Trapped in Paradise – the DC Edition

Part travel blog, part philosophical musings. All tongue-in-cheek ridiculousness.

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Honoring the Fallen

On this Memorial Day, I wanted to share some thoughts I’d written last year during my solo Eurotrip when I had visited the D-Day sites in Normandy.

I’ve been seeing quite a few posts on social media by my fellow military veterans of the “no one appreciates Memorial Day!” variety, complaining bitterly that everyone only cares about the three-day weekend and grilling hot dogs while completely forgetting why this holiday weekend exists in the first place. I have to respectfully disagree on a couple of points: one, I sincerely doubt that most civilians have “forgotten” our lost loved ones. And two, I don’t think anyone is being disrespectful by enjoying the weekend.

I could go on a tangent about some of the things that I’ve seen veterans post, but I’ll save the rant for another day. This weekend isn’t about me, or about any of us really. Memorial Day is for remembering and honoring those who gave their lives so that we could live free. The “honoring” part is where I think many have a misunderstanding – are we not honoring our comrades in arms by enjoying the weekend? Would they really prefer that we wallow in bitterness and sorrow the whole time, or would they want us to enjoy the freedom that they fought and died for? Yes, I understand that it can be hard to see the forest through the trees. I’ve lost friends in the Iraq War, too. However, I still believe that I would fall in the second category, and I’d like to think that I’m not alone.

When I visited Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery last year, I remember having the same sentiment, in particular after visiting the museum and listening to one of the commentaries by a father of one of the D-Day soldiers:


From The Skeptical Sailor: Eurotrip, part seven: A real champagne room, a pilgrimage, and more cathedrals

I had wondered why the D-Day sights in Normandy were not among many of the “day trips from Paris” lists I’ve seen. After making the trip myself, I now know why – it’s not easy, nor is it for the casual tourist. Of course I’m glad I went, but I’d been determined to go to the cemetery and was not leaving France until I did…

Anyway, the memorial is beautiful and really well done, and the cemetery speaks for itself.

Over 9,000 soldiers are buried in the American Cemetery at Normandy

Over 9,000 soldiers are buried in the American Cemetery at Normandy

I shouldn’t have even hesitated to pay the money. It’s really indescribable to stand in a place where so many young men gave their lives in the name of freedom.

On the hills overlooking the beaches, where the Allied soldiers landed so long ago.

On the hills overlooking the beaches, where the Allied soldiers landed so long ago.

Something else that stuck out for me was a father of one of the soldiers from the video they showed in the museum – he mentioned something I had often wondered, how the families of the dead felt about their loved ones being laid to rest so far from home. He’d said that it actually gave him pride to know that his son was buried in the very land he help to save. I love that sentiment, and thought of it again when we were walking on the beach. One of the other Americans with us mentioned that people go sunbathing on Normandy beach during the summer, and how he felt it was a little strange and borderline offensive. I see his point, but after watching the father in the video I also see the flip side: that all these brave men died so that people can enjoy the peace and beauty of Normandy today. By enjoying the beautiful beaches, we are honoring their memory.

Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach


Anyway, thank you for reading. This is something that’s been weighing on me for the past few days, for it bothers me to see other veterans trying to shame people for enjoying the weekend. No one is being disrespectful; we all know what this holiday is for, and the sacrifices that our loved ones made so that we can live in the freedom they fought for. We honor the fallen by shedding tears as well as by living in joy.

For anyone who wants to read the full post (which also includes descriptions of my day trips to Reims, Bayeux, Rouen and the Veuve Clicquot Champagne winery) it’s here on my old blog.


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Charming Changsha

The second part of our trip to China involved a visit to the capital of the Hunan province, Changsha – a city I had never heard of before starting on this project.


That one time I got photobombed by the Chairman. This is Mao’s hometown, as everyone here will inform you.

Our client’s headquarters is located here, so we would be spending six days in the city visiting various companies and attending seminars at local universities in addition to working with our company. Although we were very busy, we still found time to see some of the local sights.


We also got our first taste of Chinese opera: “Eeeeeeeiiiiieeeee….”

I was surprised at how much I liked Changsha! We were only told that it was a “second-tier city,” which means something entirely different in China given that Changsha’s population is around 7 million! We were also warned about the unusual Hunan cuisine, characterized by the fact that it’s extremely spicy.


This food court, just downstairs from the Crowne Plaza where we were staying, was full of all sorts of delicious (and extra spicy) food


…as well as some more unusual cuisine. Yes, those are turtles. No, I wasn’t brave enough to eat one.

This city has a completely different feel from Shanghai, which as one of my classmates put it, “felt like visiting Epcot.” Changsha, being a bit off the beaten path, just felt more authentic. It was the first time since arriving in China that I really felt like I was back in Asia.


Case in point: a giant lobster mascot outside of a karaoke bar

Additionally, the people are extremely friendly. The city has a reputation for being one of the happiest in Asia, and we were greeted with such hospitality everywhere we went that it was hard to leave.


Talk about random: for a “second-tier city,” Changsha’s nightlife has got it going on! The club we went to was like something you’d find in Vegas.

This region is famous for its embroidery, so on our list was the Hunan Embroidery Museum. At first we weren’t that excited – I mean, it’s fancy sewing. But we were astonished at what we saw when we entered.


At first glance, the works look like paintings (such as this depiction of the Zhangjiajie mountains, which served as the backdrop for the film Avatar.


But on closer inspection, they’re not paintings at all, but embroidery that takes months or even years to complete!


This artist has been working on this embroidery for the past three years, and will require another two to finish!

We also visited Yuelu Academy, a 1000-year-old school that’s still being used today as a university. It’s up in the mountains, which added to the ancient-feeling ambiance.


This school was first established during the days of the Song Dynasty


An edict laying a curse on the descendants of all prospective cheaters.

After days of hard work and preparation, we gave our final presentation on our last morning there. The president of the company seemed to really like it, and the board was pretty happy with our findings! It felt good to have this victory, especially since on our practice run before we left DC, my team had gotten raked over the coals. We learned from our mistakes, however, and after some reorganizing we were able to put together a presentation we were not only proud of, but one that made our client happy. And at the end of the day, that’s the most important thing.


One of our judges, Professor Shun from Hunan University and a fellow UW alum. Go Huskies around the world!

I feel so fortunate to have been able to work with such a great team; they really made my job as project leader quite rewarding and educational. The nice thing about our schedule for this China trip was that since our final presentation happened about halfway through, that left almost an entire week to relax and enjoy the rest of our trip stress-free. So almost immediately after we were finished and said our final good-byes, we hopped on a plane to Beijing for some well-deserved leisure time!

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One night (or two) in Shanghai

After a relaxing five days in Cambodia, I hopped on a plane to Shanghai to begin CAP.


Shanghai skyline

I’ve been looking forward to this trip for a while, not the least because I’ve been working on this project since January, and it feels good to finally start seeing the fruits of our labor. My class has been working with a nanotechnology company in China on what is basically pro-bono consulting work, helping our client formulate various business strategies. The class was split into three teams, and I had volunteered to lead one of the teams since after a semester of watching and learning from my business school classmates who were coming from the industry, I finally felt ready to take the lead on a project. So far it’s been a great experience, and I’ve been very lucky with my fantastic, hard-working teammates.


Yeah, I know business

Anyway, after months of reports, mock presentations, and Skype calls with our client in China, this project is finally culminating with us flying to work with them for several days at their headquarters in Changsha. The trip isn’t all business, however; we’ve also got some educational and tourist activities built into the schedule, and we’ll get to spend some time in Shanghai and Beijing.


Walking around town

Our China adventure began on Sunday with two days in Shanghai. What a beautiful city! To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived. One thing about having spent so much time in the U.S. military is that for so long I was conditioned to believe that China is our enemy, and that bad and terrible things would happen if I associated with the country or its people in any way.

Obama Xi

“I hate you”      “Likewise, loser”

Other than an experience with a very aggressive fake taxi driver at the airport (dude took my luggage and tried to steer me away from the official airport taxis and toward his private car in the parking garage; thankfully I was able to grab it back from him) my experience has been pretty positive so far. The language barrier is significant – this is the first country I’ve ever been in where the standard broken English + subpar attempt at the local language + various hand signals have not quite been enough. Also, it’s taken a little bit to get used to the fact that people don’t line up in China, they just barrel through with no regard to anyone else. It makes getting off the airplane an interesting experience.

subway in China

Crowds, crowds everywhere

Shanghai is a very beautiful city, and during our one full day there we were able to tour some of the more famous sites.


Looking up at three of the tallest buildings in China. Fun fact (and by “fun” I mean “horrifying”: the Shanghai Tower (bottom left) was closed because a glass pane fell off and hit someone below!


Walking around Yu Garden in the middle of the city


Visiting the Temple of the Jade Buddha (no photographs off the jade statue are allowed, so here’s some gold ones instead.)


I haven’t been religious for many years now, but I’ve always like the idea of Quan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. I found this part of the temple to be very tranquil.

The day culminated in an awesome dinner cruise along the … river, enjoying some local cuisine while getting to see the city lit up at night.


Shanghai city lights

Soon, however, it was time to head off to Changsha, where the home stretch of our work begins. We were sad to spend such a short time there, although we’ll be back next week for a couple more days. We did take the opportunity to sign the guestbook at the airport.


Silly Americans

In the meantime, it’s off to go work. Next stop: Changsha!

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Tomb Raiding

So for my first post after my almost two-year long absence on this blog, it seems fitting that I’ll write about my first trip back to Southeast Asia since 2013. I mentioned in my farewell post on the Skeptical Sailor that I was on my way from DC to Cambodia. True story, and I have the ridiculously sweaty pictures to prove it.


Pro-tip: visit Cambodia during the late fall or winter months. April and May are actually the hottest part of the year at over 100 degrees F!

But let me start from the beginning. The reason why I’m even here in Asia in the first place is because I’m participating in a consulting abroad program (or CAP, as my school calls it.) A requirement for our MBA, the school sends students to one of five different countries to act as consultants for various companies on projects ranging from venture capital to real estate. I had elected to go to China, since the client is a nanotechnology firm and as a prospective techie, it seemed right up my alley.

You saw it here first

You saw it here first

Anyway, I had about a week to spare in between finals and the start of CAP, so I decided to fly out to Asia early and hit up Cambodia, one of the few countries in SE Asia I hadn’t yet been to. I couldn’t wait – I had visions of climbing all over temple ruins by day, and relaxing by the pool with a Mai Tai in the evenings. Yes, all of that happened, but I had neglected to factor in the weather. No worries, I thought. I’d spent years in the Asia-Pacific region, I was quite used to the heat.


Or so I thought. I was daydreaming about this swimming pool the whole time. You know it’s bad when my classmate from Ghana complains that it’s hot out!

For the first half of my trip, some of my friends had joined me. They were on the whirlwind SE Asia tour, and since they were only spending two days in Siem Reap before jetting off to Vietnam, we decided to knock out the sightseeing and the touristy stuff.


Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat was wonderful! I was able to hire an English-speaking tour guide through my hotel concierge, and he had a lot of interesting stories about the world’s largest temple complex.


Ta Prohm, also known as the Tomb Raider temple

I’m grateful that they had plenty of cold water on hand, because we visited a total of six temples over eight hours. The advantage of knocking out so much sightseeing in one day was that we didn’t have to go back – my original plan had been to visit Angkor Wat with the group, and then make trips to other temples after they left. After that day, there was no way any of us were willing to brave the extreme heat again!



At night we hit up Pub Street, the main drag for nightlife in Siem Reap. It was a lot of fun and reminded me of a much less shady Walking Street, for those who have been to Pattaya, Thailand. (If you haven’t, please don’t go. There are only two reasons people visit Pattaya: one is because you’re deployed on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier and you don’t have a choice. I’ll leave it to you to guess what the other reason is. Let’s just say that some things, once seen, cannot be unseen.)


The most famous bar on Pub Street

A few things we were amused to see were the snacks available in the local markets.


Yes, those are exactly what you think they are

After one of the guys bought a bag of fried crickets, I felt obligated to try one and was impressed by the seasoning and the crispy texture, though I tried to ignore the antennas that got stuck in my teeth. I had to draw the line at the tarantulas, though. I’ve eaten some weird things in Asia over the years, but I despise spiders in real life, so eating one was a big fat NO.

As for the rest of my Cambodian vacation, I spent pretty much the whole time getting pampered at the Borei Angkor resort. I’d forgotten how awesome the hotels in SE Asia are; $50/night got me a luxury suite with a complementary massage, free transportation, drinks at the pool, and free breakfast. The best part was that the massage was pretty much what I remember from this region – basically, I got beat up by a 90 pound Cambodian girl for an hour. But boy did my back muscles feel amazing afterward!


*Not an accurate depiction*

Anyway, it’s now off to China – Shanghai, to be specific – for the start of our consulting project!