Four days in paradise (Ibiza), day 1

After my daughter’s first concert, April 13-16 we took a little family vacation and went to the Mediterranean island of Ibiza.

Ibiza has a very special place in my heart. As a kid, I spent many summers enjoying “my own private little beach” in paradise, before there were any jet-setters, dance clubs, or large yachts on the island. There were only hippies and fishermen. It was heaven.

So I decided it was about time to take my American wife and two kids to the island.

We took the two and a half ferry ride from Gandia, so we could bring along my car and as much luggage as needed.

Upon arrival, we went straight to Portinatx, on the northernmost tip of the island, where we had rented a cozy and traditional beachfront two-bedroom apartment.

The views from the terrace were breathtaking, so we unpacked and run to the beach to enjoy Ibiza’s legendary sunset (best experienced from the West side of the island), with my daughter to capture the scenes with the camera and great sensitivity, while my son remained in the apartment “setting up the internet”. Then, as everything else was already closed, we went to a local bar for a quick dinner and to sleep early, as the following day we wanted to beach-hop all day.

A meeting in Chile and 5 days in Paraguay

Tuesday, March 28 I took a nice flight from London to Santiago de Chile. Nice not because the constant turbulence, which made it feel like I was flying in a food mixer with wings, but because laying down completely stretched, I slept almost throughout the entire flight. The fact that the cabin crew were unusually nice also helped.

After a quick meeting in Santiago de Chile, I took another flight, this time to Asuncion (Paraguay), where I stayed until Sunday, April 2nd.

Right after landing I was picked up by my local distributor and friend, who took me to their offices to have a long meeting preparing next morning’s 8:00 am presentation to a customer. Which meant little sleep.

For the next four nights, I stayed in the new Esplendor Wyndham Grand hotel. A very new and nice hotel. The breakfast buffet was quite weak, but the rooftop swimming pool (which had a DJ and bar at night) was sweet.

The hotel, along with many other luxury hotels in Asuncion, was completely full due to the Inter-American Development Bank’s annual meeting.

The business trip was going as expected, meeting high-level officials like the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of Health, the Secretary of Science, the President of the Social Security Administration, and the Director of the National Cancer Institute. Even the party at my distributor’s mansion was awesome, with the best beef grill I have ever had.

But on Tuesday, March 28, something happened that sparked a political storm. As The Guardian describes it:

On Tuesday, riot police and elite troops sealed off the small South American country’s congress. Inside, legislators traded punches and fierce insults, and – after the speaker of the house delayed a vote until Thursday – a pro-Cartes senator seized a microphone, proclaimed himself senate president, and steam-rolled through the changes with a show of hands.

Paraguay, like many other countries, has a collection of “unique Presidents” in its history (something that the USA now knows all too well), from dictators like Alfredo Stroessner to a Catholic Bishop that became president, and was involved in a big scandal when it was discovered that he had secretly fathered many children with different women, who constantly threw parties in his yacht, well attended by foreign models.

So the fears of a dictatorship looming, after the fiasco in the Senate, did not seem too extreme, regardless of what you think of its current President. What was extreme is the reaction of some rioters, who set the Paraguayan Parliament on fire Friday night, March 31st.

source

One of the rioters was shot and killed by the police:

source

In an ironic coincidence, the “Superviaducto” (three-level elevated highway) was inaugurated that same night. And I saw, from my hotel’s window, both the fireworks celebrating the new infrastructure investment, as well as the smoke coming out of Congress.

Although my sources at National Security (not long ago I would have thought impossible to say something like that) assured me everything was going to be OK, I did not want to find out for myself if things were about to take a turn for the violent, if martial law would restrict free movement, or if a mob would storm the hotel to give the bankers meeting there a piece of their mind. So I decided to leave for the airport 16 hours before my flight our of Paraguay was due to depart. Better safe than sorry.

Since I was so early, once in the airport I had to use my persuasion powers to gain access to the safe restricted area past passport control. But my Paraguayan distributor insisted in meeting me to have a final conversation and invite me to dinner, so I had to go through immigration and customs again (and again upon my return).

A few hours later the Secretary of the Interior was deposed, and the police officer that shot the rioter was arrested.

That swift action defending the empire of the law, and the united voice of all political parties calling for peace and calm, made everything return to normality very quickly.

I really hope that the beautiful country of Paraguay and its charming people can enjoy a very long period of peace, democracy, and prosperity.

But that was not the end of my trip. After the endless 16 hours went by, and a 2-hour flight to Buenos Aires, I had a 7-hour layover, followed by a 12-hour transatlantic red-eye flight to London.

Truth be told, the Admirals’ Club VIP lounge at EZE Airport made the layover bearable, since I was able to take a shower, eat (very decent for a lounge) food, read the newspaper, connect to the internet, and work with my laptop.

Who says the life of an international CEO is boring (or comfortable)? 😀

Hong Kong Day 2

After having breakfast on the deck, with views of the impressive cloud-brushing Hong Kong skyline, we disembarked one last time from our cruise ship, and took a taxi to the Airport Express Kowloon train station to check-in (including luggage) for our midnight flight, and leave carry-ons in storage. A very organized and civilized way to travel.

Then we took a taxi to the ferry terminal, and the Star Ferry to cross to the other side (Hong Kong Island) so we could take buses to visit different areas of Hong Kong:

  • Pier 7
  • Golden Bauhinia Square
  • HK Convention & Exhibition Centre
  • Typhoon Shelter
  • Sogo
  • Wan Chai
  • Peak (going up the Tram, and Sky Terrace 428)
  • Soho and Lan Kwai Fong, where we walked around and had lunch
  • Man Mo Temple

As the evening was becoming night, we took the Star Ferry back to Kowloon Tsim Sha Tsui, and walked through the 1881 Heritage to The Peninsula Hotel.

To go to the airport we took one of the complimentary shuttle buses that took us from The Peninsula Hotel to the Kowloon Station where we boarded the Airport Express, arriving at the airport in no time.

As our last dinner in Asia we went to Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop, where we had a feast:

  • Fresh fish balls congee
  • Crispy Chinese fried dough
  • Steamed glutinous rice wrap with pork and dried scallops
  • Fried beancurd sheet rolls with shrimp
  • Stewed pear with Chinese almond soup
  • Steam sweet egg yolk runny bun
  • and to drink: taro pearl, and winter melon honey with nata de coco

In the Flight back to London, I slept 7 hours, worked with my laptop, watched one episode of BBC’s Planet Earth II, and several episodes of The Big Bang Theory Season 10.

Thank you for the gift, my love. An unforgettable trip that we will have to repeat, with the kids. 🙂

Hong Kong Day 1

March 19 marked the last port of call in our trip.

We arrived at 16:00h, but had to wait until 17:00h to disembark because immigration authorities required ALL passengers to go through a face-to-face check, and a couple was missing (they found them an hour later).

We were docked at Harbour City Ocean Terminal in Kowloon, so as soon as we disembarked, we walked through the massive shopping mall, and then onto the streets of Hong Kong in Kowloon side.

China’s economic strength is clearly visible in Hong Kong: from the endless parade of luxury cars, to the multi-story luxury brand stores, to a forest of new skyscrapers being built simultaneously, some Chinese are enjoying their new riches… and they love nothing more than to show it.

We got souvenirs at Pan-Am Pearl in 9 Lock Rd., where airline crews regularly purchase their gifts (the now defunct Pan-Am even ordered their flight attendants’ pearls from them, thus the name), stepped in the Mira Hotel where Edward Snowden made history, went to the Temple St. Night Market, and walked back through the park to the ship, in time to see the nightly light show from the ship’s deck (it occurs daily from 20:00h to 20:13h). Unfortunately, it was so densely foggy that we only got to guess how awesome the show must be on a clear day.

After the light show, and leaving the presents we just bought in our stateroom, we left the ship again, to go have dinner: we had a few dumplings at Cheung Hing Kee Pan-fried Buns (Michelin Guide 2016), and a full dinner at Chee Kei (wonton noodles and crab congee), after which we took a nice stroll back to the ship for our last night onboard (docked in Hong Kong).

Sanya

Saturday, March 18 the cruise was nearing its end as we sailed into China.

Before disembarking, we took a galley tour. It’s always fascinating to see what an extremely efficient machine a large cruise ship’s galley has to be in order to prepare and serve (on time and at the right temperature) thousands of dishes each day.

Upon disembarkation, a driver was sent to pick us up and take us to our destination, driving through Sanya:

They call Sanya “The Hawaii of China”. Saving the distance, I can see why: balmy weather, and tourist oriented.But we had a mission: the site inspection of the latest Editions resort, designed by Ian Schrager.

But we had a mission: the site inspection of the latest Editions resort, designed by Ian Schrager.

Even though it was a Saturday, a very nice sales rep guided us through the massive and impressive property, giving us all kinds of details and gossip, like the fact that drones are not allowed to fly over the resort after a recent incident where a very famous guest saw a drone flying and voiced concerns about her privacy, or the time when corrupt Chinese government officials were the number one customer of all luxury resorts in the area, until Premier Li Keqiang took a hard line against corruption and put an end to the practice.

We had a blast talking with him, so much so that we declined an invitation for a massage, in order to be able to spend more time talking with him as he treated us to lunch at The Jade Egret.

On the drive back to the ship, Sanya reminded us of the economic power of China: construction everywhere, luxury cars, and big infrastructure already being expanded.

I also documented warships like the ones China is allegedly using to sink and harass Vietnamese fishing boats and to illegally occupy Vietnamese (and others) islands in the South Sea (which they call the South China Sea), while the international community remains mostly silent. Like Russia with Crimea. Or USA with unaccounted for drone bombings and massive spying on national and international communications.

We need to take a stand, stand up, stand united, and stop the international bullies from their criminal imperialistic pretenses.

Chan May

Friday, March 17 we arrived in Chan May Port, where we were picked up by a driver and a guide, who drove us to Hoi An, passing through Da Nang, the American Air Force Hangars from the “Second Indochina War” (or “Vietnam War”, or “American War”), Dragon Bridge, Marble Mountain, China Beach, and Monkey Mountain.

While Da Nang might be better known (and closer to Chan May’s port), we decided to take a bicycle ride around Cam Thanh (small village suburb of Hoi An), through Hai Ba Trung, next to the rice paddies and the Japanese Tomb, to the Water Coconut Palms to ride the round boats:

The round boats, made of bamboo and water coconut palm fiber, are maneuvered by a single paddle in a movement that resembles a gondolier’s.

Navigating the dense water coconut tree jungle you can see how the war must have been hell, with death around every corner.

Hoi An has clearly become a tourist attraction, since it’s one of the few traditional areas that did not get completely destroyed by the war (and it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site), but you can still see genuine parts of everyday life when you venture out a bit, like we did with our bicycles: a rooster jumping into an elevated wooden house, a teacher taking a nap in a hammock set up between the school’s entrance pillars, or a water buffalo slowly making its way out of the rice paddy.

Once inside Hoi An Ancient Town (for which you have to pay a small entrance fee, to help with its preservation), we parked our bicycles, and walked around: Japanese and An Hoi bridges over the Thu Bon River, Cantonese Assembly Hall, Phung Hung Ancient House

Quan Cong Temple

We had lunch at Morning Glory restaurant

and went shopping for amazing hand made silk at Thang Loi

On our drive back to Chan May Port, we stopped at the Four Seasons Hoi An for a quick inspection of the very sophisticated property:

and I asked the driver to stop for a minute at Da Nang beach so I could take a few pictures.

Back on board the cruise ship, we watched the movie “Mr. Nobody”. Ambitious and interesting but it fails in too many areas. I wish it had been directed by Wong Kar Wai, whose influence is clear. Nonetheless, some uncanny resemblance between the main character’s life and experiences and my own left me having nightmares all night.

Day at sea

Thursday, March 16, was a day at sea. I spent most of it working (blessed be laptops and satellite internet connection), reading (Scientific American, The Economist, The London Review of Books, etc) and resting, trying to get rid of the fever I caught in Saigon. I must have been really sick when I did not even feel like taking a single picture! 🙂

But we also attended a cooking demonstration (involving liquid nitrogen) by Guest Chef Steven Chou, and a couple of lectures, one by Tim Wade on “Chan May and Sanya” and another one by Prof. Judith Fordham (Australian criminal lawyer and expert in forensic science) titled “The Real CSI: Truth is Stranger than Fiction”.

At night we watched Martin Scorsese’s “Snowden”. Another excellent movie, along with Laura Poitras’ documentary, about one of my heroes.

Saigon – Ho Chi Minh City Day 2 on Vintage Vespa

The following day, Wednesday, March 15, still in Saigon, we decided to “do Saigon like a Vietnamese”, and took a Saigon tour by Vespa:

The first stop was the Bird Lover Club at Tao Dan Park, where a group of bird owners bring the elaborate bamboo cages to the park in the morning, and hang them in hooks for the birds to sing. There’s even a small Insect Market nearby, so the birds can get “fresh treats”.
In the park there were a lot of policemen “taking a break” and having coffee, and people practicing Tai Chi and Kung Fu (with swords and fans):

Then we made a quick stop at the Thich Quang Duc memorial, that honors the first Buddhist monk than immolated himself to protest the War:

Following a walk through the colorful Flower Market

we visited the very picturesque Nhi Phu temple (Chinese):

The Accessories & Fabric Market was small, crowded, and dark

but it was on the way to the Herbal medicine quarters, where we stopped at a traditional medicine store, after which we visited a very ornate (in the inside) Buddhist pagoda:

After the pagoda we had some fresh sugar cane juice, and then drove through the Thu Thiem Tunnels to catch a glimpse of the Saigon skyline from District 2 (a luxury suburb):

On the way back we stopped to see the inside of the French style Post Office and the outside of Notre Dame.

Finally we returned the scooters and had a quick lunch before heading back to the ship.

I “caught a bug”, and developed a fast fever (with other unpleasant symptoms that do not need to be discussed in this post), so I decided to take a nap while my wife went to get a cocktail from Guest Mixologist Tony Abou-Ganin (winner of three Iron Chef contests) and come back to the stateroom to take care of me.

I slept through the evening and night like a log.

Saigon – Ho Chi Minh City Day 1

Tuesday, March 14, upon disembarking near Saigon we were greeted by our driver and our guide, who drove us into town.

This time our guide was not so sweet. He was quite professional, but after a while and some conversation you could see the influence of wild capitalism and Chinese imperialism, in subtlety aggressive attitudes and misogynistic comments.

On the way he told us about the history of the country, the French occupation, and the War (they call it the American War, Americans and Europeans call it the Vietnam War, and officially it is the Second Indochina War). You can tell Vietnam has moved almost as quickly (if not as powerfully) as China away from a real communist country into a “single-party officially-communist but capitalist-market” country. Economic activity is everywhere.

Visually speaking, there are some French buildings, from their 100-year terrible occupation, like Notre Dame Cathedral (for which every single element, from bricks to windows, was brought in from France), some high-rise buildings, and some old buildings. But there are two things that stick out and make Saigon unique: scooters (there are 7 million scooters in Vietnam, a country with 10 million inhabitants), and Áo Dài, the gorgeously flattering and practical traditional garment many women still wear today.

The first stop in our tour was the Reunification Palace:

It was the former presidential palace, and it served as a historical context to understand the Vietnam conflict better.

In a nutshell, the South of Vietnam was ruled and controlled by a corrupt president supported by the French, who by the way was Catholic and repressed Buddhism… in a country where a large majority of people are Buddhist! In the meantime, in the North of Vietnam peasants gave their support to left-leaning Ho Chi Minh. Since it was the middle of the cold war, Russia and China took an interest in helping the North, which radicalized towards communism, while the French asked the USA to support them in “defending” the South. At first (First Indochina War) the USA provided weapons and money for the French to fight. But the French were defeated and humiliated. The USA decided to send its own troop and eventually formally declare war with the catastrophic consequences we all know: 58,000 US soldiers and millions of Vietnamese dead.

The Northern troops won, and took over Saigon a day after the Americans retreated. The puppet president in the South, having survived a bomb dropped into the presidential palace, fled to a nearby church, and after having negotiated safe passage out of the country, the CIA arranged (or “allowed”) its murder on the way out of the church.

All that we learned in the Reunification Palace, as we walked through its bunkers and hidden corridors.
The next stop was the War Remnants Museum:

It’s one of those destinations you go not because you want to, but because you HAVE to. We should all learn what horror is, so we don’t let charlatans and demagogues, egomaniacs and psychopaths, lead us into hell again. And again.

The museum is quite humble, without fancy electronic displays or museistic fanfare. But the exhibitions are very well documented and put together, in a balanced and not partisan way.

It has a very “human” touch, from the families of Vietnamese farmers, to the clueless American kids sent to an almost certain death, drafted mostly from racial minorities (definitely overrepresented in the first line of fire), you can see the people that participated, suffered, and inflicted suffering, in that horrible war. What you don’t see much is the powers in the shadow, the offices thousands of miles away where the life or death of thousands of people were being decided over a coffee or a headline.

From the war photographers’ (from both sides) exhibitions, to the effects of Agent Orange (and other chemical weapons used by the USA) on both American soldiers and the Vietnamese, and its current long lasting effect on the environment, to the worldwide outcry against the war, to the acts of defiance some American soldiers carried out in order to save Vietnamese lives, to the reproduction of the torture chambers the North used on its own people… it all makes your heart shrink and your head spin. It’s very hard to go through it without shedding tears. I had to hide mine, choking a couple of times. Humanity at its best and worst. It makes you want to run, to escape this murderous and imperialistic “civilization” we are so proud of. But of course, soon you realize there are other ways to fight injustice. Starting with yourself.

To soften the tone a bit, we then visited a lacquer workshop. And then an amazing old Chinese Taoist temple:

After the temple we walked though a couple of dimly lit markets (Tan Dinh Fabric market and Central market):

And had a cocktail at the Sunset at EON 51, a bar on the 51st floor of a high-rise building, the one with the protruding helipad, which had great views of the whole city… even considering the smog:

Back on the ship, we attended a Traditional Vietnamese music and dance show, before going to sleep, docked.

Day at sea

Monday, March 13, was a day at sea. We had breakfast in bed, and then attended three lectures.

The first one was by speaker and “local resident” (he used to live in Singapore and now lives in Hong Kong) Tim Wade on “Ho Chi Minh City” (very brief History of Vietnam).

The second one, and much more interesting and in depth, by Bob Donaldson (former US State Department Advisor, former President of Tulsa University and Fairleigh Dickinson University, and Political Science and Foreign Relations Professor and Administrator at Vanderbilt University and City University of New York) titled “Global Threats in the Twenty-first Century – Part I: How Did We Get to This Place in History, and Why Does It Seem So Dangerous Here?” (Cold-war dynamics, post-Cold-war and non-state actors).

The third lecture was by Denise Heywood (Asian Art lecturer at University of London and University of Cambridge, writer, photographer and journalist) “Vietnam: Land of the Ascending Dragon – Part I” (religious rituals substituted by secular spectacle).

In the evening we attended a private by invitation only magic performance by a member of the famous Magic Castle.

Before dinner, we watched “Good Morning Vietnam” in the movie theater, and later enjoyed the full moon reflected on the East (China) Sea and the sea breeze on our faces.