I’m pretty out of the loop when it comes to pop culture. The answer to “Do you know _____” or “Have you heard/seen ____” is “Um. No…” 90% of the time. But someone... READ MORE
Despite being from landlocked Colorado (or perhaps because of it), I’ve always loved aquariums. I had only ever been to the Downtown Aquarium in Denver, which if I recall correctly, is as famous for... READ MORE
Besides its distinctive culture and beauty, Inle Lake is also famous for a rare and remarkable craft: Lotus weaving. It’s exactly what it sounds like, weaving scarves, shawls, longyis (traditional sarong-like garments), and... READ MORE
I’m pretty out of the loop when it comes to pop culture. The answer to “Do you know _____” or “Have you heard/seen ____” is “Um. No…” 90% of the time. But someone who I DO know (this is rare, so it’s a minor source of pride) is Taylor Swift, and I saw her live in concert in Philadelphia on her 1989 World Tour!
I’ve been to three concerts before in the past, Death Cab for Cutie, Jason Derulo, and David Guetta. But Taylor Swift was different because (1) I had heard her songs more than one week prior to the concert, and (2) I actually knew the words to said songs (again, probably not something that the average person would be proud of, but you underestimate the extent of my mainstream ignorance). I nabbed a ticket as soon as presales came out in December, so it’s been an anticipated event on my calendar for quite a while. To see the concert, I even made a special weekend trip down to Philly, because for whatever reason, NYC was not included on her tour. (I’m sure there’s a business rationale for this, but she’s the AMBASSADOR for NYC. Just saying.)
Being the concert n00b that I am, I arrived at the venue, Lincoln Financial Field, 15min before the start time of 7pm. It turns out that it takes quite a while for 50,000 people to pile into a stadium, and the event coordinators fully adjust the schedule to accommodate this. I found my seat in the second-to-last row (yes, I bought the cheapest ticket I could fined, and somehow it was still close to $100), and then there was nothing to do but to wait.
The camera makes it look much further away than it actually was, I swear.
I got so restless that I wandered around the concession stands and finally bought a cheeseburger and a $4 water, which the event coordinators probably fully accommodated for as well.
I also amused myself by noting the demographics of the crowd, which was probably unlike any other that Lincoln Financial Field, the home of the Philadelphia Eagles, has ever seen. It was around 90% female, 70% young (which I operationally define as being born before 1989), and so, so overwhelmingly white. From my seat in the second-to-last row (and when you’re up that high, you can see a lot. Just not of the stage), I could only find four other people of color — two of which being my companions next to me. I was surprised because I thought she had a fan base that was at least twice as diverse (which still isn’t saying much…). But while everyone has danced to her music at some point, I guess mostly one particular demographic is willing to pony up $100++ to squint at her in a stadium.
Shawn Mendes kicked off the show at 7:15, followed by Vance Joy at 8:00. At 8:30, they amped up the crowd with videos prepared just for the 1989 World Tour, including trivia, behind the scenes for music videos, and interview snippets, and at 9:00 on the dot, Taylor Swift herself appeared.
Thank goodness for those two gigantic screens.
Her first song of the night, ‘Welcome to New York’ (I know videos are awful, but the goal of the videos was to save the experience rather than to try for the perfect cut).
Upon entering the stadium, everyone was given a white rubbery wristband that visibly contained LEDs but didn’t have buttons or any other means of activation. We were simply instructed to (1) wear the wristband, (2) remove the strip of plastic that separated the battery, and (3) have fun. As soon as Taylor took the stage, we discovered what it was for. The wristbands had no button because they were centrally controlled, timed to flash in rhythm with the current song of the set. Pretty cool!
‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together':
One perk of being up high and far away: you can see the entire twinkling stadium. Because that — and not the performer — is clearly what I paid to see. After leaving the stadium the wristbands are set to flash colorfully when tapped or shaken. I don’t know how I feel about bringing a remote-controlled object back to my home, but who can pass up a cool reusable souvenir?
Taylor herself is an amazing performer, not unexpected given that she has had 10+ years of practice already. That girl knows her best poses and angles, and she has a talent for whipping up the crowd, even one that’s an unwieldy 50,000 people strong. The transition from song to song was seamless, so Taylor was fully present and fully on for two hours straight, when I was already hoarse from singing along by the end of the first hour. Much respect!
A runway that lifted up and rotated over the crowd:
And ‘Love Story,’ redone in 1989 style:
The grand finale, with ‘Shake It Off’
What took me by surprise was Taylor’s eloquence. In the media, she is sometimes portrayed as somewhat spazzy, somewhat awkward, and generally “Omg omg — like, yeah.” But she gave earnest speeches as lead-ins to some of her songs, seeking to connect personally with her audience. She made a point of thanking us in person for supporting her 1989 album, shared some of the sentiments behind her songs, and made a variety of inspirational comments that drew from her own experiences. Aw man, she can sing, play instruments, and make good speeches?
Bring on the feelings of inadequacy. What am I doing with my life? Clearly not giving multiple concerts with tens of thousands of people in attendance. Realistically, I’ll never get to that point (“Not with that attitude!” yeah, yeah). But it is inspirational to see what someone can do at a mere age of 25. Let me set a goal of making “just” 50,000 friends, and I’ll move up form there!
After this concert, I understand the appeal of seeing artists live. It’s even more fun to sing along to your favorite songs when you’re doing it with the artist in the him/herself, even when s/he is an entire football field away. Maybe I should get more into music and other artists…nah. Taylor Swift is enough pop culture for me for now. One step at a time!
Despite being from landlocked Colorado (or perhaps because of it), I’ve always loved aquariums. I had only ever been to the Downtown Aquarium in Denver, which if I recall correctly, is as famous for its tigers as it is its aquatic menagerie, so the Monterey Bay Aquarium was the first on my list of stops down the Pacific coast.
The Aquarium is located on the end of Cannery Row, the touristy (or quaint, depending on how you look at it) main street of Monterey, so finding parking nearby is difficult. There are only metered street spots that require you to have $4 – $10 worth in quarters/dollar coins, or parking lots that charge a flat rate of $15 -$20 for the day. Like a lazy parallel parking n00b, I opted for a lot, but belated parking tip: just a few blocks up the hill, there’s free street parking only a 10 min walk away.
All together the Aquarium only has two floors with four wings and a cafeteria, so I was a little disappointed with its size when I first got the map. However, it is extremely well-designed – I was consistently blown away by the exhibits, which were engagingly informational and put the animals in their best light.
I started off wandering into the Open Sea wing, and immediately felt like I was on a curated tour through National Geographic Land. With all of the beautiful, intricate creatures up close, every picture could serve as a bonafide magazine cover – the only limit being your photographic capability. My photography skills are sadly quite limiting, but with a moderately good camera and two photography lessons on how to adjust ISO/aperture/shutter speed under my belt, I tried to make do!
The entrance to the wing was a donut-shaped tank mounted overhead, filled with silvery sardines swimming in unending circles. Honestly, I could have just set up camp there and stared up for the rest of the day. (Here’s a picture by someone with not-so-limited photographic capability)
Further in was tank after tank of jellies drifting peacefully under fluorescent light.
And then a colossal tank at least three stories tall and at least three times as wide, filled with fish that were easily longer than me: tuna, sharks, rays, and other giants that I couldn’t identify. Wikipedia reports that it holds 1,200,000 gallons of water, features “one of the world’s largest single-pane windows,” and is actually “five panes seamlessly glued together.” The tank is so large that the fish swim by and disappear in the distance, so it lives up to its name of the Open Sea. I couldn’t even begin to do it justice, but here are some gems from the Almighty Google.
The second largest tank at the aquarium is the Kelp Forest, an impressive tall tank that is illuminated by sunlight and utilizes a surge machine to keep the waters in motion. The kelp grows all the way to to the top of the 28-foot tank, and there are multiple windows on two separate floors to see the vegetation and creatures inside.
The open top of the Kelp Forest tank, with sunlight streaming in:
I was lucky enough to catch a feeding, administered by a diver who explained the process and answered questions via a microphone connected in her mask:
Other passable pictures that I managed to take at various exhibits throughout the aquarium:
Moray eels are creeeeeee-py.
Did you know sand dollars are furry when they’re alive?
Outside on the balcony, which overlooks the bay:
The beautiful aviary, an artificial beach for beach birds that somehow obediently don’t take flight:
And a few other notable parts of the aquarium that I greatly enjoyed:
The decorative art on pillars throughout the wharf exhibit (left), which mimics the teeming life on the actual wharf pillars (right).
An interactive seafood bar, wherein visitors choose various commonly eaten seafoods from the touchscreen menus and life-size entertaining characters pop up on the three screens to explain the supply and sustainability of the seafood selected.
A wave cave where visitors can experience what it’s like to have a wave crash over them while staying completely dry.
And various touch pools, filled with rays, abalone, sea cucumbers, starfish, sea urchins, and more.
The only exhibit that didn’t feel completely up to par was the Special Exhibition called “The Jellies Experience,” which had a smaller concentration of animals (because there’s already an entire section devoted to jellies) and mostly contained jellyfish-themed decorations. For instance, these giant inflatable polyps (baby jellyfish larva). They may be shaped like polyps and mechanized to bob up and down, but they don’t impart much knowledge – more art exhibit than aquarium.
All in all though, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has an amazingly well-designed experience. It perfectly captures the fact that the Pacific coast bay is beautiful from above, but even more spectacular below.
In the 6 years that I’ve had my drivers license, I haven’t had a single incident. Alright, there was the time when I got pulled over for speeding (only because I picked my mother up from dancing at 1am and she was in the passenger seat going “faster, faster!” Thanks, Mom), but I got away with just a warning. And then there was the Welcome-to-New-York parking ticket the very day I moved to NYC. But on the whole, I’m a safe driver! Until my first little transgression in L.A.
As far as accidents go, it’s probably one of the most minor ones you could think of. I was pulling up to a curb when I accidentally hit it, and the part that I hit just happened to be crumbled and jagged. It poked a hole in the tire and dented the rim, and all I could do was watch helplessly as the air hissed out of it.
Fortunately, it was a rental car, and fortunately I purchased the $17/day insurance! Even more thankfully, the nearest Hertz location was just a block and a half down the road. It couldn’t have been a more well-planned accident. What would I have done if this had happened along Big Sur? I’d rather not think about it.
Calling the Hertz Emergency Roadside number yielded 3 options: (1) get the car to a repair shop, where the tire would be replaced free of charge, (2) send someone to change the tire for me, for a $79 service charge, or (3) change the tire myself.
I didn’t like any of the options, so I chose (4) drive the car on a flat tire to the Hertz shop and exchange it for another car, free of charge. The sales people were none too happy when I rolled in on a flat tire, but they were still extremely accommodating and cool with the general situation. Tears may or may not have been involved.
In the end, the worst that happened was a lost hour, some frazzled nerves, and a significant downgrade from a new high tech car (keyless ignition, iPod connection, video when in reverse) with 2,000 miles to a much older one (whose most advanced technology was a CD player) with 40,000+ miles. No one was hurt, though, and it didn’t cost a cent to fix — technically I already paid for it with insurance plus the age differential fee of being under 25, which you could now argue is quite justified — so I’m counting my lucky stars!
Aw, well. Accidents happen, and this was a thankfully harmless reminder. Here’s to hoping that this is the worst I’ll encounter for at least the next 6 years and, if I have any luck left, beyond!
Besides its distinctive culture and beauty, Inle Lake is also famous for a rare and remarkable craft: Lotus weaving. It’s exactly what it sounds like, weaving scarves, shawls, longyis (traditional sarong-like garments), and other clothing using lotus fibers as thread.
The particular type of lotus that grows in Inle Lake produces thin, soft strings when cut and pulled, something that locals discovered about 100 years ago (so it’s actually a relatively recent craft). Lotus stalks are harvested by the thousands in the rainy season and then stored.
To extract the lotus fibers, craftsmen slice the stalks perpendicularly on both sides without cutting all the way through, then pull the two pieces apart. As they do this, silky strands, like hundreds of spider web strings, appear. The craftsmen roll the new strands into the end of the thread that they are working on, and then pull away the remaining pieces of lotus. In this way, segment by segment, a single piece of lotus thread grows slowly longer.
This thread is then taken to the loom, where it is handwoven. Lotus fabric can be woven with silk or dyed solid colors, but for the most part it isn’t heavily treated. Even then, it’s costly stuff — a single 10in x 3ft shawl can be a product of up to 4,000 – 5,000 lotus stalks.
Dad picked up a lotus scarf for a gift, which he showed off with its (potential) maker.
In an extremely rare moment of crazed consumerism, I decided that I must have one too, no matter the price. They were just too fascinating and rare to pass up — when it comes to handmade, all bets are off. $90? No problem. I don’t even wear scarves. Thank goodness I only get these dangerous impulses maybe once every 2 years.
Of course I picked red, which clashes terribly with every other red garment I own (roughly 60% of my closet). But no regrets whatsoever!
The same facility was also home to silk weaving, which, though not as exotic or exciting, also had a pretty amazing process of its own. The silk is imported from nearby China, but all of the treatment and weaving is done in-house.
First, the silk is dyed to a base color in a huge pot with natural pigments. Because the combination of colored powders varies from pot to pot, no two batches of silk are exactly the same color.
Then, the silk strands are rolled onto spools and brought to this beautiful contraption, where they are pulled out and positioned roughly as they would be in the scarf.
The taunt strands are then collected and separated into batches, on which the scarf pattern is marked. Using strings coated with wax (which will repel dye) to cover areas that will be in different colors, the craftsmen can create intricate patterns and designs.
Lastly, the dyed strings are disassembled, kept in order, and brought to the loom. You can’t tell from the picture, but each individual strand is pre-dyed with the pattern, and the weaver checks to make sure that it lines up with the previous strand before securing it in place. Because of this method, the pattern can look sketched and jagged instead of being perfectly smooth, but it’s painstakingly achieved and part of the charm.
I’ve been to a lot of weaving facilities around the world, but I have the most lasting impression of this one at Inle Lake. Or perhaps this is just the most recent impression…in any case, it’s the first time I’ve bought something from a handcraft gift shop in quite a while. They were so beautiful, I wish I could afford more — actually, maybe a better wish would be to actually wear the one I’ve got.
The multitude of pagodas at Bagan are quite a sight from the ground, but the only way to truly appreciate the wonders of the ancient city is from up high, where you can see not 5-10, but 50-100 pagodas at once. And when better to do it than at sunrise and sunset, to add some brilliant colors to the mix?
On our first evening in Bagan, we went to Shwesandaw Temple, the most popular sunset spot. With 5 levels and a view that extends to the Irrawaddy river, it’s the most accessible location for the spectacular view. Unfortunately, that also means that it’s the most accessed, so when we got to the temple half an hour before sunset, it was already crawling with tourists and locals trying to sell various goods.
The terrace was already filled to the point where people were sitting on the steep, 2-ft-tall steps that came up to my knees (thank goodness for railings). But looping around from the Southern side, I managed to squeeze my way onto some prime real estate looking out to the West.
About fifteen minutes later, a sly Chinese woman wedged herself behind me and tried to cajole me into trading places (“Come, do you want to rest against the wall? Let’s switch”), but I shook my head with wide eyes and pretended not to understand. If I let go of that spot, there was no way I was going to find my way back. This was the level below us when we first arrived, to give you an idea:
And the temple from afar during the sunset, courtesy of my Dad, who made the smart decision to walk among the other temples instead of trying to squeeze on to this one:
It was a long and literally crushing wait, but we were awarded with a gorgeous view. And a special treat–there were invisible, low-hanging clouds over the mountains, so the sun “set” twice:
Having seen sunset, we woke early the next morning for sunrise from an even better vantage point: a hot air balloon.
A rickety but charming old bus with wooden windows pulled up to the hotel to pick us up at 5:50am, and it brought us to an open launch area where the crew was waiting for us with folding chairs, coffee, and tea.
Limp balloons lay nearby, and after our pilot had explained the necessary safety procedures and corralled us in a secure area, the crew started to blow them up. First a fan for cool air to inflate them, and then burners for the hot air to lift them.
The pilot walked into the balloon at various times to check that the strings inside weren’t tangling as the balloon inflated, which I imagine is like being in the biggest game of parachute EVER.
One by one the balloons stood upright and took off, until finally we were the last ones left on the ground. Great. Not only did we select the slowest company (yellow and green balloons drifted by while our red ones were still slumped on their sides), but we had the slowest balloon. The slowest of the slow. By the time we actually got some air, the sun was already well above the horizon.
As it turns out, though, there are benefits to being last. We could take pictures of temples framed by all of the other floating balloons as we approached, and again with clear skies as we passed.
But I have to admit that the pictures are more exciting with balloons in them:
And we more than made up for the late start by cruising by the river, over fields of peanuts, dunes of sand, and ox carts in motion (of course we have no pictures of them though, because we had to put our cameras away in preparation for landing). However, the wind wasn’t behaving quite like the pilot anticipated, so we ended up pretty far in the sand…and tipped over.
We were all in landing position (sitting on the bench, gripping onto straps in front of us with our arms outstretched and locked) and the balloon tipped slowly, so it was more comical than alarming. Two passing locals took one look at us and burst out laughing, without the slightest intention of concealing their merriment. I can’t say I blame them, who wouldn’t laugh at 16 foreigners laying sideways in a basket?
While the landing was fun, finding our way out of the sand wasn’t. It was a 30-minute trek to the nearest village with a road big enough for a bus to drive on to pick us up, but we did pass some scenes of unspoiled village life along the way.
I felt sorry for the crew, who were going to have follow the same path with all of the equipment loaded on ox carts because vehicles couldn’t drive on the sand. Pilot Barry definitely wasn’t gaining much love from the company for his unplanned landing, but he sure scored major points with us for the one-of-a-kind experience! We were all served a glass of champagne and delicious banana bread once we completed our trek as well, so it was quite a delightful ending – technically beginning (to the day), since at that point it was only 9:30am.
Of all the sun-chasing that we did in Myanmar, Bagan was the most difficult. The views are quite stunning and unique, though, so that makes the long waits, suffocating crowds, and sandy shoes all worthwhile.