Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Chapter 24: Take a Break, Have a Holiday

Choi, Nicky, Sally, Kah Leng, business development manager from the Singapore Capital Markets team, and I had been talking about making a trip together for quite some time. With the Christmas season break just one month away, we decided to work on a concrete plan.

“So where can we go for a week’s break?” Choi asked.
“Should we go London?” Nicky asked. “I’ve got some friends there and we can stay at their places and save on accommodation.”
“But Nicky, I think most of London will be closed during the Christmas season,” Choi objected.
“I’m sure not all places will be closed right?”
“Let me check from the Internet.”

After a few typing on the keypads and a few clicking and scrolling on the mouse, Choi turned his notebook screen to face us.

“Dude, almost all shopping centers will be closed from twenty-fourth to twenty-sixth of December, most of the museums like the National Gallery will be closed, and even the Tower of London will be closed! What are we going to do there? Sit at Hyde Park outside Hard Rock Café and feed the pigeons?”
“Maybe even the pigeons are not around,” I added.
“I guess not everywhere is going to be closed right?” Nicky was skeptical. “Then how about those tour groups going over from Singapore? The tour guide must bring these tourists to somewhere right?”
“Erm… I think in most Europe tour packages that touch on London, our tour agencies only arrange visits to the Big Ben, along the House of Parliament, at the gate outside Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, London Bridge and Tower Bridge. So they’ll never have any opening or closing problem.” I explained.
“Anyway, London will be too cold for me,” Sally added.
“Okay, fine. Let’s go somewhere else then,” Nicky sulked.

“Guys, I read from the newspapers that there is this Icehotel in Sweden where the whole hotel is built using the mountain water from Torneälven River. Every thing there, even the furniture is made of ice. Pretty cool huh?” I suggested avidly.
“You meant pretty cold,” Kah Leng commented.
“Beng, I know Ms. Xiao Long Niu from Louis Cha’s Chinese wuxia novel, The Return of the Condor Heroes, slept on ice. But she had very powerful inner strength, a.k.a. nei gong, which we commoners don’t have,” Nicky mocked.
“Hey, you’ll be provided with a sleeping bag with liner!” I argued.
“Erm… if you don’t mind, I’ll prefer to sleep on a white goose feather and down featherbed,” said Kah Leng.
“Anyway, it’s not worth going to the Scandinavians in winter, when the days are short and the nights are long. Too much time wasted sleeping,” added Nicky the typical Hong Konger that believed that time is money.
“Okay, let’s go somewhere else then,” I gave up.

“Since most places in the western countries will be closed for the Christmas season, and their days will be rather short, why don’t we stay in Asia Pacific instead?” I suggested.

Besides the issue of having shorter days, we could have problems finding our meals as well. Most restaurants in the western countries will be closed during the holidays. This meant that we would have to either take ridiculously expensive dinners in the hotels, or settle with cheap but almost inedible Chinese food. The hardworking Chinese businessmen do not believe in closing for holidays. In fact, knowing that most western cafes and restaurants will be closed and hungry souls will be awash on the street, most budget Chinese restaurants are happy to remain opened for even longer hours during the holidays. However the problem with these budget Chinese restaurants is that most of them only serve gong bao chicken, sweet and sour chicken or beer or pork, deep fried chicken or beer or pork and fried rice or noodles, and most of these dishes taste, well, funny.

“How about Gold Coast or Cairns?” Sally suggested.
“Err… Sally, Australia and New Zealand will be having their summers during that period,” Choi said. “And I’m not very keen in getting sunburn.”
“You can always put on some sun block lotion what.”
“I don’t really like the feeling of perspiring so much under a layer of sun block lotion,” Choi still rejected the idea. “It reminds me of those national service days when I had to wear camouflage face paint and scout around in the hot forest, with houseflies trying to land on my face all the time. Oh, that reminded me. There are tons of houseflies in Australia during their summers.”

Okay, our destination should be in Asia and not Asia Pacific. Anyway, it might not be a good idea to walk beside a constantly perspiring Choi for a week.

“Let’s go to Taiwan. None of us has ever being to Taiwan right?” Kah Leng suggested.
“Hmm… Taiwan sounded good,” I agreed. “There are a couple of scenic national parks in Taiwan, like the Taroko National Park and Yangmingshan National Park.”
“Erm… I was thinking more of the shopping areas there,” Kah Leng admitted. “And Taipei 101.”
“Yah! I heard that the crystal jewellery there is stunning! And their fashion is also very ahead of us! Wow, so many things to buy!” said Sally, the other shopping queen.
“And the night markets there! Like Shi Ling night market!” Choi exclaimed. “I heard they’ve got this super-sized chicken chop there that is simply delicious!”
“Err… guys,” Nicky interrupted our excitement. “I’m not really into Taiwan. To me, Taiwan seems to look like another Hong Kong. And I would rather return to Hong Kong since I prefer the food there.”
“Hey, you guys can still go ahead without me. It is okay, I don’t mind! I can always return to Hong Kong and spend the holidays with my friends and relatives there.”
“No, no, no. We won’t just desert you like that. Let’s think of another destination then,” Kah Leng gave up Taiwan though she seemed to be disappointed. Well, if we said we will travel as a team, we will travel as a team.

“How about Japan? Like Hokkaido?” Sally asked. “I’ve just seen Globe Trekker on the Discovery Travel channel introducing Hokkaido and it seems interesting. They have a musical box museum where you can choose the tune that you like and make your own musical box, a white chocolate factory, and the Kitaichi Glass Shop reputed for its unique and elegant hand-blown glassware.”
“Good idea! Then we could try their snow crab and king crab which are as big as lobsters! We could have crab sashimi, crab tempura, yaki crab, crab miso soup, baked stuffed crab shells and crab hand rolls! Hahaha…” Choi thrived at the thought of food again.
“Erm… Choi, I heard that these crabs are expensive,” said Sally.
“Hey girl, you could only get them there. You’ll regret if you don’t try!”
“Wait… though the thought of Hokkaido with snow flakes floating down from the sky seems romantic, I must remind you people that Hokkaido is also famous for being very very cold,” I reminded.

There was nothing wrong with my language. I had used two ‘very’s intentionally to emphasize on the extreme coldness of Hokkaido. Winter temperatures in Hokkaido are known to remain well below zero and can even drop to as low as minus fifteen degree Celsius. The occurrences of heavy snow and gusty winds are also common.

“I’m more worried about you girls. Nicky should still be okay with the cold weather because Hong Kong could be pretty cold sometimes too. Choi, I’m not so worried too because he has got a think insulation layer…”

Choi raised an eyebrow at me and folded his arms.

I continued: “But are you girls sure that you can stand the harsh weather? Are you aware that the temperature could drop to as low as minus fifteen degree Celsius?”

Both gals pondered upon what I had said, looked at each other, and then nodded their heads to indicate that they agreed with me that Hokkaido was a bad idea.

“Then how about South Korea? It won’t be as cold as Hokkaido and it’s just as interesting,” Kah Leng suggested.
“Oh yes! South Korea! Why didn’t I think of that?” Sally blurted. “Then I can visit the filming sites for Winter Sonata and Jewel in the Palace!”
“What’s Jewel in the Palace?” Choi asked.

Kah Leng, Sally and Nicky stared at Choi as if he was saying that pigs can climb trees as good as cats.

“Jewel in the Palace is the most popular Korean drama in South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and even Malaysia!” the shock Nicky hollered.
“What is it about? Some kind of Korean Tomb Raiders show with smart and armed thieves stealing hilariously expensive crown jewellery from the royal palace?”
“No!” This time, Sally hollered at Choi. “It is about how Jang-Geum the heroine fought through a feudalistic society with serious sexual discrimination, defeated all the male doctors in the palace and became the first female head physician of the Joseon Dynasty! It is based on a real story!”
“Not your type of bimbos kicking action movie,” I nudged Choi.
“Okay, fine. But why are we going to those Korean TV serials filming sites?” Choi protested.

This time, Kah Leng and Sally stared at Choi as if he was saying that pigs are more intelligent than women.

“Err… but I kind of have problem with those spicy Korean kimchis,” said Nicky.
“Don’t worry, Nicky. They’ve got other non-spicy food like claypot rice, stew beef, seafood fermented in salt, BBQ beef and ginseng chicken soup,” Kah Leng consoled.
“Ginseng chicken soup? I like it!” Nicky grinned.
“And we mustn’t forget that South Korea has got a cheap and good skiing resort,” Kah Leng grinned.
“And breath-taking scenery at Jeju island,” I grinned.
“So do you have any objection to South Korea, Choi?” Kah Leng asked.
“Well, with lots of pretty Korean girls surrounding me, and lots of delicious food, I’ve got no problem,” Choi grinned.

Gosh, finally the five of us had agreed on our tour destination. Since South Korea was a popular tour destination among Singaporeans, we needed to quickly decide on the tour details.

“Should we go on a packaged tour or a free and easy one?” I asked.
“Beng, we can’t go on a packaged one. Sally’s Chinese is pretty bad and Kah Leng can’t even write our company name in Chinese,” Nicky commented.
“Yah, and most of these packaged tours have Chinese speaking tour guides,” Kah Leng agreed.
“Okay, which means that we’re going free and easy…” I agreed, and then suddenly realized that something was amiss. “But which one of you speaks Korean?”

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