I did what? Yes, I went on a cruise!

I know some of the hardcore travellers I have met over the years will recoil in horror, but yes, I went on a cruise. A typical big ship, Caribbean port, short daytime shore stops cruise. Excluding the very different experiences of a live aboard diving cruise in Thailand, a luxury overnight cruise with 8 passengers in Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay and sailing on a cargo ship to the most remote settlement in the world, this was my first cruising experience.


Cruise ships are big.


In fact, in small towns they dominate the skyline!


This bar has a great view of the sea… when there is no cruise ship.

So, here’s the good and the bad. Continue reading

Shanghai: the biggest city in the world!

I’ve been to a lot of airports and at this point, they rarely feature something that I’ve never seen before.


Not so in Shanghai. I have travelled from airports to downtown in buses, minibuses, taxis, tuk-tuks, motorbike taxis, trams, trains, metros, rental cars and I have even walked. But never by Maglev (from MAGnetic LEVitation). The $1.2 billion Maglev covers the 30.5 km between Pudong International Airport and a metro station close to the centre of Shanghai. Since the airport was already served by the metro, the project makes no business sense at all. However, it was never meant to, it’s an experiment. In fact, the service is formally called the “Shanghai Maglev Demonstration Operation Line”.


The benefit for travellers: airport to downtown in 8 minutes. 431 km/h is by far the fastest I have ever travelled on land. Very cool, although a little noisier than I expected, considering the train doesn’t touch the rails at all. It is one of only 3 commercial maglevs in the world, and is the fastest regular train service in the world, all technologies included (many trains, maglevs, TGV, etc, have gone faster, but only in tests and on experimental tracks).

This is what 431 km/h looked like from my window. The video doesn’t really do it justice, but towards the end you can see that some very large industrial buildings are going by in a fraction of a second.


In Eastern Canada where I am from, a carpet of red or yellow leaves is a perfectly normal sight in the Fall. But because of all the travelling, I realized I had not seen this in 2 years. And I had forgotten how beautiful it can be.

Measuring cities is always a difficult business (where do they stop?), but by most measures, Shanghai is the largest city in the world. Of the 197 countries in the United Nations, about 147 have a population smaller than Shanghai’s staggering total of 24 million people!


It’s iconic skyline is usually very photogenic, except when a mixture of fog and smog rolls in. A few weeks before, I had been to the second highest observation platform in the world, on Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. I was now planning to go on the highest, located on top of the Shanghai World Financial Centre, the building which looks a bit like a bottle opener, with a smaller building on each side. The taller building on the right is the 121 storey Shanghai Tower, due to be complete this year and the second highest building in the world. However, waiting in line and paying a bundle to see smog from up close didn’t seem like a good idea. Continue reading

Visiting a friend in the impressive city of Guangzhou.

As in Hong Kong, I met less than ideal weather in Guangzhou. This caused an interesting phenomenon downtown; the city looked empty. The reason being that in many cases, residents have underground options when it comes to travelling.


You sometimes see these entrances to what appears to be little underground strip malls, but in reality, they connect you to kilometres of underground tunnels lined with hundreds of stores, and then you realize the city is NOT empty.


Apparently there are 1.3 billion people in China. It really doesn’t feel like it. It feels like there are 1.3 billion in Guangzhou alone!


One of them is my friend Rica, whom I met last year in Bali. I was delighted to see her again and to have a local guide. As it turns out, we both ended up going where we didn’t expect to end up. I wanted to go to a good and preferably non-touristy dim sum restaurant. She took me to a famous one, but it was closed for lunch and not yet open for dinner. I suggested we find a coffee place to hang around, but not being a coffee drinker, she could not suggest one. We randomly walked around looking for a Starbucks-like place, and ended up stumbling upon some little local coffee shop. I thought that would be fine and since Rica could order for me, I would even get what I want.

So we walked in. The noisy place went silent instantly. I looked around. I was certainly the only caucasian, but that alone would not have been surprising. However, Rica was the only chinese person, and the only woman. It was the two of us, and about 30 black muslim men looking at us with a surprised look on their faces. In Guangzhou! Very, very weird… and we went to the McCafe!


Instead of staying in a hotel, I rented a room in a private apartment, with this beautiful view of the Liwan Lake Park. Continue reading

Quick stopovers in Singapore and Hong Kong

The strange realities of airfare often have a big influence on where I go and when. In this case, I was looking forward to flying from Bali to Guangzhou, but realized that flying to Singapore and then to China was actually a lot cheaper. And I also realized it was cheaper to fly to Hong Kong and take a train from there. I needed no more reasons to re-visit these amazing cities.


So I went and had soup dumplings with my Singaporean friend Rachel, whom I had met in Indonesia. It was so good, I went back to the same place for lunch the next day, this time with my Czech expat friend Eva. In both cases, I was a bad tourist and failed to take the required selfies.

Going from chaotic East Timor to Singapore was quite a shock, but despite its reputation, Singapore can sometimes be a little wild.


Just look at this crazy anarchist, sitting in the reserved seats, drinking soda pop on the train, right under the sign warning that such behaviour can result in a S$500 fine (US$400)!


Having only a day to visit, I headed for Gardens by the Bay, a spectacular urban botanical garden of over 1 million square meters which I had never been too, but had been inspired to visit by the pictures my Australian friends Sarah and Jon had shared on Facebook. Apart from the outdoor gardens, the recently built complex (2012) includes two cooled conservatories: the Cloud Forest, on the right, and the Flower Dome, which was unfortunately closed for its one day of monthly maintenance.


The artificial mountain in the flower dome. Continue reading

My visit to a 12 year old country – and some medical tourism in Bali!

If you know a little bit about the history of East Timor (aka Timor Leste, in Portuguese), it won’t take very long for you to see the signs of how young the country is as you begin your visit.


Right at the airport, you will see this sign for “Domestic departures.” The problem is that there are no domestic flights in tiny TL. None at all. So in this case, I can only imagine “Domestic” means within Indonesia. I am surprised they never took it down. Perhaps it is there in the hopes of future commercial domestic flights. There are a number of landing strips in the country, but only UN flights and other such charters land there.

TL used to be a Portuguese colony, but at the eve of decolonization, it was invaded by Indonesia. Strangely, the Indonesian Government did not particularly want the territory. Had Portugal decided not to give up its colonies, the Indonesians probably would have been happy, or at least totally indifferent to the presence of the impoverished Portuguese enclave on Timor Island. The problem, in their eyes, was that the Timorese independence fighters, like many groups at the time fighting colonial rulers everywhere, were ideologically heavily influenced by communism. So for Jakarta, a Portuguese Timor was acceptable, but an independent one came with the very high risk of ending up with a little Cuba in the archipelago, complete with the Soviet or Chinese involvement that would come with it. And that was certainly not acceptable to them.

In 1999 a UN sponsored referendum was organized, and people voted 78.5% in favour of independence. In the immediate aftermath, the Indonesian Army went on a rampage of destruction, damaging or destroying the little infrastructure the country had, and killing hundreds in the process. This lasted a couple of weeks, until UN approved, Australian-led forces restored some order. Even remote Canada sent a few troops. A friend of mine went. He came back with a shiny UN medal, and malaria.

In 2002 TL officially became a UN member country, the youngest in the world, until South Sudan appeared in 2011. Since then, the Timorese have stopped fighting the Indonesians, and have mostly been fighting each other, with severe riots, coups and assassination attempts occurring over the course of the decade. Since 2008 however, it has been mostly quiet.


The country does not have its own currency, using instead the US dollar. They do, however, have coins manufactured in Portugal, called Centavos and with a nominal value equal to a US cent. The official language is Portuguese, but few people speak it. They could have made it Tetum, the dominant language, but it is only the native language of about a third of the population, with a slew of other languages spoken. The most practical option might have been Indonesian, but that would have been awkward to say the least!


Today, the country has one of the highest population growth rate in the world, so much that people run out of ways to carry their children.  Continue reading