Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving! (And food pix)

I can haz turkey?!
Photo courtesy of Bonkers in Hongkers and Hong Kong or Bust

I'd written a long, depressing post on miserable Asian news -- Chinese activist jailed, melamine executions, election-related beheading in the Philippines. (If there's one example of democracy gone wrong, that would be it.)
But, it's Thanksgiving Day. It's a beautiful morning, and my flat smells lovely from the cake baking in my oven, which I'm making for an office Thanksgiving dinner tonight. This will be my second Thanksgiving dinner this week -- I'm a lucky girl.
So I hit the "save" button on that unhappy news post. You can read about political misery
after the holiday.
****
I'm making what Marc the Metrosexual refers to, disparagingly, as "American cake."
First off, I use a mix. No shame to that. The Betty Crocker SuperMoist German Chocolate cake is a thing to behold.
I shape it kind of like a ginormous cupcake. I smear it with frosting and top with rainbow-colored sprinkles. For anyone who grew up in America, this is a delicious blast-from-the-past.

Marc, a professional French chef, may be appalled.

A tip for other cheaters like me: To fancy it up, replace half the required liquid (usually milk or water) with bourbon or any other flavorful liquor. I usually use 1/2 C per cake. Do NOT replace the oil or eggs. Your cake needs that to stick together.
Pour the batter into small cupcake tins for bourbon tea cakes.
****
Since I was born in Canada and grew up in the U.S., I have a typically gweilo (gweipo?) reaction to the way Western holidays are "celebrated" here. It's just the shiny, pretty trappings -- mostly as seen via the shopping mall -- with none of the meaning.

For Hong Kongers, Halloween means strangely-dressed gweilos getting drunk on overpriced cocktails in Lan Kwai Fong. (I mean, more so than usual).

But what I remember was this rather magical night lit up with pumpkin lanterns. Since nobody decent went out at night in small-town Connecticut (at least, not in the 80s) it was a thrill for us to spill into the dark, quiet streets in our homemade costumes. Neighbors would give us a few coins for Unicef, mini chocolate bars, homemade candied apples or caramel popcorn balls.

Thanksgiving is the second-most important holiday, after Christmas. But few Hong Kongers have heard of it, probably because it doesn't have Halloween's splashy, partying aspect. It's a home-y, family affair.

Canadians celebrate it earlier, to coincide with Christopher Columbus' landing in the New World. In Quebec, they eat tourtiere (meat pie) and pouding chomeur (maple pudding).

My pouding chomeur from last year, which Marc the Metrosexual said was "too sweet." (Check out the maple toffee sauce, which I first cook on the stove). My American friends liked it, but I didn't make it this year. On top is sour cream.

Americans have it in November, to remember a feast between the British colonialists and the Native tribes. In both cases, it's a harvest festival and a time to give thanks (thus the name.)

I know that sounds cheesy, but it's good to have a yearly reminder to give thanks. I read about the misery of the world all day, but it's easy to lose perspective. We get so caught up in our daily minor problems (Why doesn't my doorman ever open the damn door? Why can't I afford a trench coat? Why can't I lose five pounds?) that we forget to count our blessings. Just about everyone reading this blog has all the comforts of modern, developed-world life -- we don't have to worry where the next meal is coming from.
****
Speaking of meals...

The Laus are a family of cooks, but we're Chinese. We don't roast turkeys. Plus, we ate so lightly than one turkey leg would be enough for all of us, never mind a whole bird. Sometimes, kindly Americans would invite us over for Thanksgiving, and we would marvel at their
giant birds and many sauces and trimmings.
But if we weren't invited, we had something called the frozen turkey roll, which was turkey pieces squeezed into a tube-like shape. It came in a tinfoil container we stuck in the oven, and the "gravy" would melt off it and collect at the bottom. You can't stuff a hunk of processed meat, so we would make Stove Top Stuffing, usually in a wok. The cranberry sauce would sit there coldly, quivering in a dish, the shape of the ribbed tin container still imprinted on it. And, you know? We really enjoyed this dinner.

I have since learned how to make a proper Western meal. (I studiously read Molly O'Neill columns in The New York Times. I kept her seminal 1996 essay on roasting poultry, "Nothing Tough About It" for years).
Hong Blog has a good technique for roasting turkey which -- because it is big and lean -- can easily dry out. He covers the outside with slices of pancetta, which is fatty, salty and bacon-like. On this Joyceyland-Hong Blog-Marc's World joint-production, we were also careful to baste regularly. (I used olive-oil margarine.)


This is a 16-pound, or 7-kilo, monster of a bird. You can see bits of discarded pancetta on the side.

Marc then deglazed the pan with cognac, so we had a boozy-flavored gravy. Gravy is essential.
****
For gweilo reactions to Hong Kong "Christmas bling" check out My Morning Sun and, again, Hong Blog, in his post, "Keeping Christ out of XMas."
It's become a kind of yuletide tradition that Hong Blog will review "The Twelve Japanese Beverages of Christmas." I wonder if he will do this year.
I also dug out an old post, "From Turkey to Riceballs" by Beijing Loafer. A Sichuan native who spent years in the States before returning to China, he waxes on holidays, Chinese and Western, and how he had to work very hard to stomach American cheese and turkey.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Tenant harassment, Hong Kong-style
















Ever since Hugo had cat flu as a kitten, he's had occasional bouts of teary eyes.
Or maybe he's crying over Hong Kong rental situations.

We took Hugo the Cat to the vet to check on an eye problem.

As we walked up the stairs to Pets Central clinic in Mongkok, we noticed their pet supply shop downstairs was boarded up. Was it too early in the morning? We also smelled something awful. Had a stinky tofu store opened up next door?
Part of the upstairs clinic was also boarded up and there was the most terrible screeching. At first I thought it was construction workers with a radio on full blast, or someone arguing. Then I realized it was a recording in Cantonese. A woman was yelling the same sentences over and over, in the sort of tone usually used for strident political speeches.
It was really annoying, disruptive, and eardrum-damaging loud. So loud that clients couldn't hear their names being called.

It turns out that our 24-hour animal hospital is the target of "sound and smell harassment" over a rental dispute. Someone is trying to chase them out, maybe in hopes that staff and clients will only take so much before they flee.
When I asked about the "smell pollution" part of it, one of the nurses leaned in and whispered, "It's better now. At one point, we suspected they were using, well, feces. Though we have no proof."
How ironic that Pets Central always managed to be spotless and clean smelling with all those sick animals; it only began to stink when humans messed it up.

I don't know the legal details of this case, so I'm not going to make a judgment on whose fault the dispute was initially. It doesn't matter. Either way, it's a terrible, uncivilized way to deal with things.
The Hong Kong police are generally clean and do their jobs. There's the Consumer Council, Small Claims Court and other places where a landlord can deal with a bad tenant.
My guess is that the landlord doesn't have a solid legal footing in this case -- why else would they resort to harassment tactics? Making the recording, creating the smells -- when you think about someone actually sitting down and planning this, it's a bit crazy.

The punishment doesn't fit the crime. Whatever the conflict is, it's on a company (tenant/landlord) level.
Why torment vets, nurses and animal handlers, who have been nothing but kind and patient with us and Hugo? Why frighten animals with alarming noises and smells?
Excessive, prolonged exposure to noise has been used as punishment in some prisons, though, obviously, this is case is nothing close to that level. Still, the usually pleasant, organized, reception staff were frazzled. I was in that waiting room for 10 minutes and I couldn't hear myself think. Imagine eight hours.

We signed a petition set up on the counter; but honestly, that's probably not going to do it.

P.S. Pets Central is the clinic that's setting up Hong Kong's first blood bank for pets. While it's obviously a profit-seeking enterprise, it's also clearly an organization that cares about animal welfare.
***
P.P.S. On a totally different note, David Biddlecombe at the Evening Sky blog is planning a Freedom Ball event tomorrow, Sun., Nov. 22. Go if you're for promoting Hong Kong green spaces where you can actually have fun, or if you just want to gawk at some crazy guy releasing 1,000 big red balls into Shatin Park. More info here.

Friday, November 20, 2009

New Hong Kong-French blog: Marc's World

Marc the Metrosexual has finally set up his blog, Marc's World, with the help of one of my ex-colleagues, Emily Rauhala, i.e. Cyber Panda.
(Marc wasn't willing to go online till he had something better designed than the pedestrian standard Blogger thingie I use!)
His first blog post is a recipe for soupe au pistou, which is a hearty vegetable soup, richly flavored with bacon and "pistou," or the French version of pesto. We made it, to good reviews, for a dinner party we had with some IHT colleagues a while ago.
There is also a photo collection of Hugo the Cat.
And a discussion of the Thierry Henry handball issue, which is totally beyond my comprehension. (Though White Dusk Red, Ulaca and others might have opinions)
I have to give it to Marc: It takes a brave soul to blog in a second language that you never formally learned. It would be like my trying to blog in French, which would be a mess. (And never mind my blogging in Chinese; it would be impossible).
Please welcome him to our little community of bloggers. He's at http://marctoutain.wordpress.com

Monday, November 16, 2009

Fat People Getting Yelled At, aka Workout Motivation

Sat, Nov. 14. Day of rest.
Sun. Nov. 15, Day #5. Dragged myself out of bed before work. Walked a mile (1.6K). Not great, but at least I got myself to go.
Mon, Nov. 16, Day #6. Ditto. One mile.

Gweipo invited me to an absolutely terrifying athletic challenge. Considering that she can run five, six times more than I can in one go, and I spend 40, 50 hours a week sitting down, I think I know who will win.

In my imagination, Gweipo is relatively tall and fit. She weights 130 lbs, or 60 kilos. (I will never post my weight on this blog, because it would give Fumie too much satisfaction).

But let's just say neither one of us is exactly obese. And while it's great to push, there's also alot of pressure on women to be both thin and hard on ourselves. It's good to keep things in perspective.

And what better way to do that than to compare yourself to the truly obese?

A while back, I got to reading a circle of "fat blogs." (No, it's not politically incorrect. They call themselves that. And, no, I'm not anti-fat. I'll write more on these sites later, because they're hilarious.)

Just remember Gweipo -- next time you fret about those extra 5 lbs, next time I worry about "muffin top" when I wear my 27" Sevens low-rise jeans -- there are women out there looking to lose 110, 120, 130 pounds. That's the size of an entire one of us!

So let's end this post with a motivational video. Usually, "motivational" anything makes me want to stab my own eyes out, since I hate all the sugarly "you can do it!" cheesiness.

But this is Jillian Michaels, one of the top personal trainers in the U.S. and a real hard-ass. (Literally and figurative. She's 5' 2", just a shade taller than I, and I would kill to have her body).

Here, she's yelling at an enormous father and daughter team on the reality show The Biggest Loser. It's funny and sad at the same time. Next time you feel like you're failing at your workout, remember this.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Web producer out there?

I'm looking to hire a freelance web producer / designer for a half-day to help with an online project.
It's easy stuff -- helping set up a blog that's a little better designed and more photo-driven that the free Blogger format.
You would need basic HTML, familiarity with Macs and fluent English.
(I speak Cantonese, but the project is not for me.) It would be done one afternoon or evening next week at my flat in Kowloon.
You can send me an email, and whatever your regular rate is, at joycehclau@gmail.com.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Baby dies as Chinese doctor plays video games

I read sad, sad news all day. I should be used to it. But sometimes, a certain story hits me particularly hard.
Here's a shortened version of an AP report:
"A 5-month-old baby died in a hospital amid pleas for help from his parents while his doctor played online video games in Jiangsu Province.
"An investigation showed that Dr. Mao Xiaojun was playing an online version of ‘Go’ on the night shift and did not take the parents’ pleas for help seriously.
"The mother got on her knees in the hospital and pleaded for help.
"The baby died the next morning, Nov. 4."
The doctor, by the way, was a woman.
***
Maybe this hit me because a family member was hospitalized recently at Canossa. I was thankful for the nurses, who brought hot soup after the cafeteria closed, and lent a hand walking the patient to the bathroom. Kudos to the staff there.
That said, Canossa is private, meaning it's outside the public hospital system. Surgery and several nights' stay costs tens of thousands of Hong Kong dollars (or several thousand USD).
***
We are lucky to have private insurance, thanks to our jobs.
Even if we didn't, Hong Kong provides basic care for all residents. Not everyone may have the private room and 24-hour room-service, but our public facilities are at developed-nation levels.
I had a second relative who was hospitalized recently, in the public system. And they drove her to regular physio sessions until she got better.
Marc has visited several colleagues in hospitals over his 14 years in Hong Kong. He'll visit any staff who are seriously ill, even if they are a kitchen hand. He, too, has good things to say about the public system.
For critical cases, the state will cover operations, doctors, nurses, medicine, hospital rooms, etc. Patients may pay a minimum charge.
Of course, there are criticisms, particularly of the waiting times. Sometimes cases go wrong.
But the fact that Hong Kong has a broad, efficient, socialized medical system makes us better, in this regard, than China or the United States.
***
The Jiangsu story is breaking my heart. Those brief details are so vivid: The parent kneeling in a hospital ward. That poor baby.
There are things we individuals can't do anything about, like natural disaster, war, or famine.
But this death seems especially senseless. One less video game and a baby lives?
It's hard to tell if this doctor was entirely to blame.
But she clearly behaved appallingly to obviously distraught parents. There was no remorse, and she initially lied to investigators. She lacked the basic decency to be honest about her mistake.
She lost her job. But so far, I've heard of no apology or compensation.
***
Maybe this story bothers me because China's health care system has such a bad track record. It doesn't seem like one rare incident in a generally good system. Bad things happen all the time to poor Chinese who can't afford private big-city hospitals.
A while ago, there was a post on China Smack comparing the mainland and Hong Kong hospital systems.
China Smack translates Chinese blogs and comments, which is great way to see how average Chinese netizens are thinking. As expected, this post drew both envy and bitterness.
Some commenters described mainland hospitals without soap or running water in the bathrooms.
***
How do nations compare? Surprisingly, there's little information.
The last major report is from the World Health Organization from 2000. Here are some rankings, out of 190:
France (#1), Singapore (#6), Japan (#10), Britain (#18), Canada (#30), United States (#37), Thailand (#47), China (#144).
(Hong Kong was not ranked because it's not a country).
I know China has problems but, dear Lord does it do shockingly badly in international rankings, whether it's for media or health care.
In China's defense, much has improved since 2000.That was before Vice Premier "Iron Lady" Wu Yi kicked butt after the SARS crisis and cleaned the place up. That was before China's admirable handling of swine flu. I hope it's up from #144.
***
Comparing Hong Kong and China is not fair, because we are much richer and smaller. Per capita income here is US $45,000. In China it's US $6,000.
Hong Kong's private hospitals are excellent.
But what I'm proud of is our state hospitals. You can be unemployed and broke; but if you are a legal Hong Kong resident and seriously ill, we will take care of you.
I think the best way to judge a place is on how it treats its least fortunate.
***
* Hong Konger Stephen Chan blogs about the experience of a cancer patient in a public hospital here.
* Wang Jianshuo blogs about taking his feverish child to a hospital in Shanghai where there were scalpers trying to sell him and his wife places in the queue, which had more than 100 people. Then they found out the hospital "didn't accept children." Never heard of that before. Poor guy.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Up and running on my lazy mornings


My usual morning routine: Couch, cat, coffee, cereal, laptop.

Thursday, Day #3

Running: 2.5 K

Friday, Day #4
Running: A little over 3 K *

* I've learned not to have a big bowl of Oatmeal Squares and milk before going to the gym. There was a good hour in between, but I'm still sitting at work feeling sick.

My legs are a little sore, but it's not bad. I should stretch more.
In fact, I should set aside more time in general, so I'm not thinking: "O.K. If I jog 20 minutes, can I stretch, shower and commute to work on time?"
***
We all get stuck in our daily routines. And I love the morning routine I'm currently stuck in. (One perk of working late shifts).
If I don't have anything scheduled, I wake up late. I roll around.
I keep a stack of magazines and books on my bedside table, so sometimes I read. Hugo the Cat curls up under the covers, purring.
(Marc the Metrosexual is incapable of lingering in bed. If he's awake, he has to get up immediately. But he's groggy for an hour or two -- he can barely string a sentence together. I'm the opposite. As soon as I'm awake, I'm ready to read The New Yorker, just not ready to stand up.)
Most mornings, Marc is long gone to work and I have the flat to myself.
I open windows, brew coffee, make breakfast, feed the cat, glance at the newspaper.
If I'm not rushed, I find light housework calming in a mindless sort of way. Making the bed. Washing the breakfast dishes. Folding clothes still warm from the dryer. I like cooking, and sometimes I'll pack food for work, because healthy late-night options in North Point are pretty slim. (I don't particularly enjoy scooping kitty litter or taking out the garbage, but that's life.)
***
Sometimes I work, like when I have a writing assignment.
If I'm facing a particularly demanding day, I log on and get a head start on emails or "reading in" on morning news events.
But usually, I don't.
Clearly, there is time to fit a work-out in here.
****
I have to make this part of my regular routine -- instead of dwadling all morning, suddenly realizing it's 11 a.m., and then rushing down to the gym in a panic.
The first day, I temporarily blanked on the fact that we have to sign in at another counter and pay (HK $10) to use the gym. The second day, I forgot my iPod. The third day, I left my watch at the gym. (I got it back). It will take time for this to become natural.
***
I'm not going very fast or very far for now (1.5-2 miles?) I want to ensure I can last 6 consecutive days, which, as Gweipo points out, is really the very maximum that it makes sense to do. (And, as she also wisely points out, I shouldn't be too hard on myself either).
Once this becomes habit, I'll go down to three times a week.
***
It's a little early to be making generalizations on my exercise program, but I seem to be sleeping better and waking earlier. Given my chronic insomnia, that would be a GREAT knock-off effect -- one even more welcomed than being able to squeeze into my Sevens jeans.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Failed resolutions, but a radio interview

Day #1, Monday
Running: Fail
Novel-writing: Fail

Take Two! Day #1, Tuesday
Running: A little under 3K
Novel writing: Fail

Day #2, Wednesday
Running: About 2.5K
Novel writing: About an hour's worth. Though I'm beginning to think I should tackle one resolution at a time.
***
Well, this got off to a bad start.
On Sunday night, I set out my running stuff and set the alarm. I was page 1 editor on Monday, so I didn't have to be at work till after lunch.
But a family medical matter flared up and took up time in the morning.
Then our office manager called about a meeting, which had me in the office earlier than planned.
I also had a radio interview with Vincent Wong at Hong Kong Commercial Radio, 881 FM. (Anyone who wants to listen to me mangle the Cantonese dialect can tune in from 8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. tomorrow, Thursday).
While I grew up speaking colloquial Cantonese at home, I was never formally schooled in Chinese and am nervous using Cantonese professionally, particularly when talking on the record about media or news.
So I called my parents to practice some of the questions in advance. (As Dad joked, "You're 35 years old and still asking us to help you with your homework.")
***
Back to my personal failures.
Monday was a write-off, since I got home almost at midnight. I have to say that I usually work from about 1-9pm, so this was an exception.
I ate at my desk -- parma pizza that the guys ordered in from Ziti's, plus cookies and assorted other snacks. Bad, bad, bad.
***
At one point Monday night, I was on the phone regarding the family matter. I felt bad I couldn't give it more personal attention. But I was also watching the flashing icons showing pending IMs, plus the doo-dad that tells us how long we've been on the phone.
Today is Marc the Metrosexual's birthday and he's not feeling great. His wonderful colleagues sent over a fruit basket and cake, and are coming over to have dinner with him, since his wife isn't.
No, no -- he never said that. That's me talking. And my lovely colleague is covering for me so I can get out earlier. (We both have great work-mates.)
If anyone reading this is a full-time working mom who's ever had to take care of sick kids, I take my hat off to you.
I don't even have kids and I don't harder than most Hong Kongers. But still I feel bad sometimes about what, in management speak, is called the "work-life balance."

Sunday, November 8, 2009

My (failed) resolutions: Writing and running

I read that one must do something 17 times in a row to form a habit.
This may be a totally random number with no scientific backing. But I get why it might be useful.
It's motivating to have a solid goal -- any goal -- to work toward.
We all know what's good for us. (Healthier food. More exercise. Less alcohol. No smoking. More sleep. More productive at work...) But it's easier said than done.
***
Studies have shown that dieters who keep a precise diary of what they eat have better chances of losing weight. It makes them aware; creates a record of failures and successes; encourages setting milestones. So I'm going to use Joyceyland as my resolution "diary."
I remember when a boss once tried to quit smoking. He announced it to the whole staff. Now, if he failed, everyone would know.
***
I've made two resolutions recently, both of which I've failed at keeping.
One is to lose a bit of weight and get in shape. I've abandoned my former fad diets (cabbage soup, GHC shake thingie) because they are unsustainable, unless I want to live off of green broth and artificial sweetener for the rest of the my life.
I'm just going to eat sensibly, which shouldn't be a big stretch. I eat alot of fruit and veg anyway, and my daily calorie intake is moderate. Bringing it down 100-200 calories a day is not a disaster.
The difference is that I'm going to exercise. This is my big problem, not my diet. I'm basically a garden slug. I happily sit here all morning with my coffee and laptop, then sit in an office chair for 8, 9, 10, hours, cab it home, and return to my laptop till bedtime.
When I glance out my window and see a bright blue sky, there is NOTHING in my inherent personality to make me want to throw on the 'ol running shoes.
Starting tomorrow, I am going to run every day, from Monday to Saturday, for 17 days. (On Sundays, I drag myself out of bed to work the morning shift, then have a rare home dinner with Marc, so that will be my day of rest).
Unlike Gweipo, I'm not going to hold myself to particularly challenging runs. What matters is that I set aside time, change into work-out clothes, and kick my butt out the door.
***
My second resolution is to write a book. I have files filled with half-written character sketches, just waiting to turn into my first novel.
I signed up as a participant in National Novel Writing Month (www.nanowrimo.org)
This is a worldwide program in which people of all walks of life try to write a 50,000-word piece of fiction from Nov. 1 to Nov. 31. (That's more than 1,000 words a day, which is longer than the average Joyceyland post, and about the length of an IHT news story).
There is no judging of whether the result is good or bad. The idea is to to use group support and peer pressure to encourage writers to get something or other out -- to crash through the thought that "I can't write a novel. It's too hard! Too long!"
Once you have 50,000 words on paper, you can then edit, delete or fine tune. But you need that initial push.
****
I am, shamefully, only at 400 words. Why? I was on vacation? I had to deal with a medical issue? I have to go back to work tomorrow (Monday) and, right off the bat, I'm going to be hit with an interview?
There are a million excuses for both the lack of writing and lack of running. I tried to convince myself that November would be a bad month. But what's a good month? There's always something, isn't there?
Don't be surprised if there is less Joyceyland writing for the next bit, except for updates on my two goals.

Lazy vacation at the Evason Phuket

The "lobby"

If you’re looking a grand marble lobby, blasting air con, eight restaurants and a flat-screen TV in every room, you’ll be disappointed.

"No bars, no shopping,” our cabbie said of this corner of southeast Phuket, with a hint of disappointment.

The fact that were from Hong Kong must have raised expectations. Later, my masseuse said something similar. "Oh, Hong Kong. The Chinese just want to shop and eat pork. No shopping here!"

There was no wifi in the room, no fancy boutiques, no hopping hotel bar -- exactly what we were looking for.

Breakfast view

We didn't leave the Evason for four days and three nights. Every morning, we had breakfast overlooking the Andaman Sea, with a view that even the more luxurious Banyan Tree and Sheraton Laguna don't have. (The tropical sun would have driven most East Asian women into the shade for cover, with their 40 SPF whitening cream). We'd have dinner, a cocktail, then sleep for 10 hours. I got more than 30 hours of sleep in three nights. It's like a personal record.

The first day, we lounged around their infinity pool overlooking the ocean. (Serious swimmers should note that none of their three pools are good for laps, just floating around). The second day we spent at the spa, and I did a yoga class. The third day we went to the Evason's own Bon Island by boat, and rented a "sala", which is an open-air hut with a thatched room. (The island compensates for the fact that the actual beach next to the hotel is small and rocky.)

Would I recommend this place? Depends on who you are. It's not for my mom, who considered her sole trip to Thailand a great adventure, even though we just stayed at The Peninsula in Bangkok and had high tea. Anything lesser would have spooked her.

But it's good if you're an eco-friendly - natural - healthy - athletic type. Its brochure include a plethora of outdoor activities: Horse riding! Snorkeling! Nighttime boat rides! Mountain biking! It also assuages any guilt one might have about spending thousands of dollars vacationing in a poor country. The in-room guide lists all the charity work it does for endangered species, schoolkids, etc. It gets a little too P.C. -- I'm not sure riding animals prevents them from "getting into trouble in urban areas," as if baby elephants were all budding juvenile delinquents heading to the red-light district -- but the thought is nice.


The Evason feels less like a hotel and more like a condo complex, maybe a very posh village. The buildings are all white-washed low-rises, set along quiet tree-lined, car-free streets. The rooms are like mini-apartments with their own balconies. (As a bonus to me, their main decor color is orange, including oversized cushions everywhere). We just paddled from coffee, to pool, to spa, to room, to pool again.

The guests were mostly European, British and Australian -- so lots of big, white, sweaty people turning pink in the sun. There were almost no Asians, except for a few Japanese. Oddly, no Americans.

Two young Japanese women got inordinately dressed up for breakfast -- designer sun-dresses, leather handbags, high heels, lots of make-up. They were very skinny and pale, ate a few pieces of fruit, then disappeared inside. It's that ridiculous Asian obsession with very white skin. God knows why they'd go somewhere like the Evasom. There was one stoic Japanese mom who dutifully accompanied her husband and adorable, perfectly behaved son. There she was at the pool, surrounded by inflatable floaty toys, wearing a full-body wetsuit usually used by deep-sea divers, plus a giant hat.

The only down side were the mosquitoes. I can't blame the Evason entirely, because I've always been plagued by mosquitoes. Even in suburban Connecticut -- not exactly an insect-infested tropical jungle -- I would come home covered in bites, while my brother was fine. Maybe I just taste good.

The Evason doesn’t stock mosquito spray -- not in housekeeping, not in their gift shop. I'm talking about the good, chemical-packed stuff. I appreciate their green intensions, but organic lemongrass spritz or whatever doesn’t work. At one point, I was lying in their spa, covered in mud, watching the therapist try to catch mosquitoes with her hands. Finally, the giftshop girl pulled out a small bottle she kept behind the counter. (Clever gal. She's bought it at 7-Eleven to re-sell to tourists like me). I gave her 50 baht for it.

Another warning. We found the Evason wonderfully quiet. Their sprawling, beautifully manicured grounds were almost empty. But we went at the end of the rainy season instead of the middle of high season. One of their staff (with a frankness that would probably get her sacked at a Hong Kong hotel) told us only 40 rooms were full out of more than 200. While the grounds are huge, the facilities aren't. The pools are small-ish, and the boat to Bon Island holds about 15 at a time. So, in better times, it might feel crowded.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

My vacation reading

Most women overpack clothes. I overpack books. Marc the Metrosexual couldn't believe I went to Phuket with only one pair of old sandals (which I ruined on a boat trip), practically no clothes and thousands of pages in reading material, including a hefty first-edition hardback.
"It's only three nights!" he said.

Maybe it's because my job requires me to read lots very quickly. I can't make myself savor books or magazines at a normal pace anymore.

So I bring lots, and it's heavy. Traveling is the only time I wish I had a Kindle.


“Freedom.” I bought this because I’m always looking for good short fiction. Also, I’m interested in rights, and this was compiled by Amnesty. But they didn’t have to hit the reader over the head with it. The cover practically begs: PLEASE READ THIS VERY SERIOUS BOOK ABOUT HUMAN RIGHTS. There are three forwards about rights. Each story is paired with a relevant article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In case you didn't get the point, they also reprint the whole declaration. Too bad about the packaging, because there are some good pieces. They benefit from being very short -- the briefest are only four or five pages. It was OK in an earnest, depressing sort of way. The Guardian calls it a book that's too good for its own good.

“The Year of the Flood” by Margaret Atwood.
I knew I’d love it, as soon as I saw the tiny cartoon stripper girls illustrated on the cover. This came as a relief after that Amnesty one. This sequel to “Oryx and Crake” is a quick-paced, page-turner with complex subplots. It’s a rowdy book with Hookers! Drugs! Conspiracy theories! Man-made plagues! Environmental disasters! Killer mutant animals! Cults! By page 20, I was immersed in a tale of an ex-prostitute scavenging to live in a post-apocalyptic Earth. There’s a “Survivor” reality TV feel to it, as the book tracks various characters – once coddled by the comforts of civilization -- scrambling to find firearms and food.


The Nov. issue of Vogue.
I rarely read fashion magazines, unless I’m in a waiting room. The only one I buy is American Vogue. My rule: If Anna Wintour hasn’t edited it, I’m not spending money on it. As a kid, I aspired to reading “Vogue,” which was a step up from its plebian counterparts – the kind that told you what skirt hid a big butt, or how to apply mascara. Vogue was not instructional; it was aspirational.
Unlike most fashion mags, American Vogue actually has stuff to read. This month’s cover is about a remake of Fellini’s “8 ½”, starring Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard and Judi Dench. There’s humor (they sent a fey Vogue writer on a gruelling outdoor adventure); a random essay on Hedy Lemarr; another on horse riding; and quite a few pages on contemporary American painters. The coverage touches on design, travel, films, books, plays.
This issue had an outdoor theme. When I was younger, Vogue made me long for evening gowns and urbane life. Now, it’s the opposite. It makes me fantasize about a country home, a garden, a dog, a horse, living near a city with vintage clothes and live theatre. (I did grow up in Connecticut).
Of course, it’s still a fashion magazine. It’s frivolous, indulgent, vain and filled with impossibly thin girls in ridiculous outfits. It’s escapism, but intelligent escapism.

“The Book of Other People”. This is a collection of character sketches from authors like Nick Hornby, Jonathan Lethem and Zadie Smith, who edited it. I haven’t finished it yet. As I do with the New Yorker, I read the cartoon sections first. I liked the two by the comic artists Daniel Clowes and C. Ware.

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Marc the Metrosexual may have only brought one book to Thailand, but it was the French version of Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) by Jonathan Littell, which weighed in at 900 pages.