Thursday, April 10, 2014

Couchsurfers, Ahoy!

Most travelers, backpackers, nomads, and vagabonds have had some interaction with Couchsurfing, and it's about time I write about mine. I have been involved with the couchsurfing community since 2009, and have never had a bad experience. It started when I bummed a cigarette off a random girl on the FSU campus, and we started talking about backpacking. She told me all about couchsurfing, and had used the website to travel Southeast Asia super cheap one year, so I thought I would give it a go.

Eating pizza on a street corner of Hong Kong 
with a friend I made through couchsurfing!

 I took this photo of one of my first couchsurfers in Tally with my friends 
after an awesome day tubing down rivers in North Florida

So, what IS couchsurfing? Besides being a website, it's a network of people around the world who fit into one of two categories:

Hosts- These are people who have some extra space in their apartment (a couch, futon, bed, air mattress, etc.) who are willing to let a stranger crash at their place for free for a few days.

Surfers- These are travellers who are looking to stay in a strangers' apartment for a few days, for a variety of reasons like saving money, making friends, feeling more at home in a foreign city, meeting locals, etc.

Mostly, I just host people, but I have occasionally used it to surf at other peoples' places as well.

 Here I am in New Orleans, surfing someone else's 
couch over Halloween weekend one year

Couchsurfing ISN'T:
A dating website (seriously creepers, stop messaging me)
Just a free couch for a night or two (it's all about building relationships)
A scam or threat (be safe and listen to your intuition, but you can also let your guard down)

Some of my best couchsurfing experiences:
Tubing down a river in North Florida with an awesome couchsurfer
Finding a roommate in Guatemala randomly
Ending up at a gay Ecuadorian disco with an American artist surfing my couch
Dragging a couchsurfer along to the opera with me in Quito
Discovering a hidden Hong Kong beach with a new friend I met on the website
Dressing a French couchsurfer up like Cap'n Jack Sparrow for a costume party
Being hosted by hippies during Voodoo Fest in New Orleans
Taking a British kid to a classic American university kegger

Never would have met this goober without Couchsurfing
(notice me screaming in the background?)

My whole group of friends in Guatemala was thanks to Couchsurfing!

If you are worried about allowing strangers into your home, no worries, the website has a variety of safeguards in place to protect you. There are public reviews of surfers that can't be erased from their profile, so if the person was a creep who hit on their host or overstayed their welcome, you will know about it. There is also a system called 'vouching' where reliable members can vouch for your character. Also, you can pay to be 'verified' which means the website will send you a special code on a postcard in the mail to confirm you actually live at the address you say you do.

Ria-Leen, a rad Namibian chick I hosted recently in Hong Kong 

Paco, an awesome French guy I hosted in Ecuador

I've never worried about safety and every couchsurfer I've ever met has always been wonderful. They can tag along and hang out with me while in town, or go do their own thing. Some couchsurfers help cook or clean, or buy you a beer their first night in town. I tend to include mine as much as possible, whether I hit up a happy hour, hang out with friends, or chill on the beach. I've met so many cool people and it has broadened my horizons. Thanks, couchsurfing!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

An Ode to Florida

What does it mean to be a Floridian? When people ask me where I’m from, I always say Florida with a bit of a reluctant shrug, or a comment like, ‘but it’s way shittier living there than you would imagine.’ And yet, somedays, I yearn for Florida so desperately that I want to book a ticket home. 

 I'm a natural born beach bum

I crave the oppressive humidity and heat, so thick you feel like you are swimming down the driveway when you go to get your mail. I miss the hilarity of having to stop your car for a gator crossing, the thrill of crawling army style through the mangroves to avoid the Coast Guard, who caught you drinking illegally on the beach at night. I miss the wacky headlines, the sound of palm trees rustling, the smell of the ocean and chlorine and spray tans. I miss indulging in some beers and smokes with my friends on a patio, and the laughably cheap lunch buffets for snowbirds. I miss cutting open coconuts from my backyard next to the pool. I miss wearing barely there clothes and finding lizards in my shower and stepping over snakes. I miss racing against the sun to eat a popsicle, taco stands, and fresh orange juice. I miss having a drawer full of bikinis, and my car floor always an inch deep in sand. I miss the pink sunsets and afternoon thunderstorms. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Sanibel Island. Perpetual sunburns. South Beach. Weeki Wachee and Blue Springs. Hurricane parties and stringing up a hammock between two palm trees in my backyard. 

Growing up in Florida means Disney World foam parties

Is there a part of me that belongs in a Key West style tiki bar with Jimmy Buffett playing in the background? I rejected Florida so strongly growing up, but now as an adult I see that I can't even imagine living somewhere with snow, or seasons in general. Mountains are unsettling to me, as are earthquakes and two story houses. And why on Earth would anyone ever need an attic, basement, or fireplace?!

My favorite used book store in Fort Myers, FL

Being from Florida has really shaped who I am as a person in indescribable ways. As much as I hate some aspects of life there, and have been known to call it the ‘cultural blackhole where America  goes to die,’ I still can’t help but miss it. I probably identify more as a Floridian than as an American. How about you, dear readers? To what extent has your childhood home shaped your personality?

Walking Dead on Fort Myers Beach

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Volunteering in Hong Kong

I have lots of opportunities for service through my job (teaching middle and high school) because our students need supervisors for a lot of the charity work they do. It is nice to branch out on my own and give back to the community as well though. This Sunday, I volunteered for Vision First, an organization that provides services to the refugee population in Hong Kong. The women's group makes knit handicrafts, and they needed people to work at Vision First's booth at an artisan market. The money goes back to the women, who are then able to use it to help support their families.

The international fair was set at the beautiful Harrow school

Me with some other volunteers at the Vision First booth

When I moved to Hong Kong, I reached out and emailed a few places saying if they ever needed a volunteer they could contact me, and I'm slowly building up relationships with some of the organizations around town I keep seeing at various service events. Interested in volunteering in Hong Kong? Here are some ideas:

  • Crossroads- this organization facilitates donations and distributions of second hand goods to people in need, amongst other things.
  • Plastic Free Seas- contact them to arrange a beach clean up!
  • Vision First- provide services to Hong Kong's refugee population.
  • Room to Read- an international group that promotes literacy and gender equality and always needs tutors.
  • Bethune House- a group focused on raising the quality of life for the helpers (migrant live-in nannys) of Hong Kong.

I will admit it, volunteering can be very selfish for me, in that it provides an almost therapeutic release. It's hard to watch the news and not feel guilty about having been born into relative privilege, and there is something always gnawing at me telling me to give back. So while I give back, I also receive a sense of purpose, and I better the community and myself at the same time. I don't know what the 'right' reasons are for volunteering, I just know I can't imagine my life without it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

New Look - Sold at ZALORA Here in HK!

What’s your style? Bohemian? Flirty feminine? Punk rock? Business Casual? There’s an online boutique here in Hong Kong that has something for everyone called ZALORA. I used to shop mostly at Urban Outfitters back in the States, and I thought Hong Kong didn’t have anything like it until I discovered ZALORA. 

Perfect top for an afternoon tea with some lovely ladies

Don't worry about a purse at HK festival like Clockenflap or Beertopia

ZALORA is completely online, and shipping is free over HKD 150. Not only do they have a huge range of apparel, shoes, and accessories, but their products are also somehow super affordable! They have recently added New Look to their list of brands offered, and if you head over to the website now, you can get a $100 voucher for signing up for their newsletter.

Looks like spring is here- maybe on an upcoming junk tour of the Harbour?

Stand out at happy hour on Wyndham Street

The weather is changing and things are slowly heating up again- isn’t it about time to spice up your wardrobe? Click around the New Look collection and daydream about some cute outfits you put together- and then, oh, wait! You can actually afford them!

My personal favorite

Check out all of these looks here, and shop wherever it’s convenient for you- on the bus, in bed, at brunch. New Look can help all of us Hong Kong ladies ease into spring looking and feeling like our inner-fashionistas. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Light and Shadows Exhibit in Admiralty

Do you love the light and shadows of Baroque paintings? Does Caravaggio strike something deep and personal when you stare at his mysterious figures? Then you have to check out the Hong Kong Jockey Club's free art exhibit, Light and Shadows. It's being hosted by the Asia Society Art Gallery.

Asia Society is in a lovely woodsy hillside setting

The exhibit features local artists that have pieces connected to a series of Caravaggio inspired themes, such as shadows and theatricality.

Art by Chow Chun-Fai

More art by Chow Chun-Fai

Photo by So Hing-keung

And then you arrive at the Supper at Emmaus, which depicts Jesus revealing himself to his disciples after his resurrection. Caravaggio actually painted two of these; the Hong Kong exhibit has the second version, which includes an old lady and a beard on Jesus, neither of which the original painting had. It's really massive and the detail is breath-taking. I spent a good ten minutes just trying to study the way he portrayed the light and shadows so realistically. You can pick up free tickets to the show all over town, or at the door, so go get your weekly dose of culture!

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio

Friday, March 7, 2014

I Don't Get Macau

I spent a day in Macau last month and I'm just now getting around to writing about it. What a strange place. Am I the only one who feels this way?

It was obviously Chinese, as it is a Special Administrative Region of China, the population is 86% Cantonese, and there are dim sum restaurants on every other street corner.

Chinese New Year decorations downtown

Something about Macau also felt like Latin America. The electrical poles were weighed down with mountains of wires that had to be hazardous, and there were seedy back streets and dilapidated apartment buildings. I felt quite anxious on one particular taxi ride that took us through a residential area near the colonial district, because it reminded me so much of Quito.

Residential area in Macau- not all parts looked this sketchy though!

Macau used to be a Portuguese colony, so the cuisine and architecture in certain areas felt very European. Only .6% of the population is Portuguese, and about 7% speak Macau Portuguese, a dialect unique to the region.

Portuguese colonial district of Macau

Eating oxtail and African chicken at a Portuguese restaurant
Cafe Litoral: We've got the meat sleeps.

Macau is also the gambling capital of the world, contrary to public opinion that Las Vegas dominates that industry (Vegas makes about 15% what Macau does each year in gambling revenue). The Hard Rock Cafe, Venetian Hotel, and other casinos really felt like I was back in Vegas. We had trouble finding a decent bar though, which shows you the difference between Vegas and Macau. Gambling in Macau was borderline boring. We walked through a couple casinos and it just wasn't very exciting, no drunk assholes or shotgun weddings or celebrity sightings.

In front of the Venetian casino- Just like Las Vegas!

Macau Casinos at night

My favorite part of the day was getting to see House of Dancing Water, an acrobatic Cirque du Soleil style production set over water. What an incredible show. The theater was intimate and the stunts performed perfectly. My only issue was that they didn't enforce a 'no cell phone usage' rule, which almost ruined it for me, because the audience was a sea of phone screens and the girl next to me sat on facebook with her phone's brightness turned all the way up for almost the entire performance. Do something about that, people!

You can take a ferry boat from the Sheung Wan pier straight to Macau, but get there early because you do have to go through customs before boarding. The boat is an hour long with pretty views of the Chinese coast. Macau makes a great option for a day trip from Hong Kong, or an overnighter at one of the massive casinos if you are into that. I'm glad I saw it, but I don't think I will go back until I get a little more comfortable with chaos.

So what is it? European? Asian? Meh, who knows, who cares. It's fabulously unique.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Keeping Healthy in Hong Kong

This is a city that works hard and plays harder, and as a result, has a noticeably beautiful population. How do they do it when it can be so easy to slip into an unhealthy lifestyle? In my area at least, there are healthy meal opportunities, gyms, and yoga studios everywhere!

There's Mana!, my favorite vegetarian restaurant in the city. It goes beyond being cruelty free, as they have waste sorting facilities in the restaurant and biodegradable plates and cutlery. Near the escalator in Soho, we also have Just GreenLife, eat Right, and Herbivores. All healthy, delicious, and relatively affordable.

Just Green- organic grocery store with vegan ice cream!

Mana! Fast Slow Food, delicious wraps and salads

eatRight has great lunch specials

Life does great lunch specials as well 

Herbivores is a cozy vegetarian restaurant

I have a lot of friends that have gym memberships at Pure Fitness, but there are other options in the area as well. Seems like everyone in this city is always carrying their gym bag.

And for the cheap asses like me, a yoga mat on my living room floor will do just fine. For some more upbeat HIIT workouts (high intensity interval training), Blogilates is the bomb. Each video targets a different body part, so you just mix and match abs, obliques, thighs, arms, butt, etc. For a more even-paced, gentle body workout, Yoga with Adriene is yummy, soothing, and quirky.

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