Just F*cking Killme

In the west we tend to have a long standing superiority complex, and assume that other places — you know, those funny far away places with funny names that you can’t find on a map — must be below us. The same applies to international travel. Say the names Delta, Air Canada, American Airlines, and you think they must be good, because they are North American. Do you want to fly Qatar? China Airlines? Aeroflot? Sounds kind of dodgy?

You’ll be surprised to know that the Ten Top Airlines in the World does not include one airline from North America. NOT ONE. Four are out of the Middle East (Emirates, Qatar, Etihad and Turkish), four are from Asia (Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, All Nippon, and Eva Air), along with Qantas (Australia) and Lufthansa (Germany).

Year after year, these airlines top the list due to spanking new aircraft, personal entertainment systems, amazing food and great service. And recently, the airports from these places have been topping the list too. In the Skytrax Top 10 list of best airports in the world, six of them are in Asia, and the others are in Europe. Again, not one in North America.

I’ve recently finished a gruelling, soul crushing, ass numbing trip to and from Okinawa and Trinidad. Travel time — about 30 hours each way. And unfortunately, this trip required me to go through what I think is just the worst airport in the world…. JFK. Which I have determined stands for JUST FUCKING KILLME. Because after spending a few hours waiting for my connecting flight, I wanted to die. Nowhere to sit, few options for food and drink, absolutely nothing for small children to do to pass the time, and absolute crap service from the people working there. No goddam wifi. Hundreds of tired travellers sitting on the cold, hard floor for hours, waiting for their check in. It’s just inhumane. It’s what you imagine a third world airport would be, yet it’s New York. And the immigration officers at JFK have the nerve to treat all these travellers as potential criminals and terrorists? They should pay ME to go through JFK!

In contrast, I also had to wait a few hours in the incredible Taipei International Airport. And what a contrast! It was incredible. I did not mind spending a few hours there. There were free computers with free wifi all over the airport. Free libraries with big comfy seats to sit down and read. Art galleries to peruse. Lounge chairs to stretch out on and sleep. Shower facilities. Rest areas. A place to try Chinese calligraphy for free. Play rooms with toys and Lego. Kids playgrounds — more than one! Nursing rooms for breastfeeding mothers. A Butterfly Garden. A massage area. Imagine – an airport that actually WANTS people to enjoy themselves! After losing a piece of my soul in JFK, it was such a relief to just walk around Taipei Airport and see what they have to offer.

 

Wake up JFK — YOU SUCK! YOU SUCK YOU SUCK YOU SUCK!!!

 

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Mind the Moose – Alaska Adventures

It’s 8pm on a Friday night, and I’m sitting in the large dining hall of the Homer Senior Centre in Anchor Point, Alaska, surrounded by a large number of friendly white-haired folks who are all waiting patiently for dinner. I’ve been informed it’s a full house, and they’ve had to turn away people at the door, because tonight’s dinner is very special — they’re serving moose burgers. A lanky cook with a ponytail is sweating profusely just outside the door, flipping huge moose burgers on a roaring fire, while the other volunteers prepare salads and vegetables and burger buns with condiments. And I tell you, it smells amazing.

Alice, a native Alaskan (meaning from a native tribe, not just someone born in Alaska), is leading the event tonight, and invites a few tables to get in line for the buffet, while the rest of us sit and wait our turn, eyeing the food hungrily.

“So can you buy moose meat in the supermarket?” I ask Bonnie, whose sitting next to me.

“Nope, not at all,” she replies over the din of the crowd. “That’s why everyone wanted to come tonight — moose burgers are a real treat.”

“So… where does the meat come from then?”

She gives me a meaningful look, and I hear two distinct words being murmured amongst the people sitting around me: “roadkill”, and “donation”.

But who am I to fuss? So someone hit a moose with their truck, and then decided to use the meat to make burgers and donated them to the senior center. That moose is probably way healthier than any hormone-injected corn-eating cow in a slaughterhouse anyway, right?

I dig in. The moose burger is absolutely huge, and unbelievably delicious. It’s the best damn burger I’ve ever had, ever, even if it was a victim of the Sterling Highway.

After the meal, with everyone satiated and many carrying home half of the burger in a styrofoam box, Alice then calls out the numbers for the door prize, and much to my surprise I’m the first winner. I run up to the table where I’m asked to choose a prize. I claim an old sign from a local hiking trail, which I figure will make a good souvenir, one day when I actually have a house and a garage to hang it in.

Alice then surprises me again by saying it is “someone’s” birthday, and with a wink in our direction she sings Happy Birthday in her native tongue, and then in English. I look around and realise the birthday girl is none other than Eileen, the friend that we’ve been staying by all week in Alaska. She sits there blushing as everyone teases her. “Why didn’t you tell us?” I ask her. I feel terrible that we’ve been staying in her house for so long and had no idea her birthday was coming up. I guess some people are just shy about birthdays. But I should have known something was up when she went out and got her hair done that morning.

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Homer is a pretty little coastal town about a five hour drive south from Anchorage, and although fishermen probably are familiar with the name, those of you who aren’t married to salmon-obsessed spouses may still have heard of Homer since it is now famous for being home to the fleet of ships on the TV show The Deadliest Catch. At Homer Spit, a tiny finger of land sticking out into the sea, you can see all the fishing vessels lined up, and watch both professional and amateur fishermen trying their hand at catching some salmon, trout, and halibut.

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Come on daddy…. get some!

I’m not into fishing, but my husband is (if there ever was an understatement), and this is my second time to visit Alaska. The drive from Anchorage to Homer takes you down the scenic Sterling Highway which has many places for you to stop and take pictures of incredible glaciers, sweeping mountains, and snow capped volcanoes. The kid is asleep in the back seat and the husband is asleep in the front, so I’m driving, and enjoying the scenery.

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Best job ever… being a float plane pilot, taking people out to see bears and walk on glaciers

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Glaciers moving down the valley

 

But maybe I’m enjoying it too much.  There’s just so much to see. We drive along the ocean, and past lakes and rivers where the water is almost a turquoise blue. The only word I can think of to describe the scenery is ‘majestic’. The sky is so blue and clean and endless, the forests of green pine trees stretch into infinity, and everywhere you look are the mountains.

Then I notice a sign on the side of the road that says it is illegal under Alaskan law to hold up more than five cars behind you by driving too slow. I glance in my rear view mirror and much to my horror see about twenty five vehicles behind me, probably cursing me for driving so slow. Everyone else is driving massive RVs, Mack trucks, and pickups towing boats, and are roaring along way past the speed limit. They seem so huge compared to the tiny, defenseless Japanese rent-a-car we picked up in Anchorage Airport. I drive on a bit and find a place to pull over to allow them all to pass. They go speeding by, with sunglasses on, dogs in the front passenger seat, kayaks on the roof, boats in the back. There’s no doubt who the overseas tourists are.

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Finally, he woke up to fish

My husband spends his days trying to catch salmon and trout in the rivers, but our hosts Gary and Eileen tell us that every year it gets harder and harder. The salmon simply aren’t returning, and many rivers that were once popular fishing holes have been closed to try to allow the fish a chance to get their numbers back up. Eight years ago, I remember my husband came back from Alaska with one suitcase of clothes, and one suitcase of fish (cleaned, vacuum sealed and frozen for the trip back to Hong Kong). But those days seem to be over, because by the time we leave Homer, he’s only caught two.

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The catch is almost as big as the kid. Well done, husband!

They joke that the amount of money we spent to travel to Alaska to catch fish could have been used to buy about 150 salmon in the supermarket, but that doesn’t mean the trip is a waste. On the contrary, it’s an amazing place to visit, fish or no fish. It’s the tail end of summer, which means it’s t-shirt weather during the day, and the sun stays out until almost 11pm, which makes going to sleep a little bit difficult, and doesn’t help with the jet lag.

We pick wild flowers, and go for walks on the beach to see the wild birds, including bald eagles. By the way, bald eagles might actually be lazy bastards. During the trip I notice that lots of eagles seem to build their huge nests near to the road. “I have a theory about that,” I tell my husband. “It’s because it’s easier to pick up road kill than to go catch a rabbit.”

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Make way boys…. comin’ through…

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Big bird, big nest.

Indeed, running into wildlife is almost a guarantee in Alaska. Every parking lot and campsite has signs warning you to dispose of your food properly and to be aware of bears in the area. Even outside Gary and Eileen’s house, I always keep one eye on my little child, and one eye out for hungry carnivores. Much to my relief, we don’t run into any bears during this trip.

But we do run into some moose — not in the way that would result in any burgers being served, but it’s a close call one day while turning a corner. The moose was just as surprised as we were, and jumped off into the forest, but not before we could snap a few pictures.

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Phew! No moose burgers tonight!

The thing that surprises me about Alaska is that a lot of people have moved there from other parts of the United States to retire, including the friends that we stay with. Usually you’d think of people retiring to some warm sunny beach in Florida, rather than a place that suffers a lot of snow. But I realise that even as a retiree you can have a lot of fun in Alaska — you just need a lot of gear. On our last day, Gary invites me to go on the ATV down to the beach to look for fossils. We get on our helmets and go slowly down to the endless expanse of beach of Anchor Point. We drive down the beach, and Gary, who at one point was studying geology, looks for certain areas of rocks. We get off and look around, and before long find the soft, grey slate rock, and most of them have something in them, even if it’s just flecks of branches. A few reveal beautifully preserved leaves, and even a few critters. We pocket a few and take them back home to wash them off and see what else they reveal.

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Ready to roll!

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Riding the horses and walking the dogs

But like I was saying about the gear, most Alaskans seem to have a lot of fun stuff to play with during retirement, ATVs being one of them. You also need a boat for fishing, an RV for camping, and a pick up truck for hauling stuff around, such as kayaks. Not to mention a woodworking area in your garage. Alaskans are outdoorsy, and I suppose in order to survive the winter, you better have a lot of good gear.

It’s with great reluctance that we pack our suitcases again and prepare to say goodbye to our wonderful hosts, Gary and Eileen, who have taken such good care of us in their beautiful home, and fed us the freshest fish in the world, and plied us with cold Alaskan Amber beers. The kid has had such a good time enjoying the wide open spaces, and playing with Farley the cat and Mack the dog. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so happy. As we strap her in to the car seat and wave goodbye, her face drops. I swear the child is depressed to be leaving.

She’s not the only one whose depressed. My husband closes the car door with a sigh, and we drive off. “Now I have nothing to live for for another year,” he says, being dramatic, but kind of also being honest.

Hong Kong is such a far cry from Alaska. Don’t get me wrong — Hong Kong has its fair share of beautiful scenery, and I like where we live with the cows passing by. But when you’re in a place like Alaska, with so much clean, pristine, vast wilderness, it is hard to imagine ever going back to China.

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Could this sky possibly be any bluer?

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So long Alaska… til next time… and hope those glaciers don’t melt

 

Alaska – The Last Frontier

Never in a million years did this hot-weather-loving bikini-wearing Trini girl think that she would one day travel all the way to the wilderness of Alaska, and if it were not for my husband I never would have had the inclination or the opportunity to even try.

Every year for the past seven years he has made his sacred pilgrimage to Alaska to try to catch some wild salmon, and usually comes back home with a suitcase full of fish which I quickly insert into my stomach.

Even though I am not a fisherwoman myself, and don’t know jack about fishing, I have to admit that freshly caught wild Alaskan salmon is incredibly delicious, so I thought it only fair that I should at least try my hand at catching them myself….

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Something’s fishy about this plane…

Our journey began in Anchorage, where we stayed the night at the house of an old Japanese lady who runs an unofficial B&B in her home to make some extra coin. I don’t blame her — I can’t imagine how anyone makes money in Alaska unless you work in fishing or oil. But it was great; she even packed us up some bento boxes (a Japanese style lunch box) with onigiri (rice balls) and lots of yummy goodness, and we were on our way the next morning.

We drove south to the coast towards the town of Seward. Despite the greyish weather, the drive was breathtaking. No matter where you look you see snow-capped mountains, blue glaciers, crystal clear rivers.

As we passed over the Kenai River I was amazed by the strange milky blue colour of the water, which comes from the glacier. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful rivers and beaches and mountains in my life, but nothing like this before. It was a really unique colour.

Now that is blue

In Seward we did two nights of camping — my first time to really camp out. The weather unfortunately was uncooperative and drizzly at times, but it was great fun setting up our camp at the beachfront. The public campgrounds and surprisingly well organised, with clean toilets, running water, and for $2 you can even take a hot shower. Not too bad for roughing it.

View from the tent

We set up our tent and tried our damndest to get the fire going. It was obvious to the other campers nearby that we were city slickers, so one of them very kindly came across to lend us his axe so we could cut the firewood into smaller pieces.

Finally we got the fire up, and sat down to drink a cold Alaskan Amber beer and enjoy the view across the bay of majestic mountains and glaciers. We often saw a lone sea otter swimming around the bay. The temperature dropped quite a lot overnight which left us shivering in our sleeping bags. Camping was a lot of fun, but I hope the next time I do it, the weather will be a bit warmer and sunnier!

Ah, thank you gasoline

After two days in Seward, I was definitely looking forward to getting to our next stop where we would stay for a week, at the beautiful Sheridan home in Anchor Point, close to the town of Homer.

The house on the hill

Gary and Eileen Sheridan are old friends of Seiji’s, having met each other many years ago on the Anchor River where they go fishing. I think their home is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. Lots of wide open space, lush forests, and a million dollar view across the bay, with 30 miles of visibility to the stunning volcanoes of Mt. Redoubt and Mt. Iliamna. In the evenings the sunset lights up the icy blue glaciers and paint the sky. One night a huge mother moose and her two babies ambled through the garden, munching on berries.

Life in Alaska is certainly one that is closer to nature. Other than the neighborhood moose there are also bald eagles nesting in the trees. We were told that you can sometimes see groups of whales swimming in the bay below. And there are, of course, a lot of bears too. Thankfully I did not see any of them myself.

Shhh… don’t make a move…

One day we took a day trip to the quaint little fishing town of Seldovia, population a whopping 289, for hiking and sightseeing. When we came across three piles of bear scat on the trail, I got incredibly nervous. It looked fresh and moist, which meant it must have been recently deposited. I took out the bell that Seiji’s mother had given to me to make noise while walking in the forest. Seiji had a big can of bear mace around his neck, but other than that we had very little protection. ‘Go into my backpack, and grab my knife,’ said Seiji. I rummaged through the bag, and all I found was a Swiss Army knife. I looked at him incredulously. ‘What are you going to do with that if we see a bear?’ I asked him. ‘Poke him in the ass with a wine opener?’

I can see now why everyone in Alaska has at least one firearm. It’s not that they are trigger happy. The gun is for protection. In Alaska humans are not on the top of the food chain and you have to be prepared if you go into the forest. Bears also come by homes looking for food. And considering how big and powerful they are, you better have something big and powerful yourself.

As for the fishing — it proved a lot more difficult than I imagined. At Wal Mart we bought our fishing license and picked up the tide tables. It takes careful planning to know where and when to go fishing. If you time it wrong you may miss out on the run. But even with careful planning, there is no guarantee that fish will bite your line.

Gay trying to untangle my line, again!!

On the first morning we awoke at 4.45 to get to the fishing spot for the 5.15 rising tide. Despite the sleepiness and jet lag, I was excited to try my first Alaskan fly fishing. Wearing long johns, ski pants, and fishing waders, we were prepared for the cold darkness of the morning. We waddled quietly down the path to the river, using flashlights as our guide.

At the river bed, we arrived at the scene to find another seven or eight anglers, all standing in solemn silence, casting their lines into the water. We eyed up the location, and after giving each other enough space, began casting too. Cast out, reel in. Cast out, reel in. The tide was rising and the water was changing. Suddenly the people around us began catching fish. ‘Fish on!’ someone would call, and everyone would reel in to make sure they didn’t get tangled up. Everyone also stopped what they were doing to watch and see how big the fish was that he was reeling in. And watching them pull those big beauties out of the water definitely made you want to catch one yourself.

Casting at sunrise (me half asleep)

One of my favourite memories of the trip was standing in the river, my feet damn near frozen, getting absolutely no bites, when suddenly next to me Seiji got a fish on, and it was a big one. Anybody who has met Seiji knows has a flair for the dramatic. The fish took his line and ran with it, and Seiji followed in hot pursuit. He ducked under the next guy’s line with a polite ‘excuse me’, and followed the salmon a good way up the river to the other side of the bank. As he ran through the water the other anglers around me chuckled and shook their heads. ‘Now where’s he goin’ with that fish?’ one guy said. ‘I dunno,’ another laughed, ‘it’s like he’s takin’ that fish for a walk.’ I smiled to myself, knowing that this is what he lives for. And now I can understand why. The scene was quite surreal — the angler dancing with the salmon through the water, the sunrise sprinkling pink and orange hues into the sky, all in front of the backdrop of a huge snow-capped volcano in the distance. I can see why anglers return to Alaska again and again. It is a hard place to beat when it comes to natural beauty.

Unbelievably, I caught a grand total of zero salmon! Seiji caught just two himself, so I did not feel too bad, considering that he is the fishing maestro. Everywhere we went people on the river banks would walk around and chat with the other anglers. ‘How’s the catch today?’ they would ask. A lot of people were complaining about the low numbers of salmon this year. Apparently we were not the only ones with no luck.

Thankfully, one of the neighbors, Jim and Sue from Florida, had a nice little boat and offered to take us out deep-sea halibut fishing. Six of us went out that day, all of them retirees, except for myself and Seiji, and all in good shape and living life to the fullest. The oldest guy on the boat was Fred, an 88-year-old ex-commercial fisherman from BC who drives his RV from Canada to Alaska every summer with his Québécois wife. We launched the boat at the Homer Spit, and headed a good hour and a half away from the shore. When we got to our spot we dropped anchor and got ready with the bait.

Reels are READY

Now, before I get into the halibut fishing itself, I want to mention one sort of a side story about interesting cultural differences between North America and Asia when it comes to fishing and eating fish. When we got on the boat, I peeked into the bait bucket, and saw much to my surprise that we were using salmon belly for bait. I was absolutely shocked… salmon belly… for bait! Delicious, juicy, yummy looking salmon belly, to catch halibut! Salmon belly, which in Tokyo is considered a delicacy! In Japan, usually the fattiest part of a fish is the most valuable. And here we were, using beautiful salmon for bait! It made me realise how Japanized I have become!!

Anyways, the halibut fishing was an easy success. Almost too easy, in fact. The second you dropped the line and it touched the bottom, wham! Fish on, reel ’em up! We each caught two and they were a decent size, though I have seen pictures of people who have caught 150 lb halibut as big as a man.

Good job Seiji!!

Unfortunately the seas were rocking and I felt really queasy the entire time. Looking up at the distance was all right, but the second I looked down at my reel I felt seasick. Once I caught my two halibut, I sat down and tried to control my upchuck reflex. It’s the most seasick I’ve ever been in my life.

After the halibut fishing, we got back to Jim and Sue’s place and began cleaning the fish, and Seiji asked to keep the bones and the head, because in Japan the meat around the bones is considered to be quite succulent. They gave us a funny look, but gladly passed them over. Seiji showed me how to carefully remove the meat areas around the spine and the fins as well as the halibut cheek — a nice plump little piece of meat like an oyster — and later that night we roasted the bones and flaked all the meat off of it. You would be amazed how much meat you can get from the skeleton of a fish if you take the time. What a strange hybrid I have become. The Trini girl who knows how to remove fish bones with chopsticks and carve up a halibut cheek…..

Guess this will get us through the winter!

Like I mentioned earlier, a really great part of the trip was meeting so many retired people who are still going strong and living life to the fullest. In big cities where nature is so far away people just get old and slow down and eventually do nothing but eat and drink and watch TV all day. In contrast, the retirees in Alaska were great role models. They are still fishing, hunting, camping, travelling, boating, kayaking, golfing, sightseeing, painting, creating art, and so on. I’ll never forget during the halibut fishing when 88-year-old Fred got a big one on the line, and as he grunted and groaned to reel this big sucker up, he suddenly looked up at me, gave me a big smile and a flirtatious wink, and said, ‘Damn, this is FUN!!’ I sincerely hope that when I am 88 I will still have that fighting spirit and be out there in the great outdoors, enjoying the scenery, picking berries, fighting with halibut, driving RVs across the country…

Even hip surgery can’t stop Eileen from getting those waders on and heading down to the river