As the pilot announced our descent to the Hong Kong airport, images of an exotic, long-lost world kept creeping into my mind. I kept thinking of 1841 and the first Opium Wars that led to the British acquisition of Hong Kong under the 1842 Treaty of Nanking as if it were yesterday. I guess some part of me wanted to walk back into that world to witness the chaotic, yet exciting period of discovery and adventure in history. It is as if Hong Kong (at least for me) made more sense by looking backwards than looking forward. Unjustly as it may sound, it was the city’s past that fascinated me more than its future. This feeling didn’t last long, for as soon as I debarked the aircraft and came face-to-face with Hong Kong’s slick, shiny airport and its modern airport express train, a new, futuristic concept of the city entered my consciousness. Maybe it was the city’s crowded streets full of hastily moving people, or maybe the incredible heaven-reaching architecture surrounding Victoria Harbor that refocused my attention to the future. Not sure. But one thing is undeniable the moment you set foot in Hong Kong: that this is a vibrant, energetic city being driven into the 21st Century by an eager, youth-centered population bent on making its mark on the world stage. The city’s energy could be felt everywhere, and it was quite contagious.
But to say that Hong Kong has moved on from its past would be overstating the fact. Along with its shinny new high-rise buildings, a myriad of traditional, old-world markets line its narrow streets and alleyways. This is specially the case on Hong Kong Island and the Central sector of the city, where you will walk past a majestic, modern building just to come face-to-face with a street restaurant that does all its cooking right there on a street kitchen. Venture to either side of the longest electric escalator in the world, the Central Mid-Levels staircase, and you will soon find yourself a century back in time amidst butcher shops and street vendors selling everything from Mao’s little red book to elaborate jade jewelry. And when crossing the imposing Victoria Harbor to visit the famous Tsim Sha Tsui district (and Bruce Lee’s famous statute along the Avenue of Stars), you will have your choice of either riding the ultra-modern city metro system or the historic Star Ferry across the bay. Old and new, side-by-side, against a backdrop that you will not find anywhere else in the world. As I boarded the plane for my return trip to America, I realized that Hong Kong had showed me that the future only makes sense in relation to the past. As the city wrestles with its place in the world in a new century, it seems to find its safe footing in that long-gone colonial past. Like an alchemist, it continues to blend its many potions in the hope that something new and exciting results from its many efforts. If you ask me, I think that this old alchemist is up to something great.
Like so many other visitors to Hong Kong, I was fascinated by this complex metropolis. With one of the highest population densities in the world, Hong Kong is a sea of constant activity and a dynamic vibe that would make lots of major cities in America look like they are on life support. And while I do intend to post a little more about this former British territory soon, I couldn’t help but start my Hong Kong posts with the most famous event taking place there during my recent visit. Of course, this was not all that was happening in Hong Kong during this past week, but rather that if you read anything about the place recently, most likely it had something to do with the pro-Democracy demonstrations taking place at various places in the city.
It didn’t take long for the press to dub these youth-driven demonstrations “The Umbrella Revolution.” The simple umbrella, which initially served to shield the protestors from the barrage of pepper spray that descended on them on 28 September, rapidly became the symbol of resistance against mainland China’s decision to require any candidate for the top post in the city during the upcoming 2016 elections to receive pre-approval from Beijing before qualifying to run for office. To say that the young people in Hong Kong disagreed with this mandate would be a gross understatement. To the streets they went, specially to the part of Central Hong Kong known as Admiralty, where the main government offices are located right along Victoria Harbor. Having booked a hotel nearby, I couldn’t resist the temptation to check the demonstration out, praying all along that my visit would not coincide with the next pepper spray festival downtown. What did I find when I got there? For starters, some of the best behaved and friendly demonstrators I’ve seen anywhere. There were teams organized to pick up garbage around the clock, for water and food distribution, and for communication. People constantly approached me to see if I understood why they were out there and to make sure I fully grasped the seriousness of their concerns. A generation that was mostly born after the British ended their authority over the islands wanted the world to listen to their defense of freedom and democracy–two words that are growingly taken for granted by so many, but which still fuel the dreams and aspirations of countless others around the world today. And did they mind being photographed while protesting? Not at all. Their only concern appeared to be that the world would ignore their plight, but judging by what I have seen in the press over the last week or so, their story has received quite a lot of attention all over the world. Whether their demands will ever amount to anything is perhaps a more challenging question. I guess we will have to wait and see.
What can you say about the yearly H Street Festival downtown Washington, DC. Have I mentioned before that this is by far my favorite street festival in the area? Well, it is, and every year I go back to take some pictures and to enjoy the music, the incredible restaurants, and above all, the laid-back party atmosphere at the place. Apparently I’m not alone in thinking that way, as judging by the wall-to-wall crowds, this must be one of the best attended festival in DC. Not served by a metro station and somewhat out-of-the-way from the tourist areas in the city, H Street is one of those places that you reach by either intentionally walking there for a reason (and there are many reasons to visit) or simply by getting lost. But no one has problems finding the place in September, when masses of revelers and artists descend on the neighborhood for a cultural festival like no other in this town of buttoned-up politicians. Boasting some of the best ethnic restaurants in town, H Street more than makes up for its otherwise glamorous-challenged existence by becoming party central for a day. That the festival happens to coincide with the start of the famous Oktoberfest in Munich is even better, because just like in that great German festival, the folks at H Street never run out of beer either.
Don’t know about you, but for me, Philadelphia has to be one of the most incredible cities in America. And while the city has a somewhat “working class” reputation with outsiders, once you get to discover it in some detail, you’ll come to realize that the city is better described as eclectic and culturally complex. Sort of like where the rough seas meet the quiet shore kind of place. World class museums and cultural sites sit only a few blocks away from down-to-earth wonders like the Reading Terminal Market. Hang around the popular JFK Square for a few hours and you’ll get to see people from just about every level of society. Wedding parties having their picture taken under the famous “LOVE” structure at JFK Square muscle endless amounts of tourists for their ten-minute spot in front of the cameras. Walk farther afield down Walnut St. to Rittenhouse Square and Washington Square Park and you will be rewarded with some of the neatest urban spots of any city anywhere. Add to this the fact that people actually live and interact all over the urban landscape, and you will get one of the best places for people watching and street photography on the East Coast. Philly is definitely not your sleepy, little town where watching grass grow has been elevated to an art form. The city is definitely alive with activity, and no matter your disposition when you get there, you won’t be able to resist becoming alive along with it.
It has definitely taken me a long time to visit this jewel of the north, but the long wait has only made me enjoy this glorious city that much more. Stockholm, Sweden is one of those places that is much more than a city. Yes, it is absolutely gorgeous, with beautiful architecture and incredible views that seem to pop right out of a postcard. But more than that, Stockholm seems to be a state of mind, a place that for those of us coming out of the über busy, constant stress western part of the world, seems to have almost a zen quality to it. Don’t get me wrong, the place is quite busy on its own, but you can’t spend more than a few days in the city without feeling that there is a certain rhythm to life here that is somehow lacking in our personal worlds. When visiting the residential area of Hornstull in the southern island of Södermalm, I actually met couples of professionals around 10:00 AM at a café who were actually enjoying a cup of coffee and a croissant together before going off to work. That’s right, 10:00 AM, couples, moving as in concert with the slow, yellow light of a morning sun. Who are these people?
No doubt the city itself has a lot to do with people’s attitudes towards everything from work to family life. A conglomeration of islands, Stockholm is blessed with an abundance of natural beauty that is best appreciated during the warmer summer months. The busy city center of Norrmalm rapidly gives way to the incredible middle island of Gamla Stan, or Old Town, anchored around the imposing Royal Palace and Parliament building. And then, there’s easy-going Södermalm, with views of the city of Stockholm that will take your breath away. Perhaps more than any other area in the city, Södermalm personifies the quintessential Scandinavian lifestyle, at least as the rest of the world imagines it. Beautifully old architecture around the cobblestone streets of Bastugatan and Pryssgränd, eclectic and trendy in the SoFo (south of Folkungagatan street) district, and idyllically laid back around its western Hornstull waterside neighborhood, Södermalm appeared to me to be the perfect place to live and raise a family. The incredible city views along the Monteliusvägen trail and the hilltop hangout at Mosebacke Terassen only add to the area’s incredible charm.
But there’s a lot more to Stockholm than Södermalm that I will be addressing over the coming days, even when fully aware that nothing I say here can truly capture the full scope and wonders of this great city. Even now when my feet are firmly planted back home where the skies are not as blue in a 24/7 world of take-out coffee and fast food restaurants, I’m finding it hard to release my mental grip from around that Stockholm state of mind. Don’t know how long I’ll be able to hang on to that feeling, but I’m going to try as hard as I can not to loose it.
Think that you have to travel to Scotland to find great whiskey? Then think again, because some great spirits are being concocted right here in your Virginia backyard. That’s right, just where the mighty Blue Ridge Mountains give way to the undulating plateau of Rappahannock County, the Copper Fox Distillery is quietly producing award-winning whiskeys and spirits that you have will not easily find at your local liquor stores (at least not yet, but check out the press they have received). These are not your average high-volume, mass-produced products for a global market, though. On the contrary, the whiskeys and spirits coming out of Copper Fox are handled by hand in relatively small batches that reflect the artisan’s approach to producing low-yield, high-quality products. During one of their scheduled tours, it was quite surprising to see how bottles were being handled one at a time with the painstaking care characteristic of a Swiss watchmaker. And while the distillery has been around since the year 2000, modernity appears to live well hand-in-hand with traditional methods of craftsmanship that are so rare in today’s world. One barrel at a time, Copper Fox seems to be putting Virginia whiskey on the connoisseur’s map. So what did I end up bringing home after my short trip down River Lane Road? I went for their signature Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky (Batch No. 107). I am definitely no connoisseur, but I already have plans to enjoy this elixir as if I were one. Cheers.