Subjective Paradise

Vegas is like another New York. No one seems to sleep, and even at night the Strip is still packed with people.

Caught Blue Man Group (dream come true!) and they were so so so good. I was purely expecting a music performance, but I loved how they entertained and interacted with the audience. The late comers stint was awesomely funny, and very impromptu too. I liked how the whole show felt so real, and not scripted like there was already a fixed timestamp for every act that was to be put up. Their clever use of speechlessness made it very impactful because people pay more attention when there’s but only facial expressions and body language. As a result, everyone kept their eyes peeled and ears wide open. You’d enjoy a show even more when you pick up every little detail. Awesome, awesome show. Worth every buck spent.

I think that 4 nights in Vegas is a bit too long, at least for me. If you’re not really into casinos and all that nightlife action, then 3 nights would be just right. Enough to explore the zillions of hotel casinos and malls along the Strip and shoot scenes of spectacular architecture and neon lights to your heart’s content. Vegas is an interesting place, though not really my cup of tea. There is definitely more to than just casinos and entertainment, but not extensively more to be honest. Nevertheless, a good stopover to personally get a taste of this entertainment paradise (pun intended, lol).

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Vegas

A city that’s as commercialized as you can ever get. Everyone is trying to sell you something — show tickets, grand canyon tour packages, half-price dinners, photo shoots with mascots, souvenirs, sunglasses… You name it, you get it. Money-making runs through the blood of this city; every waking moment you’re bombarded with sights and sounds of something that involves a trade of cash forsome form of entertainment or pleasure. The Strip is flooded with casinos at every corner, and surprisingly enough every casino you see has people, even during the day, so you can imagine how congested this place must be.

For a city that is extensively dramatized by shows like CSI for being a heartland for all things bad — crimes, murder, drugs, gambling, and everything you could possibly associate with the dark side of the rich and famous — it’s actually a very safe place. So if you had this picture in your head of Vegas with loitering drug traffickers and mafias all along the street, then that’s pretty inaccurate because you don’t get any of that. At least along The Strip. Perhaps that exists in other shady parts of Vegas, I don’t know (and I don’t really want to know or witness either).

One thing that I don’t really understand is the surprisingly large number of kids/children you see around. Vegas is a pretty place that does have some bit of attractions that are catered for the young ones, but to me it isn’t exactly a kid-friendly kinda city with all that adult-rated activities and media plastered all over the streets. 

I thought that New York City’s materialistic, but Vegas is probably several times more in comparison. Just walking down Las Vegas Blvd is enough to realize how showy this place is. It’s incredible how much they managed to compact into just this one street. Buildings alone are pretty spectacular — you’ve got your Eiffel Tower from Paris, Statue of Liberty from New York, in-house theme parks, and shopping malls with very, very elaborate decorations. If you like architecture and design, you’re in for some really gorgeous masterpieces. Everything is so well-packaged, and so eye candy-ish. People dress fashionably, and carry themselves well. You see people from all walks of life and culture. Just put on a pair of shades and you’ll fit right in.

Everything feels somewhat pretentious here. When people smile at you, you don’t really know if they mean it, or if it was just merely for show. Every individual on the street seems to carry his or her own agenda; nothing feels very genuine.

I didn’t expect myself to like Vegas very much, but nevertheless still wanted to stop by to see for myself what it’s really like, and if there’s really more to this place than just money, entertainment and pleasure. Perhaps because I didn’t carry much expectations in the first place, I’m actually liking this place quite a bit.

It’s different, of course. Culturally, Vegas is probably on the other end of the spectrum if you were to compare with a spot like Point Loma in San Diego. I like zen kinda places, but Vegas has its fair share of USPs too. There’s always so much going on everywhere you look, and you probably can’t find one spot that’s close to being quiet. I love it when I walk into a hotel or mall and they’re playing a familiar tune; you’d feel welcomed already. Even along the streets you’ll hear good music. Genuine or not, people seem to be having fun and enjoying themselves. And that kinda rubs into you.

On a side note: my room came with an iPod charger/player = Stereo Hearts on eternal replay, heh.

No place to be ending but somewhere to start

I think the most ironic place for a person who doesn’t believe in luck, chance or gambling is Vegas. Didn’t know that Vegas started off as a railway town; licensed to allow gambling since 1931. That’s like 80 years of gambling history. Wonder how much money has been lost by gamblers in Vegas. And people still go back. I still think it is quite amazing that people can put so much on the table and leave the future returns to (some portion) chance. Hardcore players are usually extremely skilled, have good judgment and have the ability to calculate their risks as they progress through a game. I admire such people, cos to me such games are like rocket science.

I decided to stop procrastinating and start working. Too much of anything isn’t good, no?

2 more hours to kill. And they don’t even have a cafe here. I thought I could at least get a second breakfast while waiting.

I’ve got a pocket, got a pocket full of sunshine

First day of the year, last day in San Diego.

Woke up today and impusively decided that I shall ditch all my plans for the day and just bum around. Supposed to go to Sea World but from read ups and photos I see online, it seems like one of those classic iconic city attraction that all the kids would bug their parents to bring them to and the poor parents would have to fork out $73 per pax to appease the pestering. I think of all the cities I’ve visited thus far, I have done the least in San Diego and chillaxed around the most. But then again, I think it’s a good juncture to bum around since it’s about midway through my trip; don’t wanna burn out by combing city after city.

I think the more legit reason for the high propensity to bum around here is that I love Point Loma too much, haha. I just can’t seem to like anywhere else in San Diego, and I’m biased so I kinda don’t have the interest or mood to see any other parts of San Diego. Sea port village area is probably the second favourite area I’ve seen, awesome place to go to for a stroll under the hot morning sun. I checked out the famous Gaslamp Quarters and sort of saw a bit of Old Town San Diego, but weren’t really that spectacular. I knew that Gaslamp probably wouldn’t be my cup of tea, given that it’s an area packed with pubs/bars/clubs with a well, very happening night scene. But I went there anyway, just in case I would be proven wrong — but nope, it’s just as I expected. Dressy people, party animals and alcohol junkies. Too much clutter for my threshold.

San Diego zoo was, to be very honest, so-so. I think I had too high expectations to begin with, being the #2 zoo in the US (and being so damn expensive), so I was thinking well this better be good. To be fair, it has tonnes of animals and a very wide variety of them too. Most zoos in US will probably pale in comparison. But I guess maybe zoo visiting isn’t really my sort of thing. You’d see the standard animals and some really cool special ones that are rarely seen, but overall I couldn’t say that it was a visit that blew me away.

And so I just decided to stroll aimlessly along the streets of Point Loma today. Too bad it’s still pretty foggy, else I would get to see the nice clear blue skies once more before I go. It seems that almost every family in this neighborhood owns a dog, especially those handsome large breeds like retrievers and huskies. Every other person you meet on the street is walking his/her dog, and every other car that passes you by has a dog (or dogs) peeking their head out of the car window enjoying the nice Californian breeze. Every dog I see makes me miss mine. Wonder how he is doing now, and I wonder where he is. At least I’ve gotten over the grieving and taken it as a rite of passage.

This will also be the last night I’ll be staying in a hostel. Quite glad that I chose to do a variety of accommodation – both hotels and hostels, and picked different hostel chains to stay in. Every hostel has its own unique flavour, and all three I’ve stayed in at Seattle, San Fran and San Diego all had their nice bits. I think that the quality of your experience depends a lot on your dorm mates (if you’re sharing a room with other backpackers/travelers) and the other people living in the hostel in general. I stayed in dorms at all three cities — in Seattle, people in the dorm kept to themselves, no one really talked to each other but everyone really respected each others’ privacy and were very zi dong. I kinda liked it that everyone quietly minded their own business and didn’t bother about others. In San Francisco, there were tonnes of people (mainly students) staying in the hostel (being a rather big one) and people really made themselves at home. Hostel facilities were very elaborate and impressive, and what was really nice was that the staff went around on Christmas Day cheering people up with Xmas greetings and surprise candies (lots of people were just bumming around the whole day because nothing’s open on Christmas Day). I had rather rowdy dorm mates in San Francisco though — two Australian girls that were crazy shoppers (they were traveling for two months all over Canada and USA and doing NOTHING BUT SHOPPING). Seriously, I don’t even think you can even wear every clothing / pair of shoes more than 3 times with that many pieces. Sorry, I’m a girl that just cannot wrap my head around extreme shopaholism.

Anyway, the dorm rooms were really nice in SF, but those two girls were amazingly messy people. Their barang occupied more than half of the room space and was really quite an eyesore to be honest. Most travelers tend to head out early in the morning and sleep early. But they were kinda the reverse so it was pretty annoying at times when they came back late at night or in the wee hours. Disclaimer: they were nice and friendly people, just with habits that didn’t really go well with other travelers (another traveler from London couldn’t help but started bitching about them (in a nice way) after one night of staying in our room cos she’s a real light sleeper).

In San Diego, this hostel’s really one of a kind — typically you see students and youngsters staying in hostels but in this one you find a lot of families with little kids staying here. And I think some people stay here for quite long periods of time (in stretches of weeks). It’s more of a chalet feeling than a hostel — low-rise, near the sea, very homey feel.

Well on a side note, at least I wouldn’t be banging my head against ceilings anymore for the next few cities since I’ll be staying in hotels and not sleeping at the top bunk bed in dorms (somehow I keep getting the top bed) and having to dodge the low ceilings.

New year resolution: bang less walls and table legs, bump against less ceilings. Oh and one more important one: fix that old stupid knee injury for good.

Adagio

In many parts of the world, 2012 has begun. Over here I’m still lagging behind, but nevertheless, what’s the hurry.

Decided to go slow on the last day of the year. Get a cup of pike place brew by the seaside and watch the last 12 hours of 2011 go by. Need to give my ACL a breather too; I guess it must be starting to protest after all the hiking and biking in SF. Age is evidently catching up huh, or maybe some things just don’t heal no matter how much time you give it.

2011 has been quite a milestone. I think coming to the US has changed me a lot, and made me grow a lot. You’d figure how much you take the little things in life for granted, and how much of this world you have yet to see and experience. You start fighting with yourself over decisions you have to make at the crossroads. And you learn the pain of compromising because you can’t always have everything you want. Life isn’t a happily ever after fairytale ending; it’s the chapters that come after. Reality can be cruel and merciless. You can take it in your stride, but it isn’t always easy to swallow.

But life isn’t always a doomsday scene from Hollywood. I’m pretty sure we will still be here after 2012, so there’s really no need to get all depressed (or happy — well that’s severe depression actually) that the world is going to end within the next 365 days.

I think my biggest takeaway from this year is finding (or sometimes self-creating) happy spots.

Many of us are already experts in manufacturing grief. Open your photo library from way way back, reminisce the old times, play that nostalgic tune, read those old diary entries. Tear your heart out over those times you wished you could return to, replay those old emotions that you consciously preserved somewhere in the depths of your heart. I do that sometimes, and I’d feel terrible. Objectively speaking, it’s pretty morbid isn’t it? It’s no difference from self-torture, yet we seem to like to do that to ourselves. It’s the biggest irony in human psychology, I think, to compete in feeling the most miserable. I’m sure you’ve witnessed an episode like that.

And so I figured that perhaps it might be better for a change and not be such a psycho and indulge in self-torture. Also known as emoing in today’s lingo. We are have such fantastic cognitive abilities that we are capable of creating our own illusions that’s real enough to fool ourselves. So if we can put ourselves into grief-mode, I guess it shouldn’t be that hard to create happy vibes. And it really isn’t that hard, if you stop craning your neck and squinting your eyes to find that happiness you thought resided in the distant future.

For an extrovert, I find it ironic that I find happiness in solitude. (Hear me out before you lay judgment that I’m crazy.)

Solitude is actually very hard to deal with. Extroverts get an extremely hard time, because we are naturally engineered to talk, socialize and interact. We struggle being alone because not reaching our daily yakking quota drives us up the wall.

But talking in excess isn’t always good. They say moderation is key, and I guess that applies to extroversion. In the right circumstances, I talk lot. Always had and I predict I always will. But sometimes when you keep talking you don’t listen. And you miss out a lot when you don’t listen. You tell people your side of the story but you stop hearing others’. You are used to flooding your mind with words and thoughts that you don’t know how to control them when you lack a channel to output. And when that happens you feel the urge to find someone or some way to let out your thoughts before they drown your soul.

It takes time and I guess a tad of determination to quieten your mind and let it rest. Like how our bodies get tired after physical strain, our minds need a break too from mental processing. When you can finally stare into nothingness and let your mind empty out, it’s really a nice feeling.

I think solitude helps you empty out all those old crappy lingering thoughts more easily. It’s hard at first when your mind keeps filling up and its contents have no where to go except swirl round and round in your thought space. But once in a while those thoughts find their own escape routes and clear out from your mind, and you’d feel like there’s suddenly a lot more room up there. When there’s less clutter and more space, you welcome happy feelings a little more easily. Or at least that’s what I get. It’s nice to let those burdens go once in a while and make room for happy feelings. The truth is that those burdens will always come back sooner or later, and reality will always come knocking on your door no matter how much you’d try to ignore. But that doesn’t mean you have to torture yourself by carrying all that heavy thoughts with you 24/7. To put it in a crude and sarcastic way this is nothing more than escapism. Then again, who cares? Escapism beats the gravity of reality, so I’ll gladly opt for the former.

My new year resolution is to be more honest with myself and not to live with a heavy heart. Life sucks sometimes, but there is always a happy tomorrow after a good night’s sleep.

Happy new year people.

Point Loma

I found my zen city. Or at least a zen part of a city.

Point Loma’s a tiny neighbourhood harboring the coast. It’s just a stone’s throw (okay more than that) away from the airport, just within one afternoon I’ve seen at least 5 planes taking off and close enough proximity to figure out that at least 3 of them were Virgin America (purple planes, lol).

After a good hour of walking around the area, I concluded I found my happy spot. Peaceful neighbourhood that gives you enough quiet moments to hear your thoughts aloud in your head. Yet not the spooky/dead-town kind of quietness that you would give you the immediate creeps. It’s almost like a huge beach resort area — shops and residential housing not running higher than 3 floors, moderate traffic, cool breezes and sunny (till the fog came in) skies.

People here feel down to earth and real. You don’t find anyone clad in dressy clothing or expensive accessories. You see parents walking down the sidewalks with their kids in tees and sporty shoes, youngsters biking down the street or taking their skateboards out for a spin. You see a father playing baseball with his teenage son at their front porch; you see schoolkids running across the street, laughing.

Despite being a small community, it’s pretty much self-contained. There’s a school, public library, convenience stores, dental clinics, places of worship, a post office (sent my Starbucks cups back!), and practically every other kind of amenity you’d ever need. And I thought there wouldn’t be much apart from a touristy sorta beach area and stores out there to rip you off. Seems like there’s not a lot of tourists but more residents and the local community people, which is really cool. Staying in downtown or touristy areas sometimes (most of the time, actually) don’t show you the true colours of a city or town area. More likely than not you’ll probably be greeted with a commercialized facade that’s there to tell you, oh this is how awesome our city is! Sure, most cities have their awesome bits, but you’ll never get the real stuff till you sink yourself into the local scene. I’m glad that I’m seeing some of it already.

Without the clutter of a bustling city, your thoughts can find so much more space. Need a reason to convince yourself to travel solo? Here’s one: no one’s next to you to distract you from yourself. I realize that I don’t pay attention to tonnes of details when I travel with others because as great a multi-tasker you may be, you can’t be focusing on a conversation and catching that scenic moment at the same time with equal intensity. Silence can be very deafening, but solitude can be very beautiful. We spend so much time and energy listening, talking and involving ourselves with others; we spend so little time listening to ourselves and our inner voice that’s been dying to speak. I think that listening to yourself is an important part of understanding who and what you are. Don’t neglect that.

Lands End, probably the most gorgeous place I’ve ever witnessed. It’s almost like at a digitally drawn art piece, with colours so perfectly balanced, every tree, rock and stone placed at its position with precision and the sunny skies that magnifies the already present grandeur.

I can’t remember how long I stood at the top of the Lands End trail head, trying hard to absorb every inch of beautiful detail. It’s like there’s suddenly so much colours, tones and shades that your eyes just can’t seem to keep up with.

I knew that Lands End is one of the popular hiking/biking trails in San Francisco, and that it boasts awesome scenery of coastlines and the Golden Gate Bridge from afar. But I didn’t expect it to be so, so gorgeous. I can’t even find sufficiently appropriate adjectives to describe that place. I think I took something like 200 over photos just during that few hours when I hiked the trail, though I know viewing a million shots of Lands End can never substitute being physically there. (I’ll deal with those 200 photos tomorrow, or maybe the day after.)

At the trail head was the Sutro Bath Ruins, and to get down there (it’s seriously steep) you can take this seemingly unlimited flight of stairs, or well, slide down the spongy grass. The latter sounds crazy, yes, but I saw kids (like tiny ones) happily sitting on the grass and sliding down the grass to the area below. For a moment I panicked when I saw a couple of kids going down. That slope is insanely steep, from where I was standing, within half a second those kids disappeared into the green mash below. And their mom just sat there and watched. I didn’t know if I found admiration for the mother or for her kids.

Never in the right mind would I ever do something like that. It’s scary even just looking down from the edge, never mind treating it like some Big Splash ride. And those kids did it without harboring second thought.

I realized how brave we all used to be when we were kids. Like when I was in Seattle I was thinking the same thing while watching little kids ice skate at Seattle Center’s skating rink. Kids, though so tiny in size, have such huge courage. It doesn’t seem to bother them that learning ice skating means falling down a lot and falling down could hurt. They skate a little, fall, get up, and keep trying over and over. Some fall so hard that bystanders at the outskirts of the rink get startled, but they just pick themselves back up like it was really no big deal.

Somehow as we grow older, we lose that big courage we once had. We think and speculate what-if scenarios before even doing something, imagining worst-case scenarios and planting self-manufactured fear into ourselves. More often than not, many of the things we fear as adults are irrational and silly. We fear heights, we fear animals, we fear authority, we fear our bosses, we fear losing friendships, we fear death, we fear love, we fear heartbreaks, we fear losses. Yeah, sure we had our share of fears as kids. We feared our parents, our teachers, going to school.. But somehow we seemed a lot more resilient and brave than we are now.

I wonder if our greater capacity to think has done us more harm than good; precisely because we are more able to think, comprehend, and analyze, we end up indulging in unnecessary thought processes that complicates every component of life. They always say that kids are more easily contented. That they attain happiness a lot faster than adults. Maybe that’s because as kids we didn’t think that much. When we got MacDonald’s breakfast, we were happy. We didn’t think about that impending load of calories entering our body system. When we felt sad, we cried. We didn’t think about how crying might make us look emotionally weak and vulnerable. When we thought about something, we’d say it out loud. We didn’t think about whether what we were going to say would have repercussions on people around us, or if it would contradict the external image we were trying to upkeep.

As kids, we didn’t care as much about the world; we cared a lot more about ourselves, and we were honest with ourselves. Maybe that’s just all we need to be happy — a little bit of selfishness, and a little more honesty.

So the city came back to life. It’s so scary that the world can be gone in one day and come back the next. Like some mega vacuum cleaner landed on Earth and sucked everyone away and later realized they got the wrong stuff and threw everyone back. Okay that’s a crappy illustration.

I think you can fall in love with every city and say they are all nice but each city has its special definition of nice. I’m not being very objective here, yes I know, but coming from Seattle you can’t help but make comparisons.

San Francisco gives you an older city feel. Buildings, streets and transport systems here honestly seem a little less aesthetically pleasing, like the city has gone through wind wind rain rain (do direct translation to Chinese). It’s like San Francisco’s this big brother city that has gone through and seen more of the roads of life ahead. Nevertheless, that’s first impressions. Maybe I’ll correct that after 4 nights here.

I love San Francisco’s street cars (or maybe street cars in general). They make you feel like you’re on some retarded roller coaster ride. You can close your eyes and almost imagine the car suddenly diving down a steep drop. I like the sound of the street car wheels screaming against the metal tracks when the car turns around a corner. The clanky sounds are like those you hear from old-school bumpy roller coasters. Add that to the fact that I got myself a Muni pass, so I practically spammed street cars all day long.

I realized that all I need is to visit just one awesome place and that makes my day. I could chiong 10 attractions in one day but that has no meaning if none of them made my heart smile inside out. Traveling to me isn’t about ticking off iconic, must-see attractions that you’d find within the top ten To-Do’s on Trip Advisor from your list. I could just visit one special place, even if it’s just one street, and I’d feel like this trip was a blast.

Visiting Lombard Street totally made my day. That street has an insanely steep incline, probably 45degrees, and the famous zig-zag street down Russian Hill was crazy. I think that would be the ultimate course for a driving test. Kudos to the urban planners of that area. Living up there must be like being at the top of the world.

Seattle’s one of those cities which you somehow feel its friendliness genuinely coming through to you. I know it isn’t exactly fair to judge a book by its cover, but the first train ride I got on from Seattle airport made me like Seattle already. The kind of place that you could possibly feel at home, even as a visitor.

On the first day I was here I stumbled upon this restaurant at Pike Place that serves insanely fresh seafood and looked over the pier. I liked the place so much that I went back for dinner on the second day (merit of staying near Pike Market) to grab another dose of fresh food. Seriously deprived of such tasty stuff. Anyway, on the second visit I got exclusive customer service cos I was their last customer of the day and the boss (presumably) came by when I was done to ask me how was the dining experience. Old guy, ah-gong sort of age, been running the place for eons. He was asking me that if I were to compare, would I choose New York or Seattle. And I found no hesitation at all to say Seattle.

I kinda understand why people move here, it’s one of those places that gives you the homey vibe. You feel safe walking down the streets and people greet you with the kind of sincerity that comes from within. It was fun just standing and watching the guys throw fish at Pike Place Market. I don’t know for sure if they really enjoy their job or if it’s an act for all we know, but it’s really quite admirable that people lead their lives with such zest. And I guess it would be tough to put on an act every day; even acting every day ought to get some of that positiveness rubbed into you. That’s the difference between the US and back home. I envy that people actually enjoy what they do everyday on their job. It’s like the holy grail in Singapore (and many parts of Asia).

The transport system here is awesome. Their light rail trains are like miniature Singapore MRTs, plus a lot more stylish. Saw one today entirely covered with colored ads, like it’s been candy wrapped. For a US city, you’ll really appreciate that you can actually get accessible transportation that takes you to most places. Well maintained and not the sluggish kind (think Pittsburgh). Bravo, really.

There’s seriously a huge number of homeless people in the US. I think if you were to put them all together in one place, you’d probably have enough to form a country on its own. Typically they camp around the suburbs and out-of-town regions, but oddly in Seattle you see them mostly downtown. And that’s because of the free-ride region in downtown area which you can basically hop on any public transport for free. Who says free lunches don’t exist?

I think I will miss Seattle. It’s a lot more cheery than I thought and I seriously think that its gloomy reputation doesn’t do this city justice. Hopefully, this won’t be my first and last time here.

Merry Christmas.