Thursday, November 7, 2013

Singapore

Two weeks ago we returned from a full week in Singapore.  Now that we've had some time to reflect, and
procrastinate, I felt it time to give an update on our trip there.

First of all, the cost to get there: flights from Hong Kong were very cheap, at $226 each for roundtrip tickets (the flight is a little over 3.5 hours, so it was a rather good deal).  We booked a private double room at a hostel for seven nights, which came out to SGD568, or about $460.  Not cheap for a hostel, but not bad, either, and it was two blocks from an MRT stop and a food hall.  All told, transportation and lodging came out to a little over $900 for two people for a week.  Not bad at all.

Singapore is an odd city in many respects.  Travel on the metro, by bus, or in a taxi is all fairly cheap--the MRT in Singapore was even cheaper than the MTR in Hong Kong, which is already one of the cheapest subway systems I've seen.  Food, depending on where one buys it, can be either absurdly cheap and delicious, or eye-rollingly expensive and delicious.  More on that later.

It's a very tourist-friendly city, with tons of museums, restaurants, events, and attractions (an opera, a casino, Universal Studios, dozens of museums and art galleries, food halls and celebrity restaurants, ethnic neighborhoods like Chinatown and Little India... it goes on and on), and all fairly close together.  So it's a great place to be a tourist.  But it can also a very restrictive city.  You can't bring in chewing gum or tobacco products.  You can be fined for a number of things like spitting, littering, bringing the wrong fruit on the subway, eating or drinking on the subway, smoking in the wrong location (seriously, pay attention to the signs).  Americans worried about a "nanny state" should come here and realize how truly far from that the Democrats actually are; in singapore, people are required to visit their elderly parents in nursing homes.  By law.  Or be fined.  Also possession of even a small amount of illegal drugs is punishable by death.  So leave your pot brownies at home.

We walked our feet off nearly every day, and there were still a few things we didn't see (the Night Safari, Universal Studios, the new aquarium, a couple traditional villages...).  But we were happy with all the things we did get to see: Chinatown, Sentosa Island, Marina Bay, the Skypark, a river cruise, the amazing Singapore Zoo, the Museum of Asian Civilizations, a ton of other sights.  But I don't want to give the wrong impression; there's really one reason Nora and I wanted to go to Singapore so badly: the Food.

For food lovers, Singapore is one of those unbelievable, heavenly places that you thought only existed in dreams.  They have everything you ever wanted to eat here, and a whole lot of other things you never knew you wanted to eat before, but will leave wondering how you ever went your whole life without.

Singapore has a great natural harbor, and is positioned perfectly along the trade route between India and China, right on the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula.  This brought the British, and trade, and it became a wild mixture of cultures, mostly but not exclusively Asian cultures, who all brought their food with them.  There's Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Indonesian, and on and on and on.  And the best thing about Singapore is that most of those great culinary traditions evolved on the street; as Singapore modernized, the government sought to clear the clutter and centralize the food stalls, so they built what might be the greatest monuments to eating in the world: the famous Singapore food halls.  And not only is the food really good at the food halls, but it's cheap.  Really cheap.

For example, we bought chicken rice (at Tian Tian Hainan Chicken Rice, recommended by Anthony Bourdain), for about $3 a plate, and it was the best thing we ate our entire trip.  We also bought chili crab, the other very well known dish from Singapore, at Jumbo Seafood for a little over $80.  It was our second best meal there, but for all the work involved, not to mention the over-the-top mess, and the price tag, we were a little disappointed by it.  The chicken rice was much better.


We had soft boiled eggs with toast covered in coconut jam; ice cream in fun flavors like green tea chocolate chip and salted caramel, made with Hokkaido milk; fish ball soup (which sounds unappetizing, but is shockingly good, and a personal favorite of mine); dim sum; fresh baked buns stuffed with butter, cream cheese, coconut jam, or things like sausage, barbecued chicken, and pork; fresh fruit smoothies and milkshakes; noodle dishes, rice dishes, seafood dishes; and of course chicken rice (3 times).  We ate three times a day, and were sad that we just couldn't muster the appetite for more.  [I don't have many pictures of food; I was too busy stuffing it in my face.  For more, see Nora's Instagram. She has a good one of us prepping for the chili crab.]

Seriously: food mecca.


There is one downside to Singapore, however: Alcohol is very expensive (for the first time in my life, I paid $15 for a pint of draft beer).  We like to sample local beers wherever we go, but we cut back a lot here due to the expense.  Still, we managed to visit three microbreweries on our tour: Level33, a novelty kind of place on the 33rd floor of a financial tower in the business district; Red Dot, a cool, outdoorsy kind of place in a quiet, wooded area (with a really good oatmeal stout); and Brewerkz, Singapore's first and biggest microbrewery, right on the riverfront (and with a world gold medal winner in its XIPA).  Our favorite was Red Dot for the location, but in my opinion the beers at Brewerkz were a bit better.  They also had staggered (and staggering) pricing, so if you arrived between noon and 2pm you paid less than half the cost ($7) for the same beer as you would during peak hours ($16).  Needless to say, after visiting for the first time at night, we went back the next day for lunch to finish tasting all their offerings.

I've tallied up our all our charges and withdrawals throughout the week, and aside from lodging and flights, we spent approximately $1,220.  That puts the grand total--flights, lodging, food, drinks, souvenirs, sights, everything--for the entire week at just over $2,100 for two people.  Not bad at all.


Before we came to Singapore, we had several people tell us that it was a good place for a weekend trip, or just a few days, but that it would not be fun for anything longer than that. Certainly not a week, they claimed, and very knowledgeably we thought.


They were all wrong.  Singapore is awesome, and we wouldn't have regretted a few more days there to catch a few more sights and plates.


This one definitely gets our seal of approval.













Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Costs of Living in Hong Kong

We've been here for 2 1/2 months now, and have had an established weekly budget for the last 8 weeks, so I thought it time I shared how much it costs for the two of us to live in Hong Kong in a typical month.

First, here are the last four weeks of expenses in HK dollars:


This includes groceries, meals out, household items, snacks, etc.  It includes HK250 each for our monthly gym memberships.  It also includes several hundred dollars topping up our Octopus cards (used for the subway, buses, trolleys, and star ferry), as well as another hundred topping up Nora's prepaid phone.  It does not include utilities, our three day trip to Macau, or our rent.

On week 3, we went over our budget (HK1800), and I carried over the 293 to week 4.  With that in mind, you can see that our four week total is HK7,363, which is about US $950.  Or, to round up, about $250 per week for two people, including transportation costs, mobile phone bills, and gym memberships.  Considering how well we eat, and how often we go out to eat (usually twice during the work week, and then 4 or 5 times on weekends), I'd say that's pretty fantastic.

On to the next part: utilities.  Our monthly internet bill is HK168 (another fantastic price; for about US $22, we get 100MB service.  For comparison, 10MB service with Comcast back home is $60.).  Our water bill this month was HK45.  Our electric bill was HK434 (the government subsidizes electricity, and took HK120 off our bill). Our gas bill was HK61.  All told, our utilities come out to HK708, or ~US $92.

Last item of consideration, our rent.  We live in a nice place, with a balcony, a harbor view, and an in-house gym.  As such, our rent is a bit higher than most of our friends here in HK (for comparison, our friend K shares a two bedroom place with a roommate, and their total rent is about 15% cheaper than our 1 bedroom flat). Our monthly rent comes out to HK15,000, or a bit under US $2k.

Grand total for all expenses over the past month: just over HK23,000, or about US $3,000.

This is more than we were paying when we lived in Tennessee (our monthly expenses there were between $2,000 and $2,250).  On the other hand, we almost never went out to eat back home.  In addition, while I was making about $20k more a year there, Nora was unemployed and taking out student loans.  I'm making a lot less here, but we're no longer borrowing money, and Nora's job leaves us with about HK10k a month, or a bit less than a third of her salary, after all expenses.

Well, almost all expenses.  We do have this nasty habit of travelling.  Our 3 day weekend in Macau was very expensive--we went crazy and got this insanely nice room at at posh casino hotel.  In a week from now we'll be travelling to Singapore, where our lodging will be cheaper (a week in a hostel), but we won't be holding back on food and drinks--they're our favorite part of travelling.  Then in December we're going to Taiwan for 12 days, and in February we're going to Malaysia for a week.  There's another two week period in April that we haven't decided on yet, and a 6 week period in June and July that we'll be visiting the US.  All things considered, between what we're saving from Nora's salary and my online work, we don't anticipate to save a whole lot over the next year.  Perhaps US $5k.

But we will be paying off our student loans, eating some of the best food the world has to offer, and doing a lot of travelling.  More frugally minded people who don't have such a nice apartment or travel as frequently could easily save a lot more than $5k.  And couples who both work in HK would save even more still (an HK salary would be 3-5x what I'm making online, but we're forgoing that additional income for a year so I can concentrate on my writing).

So even though Nora's school doesn't pay for our housing, as our school in South Korea did, in the end Hong Kong offers an equivalent--or greater--opportunity to make and save money, enjoy life in Asia, and travel.  The biggest difference for us is that in SK we only got two weeks off the entire year, and the weeks couldn't occur back-to-back.  Here, between government holidays and school breaks, Nora has eleven weeks off throughout the year, during which she continues to receive a salary, making even the stresses of her job seem well worthwhile.

In other words, we couldn't be happier.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Living in Hong Kong

We've been here three weeks now, so I thought I'd share a few things.

First, you're perhaps wondering why we came.  We visited HK a few years ago during vacation from our teaching gigs in Seoul, South Korea.  While it was very hot and humid, pretty much everything else about Hong Kong excited us, and we pledged then that if we ever could live and work here we would.  Fast forward a few years.  Nora returned to school to get her teaching certification, realized that she wasn't all that jazzed about being a teacher halfway through, and settled on being a school librarian (these days they need teacher's certifications and a Masters in library science).  Nora took on both programs at the same time, which was a pretty astounding workload; I continued working online, and took on a lecturing position at MTSU because we were living about a mile away and it seemed like a good idea.  Long story short: we moved out of our apartment, I left my lecture position after three semesters, we went to India, Sri Lanka, and Ecuador, and meanwhile Nora applied to a lot of positions around the world.  Two in Hong Kong called her back, and a lot of paperwork later, we were all set to go.


(us at the Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island in 2010)

So we sold our car, our desktop computer, our Xbox, and my bicycle (the bicycle was the hardest to let go) and bought flights to Hong Kong.  We arrived the night of August 1st, got to our hotel, and slept.  When we woke up, it was my birthday, which I thought was a pretty good sign.  And aside from still very slowly recovering from the ankle I sprained in India, just about everything else has been a very positive experience.


(milk tea and Pearl dumplings in spicy sauce)

We gave ourselves 3 days to find an apartment, but thanks to Nora's research and emails in advance, we signed a lease on the first day and paid the deposit and rent on the 2nd and got the keys.  The building is relatively new, in a quieter (for HK) neighborhood, and has a gym on the 5th floor.  Across the street are two more buildings of the same complex, and they have a larger gym and a pool.  It's a 4 block walk to Nora's work, and so far I've visited four bakeries and six grocery stores within a ten minute walk.  Several major bus lines stop on the corner, from whence we can go downtown, to the subway station, or to the other side of HK island.

(rush hour at the Central subway station)

Within a 5 minute walk of us there are several cafes and bars, a public library, as well as restaurants specializing in Chinese (obviously), Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, Spanish, Italian, French, American, and English pub foods.  We got a ridiculous amount of furniture delivered from Ikea and assembled for less than $200, and any of the above restaurants offer free delivery.  I've recently discovered that the grocery stores do, too, but to be honest grocery shopping is one of my favorite activities, so I'm not cutting it out anytime soon.


(Chinese breakfast: eggs, bun, noodles and soup, and milk tea)

Our apartment is on the 20th floor, and has a balcony with harbor views. We've got a kitchen with fridge, decent counter space, 2 sinks, 3 gas burners, and a washing machine.  We've got a table with two chairs, a chest of drawers, and a couch and coffee table in our living room.  the bedroom has a double bed and wardrobe.


(our apartment before we got furniture)

Potential downsides: we've got 410 square feet in our apartment, including the balcony. So it seems pretty small.  The weird thing is, after getting all our furniture moved in and our things stored properly, it actually seems larger.  It's plenty of space for us, though the shower could be a little larger.  It's difficult to turn around in for someone with arms as long as mine.  The washer is supposed to also be a dryer, but I can't get the drying function to work, and I broke the latch that opens it on the first day.  So I'm using a pair of scissors to open the washer, and we have to hang dry our clothes on the balcony, but these are minor inconveniences, and we hung all our clothes to dry the year we lived in Korea, too.


(light show from Kowloon)

Imagine, if you will, a city that is caught somewhere between the future and the past, a place where light shows illuminate skyscrapers to the sound of a symphony orchestra, and where bamboo scaffolding surrounds construction work on a traditional herbal dispensary.  Where you can buy 1 Gigabit internet service for the same price as 10Mb service in the States, and within a short walk also by dried shark fins.  Where ferries cruising above the waves on hydrofoils jostle for space with sampans, junks, and cargo vessels. There are tree everywhere, and from afar the buildings seem to rise up as if out of a forest.  The harbor on one side and the mountains on the other are omnipresent; no matter where you are, you can always orient yourself.  This, to me, is Hong Kong.


(walking along the harbor in Kennedy Town)

It's fast, loud, hot, and always humid.  It's a polyglot, gastronomical wonderland that encompasses the best of what big cities have to offer. The only thing it's missing is you.



(sunset over the harbor from our balcony)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

India: the Story You Never Want to Hear

This is a first for Wanderlust for Beginners, but I'm going to post excerpts and a link to an article written by someone else. In this case, it's from University of Chicago student Rose Chasm, and covers her experiences as a study abroad student for 3 months in India.

When people ask me about my experience studying abroad in India, I always face the same dilemma. How does one convey the contradiction....

“India was wonderful," I go with, "but extremely dangerous for women.” Part of me dreads the follow-up questions, and part of me hopes for more. I'm torn between believing in the efficacy of truth, and being wary of how much truth people want.

Do I tell them about bargaining at the bazaar for beautiful saris costing a few dollars a piece, and not mention the men who stood watching us, who would push by us, clawing at our breasts and groins?

When people compliment me on my Indian sandals, do I talk about the man who stalked me for forty-five minutes after I purchased them, until I yelled in his face in a busy crowd?

Do I describe the lovely hotel in Goa when my strongest memory of it was lying hunched in a fetal position, holding a pair of scissors with the door bolted shut, while the staff member of the hotel who had tried to rape my roommate called me over and over, and breathing into the phone?


All of this is to say, Rose, you aren't alone.  I read some of the comments at the end of her iReport, and many of them call her a racist, a biggot, a hatemonger, etc.  In my opinion, these people fall into one of several categories.  Either (a) they have never been to India; (b) they are Indian; (c) they are men; or (d) they are women who are not white.  Because every white female I know who has been to India has faced similar things to what Nora faced, or what Rose faced. 

In a weird way, I love that country: I love its food, I love its history, I love its geography, and I even love some of its people.  But I can't go back, because far too many men there treat my wife like an object on display, or, even worse, like an object that is available for taking. 

You can find Rose's full post by clicking here.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Overdue Ecuador Recap

Ecuador was our 5th South American country and 3rd South American trip, so we went into it with a certain amount of experience and expectations.  But it was our first trip with either of our parents; Nora's came for the entire 4 weeks, and my mother flew down for 8 days.  This made it a rather unique trip for us.


(Ecuador's flag flying over the presidential palace)

Ecuador is a beautiful country, with very diverse geographic regions thanks to the Andes.  We started our trip in Quito, which for an Andean city was a bit disappointing--it reminded us a lot of Lima, in that it had good food, good weather, and very friendly people, but didn't feel all that special or unique. We've found that most big cities end up feeling very similar to one another these days (in South America Cuzco is a notable exception, and Buenos Aires deserves honorable mention).  This is not to say we did not enjoy Quito; on the contrary, we had a lot of fun there, and would consider going back.


(a brother and sister waiting on the bus after school)

From Quito we took a day trip to Otavalo, where most of the region's handicrafts originate.  We went to see the market, but were unlucky as only a few vendors were open.  It rained, so we ducked inside a cafe for a few drinks, and Nora found a "green" beer--beer mixed with creme de menthe.


Leaving Quito, we stopped overnight in Banos, famous for its hot springs--which ranged from ice cold, to lukewarm, to a scalding 120 degrees F; no tolerable soaking pool there, but it was still very relaxing.

We journeyed on to Cuenca where we had rented an amazing apartment with a long balcony.  This was probably the nicest place Nora and I have ever stayed. The neighborhood was a couple km from the sights in the city, but as taxis are so cheap (about $1.50 for a 10 minute ride), it was not a problem at all. And there was a Chilean empanada place around the corner that was fantastic.


(Cuenca crafts market)
                 

Cuenca we liked a lot, but for different reasons than Quito. It is still a big city, but it feels a little smaller, a little greener, and the weather is a little better--not withstanding the sudden rainstorm that Nora and her parents got caught out in. There's a reason so many Americans are retiring to Ecuador, and specifically locating in Cuenca.


(women in traditional dress, Cuenca)

(the central plaza in Sigsig)

From here we went to Salinas and spent a week on the beach, and from there to Puerto Lopez and spent another week on the beach.  Puerto Lopez was interesting for the place we stayed--Hosteria Mandala--and its host's whale obsession, as well as a boat trip we took to Isla de la Plata.  Otherwise, our time on the beach can be summed up as a lot of beer and wine, a lot of good food, and general relaxing fun all around.

(the porch of our cabana at Hosteria Mandala in Puerto Lopez)   

  

(a beach vendor selling cold coconuts in Salinas)

On back to Quito, and from there homeward.

The really exciting part of Ecuador was, like most trips we take, the food.  Ecuadorean food is generally very good, though you can get--and we certainly did on several occasions--garbage versions of it.  Beach towns don't seem to care about flavor or quality as much unless you're spending a lot more (notable exceptions: in Salinas there was a corner place that grilled over charcoal, and an English fish-and-chip shop; in PL a tiny Spanish restaurant run by a couple).  The Andean food was the best: secco de chivo (a thick stew of lamb or goat), llapingachos (cheesy potato griddle cakes), and locro de papas (a potato soup with chunks of queso fresco and avocado in it). The ingredients were familiar to the Peruvian food we've had before, but used in new and delicious ways.


 (locro de papas on the left, and llapingachos with lomito on the right)



(choclo con habbas -- large kernel corn with something like a lima bean)



(secco de chivo) 


Overall, I'd say if you can only take 2 weeks for South America, go to Peru or Argentina, depending on what you're hoping to find.  But if you have longer, or if you can take several trips, Ecuador will definitely reward your time and curiosity.

Happy travels.

 - A