Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Paisley Hoops

I'm not the biggest Prince fan, but I am from Minneapolis. Prince is to Minneapolis what Frank Sinatra is to Hoboken. You don't have to play his music every day to be proud.

Unlike Sinatra, Prince never went Hollywood. He lived in his hometown for the rest of his life. But Prince sightings on the streets of Minneapolis were rare and legendary. You had a better chance of seeing someone pass up a pronto pup at the state fair. He wore brightly colored clothes and drove a purple motorcycle. He should have been easier to spot.

Despite being an almost mythical figure, Prince was the first major celebrity I ever saw off the clock. It was at the Target Center during the Timberwolves' epic 2004 season. They lost to the Los Angeles Lakers, mostly because of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, but everyone seemed to have a good time. I'm not the biggest basketball fan either. I'd rather watch the Vikings play, but they're not going to win the big championship game either.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Transportation and Accommodation Included

When I travel, more often than not, I spend some time looking at hotels and finding the cheapest flight. I don't really care what time a flight takes off or lands, as long as it doesn't have too many stops and it doesn't cost a fortune. For hotels, I might spend a little extra for a better location. Your hotel's neighborhood can make a huge difference, especially if it's your first visit to that place. A bad hotel far away from everything you want to do can make you think less of even the best cities while a great hotel within walking distance of everything can make even a mediocre city more enjoyable.

For my trip to Jerusalem, all of that was done for me. Only one airline has direct flights from Hong Kong to Tel Aviv, and they only have one flight a day, so I doubt anyone spent much time thinking about what flight I should take. You can get from here to there on other airlines, but they mostly fly a few hours out of the way to Europe before turning around and heading to Israel. Those flights take a lot longer and cost more.

I don't know anything about the hotel. They have a website, but it's not very informative. It looks like someone put it together in less than an hour and then forgot to finish it. I know where the hotel is on a map and they have a few pictures, but the website tells you nothing about different room sizes and what's actually in each room. The pictures look nice, but most hotels look better on their website than they do in person.

One of the great things about East Asian hotels is that they all come with refrigerators. You can go to the cheapest hotel in the dirtiest slum and you'll still have a refrigerator in your room. In any other part of the world I've ever been to, you have to check to make sure. This hotel website tells me nothing.

Having a refrigerator in the room isn't the most important thing in the world, but it's nice to be able to get a cold drink without going out, especially in a new city. In a place like Hong Kong, where every hotel has a refrigerator, you don't really need one. You can get a drink by walking less than a block from your hotel in any direction. In Jerusalem, I have no idea. Maybe there's a 7-11 next door. Or maybe the nearest place is on the other side of town. I don't know.

The two deal breakers for me are cleanliness and smoking. I don't need a room to be white glove test spotless, but I want it to be clean enough that I'm not scratching myself for a week. Maybe not Japan clean. That might be asking for too much. But definitely better than China clean. I don't know where Jerusalem hotels stand on that scale.

Smoking is a big deal to me. I can't stand the smell of it. I would rather be in a room that smells like vomit and dog shit. If I walk into a hotel room and it smells like cigarettes, I will immediately ask for a new room. I'm sure I'd do the same if it smelled like vomit and dog shit, but I've never actually had that happen. I've walked into smoke rooms too many times. If they can't or won't give me one that doesn't smell like cigarettes, I'll leave. There are bound to be other hotels somewhere.

Smokers say that makes me demanding or high maintenance, but that's really the only time I'll storm out of a hotel. Maybe if the room has rats eating dead hookers, but I almost never see that sort of thing. Smoking rooms, unfortunately, are entirely too realistic. And I've seen more than a few smokers make unrealistic demands while they stink up the place without any consideration for anyone else. From housekeeping's point of view, smokers are high maintenance. That stench doesn't just dissipate like old cabbage and onion sandwiches. It lingers worse than dead fish and soiled diapers stuck behind the radiator.

I read somewhere that Israelis are big smokers. The hotel website says that it is an entirely non-smoking hotel. We'll have to wait and see about that. I've been to several non-smoking hotels that smelled worse than those supposedly non-smoking train station restrooms. The Chinese system is to spray disinfectant in the room and call it non-smoking right after the latest smoker checks out. I'm hoping Jerusalem has a better system.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Mint Condition

I have a small pot of mint on the window. I got it for a few reasons.

I love mint. It's a great herb that can be used a million different ways. You can put it in cookies, brownies or anything chocolate, really. You can add it to potatoes, tomatoes, rice and noodles. It's great in soups and stews. It tastes good, smells good and looks good sitting on the window sill.

Someone gave it to me. Fresh mint is difficult to find around here, but I know a few people. One of my friends gave me a tiny pot with a sad little sprig of mint poking out. I assumed it would die right away, but I gave it water and light and waited to see what happened.

When it grew, I cut off a few stems and put them in water. I'm no gardener, but cuttings are the easiest thing in the world. When the roots filled the small jars, I put them in a larger pot and that's what I have now. I could easily do more cuttings and build up more pots, but I think one is enough. I don't want to spend all day taking care of plants.

Mint scares away mosquitoes. Supposedly. Everything I've ever read and everyone I've ever talked to agrees that mint is a natural mosquito repellent. But something about these mosquitoes or my mint isn't working. Maybe they don't know they're supposed to be natural enemies. Maybe it's not the right kind of mint. But it smells and tastes like mint.

It's raining now, so the mosquitoes are hiding wherever they hide when it rains, but I have no confidence in my mint keeping them at bay once the sun comes out. Maybe I need more mint.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Attack of the 12mm Vampires

Mosquito season is roughly between March and December around here. We don't have zika, or anything worth worrying about, but those little creatures are still annoying.

I've been in this apartment for two years and never had any problems with mosquitoes. Until now. I don't even remember seeing any in the apartment last year. This year, they've invaded. I don't know what changed. The weather is the same as always. The windows and doors are well insulated. This is a newer building, so it doesn't have those old style sliding windows with huge gaps that any insect could get through. I'd be surprised if they're coming through the windows.

What mosquitoes like more than anything else are puddles of standing water and people – or animals – with warm blood. The little puddles that form out on the balcony when it rains dry up pretty quickly in the sun, so I don't know of any place around here for them to lay their eggs. And, supposedly, white people have slightly lower body temperatures than Chinese people. That's probably not the least bit true, but I've heard a lot of Chinese people say it is.

Oddly enough, Japanese people are supposed to have lower body temperatures than white people. That's probably also untrue, but someone should do some research. Let loose some mosquitoes in a room full of Chinese, Japanese and Europeans and see what happens.

So we have an apartment full of white people with colder blood than our neighbors and everything is dry outdoors. There's no real reason for mosquitoes to come in here, especially if they've been ignoring us the last two years. But they're here. And they're driving me crazy.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Qingming 2016

Today is the Qingming Festival. That's one of those Chinese holidays that are hard to explain to people unfamiliar with Chinese culture. Some have compared it with Memorial Day, which is almost accurate. But it has nothing to do with veterans, soldiers, the American Civil War, flags or NASCAR.

On Qingming, people go to their family cemeteries and clean the graves of their ancestors. This is an important ritual since the graves are generally neglected most of the year. I've been told that cleaning them is a sign of respect. Whenever I point out to Chinese people that we keep our graves clean all the time in my country, I'm told that such a thing is crazy. We have very different cultures.

People will also burn fake money so that the dead are not poor in the afterlife. Go to any temple at any time of the year and you'll see people offering food to the dead. It's the same concept. The food is so they won't go hungry in the afterlife. The burning money is just paper that more or less looks like real money. No one wants their dead ancestors to be poor, but they're not about to burn themselves into the poorhouse either. The food is real and generally feeds the monks after hours.

The best thing about holidays is usually the food. Except for this one. The main food for Qingming is qingtuan, a green dumpling filled with red bean paste. Rather than make it with green tea, they use grass. That might be why it's not the best holiday food around here. I like the New Year dumplings, Dragon Boat zongzi and, of course, the moon cakes on Moon Cake Day a lot better.

Qingming is one of those holidays that I'll probably never get into. Obviously, I don't have any graves to clean here, and I've never gone with any of my local friends to theirs. This is a somber family holiday, so bringing along curious foreigners isn't appropriate.