Thursday, December 29, 2011

Shitty Umbrellas

As you read in my last post, Australians know how to make super cool, durable, attractive money.  But while their currency is technologically advanced, there are some areas where the technology in Australia is completely lacking.  One of the most frustrating areas:


I know.  That sounds stupid.  But you, the overseas reader, have no fucking idea how ridiculous umbrellas are in this country.  Actually, there are no umbrellas in Australia, because by definition an umbrella is supposed to protect you from the rain.  What we have in Australia are shitty “umbrellas”.  They look and feel like umbrellas, but they do not really protect you from the rain.  At all.  Let me explain.

Umbrellas are usually held in your hand and form a protective cover over your head.  Umbrellas in Australia are usually not held in hand, but rather most often broken and shoved into a rubbish bin (trash can) on the street.  When it rains in Sydney, it rains hard.  A Seattle-style drizzle is rare here.  Rain here is usually a Miami style downpour.  You would think that manufacturers would create and sell umbrellas that can withstand gusty winds and heavy rains, but they don’t.  The umbrellas here are nearly always flimsy.  All it takes is one gust of wind to blow your umbrella inside out.  I’m not taking about hurricane force winds here.  Just a simple gust – not even that strong – will turn your umbrella into a bucket.  Another gentle gust a few seconds later will break the wiring apart or simply bend it out of shape.  In my world, a gust of wind cannot easily bend metal, but apparently my world and Australia don’t overlap on this matter.

After a heavy rain, you walk around the city and you’ll find broken umbrellas littered all over – in the gutter, on the sidewalk, and in so many rubbish bins.  I don’t remember having to constantly buy new umbrellas in the States, and my umbrella from Seattle lasted me for 4+ years until I inadvertently left it in the food court here at lunch a few months ago.  I was devastated.  Never before has anyone exhibited such an emotional reaction to the loss of an umbrella.  I was visibly shaken because I know that it would be hard and expensive to replace.

Of course, there are some higher end ranges which probably are of a better quality, but as with most things down under, they are priced so ridiculously high that I just can’t bear to buy one to see if it actually works better.

The umbrella industry must be making a fortune here because the subpar quality of their product causes consumers to constantly have to buy replacements.  The industry is evil and it clearly takes advantage of the hard working Australian consumer, which I why I am writing this blog.  I want change.

For those of you reading this here in Australia:  I implore you to RISE UP!  You need to call your politicians and INSIST they legislate strict regulation on the umbrella industry!  You need to DEMAND consumer protections be implemented NOW!  The time has come for real change.  Parliament may be debating energy policy and immigration reform, but the #1 problem affecting the lives of Australians every day is clearly the umbrella crisis.  Government has ignored this terrible injustice for far too long.  Make your voice heard, Australia!  And make sure that the politicians know that they are being held accountable for their lack of action on this pressing issue.

Disclaimer:  I found these photos on two other random blogs about the same topic when I did a Google image search for “broken umbrella in a rubbish bin in Sydney”.  I’m not the only one out there who has noticed.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Show Me The Money

In the weeks leading up to my move to Australia in January 2010, I popped into my local bank to order some Australian currency to have in my wallet for my arrival in my new country.  What I received was totally different than anything I had seen before.  What was so special about this money?

Despite Australia’s low population, the Australian dollar is the fifth most traded currency in the world (behind the US dollar, euro, British pound, and Japanese yen) because of Australia’s high interest rates, strong economy, stable political system, and proximity to Asian markets.  All of this, however, is boring.  What is not boring is this:

Aussie currency is just plain cool.

Starting with the banknotes:  the first thing that jumps out is the colour.  Each denomination is a different colour.  The $5 bill is pink, $10 is blue, $20 is red, $50 is yellow, and $100 is green (my favourite denomination and my favourite colour!)  But this isn’t all.  Take a closer look.

While each bill is the same height, the lengths differ.  The $5 is the shortest and smallest, and the bills increase in size up to the $100 note.  This helps those with vision impairments identify the bills more easily.  The bills are printed with various security features making the Aussie dollar one of the world’s most advanced and secure notes.  Each banknote has a transparent window in it – with a white design embossed over it.  Australia’s coat of arms can be seen when you hold the bank note up to light, and microprinting (teeny tiny text that is barely visible without a magnifying glass) is also included.  But wait there’s more!  The serial numbers fluoresce when viewed under ultraviolet light.

All of this makes Australian currency nearly impossible to counterfeit.  Another main reason it’s so hard to counterfeit:  the banknotes are not made of paper.  They are made of plastic.  Australia developed the technology for “polymer” (plastic) banknotes and first released them in 1988.  Because they are plastic instead of paper, the bills don’t wear nearly as easily.  They are difficult to rip and they are waterproof, so no worries if there’s a $20 note in your pants pocket when you put it in the wash.  It will come out just fine.  Why hasn’t the US implemented this???

Just like the notes, the coins are sized according to denomination too.  The 5¢ coin is the smallest and thinnest, then the 10¢ coin, the 20¢ coin, and finally the 50¢ coin is the largest and thickest.  This makes a bit (or a lot) more sense than in the States where both the penny and nickel are bigger and thicker than the dime.  All the coins are silver (though really copper and nickel) and circular, except for the 50¢ piece which appears circular but is actually a dodecagon.

Notice before that I didn’t mention a $1 banknote.  That’s because in Australia, like in Canada, there are coins for $1 and $2 rather than bills.  While they last longer, I will say that having the extra heavy coinage in your pockets can be a bit weighing (get it?!?)  The $1 and $2 coins are gold rather than silver (actually, they are nickel, aluminum, and copper) and smaller than some of the silver coins.  This is where the Aussies slipped a bit.  Both coins, however, are thicker than their silver counterparts.  The $1 coin is actually bigger than the $2 coin, though the latter is thicker.  I will say that this confused me greatly on my first day in Sydney as I thought they were pennies or 2¢ coins because of their size.  Which brings me to:

There aren’t any pennies!  While things are priced with cents, all transactions involving cash (as opposed to credit cards, debit cards, or online transfers) are rounded to the nearest 5¢.  I actually don’t mind this at all as it keeps pesky pennies out of my pockets.

And what’s on the notes and coins???  The notes feature people on both sides – all prominent Australians that you’ve never heard of – with the exception of the $5 note which features the Queen on one side and Parliament House on the other.  The coins mainly feature Aussie animals – kangaroos, the platypus, echidna, and lyrebird – as well as the coat of arms on the big 50¢ coin and an Aboriginal tribal elder on the $2 coin.

So, come on US.  Why must you insist on lagging behind in so many areas?  Yes, we appreciate that you’ve added a little bit of colour to the banknotes in the past few years, but come on – make the gays happy and go crazy with the colour!  And make the lesbians happy and bring on the durability!  And make everybody else happy that their $20 bills aren’t ruined in the washing machine every time they forget to take them out of their pants pocket.  It’s just good fiscal policy.

Oh yeah.  What would the US know about that???

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Boomerang Place

What’s the most stereotypical street name in Australia?  I do believe it’s Boomerang Place.  How perfectly Australian is that?  And you know what’s even more perfect?

I live there now!!!  Woohoo!!!

Effective last week, my friend and co-worker – the lovely Clinton – and I moved into a new flat on Boomerang Place.  My first thought:  the Americans are gonna freak!  I mean, not only do I live in Australia, but I live in Australia on Boomerang Place!  Could it get any more Aussie?  Ok, maybe Kangaroo Court or Vegemite Way would be more Aussie, but Boomerang Place is right up there with it.

As if it couldn’t get any better:  we now live in the suburb of Woolloomooloo!  Try pronouncing that!  I had to hear it a few times before I could get it down right.  My friend Jenny in Houston pretty much had it right via e-mail to me earlier this week.  She said it sounds like Kalamazoo, right?  Indeed it does!  As an alternative, we were told to say “sheep, toilet, cow, toilet” – get it?  (Wool = sheep, loo = toilet, moo = cow, loo = toilet again)

Our building – and it’s a large one with approximately 150 units – is actually the only building on Boomerang Place.  The name of the road is actually Yurong Parkway, but for one little strip of it – the strip where my building sits – it briefly becomes Boomerang Place.  I bet the people who originally lived here petitioned the city on purpose just for shits and giggles.  And you know what?  I love it!

The building is super fancy and it makes me feel rich that I live here (but the rent actually isn’t all that bad for what it is!)  We have a 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom, 2 balcony unit on the fourth floor overlooking a big parkland.  It comes with all of the amenities that we want, including all appliances, garbage disposal, screens on the windows, a parking spot (now all I need is a car!), and more of the little things in life that make me happy.  Outside of our unit, the building has a swimming pool, saunas, BBQ area, and garbage chutes.  You know you’re living the high life when your building has garbage chutes!

And you know what else our building has?


Seriously.  Mormons.  The Mormon church has an apartment in our building – maybe more than 1 – which they use for their Mormon missionaries.  At first I was like “Bleh!  Mormons are awful and they should all be shot!” because you know, Mormons are awful and they should all be shot.  But then I was like “Oooo – it could be like the porn I saw once”- you know, the one with the Mormon missionaries knocking on the door and they’re all hot and you invite them in and they think they’re going to talk about Jesus but then they end up… oh wait.  I’m going to stop there.  So, yeah, that was my second thought.  Then, I saw two of the missionaries the other day walking out of the building.  They were ugly.  Super ugly.  So now I’m back to “Bleh!” again, but I’ll keep an eye out because there have to be at least two more and they could be totally hot and secretly eager for a kosher dill…

Pickle that is.  You know – the ones in the jars?  Right.

Anyway, moving on.  The building tenants also include an old Orthodox Jewish man who proudly displays his Lexus car key around his neck, various other old people, and a lady from Davie, Florida who totally freaked when she found out that I grew up in Coral Springs.  It’s like 15 minutes away.  How random is that?  Also, she was super excited to tell us about two other guys on the third floor (gays we presume) and that we need to keep an eye out for them by the pool because we’ll love them (we presume that means they are hot).  And I’m pretty sure our immediate neighbours smoke weed or something because the always have a towel down under their door.  Strange.

Now, what’s even better than garbage chutes, hot gays, and potential Mormon flings?  Location!  It’s all about location, location, location, right?  Well, our apartment sits a very comfortable 8 minute walk from work!  Now I can be late without any excuse whatsoever!  And we sit adjacent to big parklands which give us a nice, green, leafy view with the skyscrapers of the city visible between the branches.  Pretty sweet.  Unfortunately, there’s always a downside to everything a well.   We’re also right on top of St. Mary’s Cathedral – the largest church in Australia.  As it is Christmas time, the church plays music and such to accompany their tacky nativity scene and pitiful excuse for a Christmas tree out front.  This music runs until midnight.  With nothing but the park between us and the church, the sound carries right into our windows.  Just when I thought the Catholic Church couldn’t piss me off any more… ugh!

The brothel across from my old apartment never made any noise like that.  If prostitutes can keep it down while getting it up for their clients, I think nuns shouldn’t have too hard of a time turning down the damn volume on the speakers.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

For Your Baby Mama

This post is about pregnancy, childbirth, and babies.  Before we start, I’d like to preface the post with two important clarifications:

1.  I am not pregnant.

2.  I do not like babies or children.  I do not like them just as much as Rick Perry doesn’t like homosexuals.  Ok, maybe not that much.  But still.  You get my point.  While I may be blogging about them now, trust that I have not gone soft on this position.  Just last weekend I went to a Christmas party at the home of some lovely heterosexual friends of mine.  While the party was quite nice, my friends had invited several of their other heterosexual friends who happen to be of child-bearing age and who have gone through the motions and procreated.  So, as soon as the gay to baby ratio in the house hit 1:1 and we were soon to be outnumbered, I signaled to my other gays sitting next to me (discreetly via text message of course) that I was ready to depart when they were.  They were ready too.

Anyway, now that that has been clarified, I can begin the post proper.

When a gay man hits a certain age (28 at this point in time), it becomes a reality that his heterosexual counterparts begin settling down, marrying, and producing offspring.  And yes, these days the gays can too – either through surrogacy or by adopting some gayby from Cambodia or any other cash-strapped third world nation – but I don’t know any of those yet and this post doesn’t really apply to them anyway so I’m going to stick with the breeders.

Before leaving Seattle, several of my co-workers were pregnant.  And while I didn’t particularly want to know any of the disgusting details of their pregnancies, there were times when I couldn’t help but overhear them talking about it around me in the office or sitting with them in the lunch room.  So, most of 2009 became a sort of sexual reproduction seminar for me.  I learned more than I wanted to about pregnancy and childbirth and babies.  I felt educated.  And a bit nauseated.

Fast forward to 2010 and 2011 and my office in Sydney seems to have a constant stream of pregnant ladies everywhere as well.  And while all of the actual pregnancy and childbirth conversations parallel the ones I heard in the US, the stories of the Americans and Australians diverge sharply as soon as that baby shoots out of the womb like a canon (or however they come into this world).

Now, American ladies:  pay attention.  You’re about to become jealous and/or angry.

Thanks to Australia’s Medicare, all new mothers receive 4 days and 3 nights in the hospital after giving birth.  If you have private health insurance, you get an extra day and night for a total of 5 days and 4 nights.  Unlike in America, there is no same-day express service.  And your out-of-pocket expense for this long stay:  $0.  Absolutely free.

Now, with private health insurance you have the option of going to a public hospital or a private hospital because sometimes the public hospitals are better equipped as they have more funding.  Either way, the hospitals supply all linens, baby outfits, and nappies (diapers) for your stay.  Your entire stay.  All you need is one outfit to take the baby home in.  In the States, don’t you have to have that bag packed and ready with all your supplies so that when you go into labor you have outfits and diapers and such for the baby?  Not here.  And you know what this baby clothing and diaper service and such costs you?  Nothing.  It’s free.

Your hospital stay includes 3 meals per day for you and your husband, boyfriend, partner, spouse, baby daddy, etc.  These are also included.  They are free.  Did I mention that you both also get morning tea and afternoon tea because we’re in Australia after all and they love morning tea and afternoon tea here?  That’s complimentary as well.  Complimentary = free, but you probably know that if you’re the type to be reading this blog.

Now, sometimes the hospital decides that it’s just too much money to keep women in the hospital for that many nights.  Don’t start worrying though – they aren’t going to send you home after only 2 nights.  For your next 2 nights, they ship you off to a fancy hotel.  For example, a co-worker recently went to visit her cousin who had given birth.  The hospital she was at (somewhere in the Randwick area of Sydney) decided it would be more economical for them to outsource the second 2 nights to the nearby Crowne Plaza Hotel.  Now, the Crowne Plaza Hotel is a 5-star hotel located right on Coogee Beach.  So, two days after giving birth, you are carted off to this fancy hotel with a balcony and view of the ocean for two extra nights.  Your husband, boyfriend, partner, spouse, baby daddy, etc. gets to come too.  The hospital rents out a whole floor and it’s fully staffed with midwife nurses.  You still get your three meals per day along with morning and afternoon tea, but they throw in room service here as well.  And you know what?  You still don’t pay a goddamn dollar.  It’s all included.

But wait!  There’s more!  If you go to a private hospital, on your fourth and final night in the hospital/hotel, you and your significant other are invited to a New Parents Celebration Dinner.  The dining room of the hospital or hotel is gussied up with white table cloths, candles, and waiters and you get a three course meal complete with champagne.  The midwife nurses babysit your newborn while you’re away at dinner so you can enjoy a relaxing evening together without the baby screaming.  All of this costs you… nothing.  Still nothing.  Also, you have the option of going out to eat instead.  That’s not covered, but the midwife nurses will still babysit your newborn for free that night.

My co-worker described this all as “luxurious”.  Can you imagine anyone in the United States describing childbirth and/or a hospital visit as luxurious?  No.

Everything is free.  It’s all free.  There’s no deductible.  No co-pay.  100% free.  The only time you will have to pay for anything is if you have a specific obstetrician that you want to use and it so happens that your specific obstetrician charges more than Medicare rates.  Even then, Medicare will pay for part of it and you have to pay the difference.  This only applies to private hospitals.  Public hospitals are still free.

So, American ladies, now that I’ve enlightened you on these matters, I bet you’re planning to move to Australia, get permanent residency, and take full advantage of what this great country has to offer.  And that’s fine.  I’m totally ok with that just as long as you promise one thing to me:

Please take that screaming, pooping, rambunctious offspring of yours and fly back to America after your 4 night luxury hospital visit.

Your cooperation is greatly appreciated.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

No Shoes, No Worries

Dear Australians,

Thank you so much for welcoming me into your country.  I love so much about this place – the weather, the culture, the people, the scenery, and so much more.  But there is one thing I need to say to you.  Now, please don’t take offense.  I mean you neither harm nor insult, but I feel this needs to be said for your own well being.  Ok?  Good.  Ready?  Here we go:  please put on some fucking shoes.

Most sincerely,

One of the most ridiculous phenomena in Australia is the severe lack of shoes on people’s feet.  I walk around this city every day and every day without fail I see at the very least one Australian walking around completely barefoot.  Some days it’s many Australians walking around barefoot.

Now, some of you in America may not understand, so let me spell it out a bit clearer.  People in Australia will walk around completely barefoot – no shoes, no sandals, not even a pair of flip-flops.  This is not just at the beach or at a park.  And they aren’t just in their homes or offices.  These people are walking down the street, going into stores, or doing whatever else they do in their normal day without any shoes or other or covering on their feet.  These people walk down busy streets in the middle of a bustling city and go into supermarkets and other stores without any semblance of any sort of protective gear on their feet.

Why this happens, I have not a clue, but I find it completely horrifying.  “But Phill, aren’t these people free to do as they please?”  No.  They aren’t smart enough to be trusted with shoe decisions because obviously they haven’t thought this through.  Had they thought this through at all, they would have considered the following:

1.  Sidewalks in Sydney are not paved with gold.  They are paved with rough cement or asphalt just like sidewalks in any other country.  Doesn’t walking on rough surface all the time have the effect of totally jacking up your feet?  I certainly hope these people don’t fall in love with someone who has a foot fetish, because one look at those mangled feet and their lover will head for the hills.

2.  The climate in Sydney is anything but mild.  Summers can get well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the hot sun beating down on black asphalt all day has the effect of heating that asphalt up to a more than uncomfortable temperature.  So yes, walking around barefoot may burn a bit, or maybe even begin cooking your feet.  People still do it.  Gluttons for punishment?  Kinky bastards?  Or just plain idiots?

3.  Sydney is a big city, and despite being relatively clean compared to other cities of its size, Sydney still has typical big city problems.  Like the homeless.  There are homeless all around Sydney.  They live on those same sidewalks where you walk with your bare, exposed feet.  And you know what the homeless do on those sidewalks?  They pee on them.  They pee all over them.  In all different directions.  And then you touch the bare bottom of your foot to the pavement where that smelly dude just relieved himself.  And then you track that remnant into your own home and infect everything with homeless man urine.  Disgusting.

4.  Dogs also pee on sidewalks.  I’d rather step on dog piss than homeless piss, but I’d rather step on either dog piss or homeless piss while wearing shoes as opposed to barefoot.  Also, dogs poop too.  Did you drop some chocolate on your foot?  No, it’s doggy diarrhea.

5.  Chewing gum.  It always gets on your shoes.  Then you have to get ice and a stick and other random tools to pry it off your sole.  If we shoe-wearing humans step on gum from time to time, you’d have to expect that barefoot “humans” would have a similar gum stepping incident ratio too.  Now, if I asked any of these barefoot people on the street if I could take the chewing gum out of my mouth and stick it to their foot, they’d probably tell me “hell no” and continue walking down the street just testing their luck.  I assure you my gum is way cleaner than sidewalk gum.

6.  Sharp objects.  Sticks and screws and bolts and trash and whatever else.  These things exist even in the cleanest cities.  I once stepped on a small stick and it pierced a whole straight through my flip-flop.  Imagine if I had stepped on that same stick with my bare foot.  Wham bam – I would have just been stabbed by debris.  Wouldn’t that be an embarrassing thing to go to the hospital for?

7.  You know what else is sharp?  Needles are sharp.  And while I haven’t seen any needles on my street, I know that somewhere in the alleyways of my neighbourhood, some juvenile delinquents are probably shooting up something.  Also, they probably have hepatitis.  Now, if I’m going to get hepatitis or any sort of transmittable, communicable disease, I want a damn good story to go with it – something involving a giant twink orgy or a world record circle jerk or a very lucky boy named Pierre or something like that.  Not:  “Oops, I stepped on a needle and got hep.  Derrrrp.”

8.  Odor.  There must be odor.  Walking around barefoot all day can only lead to incredible rankness.  This rankness is amplified if it’s raining.  Oh, did I mention that the rain doesn’t stop the Aussies from not wearing shoes.  Anybody weird enough to walk around all day barefoot probably isn’t the type to wash their feet as soon as they get home either.  So that smell sinks into the carpet and remains there for eternity and adds unnecessary foul odor to a nation which does not need it.

Even with all of this, so many Aussies go shoe-less.  Now, I know that shoes are expensive here, but you can stroll down to the Kmart and pick up a pair of cheapo flip-flops for like $6.  And considering those jeans you are wearing probably cost $150, I think the $6 flip-flops are well within your price range.  If the homeless are wearing shoes, you should be too.

Australia needs to institute the most underappreciated yet totally necessary American rule that you see posted on the entrance to most establishments in the United States:  “No shoes, No shirt, No service.”  It’s a simple rule that I always thought was sort of funny.  Now after spending some time in Oz, I totally see the need for it.  So, for those Americans who always wondered why that sign was there and just where the heck you would find people going into restaurants without shoes on, there is a simple answer:

Only in Australia.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

#16: Star Ferry to Kowloon!

The final stop on my 15 day tour of China:  Hong Kong!  Like Macau, Hong Kong used to be under European control.  After over 150 years of British rule, the queen handed back control of the area to China in 1997.  But, just like Macau, the European influence remains.  Most people speak at least some English and a ton of westerners still live in the city.  If it weren’t for all of the signs being in English and Cantonese, you’d hardly think you were in China.  Take this for example:

People actually let you exit the subway before getting on.  We can’t possibly still be in China!

Hong Kong proper sits on a large island off the coast, though the whole Hong Kong area includes a chunk of peninsular mainland and various other islands.  Hong Kong’s hilly terrain mixed with the mass of tall buildings makes for some stunning views, like this one from atop Victoria Peak:

Or this one, taken from across the harbor that separates Hong Kong Island from Kowloon on the peninsula:

During the day, it looks like this:

And there’s no better way to take in the view than from the Star Ferry between Hong Kong and Kowloon!

And another item checked off the list!  10 down.  93 to go.  I’ll get there…

Aside from taking in all the scenery, Hong Kong is notorious for shopping.  Clothes weren’t as affordable as I was hoping for.  Levi’s were still twice the price of the US and Calvin Klein was not offering any discounts.  The shopping scene seems to be dominated by the high end stores:

Coach, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Hermes, Gucci, Chanel, Fendi, Louis Vuitton, and more dotted the main shopping area in Kowloon.  I obviously don’t go for any of those, but luckily there was something for me just a few doors down:

Yay!  H&M!  Fun socks here I come!

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I didn’t just shop at H&M, because, you know, when in Rome… I managed to find a Coach store just for men.  I didn’t even know that Coach made men’s bags.  I was stoked that they had a whole store!  And since I’ve always said that I’d love a Coach bag if only they made men’s bags, I decided that I absolutely needed to buy a goddamn bag or I’d never forgive myself.  So, out I walked with a fancy schmancy Coach messenger bag.  Woohoo!  And I’ve earned my gay card.  If you see me wearing it around Sydney, please complement it so I feel like the money spent was worth it.  I also bumped into a Bose store and accidentally purchased some fancy schmancy noise cancelling headphones for a few hundred dollars.  Ooops.

It wasn’t all western brands in western stores as I quickly found out when turning a corner.

I guess I was still in China.  Luckily I had already eaten.  Imagine this just around the corner from Fendi.  What is this strange city???

For a little local shopping, I dipped into the touristy Ladies Markets.

But after my other purchases, nothing here looked as good.  Also, it’s a misnomer as there were no ladies for sale.  Not that I wanted to buy any, but it would have been cool to tap on the glass… like in Amsterdam…

Finally, I spent my last day in Hong Kong on nearby Lantau Island – home to the Giant Buddha!

The Giant Buddha was built less than 20 years ago and is pretty much a massive tourist attraction.  It is the world’s largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha.  That’s a pretty particular title, but I’ll give it to them.  Just know that somewhere else on Earth there’s a larger seated bronze Buddha indoors and a larger outdoor standing bronze Buddha.  Or maybe a bigger outdoor seated Buddha made of something else like stone or pewter or lollipops.  Oh a lollipop Buddha would be incredible!

Ok, enough of my crazy ideas.  There was a small tourist village atop the hill where the Buddha sits and they had one of those signs that points to every famous landmark around the world and tells you how far away it is.  Of course, I had to get a photo with this one:

There are a few ways to get up the hill to see the Buddha and the tourist village.  You can trek – but that was obviously out of the question for me – or you can rent a car or take a bus.  Alternatively, you can take the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car up to the top.

This cable car – the very last thing I did in China (seriously, I went straight from here to the airport) – ended up being probably the coolest thing I did the entire trip.  Seriously.  This cable car is up there in the rankings with the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors.  Why?  Because it’s fucking awesome.  That’s why.

The first reason why it’s awesome:  you get a fantastic view of the Giant Buddha as you arrive.

The second reason why it’s awesome:  the landscape is stunning.  You go over valleys and hills:

And over water:

The third reason why it’s awesome:  the floor of the cable car is glass, so you can see below as well.  Look, there are waders crabbing or fishing or getting pearls out of the water or something below!

The fourth reason why it’s awesome:  it’s not a short ride so the bang for your buck is fantastic.  Based on the timestamp on my photos, the ride is approximately 25 minutes each direction.  Sweet.

The fifth and most important reason for me:  the cable car goes right by the airport.  You can see the entire airport from the air.  Planes landing, planes taking off, planes taxiing, and all.

You may not think that’s totally crazy amazing, but it is.  And here is my nerd moment:  I used to love airports when I was a kid and my grandparents would often take me to the airport to watch the planes land and takeoff, so this was just right up my alley.  This cable car takes you so close that you can see which airlines all the planes are.  Look, there’s a Qantas plane right in the middle!

That could have been my flight!  (But it wasn’t, because I was on a 747… but still, they could have switched the plane for some reason.)  Either way, it was a sign.  Off to Hong Kong International Airport I went and back to the land of Oz.  I do believe that was a very successful first trip to Asia.

And now, back to the Aussie blogs…

Monday, November 21, 2011

#23: Casino Lisboa!

Exit China.  Enter Macau.  Though now technically a part of China, Macau is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) just like Hong Kong.  With the exception of defense and foreign affairs, Macau is autonomous and will remain that way until at least 2049.  At first glance, Macau is… drastically different than mainland China.  First, they drive on left side of the road like Australia does.  China drives on the right like the US.  Second, they actually obey traffic rules AND wear helmets when on bicycles and motorcycles.  It’s a whole new world!

Ok, so there are other, more drastic differences too.  Macau has its own currency, economy, and immigration laws.  It is the world’s most densely populated place with around 550,000 people crammed into roughly 11 square miles.  Within that small space, three distinct Macaus exist.  The first Macau is the Chinese Macau.  Look around:  nearly everybody is Chinese and speaking Chinese, albeit Cantonese instead of Mandarin and the writing is traditional Chinese and far more complicated than the simplified Chinese writing that they use in mainland China, but still.  Chinese.  It is part of China after all.  As I had just spent a bunch of time in China, I decided to largely ignore the Chinese Macau and check out the other two, more unique Macaus.

Portuguese Macau!  Now this is what I’ve been waiting for.  The Portuguese settled Macau in the 1500’s and maintained their presence until 1999.  While the people don’t look Portuguese, there remains a ton of Portuguese influence in Macau.  Street signs are a good start:

They are always in both Cantonese and Portuguese, and usually in English as well.  With the Portuguese came Christianity – something you won’t readily find in mainland China.  All that remains of the Church of St Paul is this facade, but it was the largest church ever built in Asia:

European architecture abounds in Macau, especially in certain parts of the old city:

And of course, how could I forget my favourite remnant of the Portuguese era:  food!  Macau is famous for its Portuguese egg tarts, sold all over the city:

Delicioso!  (Ok, that’s Spanish, but that’s as close as I’m going to get!)  And after the tart appetizer, I headed down to Praia de Hac Sa (Hac Sa Beach) to check out the famous Restaurante Fernando!

Yummy Portuguese chicken and chips…  ::drool::

The Museu de Macau (Macau Museum) sits atop an old Portuguese fortress.

The museum was interesting, but a bit oversold by Lonely Planet.  The view from the top of the fortress, however, was pretty sweet.

Ummm… it looks like that canon is aimed and ready to destroy the third Macau… the Vegas Macau!

Macau is a gambling mecca.  Such a mecca it is that Macau now exceeds Las Vegas as the place with the highest gambling revenue in the world.  It all started in 1962 with one casino, and that casino – the Casino Lisboa – was on my list of 103 Things!

And another one crossed off the list!  The inside of the Casino Lisboa wasn’t all that impressive, but remember it was built in the 1960’s.

In 2002, the Lisboa’s monopoly on gambling in Macau ended and all of the big Las Vegas players moved in.  Venetian, Wynn, MGM, Hard Rock, and more!  The neon lights abound at night:

Patronage of the Macau casinos is dominated by mainland Chinese.  They bring their new found wealth to the casinos to either squander it away or win big.  And for the big winners, every big casino is equipped with a wide array of fancy stores which will assist the newly rich with showing off to their friends and neighbors.  Seriously.  Macau – with a population of around 550,000 – supports 2 Fendi, 2 Prada, 2 Versace, 3 Chanel, 3 Dior, 4 Gucci, 4 Louis Vuitton, 5 Coach, and 6 Cartier boutiques.  Nuts!

For me, my casino of choice was the Venetian Macau – the world’s largest casino.  Only the biggest and best for me, right?

Modeled after its counterpart in Las Vegas, the Venetian Macau comes complete with all of the things you’d expect a tacky, over-the-top, absolutely incredible hotel casino would have.  Like gondolas!

And a Sistine Chapel-type ceiling!

My suite wasn’t all that expensive but it was massive and luxurious!

I even had my own living room!  And don’t even get me started on the bathroom:

Can I stay longer?  Please?

Of course, no Vegas experience is complete without a show, and nobody does a show quite like Cirque du Soleil.  Since Macau is the new Vegas, it’s only proper they get their very own Cirque du Soleil show too!

Overall, Macau was an absolutely fabulous vacation destination and I’m already itching to get back.  Beaches, history, shows, casinos, fancy hotels, and Portuguese food – all while you can say you’ve been to exotic Asia.  This is my kind of place.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The China Facade

China is growing rapidly and the Chinese want to find the best ways to showcase their new found wealth.  China’s goal:  to be the best at everything.  Faster is one way to achieve that.  Take the Maglev for example:

The Maglev is Shanghai’s ultra-fast train.  It runs one line from a train station near the city out to Pudong International Airport…. in 7 minutes.  How does it do it so quickly?  By going super fast.

And that’s not even as fast as it can go.

And think taller.  The Shanghai World Financial Centre is the world’s third tallest building – though they really wish it was the first.  To get to the observation deck, you enter the building and head down some escalators to a small exhibition telling you how amazing the building is.  This includes highlighting several times how the SWFC was certified by the Guinness Book of Records as having the world’s tallest occupied floor and world’s tallest observation deck when it opened – take that (taller) Taipei 101!  The Burj Khalifa opened shortly after the SWFC did and stripped it of a few titles that it held over Taipei 101… most titles actually… but they didn’t mention that.   

The building itself is a pretty big feat though – I’ll give them that.  You start down in the exhibition at an elevation of -5 meters:

And about a minute later you’re at the top:

Pretty insane.  The observation deck is on level 100:

The view down is pretty spectacular.  One thing you can see is the Jin Mao Tower.  From the ground, the building looks like this:

From the SWFC, it looks like that:

That buidling right behind/below me.  Yes, that's the Jin Mao Tower.  It’s awesome that you can look DOWN on the ninth tallest building in the world.

It’s not just building above ground that’s pretty neat.  It’s underground too.  Take this space here:

I swore I was in an airport, but this is actually a subway station in Shanghai.  Clean.  New.  Big.

But then, after the oooo-ing and aaah-ing, you begin to scratch away at the surface and you realize that all of the glitz and glam and new and shiny is really just one big fa├žade.  Take the train, for example.  Yes, the Maglev is super fast, but they no longer let it go at max speed due to safety concerns.  In July, a non-Maglev high speed train crashed and killed a bunch of people.  The cause:  they think it was just operator error – but there wasn’t any backup safety mechanism in place either.  The SWFC – as tall and impressive as it is – has a ton of vacancies.  They opened the building right as the GFC hit.  And the subway stations are another story all together.  Every subway station in Beijing and Shanghai has an x-ray machine that you have to put your bag through.  Safety first, right?

Wrong.  They aren’t even watching the damn screen.  The attendants who are supposed to be looking at the TV monitor to see if you have any weapons or bombs or anything in your bag are too busy talking to one another, talking on the phone, texting, picking their nose, or just staring at the ceiling.  Not even kidding.

Along the same lines of safety:  I didn’t see one person wearing a helmet on a bicycle, scooter, or motorcycle while in mainland China.  Do they even sell them?  I suppose if they are dumb enough to ride their bicycles on a busy six-lane highway, then they aren’t smart enough to wear a helmet while doing it.  No wonder the traffic related death rate is so high.  Also, seatbelts can’t be found in taxis.  Why do they insist on cutting them out or covering them up?

Did you know that you need to register with the police within 24 hours whenever you go to a new city?  Hotels and guesthouses will register for you, but since I was staying with Ross & Jonathon for a few days, I had to go check in with the popos.  There was no indication that the registration system was in any way, shape, or form linked with the immigration/passport system.  So… ?  Again, all for show?

But it doesn’t stop there.  Signs like this are seen in some parts of Beijing and Shanghai:

People still spit anyway.  Also, they need to amend the sign to read “No Spitting or Shitting”.  It’s quite incredible how a mom can be standing at a busy intersection in the middle of Shanghai and decide that it’s totally ok to tell her young son to just shit right there on the corner – and then wipe his ass for all passersby to see.  Seriously?  I’d take people spitting over shitting any day of the week.

Accounting standards?  They don’t have them.  “Sure – those numbers look good!  They will really make the competition worry!”  And then there’s something about China’s exchange rate not fluctuating like it should and that documentary I saw about how the Chinese just keep building and building and building and half the time there’s just no demand so massive apartment complexes, shopping malls, and commercial towers sit idle – whole cities of them – just waiting for them to be needed one day.

And don’t forget pollution!  How could you forget pollution when there’s so much of it.  So, apparently, they banned or are going to ban outdoor heaters on patios at restaurants and bars.  The reason:  the outdoor heaters are gas heaters and therefore they pollute.  Forget the millions of cars.  Forget the massive factories.  All of China’s pollution woes stem from the small handful of western restaurants that have enough money to purchase outdoor heating lamps.  That makes complete sense to me.  Once again, they’re doing it to make it look like they’re doing something.

From all of my posts on China, you would probably think I hated it, but I actually didn’t.  Just the opposite really.

Ok, maybe I didn’t love it, but I really enjoyed China.  Now, I’m not signing up to move there ever, but it was something so different and so interesting to see.  There were some really friendly people there, and once I learned how to push people and completely ignore signs telling me to queue up, I sort of fit in ok.  My main concern was food, but I ate well thanks to Deona, Ross, and Jonathon.  There were some incredible things in China – including the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta Warriors – and there are so many more things like that across the country.  The history is long, the culture is rich, and the landscapes are beautiful… when you can see them through the smog.  I actually do want to go back and see more – just as soon as my lungs recover from this last trip.  It’s a shame that people are cut off from so much information and that the whole country seems to be just putting on a show for the rest of the world.  Underneath, I don’t think it would take all too much for the country to stumble and crumble some.  Maybe ignorance is bliss?  Maybe not.  I guess we’ll see what happens in the next few decades…