Sunday, December 27, 2015

merry Christmas

Christmas is...

Deciding to set the Christmas tree even though it's less than a week to Christmas, and then making sure it's a pleasant event by having some stout beer, almond paste sweets, and smoked mussels on crackers.

Making your Christmas tree as kitsch as possible, hanging every bauble available, and making sure your two Icelandic elves hang in a prominent place.

Finally scratching your travel scratchmap from last year's trip to Scotland, deciding to only scratch off those places visited together with the habib, and going as far as only scratching off the approximate areas visited, making for a very unimpressive but a very inspiring travel map - so much left to discover!

Eating way too much way too good food with family, including vegan romeros (rosemary cooked as a dish with mole sauce, nopales - cacti - and potatoes), bacalao (cod fish) mom-style, empanadas (stuffed pastries), turkey (ok, not vegan either, but was curious to try after so many years), vegan fruitcake (dense as hell, and so scrumptious with chocolate, figs, walnuts, cherries...).

Having a toast with champagne after dinner, followed by a heated discussion about Catholicism, sex, Lars von Trier, film, terrorism, foreign interventions, war, religion, the value of life, Occidentalism, Orientalism, the media, press freedom, cultural imperialism, soap operas, and life as a soap opera writer, more or less in that order. And leaving afterwards with warm, loving goodbyes, smiles, and very cool gifts, including a bottle of 15 year old Glenfiddich, gorgeous ceramics, and vintage toys.

Having a nasty argument on Christmas day. Which leads me to think I should really delve into Buddhism's path of "right speech" (sammā-vācā, 正語, which views violent, abusive, divisive speech as equally wrong as violent physical action, of which absolutely refrain. Of course, then there is a very long Judaic tradition on quarrelsome unity, a community of contention, where quarrel (or debate, controversy, machloket, machloykes or מחלוקת) is evidence of coexistence (though originally it refers to a religious legalistic discussion, I don't see how this could not be taken to the secular realm). 

The abundant and filling food for the stomach and heart from Christmas Eve gives way to a not less abundant and not less long-digestion food for thought after Christmas Day... Any suggestions for reads?

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

to Seoul and back, day 4 and last

Yes! My final travel post of the year! Not the last trip, though, but I won't be able to write about the year's last trip until January, so.

The last part of my Korea trip involved an 11 hour layover in San Francisco. Including a beautiful approach from the air in a morning with perfect light and views of the coast, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the city. Neat!

But the best part was the people. Or, more specifically, a friend of mine I met who knows how many years ago on one of my Beijing-Mexico City trips. A person who went through all the trouble to get to the airport, rent a car, show me the coast and beautiful beaches of Half Moon Bay - btw, amazing place! just the kind of beaches I like, with bluffs, rough seas, cold air but plenty of sun... Really, really nice!

A delicious lunch of PEI mussels and some crazy daytime partying in the big city later, and grateful for having such a considerate person as a friend in San Francisco, I was finally flying back home. A very happy man. 

Friday, December 25, 2015

to Seoul and back, days 3-4

Days 3 and 4 I engaged intensely in what I was sent for to Seoul - discussing about development cooperation, inclusiveness, synergies with the private, humanitarian and climate sectors... Pretty intense, very interesting, and terribly necessary and useful discussions. Me, having so little experience in the matter - at least when compared to other participants that have been dealing with this their entire lives - felt both intimidated and exhilarated. So right before it all began I had a walk at that park by my hotel (the Culture Art Park) so get some fresh air, see the red leaves again, and just have a few moments to myself. The weather had become rather rainy, as you can tell from the wet ground.

But no matter the overcast skies, the city and the forest nearby still looked amazing from the terrace next to the conference rooms:

As a reward for those two days of hard work, a small group of us went to a barbecue place with one of our Korean hosts. It had been so long since I had had bulgogi! And, for the first time ever, I saw sesame leaves as wrapping besides lettuce! I have to say, for me, wrapping my bulgogi and kimchi in sesame leaves made it intensely more delicious. Isn't it great when you discover some variation to something you thought you knew?  

The night was cold. And rainy. And everybody but a colleague from the conference just wanted to go back to the hotel after dinner. Me, I was sitting on the fence, especially since the address of the nightclub my colleague wanted to go to seemed rather incomprehensible to taxi drivers. In the end, though, I did want to go out, the club seemed to be somewhere in the area (Gangnam), and this colleague sure knew how to insist! So, off we went to find MASS.

When we got to this underground (literally) club, it wasn't really busy. But the music was extraordinarily good! I mean, real good clubbing music! So I figured we could at least dance a bit and have a few drinks!

But as the night went on, more and more people kept arriving! This was a Tuesday night, ok? And at some point the club was as busy as any respectable nightclub on its best Saturday night! Well, a very fancy club, that is, full of good-looking, hip, young people. It was funny to see guys applying make-up in the washroom, too! This is one culture that really worships looks!

At some point, some locals befriended us - I suspect they were more interested in my blond, bubbly, flirty colleague. And later, they got us VIP bracelets and into the VIP! Not much different from the rest of the club, except for the candelabra, bottles of vodka and champagne (Moët Chandon, if you must know) everywhere, and food. Wow!  

There was absolutely no sign of the party winding down any time soon. My colleague decided to leave (well, it was 4am, or something like that). I decided to stay longer, but I couldn't keep up with our local "friends" and I left, I guess around 5. Or 6? Who knows?

By the way, my whole plan was precisely that: staying up all night so I would sleep during my flight back home. And guess where this club was? Next to that Gangnam food street I had had breakfast at a couple of days earlier! There weren't that many places open at the time, but I managed to find one where I had a bowl of bibimbap, and then a second one where I tried a sort of Korean blood sausage (sundae). I was ready to try everything and anything, remember? Now, there are no pics of the bibimbap or the sundae because my phone's battery died, so all I have is the pic of the street.

Finally, I decided to walk back to the hotel. I had eaten too much. And I was afraid to take a taxi, get to the hotel, fall asleep, and miss my flight. So I walked, under the light rain. Without my phone to show me the way. And with a wet, crumpled, torn and worn map. And I made it! And I changed clothes, and decided I had to have one last meal on that street! 

I was aiming for something warm and hearty, noodle-like. What I got was even more rain, getting really wet, and realizing most places were still closed - it was too early! So I had to make do with just a coffee and a piece of cake at White Chocolate (that café from my previous post). Not quite what I was expecting. But I had to eat, and I had a bus to catch to the airport.

At least, on my wet way back to the hotel, when passing the Citizens' Forest park, I saw a crane! Nice last view of the city, eh?

I had one last quick walk around the park, checked out, and proceeded to have a hellish ride to the airport - traffic was terrible, and I guess my body was really resenting the lack of sleep, the Korean sausage, and all that alcohol. It was really one tough ride. Thankfully, once outside the vehicle and at the airport, I started feeling better. But I was so ready to not have any more animal products anymore! LOL

As a farewell to Seoul, it just so happened that at the airport there was some cultural event, with a procession, a concert... pretty neat! That's one way to make your stay at the airport more pleasant, right?

That was one amazing trip to Seoul. Work-wise. Food-wise. Experience-wise. Really really really cool. Like I said last year, I've gotta bring the habibi one day!

BUT that was not the end of the trip! I still had an 11 hour layover in San Francisco!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

to Seoul and back - more of day 2!

My walk out of Bukchon Hanok Village included some fantastic views of the surrounding city, as the village is up on a hill. More fall foliage, modern buildings, old temples... Such a stunning place.

Since I had only had a late breakfast and a coffee, it was most definitely time for an early dinner! I was starving! And, again, I had to consider too many options! I wanted to try everything! But I settled for a place that offered a seaweed noodle soup with clam. Delicious! And hearty! And I had never had this! So a total win. 

There was one last thing I wanted to see before I went to bed (next day I had to work!) - a lantern festival that was taking place at a river/stream. But on my map there appeared a temple half-way there, and I couldn't resist taking a peek! 

And I'm glad I did and visited Jogyesa, a 14th century temple of the Jogye order of Korean Buddhism. It too was lit with countless lanterns! Most of them red, some in the shapes of fish and other things. I wasn't allowed to take photos inside the hall, so I sat inside for a while, admiring the place, and then went outside to take some pictures. And in the meantime, some closed-door ceremony was going on in an adjacent building and you could hear drums and some music! It was a really nice experience, seeing the temple lit like this at night, hearing the drums...

Plus, on my way out, I noticed more lanterns at the entrance gate. Fantastic!

From there, and really tired but not wanting to miss it, I reached Cheonggyecheon Stream. It was packed with people strolling along its banks and enjoying the sight of all sorts of lanterns! It was so busy they were not letting any more people below, but I walked along the stream at street level and the views were great too, since you could see the stream, the lanterns and the city! Plus, it was beginning to rain a bit, so it was easier to run for cover at street level, LOL. 

Somewhat wet from the rain, and with my feet and back hurting from all the walking, I decided I would do one more thing - hit a sauna! It felt so good sitting in a Finnish-style one, relaxing... And I even got to practise some Chinese, as two of the guys in there were from Taiwan and Mainland China! That was pretty cool and unexpected! It reminded me of how much time I lived in China, and the kind of rapport I feel when I can speak some Mandarin Chinese. 

To end the day, I finally made it back to the area near my hotel, and went to the same place I had dinner at the night before. But it was really tough to order! I had this long exchange with the staff, an exchange where it was obvious nobody was understanding anybody, and in the end they brought me the same dish from the night before. Which was OK, but I was dying for some soup. It took quite a bit of more gesturing and unintelligible exchanges, but in the end I got my impossibly spicy tofu soup with mussels.  

And for dessert? I went to a café called White Chocolate, not far from there, and had a delicious mocha orange iced latte, and some cheesecake! Yeah, after that spicy soup? I can't remember how my stomach reacted, but it can't have been too bad, because all I remember is that I really enjoyed everything! 

And with that, a day of touring and eating that lasted from 8:30am to past midnight, I was ready to take on next day's work! yay! 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

to Seoul and back, day 2

So... where were we? Ah, yes, breakfast for starving me after a morningful of nature and crazy gorgeous fall foliage! And for that I headed to Gangnam! Yes, the same Gangnam from Psy's "Gangnam style!" 

Gangnam is a trendy, expensive, modern district and, hidden somewhere behind one of the subway station's exits (there were so many!) there is a food street packed to the brim with eateries of all sorts! I went up and down the street a few times, trying to make my mind up! Too many tasty choices! 

But I had read, by chance, that phở is something you have for breakfast. Also, there are no decent Vietnamese restaurants that I know of in Mexico City. Plus, I was never really good friends with phở. So I thought I'd give it a go, in hopes that I'd get something that would change my perception. And since I was in exploratory mood, I went into a Vietnamese place and ordered the most basic and traditional version of phở: a beef one. 

Frankly, the aroma was really good. Subtle, just slightly spicy (as in containing spices, not as in hot), its warmth perfect for the cold day... So, I stand corrected. Non-vegan phở, when done well (at least done well enough for this ignoramus), is super good. That's comfort food! 

Energized - and a bit sad I wasn't hungry anymore to keep tasting more dishes - I walked to my next stop: the royal tombs of the Joseon Dynasty, Seolleung and Jeongneung. It is a UNESCO heritage site, and it's located in a nice park within the city. Plus, and to my great surprise, the tombs follow a design I had never seen in Asia! They're round mounds, with a number of guardian statues around. I loved it! Also, and another thing I had never seen, the whole complex had spirit paths: paths that only the dead kings and spirits could "walk", while mere mortals had to use adjacent paths. And the site was serious about preserving that tradition, with very clear signs asking you NOT to step on the spirit paths and on the spirit steps! Really cool.

Of course, being inside a park, and a very hilly one at that, I had more opportunities to just walk around and enjoy the trees and the odd bird and squirrel (yes, again). 

The views of the park, the ancient structures and the modern city around were incredible. What a fantastic city that you can find all this in a single spot!

And just before finishing my tour of the place! A huge ginkgo biloba tree. Nice.

From there, I went further up north, to visit a historic district called Bukchon Hanok Village, famous for preserving high concentrations of traditional houses. But first, after all that walking and before embarking on even MORE walking, I had to get some rocket fuel. Good, solid, really well done rocket fuel!

And then, in a race against sunset, and with a map given to me on the street by some people promoting the district, I started a convoluted tour through winding, hilly, beautiful streets offering views of old times - the occasional glimpse of  Gyeongbok Palace, persimmon trees, tiny alleys...

... traditional decorations

... inner gardens, with the house built around and the occasional art exhibit 

... rooftops and more rooftops, curved, tiled, old

... and the most charming of slender streets, some peaceful and quiet, some bustling with throngs of people admiring the buildings and the views of modern Seoul in the distance

By the end of this walking tour I was getting pretty tired. But I was not done yet...