Friday, November 24, 2006

Thanksgiving in Houston

Today's Thanksgiving. In terms of being a national holiday, it's pretty much like Chinese New Year. Almost EVERY shop/museum/restaurant is closed! It's kinda sianz, coz I didn't have much to do. Luckily, there was a Thanksgiving Day parade as well as a Christmas Light-up in Uptown Houston, so the day wasn't spent in front of the tv.

I can't help but compare the parade with our Chingay and it's definitely not as polished and colourful. But, there are three things which I really like about this parade. Firstly, I love the balloons. There were about 4 huge balloons and I found them pretty cool. The one below is a huge dog with the Houston Chronicle in its jaws. The balloons aren't as elaborate as the ones in New York's Macy's Thanksgiving parare (they had a gigantic pikachu this year!) but I enjoyed them. The second thing I liked was the unrehearsed and 'genuine' nature of the participants. Most of them were there just to... parade! Not dance or show off complicated routines. They were just walking and waving and doing what they liked to do. I found that refreshing. The last think I really liked... was that people joined the parade to raise awareness of their group and just to wish others a happy thanksgiving. The third pic shows the sikh community just walking and wishing people happy thanksgiving! How's that for racial harmony! They also had schools groups, clubs, firemen & their families, dance schools and even the Harekrishna! I think Singapore groups should consider doing such parades. Not a pretentious show. Just a simple parade for people to join in the celebrations.

In the late afternoon, I went to Uptown Houston to hang around and wait for their official Christmas lightup & fireworks. They had their concert band playing... not very exciting... and then at the very end, after almost 1.5 hours of so-so music, they had a sad sing-a-long. But the fireworks at the end more than made up for it. It lasted about 10 to 15 mins and I thought they were quite good. The light-up was for their main road with about 40 christmas trees lining the sides. Well, it's one month before Christmas, so I guess it's about time. It was weird when I saw Singapore shops putting up Christmas decorations in October!!! They had some reindeer mascots, thought they looked pretty funny. Had to take a pic with one.

Final pic is of a fountain along their local metrorail which runs on only one route linking up their downtown, museum district, park, zoo and medical centres. I liked the metrorail coz it was reasonable (unlimited rides for US$2), fairly clean and it allowed me to see the parts of Houston which were along the route. Singapore should really consider having something like this maybe circling Orchard Road and Marina area.

OK, I'm done with Houston, off to my last stop tomorrow: San Francisco - My favourite city in the US!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Houston - Johnson Space Center

I'm in Houston now, my last stop before moving on the San Francisco/San Jose for some serious shopping. Houston's a big city with everything kinda spread out. One of the main reasons for coming to Houston is to visit the Johnson Space Center, home of Mission Control. You know, the famous line from Apollo 13... "Houston, we have a problem."

JSC is pretty far from downtown Houston. Took over 1 hour on the bus to reach it. The activity center was quite so-so, nothing very special, but I guess the main reason was to visit the actual space center. Went on a 2 hour tour which brought us to the Historic Mission Control (a designated historic monument) where previous Apollo and shuttle missions were controlled from. It's no longer in use. Next stop was a huge hangar where mock-ups of the space station and shuttle were kept for engineers and astronauts to do their training. Final stop was 'Rocket Park', quite a lame name coz it had only two rockets and some boosters on show. But it was cool to see the actual Saturn V rocket which has been kept there on permanent display.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

New Orleans

I must admit I am surprised, but I found New Orleans to be a very interesting place and I’m looking forward to planning another trip here again. I guess I didn’t really know what to expect. In my mind, New Orleans was all clubs, drinking, jazz, Mardi Gras. From what I’ve seen, it’s so much more than that.

OK, first, to be honest, I came to see what Hurricane Katrina did to the place. I went on a tour which showed us the devastation caused by the Hurricane, the reasons why the towns were destroyed and also the recovery efforts. It was a very good tour. It’s very humbling to see how these people are picking up the pieces andputting their lives together again. The first pic shows a lighthouse which was destroyed and the second is of the new houses which Habitat for Humanity have started building for the people who lost their homes.

The main tourist areas, although damaged by Katrina, were mostly up and receiving tourists. New Orleans has these Cities of the Dead. Because of the frequent flooding, they have come up with a system of burying their dead in tombs above ground! Very surreal.

In their parks, there are many beautiful Oak Trees. The key feature being the branches spreading out and even reaching down to the ground. I loved finding these beautiful oaks.

The famous French Quarter had some very beautiful buildings. Many had the famous cast iron or rod iron railings. The funny thing is… there is nothing very French about the French Quarter. Most of the buildings are actually of a Spanish design coz the French buildings were mostly burned down in the early years of the settlement.

I also decided to be a bit adventurous and try the famous Gumbo and some creole food. Actually, I know this is kinda insulting, but I thought that they basically taste like very strong tomato stew with different spices. But it did taste quite nice, although it was kinda salty. They served some rice inside the dish but it was so little… almost like a spoonful for the whole plate! Being the Chinese that I am… I ordered an extra plate of rice. Heh. I think they must have thought I was some crazy asian guy, butchering their dish like this.

I didn’t get to do much of the Voodoo tours and I also didn’t get to visit the swamps. I look forward to doing them the next time!

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Thankfully, my second day in Atlanta was much less rainy. Managed to visit two places: Martin Luther King Memorial Park and the CNN centre in Atlanta.

Turns out Atlanta was MLK's birthplace. Heh, Shows how little I know about Atlanta. Visited the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he was the pastor and also saw his house. There was a display/exhibition on MLK at the park centre. MLK's tomb was also located in the park but unfortunately it was being renovated so I couldn't see it. Quite an informative and interesting experience.

The second place I visited was the CNN centre in Atlanta. They had a studio tour which was pretty interesting. Found out CNN Atlanta is the main HQ of all the CNNs around the world. Heh... I didn't know. In the pic, you see the main atrium of the CNN centre. It used to be a indoor amusement park and the long escalator (supposedly the world's longest free standing escalator) was used to bring people up to the rides.

I've left Atlanta and right now, I'm in New Orleans. Just arrived a couple of hours ago. Have two days here before leaving for Houston. And, oh yeah.. PS3 launched in US today. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that some time within these last 1.5 weeks in the US, I might be able to get my hands on one....

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Today was just rain, rain, rain, rain, rain. Quite sianz. Thankfully, I felt much better so I took the subway to Five Points (the town centre) and managed to visit two places despite the horrible weather.

First was the pretty cool World of Coca-Cola. Heh, to be honest, I didn't even know that Coke originated in Atlanta! They had some displays on the history of Coke but what I especially liked was the video on the history of Coke advertisements. It was really nostalgic to see some of the old coke adverts like the 'I like to teach the world to sing' one. They also had this huge Coke Polar Bear which I HAD to take a pic with. There was also this room where we could taste over 20 drinks from all over the world that was bottled by Coca-Cola, like Mandarin-flavoured Fanta, some watermelon soda, and some other Costa Rica soft drink.

After World of Coca-Cola, I decided to visit what was billed as the world's largest aquarium, the Georgia Aquarium, which was only opened a year ago. No shot of the aquarium from the outside coz it was raining too heavily for me take out my camera. Anyway, not a bad aquarium. It might be the largest, but I don't think it was the most interesting. But I do have something for aquariums with beautiful jellyfish displays.... so, this one passes! Had a very nice display of seahorses and garden eels as well. First time I've seen them in an aquarium.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Full Metal Alchemist - Movie

Yesterday, I bought the US version of the FMA movie (The Conqueror of Shambala) to watch on the train. Wow... it was a really good movie. I liked how they introduced the movie to new viewers as well as tie up loose ends for loyal fans (like me!). It was good to watch the Elric brothers again. Makes me want to rewatch the entire series, but I'm waiting for the english version to come out completely. To loyal FMA fans, go catch the movie, you won't be let down.

Atlanta - sick...

I'm in Atlanta now, about 15 hours by train way from Baltimore. It was an overnight journey which was a little uncomfortable because the seat next to me was not empty and I seem to have caught a bit of a cold. Decided to rest in my room today and hopefully will feel better tomorrow.


Baltimore is kinda conflicted. On one hand, it has a few interesting historical sites & tourist spots, but on the other hand, they are struggling to attract people back to stay in Baltimore. Hence, when I was there, the place looked fairly empty, even though I visited it over a Sunday & Monday.

I concentrated my sightseeing in two areas. The first place is the Harbourplace which is their attempt to inject more excitement into the area. There is a pretty interesting National Aquarium of Baltimore but definitely not the best I have seen. So far, I think those in Japan are still better. In the first pic on the left, the aquarium is the collection of two buildings on the right with sloping roofs. They had a pretty good frog exhibit going on. Here's one of my favourites. Looks like an alien, eh!

On the far end of the harbourplace, there was an interesting quirky museum on pop culture. This guy had a huge collection of old comics and toys and decided to put them up for display. Quite cool. I think there was an original copy of Action Comics where Superman first appeared, though not in mint condition. But I wished he had more things to display from current era. Most of his stuff were concentrated before the 1970s.

On my second day, I spent more time in the cultural district. The pics show two 'firsts' in baltimore. The first monument to George Washington as well as the first cathedral in America. The cathedral had just undergone a renovation and it's been cleaned up real nicely. But I guess, after visiting Rome, no other cathedrals can probably match up. Oh yah, I went for a free tour but left halfway. The guide was soooooo longwinded. It was supposed to be a 45min tour but after 30mins, we were still near the entrance! Sianz.

In my two days in Baltimore, I was quite lucky that the weather, though overcast, was not really bad. It didn't pour so I could walk around. You can see how grey the skies were in the first pic.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

New York City

Actually, I've already left New York City.... the internet in the hostel was really inconvenient, and coupled with the late times I returned to the hostel, I decided not to do any blogging.

It's not my first time to New York. I think I've been here twice before, but the last time was probably about 10 yrs ago. New York isn't my favourite city. After this visit, it's a little better, but I still don't really like it.

It's entering into Winter time and the some trees are still yellow. Here's a pic of the path near the hostel where I was staying. Really like the yellow leaves on the tree and on the ground.

Let's start off with why I don't like it... it's kinda dirty. Yeah, the subways are really grimey. Our MRTs in Singapore and the trains in Japan are just leaps and bounds better in terms of cleanliness and organization. Secondly, weather. My arrival day and first day in New York was spoilt by rain. It was not pleasant having to struggle with an umbrella and cold weather. But luckily, the next two days were quite sunny, giving me some time to do some visits and shopping. Lastly, it's just too crowded. It's funny, coz I guess Rome, Tokyo, aren't exactly devoid of people. But somehow, the mass of people in NYC just seems more... congested? Anyway, here's a pic of the famous Time Square being smothered with rain.

OK, having said that, I must admit, I also like some stuff about NYC. First and foremost must be the musicals. I managed to get half-priced tickets to watch Tarzan (the new Disney muscial) and a quirky off-broadway muscial - The Evil Dead. Tarzan was not bad... not fantastic but still enjoyable. The Evil Dead was hilarious. It was like watching a B-grade musical. They actually had a splatter zone where the audience members were splattered with fake blood and body parts! lolz.

This time round, I decided to do the Empire State Building. I find it quite expensive to go up, but what the heck... I've never done it before. The view was pretty good. In the first pic, the building to the far left is the United Nations building. If I'm not wrong, the tall, black one belongs to Donald Trump. After the Empire State Building, I went on a cruise around New York City. Also quite enjoyable. The middle pic is of Wall Street and the World Trade Centre used to stand just behind the building with the pyramid on the top. I think it's about TWICE the height of the tallest buildings in that pic! And of course, the last pic is the famous Stature of Liberty. I was quite lucky to get a shot with the sun setting behind it. I heard they don't let people climb up inside the statue anymore. Made me glad that I did it 10 years ago when I first visited New York. Then, we could climb all the way to the top and peer out from a small window at the crown of the statue!

The pic below is the former site of the World Trade Centre. I think they are supposed to finish building the memorial by 2010. Don't think it's gonna happen. Heh.. maybe that will be the next time I visit NYC.

From New York, I took a train earlier today southwards. After about 2.5 hours, I'm now in Baltimore. Will be spending two days here before leaving for Atlanta.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Today's my last day in Rome. Went to the last few places which I'd missed out so far.

First stop was the Pantheon, the only intact building of ancient Rome, built in 27 BC. It doesn't look very spectacular until you go in and see the huge semi-spherical dome which is the original dome since it was built! The Romans really built things to last!

Next I went on to Piazza Navona, built on the former ruins of an ancient stadium. Was a bit disappointed coz the obelisk was undergoing maintenance and was all boarded up... in fact, quite a few of the obelisks around Rome were all boarded up, like the one above the Spanish steps. A short walk away was the Area Sacra, an excavated area in the middle of modern buildings. This place is famous coz Julius Caesar was killed just behind the 5 pillars you see in the pic.

Had some lunch then went to see this really meaningless monument. Heh.. Only reason why I went was coz I have this fascination with pyramids. It's the only remaining pyramid built by some rich magistrate. No museum, no tours... just went there for a pic.

The last stop of the day was also the most interesting. I went to the last of the 4 major basilicas of Rome - St Paul's Basilica. Ok, I admit, I felt I should also go there coz I'm named after him after all... heh.... It was a beautiful basilica, although it wasn't as grand as St Peter's Basilica. I loved the garden & statue St Paul in front of the Basilica (first pic) and also the beautiful interior. Under the tabernacle is believed to be the remains of St Paul.

In the train on the way back to the hotel, I decided to leave my mark on the train as well. I mean everyone else was doing it... so here it is!

(just joking... dunno who did it, but it's fun to see my surname scratched on the window.)

Just one more note for the day... I was kinda irritated when I got back to the hotel coz my laundry which I had sent in the morning was not back and I am leaving at 6.30am in the morning tomorrow. I had double checked that the laundry would be back in time this morning and was assured that it would be ok. So, now (1) I had to go do laundry at a self-service laundromat immediately as I was out of clothes to travel tmr and (2) I'm short of a T-shirt and 2 underwears for my US trip. Kinda irritating coz I packed pretty little as I knew I was gonna be travelling quite a bit in the US. Now, I'll have to go buy some more underwear and shirts in the US. I think the hotel's gonna compensate me by giving me a discount on the room. Will find out tomorrow.

OK, better sleep soon, dun wanna miss my flight tomorrow.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Very tired.... my feet are killing me.... Today was another day of plenty walking. Set off a bit later coz I was lazing around in my room (since it was Sunday after all).

I signed up for a tour to visit the Catacombs. Not cheap, 40 euros, but after the tour, I think it was quite well spent. Having a guide around to talk about what I am seeing really makes a difference.

The catacombs are a set of underground tunnels where the early Christians who were persecuted were buried. Eerie place. I visited the Catacombs of Saint Domitalla which was the burial place of over 150 000 people. They were buried in an underground structure 4 levels deep! We only got to visit parts of the first two levels. The whole place was like a huge maze underground. Very interesting visit. No pics were allowed, so I only managed to take a pic of the outside which is actually the roof of the underground cathedral.

Next, we visited the Basillica di San Giovanni which is the cathedral of Rome. The guide explained that in order for building to be called a Basillica, it needed to have a 4 things, one of which is are holy relics. The one in this Basillica is supposed to be the skulls of St Peter and St Paul! They also had a piece of wood from the table where Jesus had his Last Supper. This Basillica also had beautiful statues along the nave of the the twelve apostles. This one stood out to me... I think it was supposed to be of Bartholomew... he's supposed to be holding a his own skin coz it's believed that he was skinned alive. Just outside this Basilica was the shrine where the 'holy staircase' is. It's supposed to be the actual marble steps which Jesus climbed up to meet Pontius Pilate. The steps (together with the shred of wood from the last supper table) were brought to Rome by Helen, the mother of Constantine, the first Christian roman emperor.

The last stop on the tour was the Basillica of Santa Maria Maggiore. The relic in this Basilica is a piece of the manger where baby Jesus was laid! It's really quite interesting to see all these holy relics.

After the tour, I decided to go to Capitoline Museum. It's a huge museum and it was totally worth visiting. There were so many sculptures and paintings. I'm not an arty person, but there were two pieces which I really liked. First was the sculpture of The Dying Gaul. I found the sculpture very sad. Next was a painting of the legend of how Rome was founded. The woman in the painting is the mother of Romulus and Remus (the two kids in the painting). The man she is with is a representation of the god of the River Tiber. Click here to read about it more.

All in, another very interesting day. But my feet really hurt. Tomorrow's my last day here, still haven't seen the Pantheon. So much more to see! Hate to admit it, but I'm enjoying Rome!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

I spent today wondering all around the streets of Rome. First stop was the famous Trevi Fountain. Never really expected it to be so huge. Heh.. always imagined it to be smaller. Then, I walked to the Spanish steps but on the way, I actually found a Chinese restaurant to have my lunch. I had sweet & Sour pork, sour & spicy soup & a coke. All for 12 euros... S$24.... I have already decided to forget about converting the prices or I'll probably never eat anything other than sandwiches and pizza here.

After Spanish Steps, I went on to visit this Altar of Peace. Thought it was quite interesting, how they reconstructed the entire altar from the different pieces they had found at different times.

Right next to the Altar was a burial mount but the more interesting thing was that an artist had put together some outdoor exhibition on the railings around the mount. He wasn't really charging anything for it but the pieces were quite humourous. Here's one about the 'toilette'.

After that, I took a cruise down the River Tiber. I thought it would be quite nice (cause I like to do river cruises) but I must admit I was a bit disappointed. Firstly, the walls of the river were filled with ugly grafitti. And secondly, many of the sights were kinda obscured by the trees coz the water level was way below the sides.

Then I went up Castel Saint Angelo, a castle by the river. Interesting place but no pics allowed inside. But we could go to the top of the castle and since it was actually dark by then, I could take some nice night pics (finally used my mini-tripod!). The first shot is of Vatican City and the second shot is of the bridge across the river, leading towards Vatican City.