Jun 28, 2009

Kosher airline food

My older family members, who surely recall the days when air travel was glamorous and expensive, are always curious what it's like to fly these days. I tell them that air travel has gotten to the point where air tickets are a commodity, something to be purchased at the lowest price from whichever carrier gives the best deal. Passengers, especially coach passengers, are things, to be transported from A to B with the least expense and hassle. If you want a chance at decent service, you have to splurge for business or first class. Economy air travel is pretty much the same as Greyhound.

I sat in coach internationally recently, cramped into a tiny seat, next to an old bat talking my ear off, and with a Chinese couple's rabid barking dog (a pet or a snack?) tucked into the floorspace of the seat behind me.

If you're stuck in coach, like I almost always am, the one thing that can make your flight marginally better these days is to request Kosher meals. You get your food ten or twenty minutes before the other poor folks in coach, and the food is usually, but not always, tastier than the regular meals.

I took some pictures recently of what you get in a Kosher meal. Here's the one you get coming out of Beijing. Before unwrapping:

After unwrapping. Salmon and vegetables:

Some fruit:

Desert number one, peaches with some kind of cream filled chocolate roll:

Desert number two, a chocolate brownie:

Another kosher meal, this one prepared by the airline rather than contracted from a Kosher vendor. It wasn't as tasty, but it was healthy:

And a Kosher breakfast, prepared by the airline rather than contracted. This one has smoked salmon, pancakes with cherries, some fruit, a muffin, and bread.

Overall, it's still crappy airline food, but not as crappy as the regular food, and it doesn't cost you anything extra.

Jun 25, 2009

Welcome to China

Here's what you get these days upon landing in China from abroad.

"Welcome to China, virus-infected Americans. I'm your designated greeter. Assume the position while I take your temperature."

Note that this fellow in the photo above is wearing his N95 respirator incorrectly; there's a huge gap by his chin, rendering it ineffective. One strap should go over the ear, the other under. Guess they left out the incredibly difficult two minutes of training on how to fit a mask. Goes to show, everything is for show and nothing else. The appearance of control and organization is what counts here. Results are secondary.

Back to the temperature scan: if you're 0.1 degrees above normal, you're getting stuck in quarantine in a shitty hotel with the windows sealed and the air conditioning turned off. For 7 days.

I've not been too worried, though. Like a boyscout, I'm always prepared. I travel with a digital thermometer and Tylenol these days just in case.

Does this next photo look degrading or what?

"Bald man, hold still while I measure the luminosity of your skull with my electric wand."

There's never any shortage of amusement here.

Why the ridiculous approach to flu control? This blog post has a good overview. (short version: the PRC government screwed the pooch with SARS, now they're trying to redeem themselves by overdoing this pig virus business.)

Jun 6, 2009

Philippines brain dump

I just spent the Dragon Boat festival plus some personal vacation days in beautiful Philippines, mostly in Manila and Boracay. I don't know much about the Philippines and the culture there, but I think I picked up quite a bit in the few days I was there. Here's a brain dump, in case you're going.

Some of this information is based on personal experience, other information is based on what I picked up from local friends. Leave me a comment if I got something really wrong.

  • Jeepneys: Look out for speeding jeepneys when crossing the street. There's no real reason to take a jeepney, but they're fun to take pictures of an look at.

  • Tipping: Taxis don't expect it, but if your cab fare is P90, just give the driver P100 and don't expect change. Most of the sit down restaurants include a service fee that goes to the waitstaff. You can also maybe you throw in a P20 in cash before you leave and you'll be fine. P50 to the bellhop taking your luggage to the room in a decent hotel is appropriate.

  • Acronyms: They use quite a few acronyms to save space. For example, GMA is the president, EDSA is a major road, MILF are some bad guys with guns (not "moms you'd like to F").
  • Weapons: In Beijing, the bank security guards look like junior high school boys dressed up for Halloween. They might carry a plastic police baton, but nothing too harsh. Filipino security guards have either a .45 revolver, .357 revolver, or a pump action shot gun. They're at every bank and at many stores. It's more firepower than you're used to seeing in China. I didn't see any automatic weapons though.

    [photo credit]

  • Malls: Locals hang out a lot in malls. If you know where to go, you can find many decent places to eat there too.
  • High end restaurants: Look in the nicer 5-star hotels to find the top end restaurants. Sort of like Vegas.
  • Pace of life: Don't be in a big hurry. To pay the bill, to get your food at a restaurant, to book an airline ticket, to get through customs in the airport, anywhere. Allow yourself double the time to do anything and don't be in a rush, or you'll have a stressful time.
  • 7-11: I think that each country's 7-11 convenience stores can tell you a lot about the culture. Beijing's 7-11s are pretty barren. They'll have some dry, under-sweetened cakes, some precanned coffee in a glass warming case, and rancid Korean food on skewers dipped in soup is what you see. Manila's 7-11s have coffee, donuts, Slurpees, local foods, and even a seating area.
  • Bathrooms: If you need to relieve yourself, you ask for the "comfort room". The word "bathroom" is probably going to be ignored unless you're staying in a 5-star hotel.
  • Butt sprayers: I love the fact that Thai bathrooms and Filipino bathrooms typically have a hose with a sprayer hanging beside the toilet. You wipe yourself, and then you can do a little extra spraying with the hose to make sure you're extra clean. Contrary to what you may imagine, it's easy to make sure the spray stays confined to the toilet bowl. It doesn't make a mess at all. You'll feel a lot better with the makeshift bidet than with just toilet paper alone. It's almost as good as if you'd taken a shower.
  • Paying the bill: Saying "bill", you're guaranteed to get the waiter's attention. "Check" works sometimes, but less reliably.
  • Being a sloppy eater: I've developed a bad habit of spitting out bones from meat, and shells from crab and shrimp, and putting them directly on the table or tablecloth. Not appreciated in the Philippines.
  • Conversational starter: When I met random Filipinos, one of the first questions they'd ask is, "What's your name?" I started telling people my name is Ernesto Garcia (making sure to trill my r's), and for the most part they believed me.
  • Airlines: If you're hopping around the Philippines, Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines are the safer, more reliable airlines. Zest and SE Air seem ok to me, but they're not as recommended by a knowledgeable local friend.

  • General: I used to consider Thai food my favorite southeast Asian food. After this trip, I think it's been outdone by Filipino food. Problem is, you probably can't find the fresh local ingredients outside of the Philippines to enjoy it anywhere else. Note that if you're not a fan of pork, you'll probably not enjoy as many of the dishes. The local pork is very good.
  • Beer: the local, non-export San Miguel beer is very well made, I found it very European tasting, and less watery than Chinese beers. The high-alcohol content Red Horse beer was a little harsh tasting for me, but I can imagine enjoying it if I were a study abroad student in the Philippines. Here's some links to the Beeradvocate.com reviews for the most common local brews you encounter in the Phillipines:

  • Shakey's Pizza: this chain is everywhere. They have a really decent thin crust, although a bit on the small side. Never had them in California or elsewhere in the US. Wikipedia says they're bigger in the Philippines now than in the US, so I guess that's why.
  • Halo-halo: shaved ice, lots of random fruit mixed in, sweet evaporated milk and possibly ice cream poured over the top. Really depends on where you go for it, need to ask a local. It could vary as much as DQ varies from Coldstone.
  • Lechon: whole roasted pig, very tasty. You can get it just about anywhere. Obviously not the whole pig, unless you're feeding a huge group.

  • Sisig: best food ever. I only knew about this dish from watching No Reservations in the Philippines, and I wasn't sure how it would taste. Just an absolutely excellent dish, and the one I sampled was just at an average run of the mill restaurant.

  • ChicharrĂ³n: they eat lots of pork rinds in the Philipines, they taste just like any other ones I've had.

Jun 3, 2009

Blog post regarding nothing

I suspect that today's anniversary will pass without any mention in the local press in China. Maybe things will be more open in the future. In the weeks leading up to today, more and more web sites have been blocked here: youtube, flickr, blogspot, twitter, and probably more to come.

I have a few versions of the song "Ohio" in rotation on my iPod. My favorite is the version from Live at Massey Hall 1971.

Whenever I'm listening to "Ohio", it reminds me not just of Kent State, but of today's anniversary also.

Diving in Boracay

I had the good fortune to experience some great diving in Boracay, Philippines. I'm sure the local Philippines divers would find the dives I did just average, but for me, it was absolutely spectacular. Beijing is a long ways from anyplace worthy of scuba diving. The only aquatic habitats in Beijing are mucky ponds, and the only thing you'll see there are thousands of species of spit and phlegm, rather than fish and corals.

The weather in Boracay was perfect. Underwater visibility was excellent, I'd say around 75 feet or more and even in the mid-afternoon, it wasn't too rough on the surface. Most of the local dive sites in Boracay are really close to the beach where the majority of the hotels are, 10-20 minutes ride at most, so the shops sell single-tank dives. It's around $20-30 US per dive depending on the shop. As in Thailand, if you want to pay with a credit card, the dive shops will tack on 6-7% to the bill to cover the fees that they get charged by the credit card companies.

On the last two dives, we had 3 divers and one PADI dive master (DM), all interested in both dives, so we didn't need to come back to shore and waste time. We just did the surface interval on the small boat and roasted in the sun.

Almost all the dive operators in Bora (note: Boracay is pronounced use motorized outrigger boats, called bancas. It's like a giant motorized canoe with a couple outriggers. Most of the Thai dive operators I've seen, on the other hand, use larger fishing vessels.

On the larger fishing boats, you giant stride off the stern into the water. For these smaller boats, the best way to enter with scuba gear is to roll in backwards. It's a lot of fun, and up to this point, I've not had the chance to enter the water that way too often. You should note that there's no head on these tiny boats. You've got to hold your bladder for a couple hours. You could always choose to turn your wet suit into a sewer if you can't control yourself like an adult.

Here's a photo of some of us in the water after rolling in off of the banca. Try to make sure no one's behind you when you roll in with a huge steel tank mounted to your back. It wouldn't be nice to conk someone on the head an knock them unconscious right before a dive.

Our first dive, Crocodile Island, was a nice, easy refresher dive for me. Lots of barrel sponges, gorgonian sea fans, reef fish, and even a cuttlefish disguising himself in the rocks. To add some comedy, there were two Italian guys in our dive group (total of 4 divers plus 1 DM). One of the Italians was French-looking and experienced, good buoyancy control, no dangling cables or anything. His buddy, a 6-foot tall swarthy fellow with more hair on his arms than I have on my head, sucked down all his air in about 40 minutes without telling anyone. Then he gave the DM a surprise by swimming over and breathing off his alternate regulator (octopus) to the surface. The non-swarthy Italian guy didn't even seem to notice and or care.

This is a photo of some of the surrounding area near the Crocodile Island dive site. The good stuff is mostly under the water.

The Camia Wreck dive was really nice. It's a large freighter-type ship that was purposely sunk to create a reef. It's sunk at a little under 100 ft depth. Our DM had no worries about taking the 3 of us in for several penetrations of the wreck. This is pretty cool, because a lot of PADI DMs are very strict about not taking non wreck certified divers to penetrate wrecks. It can be very bad if you panic in an overhead environment, not to mention in the dark and kicking up silt. I found the sea life on the wreck, to be not quite as good as the other dives, but swimming in and out of the wreck, and standing on the bow like in Titantic was really fun.

Another dive site, called Friday's reef, was the best dive for seeing nature. We were the only four divers on the site, with no other boats around at the time. If you took your time and keep pretty quiet you can get schools of all sorts of reef fish swimming around you. There were also quite a few large snapper swim overhead, just out of reach.

I suspect you could do all the local dive sites in Boracay if you had about two or three full days of diving there. I had heard that the diving here was just average, but I really enjoyed it, and I'd be happy to go back and experience more.