Tag Archives: Commentary

48 Hours Deep in the Heart of Texas

I never imagined coming to Austin, Texas, but so far it has been refreshingly inspirational. Whiffs of religious fervor permeate the air. A Peace, Love, & God concrete block chapel lies around the corner from us. There are plenty of cutesy cool/hot bars, ice cream takeouts, and even a made-to-order Texas boot outlet down the street.

Pastry chef & daughter Melissa invited me to join her here for a couple of days. I learned alot about Texas in 48 hours. Texas fought and won over Mexico, after Spain had a shot at owning it. It was once its own Republic, became part of the U.S., and even was a Confederate state.

Texas is so vast that no one within ever contemplates traveling across it. We thought our flight was just a hop across borders like going to Idaho or Colorado, only to discover that we landed literally halfway across the country!

Food was on our minds as soon as we touched the tarmac. Thankfully we had eaten a scantilly clad salad for lunch, only to blast our bellies with an array of Tex-Mex BBQ at dinner.

Valentina’s roadway smokers are considered among the best in the country for smoked meat and we found out why. I seldom indulge words on food, but this one deserves mention. See the huge beef brisket “sandwich” (where does the bread go when you hold it up to eat it?!?). The meat was the moistest, most succulent reward that carnivores could ever want to hunt and kill animals for.

The taco version got rid of the skimpy bun-to-meat ratio but nevertheless left the slow-cooked juices and barbeque sauce dripping down bare arms to elbows (no sleeves needed in this part of the country–it’s too hot!) After seeking and finding a second paradise in the ribs, we didn’t even finish the spicy sausages that would make currywurst in Germany look pathetic. We decided to wrap and take them home (self-service foil on tap) for breakfast. Wow. My prayers were answered.

The permanent pop-up “restaurant” has all the facilities one needs for deluxe dining (see captions).

A walk up Congress Avenue after dinner earned us a few digestive stars and a sighting of bats–millions of em. Everyone waits for dusk to strike (first video below), when the bats take off from their dorms under the bridge (second video below) and get their version of exercise in the evening sky (third video). Whoa. A bit too creepy for my wimpy soul, especially since we are staying in a signature accommodation called the “Bathouse”.

Last but not least, here are a few musings of music and food along the strip. You can finish off the sticky arms from the BBQ with instant melt ice cream before jumping into the shower for a tasty rinse.

 

A Persian Perspective

You have been a captive audience. My reports on a short but intense nine-day visit to Iran may have solely influenced your thoughts and perceptions about present-day Iran, through my personal lens. To give you another perspective, and thus a 100% increase in view, here are various impressions in a guest post from Gee Kin (related travel partner):

My Iranian Visit, Four Takeaways

It’s OK to Go on the Go

This should not have been surprising. Both Zoroastrianism and Islam place a heavy emphasis on personal hygiene. In Iran, you benefit from the influence of both. Happily, in contrast to many other countries, public restrooms are not hazardous waste dumps.

Traffic Calming

You can walk out in front of a bus and live to write about the experience. At first glance, the traffic appears chaotic, with cars weaving around each other and jaywalking pedestrians. But after a while you realize it is chaos with rules and etiquette.  More importantly, the chaos is infused with concern for each other. This nurturing care is an Iranian quality we witnessed in many other settings. Everyone violates normal traffic codes, but no-one blames or hurts anyone. No honking, no road rage, no self-righteous indignation. Everyone participates in a harmonious dance of missing each other by inches. I was initially terrified to cross the roads. I quickly became comfortable walking out into oncoming traffic confident that drivers would not hit me. Not something I would try in the US, China, or anywhere else!

Cash in the Hand is Cash in the Hand

It’s not foolish to carry a large amount of cash in your wallet. Due to economic sanctions, foreign tourists cannot use traveler’s checks or plastic. Everything must be paid in cash. Every tourist is a cash cow, so to speak. I imagined herds of tourists with bulls-eyes on their backs and thieves waiting to pounce. In actuality, you are less likely to be a victim of theft or assault in Iran than in most other parts of the world. There was no obvious police presence in the streets. With assurances from our guide and other Iranians, we quickly became comfortable in the streets, even in predominantly male crowds.

Healthy Living

Stay calm, it’s good for healthThe sanctions and a drought that has lasted more than ten years have caused tremendous hardship for most Iranians. For the most part everyone is staying calm. Life centers on social gatherings with friends and family at each other’s homes.

There is less visible anger and stress than in the US. Iranians speak softer than Americans. You don’t have to shout in restaurants. Even their emergency vehicles weave through traffic silently! No sirens blaring –just flashing lights. Our hotel room in Tehran looked out on to a freeway, yet we could sleep soundly with the window open.

Victoria and I were jolted back to reality as soon as we arrived at JFK airport. We followed a sign directing us to where we needed to go at Immigration, and then an official was shouting at us from across the hall. He came running over, flapping his arms over his head, and turned the sign 180 degrees and told us we were in a prohibited area! Welcome to America.

BONUS VIDEO

Here’s an outtake of one of our favorite moments. It was taken late at night, around 10pm, outside one of the shops in Yasd. It sums up our experience in Iran.

Where We Haven’t Been

Our itinerary, in case you missed it on the map and on the World Travels 2018 page of https://travelswithmyselfandothers.com, started in Tehran, then south to Shiraz. We are plying our way north to Yasd, Isfahan, and back to Tehran.

Apparently the hottest place on earth is in Iran. Fortunately, it wasn’t on the menu. We got the details from our guide as he drove us from Yasd to Isfahan. A year ago, he took a couple of people out to see sand towers that appear like high rises. He reported to the police before entering the desert and notified them that he and a tourist couple were entering the zone. If you go missing after an hour, they come to get you.

They each brought a bottle of water to drink. On arrival he began to feel faint and told the travelers that he had to leave right away. He found out afterwards that you need to drink water every few minutes in order to stay hydrated. Food shrivels once it hits high temperatures of 76 degrees C. (equivalent to 167 degrees!!)

Driving through in the car reduces some of the effect until you get out. Abdullah had the AC on but the wife insisted on having full effect of windows open. He tried not to think what would happen if his car broke down as he seldom saw anyone on the road returning.

The second time, he accompanied two male travelers who wanted to get their thrills as extreme sportsmen. Once they got in, they encountered a sandstorm, that can last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. Fortunately, they were on the edge of it and after it blew past they were able to see what they wanted. They tried dripping water on the stones to watch how fast the water would be sucked dry. Others were frying eggs.

He has returned the second time to be ready to escort any of you for his third foray to a place that’s hot (literally) on the adventure trail. Sorry that this is only a second-hand story, but if you are interested in more, you can go to https://www.livescience.com/19700-hottest-place-earth.html for another great story about the Lut Desert in Iran.

Speaking of water and lack thereof, here’s a picture of the water bottle we recently purchased. Being a Muslim country, Iran does not allow liquor to be drunk or sold. This plastic bottle is shaped like a flask of liquor, or even worse, it makes me think of some toxic lighter fluid or cleaning alcohol. Its shape can’t be understood, but it seems to make sense for grasping (or gasping) purposes. Maybe drinking from cases of these will be part of the desert ritual as the Rime of the Ancient Mariner searches for those precious drops.

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Only 2 days left of blissful travel in a clean country with exceptionally kind and handsome people with a deep sense of their history and humanity.

Here’s a bonus video of delightful young, uninhibited girls playing in the evening. They capture the spirit of a safe and secure life. This was taken in a shopping area around 10pm at night. I feel far safer here than any country I have ever visited.

(This post was created on April 18, 2018 and edited April 22,2018.

Carry on in Tehran

With all my worldly possessions-and a precious visa to visit in tow, husband Gee Kin and I have just arrived in Tehran, the capital of Iran. We left behind the globalized world of Starbucks, KFC and Macdonalds, to one with brewed tea, fast food chicken legs roasting on an open fire, and lamb kebabs with bread made with pebbles for dimples. We passed tantalizing corner stores filled with pistachios and dry fruits that you buy to take to a friend’s house. Hospitality means alot here, and we can already feel it in the air.

Having just completed a marathon flight in 19 hours (San Francisco-Washington DC-Vienna-Tehran, I was glad to hit the end of the day with a hearty meal of lamb stew mascerated at the table and mixed into a tomato based soup, chicken and lab kebobs, saffron rice, yoghurt dressing, a vinegar-based eggplant sauce on the side, and bread.

Everything is not so different at first blush. Getting through immigration was a breeze and easier than stateside! Tehran has about 9 million people living here, with the active daily working population at around 14 million. Iran is a country of 80 million, about the population of Germany. The mountains just outside of Tehran are over 5,000 m, so skiing is a big attraction for tourists, who normally come from Germany, France, and Italy, but more recently even from China.

Stay tuned for more to come in art and architecture in Tehran and Shiraz, our next stop.

(This post is now formatted as intended and was created on April 15, 2018)

Drawing Marathon

Last week’s challenge to draw 100 people in five days was exhausting but satisfying! It took a bit of planning, but I managed to stalk strangers at the following locations:

1. City College of San Francisco students;
2. UCSF Osher Mini-Medical School evening class;
3. Hollow Cafe on Irving Street, San Francisco with fellow artists Karen and Lorna (in sketches), and Farley’s Cafe on Potrero Hill, San Francisco
4. Sunset Library, Adult and Juvenile Divisions
5. BART late-nite transit passengers and SFO International Airport

100 People 1 Week Drawing Challenge

Budding sketch artists will tell you that stationary models are the best for sketching purposes. Subjects who move around are at free will to ruin your intentions! The worst were those at the airport, who were already crazed and erratic in behavior. The ones in classes were probably the easiest to draw. If you haven’t ever tried it, give it a shot! It keeps you focused and out of trouble.

In order to learn more about developing sketching techniques, I joined the San Francisco Sketchers. There are normally two to three meet-ups a week. The last three included drawing during the preparations for the Chinese New Year Parade, the Annual History Day at the U.S. Mint in San Francisco, and a portrait party.

Last week’s portrait party hosted by author Julia Kay required us to draw each other in small groups of 4-6 sketchers. We started with a 30 second blind gesture using our non-dominant hand, then with the dominant hand. Portrait sketches, as the one you see in the header, were 10-minute sketches. Totally fun, especially getting to see other interpretations of you, as well as of others in the group.

I will continue to draw, especially during future trips. It gives you an entirely different memory experience and way of looking at things.

By the way, take a look at my newly posted world trip 2018 page (on the menu at the top) for details of my upcoming travels!

A Thanksgiving Sketch 2017

Visiting Chicago earlier this month already seems like lightyears away, especially with the advent of the annual year-end Holiday Season. Eleven of the mostly Fong clan gathered around our dining table for a home-made traditional feast with basic turkey and trimmings, Chinese sticky rice “stuffing”, yams, vegetables, apple pie and pumpkin custard.

To throw in a few world influences from traveling this year, I kicked off the event with Peruvian pisco sours and yucca fries followed by Moroccan zaalouk. A bit eclectic, but I couldn’t resist the yummy new recipes I learned by being in these fascinating countries with deep food cultures.

Naturally, it was fun to see everyone. We are all older and wiser, and the lone child under thirty was the highlight of the evening. Our conversations shift from children’s activities to adult careers, friends, and travels. It was a leisurely, enjoyable evening, and indeed, a very satisfying and thankful one.

I noticed this year a focus on food preparation. Ladies in my classes, on the street, and in between were into some serious food therapy. Everyone delved into and savored the minutest details beyond what was described above.  They seemed to taste and smack their lips at each morsel being described.

A professional therapist would probably diagnose that these women (I did not notice if there were men engaged in the same conversations, but there could have been) are finding comfort in what little can be controlled in an uncontrollable world. It gave me a smile to think of these small pleasures, and to appreciate these heartwarming conversations.

The day after Thanksgiving was highly anticipated with the opera world premiere of the “Girls of the Golden West”. Unlike Puccini’s opera by the same name (except singular instead of plural), it is a factual account of the events during the California Gold Rush of 1849. It reveals many of the dirty little secrets of that golden era, now mystified and synthesized into a romantic vision of California’s genesis.

The opera features characters who suffered incredible brutality during that era: fugitive Black slaves, Hispanic workers, Chinese prostitutes being chased out of town, murdered, or lynched. Even the environment was not unscathed: a 24-foot wide redwood was cut to a stump and used as a stage. This formed part of the backdrop for what was a fascinating historical event in American history.

Unfortunately, converting a Ken Burns-style docudrama to opera did not translate. Librettist Peter Sellars and composer John Adams (Nixon in China fame) made a noble effort, but somehow the decent singing, decent music, and decent story–all necessary ingredients for a decent opera–did not come together. Even our upgraded Center Box Seats where you can sip sparkling wine during the performance could not salvage the evening. Hopefully time will mellow this opera like all others.

Above: Pre-Opera chat with Librettist Peter Sellars, and the curtain call with dancers. Note the reproduced tree stump and felled tree in the background.

Below: the final curtain call with both Peter Sellars and John Adams, and young cast

As the Fall Semester winds down, I am still busily preparing for final exams and projects. I continue to practice sketching at Meet-ups. The last one I attended at the Apple Store in Union Square produced an encounter with none other than Emperor Norton. Another character from the Gold Rush days, this impersonated, once-real character gives tours of historic San Francisco. I cartooned him while he anachronistically used his cell phone to schedule tours and take care of business of the day.

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Day 7-8: from the Mountain to the Sea…Macchu Picchu to Isla de Pascua

You may have heard of French Polynesia, but Spanish Polynesia?!? Combining Polynesia with Chilean culture is wild! Coming from the mountains of Macchu Picchu to the Moai at Easter Island is even more extreme and precious. These two UNESCO world sites are different but so spectacular in their own ways. The only two flights per day to Easter Island come from either Tahiti or Santiago, Chile.

Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, inspired me to visit Easter Island. The Polynesians came here by following birds on catamaran-type boats. Initially, they found the land unoccupied and fish plentiful. Easy fishing along the shoreline didn’t last as the population burgeoned. As they needed longer boats to go further offshore to catch fish, they cut down more of the trees on the island to make the boats.  An entire tree was needed to make longboats.

Within a short time the wood was depleted, and they no longer had the resources to sustain fishing. It is a sad but true chain of events. It is also a reminder of our vulnerability as humans. Combined with tribal wars resulting from too little to go around, the Polynesian society on Easter Island thrived and then disintegrated in less than 500 years (between 800-1200AD).

The Moai are the main feature on the Isla de Pascua. The huge basalt and tufa sculptures look amazingly modern and timeless. After they were carved directly out of bedrock, they were transported to a sacred site and placed on platforms (ahu). They faced away from the ocean to protect their descendants from the ocean. Only ruling families were allowed to have moai (nearly 400 of them in existence today). They were not officially blessed until the obsidian and coral eyes were place on the heads.

Most of the “long-eared” early arrivals ran the show. They ruled the latecomers, who were short-eared. The Longears had status in society because they got to Easter Island first (sound familiar?). They made slaves of the Shortears. The Shortears weren’t allowed to build moai to protect their families but probably did all the work for the Longears to haul and erect the finished stone.

The Anthropology Museum on the island provided an excellent explanations on the history and construction of the Moai. There are wooden sculptures made of makoi wood that remind me of the Mayan figures that are highly individualized and animated.

Throughout the island, there are many artistic interpretations of moai by local contemporary artists. Some were more successful than others, but the spirit and pride in the culture lives on.

A sample of the island’s incredible flora are shown below.

And I have to post a full size photo of my dinner with myself and an outstanding plate of tuna ceviche, roasted tuber, and fried banana, assisted by a glass of famous Pisco Sour at Te Moana Restaurant:

Day 72+3: Return to Sender

Two packages were waiting for my return to San Francisco: one from Germany and one from Morocco. I cracked the system in two countries and successfully received goods that I sent from each. They were not that expensive and well worth the effort.  After organizing my personal effects, German books and class notes, I sent them via DHL from Dusseldorf. It turned out to be the same as paying the additional baggage charge or less without having to carry them through the rest of the trip.

The second package contained the coveted carpets I purchased in Marrakesh. Normally one would be hesitant to send large items in value and size. Having sent carpets once before from Cappodoccia, Turkey, I knew that I could save a lot of trouble. From both experiences, the mail systems in both countries, as expected, were very practical and reliable.

What’s it like to be back in San Francisco after two and a half months of travel? My first impression coming out of the BART station at Glen Park from the airport, was CLEAN AND SMOOTH. The air was fresh, the sky was an identifiable color, and everything worked. People spoke slower, and were friendlier. Perception is reality.

That doesn’t diminish the incredible learning experiences I encountered. I would not trade my memories of New York, DC, London, Germany, Hong Kong, or China for the ease of life. The differences in lives makes life interesting and worth living.

On the heels of my travels, two events led me back to San Francisco: a fun evening at La Boheme with two grand-nieces at the San Francisco Opera, and a tour of Angel Island.

Normally, I refrain from pictures of friends and family and the “social page”. Because we made a point to reconnect with so many this year, I couldn’t resist posting a gallery for those who might recognize each other. Hopefully I haven’t missed anyone we visited (I may have failed to take photos of you in our excitement over seeing each other!). I am still glowing from the many warm encounters, so check to see if you are among them!

London, Bath and Dusseldorf:

Morocco:

China, HK, and SF:

I’ll keep you posted about any upcoming travels, but until then will be reducing posts to a monthly basis. Don’t forget to stay in touch, even if I’m not traveling! You can always reach me on this website or by email.

Thanks again for all the comments and for following along! I have enjoyed my travels and sharing them with you.

Featured Photo: my first watercolor imitation of a Chinese Camellia, HK Art Studio

As previously mentioned, the teeny weeny survey attached would greatly help me to improve future posts. If you have read Travels with Myself and Others, I would appreciate your feedback. Please let me know if you have any additional thoughts or suggestions!

A note about the poll: the format may appear differently if you are reading from a smart phone or from a computer. If you are having trouble responding on a phone, please use the survey on your computer. Thank you!

Day 71-72: End of the Rainbow

Alas, I am at the end of my fourth world trip. After 11 flights, 11 train trips, and numerous bus, taxi and private car transfers, I will have successfully completed my world travel goal for this year. We met old friends and made new ones. We gained much deeper understanding and appreciation of our roots. And as mentioned previously, I overcame my fear of drawing!! Like any phobia, it is easy to avoid what you fear most. I grabbed the bull by the horn and grappled with it. It was so easy it wasn’t even a contest. I just simply had to do it!

Granted, the circumstances were perfect, and for that, I must give credit to an incredible teacher and artist extraordinaire, Diane Olivier. Don’t miss my tribute to her in the video posted on Day 58, Moroccan Magic.

Our last day in Hong Kong included a visit to the Man Mo Temple near our Air BNB and a walk along Bowen Path. It is one of the best kept secrets of Hong Kong. It winds for three miles along the Mid-Levels in a horizontal stretch. The torrential rains that day drenched us with plenty of waterfall activity along the route. (See also Day 66, 2014, tagged below.)

We stopped for lunch at Lin Heung, an old Hong Kong mainstay. You rinse your dishes in discarded hot tea that is brewed and poured at the table.

So, until next time, Farewell! Please send me any comments you wish to share about what you liked or didn’t –I heard that there were too many opera posts so cut back (of course only after leaving Germany!!). Do write, and I definitely will write back!

Thanks to all for following travelswithmyselfandothers.  As you know, this is a personal pursuit of my favorite activities and being able to share it with you gives me the greatest pleasure.  I hope to see each and every one of you (whom I can recognize by name) in the next year–let’s make a date!

Auf Wiedersehen, 在见,  وداعا!!

VickieVictoria

P.S. In an effort to sketch every day, here are a few sketches of people eating at breakfast and still lifes of dishes that didn’t get posted.

P.S.S. Last of series of daily sketches:

Addendum: Apologies to the last few comments that didn’t get answered: I have just returned home and am in a state of recovering to bright blue skies and 72 degree weather…will write back soon!!

Day 44-45: Lost Schlosses of Barbarossa and Benrath

Kaiserwerth, just north of Dusseldorf on the Rhine, is the site of the legendary medieval Barbarossa castle. As Emperor, he built these fortifications to control the Rhine River. The town is just a small suburb of Dusseldorf. It’s easy enough for weekend party goers to get to (by public transportation, no less!) and an excuse for drunken brawls at the outdoor beer garden. It was already in full swing by Friday afternoon at 3pm.

The beach and feeder to the Rhine were fun and idyllic spots for local visitors and the historic town of Kaiserwerth made it a refreshing and worthwhile escape from the city.

Schloss Benrath (former residence of Elector Carl Theodor (1724-1799)

On my way out of the city headed south to Schloss Benrath, I continued to be impressed by the public transportation in Germany and how easy it is to get around. I am injecting photos of Schloss Benrath along with my commentary. They don’t have anything to do with each other, but maybe the pictures will help make my thoughts more interesting to read!

Having worked for the Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway System in my first job out of graduate school, I became an incorrigible train junkie. I got my “first training wheels” from former British Rail or London Tube engineers. They were making use of their ex-pat junkets in Hong Kong, living a colonial life of luxury at a time that was soon to eclipse. The looming year 1997 was just around the corner, signaling the end of the empire after more than 150 years of dominance.

(note: The Palace was decorated with fabric sculptures as part of a special exhibition.)

Nevertheless, I used the skills the Brits taught me about station design, vent shafts, headways and trip generations. This led to a lifetime pursuit. I enjoy and marvel at all of the planning and logistics needed to run a public transportation system. Transit system design integrated with high density development worked wonders, particularly in Hong Kong, but the concept is no exception in major European cities.

When I get on a local transit system in Germany, I get excited by its sheer beauty and efficiency. Its citizens appreciate and  respect the system so it stays clean. The users, the workers, the managers, the leadership all work for a common goal. There are places for luggage in lieu of seats (see photo) so the upholstery isn’t damaged.  Someone can still sit there if needed. Smart signage says it’s ok to have coffee but you need a cover for it.  (See sticker in the middle of the window).

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Yes, some design forethought can go a bit far. At the Schloss Benrath, I noticed all the “mother” hardware that could probably last 1000 years in place. Forged of hand wrought brass, the hinges are twice the size of the door handle.  It must have been decided that the weight of the door on the hinge produces greater stress than a door handle holding a door in place. Any ideas, engineers in the audience? In any event, it’s different from common practice today. We just replace hinges when they wear out.

On the German speaking tour. I heard a big gasp from the crowd about the size of a corset in the early 18th Century–a mere 46 cm! I’ll let you calculate the conversion.(:))

And at the Schloss outside:  a pretty picture who looked good enough to be a model to me…

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