Spanish Road Trip – Day 1: Lets get out of here!

Posted by jswt | Posted in 2011 - Spanish Road Trip, Spain - La Linea de la Conception, Spain - Madrid, Ukraine - Kiev | Posted on 05-12-2011


We found ourselves with a one week break at the beginning of December, and rather than going all the way to Vancouver (having to through a double dose of jetlag for just a few days at home), we decided that the best way to shed the Russian sullenness that’d sunk into our souls was to pop down to Spain for some sun and smiles! Our final evening in Kiev was spent rising to the challenge of finishing off all of our excess/half finished vodkas, and so it was a rude awakening when we shuffled off towards the airport at 4am to begin a very lengthy day of travel:

We started off with a flight from Kiev, connecting through Frankfurt, and then on to Madrid.

Žiūrėti didesnį žemėlapio vaizdą

From Madrid, we grabbed a high speed train down to Malaga on the southern coast of Spain.

Žiūrėti didesnį žemėlapio vaizdą

In Malaga, we picked up our car (a Mercedes Benz S-Class!… more about that later), and headed south towards La Linea de la Conception (LLC):

Žiūrėti didesnį žemėlapio vaizdą

Along the way we stopped in a little seafront town for some late afternoon tapas and coffee. The sun was setting, families were out walking en masse, people were smiling and laughing, the food was fantastic, and we were warm just wearing our t-shirts. It was exactly the antidote to post-Russia melancholy that we’d hoped to find.

An hour or so of driving landed us at our hotel in LLC, and though we’d planned to go out and grab dinner, but after such a long day of travel neither of us had the energy to move so we just had some beers and tapas brought to the room and passed out with the bedroom door wide open and the sound of the surf and the smell of warm salt air filling our dreams…

TIP: The AC Hotel in La Linea de la Conception is cheap, clean, has an amazingly friendly staff and serves up a decent/cheap breakfast. If available, pay the extra 5 euro for the Rock and Ocean View room!

Take it or Kiev it.

Posted by jswt | Posted in General, Ukraine - Kiev | Posted on 03-12-2011


Admittedly, I’m lagging behind on this post and Kiev wasn’t terribly inspiring, so let me just briefly summarize our week there: bleak, better than Russia, great hotel.

Didn’t do much around the city, since I was in major crunch mode with a project, and we were staying in one of my favorite hotels that we’ve ever stayed in… Oldschool classic 5 star luxury.

The hotel was a couple blocks from Independance Square where the government was toppled by the Orange Revolution after election fraud. There have been some recent political shenanigans that are really interesting, and demonstrate how this part of the world deals with insurgence. Heavy.

We spent one day off going to the monastery up in the hills above Kiev, where there’s tunnels and catacombs where the’ve buried their saints and holy men. Made for some interesting Jesu-zombie wandering. Also an interesting merging of ideals to be in an active monastery where the monks are all sporting laptops and iPhones, and driving Lexus’.

There was a crew party one night as a decent club called Crystal Palace – nice room with some great sound, and pimpin vip tables. The vodka was flowing in excess – gotta love a place where beer and mixed drinks are expensive, but bottles of vodka are free. It got wonderfully saucy.

Other day off was sunny so we met up with “the Ugg Girls” (boots, not looks – heh) and wandered around town and to the huge street market that had a good blend of tacky tourist gear, hand knitted socks, and nazi antiques (see: SS rings, swastika stamps, and stacks of ‘abandoned’ passports from the era – creepy!). Highlight of the day was finding the Kiev Chocolate Co, and overdosing on chocolate in the biggest and best way: tea with melted chocolate, latte with melted chocolate, chocolates, and hot chocolate that was nothing but a cup of melted [amazing] chocolate. Fantastic little place, and well worth the diabetes later in life.

We’d booked a day trip to Chernoybl, but due to some weird government policy that no one could really explain or wanted to talk about, the tours had all been cancelled and we were only told the day before we were to go. Would have been cool, and something unchecked on life’s wishlist.

Anyways – that’s about all i have to say about Kiev. Not the friendliest place, it’s pretty Russian-y, I got a ton of work done, there was cheap sushi everywhere, and our hotel was *fantastic*.

Summary: No need to return or go out of your way to visit, but if you do, treat yourself to a stay at the Premier Palace Hotel…

St. Petersburg: Back in the (not so Russian) USSR

Posted by jswt | Posted in Audio, Russia - St Petersburg | Posted on 21-11-2011


After 2 weeks in Moscow, we headed to St. Petersburg, which although still in Russia seemed a world apart. Gone was the bleak grey box architecture, gone were the dodgy roving bands of thug security/police, gone were the threatening scowls, gone was the 90s-trashy-hooker fashion sense… The city was beautiful! People were laughing! People dressed… normally!

The city is right up in the north west of Russia, across the border from Finland and near Estonia. Because of this, it’s always been a gateway to Europe and you could see the influence immediately.

Our first day there we had a bit of an afternoon wander and sushi lunch, and made it to Catherine the Great’s palace, which has been converted to a massive museum called the Hermitage. It was closed on Mondays, so we headed over to a huge beautiful church (editor’s note: they had one here! weird, huh?) to warm up. We then walked the main shopping street back towards the hotel and popped into another building which ended up being another church with a russian orthodox worshipping taking place – lots of subdued singing, candles and insense in a dark gloomy space with no seating. It was quite beautiful in it’s own way, and triggered a lengthy conversation about the substance and viewpoints of organized religion as we popped into a great little cafe for some tea and port. Someone must have been listening, because when we left we were gifted an extrordinary sunset on the way back to the hotel.

We had a cute little loft with fantastic skylights and giant windows overlooking a main square right on the main walking street, and as the weather was sleety and dismal and spent most of the week heads-down in work mode plowing through a project cuddled up on the couch in a blanket and fiending on Mixcloud dj sets.

Chris had Saturday off, so we went back to the Hermitage museum which was easily one of the best museums I’ve ever seen. Most museums keep you at a distance from the artworks and feel like a building set up for viewing art. Here though, you’re wandering Catherine the Great’s winter palace, just strolling along surrounded by an *unbelievable* collection of art. In the Louve you can see the Mona Lisa from about 10 feet away, with guards standing on each side, and protective glass overtop. In the Hermitage, there’s paintings by Da Vinci, Monet, Rembrandt, Michaelangelo just hanging on the walls you can get right up to and lose yourself in the genius of the individual brushstrokes. But it’s not just about paintings – the building is insanely opulent and a work unto itself, that’s just brimming with millions of pieces. We spent the better part of a day strolling around and only saw a portion of one of three floors. Words can’t do the scope and beauty of the place justice, so if you ever end up in St Pete’s, do not miss the opportunity to see close up what’s easily one of the best art collections in the world, and thusfar my favorite museum.

After this we walked over to the touristy (but still delicious) The Idiot restaurant for some eats in the comfy cavernous space that was decorated with a hint of russian grandmotherly kitsch. Free vodka shots to start the meal led to some full bellies and rosy cheeked spirits before we went back to the hotel for a quick nap and cleanup.

St. Petersburg has long been known as a bit of a seedy place, with more european attitudes towards sex and culture, but in the middle of the week we were in town the government had passed a law that would “prevent the propaganda of homosexuality” where children could be exposed – essentially banning anything that could be taken as gay, and making it a crime to bring it up in public or where children are present (ie: gay pride parades, telling your niece you’re gay, etc). The effects of such a law are pretty far reaching, and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out in Russia’s politics. Of course, the immediate effect of such a prohibitive law meant that all the gay people were immediately cleansed of their illegal wants and desires, and gay was no longer a problem in St Petersburg.

“Ohhhhhhh, those Russians” – Boney M, Rasputin

Of course, we didn’t really understand what was going on at the time, so we went out Saturday night to find Central Station – the main gay bar in St Petersburg (previously Greshniki). We had a bit of trouble finding the place, first wandering into a dodgy lobby of a building where giant bouncers and a large breasted woman told us it was 15k rubles to go upstairs, but we got unlimited drinks, food, shisha and ladies. Not quite the buffet we were after, we ducked around the corner and found the lit up sign for the club we were after. We stayed for a few hours, and it was a fantastic 4 level club with a cabaret, opium den styled chillout room, lounges, and a good dancefloor, but we just had a weird vibe there all night – it was kind of empty aside from the hustlers and regulars, and everyone just seemed on edge and shifty (even more so than regular russian shiftiness). We had a few drinks (and watched absinthe being served in the most amazing way we’ve ever seen -stacked glasses and fireballs, ohmy!), but definately felt some unease when we left the bar around 3am and melted into the crowd as quickly as possible and watched over our shoulders to make sure we weren’t being followed or targeted.

Sunday was our last day, and I worked for a few hours and when the sun popped out I was ready to go for a wander with my camera and ended up strolling thru some interesting industrial neighborhoods full of abandoned buildings and ended up at a monastery that had a great church in the middle of a cemetary.

Stuck around for some of the service, and then wandered back through town and up the main street back to the hotel where I met up with Chris and some people from work so we could hop the metro and head to the Mikhailovsky theatre to catch a ballet. I’m not the biggest fan of ballet, but it was quite decent, and the stunning old theatre made the night. Side note: beware coat check lineups in russia after a show. You’ve never seen little old ladies turn into such vicious, elbow throwing nasties who will crush you for a foot forward. Had we not been in Shanghai shortly before, this might have been traumatic.

So that was about it… Lots of work, a few decent days out, a cozy little hotel room, friendly people. I’d go back in a second to spend more time wandering the Hermitage, but that aside it’s still a city that I’d love to go back to if given the opportunity.

Moody Moscow

Posted by jswt | Posted in General, Russia - Moscow | Posted on 13-11-2011


For halloween night I dressed up as an “airline passenger” in my convincing costume complete with seat, luggage and Airbus A380 which found me waking up on the opposite side of sunrise in Moscow, Russia.

Chris had already been in Russia for 3 weeks when I arrived and had been having a very tough time in very remote locations like Kazan and Yekaterinburg, and was happy to get back to a “real city”. He got in Sunday night at 4am, and I was slayed by jetlag, so luckily we had a tour guide lined up to show us around on Monday – S is a friend of my sister’s who’s wife is working at an embassy in Moscow, and had been living here for 3 months out of their 2 year stay. He kept apologizing for his lack of knowing his way around the city, but it was much better than our own and he was a serious relief as we were in no state to be deciphering cyrillic and trying to navigate the metro lines. He took us to Red Square and the Kremlin and a great (cheap!) lunch at a cafeteria that spoke a little english, and really made us feel welcome in what was an obviously hard, cold place.

Moscow is a city of 20 million people that’s suffering some growing pains as the quick growth and influx has sent prices skyrocketing and has a traffic system that isn’t coming close to keeping up. There is some nice architecture, but the majority of the city is blocky, grey communist concrete structures that don’t exude much joy.

Lemme just say straight up that Russian men are *not* attractive, and the women tend to look amazing until they hit about 35, when apparently the businessmen just go out and get a mistress to throw new furs upon. The women *all* dress like campy prostitutes from 15 years ago, and even going to the grocery store requires fishnets and 6″ heels. There’s a huge need here to flash new money and to be seen on the scene. It’s crazy how much trashy shit people wear – it’s like they’ve skinned an 80s hooker and crawled right in.

The musical taste of the city can be summed up as “Camaro trance”.

The people do not smile, and they do not talk. There are roaming groups of police which you never know exactly who they are – police, military, security, or even just some guys in uniforms. If you make eye contact or draw their attention, they can ask you for your papers which is usually a gateway for a shakedown or some sort of payoff. It quickly comes clear that it’s just easier to blend in and be unnoticed than to draw any attention, especially if you’re an english speaker who doesn’t want to be made an easy target. Luckily I was let off easily the couple times I was asked for my passport – I’ve taken to carrying a photocopy and leaving my original in a safe spot in countries like this, so that they can’t take my passport and hold it ransom. Of course, it helps a lot that I’m travelling on a Canadian passport, as it was greeted with a neutral nod rather than what I might have expected on a US passport.

So it was *very* nice to have S there to show us around, speak english, and smile as we walked around the city… He had to go pick his daughter up for trick-or-treating, but definitely got us grounded and orientated, and was a fantastic tour guide.

The next few days were a blur of jetlag haze (I always forget how long it’s going to kick my ass — remember: 1 day per hour!), so I bunkered down and did some work since I was somewhat intimidated and uncomfortable wandering the city by myself.

On the Friday, a few people were going to do a walking tour, so I tagged along and got shown around the city by a nice political studies major from the university who gave us some insight into the history of the city, and frequently held his tongue whenever opinions or personal beliefs seemed to enter the tale. After his tour, we hopped the metro to find an outdoor market, but instead ended up at what we referred to as “the creepiest amusement park ever”, and then took an extreme shortcut through the woods to the next metro station, stopping along the way for homemade pickles from little old ladies at a market.

We were kind of kept to the sidelines on the tour, which I later learned was due to the nationalist rally going on that day. Russia is in the midst of a upsurging Nationalist movement – the same standard lowbrow politics that appeal to the disenfranchised, undereducated and angry everywhere that blames outsiders for all their problems and forgives the ruling class from resolving their actual problems. Political posters around the city feature an angry scowling candidate with the words “RUSSIA IS FOR RUSSIANS” (which I consider kind of funny, since having been here I can safely assure Russians that no one will be knocking down their door to take it – they can keep it all they like). Luckily we were clear of the gathering, as nothing much happened at the rally so the skinheads and angry youth descended into the metro system issuing some of the old ultraviolence upon anyone who didn’t speak russian or looked remotely foreign…

But to segue off politics and to try to keep this positive, the city has a *fantastic* metro system, with beautiful stations that are way down below ground, and have trains coming every 2 minutes that get you all over the city quickly. There is also rumors and rumblings about an entire second metro system under the metro system called Metro 2. There’s a story about the brown ring route that circles all the other routes – that Stalin had the plans to approve the metro lines, and put his coffee down on the paper. When he picked it up to sign off, he liked the brown coffee stain idea, and no one wanted to rock the boat, so the brown line ended up part of the system. The metro came in handy for a couple dinners out (sushi, shisha and first snow with S from S. Africa – oh yeah!), a quick lunch with S and his wife, and a bit of urban hiking, but overall the city isn’t laid out for pedestrian access and doesn’t have a lot to offer as far as wandering goes.

One of the highlights of our stay was an invitation on the tour’s day off to come visit the newly restored Bolshoi Theatre – Moscow’s flagship theatre that has just undergone a 6 year renovation and reopened 10 days before we got our tour. The building was *STUNNING* and easily one of the most beautiful performance rooms I’ve ever seen. Part of the renovation involved lifting the entire building up, carving out 6 stories of space underneath and building operations offices and ballrooms underneath, all of which were equally beautiful and jaw-droppingly beautiful. Getting the chance to stand on stage and tour backstage at the Bolshoi theatre was definitely a memorable treat.

On the last Saturday there, Chris had the day off and the promotion had organized with me to have him kidnapped so they could drive us out of town 40km to the Monino Aviation Museum – a crazy insane collection of old Russian military and experimental aircraft that was only recently opened to foreigners. We saw some really impressive aircraft, a lot of which were very similar to famous US planes, and released a couple years after the US planes thanks to the cold war spy effort. Other cool stuff was some sputniks, some mini-test shuttles that were dropped from outside the atmosphere, and some bizarre amphibious vertical takeoff planes. (Check the Wikipedia entry for more details). We followed the museum up with a drive through the Russian countryside, lunch at a really odd Kazakhstani restaurant, and then 3+ hours of insufferable Moscow traffic to make it the 40km back to the hotel.

That evening Chris’ had a work dinner with his team that I got to tag along on. They’d booked dinner on a 4 hour boat ride that cruised through the heart of Moscow past a lot of famous sites and was made extra cool by the snow that started to fall over the lit up city. Good company, good conversation, good food, good view, and a really nice night to wind up 2 weeks of Moscow.

I was doing my best to have a positive outlook on Moscow, especially as I didn’t have any other Russian cities to compare it to or understand how the Russian cultural aspects influenced the city. But, now that I’ve left and can put it in perspective, I can’t say the city worth visiting: it’s grey, bleak, the people are mean, the police are ever-present and unpredictable, and there just isn’t a lot of joy to be found.

I do definitely understand better the Russians I’ve met having been here though. I’ve always struggled to connect with what I’ve taken as a shifty darkness, but now I can’t consider it that… it’s hard to consider someone unethical when you realize that the ethics of a culture shift, especially in a post-communist country where people have spent hundreds of years surviving only by getting what they can, by whatever means possible.

Let me finish with an example, which is a story I heard while in Moscow: There was an opposition journalist and editor-in-chief of a local newspaper named Mikhail Beketov who exposed corruption in government and was severely beaten to be point of being left wheelchair bound and unable to speak as a result. When the US State Department pressed Russia about human rights violations and the case, the Russian government announced an award to encourage whistle blowing of government corruption. The first winner who was held up as an example? The now disabled journalist in his wheelchair.

I’m sure that message from the government was heard loud and clear.
And in Russia, that’s business as usual…

Tour break in Vancouver!

Posted by jswt | Posted in Audio, Canada - Vancouer | Posted on 31-10-2011


After Shanghai, Chris had a week off back in Vancouver that we used to maximize our chilling, catching up and visitings. Thanksgiving dinner with the family, and some kickass seats to a BC Lions game in the new stadium were a nice treat.

Chris headed off to Russia, and since I could only get a 30 day tourist visa I stuck around Vancouver for a very well received 3 extra weeks enjoying my couch and cat. Got to meet up with a bunch of the guys for a random MEATFEST of bbq madness, catch a hockey game with the father-in-law, and enjoy the indian summer’s crisp days of blue skies and rainbow leaves.

I even managed to sneak in a hike up Hollyburn mountain on what ended up being the last day before the snows fell on the peaks (where cheeky grey jays flew right onto my knee and ran diversion while another snuck up behind me and tried to steal the ring right off my finger! cocky bastid birds – shah).

My buddy D was still in town from his best man duties at the wedding before he continued off back on his journey around the world on his (pedal) bike. He was leaving for Cape Town in South Africa where he was headed on a zig zag journey northward towards Morocco. If you aren’t already, you should be subscribed to his blog – to follow along on that journey.

D was a roommate and mischievous cohort from way back, and we’ve spent many weird nights djing together even though he plays a much… harder style than I tend to. He used to run a radio show in Winnipeg, and later on CJSF in Vancouver, called SLEIZURE which was a frequent friday night haunt for me and a bunch of other drunken djfolk. Somehow they’d got permission to do a one off reunion night on the radio station and I got to tag along to play. The night was a blast, and got suitably messy with hot dog explosions, flying records causing facial injuries, and a certain someone requiring forceable removal from the studio by the testicles. I played a set from about 1-2am that was harder than my normal style but perfect Sleizure-fodder, that you can listen to here…

Another audio treat while I was back in Vancouver was the virgin voyage of my buddy C’s TRUCKERDISCO night. C has a kickass taste in sleazy punkrock disco infused grindy beats, and invited me to play the night… I played from 10:30-12ish so it started off a little slow and got more banging as the room picked up – and maaaaaaaan did it pick up. It was one of the crazier dancefloors I’ve seen in Vancouver as people from all over the place, cliques, genres, styles, and persuasions messed up and mashed up the place. Serious freakers ball action, and way fun. Anyways, keep your ears listening for info on the next one, and here’s a recording of my set from the night if you’re needing some sleazy listenings… [remember: starts off slow, but picks up… give it some time to build].

After that it was time to pack up, as my Russian visa was kicking in and Moscow was on the horizon…


Posted by jswt | Posted in China - Shanghai, General | Posted on 02-10-2011


So we wrapped up our wedding, had a couple days to chill out and then were back in the air on our way to Shanghai…

Just want to point out first that you can’t really grasp the scale of the city by reading this. I can’t even think back clearly on it now as it seems almost surreal. It’s a city of 28 *million* (officially counted – that doesn’t include “other”). The population of all of Canada is 32 million. It’s one city that’s pretty much the same population of my entire home country. If you’re sitting in Vancouver shrugging and going “yeah, that’s big”, you can’t wrap your head around how seriously big that actually is. Anyways…

Chris had to get straight into work, so rather than figure out the Maglev and metro, we hopped a cab for an introduction to chinese driving. We’ve been to Italy and Spain and Turkey, but nothing had us ready for the chaos of Shanghai highways. 4 lanes really means that there’s kind of 8 or 9 lanes, and people are either slowly trodding along or flooring it, but there is no slow lane, there’s just drifting around everyone else and pushing into spaces that don’t exist. There are no signals, just a honk. It’s mental, but it works, as apparent by the (odd) lack of scratches or dings on anyone’s vehicle.

An hour trip into the city got us to our hotel which was a beautiful treat: fully 5 star, on the 44th floor with a great view of the city and a pimp room, literally right at the intersection of Nanjing East and Nanjing west (the main shopping street). We couldn’t have asked for a better location in the city…

Chris showered and ran off to work, so I kicked the jetlag haze by wandering out onto Nanjing street to see what things were like. I wasn’t a step of the property when the offers began: “Bag?” “Purse?” “Watches?” “Laaaaaaaaaady massage?” “Hashish?”… Walking solo and sticking out as a tourist made me a magnet for a constant stream of vendors who’d slide up alongside me out of the throngs. Luckily, my mom had given me a bit of advice to take along, and even as “no. no. no. no.” wouldn’t do a thing to dissuade their sales effort, a simple “Bu Yao” muttered in their direction and they’d disappear into thin air. Effective magic.

So once I could look past the vendors, I could see Nanjing road as a giant open air shopping street similar to what you’d find in most cities, with the addition of shoulder to shoulder black haired chinese shoppers. The other difference was that it wasn’t just roadside shopping – each of the buildings along the sides were 6-7 stories, and every floor/level/space/corner was a different shop and you had to dive way in deep to find out what was actually there. And of course, the biggest difference between this and most other shopping streets was the lights – the lights were huge and brilliant and constantly shifting in a way that makes Vegas look quaint. Even once I got back to our hotel room and could look out across the city over the Bund and to the Pudong side of the river, the skyline was breathtaking like nothing else I’ve ever seen, and that I could only explain as what would happen if Burningman was given a skyline of 100 story buildings – a continual psychedelic shifting and glistening wonder of light and marketing and messaging. Absolutely brilliant – literally.

The next day I went out for a wander across the street with C (one of the very few other tour partners to be tagging along in Shanghai), and was lucky that she was game to be adventurous, especially when it came to the food. We found a place that served these insanely good Xiaolongbao that proved borderline addictive as we both lived off them for the next week. I was a little worried about the food in China, having heard the horror stories about gelatinous bits and things my stomach might have found challenging, but overall I had no problem sticking to stuff that wasn’t too freaky and my stomach was actually loving it. There’s an endless number of small little restaurants and street vendors who’re just set up, hanging out and making food. Yes, some of it’s dodgy, but I took someone’s advice and stuck to the places that were busy and/or had a lineup and I had nothing but *amazing* food every time, for next to nothing (usually < $2 for a full kickass noodle/stirfry/whatever). Of course, between the food in the air, the 32 million people living in the city, the layers of chaotic traffic, the people bathing in the street, the public washrooms that service a neighborhood... well... it's pretty aromatic. Some smells are fantastically delicious. Many are not. But it doesn't matter, because in a couple seconds or a couple steps in any direction, your nose is being filled with a whole new set of sensory overload. [flickr-gallery mode="photoset" photoset="72157627948026786"]

C and I had a great wander, doing some shopping, eating more and more dumplings, and then settling into a great little tea house in a park across from the hotel for an afternoon of lychee sangria and shisha….

Also in the park was the City Planning Museum, which I popped into to see. It was low on information, and high in propaganda, but was still completely worth the visit to see the IMMENSE model of the entire city that took up the whole 3rd floor of the building. I can’t imagine how often they have to update the model, but even the recently built stuff I saw around town was already in the model…

Internet was somewhat limited, in that sometimes you could reach sites like google, and then othertimes they’d just disappear from the net. Also of interest, was that if you were typing in Skype and said something negative about China, your connection would go dead – you can make your own assumptions about that. So, without really wanting to have all of my surfing sniffed, I spent a lot of the week wandering the city… Some highlights include working my way deep into residential neighborhoods
and eating mysterious street food, taking a ferry without knowing (or caring) where it went, bouncing around on the metro, ending up near the 100-story Trade Centre building and going up to the viewing area at the top [!!!], taking the maglev train out to the airport at 400+ km/h to pick someone up… Just a seriously great city to wander – it’s busy, and knew to watch my back a bit, but never felt unsafe.

Sunday night Chris was tired, but I was feeling like going out, so I went for some drinks with some people and then ended up taking a cab over to meet up with other people who were at a rooftop club at the Bund overlooking the river. Rambunctious Revelry occurred.

On the Monday that everyone had off, someone arranged a trip to the Happy Valley Amusement park which was a real trip: 2 parts Disneyland, 1 part industrial wasteland, and 1 part weird propaganda machine. We rode some rides, giggled at strange translations, caught a show that some people from the tour had friends/family in. They did have one of the most terrifying rollercoasters I’ve ever been on, both because of the insane drop and the realization that I was trusting chinese engineering and safety standards… came close to a heart attack, but did enjoy the ride.

We did the obligatory day of knockoff shopping, which was made better by having a tour guide/personal shopper who’d been recommended by someone from back home. She took us to a couple of the knockoff malls which were a trip, because they’d take you into the back room, and there’d be secret compartments and moving walls and secret tunnels and always “better quality, you wait”… The art of negotiation was a game we got really good at, and that Chris really loved… Getting them fired up, jumping up and down, fake crying, chasing you down if you went to leave… it sounds horrible upon reflection, but that’s just how it works – every single time it’s the same thing: they offer way high, you go way low, and then there’s this crazy dance of calculator swapping and sighing and grumbling until you negotiate a price. Seriously, seriously draining, but a very memorable day of shopping for sure.

We were also there over National Day (translation: same as 4th of July in the US, or Canada day in Canada) which was cool because it brought 700,000+ people into the city one night to celebrate, and also because of the fireworks displays that would go for hours lighting up the whole skyline (and were a real treat to watch from the lounge at the top of our hotel).

There was a night after the show where we were invited out to kareoke by the promoters and we learned a few things:
1) those particular Chinese men can sing like mofos
2) Chicken feet aren’t my favorite snack food
3) The Lonely Goatherd is the only thing I can sing

On the last night we were in town, Chris and I went out to a really weird night at a gay bear kareoke bar where they were having some competition/game show and Chris ended up being some big gay superhero. There’s actually a surprisingly open gay scene in Shanghai with a number of bars around town (including one in an old bomb shelter) and a number of big euro style clubs. Luckily there is no photographic evidence of this evening, aside from our ticket stub…

So yeah… Shanghai… Been there, seen it… Don’t have a huge need to go back, but definately wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to revisit as I feel I barely scratched the surface of the immense breadth of the city and it’s got a pulse that’s just… electric and alive and unique. I’m really curious to compare it to cities like Beijing that are a little less westernized, but that will have to wait… No matter what, if/when I do return to Shanghai, I doubt I’ll recognize it as it continues to build up and over and through itself towards whatever unique unmistakable and unignorable entity it’s evolving into.

I will thank it for teaching me a few things:
1) Where I call home is quiet and the air tastes delicious.
2) I understand my neighbors more.
3) Driving in Richmond makes way more sense now.


Awesome Auckland

Posted by jswt | Posted in General, New Zealand - Auckland | Posted on 05-09-2011


After spending the better part of 5 months in Australia, I’d learned that the aussie national sport was not rugby, but slandering and belittling Kiwis. It was with the expectation of inbred sheep shaggers that we landed in Auckland for a couple weeks, which ended up being absolutely fantastic.

The week started on a high note when we checked into the hotel and found out that they’d upgraded us as a pre-emptive wedding treat (big thanks to SA!). We had a beautiful penthouse loft in a great hotel with a jawdropping view of the the harbour and coastline.

Immediately, we picked up on the extremely welcoming nature of the kiwis: where the Australians share the American cowboy mentality, the Kiwis have a self depricating warm cynicism and serious warmth similar to Canadians. Every hello led to a conversation, and I was surprised to meet so many kind, welcoming, intelligent people in one city.

Over and over we kept saying to eachother how at home we felt in NZ. Auckland was like taking the best parts of Vancouver (ocean, green space, chill vibe) and mixing it with good parts of hawaii (ocean, palm trees, non-humid warmth, polynesian culture). And again, over and over, the people were just so likeminded to the Canadian vibe and so much friendlier than Vancouver that we couldn’t help feel relaxed and at home… More than a few times we said we’d be able to live in NZ quite pleasantly.

The city was covered with a sense of waiting as we were there before the World Rugby Competition was set to roll into town, but we were there during NZ Fashion Week and landed a few tickets to some runway shows that were kind of fun.

A highlight of the stay was the day we spent visiting the Waitomo Caves where we did the full Black Abyss tour: abseiling down 100+ feet on a rope, wandering underground caves, ziplining into blackness, climbing up a waterfall, and tubing down an underground river in pitch darkness except for the thousands of points of light coming from the constellations of glowworms on the ceiling. Hugely, hugely, hugely worthwhile and one of the more memorable days off we’ve ever had together on tour.

One random afternoon, tho we got suckered into the worst hop on/hop off bus tour ever, we ditched it quickly and I spent a really nice day w/ G and V kickin around town, sharking out at the aquarium, drinking wine, nibbling and shopping before ending up back at the hotel with a few bottles of wine and booking Balinese tour breaks. Seriously fab day with a couple fab ladies…

Back in the city one night, some of the people from the tour had put together a stag party for Chris and though I had some reservations about it, I was invited along. So glad I did, as it was a debaucherous hop around town on a party bus bar hopping across Auckland that descended into a lot of stuff I can’t remember and a lot of stuff I just can’t post (in a good way – hahah).

Interesting tidbit of the night: The Eagle (the legendary standard of seedy gay bars everywhere) in Auckland has a reading room and book selection (but no sling), and a bar suitable for dancing upon.

Few other nights out at really really great lounges, dj’ing a Lord of the Rings party (Last minute costume: I went as a treasure map – heheh), and just generally enjoying the really fantastic laid back vibe of the city.

Late in the visit was S’s bachelorette party (she’s getting married the week after us in SA), and I got invited along on the ladies night which was a ton of crazy fun: taking over and turning a shitty bar great, turning random college guys into strippers for the night, and laughing and laughing and laughing. So much fun, and a good sendoff for a lovely lady… Congrats chiquita!

Though not quite as fun and exciting as my normal travels, my stomach problems flared up a bit a few days later and I ended up landing in the hospital for a few days. Chris was great and was there as much as possible, and I’ve got to give serious props to the NZ medical system for having the nicest overworked nurses I’ve ever met – they were really caring and helpful, even to the crazy diabetic crackhead chick I got to share some time and space with. Unfortunately, the health system there works slowly (it’s public, so they’re in it to fix ya, not in a rush to get you out the door) and they’d put me on monitoring over the weekend and were going to revisit my case the week after which didn’t really work for us as I was to fly home on the Sunday. I know the symptoms and the routine well enough to know that things had settled down and against the doctor’s wishes (and with a mountain of paperwork to confirm that) we checked me out of the hospital and went back to the hotel to start packing and head for the airport. I’m on some medication now to help with the stomach stuff that’s been creeping up on me lately, so fingers crossed that my stomach stays settled, especially during the next few weeks of hectic wedding prep and planning!

Overall though, I *loved* New Zealand and can’t wait to get back to explore more of it… supposedly the south island is even more beautiful, and has a lot of skiing options. NZ is definately some place I could spend a few months wandering and settling into without a problem… Can’t wait to come back one day.

I (heart) the Gong

Posted by jswt | Posted in Australia - Wollongong, General | Posted on 21-08-2011


Wollongong, Australia: A cute sleepy little oceanside community. Kickass biking trails from here to forever along the ocean, nice people, and a seriously surprising and well styled cafe-slash-clothing store on the main drag.

One of the girls on the tour has family in town, and they threw a really lovely bbq for the whole tour on their rooftop patio one night. Was nice to just chill in downtime, and it’s funny to see that after a world of clubs and vip rooms and guestlists around the globe, it’s sitting around on a back deck in downtime that really lends itself to good conversation and relaxed vibes with these people.

Random memory overhead by two teenage guys in a car: “Chicks love loud music!”

Not much more to say about the Gong, except the non-bogun people were friendly and I bet they have great surfing in the summer…

Set adrift in Sydney

Posted by jswt | Posted in Australia - Sydney, General | Posted on 17-08-2011


Just wrapped up 3 amazingly sunny and warm midwinter weeks in Sydney, Australia. We were staying right in Darling Harbour around the corner from the Opera House and a short walk from the city centre. The city is beautiful, and the weather was on it’s bes behaviour while we were there, but I leave the city feeling like it’s missing something…

Sydney is a big city, that’s spread out with a lot of waterways and harbours nestled in it’s centre. The downtown CBD isn’t a residential core, but just primarily a commercial zone. Rather than a focused city centre, there’s a lot of buroughs across the city that aren’t very well linked (traffic is *terrible*), and because of this a lot of people seem somewhat ghettoized within their own neighborhood. We lost track of the number of times we heard “oh, I’m from X so I never make it over to Y” or “I’m from the west, i don’t go to the east”, even though it’s just a few kilometres away, but the city is so poorly designed and laid out that it can be a day trip. This does build up strong communities, and the city did in fact feel like a city of separate neighborhoods. We spent a lot of time up in Newtown, where Chris’ sister L lives, which is a fantastic place full of great shops, cafes and pubs – it’s sort of like what East Van could feel like if it was populated with upwardly mobile bohemians (alt moms a-go-go) and given a focused core. Glebe, a short walk from our hotel, was another great little neighborhood with a lot of little restaurants and a good community vibe.

Due to the location we were staying, we spent a lot of time in and around Darling Harbour which had a very built up waterfront crammed in every square inch with touristy restaurants, an Imax theatre and a conference centre… Not the most chill place on earth, and I don’t think we saw a single local the whole week! The ferry system was great and we were able to hop on a boat for less than $5 and cruise around the harbour to see the sights and get a little further out. I also lucked out on my 2nd day in the city and met some cute german packpacker girls who’d been living in Sydney and were selling their bikes before heading out of town, so I bought one of their mountain bikes and was able to pedal myself around the city for the whole stay – a great way to see more than just the harbour. Chris also lucked out and ended up with a nice Jaguar XF for the 3 weeks which made exploring and sitting in traffic quite painless 🙂

One weekend, a few of us from the tour booked a little retreat up in the nearby Blue Mountains (so named for the blue haze that hangs heavy across the hills from all the eucalyptus trees). It was a perfect couple days away in a converted sheep shearing shed where we could sit on the deck and see for miles with packs of kangaroos hopping wild up and down the hills. We went out for a hike one day, but turned back when we saw the big black snake with the head the size of both my fists (there’s loads of snakes and spiders in Australia that’ll actually kill you). Instead of chancing another snake encounter, we were happy to just relax with some bottles of wine and cutthroat dominoes in what was a real luxury for us – being out of a city.

The 3 weeks we spent in Sydney were lovely: we had some very nice dinners out, some great afternoons at pubs with friends and family, and even got to see an opera at the Syndey Operahouse. A huge highlight was getting to spend time with Chris’ family – his cousin D lives there with his g/f D and were great fun to pub it up with (he’s finishing law school and she’s finishing her PhD in neurobiology), and his sister L lives here as well with her b/f K. It was really nice just hanging out with L and K and being shown around town (yay 60s night!). Went out one night with a guy from the tour to see his friend’s band play, which ended up spiraling into a kickass marathon of sleazy bars on Oxford st, cute fuzzy bums, an amazing rollerderby vixen with a forked tongue, and 4am chinese – so much fun.

Another highlight was the cabaret night that people from Chris’ work put on. Everyone’d worked hard on acts outside of what they normally do, and it was a hilarious, well paced and pretty stunning night of singing, acrobatics, spandex comedy, aerial amazements and buttless chaps. Chris is seriously lucky to be working with such a talented group of people…

Sydney was really lovely and a great 3 weeks, but I don’t know if I really have much need to return. It was pretty, and there was lots of things to do, but… it just didn’t have the same vibe that I’m drawn to in other cities. It feels much more like an executive/seperate vs creative/cohesive city, and just seems to be trying really hard to make itself feel better about itself. Looking back, I much prefer the laid back and bustling unified culture in Melbourne (and their amazing pub culture) to the coffee fuelled noisy dispersed feel of Sydney. But, again – a lovely time was had, some unforgettable visiting and adventures made the stay a truly great 3 weeks…

Afterthought: Do have to mention one thing about Australia that’s been kinda niggling at the back of my brain in the 4+ months that we’ve been here… The country is a nanny state: there are rules upon rules upon rules that are there for just rule’s sake. It’s been an ongoing theme since we got here, and though not too easy to pick out a single example, you see it everywhere – overly lengthy signs telling you what you can or cannot do and common sense being replaced with control mechanisms. My theory is that it stems from the continent’s convict history where there were those enforcing the rules, and those abiding by the rules, and that structured enforcement has just carried through and permeates the culture. Just an observation…


Posted by jswt | Posted in Australia - Newcastle, General | Posted on 23-07-2011


Newcastle, Australia is an industrial town where the industry has left. It rained hard the whole time. There’s a pretty ocean pool that’s not pretty in the rain. There’s a godawful gay bar where one of the drag queens cramped up and collapsed in the middle of karioke, which was the highlight of the week. It was a good week for getting over jetlag and catching up on work. That’s the only nice thing I have to say about it.

(Bad enough, I didn’t even take any photos this week)

The highlight of the city was un-city related in that I got a ride here from Sydney from Chris’ sister L… we had a lovely visit, i got schooled on modern coffee, and had a great jetlaggy chat the whole way. Looking fwd to seeing her the next few weeks while we’re in Sydney, almost as much as I’m looking fwd to getting my train out of here in a couple hours…