Guangzhou Circle: Modern Chinese Architecture

China, why is your architecture as addicting as your food…is there an MSG in the concrete or something?  Yes, that’s sarcasm, but I really do wax nostalgic for taking long walks around Chinese cities, appreciating their overzealous approach towards geodesic domes, bumper car  facilities, and some of the most bizarre ideas ever constructed.

Today’s specimen: the 138-meter (just under 453 feet) Guangzhou Circle (广州园大厦), located in Guangzhou, Guangdong province.  Completed in December 2013 by Milan, Italy-based architect Joseph di Pasquale, the Guangzhou Circle pays homage to Chinese history both in design and in its main occupants.

As is common with major projects in Chinese cities, the Guangzhou Circle is near nothing.  An expectation is that businesses will follow, partially to bandwagon off of the cachet of a new landmark– it’s commonly done with building a high-speed railway station, and then a new neighborhood around it, but this structure doesn’t even have a metro station nearby…yet.  Yes, it overlooks the Pearl River (more on this later), and is quite close to the Dongsha Bridge, but to get there by public transit involved a not-so frequent bus.  In any event, I dig it.

But, what was it modeled after?

Was its inspiration this delicious, gluten-filled sesame-pocked nang, brought to us by Uyghur chefs?

Nice try.

In fact, it was the ancient bi – 璧 – or disc that lent its look.  Though their origins are something of a mystery, thousands of years ago bi were discovered buried with people of presumably higher social status.  One theory suggests that the bi represented the sky, and accompanied these people in their afterlife; another conjectured that bi were talismans to ward off evil spirits.

Then there’s that ever-present number eight.  What, you say?  It looks like a zero to me.  Haha…this is where feng shui comes into the mix.  When the Guangzhou Circle is reflected on the Pearl River, the pair “forms” the number eight, or double bi.  The number eight is China’s lucky number; try buying a license plate or phone number with mostly 8s, and you will be in shock.

When I first lived in Shenzhen, China, I noticed three awfully tacky golden skyscrapers along Shennan Boulevard, the city’s main east-west drag.  How ugly they are…but it’s simple.  Gold in your facade means I’m here to make money!  As such, with Guangzhou Circle’s two main tenants being Hongda Xingye, a giant international chemical company, and the Guangdong Plastics Exchange, perhaps the newest phone camera filter will be “Tackify Your Home.”


Have you been to Guangzhou?  Any desire to see the Guangzhou Circle?

Breaking the Fast with Kolak (Indonesia)

For me, there’s no shortage of delectable desserts in Indonesia.  They might include local fruit such as the starfruit, papaya, and the “snake fruit” salak, a combo dinner-dessert- for example, peanut sauce (bumbu kacang) for sate, or traditional sweets like cucur (pronounced “chu-churr”) and bika ambon.

Today’s topic, kolak, might be my favorite Indonesian dessert yet:

It is one of many dishes most popular during the month of Ramadan.  Consequently, it’s considered a tajil, or a snack consumed at iftar, which is the point at which one breaks the fast.

Though I tried the above version in Bandung, there are various types of kolak through Indonesia.  For the base, you’ll need coconut milk.  Knowing that, each time I eat kolak I’ll have to find a belt with an extra notch in it.  Palm sugar or coconut sugar, and if available, a sweet-smelling but uniquely pleasant pandanus leaf are also typical ingredients.  The pandanus leaf, also known as screw pine, lends its flavor to numerous Southeast Asian desserts.

From here on, I’m pretty sure kolak is a dumping ground for all sorts of fruits.  The one that I tried had sweet potatoes, bananas, and cassava with palm sugar, as well as a mystery item, which I believe is called kolang-kaling, or sugar palm fruit.  In all, kolak has great texture, a sneaky way to get vitamins (which might make it kid-friendly), and can be served either hot or cold…except that if you choose the latter, and your only option is street food, you might want to harvest your own ice.


Have you ever tried kolak?  Think it should come to a street vendor near you?

Trip Report: Playa Balandra, Calafia Airlines, La Paz, Mexico (LAP) to Tijuana, Mexico (TIJ) & CBX Border Crossing to San Diego

To think it was a beach that kicked off my trip to Baja.  A beach.

Playa Balandra (Balandra Beach), Baja California Sur, Mexico

Yes, even though I don’t exist to while away the hours – let alone minutes – on any beach, I will gladly make concessions for naturally beautiful landscapes.   Thus, my trip to La Paz, capital of Baja California Sur state in Mexico, started with a Mexican friend sending me photos from her trip to Playa Balandra, aka the beach in the above photo.  (OK, OK, she also sent me a photo of a burrito stuffed with octopus, shrimp, oysters, chorizo, and grilled cheese…which she ate in La Paz)

After a few days of becoming a human chicharrón under the desert sun, I had to return to the US.  This time, I opted for Baja’s regional carrier Calafia Airlines, since they had a convenient flight into Tijuana (airport code TIJ), allowing easy access to San Diego, California via the CBX (Cross-Border Express) footbridge.  CBX comes with a price, but if you’ve ever waited at the San Ysidro or Otay Mesa borders during the day, you will be glad to pay for the much faster access.

Following a 25-minute Uber ride from downtown La Paz, I made it to the airport (LAP).  It’s a small terminal without jet bridges, but it can be nice to be able to make it in a few mere minutes from the curb to the gate, assuming check-in and security work in your favor.

Normally, I’d check-in online, but seeing as I had to check a bag (given the small aircraft plying the route), I made it so at the airport.  Quite seamless…though the Volaris flight next to us, yeesh.  That line went out the door.  Check-in on line when you can, folks!

One thing to mention when flying to/within/from Mexico is that you have to fill out a COVID-19 form, called Vuela Seguro.  If you’re an enemy of efficiency you will form part of the clusterf*ck at security where they ask for your QR code; do yourselves another favor, and fill this out before getting to the airport.

That guy thinks he’s on a roller coaster

One pro I’d have to say about Mexican airports is that security is usually stress-free…no pack wolves yelling at you like in the US or Europe.  La Paz was no different.

It’s not a particularly busy airport with regards to the number of flights; that said, because it’s a small terminal, you may be out of luck for a seat (some seats can’t be occupied due to COVID-19).  I was able to go into the “VIP Lounge,” but that was really to take advantage of wi-fi that didn’t expire after 30 minutes.  Due to COVID-19, the buffet part was shut, but snacks and drinks were available.  For those without access to the lounge, there are a couple of stores, and a café.

Calafia Airlines’ Embraer ERJ-145EP

Boarding was nearly on-time, and rather orderly.  As it was a short-hop, and the route was a new one for me, at check-in I had elected for a window seat.

As you might notice from the following photos, the rugged and austere gulches, plateaus, and crags were quite the spectacle:

Between Punta Coyote and La Cueva, Looking Towards Isla San Francisco and Isla San José, BCS

Tripuí, BCS

Following the short 1 hour, 55 minute flight to Tijuana, I followed signs for CBX/baggage claim.

Note: Buy your CBX ticket online to save a few bucks (TIJ offers 30 minutes of free wi-fi), but make sure you choose the right direction (either Tijuana to San Diego, or San Diego to Tijuana).

Note.2: apparently, you are only able to use CBX within two hours of your flight landing in Tijuana.

Note.3: Mexico does not have formal outbound immigration checks, similar to the US.

Once at baggage claim, you will be lining up with other passengers for CBX, which is tucked away in a corner:

CBX is in the background, in the left-hand corner

Stupidly, much of the scrum is for people who haven’t yet bought CBX tickets, as it’s only at the last-minute when employees distinguish between passengers who already have the tickets, and those who don’t.  Nevertheless, I scanned my QR code, and walked up, down, and around to get to the 20-minute line for US immigration.

Once you make it through the asinine questioning and baggage scan, you can buy a ticket for a shuttle for downtown San Diego/SAN (airport), or ride-share (back to Tijuana, where the fish tacos are boss).


Have you ever been to La Paz, and/or used CBX?

Best Street Food Nominees: Seafood Vadai in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Clearly, I haven’t thought this through.

What do I mean?…”The winner of best street food.”  Yikes, that’s never going to happen.  There are myriad candidates for this category, and that’s a good thing.

But if I had to choose a nominee right now it would be one that comes to us all the way from Staten Island Colombo, Sri Lanka.  I think highly of the presence of pumpkin and beets in contemporary Sri Lankan cuisine, and have equally fond memories of strolling along Galle Face Green, a downtown Colombo park right in front of the historic Galle Face Hotel.  Though the park’s other selling points include a boardwalk along the Indian Ocean, as well as pick-up cricket matches, the highlight for me was the vadai:

Vadai come in many forms, but these particular snacks are flattened fried lentil flour patties.  Some enterprising character decided that these weren’t filling enough, so, in a master stroke, decided to top some with fresh crab and prawns.  Slather on lime juice, chili sauce, and mix with chopped onions for an even greater meal.


If you could only choose one “best street food,” which would it be?

Rio de Janeiro’s Niterói Contemporary Art Museum (Brazil)

Niterói, Brazil -Contemporary Art Museum (3)

Were it not for the weird architecture, the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil wouldn’t amount to much; the art collection was rather underwhelming.

Yet, its prolific and widely regarded architect, a Carioca by the name of Oscar Niemeyer, quickly learned that the museum, better known the acronym MAC (Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói), might be mistaken for another acronym, UFO…to those who knew the English word, anyway.  Bonus– here’s the Portuguese term: OVNI.

Niterói, Brazil -Contemporary Art Museum (1)

Completed in 1996, the design of the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum was supposed to evoke a continuously growing flower, rising atop the Praia da Boa Viagem (“safe journey beach”) in Guanabara Bay.

Niterói, Brazil -Contemporary Art Museum (4)

Niterói, Brazil -Contemporary Art Museum (2)

A day earlier, I had gone up to the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain (in Portuguese, Pão de Açúcar; I am still clueless as to how to pronounce it) and had no idea to look for the Niemeyer icon.  This shot of both more than made up for the oblivious behavior.


Have you ever been to Rio?

Japanese Desserts: The College Potato (大学芋)

Around autumn-time in Japan is when the yaki imo (焼き芋), or roasted (sweet) potato, trucks start to ply the residential areas, as the drivers playing an eerie recording trying to either tempt or frighten human hunger pangs.  Sure, you’ve got the beautiful fall foliage, chestnut acolytes and a gradual decrease in purgatorial temperatures, but none of those things reminds me more that I’m in Tokyo than those mystifying lorries, err trucks.

Except that, I haven’t always had the great luck in finding them.  While living in Tokyo many years ago, my interminable walks normally took me through the commercial and/or high-rise districts, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Ginza, and Shimbashi (for some reason; well they did have cheap eats), but I have an inkling that heading towards Nezu/Asakusa/Yanaka/even Akasaka would’ve been better ideas to pinpoint the truck’s location.

Then again, as much as I love sweet potatoes, they’re quite easy to find around the world.  Not quite as common?  Daigaku imo (大学芋), the college potato.

Daigaku imo became an instant staple food for me while studying in Tokyo, and their super sweet nature has stayed with me ever since.  In essence, they are fried sweet potatoes, coated with black sesame seeds and sugar syrup.

According to the Research Institute of Japanese Potatoes – really – the college potato most likely came about at the beginning of the Showa era (1926 – 1989), when Japan had been going through a difficult economic period.  This was made worse by the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, which almost completely flattened Tokyo.  In order for college students to pay their dues, many started to sell what we now know as the daigaku imo.

The sweet – on – sweet daigaku imo reminds me of a couple of northern Chinese desserts;  one is diced sweet potatoes fried in caramel that you’d dip in water to cool off, and the other is bingtanghulu, or sugar-coated fruit skewers.   Has anyone found college potato outside of Japan?  I haven’t yet, but there is a small consolation that deserves mention–

Although it says satsuma imo (さつまいも) yam flavor, the description mentions that it has a hint of black sesame as well, not to mention, look at the photo!  They were quite alright, and much more lenient on the incisors, but the last time I saw them was in 2006…perhaps you, the reader, knows where to get them.


I’d like to try daigaku imo in cheesecake form…how about you?

Singapore’s Kaya Toast

Many fellow travelers have played up Singapore’s role as an eating paradise.  That said, my first time there, in August 2004, I didn’t have much choice in what – or where – I ate.  That said, I was instantly fond of two foods in the Lion City.  The first, fried mantou (steamed buns), chili crab and its delicious sauce at the East Coast dining promenade.  The second?  Kaya jam and toast.

Kaya jam counts as its main ingredients coconut milk, eggs, sugar, and pandan,  a tropical leaf with a uniquely sweet flavor that has also been used to enhance the taste of ice cream, as well as on its own in cakes.  The color of kaya can be more green (as in the jar above) or more brown, depending on how much pandan is used.  I think the stuff is great, but undoubtedly sweet; after a pandan binge in Kuala Lumpur, I was incapacitated for a few minutes.  It’s common in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, and I’ve found it in the states as well, in a few different Chinatowns.

Usually, it’s spread on grilled toast.  With butter.

What’s that…coconut and butter?  Well, just take a look:

The layer of butter is almost thicker than a slice of bread

Singapore makes it easy for you.  There’s no need to spare a moment to search the city-state for this artery-clogging delight.  As soon as you arrive at Changi Airport, make a beeline for a food court, where the fun awaits.  You say there are long queues at immigration, and you don’t have any Singapore dollars?  No worries, use your excess euros, drams, people’s money, or punts and make sure to get a “sandwich” for passport control too, it beats the unusually-flavored hard candies that they offer when you are allowed in.

Oh, and in case you think the kaya toast counters might dash your dreams and run out of butter:

Seems (US) state fair-worthy


If you have tried kaya jam before, how have you enjoyed it?  Virtual high-fives to all of those folks who eat it right out of the jar.

Geographically Humble Spanish Lessons

Whether or not you have a lot of free time, do yourself a favor and learn even just a few words of another language.  You don’t need wholesome reasons to do it either– it could be to get more bread at a restaurant, finally ask that person on a date, or to make sure mechanic doesn’t muss anything else up in your car.  To boot, I don’t really speak Cantonese beyond a few travel phrases, but given its staccato nature, it’s probably my favorite language in which to curse (唔該, early ’90s Stephen Chow and Ng Man Tat movies).

Thus, counting foreign language study as one of my hobbies, I will give everyone a brief vocabulary lesson in Spanish, using as a guide humble points of interest – no, they’re more like points of no interest to anyone but me – in Mexico, El Salvador, and Cuba.

Very humble.

As an example, take this sign by a bridge, or puente, in El Salvador.  I was en route between the city of Santa Ana and Joya de Cerén, the American version of Pompeii when I saw the inferiority complex in full swing.  Or, was it just laziness?

In Spanish, río means river and sucio means dirty.  Folks, if it’s that nasty, why not make it a río limpio (clean)?  If you’re curious about how dirty it might be, plan your visit today!

Puente Cara Sucia I

Really, the dirty face bridge?!  And it has a twin?

Yes, given that we now know that puente is bridge and sucia is dirty, the new word, cara, means face.  You will find these two blips on highway 150D near the Mexican city of Córdoba in Veracruz (state), and apparently back in El Salvador, too.

Somewhere along highway 145D a bit north of the Puente Chiapas in Mexico’s Chiapas state lies this fella.  Sorry, I mean this sign laden with irony.

Puente Sin Nombre literally means “Bridge Without a Name,” so you can either wax poetic about it, or let the Chiapas government know that calling it a Bridge Without a Name gives it a name.  Or, was everyone in on it?

This one is more on point.  Bienvenidos a Campeche = Welcome to Campeche (state).  Easy.  To the left of the sign, we have “termina Yucatan,” or “the end of Yucatan (state),” and “principia Campeche,” or “the start of Campeche (state).”

Now we’re getting into the weird.  Near Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco state, we’ve got this sign; to the north, Veracruz, to the east, Uzbekistan???  No, seriously…Samarkand(a)- besides being a suburb of Villahermosa – is a Silk Road treasure found in the Central Asian republic.  Perhaps I will write about my time there one day.   Oh, right-on the above sign, “reduzca la velocidad” means “reduce the speed.”

Meanwhile, how do they expect us to get to Uzbekistan from here?

Oh, I know.  A Cuban bus.

Cuban bus, near Viñales, “Transporting to the Future”

A Tale of Six Ceviche (in Mexico, Ecuador, and Peru)

Ceviche (seh-VEE-chay) – or, is it cebiche? – is one of Peru’s most famous culinary exports, though its origins are indeed a mystery.  It might have stemmed from the Incas, who discovered that chicha, or fermented maize, could help preserve seafood.  Perhaps it was the Spanish conquistadors from Andalusia, who introduced different citruses such as lime and orange to the region.  Or, did the Japanese, after their first wave of emigration to Peru in 1899, lend a hand in ceviche’s modern-day presentation?

No matter who created it, ceviche is one of my all-time favorite seafood dishes.  But, just like how pizza comes in many forms, the definition of ceviche is wide open to interpretation.

Though many countries in Latin America may make a claim to similar seaside fare, Peru’s is undoubtedly the most celebrated:

Whereas these days there are countless cevichería dotting Lima’s culinary scene, the classic way is to mix up diced fish, salt, chilies, red onion, and lime juice, with that last one added to cook the fish. Finally, place camote – sweet potato on one side, and corn on other.

And now the question you’ve all been wondering…what do you do with the spicy lime juice mixture after you’ve gulped down the ceviche?  In Peru, that delicious stuff is called leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), and can be consumed as a shot; it’s often though of as a cure for resaca, or hangovers.

Now that we know about the standard ceviche, what could anyone possibly want to change with the recipe, especially with something called tiger’s milk?

On that note, let’s switch national capitals, from Lima, Peru to Quito, Ecuador.  Ecuador has some really tasty meals, too, but their typical ceviche tends to have a tomato sauce-base (sometimes ketchup) and shrimp, and is served with popcorn and/or plantain chips:

What these two bowls might lack in aesthetic value, they more than made up for it in flavor!  Still, ketchup in ceviche…I hope it was used sparingly.  But, this does help me transition to the next country on our ceviche trip through Latin America, Mexico…

Why am I skipping over places like Colombia, Cuba, and Chile?  Simple…I haven’t tried ceviche in them.  Also, I could save the “three Cs” for another post.  Gotta strategize!

Moving on to one of my top three food countries, I had a friend in the state of Veracruz who found great joy in showing off her country’s food.  Who am I to argue?  In the case of the first photo, we tried a marisquería (mariscos = seafood) called Mariscos El Bayo.  On the menu, besides freshly caught crab were shrimp ceviche tostadas (tostada = big toasted tortilla):

Whoa, whoa, now they’re taking the liquid aspect away, and instead placing a slice of avocado?  Mixed feelings, to be sure.  Why can’t we have the avocado in EVERY ceviche – even if they are native to Mexico – AND get some piquant leche de tigre action?

Huh?  Now, you’ve taken away the avocado, used a very sweet tomato sauce, but raised the bar with a whole glut of different seafood?  That’s right, at Coctelería Cajun, in Ciudad del Carmen in the state of Campeche, shrimp and octopus are the norm.  Can’t complain about that.  Plus, it had oysters, crab, squid, and snail; no wonder it was called Vuelva a la Vida, or “{it} brings you back to life!”

By this point, you might be thinking, the ceviche looks great and all, but I furl my brow at these inexpensive-looking wares and utensils.  Popcorn, harrumph!

Fine.  I’ve saved the boujee – but equally scrumptious – ceviche for the last.  Enter, Agua & Sal, a cebichería located in the upmarket Polanco district of Mexico City.  They have delectable Peruvian and Mexican offerings of ceviche, as well as separate fish and seafood dishes.  Although I did try Agua & Sal’s mainstay Peruvian ceviche, and an excellent plate of scallops, I will highlight their cebiche a la leña:

Taking ceviche to another level, the leña, or firewood, lended a smoky, earthy flavor to the shrimp and róbalo, or sea bass, and the red onions and chile rayado (dried, smoked chile) salsa provided the welcome heat.  Really, I would go back in a heartbeat to any of these six places, and Agua & Sal…is no exception.


I hope that you’ve learned a bit more about the varying styles of ceviche today, and maybe you could even share where you’ve had your best plate, no matter where in the world it was!

2021 Pandemic Travel, from Mexico to Mexico (with a Brief Border Crossing Guide)

During a stint in Chicago a few years ago, I found that Frontier Airlines offered some really good deals to/from Harlingen, Texas (airport code HRL), close to the Mexican border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros.   Then, from one of those cities, it’s a cheap flight to where ever else in Mexico.

Selling corn by Reynosa’s main bus station, Mexico

Yes, why not escape those sultry winters for which Illinois is so famous?

Now, some might say those Mexican border cities don’t have the greatest reputation for safety.  The same could be said about many US cities.  Those two sentences don’t cancel each other out, but I also don’t wander around sporting ostentatious jewelry, Mamiya cameras, or Señor Frog’s apparel.

Having already become familiar with crossing from Reynosa to Hidalgo/McAllen multiple times, and then once from Matamoros to Brownsville, I felt comfortable testing the Texas border again last month, after having been in Mexico for a few weeks.

Even more amusing?  My destination*: Mexico, Missouri.

Now, to address the elephant in the room, as of January 26th, 2021, all international flights landing in the US require passengers to show negative COVID-19 test results, with few exceptions.  However, land borders are exempt from this.  I booked my ticket to Mexico before this was announced, and only ever book one-ways.

After a pleasant and delicious part-business/part-leisure trip to Mexico, it came time to say “hasta la próxima,” or until next time.  First stop, Reynosa, via Mexico City.

The new Reynosa terminal had just opened a few days prior, and it was certainly a world of difference from the older claustrophobic structure.  I guess it comes down to business people visiting maquiladoras, or mostly tariff- and duty-free factories, often near the US border.   From leaving the plane to hopping in a 280 peso taxi (pre-paid; I asked for a receipt, but they didn’t “have” any) to the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge. it took all of 30 minutes.  Not bad.

Once you’re deposited at the pedestrian bridge, you will find a number of dentists and pharmacies, extant primarily for Texans scouting cheaper prices.  It’s a bit grimy, though, and food options weren’t plentiful.  Though, I did manage to score some tasty parting steak tacos:

Found on Calle Zaragoza, I think this order of six tacos cost less than 50 pesos!

I grant you that hygiene practices were a little suspect, but I will be damned if I wasn’t going to get one more Mexican meal before leaving to fast-foodsville.

Once you’re ready to cross to Texas, you can amble up the white gently-inclining wheelchair/luggage-accessible pedestrian bridge in the plaza.  Note: you will need to have a 5 peso coin (or I think 25 cents) to exit Mexico, although they do not have any exit formalities other than a turnstile.

Having done this trip a few times, I can’t estimate how long it would take to cross.  The average wait time for me was ~45 minutes, but you may want to take into consideration customs officers taking lunch breaks, weekends, holidays, etc.

Once on the Texas side – called Hidalgo – there’s…not much.  Duty free shops, comida corrida (fast food), shady taxis, and vans.  Luckily, Lyft operates in the area, and can whisk you away to the nearest large city, McAllen, and its convenient airport (airport code MFE):

Earlier, I said that my destination was Mexico, Missouri.  That’s partially true.  I was visiting family in the St. Louis-area, and wanted to drive around a bit, looking for really local bbq.  Noticing Mexico on the map, I made it so.

Going from this…

to this…

You might ask, why would you ever want to leave the southerly Mexico for this one?

Well, I have prepared a rejoinder, just for you: “I don’t know.”

I’d rather be in Reynosa

You see, there was talk of a giant tater tot stuffed with barbecue at one restaurant, and the fallback across the street sounded just as good.  Alas, due to a combination of the pandemic, and restaurants not updating their search engine details, no bbq for me.  And to throw salt in the wound, the best edible I could find in the area (i.e. that was open) was a sweet peanut corn flake snack from a chain store:

Taco, eat your heart out:(


The moral of the story? Crossing the Mexico-US land border = piece of cake, visiting Mexico, Missouri = better to go when it doesn’t look like the rapture just took place.

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