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Country in a City or City in a Country

Pace of an economic hub, energy of a party town, feel of an island; you are promised to get all of this in this densely populated landmass. Although Hong Kong does not top many travelers’ destination list, it is certainly a favorite transit point for many globetrotters. No traveler should miss its warm hospitality, thriving culture and scenic geography- all can be experienced in a very short span of time. But the first thing first.  What is Hong Kong? Is it a country that moves like a city or it is a city that functions like a country.

Let’s try to find out. Hong Kong is one of those countries that have managed to treasure its traditions yet thrive on modernity. I was amazed to see how its Chinese heritage and colonial footprints have intertwined to give it a dynamic yet rooted identity. Trams are running on the streets where dumplings are sold on the side. Ancient temples and modern electronic shops are not very far away from one another. Italian pizza and traditional noodle soup are sold in the same small restaurant. Hong Kong has developed itself into a modern mega city, but it is a still a country with too many cultural links.

Hong Kong’s gravity defying Peak Tram, a 125 year old cable-hauled funicular railway, was a cool way to get to Victoria Peak. It felt like as if the earth has titled at 45 degree angle while the tram is moving perfectly horizontal. Honk Kong’s glass forest of skyscrapers lit in various colors and intensities was standing tall proudly. I was introduced by my friend to the Hong Kong’s famous dumplings at the Sky Terrace 428.

When in Hong Kong’s public transport, one of the world’s smoothest transport systems, I felt like I was in a highly efficient city. When I walked beyond the city limits, I was exploring a country rich in culture and natural beauty. I totally underestimated the steep streets here. Walking was a bit of a stretch, but locals do it in style. I joined the locals to take a tour of Temple Street Night Market, one of the liveliest markets in Hong Kong. The market is a sensory feast for every passer by. Once can see a fusion of old and new in this market as well. Antique objects, handicrafts and contemporary gadgets are available on the same streets.

Morning hikes, especially in the outskirts, were peaceful and interesting way to see a slow-down version of Hong Kong. Peace around the Big Buddha or Tian Tan Buddha was ever present whether it was noon or night.

This is what I realized in three days I spent In Hong Kong. It does not matter if it a country or just a city, it has its glory, its character and its charm. Forget if you are in a metropolis or on an island, just dance on its beats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Kingdom of Motorbikes, Hardly Anyone Walks

 

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Around 92 million people and 45+ million motorbikes! One can imagine how motorbikes play an important role in all aspects of everyday life in Vietnam, particularly in major cities. One of the top five markets for motorbikes in the world, Vietnam, its people and its economy moves on motorbikes. Vietnam experience would not complete unless you  rode a motorbike here.  Continue reading “In Kingdom of Motorbikes, Hardly Anyone Walks”

On a Ship Loaded with Food, Booze and Party Animals

A cruise leaves the port of Miami Friday evening for the Bahamas. There wasn’t any agenda for the weekend other than party and excursion. If one needs to lose oneself in a perfect getaway in the sea under the open sky, it was the vessel to aboard. A sailing night club in night time and a moving resort in day time, the Norwegian Sky cruise was out on a voyage for some sun and fun.

When I boarded Norwegian Sky, some of the scenes from the Titanic movie flashed by in my mind. Nothing of that sort happened though; neither the ship sunk, nor I found love on the ship. It was my first time on a cruise, so it was okay to over fantasize. What actually happened was something I did not expect either. When there are free drinks at every corner, unlimited food everywhere and over excited souls on the floor; who would want to remain sober.  The first evening began with the kickoff drinks and music that turned into a weekend long party, ended only when the ship returned to the port on Monday.

I woke up with a view of a white-sand beach with palm trees. It was not a dream. The vessel was docked at Great Stirrup Cay. The blue waters and cold morning breeze was calling, but the body wanted to sleep more in the cozy cabin. The cruisers were to spend entire day on the island. Many preferred to lie down on the soft sand, while I hit the treadmill on the top floor of the ship. I did not want to miss a gym with such a gorgeous view. The view of the island from the window was like looking at a computer wallpaper. Bahama Mama was always on the menu, on the ship as well as off the ship.

By the sunset, the decks on most of the floors were crowded. It was a perfect time to take pictures in the dimming golden light. Music turned on and drinks started pouring as we headed to the next destination- Nassau. After a fancy dinner in the grand dining hall, things got back to craziness on the party deck. People were same, their attires just changed, and so did their social behavior.

As the ship come to rest at the Nassau terminal early next morning, a eventful day was about to begin in the town- a town not just known for its beaches; but also for its culture, history and energy. It has its own rhythm. Whether you are on a family vacation or party cruise trip, it does not let you down. Local vendors around the beaches didn’t care how much you drank last night on the ship; they poured rum punch by liters in coconut shells. Bars on the city streets are pretty creative to get your attention. Señor Frog’s was our final stop before we got on the cruise again for the final night. It was no different from other evenings…music, drinks and dance again.

In less than 72 hours on the ship, strangers became good friends. Many stories were shared as well as created. Norwegian Sky cruised through the moonlit sea back to its home in Miami, giving thousands of cruisers unforgettable memories.

 

 

Heart Raced to Its Limits in the Calm Rainforest

A paradise for nature lovers, adventurers, photographers, surfers, divers, wild-life explorers, historians and archaeologists – Costa Rica has something for everyone. One of the few countries in the world with no army, Costa Rica has been a safe get-away for family vacationers as well as backpackers. This serene soul of Central America not always calms down your heart with its mesmerizing beauty, but it can also surge adrenaline in your blood when you meet its wild side. I wanted to feel Costa Rica, not just see it.

I arrived in San José tired and sleep deprived after eventful days in Panama. There was so much to do in the capital city, but I decided to relax and recharge. One has to ignore noise and traffic on the streets to explore history and culture of the city. Lost in the concrete jungle are the monuments, buildings, parks and markets that are worth visiting. Clubs and bars offer a lively environment to socialize with locals as well as tourists. Take a walking tour of the city and sip home grown coffee in one of the cafes on the busy streets.

Monteverde, known for its cloud forests and green valleys, was my next stop and the right spot to be with nature and find peace. Five hour bus ride through the curvy mountains was a trailer of the adventurous and rough side of the northwestern Costa Rica. Next two days were tough for the heart. The first in the list was zip lining in the middle of the famous Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Some of the longest and toughest zip lines are here. The thing that makes them thrilling yet soothing is the breathtaking view of deep valleys with thick forests below them. There was a moment during the Spiderman zip line when I felt that everything almost stopped. My mind froze and heart slowed down for a few seconds in the middle of a kilometer long zip line as if it wanted to capture the view and everything around in slow motion. I felt my breath and heart beat in a way I never did before. It felt like an union with Mother Nature. The Tarzan Swing took the heart rate to a new level. I could not hold my shout at the end of the first swing. Then came Extreme Bungee Jump. It was as insane as any human adventure possibly can. It was felt by every cell of my body. It was to much for the heart to take in a day. The venturous day ended with a locally grown and prepared coffee on a peak watching the stretches of cloud forests.

 

ATV or Quad tour and Forest Night Walk tour were the two items in the list for the next day. There is a part of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve where one can race a quad bike as well as his heart. I burned gasoline for almost an hour dragging a quad bike on  dirt roads and slippery trails. It was difficult to maneuver the quad bike on hair-raising steep, muddy trails. In the end the bike survived, and I was totally covered with mud slush. It was an opportunity to enter some of the deepest parts of the cloud forests in day time. The night walk through the thick forest, especially on a rainy night, was no less than daring act. However, it was done under the supervision of a guide. The goal was to spot creatures in their natural habitat. Our group was partly successful as rain hampered the mission. Nonetheless, it was rejuvenating to walk in the oxygen-rich canopies. This is an easy activity and should not be missed.

It was time to give the heart some rest before head back to San Jose. La Fortuna was the perfect town for this. A laid-back agricultural town, La Fortuna is the most visited destinations in Costa Rica because of the Arenal Volcano National Park, Arenal Lake and splendid surrounding scenery. No adventure, no activity, no rush in La Fortuna; a total downtime to observe the beauty of majestic Costa Rica. I left Costa Rica after my trip, but Costa Rica did not leave my mind yet. Its beauty has created a vivid memory.

 

 

 

A Human Endeavor that Changed the Face of Earth

Human efforts over the centuries have shaped and reshaped the face of the planet. Whether it be the Great Pyramids in Egypt, the Great Wall of China or Machu Picchu in Peru, they all gave our planet a new identity. Among so many modern additions, the Panama Canal really stands out – not just because of its engineering achievement, but also because of its economic significance. My travels took me to Panama to see this human endeavor in action.

 

I began my eight day Panama itinerary in Panama City. At first glance, the city seemed to me yet another American City. Boasting a skyline of skyscrapers, modern office buildings, condo complexes and hotels of shining glass along the bay of Panama, the city claims a status of an emerging cosmopolitan center globally. No doubt why so many expats are attracted to its viable yet luxurious living. The city has redefined itself to become one of the hubs for international businesses. I took long walks in and around the city to feel its pulse, which was no different than that of Hong Kong, Dubai, New York or any other big city in the world.

So how Panama City managed to get there. The answer lies 40 kilometers from the city center. An engineering miracle happened in 1914 that changed the face of the Earth, and also the destiny of the country. It was amazing to watch the Panama Canal in action. A 82 kilometer long waterway built to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans has been a boon not only for Panama but for the entire globe. It is no surprise why the American Society of Civil Engineers has ranked the Panama Canal one of the seven wonders of the modern world. A lock based canal system that was considered advanced in early 1900s is still functional letting thousands of cargo ships pass through the canal every month. A huge artificial lake, Lago Gatún, created between the three huge locks helps ships float across the canal. Words fail to give an idea of the massive scale and operation of the Panama Canal. To appreciate the engineering marvel born out of human minds, one has to spend 10-15 minutes there to see a ship pass through the canal. The mega-scale project began by France, finished by the US and now managed by Panama is the living story of human abilities.

Cutting across the country via bus, I headed the western Panama to see its coastal towns on the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans.  A short stop in David, an emerging tourist spot on the Pacific side, was enough time to walk along the calming waves of the Pacific ocean. One the Atlantic side, there was a different feel and different mood. One can sense party vibes from kilometers when entering the Bocas del Toro province. Although the island is known for its biodiversity, it has been a hot spot for tourist diversity now. The island warmly hosts backpackers from all over the world, and offers a wide range of activities including forest trekking, diving, bird-watching, water-sports etc. As sun goes down on this island, volume of sound systems goes up in every corner. Sleep is not in agenda for many, and some finish their last drink watching sunrise. Finding sloths and riding waves while tied to a boat were the challenges for day when we woke up. I spotted sloths for the first time and failed at boat surfing second time; nonetheless, I was happy to achieve 50% target. Panama is a beautiful country, but they are next to Costa Rica, a tough competitor for many beautiful countries.

 

Somehow I Survived the Vomit Comet Ride

I hardly had any idea what was going to follow when I was handed two anti-emetic tablets with the ferry ticket. I did not even pay attention why those pills were given. I was excited to ride the ferry to Roatán, a Honduras’s Caribbean Bay Islands. However, the excitement turned into uneasiness just 10 minutes into the ride. Remaining 110 minutes on the boat were unbearable. Nothing was pleasant except the thought in my mind of a beautiful island on the other side.

Honduras is definitely not for the fainthearted travelers. Like other Central American countries, it went through tough time in the recent past fighting with violence and drug crimes. However, it has been able to improve its tarnished image in the last decade. Honduran beaches, jungles, towns and islands were not something I wanted to miss, even though some parts of the country are still relatively unsafe for tourists. A nine hour long bus ride from San Salvador to San Pedro Sula, the capital city of Honduras, was mostly smooth except a few hiccups on the borders. The entire bus was emptied and all bags were searched by the Honduran border police. They were a bit confused to see an Indian passport in the pile of Salvadoran and Honduran passports. They matched my face with the passport photo a few times before the visa was stamped. The view of beautiful country side from the bus window compensated for the bumpy ride on the Honduran roads.

San Pedro Sula is known around the world for its clothes. Many of us may have worn shirts made in Honduras. After having been to other crowded Central American cities on this trip, I spent just a little more than 24 hours in San Pedro, saving remaining four days for the coastal towns and islands. Like San Salvador and Guatemala City, San Pedro is a big marketplace for the western brands. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and alike were jam-packed by locals whereas tourists were satisfying their taste-buds in local restaurants and roadside eateries. The Guamilito market, however, makes San Pedro special. You can sense aroma of the Honduran flowers and enjoy the best Honduran cigars here.

A Honduran experience would be incomplete without a chicken bus ride. A series of insanely packed chicken buses to the coastal city of La Ceiba was an experience; we were like chickens in the bus trying to get our heads out of the bus windows.  La Ceiba is where Hondurans party. That is  why they call it Honduras’ good-time town. It is a transit town for many international travelers who take ferries to the Honduran islands. I was ready for the adventure in one of those ferries.

Around hundred people with smiley faces boarded a ferry named the Galaxy to get to Roatán. I was fair to expect tranquility in the sea, at least the name of the boat suggested so. As we left the dock, the choppy water began to play with the boat. I could hear some babies cry in the front. 10 minutes into the ride, people started throwing their breakfast out. The staff got busy distributing vomit bags and paper rolls. In less than half an hour, a good clean boat turned into a big vomit dumpster. I could see people hold their bellies and mouth as tightly as possible. The pills did not work at all for many island dreamers. I was sitting in the backside watching this vomit comet cruising like an uncontrolled roller coaster. I resisted hard not to throw up. The whole boat was stinking, making it unbearable to stay there. I wished it was not air-conditioned. I decided to go to the open back side of the boat even though it was very difficult to stand there. It was okay to get wet and cold than to suffocate inside the vomit comet.

It seemed as if the captain didn’t care for what was happening in and to his boat. Maybe it was not uncommon for them. More travelers joined me in the back side. Some of them were regretting why they did not take a flight. It was an experience, however ugly it was. It was worth going through all of this to see the beauty of Roatán. The island was washed in rain before we reached there. Coffee was more refreshing in a small cafe surrounded by lush green trees. It was hard to imagine if it was the same calm sea I experienced a few hours ago.

I was wondering why I did not throw up in a boat in which almost everyone did. I think it was my curiosity to observe what was happening or simply skipping breakfast that morning.