“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the center.” Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Hong Kong continued

The Tsing Ma bridge: 7th longest suspension bridge in the world, and the longest car and train combination suspension bridge (photo from Wikipedia).
As I mentioned in my previous post, I was sent to Hong Kong for an Investigator Meeting by Wyeth, along with the principal investigator (oncologist) of the trial at Auckland Hospital. I got to fly Business class on Cathay Pacific, which was so nice, it made me mad to know how crappy the facilities are in Economy class. It felt so great to be able to stretch out and elevate my feet, and my ass didn't go numb. My flight left at 7:30 am, and I watched 4 movies: The Boat that Rocked (really good), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (pretty good), State of Play (interesting), and The Hangover (really good). The Hangover was so funny that I accidentally choked with coffee in my mouth and sprayed it all over the screen and fabric on the seat in front of me! How gross and embarrasing! When I got to the Hong Kong airport, I noticed that there was a thermal imaging device pointed at the passengers as they walked toward the health screen checkpoint. That was cool! They were looking for people with elevated temperatures. The airport is huge and airy and clean. Lines were mostly short. I stayed at the Excelsior Hotel in Causeway Bay- the location of our meeting. It was nice, but it wasn't the Ritz. Most importantly the staff were super nice and spoke English well, and the bed was comfortable. The Excelsior is in a major shopping district, and shopping appears to be a very popular passtime. There are lots of small shops, and they can be very crowded with both customers and sales help. Staff will follow you around the store to watch that you don't steal something. I felt like an ugly giant, surrounded by thin and beautiful Asian women who take their appearance very seriously- hair, skin, makeup, fashion- so many shops devoted to these details. The other popular passtime seems to be eating. I found this fake food at a restaurant outside the Excelsior, and there were several more like it. They also like to advertise the food with pictures on the signs. And then, there is the direct display of the food in the window. MMM who's hungry? I really enjoyed just walking around and looking at what the shops were selling. I watched a guy in a fresh seafood shop wrap up fresh crabs, tried on a gold necklace, and snapped photos like a tourist of the shop of dried stuff. My meeting was two days, then I arranged one extra day on my own to look around. I changed hotels to JJ Hotel, after reading a lot of traveler reviews on different hotels- there are so many! The JJ Hotel was chosen for the location (not far from the Excelsior) and the price (good price on http://www.booking.com/), and also the good reviews. As I was on my own, I wanted a place that was easy to locate and safe. It was on the whole as good as the room at the Excelsior for a fraction of the cost, and the AC was colder.
After the meeting, I took the subway to the pier to get my boat tour for the "Symphony of Lights". I took the subway too far, and had to backtrack, but made it to the boat on time because the trains run every few minutes. They are very fast and I used the trains the most in my travel around Hong Kong. After the boat tour (recommended), I took the train to Kowloon to go to the Temple Street Night Market, but got there too late. Stalls were shutting down, people were sparse, and I was tired. I wandered into some sort of outdoor festival, where a play was being performed and several areas appeared to have shrines set up with lots of insense and offerings. There were a lot of old people there, and the woman I asked what is going on said she didn't speak English. I felt a bit bewildered and so headed back to my hotel. The next day, I traveled by train to Lantau Island to visit the monestary with the giant bronze Buddha. It started out badly when I mistakenly exited the subway at the the station where I meant to transfer to another train. I had to call for help and plead my case as a stupid Western Tourist so I could get back in to get onto the train without buying another ticket. I'd already paid $20 HKD and the machine didn't recognize that I'd not used the full value of the ticket. Whatever. It was totally cool because I found myself on the same train as some other meeting attendees, and they helped me find my way to the bus at the end of the train. Sadly, we had to ride the bus to the monestary because the tram that runs up there (and is shorter) was under repair and not operational. The ride was fairly scenic though, very rugged and not overly developed like Hong Kong Island. The Buddha is very cool! You walk up 200+ steps to get up to it, then you can go around the outside and inside if you paid a little extra at the bottom of the stairs. I did so and got to see the "relic" room. This is separate from the monestary itself, at the bottom of the stairs, where I had the vegetarian lunch that was really quite good. The temple is beautiful and in front there are large urns for burning giant incense sticks. There were many there praying, but it was fortunately not too crowded. I am glad I got there before it got too overcast and hot. Afterward, I intended to go to The Peak for a view, but the heat was really wearing me down and the visibility was rapidly diminishing. I took the famous Star Ferry from Kowloon back to Hong Kong, and the above was the view across the harbor at 4 pm. Yuck. The last thing on my list of things to do was visit the IM Pei Bank of China Tower. I got there and asked to go to the viewing level, and was told the bank was closed (Sunday), come back tomorrow. I said no, my plane leaves tonight, thanks goodbye, good thing there are 3 men in suits sitting in a closed bank lobby to tell me this. )I snagged the photo above from someone else's blog). Next I hopped the old electric street car back to my hotel to get my bags, and headed to the airport. I was super happy to get to the awesome airport and find the business class lounge and have a shower. I was hot and sweaty and fortunately had a change of clean clothes to put on before the flight. That was a major bonus, and I am pretty sure I'll cry when I have to fly overseas in Economy class. On the flight back to Auckland, I watched Iron Man (really good), 17 Again (good), and some other movie I forget, because I was getting sick(er). I am pretty sure I got conjunctivitis from a drop of water that landed in my face, falling from an AC unit on one of the many tall buildings.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Hong Kong, what have you done to me?

I came back from Hong Kong on Monday afternoon, and on Tuesday, I woke up with crusty, watery and goopy eyes: Conjunctivitis. The whites of my eyes had turned red, and appeared swollen and squishy. Gross! Fortunately my doctor was able to see me that afternoon, and I'd already planned a day off work to recover from the trip. He gave me antibiotic pills, drops, and ointment, that might work if the infection is bacterial. (It could be viral.) I look horrible but my vision is ok. I'm told it is communicable, so I am home from work again today. This is too bad, because I have a lot of work to do for the research study I am setting up. This study was the reason for my travel to Hong Kong. The Investigator Meeting was sponsored by Wyeth, who have a new drug they expect to improve survival and delay progression for HER-2 positive breast cancer. I'm excited about the project and was so happy to find out I was getting to go to Hong Kong for the meeting. It's one of those places that I'd never considered going to visit, and knew little about it beyond what I'd read in the library's Lonely Planet guidebook.

One thing I'd read about was the "symphony of lights" show, put on by buildings on both sides of Victoria Harbor. I did a boat tour after the end of meeting. It blows your mind- how tall the buildings are, how many people live there (7 million), the amount of electricity they use. The boat tour guide said parts of Kowloon (across the harbor) have 4,000 people living in a 1 square kilometer space.I was only there 3 and a half days, and was in the meeting for the full two days of Friday and Saturday. Then there were dinners at the hotel, so I didn't eat out much. I did have 1 day to look around. I'll update this blog when I'm feeling a little better with more HK photos and stories.

Thanks Wyeth!

Sunday, September 06, 2009

American in Niue, part 4: The end of the holiday

Palaha CaveWednesday
We tried to sleep in as much as possible (with all the roosters crowing, earplugs are a definite help!). I had come down with a sore throat and cough, despite feeling fine on the trip from Auckland. We were personally asked about our health before we got on the plane- all the Niue passengers did. However, I am certain it was not swine flu (this is what they were looking to prevent), just a minor cold. I took a couple of a vitamin supplements, one called “Hairy Lemon” and the other from the US called “Emergen-C” I also had some pseudoephedrine/antihistamine with me, so taking that before diving helped keep my ears clear. I’m really glad that I brought along my fleece-lined, wind-barrier boat coat for whale watching on Wednesday.The whale watching trip was in the afternoon, with Dive Niue, who take out 6 passengers after scuba diving in the mornings. We were out on the water for about 3 hours, and we got some great whale interactions. I am really impressed by the operators of Dive Niue, they are professional and kind, well organized and hard-working. As the only dive operators on the island, you really don’t have a choice, so fortunately they are really good.
The weather was very nice- not too hot, so nice for walking around, but warm enough for swimming. The water is nice and warm too. I was concerned that the high surf would prevent us from our whale trip, but it wasn’t bad. Of course, the point of these boat trips is to fall out into the water to either scuba dive or snorkel. And when we got into the water, here is what we saw. This is my best whale photo, taken while it was surfacing to breathe. On Thursday, we explored some more caves. One of them, I won't even call a cave, had human bones in it, obviously very old bones. I didn't see any skulls or teeth so can't verify that they were human. Creepy yes, but in line with the common sight of graves along the road, in people's yards. Some of the graves are lavishly decorated and have roofs over them. These are in contrast to the sometimes shabby appearance of the homes (remember, there was a big cyclone in 2004). Along with the quiet, sparsely populated and rugged environment, the overall effect was a bit spooky. We loved it though. We went to the most excellent cave on the island, Palaha, and had it all to ourselves.Here it is from the water, and here we are inside of it. Early inhabitants used to live in the caves, and this one in particular is huge. We hung out there and read our books in the shade, listening to the surf. Thursday evening we had a dinner out. It was served buffet style and had a really good variety. We got to try the local land crab, "uga".
We had to fly back to Auckland on Friday, which was Saturday in Auckland. We would definitely go back there! It's no beach and sand island, but we loved the slow pace and uncrowded places. As I mentioned before, it is rough landscape, but very unique and special.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

American in Niue, part 3

Our first dive day was Monday, and we met the boat at the Alofi wharf. As there is no harbor, boats are launched via a winch.
The inflatable boat takes four divers and one driver/divemaster. On the way to the dive site, we had dolphins cruise with us. We hooked up to a mooring ball near the Limu pools area and dove a site known as Twin or Two Caves. I was comfortable in my 3 ml neoprene with a beanie. The highlights of diving in Niue include the incredibly clear water and hence terrific visibility, and the caverns and caves. And the whales- during our surface interval, we watched a group of 3 beaching and spy-hopping, and saw another two that were approachable. Annie, our divemaster, got the boat in front of them and told us we could slip into the water with snorkel and fins. I didn’t see them at first, but then they came into view, out of the blue- right below me. It was so incredible to be in the same water space as them. The most visible one just sort of hung out below us for a good 5-10 minutes before swimming off. Our second dive was called Bubble Cave. You swim into a cave and come up above water into an enclosed cave. The structure was so interesting to swim through, and the water so clear, there was nothing to be scared of despite being surrounded by snakes swimming all around. They breathe air but live in the water, and are curious so they will sometimes follow divers around.
The other divers in the boat recommended the lemon cheesecake ice cream at one of the shops, so we had some to recharge after diving.

Our second day of diving departed from Avatele ramp, about 15 minutes south from Alofi. The surf was a bit larger today, and so it was good that our dive sites were relatively close. The first was Matavai Bommie, a small coral head, and the second was Snake Gully. Both sites had much more coral than the previous day’s sites, and also a wide variety of beautiful fish. Darin had his underwater video camera with him and got some great footage of the fish. Snake Gully was my favorite, because it had lots of fish and coral variety as well as a gorgeous cave and cavern. Not to mention lots of snakes! They are curious and not dangerous.
For lunch, Darin cut up the yellowfin tuna for sashimi, and I made rice- both eaten with soy sauce. We ate tuna again for dinner with one of the package pasta meals I brought along. Diving really tires you out, and I was coming down with a cold, so we watched a couple movies while here- Hancock, which was good except the ending, and Burn After Reading, in which Brad Pitt totally aced his role.