point, and I thought I had dodged the bullet. Boy was I wrong.  It could have been from all the sambal I sucked up, which is basically Indonesian for hot sauce.  I do love spicy!  Anyways, wash your hands all the time and don’t get ice with your drinks.

Here is a monkey.

 

 

As far as sights to see in Bali, there are a few specific hot spots that are sort of a must.  My mom’s old friend Harry, who’s lived in Bali for 30 years and is best known as one of the resident DJs of Leed’s prolific disco club The Warehouse, was kind enough to accompany us on all the road trips that we just had to do.  Harry has known me since I was a wee tike in Jakarta, so I call him uncle.

 

 

 

My old friend Marco came to visit us.  Him and I used to play in a band in high school, and we’ve managed to keep in touch for over 20 years.

 

 

First of all I’d like to say that my mom and I avoided the beach, with prior understanding that Bali is not about the beaches.  Don’t get me wrong, they looked beautiful with turquoise water and volcanic sands, but my pale complexion is no match for the near-equatorial sunlight.

 

 

 

Aside from Denpasar, a major draw point for tourists is Ubud.  The surrounding countryside is hilly, with jungles and rice paddies taking turns.  It’s gorgeous. The town itself is unfortunately dense (and I mean dense) with tourism and markets.  Lots of good food though!

 

 

 

Next up is Kintamani.  You drive up a mountain, and when you get there you have this massive view of an extinct volcano with a beautiful lake at its base, all within a giant crater.  The view is obviously one in a million. We ate from a Balinese buffet looking out over the mountain, and it was so serene.

 

 

 

Afterwards we drove down into the valley and made our way to a small village that had some beautiful old Hindu temples.  There were people there that had commuted from far away just to worship at that spot, as there was some religious significance to the location.  Every village you drive through is sleepy and laid back, and this one was no different.  I could also feel the age of the place.  There was emotional and spiritual history there, dense with vibe.

 

 

 

 

 

Another city worth mentioning is Singaraja, which used to be the capital of Bali before they moved it to Denpasar.  It’s sleepy, old, and beautiful, and fortunately untainted, as the majority of tourists don’t really have any reason to visit it.  There are some gorgeous old hotels here, many that are slowly decaying but are still lovely.

 

 

 

My favorite part of the entire trip was our drive back from Singaraja through the mountains, past the three lakes in an area called Buyan (I think, will double check).  Absolutely the most stunning views, and an adventurous drive through towns that live in the clouds and are perpetually foggy.  Keep in mind that I was in the throes of food poisoning through all of this, but it was an experience that I couldn’t sit out.

 

 

 

 

 

Credit must be given to our driver Ajik, whose honed reflexes and keen road awareness kept us safe and moving through the jungle.

 

 

 

 

Terimah Kasi Bali! (Bali Pt. 1)

I just got back from a two week vacation with my mom to Bali, Indonesia and Seoul, Korea, and I’m still a little euphoric.  I’m dividing my experience up into a number of posts due to the sheer amount of pictures that I brought back with me, as well as a separate section on Seoul.

 

 

So for the uninformed (which was me before this trip), Bali is essentially a paradise island, complete with your standard tropical beaches, rain forests, and magnificent mountains, all packed into an island the size of Delaware.  On top of that, the majority of the population of Bali is Hindu, so there are these gorgeous Hindu temples all over the place.   Every town you drive through has multiple open air temples, and most houses have their own shrines in their gardens so that the people can worship at any point in time.

 

 

 

For anybody that has been to Siem Reap in Cambodia, the vibe is basically the same.  Hindu architecture and worship sites are built to integrate into their surroundings and heighten beauty.  It feels very natural and very spiritual.  Also they have these beautiful statues of their gods and goddesses peppered everywhere, with their daily offerings of flowers and rice.  My mother said it best, that it’s amazing how people will build these magnificent structures in the middle of the jungle.

 

 

 

 

 

So to describe the topography and scenery, Bali is comprised of the peaks of mountains along the edge of the Eurasian plate, which inevitably brought about heavy volcanic activity.  So driving through and around the island, you have expansive plains of rice fields with large forested mountains on the horizon.

 

 

 

Driving into and over the mountains is an adventure.  Fortunately the roads are all paved, but they’re windy and narrow.  The infrastructure of Bali was established with roads that are essentially single laned but eventually split into two lanes.  On top of that, the majority of the locals drive scooters and motorcycles, and there are a lot of them.  So driving requires extreme vigilance.   There are very little rules of the road. You have to carve your way to where you need to go.  Motorcyclists there are bold and reckless, often stacking their entire family of 4 or 5 onto one scooter with no helmets on.

 

 

Denpasar, the capital of Bali, is rapidly becoming gentrified and commercialized due to the heavy tourist population.  Once you get outside of the city though, you can find Bali’s beauty everywhere.

The Balinese are extremely friendly island folk, and are quick to smile if you show them friendliness and amicability.  If you go to Bali, be friendly and kind!

 

 

 

The weather in Bali is tropical.  We visited during their summer, which means a lot of rain.  Since Bali is an island, the weather moves quickly and there is a lot of breeze.  The rain only emphasizes the lush green foliage that is everywhere.  Bali is chock full of beautiful flowers and plants, and there are lovely (and scary) insects everywhere.  If you’re afraid of bugs, you probably shouldn’t go! Lots of mosquitoes, dragonflies, praying mantises, and these stupid annoying things my mom called gamu-gamo , which are apparently large flying termites!!!!  Lots of ants, so you can’t leave any food or crumbs, or you’ll wake up to a sea of ants on the table. There are insect eating geckos all over the walls, which are cute but gross when they fall on you.  Stray dogs are everywhere, crossing the street in front of you on the road, and the island does have its share of cats.

 

 

 

Next week I’ll talk about the food and the must sees.

Seratonin Explosion! (Seattle, Again)

I just got back from my second excursion to the great Northwest city of Seattle, to visit my old friend Peter and his wife Audrey.  My previous layover was not substantial enough of a visit for me to feel satisfied with how much I’d absorbed of the city, so I decided that I had to return! (Read my last Seattle post, Coffee Jitters)

 

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My prior trip was spent exploring the downtown portions of the city.  The financial district, the coffee shops, the tourist traps.  While impressive and seemingly unique, there is just so much more to Seattle.  It has become a mecca for naturalists and creatives because of its immediate proximity to water, forests, and mountains.  I had not fully appreciated the depth of how much nature means to the people there until I experienced it first hand.

 

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Unfortunately we did not have enough time to jaunt into the deep wilderness due to time constraints, but I was able to see enough to be convinced that all modern cities should aspire to be what Seattle has become.  The city is obviously in touch with it’s presence and effect on the surrounding nature.  Public transportation uses green energy to cut down on emissions,  and I often noticed how the streets were absent of garbage and detritus.

 

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The city is built around a series of lakes and bays, so as a result there are breathtaking views everywhere.  I couldn’t help but feel relaxed just sitting in the back seat of Pete’s Subaru as he chauffeured me around town, to music that is so expertly curated by him and is such a reflection of the scene and vibe that is the Pacific Northwest.  I’m pretty sure that I caught Seattle at the best time.  It wasn’t overcast for the majority of my trip (despite how it might appear in these photos), and I can imagine how the winter months might start to feel oppressive to the uninitiated.

 

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The people there are polite but carry an edge that I could best compare with East Coasters, although not as black humored.  I found myself having to second guess my salacious comments for fear of sounding boorish, but Pete and Audrey assured me that I was not offensive 🙂

 

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The tech industry is thriving in Seattle.    I’m told that this is due to the city’s proximity to California, as well as Asia.  Amazon basically owns a portion of downtown Seattle.  Blocks and blocks!  Its pretty scary, actually.

 

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Pete and Audrey’s friend Greg blessed us with a lovely boat ride through the inner lakes of the city.  It was a pleasant surprise, and I’m so thankful that we could get on the water in a place that is so deeply maritime in culture.  We didn’t get to see Bill Gates’ (probably ridiculous) house, but we saw yacht after yacht, basically stacked on each other.  I had to ask them “Where do these people take these things?  Do they just stay docked and look pretty?”.  But of course they take them out, inspiring so many Entourage episodes.

 

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I thought to myself the entire time how its no wonder legendary musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam derived so much inspiration from the city and environment.

Shouts out to my good friend John Dstruct (alias) and his daughter Hannah, who I was fortunate enough to have lunch with after so many years of working on music with him in the supergroup, Robot Death Squad.

 

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