Thursday, July 24, 2008

Quinessential New York

Long Island City, New York
Originally uploaded by xmascarol
Yellow Cab, Graffiti-ridden bulding. Very New York. Actually large scale graffiti art work is quite rare now in Manhattan, but can still be found in certain places.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

South Beach, Florida

South Beach, Florida
Originally uploaded by xmascarol
Art deco style hotels along the esplanade of South Beach. Spent a long weekend there tanning, eating and partying with some friends.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Patacon, Ajiaco and Borrachas (Medellin part 2)

So the first day in Medellin I was a little apprehensive - not knowing what everyone was on about, I kept to smiling and nodding quite a bit. This is the interesting part: During my entire stay there, people seemed to assume I spoke Spanish. Maybe it was due to my colleague chatting away in Spanish right next to me with our clients, or maybe I blended in (which surprised me somewhat because I could count on 1 hand how many Chinese people I saw in Medellin during my 10 days there). But the Colombians in Medellin were very friendly and inviting. In no time I felt at ease about the whole place.

This city was a mixture of old and new. It had all the same setup as any metropolitan cities with a very efficient metro system (I could only wished the NY subway was half as nice and on time!). Yet it also retained some characteristics of small towns, such as street merchants selling all kinds of goods on their little shopping cart of carry trays. I don't recall seeing anything like this except maybe in Malaysia's hawker markets or hot-dog sellers at football matches, or the choc-top guy inside Cinema back home. During the week, we spent a lot of time hanging out at the cafe at the Museo de Antioquia during lunch which overlooks a busy open park right at an intersection. It was quite entertaining just watching the interactions of the locals with these street merchants.

And now the food - its all about sauces and sides. Unlike some cuisine where herbs and spices are added into the food during cooking, it seems that the Colombian dishes are cooked with basic seasoning. However, as you actually eat the food, you are expected to add all sorts of wondering sides and sauces to the dish to create very unique flavours and textures. Here are some example:

Ajiaco Bogotano

A chicken and potato soup dish - served with capers and cream. I don't think I have actually ever had capers with anything other thing than salmon. It was actually very interesting when combined with the taste of the chicken soup.


Patacon is a plantine flattened out paper thin and deep fried. It is then topped with garlic prawns over a layer of guacamole and served with coconut rice. The best stuff ever.

Typical Paisa

This reminded me of the Vietnamese broken rice dish. Rice is served with a variety of meat and vegetable. This usually consists of chicharron (salted fatty pork with crackling skin), a chorizo sausage, a fried egg, fried plantine, pieces of avacado and frijols (kidney beans).

For drinks, there were plenty of exotic tropical fruits to choose from - guanabana, mora, lulo as well as more commonly available ones like mangoes and guava. And then, there was aquardiente.

One night after work, our Colombian colleague took us to Lleras Park which is a hip and trendy area packed with popular bars and eateries. We went to the Basilica Restaurant for a drink (or two) and a light bite. Well they have been bugging me all week about getting drunk on their "firewater" aquardiente. Well I said bring it on. shots came out and down the hatch it went. What my Colombian colleague forgot to tell me was: it was a double shot that she ordered for us and I was only suppose to drink half of it and not drain it down like I did. Well too late!! I've had taquila before. This was similar in taste and strength. I do miss my piece of lemon and the salt...

So a couple of drinks later, there was a table of borrachas (Spanish for drunken ladies). Well ok, maybe we weren't quite drunk. We were however very merry. :)

Buenos Dias, Colombia!

Last week due to work, I had the opportunity to go and visit Medellin in Colombia, South America.

Colombia is one of those countries that have received a lot of press over the years - and they are not necessarily the good kind. For most people (including myself until I went there), the mention of the country alsost always conjure up a certain stereotype of the country - crime, drug, violence, and in one word: a dangerous place to be. Actually Medellin at one point was known for being a base for the most powerful international drug trafficking organisations.

It is true, certain parts of Colombia is still on the high caution list from Travel Advisories, both for Australian and US citizens (and I would imagine for most foreign nationals). Bogota (the captial of Colombia) and Medellin (the 2nd most populated city in Colombia) however, are relatively safe for travel at present. Of course one should exercise the normal precaution when travelling in a foreign country. If you insist of flashing your bling-bling around and act like a mindless tourists well then I think you will be in trouble in any country, even if you were the wrong part of town in NY!

So with that said, my biggest barrier was language. But I was well taken care of. I had my own travel companion/translator/guide - a colleague of mine who is an American-born Colombian. It definitely helped that she was there as I don't think I would have gotten very far with trying to point and "charade" my way around town.

Surprisingly (and to show a complete lack of geographical knowledge here), Medellin was more "east" on the globe than I thought. It was actually in the same time zone as the East Coast of US (ie. NY). I wasn't sure what to expect of this place and for those who know me, you know I am quite adventureous so I was full of anticipation and really wanting to know all about this town (yeah, I knew I had to work, but hey its my first trip to South America!!).

We arrived late into Medellin and it is a ride down the mountain from the airport to the hotel. During the 35 minute ride, my colleague had already briefed me on all the food I must try out (well I was very happy to hear food is high on the priority, hee hee).

As we decended from the hills, Medellin's came into view. My first glimpse of Medellin left me breathless - a milkway of light going for miles into the horizon. I didn't realise how big it was.

Medellin at night
Originally uploaded by

We had arranged to stay in a 2 bedroom apartment in the Affinity Hotel and that was a great arrangement for me as I ended up with a 24x7 translator and companion for the trip(Thanks a bunch, IV)!! The hotel was very nice, not to mention having a balcony with am amazing view.

The next impressive thing in Medellin - my room service breakfast. Since we arrived late at night, we figured the best thing to do was to order breakfast to the room. What we didn't realized was what that meant. The doorbell rang in the morning, and voila, there were 2 people standing outside of our door, one taking order and the other manning a fully stocked breakfast cart, complete with its own stove top. We get to pick from a variety of fresh tropical fruits, juices, pastries, cereals and we could also order omlette with whatever topping we wanted, straight from the cart. Then all we had to do was sit back (or in our case, we eventually got so comfortable with this arrangement, we go back to our rooms to get ourselve ready while they cook breakfast outside our door) and wait for the server to set our table on the dining table and bring the spread in. What's even more impressive - they were not expecting any tips. Later on we found out the breakfast was included in our room rates. Try to beat THAT one!!

Room Service anyone?

After breakfast we headed into the centre of Medellin, where the client's office was situated. Medellin is a very modern city, which means it came with normal modern city peak hour morning traffic. The roads were well maintained and dotted with yellow cabs and colourful buses. My colleague told me in an effort to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, the government had imposed rules that limit which cars can travel on the road during certain hours and days of the week. For example, cars with odd number plates can travel on alternate days of the week in comparison to cars with even number plates. This promotes the use of public transportation and carpooling.

Taxi and bus

[To be continued...]

Friday, January 04, 2008

New Year in Time Square

Happy 2008 to you all! Hope you all enjoyed an excellent NYE (partying or just having a quiet one).

I cannot believe it has already been another year... surely, I would have noticed the year going by??? I am also very ashamed of myself because it looked like I only made 2 blog entries for the ENTIRE year... oh well.

I remember last year I went into Manhattan around 5pm on NYE and thought I would take a look at Time Square. The crowd was already way up to 50 something st so I didn't even see Time Square itself. Later, lots of friends from home asked me: "Oh you were in NY? Did you go do the countdown in Time Square? No? WHY NOT???"

And I asked myself the very same question afterwards. I had seen it on TV before and it looked amazing. How many opportunities was I going to get to see this live, in person, in the Big Apple of all places?

So, this year, I did it.

In the beginning, I had thought it would be easy to gather a group to go there with me. Not a chance. My local friends had the following responses (these were pretty much the common 3):
1. Its not worth it - you have to stand for hours and its much better on TV
2. Are you crazy? No way - it is going to be freezing!
3. Nobody does that!!! Only high school kids and tourists do that.

Well hello?? I AM a tourist (and one friend argued that I was not because I had lived in NY for over 12 months).

Finally I talked some sense into one of them, or somehow passed on my craziness to him *phew*

Not wanting a repeat of last year and miss "the party", we arranged to meet up for a late lunch after 1:30pm around Time Square.

So here's how I passed my next 10 hours:

I thought if I were in an eatery inside Time Square, surely, that meant I was in and all I had to do was hang out there until they kicked us out and then we would go out into the cold and stand around to see the balldrop.

What I didn't realize: I needed to get into "The Pen" in Time Square. The Police actually started putting up barricades around the middle of Time Square and the restaurants were all on the outside of "The Pen".

When the waitress told us it was going to get real crazy soon and that people were already blocked off in the square, we were like "OH NO!!!" and quickly left the restaurant and hope we could make our way into that pen still.

NOW I understood why there were people sitting on folder chairs on the side of Broadway at around 1:30pm. THAT'S really how early you had to be there to get prime spot inside the pen (unless you KNEW someone who is responsible for crowd control...). My friend said he saw a guy trying to sell "Barricade passes" for 20 bucks and claimed that those would get people through the barricades in or out at will. I wonder if those actually worked...

My friend and I hoovered around 46th and 7ave just outside of the barricade to the main pen (the block between 42nd and 46th and Broadway and 7ave). We were not even able to get all that close to the barricade themselves. Later I found out that over 1 million people turned out for the balldrop. Let me tell you, it felt like there were MORE people than that.

So being the obedient people that we were (and that we were not well connected to anyone to get us the VIP treatment), we followed the police's instruction and had to go up a few blocks up to 48th st via 8th ave and "filtered back through down 7th ave". It was also then that I realized we had been standing between 2 pens - Those who were in "The Pen" with prime view; and those who were waiting for the gate to open and merge with Pen 1.

Talking about being there early and then standing in the wrong spot!

So we ran/jogged/power-walked our way up 8th ave and through 48th st and our immediate reaction was: Oh Nooooooo... We are ruined!!

We couldn't even see where the ball will be dropping from. Luckily, the lady next to me told me that eventually the police would open the barricades between Pen 1 and Pen 2 and we would be moving forward into the square.

The barricades to Pen1 opened. I almost got crushed as people from the back started pushing forward to rush the gates. It only eased up when the police threatened to throw people who push out of the square.

Once we were in, we were committed. No one was allowed to leave the pen and re-enter. If you had chosen to leave, you would have been watching the whole thing on a TV somewhere else. Just to make things interesting - there were no such thing as porta-loos either. That's right. 9 hours with no toilet break.

Temperature was 35F (1C). Crowd was restless. Let the fun begin.

We just realized we still had almost 8 hours of standing to go. Oh boy. Curiously it wasn't cold. Then again, we had 1 million bodies out there generating heat. Go figure.

My other local friends were right. The square were full of tourists. I had people from Germany, Switzerland, Austria, UK and Brazil immediately around me. Even when they were from the US, they were from places like the west coast or Iowa. Out of the 20-30 people that were around me, only my friend and another guy were from New York (and well they were only there because other "tourists" dragged them along!)

We chatted and made new friends with people arounds us, finding out where they came from, how long they were in New York for, what they did, who they came with and agreed this was totally insane to be standing around for hours but how exciting it was as well.

There was a group of German guys around us who were getting boisterious after drinking their "special" Pepsi. They sang, they danced and they did a bit of stand-up comedy. That was actually quite entertaining. Not to mention they were in identical "New Year countdown" uniform.

Sky was getting dark. The organizers started doing some performance rehearsals for the NYE show later on in the evening.

Everyone did a warm up "count down to new year" for South Africa. The ball also began making its way to the top of the pole where it would eventually drop down from in 6 hours time. The crowd was very enthusiastic and there was even a little bit of firework happening.

Right around that time, the German guys had finished their drink and inevitably this would lead to their failure on their mission to watch the balldrop.

2 of the German guys had to leave because they "could not hold it in any longer". The other 2 were showing some signs of distress but were still willing themselves to stay.

Oh well, the remaining 2 German guys couldn't hold it any longer. So they "recycled" their Pepsi bottle. We (the rest of the people around them) all took pity on them and since they had been so entertaining to us, we helped them out by being the "walls" while they took care of business. Needless to say, there were a lot people offering tissues, hand sanitizers afterwards...

There were no more bottles left to "re-cycle" - the German guys had to bid us farewell and happy new year and headed out of the pen. That actually was quite a sad moment for all of us. We almost felt like a tribe losing someone someone at Tribal council on Survivor.

Kid Rock was rehearsing for his performance and that was on the Pontiac Stage. The stage was almost right above us, but we were behind it so we couldn't see anything happening but we heard him and saw the pyrotechnics happening. I took out my Sudoku book and began doing them with my friend.

There were quite a lot of people leaving now - probably people who couldn't stand any longer, kids who got tired and cranky so the family had to leave, more people who needed comfort breaks. The rest of us soldier on.

We did a few more count-downs for places around the world.

We got restless and some of us decided if we were to do something in a group, maybe we will get on TV. So when the next song came on, we did the wave, we did the jumpin'-jumpin' move, we danced and we even did the cellphone wave. Didn't think anyone noticed us. Damn.

Pontiac staffers decided to cause trouble by throwing red hats into the crowd - there were thousands and thousands of people, they were only throwing out what, 100 hats or so in that section?? Needless to say, people near the side of the barricade got them; those of us in the middle could only reach our hands up in the air like starving children and curse the staffer for their inability to thrown anything further than immediately in front of them.

More goodies being passed out - big orange hotdog-like balloons with gold foil streamers at the top were being distributed out by someone on the side of the barricades. Again, those people who already got the red hat also got the balloons. It's only a balloon. Who cares (alright, its like sour grapes, whatever).

With under 2 hours to go, the crowd woke up and became more energetic again.

The entertainment for the night officially began. Since we had been there all day/night, we have actually heard everything once already. Sometimes we didn't even know who they had on stage, but due to the excitement and anticipation of what's coming in an hours time, I think the crowd was just cheering to whatever the MC was saying. Anderson Cooper came on stage to read some wishes entered by tourists at the Visitor Center; Jordon Spark from the latest installment of American Idol sang; Kid Rock did his thing; then even "Hanna Montana" turned up. Carrie Underwood sang as the closing act I believe.

John Lennon's "Imagine" was playing and unbelievably, everyone began to put their hand up in the air and swayed side to side to the beat of the music. Its hard to explain but the atmosphere was incredible.

The ball finally began its descent. On the big screen down at 42nd Street, the countdown clock started. The chanting of the count grew louder and louder in the crowd, until everyone was shouting at the top of their lungs...


Right on cue, the fog horns sounded, everyone blew their whistles and a million people yelled out "Happy New Year!" A shower of confetti slowly rained down onto us, floating, twisting, gliding down and lifting up again in the cool drifts of the night.

I remember staring up into the sky at the colour rain and city lights for what seemed like an eternity (and it was probably more like a minute or 2 in reality) and when "New York New York" came on in the midst of all this I thought to myself:
This WAS definitely worth the wait.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas time in HK

I was back for a brief visit to HK for a friend's wedding. I haven't been back around Christmas time for a while now. And the lights at night as just as good as I remembered as a child.

Its time like these that makes me truely miss HK (not to mention all that good food and shopping!)

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Spring time in NY

... is completely surreal. I just finished taking all my jumpers/sweaters to dry-cleaning and packed up my down jacket last Saturday. It was really nice, the sun was out, and I was in my T-shirt and shorts. I went to Cafe Lalo on upper westside. This cafe is apparently famous for pre and after theater dinner and drinks. It appeared in the film "You've got Mail" some years back (and I guess that's why it is also famous?).

I enjoyed a very European brunch by the nice bay window seats over a cappacino, and a piece of French "Kiss" Quiche (Gruyere cheese with shiitake mushroom, onion/leek made with pate-brisee served with Mediterranean salad), with a good book.

Central park was close by so I took a long-ish walk in there afterwards. There were signs of new life after a rather mild winter here. I was even looking for magnolias and cherry blossoms in the park as these 2 weeks we celebrate the cherry blossom festival here. Afterall, it is officially Spring!

Then this morning - snow. Yap! Not for long (only about 10 minutes and it was more like hail/slush type snowy rain). Forecast for this weekend is subzero at night. At the moment I am back to wearing my cashmere tops and big coats out and the heating is on indoors AGAIN!

I am just praying that there will still be some blossoms left on tree trunks for me to see by this weekend. Oh boy.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

NY Aquarium

I think the last time I visited an aquarium was like 5-6 years ago in Sydney. I have always loved the aquarium. It is as close to going diving as it gets, without having to get into the water - and I can actually take pictures!! One day, I would finally go diving (I have been planning on it... hopefully I will get around to it soon).

Anyway, I went to the New York Aquarium near Coney Island about a month ago. It reminded me again why I loved aquariums. It was an overcast and windy winter day. It was also a public holiday so not a lot of people were around (and some of the sea animals were also off on vacation). There were still plenty to see - from colourful tropical fish, to the gentle giant turtles and seals and some big big sharks and stingrays.

There was a really cool exhibition about Jelly fish. I don't exactly remember which type of jellies they had there, but there were definitely some rather strange and alient looking creatures on display. In reality, I would probably have freaked out if I saw them in the sea while I was swimming, but they were spectacular and fascinating behind glass.