Making a difference while traveling the world

Archive for May, 2011

I heart Hong Kong!

Sawadee Ka from Bangkok, Thailand! I arrived yesterday – the second stop of my Asia volunteer trip, but haven’t gotten a chance to write about Hong Kong, so I’d like to tell you about it now and fill you in on Bangkok later. I thought I would’ve had more time to blog while I was in Hong Kong, but I only had two full days there and I spent all my time exploring the city!

My flight from Vancouver to Hong Kong was 13 hours and I barely slept a wink. I was too busy catching up on my movie watching and can now check off Toy Story 3, Little Fockers, The Town and No Strings Attached from my list. I figured I’d fall asleep during one of them, but nope.

I got to my hotel in Hong Kong on the Kowloon side Tuesday night Hong Kong time (that’s 15 hours ahead of California time). It’s called Panda Hotel and this is who greeted me in the hotel lobby when I arrived.

I started my Wednesday at the tour desk. I figured since I was by myself and had a short amount of time there, a tour would allow me to see the most sites, while meeting other people from around the world. So I chose 2 tours – 1 of Hong Kong Island and the other – a night tour.

I met my tour bus outside Harbour City – which is a mall, but so humongous, I can see why it’s called a city – in Tsim Sha Tsui. That’s one of the major shopping destinations in town. It kind of reminded me of Union Square, with all the high end stores – Louis, Dior, Chanel, Fendi, you name it – all there vying for the attention of the mainland Chinese people who go to Hong Kong, just to drop some cash (I’m told they literally pay in cash) on those fancy purses and clothes.

My tour guide was named Jun. Jun is a girl about my age from Hong Kong who’s been leading tours for about 5 years now. She was super friendly and easy to talk to. We then drove to two other hotels to pick up the others – an Argentinian couple and their 20-something-year-old son, an English couple who now live in New Zealand and 3 friends from Germany. All of them, except for the son, were at least in their 60s and made for some good company.

The first stop on Hong Kong Island – Victoria Peak. It’s the one place all my friends who’ve been to HK told me I had to check out, because it has the the best view of the city and the bay, being 500 meters above sea level. Unfortunately, it was drizzling and so gloomy out, the view wasn’t postcard perfect, but it was still beautiful and offered a great perspective of the city. I got a few pics there and we were back on the bus again.

Next, we headed to Aberdeen, a fishing community on the southwest side of the island. Jun told us that since there’s no metro stop in Aberdeen, the cost of living there is the lowest on HK Island. Many homes on the island, especially our way up to the Peak, can cost US $2,000 per square meter! And I thought San Francisco was expensive!

We all got on a boat for a woman to take us around their harbor, which is how they make their living, besides fishing. We rode past many “junk boats” which is what the fishermen use and many live on, as well. I forgot to ask why they’re called junk boats. Some do look kind of “junky”, but I’m no boat expert. We didn’t see many fishermen, but we did see a few dogs on the boats. Jun said many of the fishermen live by themselves on their boats, so they have dogs to keep them company. Ironically, this harbor is also the home of some pretty nice yachts, owned by the rich people on the island. Quite a juxtaposition.

After we got off the boat, we hopped back on the bus and drove to one of those typical tourist traps you often find on a guided tour like this. It was a jewelry factory and one of their people sat us down in a room to give us a schpeel about their designs and different kinds of stones and jewels. I did win a prize, though – a small garnet stone – for knowing that green jade comes from Burma (she had mentioned it in her talk, but my grandma had told me before, too). Then I got suckered into buying the garnet as part of a pendant for US $20, which I figured was more useful than a lone stone and not a bad deal.

After the jewelry factory, we drove past Repulse Bay, the most popular sun bathing beach in town. Jun told us it’s called “Repulse” Bay because it’s where the British fleet repulsed pirates from the bay in 1841. Then we stopped at Stanley Market – a street market with knock offs and souvenirs. I saw a few things that interested me and tried bargaining, only to realize how much I suck at bargaining. I either feel bad and give in when I could’ve probably gone lower or I got way too low and they reject me right away. I bought a gift for Trevor, then we were swept away on the bus one more time.

Since I had my second tour right after, Jun and the bus driver dropped me off to meet the other tour guide, Felix, at another bargain shopper’s paradise, known as the Night Market, which is on the Kowloon side, not the island. Within 10 minutes, I was the owner of 2 knock off purses for only US $36, which I thought was a decent deal.

Felix then rushed me and the 2 others on the night tour off to the bus. The other 2 people were newlyweds about my age from a city near Monterey, Mexico. Hong Kong was their last stop on a 25-day honeymoon around Asia and this was their very last night. They were so friendly and didn’t make me feel like the third wheel at all.

The bus driver took us to the dock for our harbor dinner cruise. The dinner itself was all right, but the highlight was the Symphony of Lights – a show during which the lights on all the skyscrapers around the harbor light up to music, while lasers and spotlights dance across the sky. It was absolutely gorgeous and such a nice night out, too!

So Wednesday ended with me feeling accomplished and more comfortable with getting around the city. That left Thursday for me to galavant however I wanted to. I was initially concerned about wandering around on my own, but it was a cinch! Living in San Francisco has definitely helped prepare me for getting around another metropolitan city – riding metros and buses, weaving in and out of all the other pedestrians and jaywalking across the street. I woke up and opened the curtains to find the sun out, to my surprise. I was kind of bummed, since  it wasn’t out the day before for Victoria Peak, but I figured I’d just go back up today on my own.

To get to Hong Kong Island, I took the Star Ferry from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central (which is like the financial district in San Francisco, where a lot of the expatriates live and work).

On the ferry, I met two girls from Germany – one of them who’s wrapping up a semester abroad in HK. She helped guide me from the ferry stop in the right direction to catch the tram to take me to the Peak. Luckily, there were easy-to-follow signs all around to guide me the rest of the way, so that even I – with no sense of direction – didn’t get lost.

On this day, I got an even higher viewpoint than the day before, since I paid to go up to the terrace. The sun was beating down on us, but it was so worth it to grab photos like this.

Whether gloom or smog, it’s tough to get that perfect shot, but I’m glad I went up the second time. I got to meet some other Americans up there, who helped me take this picture, as well as a group of Australians.

From there, I walked and rode the longest escalator in the world to a neighborhood in Central, called Soho. I LOVE this neighborhood. The narrow, winding streets; the small boutiques; the wide variety of ethnic food. I could see myself living here.

I had to hurry to meet my friend, Pearl Chu, for dinner. Pearl is a friend of my friends, Jamie and James Hoang in San Diego. Jamie and Pearl met while they were studying abroad in Japan 11 years ago. Being from Hong Kong, Pearl wanted to take me to eat some authentic Chinese food. It was my only actual meal in HK, since I’d been eating on the go – and I’m drooling just thinking about it. The best dish was sweet-chili sauce covered prawns. Mmmmmm…

Afterwards, Pearl took me to Lan Kwai Fong, which is the main bar and club scene, especially for expats. On weekends, they close the street off to cars, so that the drunkards have more room to stumble around safely. We went to a hookah lounge, then to a vodka ice bar and – of course – ended the night dancing at a club.

After just 3 hours of sleep, I rushed to pack and hop on the bus to the airport for my next adventure in Bangkok, Thailand!

Finally on my way!

2.6 hours on the plane down and 13 more to go! I’m hanging out at Vancouver International Airport waiting to board the plane to Hong Kong – the first stop on my multi-destination journey in Asia. I’ll be there for three days before going to Thailand to start my teaching assignment. I can’t believe this day is finally here! Everyone has been asking how excited I am leading up to the trip and it really isn’t sinking in till now. I’ve been so overwhelmed with packing and moving out of my apartment in San Francisco in 3 days after coming back from a week-long destination wedding trip in Mexico, that I haven’t given myself time to envision all the amazing sights and experiences I’m going to have! I know once the plane is descending upon Hong Kong and I catch a glimpse of this other “city by the bay” (hopefully I can see it through the smog), the butterflies (excited and nervous butterflies) will start swirling around in my stomach.

In the meantime, I hope to get a good amount of sleep on this upcoming 13 hour flight. I only got one hour of shut-eye before my parents and I left the house for the airport at 4:00am. As you can see from the photo, I had a hell of a time packing and repacking, trying to figure out how to fit all my clothes for 3 months – professional for teaching, Hong Kong chic and rugged for trekking – plus teaching supplies for the kids, gifts for my host family and all my “just-in-case” meds in one suitcase (yeah, right! I ended up with another very bloated small suitcase and 2 carry-ons). Thank you to my very organized and diligent sister for helping me figure out a way to fit everything.

Time to grab lunch now before boarding the plane…see you in Hong Kong!

So much to do, so little time!

Only 13 days left till I leave for Asia! I’m sitting on my couch now at 1:30am, trying to stay awake before Super Shuttle comes to pick up Trevor and me to go to the airport for a one week trip to Mexico for a destination wedding. After I get back, I have 2 days to finish packing up my apartment before the movers come to take my stuff to storage. Then I drive down to LA where I fly out 2 days after that. I know – I’m crazy to cram all this in.

I’ve had a productive week, though, at least. I bought a video camera – a Canon Vixia HF20 – which is an older model, but still of good quality, so I got a good deal. And because the camera store was celebrating their 57th anniversary, they had a raffle drawing Saturday and I won a Sony bloggie! I never win anything! I also ordered a wireless mic and transmitter earlier tonight, so I’m pretty good with equipment, I think. I’d still like a good point and shoot camera, though, since mine broke a few months ago.

A coffee meeting yesterday made me feel all the more committed and motivated to take this volunteer trip and build a website as a resource for other aspiring volunteers. I finally met up with a friend of a friend (2 friends from different parts of my life, actually, by coincidence) who’s been interested in taking a volunteer trip herself. She’s ready for a change and wants to take a year off work to travel and volunteer in different parts of the world. She’s a tennis player and would like to possibly teach tennis or other sports to children, as well as lives in a Spanish-speaking country. It was so invigorating to share ideas with her and to encourage her to take those first steps to get the ball rolling. She told me she’s been talking about taking a trip like this for the past few years and the hardest part for her is to just bite the bullet and embrace the idea of leaving her job and the life she’s built in San Francisco, which I can totally understand. I was just like that. I think what got me to act was a conversation with a friend who I hung out with a lot in San Diego in 2007. Last November, she and I met up again and I told her how I “hoped” to take a volunteer trip. She reminded me that I had told her that same thing 4 years ago!

Buying the Lonely Planet Volunteer guide also helped motivate me. If you want a bunch of ideas in one book, that’s a good resource – although some of the information is a little outdated, so it’s best you refer to the organization websites, too. They have listings of different volunteer organizations all around the world where you can participate in all kinds of activities, as well as anecdotes from volunteers, fundraising suggestions, tips on what to do before and after your trip, etc. That’s where I found out about Volunthai, the group I’ll be volunteering with in Thailand.

All right…it’s 2:00am now. I have to get ready before the Super Shuttle driver comes knocking on my door…

What a night!

Thursday night, April 28th, 2011 was one of the most touching nights of my life. Dozens of my friends, family and friends of friends who support my volunteer adventure gathered at Sushi on a Roll in San Diego for my silent auction fundraiser – Sushi, Spirits and Serving Others. I was initially nervous about the event – What did I forget to do? What if no one shows up? What if people don’t bid on the auction items? But thanks to my amazing friends – and especially Nylie Afuyog, Sandra Torres and Jeff Roberto – the event exceeded my expectations. We made more than $2,000 that night – thanks to all the donors and guests!

It almost felt like I was on the show, This is Your Life. I got to see so many different people I met since I  moved to San Diego in 2005 – coworkers from Channel 4, some of the most inspirational and giving people I’ve interviewed in my career, board members from the Asian American Journalists Association, friends I met through various charity events, my cousins and even friends I met in the Bay Area! And, of course, I was so grateful my family drove down from Ventura County to support me and to meet all my friends.

During my speech, I almost lost it. That was the first moment I got to take a look around the room at everyone’s faces and realize how many people believe in me and my vision to build bridges across cultures through volunteering. My voice quivered, but I was able to hold back the tears, so people didn’t have to see or hear me slobber all over the mic. Many people came up to me afterwards to tell me how inspired they feel and what a great thing I’m doing, but the truth is – I’m inspired by them, too, and motivated by everyone’s encouragement. I really hope everyone there and those of you who read this blog feel inspired to give to others, too  – whether it’s through volunteer trips or in your own way. Not only do we get to touch the lives of people we serve, but also the lives of our own friends and families through our actions and compassion.

A HUGE THANK YOU TO JEFF ROBERTO OF SUSHI ON A ROLL for sharing his time, talents and space for the event, as well as silent auction and raffle items.

Many thanks to those who donated to the silent auction:

  • Dr. Trevor Irish, Monte Vista Optometry in Turlock
  • Dr. Smit Patel, East County Family Optometry
  • Dr. Irene Gendelman Patel, Santee Family Optometry
  • Sam Zien (a.k.a. Sam the Cooking Guy)
  • Nylie Afuyog, Nylie Designs
  • Terry Matsuoka, Musician, Artist and Photographer
  • Cox Communications
  • Roi Ewell, SeaWorld
  • Lori Watkins, Artist
  • Darlynne Reyes, Where You Want To Be Tours
  • Harki Parekh, Sofia Hotel
  • Seema Sueko, Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company