The week before Christmas is a good time to visit DC - not many tourists, not many school trips, not many politicians around town.
Washington, DC Page
Sports and the accompany high salaries are not exactly free market based.
I explain here.
I spent Paris mornings running up Avenue de la Grand Armee. At the Arc de Triomphe I shot down another boulevard before looping back to the hotel. Each night I had a new favorite arrondissement. Victor Hugo. Trocadero. Bastille. Chairs turned out at these plazas made for endless hours of world watching. Le Jardin du Luxembourg. Champ de Mars. Jardin des Tuiliries. The Eiffel Tower and Louvre were backdrops to an afternoon of drinking wine, not places to wait in a line. I didn’t see Paris, I became Paris. Each evening, a short walk along the grand Haussmann architecture was all it took to leave the day behind. Surrounded by thousands I operated in my own dimension.
Public escape...that's my Paris. Hoping to rekindle public escape I headed to Buenos Aires which since the late 20th Century has been marketed as The Paris of South America.
In Buenos Aires I expected to drink cappuccinos on crowded plazas, wine in public parks. That's not Buenos Aires. Plazas Serrano and Dorrego are not Trocadero or Bastille. I did not mistake Avenue 9 de Julio for the Champs Élysées. Buenos Aires is cosmopolitan, there are wide boulevards, it's fashionable and trendy. It feels European...it does not feel like Paris. There was no public escape.
Buenos Aires fell way below initial expectations. I commiserated at El Hipopotamo a dark, mahogany lined bar with limited views of Parque Lezama across the street. In Paris chairs were outside under a blue sky. In Buenos Aires barely a sliver of the afternoon sun shined on the sidewalk outside. Peanuts. Quilmes. Wooden chair at a wooden table with no one else around.
Where was I? Buenos Aires? I slowly eased into private escape. Instead of being surrounded by thousands, I was surrounded by few. The sensation of escape was the same; the path different. Instead of escaping in the greenery of a public park I escaped in the private confines of an old cafe. My views of Buenos Aires started to change. I slipped into my own dimension.
My initial dismal impression was an expectation gap between my preconceived notions of how I thought Buenos Aires should be, based upon marketing, and my individual experience. I preconceived Paris. I received Buenos Aires. I viewed Buenos Aires through what it lacked relative to Paris, not on the city's individual merits. I looked for something specific, something familiar. Something that I wanted to see.
I spent ten days in Buenos Aires and it was in the final days that my views of the city changed. Disappointment of non-Paris, no public escape turned to enjoyment of Buenos Aires and private escape. Instead of plazas I searched for bares notables, the city’s historical drinking and dining establishments. Every neighborhood had it’s own El Hipopotamo and my days were filled walking from one to another.
There are three outcomes to expectations - exceed, equal, or below. How I evaluate results is often influenced by the gap between my preconceived expectations and actual experience. Lower expectations allow for greater potential to exceed; impractically high expectations may draw an unfavorable conclusion on an otherwise strong performance. Both situations distort the evaluation.
The initial prognosis to the expectation gap issue seems simple...keep an open mind, don't develop expectations. This belies the obvious...there's a reason activites are engaged and travel locations are selected. Short notice and no planning reduce the time to develop expectations, however, this approach is not a panacea. Rather than run from expectations it’s better to understand their creation.
Expectations are a product of your total environment. You control the data inputs, the amount, and their source. Be critical of the input values, the ranking and weight, and adjust. It's not about eliminating expectations. It’s about creating more by using an open mind to perpetuate the process. Continually compare, contrast, and evaluate. Consider and vary the sources from which expectations arise. Gather more data inputs. No conclusion is complete. No experience is final. There’s no limit to Buenos Aires’ inputs, certainly not a singular analysis calling the city The Paris of South America.
Alternatively what if I did find Paris during my initial days? What if La Boca’s grittiness reminded me of Paris’ outer arrondissements? A beer at Plaza Serrano was a beer at Bastille? Do strong expectations blind reality? Does the mind subconsciously filter images and experiences to see what it wants instead of what it should?
There’s danger in seeing what you want and failing to recognize that an expectation became a filtered reality. Just as expectations should comprise multiple inputs and sources so should actual experiences. Thoughts should be both consciously and unconsciously independent of expectations. New experiences shouldn’t cease simply because the current reality matches the preconceived expectations. There should be a continuous flow of new experiences from multiple perspectives under varying conditions.
If travel has any benefits over other activities it’s that there is a higher frequency of experiences and stimulants. There’s a steadier stream of analysis. Conclusions are flexible and quickly change. There’s less of a gap between an initial and a subsequent perspective. There’s a larger safety net to try something new, vary the conditions, and try again. Even then individual experiences may vary from the group collective. Buenos Aires supposedly has great pizza. My first attempt - bad. My second attempt - worse. My third attempt at a reknown location - worst. I ran out of days for a fourth attempt. My conclusion isn’t that Buenos Aires has bad or overrated pizza; it’s that the places I ate were bad.
I select a place to visit. I develop expectations from various sources. I independently evaluate the results from multiple angles and conditions. I repeat as often as possible.
It was near complete darkness outside the plane window as we made our descent into Dhaka. The airport is north of the city and I thought we must be approaching opposite the city lights. I began to see a few street lights and only a few house lights. Within a minute of landing it became clear I misjudge our approach. We were passing over the city. I could see more and more houses barely lit up from the street lights. Individual house outlines became visible. It also became visible that Bangladesh would be a unique travel experience.
It took about twenty minutes to process the visa on arrival. None of the five people in front of me had a hard copy of their return ticket or hotel accommodations even though they are stated requirements. It took a phone call to find the waiting tuk tuk (called CNGs in Bangladesh) and I was on my way to the B&B style accommodation. We passed through a line of people fifty feet long and five people deep waiting on the shoulders of the road for other passengers to arrive.
The B&B is an apartment unit in the BLANK neighborhood. The area is about two miles north of Gulshan the upper class neighborhood. There's a local bazar in the neighborhood and the area is relatively nice, I'd guess it's safely middle class.
The first morning I hired a tuk tuk to take me to the sights in Old Dhaka. On a Saturday morning the drive is quick - instead of an hour and a half, it takes forty minutes to cover the less than ten mile difference. The first stop was Dhakeswhari Temple, the Holiest Hindu site in Bangladesh. When I hear 'est anything I start to anticipate something special but this temple was pretty basic. The four cenotaphs across from the entrance were a little underwhelming and the prayer room was basic as well.
From here it's was a short ride to Lalbagh Fort. It's described as a fort that's never been completed…but there's so little fortiness here I'd say it's better described as a fort that's never been started. There's s tomb for Bibi Pari, one of the sultans daughters. The sultan took her death as an omen and stopped construction. In a far corner is a large gate. On the walk back to the entrance / exit I went through the small palace area. Some guns, armor, and tableware.
Next stop Tara Mosque, aka Star Mosque for the blue stars inlayed on the white exterior. An imam unlocked the door and I was able to get a closer look. Similar to Dhakeswhari Temple, the mosque was a bit smaller in size then I anticipated although it was a much more impressive sight up close. The white tile radiated across the courtyard and the blue stars made for a distinct design.
I had my second meal of the day across the street a block back at Nanna Biriani. I order the Morog Polao, a Bangladeshi national dish and their version of Chicken Biryani. The chicken was decent but the rice stood out. It tasted much closer to the coconut type rice served in the Malay Nasi Lemak dish. The rice was much sweeter and softer than the rice included with the Indian Chicken Biryani dish.
I utilized the tuk tuk for one more ride to Shankhari Bazar. The Bazar was lined with the typical shops, however, Ganesh and a few other Hindu statues were on platforms in the street. At one of the statues men beat drums as another felt the music and made an offering gyration. I walked down Islampur Road, another major commercial street to the Banglabook Bazar. Book vendors have stacks of study guides stack up on sidewalk stalls. Most of the books look old and I wonder whether the learning materials are relevant. The only place I've seen a similar book bazar is Calcutta - it must be shared Bengal cultural thing.
Islampur Road leads to Sadarghat Boat Terminal, Dhaka's main ferry terminal. Large ferries are lined up next to one another offer rides up and down the Buriganga. The thing for tourists to do is hitch a ride in one of the small dhows that transports citizens back and forth across the river from North Dhaka to South Dhaka. The boat is a bit wobbly. We make it to the other shore, I take a few photos, and we had back to the terminal. The river is busy, mostly with people going from one side to the other, although I did catch a glimpse of the ship building and repair operations.
Less than a five minute walk from the Sadarghat Boat Terminal is Ahsan Manzil, a former palace, turned slum, turned museum. The museum occupies both floors of the palace with rooms dedicated to weaponry, portraits, history, etc. The most impressive rooms - the billiard room, the dining hall, the drawing room, and the dance hall - were those reflected the period design when royalty last lived in the palace during the early 1900s.
It was then time for another tuk tuk ride to the Motijheel Road area. This is one of Dhaka's main business areas, at least from a domestic perspective. I came here for another Bangleshi specific meal, Vuna Kichuri, at Ghorowa Hotel & Restaurant. The Vuna Kichuri was closer to Biryani I've had before than the Murog Polao I ate earlier, although it was very spice. Buried within the rice was a piece of chicken.
I walked around the Motijheel Area then hired another tuk tuk and returned to the hotel.
In the evening I went to Golshan for dinner. Another local meal of beef kebabs and naan.
I returned to the hotel and met one of the owners. The hotel is a quasi not for profit. The owner is involved with an orphanage and helps place children with jobs in the tourism industry.
I've visited many Chinese temples. I've seen many practitioners take off their shoes, seen many a joss stick burned, seen many a sacrifice placed on an alter. I've heard chanting and the stringing and blowing of instruments. But I've never seen or heard a service nor does the Chinese folk religion have a monk, preacher, or sadhu equivalent.
I've started to wonder how the “stories”, philosophies, and guidance of Chinese folk religion pass from one generation to the next. How has Confucius philosophy been shared for the past 2,500 years? What is the primary sacred text, a Bible, Quran, or Vedas equivalent that details the stories of 1,000s of gods and goddesses?
Google does not provide a quick and simple answer. I've searched for books without success on Amazon.
Enter Haw Par Villa. In the 1920s the founders of Tiger Balm relocated from Rangoon to Singapore. The brothers' product soon became a pharmaceutical best seller and with the proceeds built a mansion and a theme park. The mansion was destroyed during WWII, however, the theme park lives on. The “theme” park has a unique hook - instead of rides and amusements there's dioramas depicting scenes from Chinese folk religion. At long last I will finally have some religious and philosophical insight.
The park opens daily from 9-7 and the entrance gate is less than a minute walk from the Haw Par Villa metro station on the Circle Line. The park has several sections dedicated to the major stories and themes of Chinese religion such as “Journey to the West” and “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. Other areas focus on Confucian virtues and celebrate the zodiac animals, sometimes in gruesome battles.
The first section, the Ten Courts of Hell, is the most memorable for its graphic images. Once you pass through the entrance to hell, there's a quick scene showing after death options: virtuous, cross the Gold bridge; more good than bad, cross the Silver bridge; the “guilty” stand at the Mirror of Retribution where all their past misdeeds are revealed…
…and punishment doled out, court by brutal court.
Lack of filial obedience - intestines pulled out
Disrespect your elders - heart cut out.
Neglecting the old - crushed under rocks.
I'm starting to understand why the Chinese treat their parents so well.
Corruption, stealing, gambling - frozen into blocks of ice.
Tax dodger, business fraud - pounded by a stone mallet.
Charging high interest rates - thrown onto a hill of knives.
Maybe the SEC should look into these sorts of penalties.
Drug trafficking, tomb robbing, encouraging social unrest - tied to hot pillar and grilled
Cheating, cursing, abduction - thrown onto a tree of knives
Misuse of books, wasting food - body sawn in two
Murder - head and arms cutoff (seems relatively light compared to wasting food)
Finally at the tenth court it's reincarnation where you get to live once more…and die and descend to hell again.
After leaving the Ten Courts of Hell the rest of the dioramas seem quite tame although they still retain some unusual qualities. There's rabbits fighting rats, rats and elephants pointing guns at grasshoppers, and a scene from Planet of the Apes.
Upper sections of the theme park provide descriptions of the scene (although it was fun imagining the background of the descriptionless scenes. Another gruesome segment involved the battle between the Monkey God and the Scarlet Child. Fortunately the Monkey God could count on Pigsy for support.
Dioramas also share Confucian virtuous qualities. No gambling. No drug dealing. Be a good friend or you'll be eaten by a bear. Save a turtle so he turtle can return the favor when your boat sinks.
It took about an hour to walk through the park but I learned more about Chinese religion here than in all the previous temple visits combined. I also learned why Chinese children are so quiet and well-behaved.
I checked my watch for the fifth time since boarding the MTR. 9:56. I wanted to arrive early at Wong Tai Sin temple. On Chinese New Year’s Eve this Hong Kong temple welcomes thousands of worshipers, all seeking to make an early offering - the earlier, the more luck in the New Year. This would be a New Year of new traditions.
On arrival I was relieved to see only a few hundred people in attendance and spent time circling through the temple complex. Statues adorned with lucky red bows were flanked by Kumquat Trees, a golden, lucky citrus fruit. On my third loop security closed the gates to the temple and I found myself waiting in a pen with a growing crowd of worshipers.
It was 10:45 and figuring it was over an hour before the celebration I reflected on the events preceding New Year's Eve. House cleaning and shopping activities went into overdrive. Couplet writing tables, using traditional Chinese black ink and brush, appeared on street corners. Office supply stores sold red envelopes - the Chinese pioneered the art of holiday cash gifts. Lanyards hung from Wishing Trees and New Year’s music played from mall and shopping center loudspeakers. It is the most auspicious time of the year.
Loud bells and chanting interrupted the wait. The gates opened. It was 11:02, so much for waiting until midnight to get the good luck wishing started. A flow of people holding burning joss sticks and pinwheel prayer wheels ascended the temple stairs and headed to the prayer area. Once the joss sticks were placed in position, a rocking prayer was performed, and then security ushered the crowd away to make room for others.
Good luck in the New Year assured, I rode the MTR to Prince Edward to secure a seat at one of the bars along Tung Choi street. The bar scene seemed odd...too many seats were available. Two blocks over a steady stream of people walked to Fa Hui Park Flower Market. Beer in an empty bar or join the crowds to a Flower Market...a new tradition was born.
Forget watching TV at a bar or a friend's house, waiting for a ball to drop with champagne in one hand and a noisemaker in the other...Chinese New Year's Eve is all about the Flower Markets. At Fa Hui Park the crowds were so tight you could barely see the green of the park’s sport courts under your feet, let alone raise a glass to celebrate. Flowers, balloons, stuffed animals, and food - everything imaginable was on sale. Attendees were too busy celebrating with friends and family to worry about waiting in long lines or a countdown to midnight.
Exhausted from the marathon of events I returned to Tung Choi street for a New Year’s Eve beer before catching the MTR to Causeway Bay. New traditions are nice, however, there are some old one’s I’d like to maintain.