Cheaper than Venice: Gondolas in Macau

Macau is an independent territory in China that used to be a Portuguese colony. It is known as the Vegas of China and has a fake Venice inside a shopping mall!

The Venetian Hotel in Macau is a magical place where Venice meets China in Portugal. Before I lose you completely, Macau is an independent territory in China that used to be a Portuguese colony. Macau is known as the Vegas of China and the Venetian Hotel is practically a replica of the one in Las Vegas.

After visiting real Venice twice and spending a day in Suzhou (the Venice of the East), I was surprised at how impressive Macau’s version was. The canals run through a mall with stores posing as Venetian-themed houses. The faux sky is surprisingly deceptive and the water is crystal clear – the biggest giveaway that you’re not actually in Italy.

The best part is the gondola ride, that is so much cheaper in Macau than it is in Venice! Sure the gondolas aren’t real and not all of the gondoliers are Italian… but they sing Italian songs and tell you all about Macau and the Venetian Hotel. We happened to get a Ukrainian-Italian gondolier with a fascinating life story! I’m Ukrainian too, so it was a pleasant surprise.

If you love Italy, I recommend exploring the entire hotel. There is a hallway that reminds one of the Sistine Chapel and it’s just as impressive on the outside. On the walk from the hotel to Macau’s Hard Rock you will see a convincing St. Mark’s tower. Don’t believe me? Come and see for yourself!

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Addicted to Travel: Where to Next?

I don’t just want to travel the world. I need to.

My name is Olena and I am a travelholic. I fell in love with traveling when I was just a child, but don’t blame my parents for taking me on cool holidays. It was moving to China that transformed my hobby into something more serious. My husband, Isaac, and I moved here without ever even visiting Asia.

Calling what we experienced ‘culture shock’ is an understatement. I would have been different if we lived in cosmopolitan Shanghai or historically rich Beijing. We live 90 minutes from Shanghai in an economic development zone. Huaqiao is basically a growing city within another city and it’s a very bizarre place to live if you’re moving here from Prague, like we did.

It’s been a struggle to adjust to life here which made us realize how clueless we both are about the world beyond Europe and America. One of the main reasons for moving here was to explore Asia. Since we’ve moved here six months ago we’ve visited Thailand, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Macau. We also booked flights to Australia and planned a trip to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos for July.

Our original plan was to stay in China for around a year while we applied for my US visa. It took longer than expected to gather all the necessary papers and with all the chaos in the US right now, our original plan of moving to Rhode Island in September is no longer realistic. As frustrating as not having a permanent home and being away from family is, the idea of spending another year abroad is absolutely exhilarating!

I never even realized just how big the world was until I started researching where to go next. We’ve sent job applications to literally everywhere in the world. Although it would be the easiest visa-wise to stay in China (which we might end up doing) we are looking into the United Arab Emirates, Oceania and we’ve even sent applications to the Maldives. If a high salary wasn’t our priority we’d be applying to Columbia, Puerto Rico, Ghana, Thailand and other exciting exotic places.

The only reason we’re so focused on a high salary is to be able to travel more. Duh. Living near Hong Kong or Dubai would be the ideal way to see more of the world for less money. $300 round trip tickets from Dubai to Johannesburg? Yes please! I’d be embarrassed to admit just how much time I spend on Skyscanner looking at the cheapest ways to travel. I’ve also done extensive research on “around the world” tickets too.

In love vs. addicted to travel:

You know you’re addicted to travel when you book flights first and worry about paying rent later. When you can’t just visit one country but have to Google cheap ways to visit neighboring countries while you’re there. Oh, and you know you have it real bad when you’re writing an article about being addicted to travel and you keep taking breaks from writing to research potential trips on Skyscanner.

Speaking of Skyscanner, did you know that it lets you write “Everywhere” as a destination and shows you the cheapest flights from any departure city? Also, you can select an entire month instead of specific flight dates to see the cheapest days to fly? It even tells you which month of the year is the cheapest for flying to specific countries! Do you see why I’m so obsessed?

Just in case you’re suspicious, Skyscanner is not sponsoring me, but they really should start paying me or better yet, give me free plane tickets! I’m easy to please when it comes to choosing a destination, I literally want to go everywhere in the world. Seriously, if any sponsor is reading this, send me anywhere in the world and I’ll report via blog posts, photos and videos! I’m unemployed at the moment and very flexible *hint hint* *nudge nudge* *wink wink*. Just kidding! I’m in a very serious relationship with my passport.

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39 RMB All-You-Can-Eat in the Heart of Shanghai

What if I told you that 39 RMB is all you need to spend on a huge meal and a few beers in the very heart of Shanghai?

Dumplings, chicken wings, tofu, lotus, watermelon and Tsingtao beer. It can’t get any more Chinese. Or Cheap! Nanging pedestrian street is not the first thing that comes to mind for affordable food. Aside from chicken feet on a stick or over-fried chicken wings sold on the street, food prices can be pretty steep in the area.

This magical yet potentially stomach upsetting meal is offered by Jinjiang Inn between 11:15 and 14:00 then again between 17:15 and 20:30. So if you’re on a budget and have a steel stomach – you can save a lot of money by eating here once or even twice a day.

It can be easy to miss the Inn. We actually stumbled in by accident on our way to Shanghai First Foodhall. The address is 680 Nanjing Road pedestrian street and the eating area is on the second floor. As long as you arrive before 13:30, you’ll be let in and there will be plenty of time to sufficiently stuff your face.

Vegetarians may want to avoid this place. When I said there was tofu, I didn’t mention the meat that’s stuffed inside it. It’s also served on top of the mystery-meat meatballs. Pediatricians are better off and can enjoy “fish gluten” which are some sort of fish balls. Despite being a sushi fiend, I did not enjoy these at all.

Non meat options include toast, sweet bread desserts, lotus, cooked cabbage, some other steamed veggies and of course, watermelon and kumquats. However, I assume that the selection of food varies by season. We came here in early February.

Finally, there’s drinks. Tea, surprisingly good coffee, several sodas, orange juice and of course, over-sized bottles of Tsingtao. After Snow, this is the second most popular beer in the entire world! Most Westerners will turn up their noses at the 2-3% beer.

Although Tsingtao only has a one-out-of-five star rating on RateBeer, a draft lager at the Qingdao brewery is a completely different story. The real thing is 4.6% alcohol and a much higher rating, so don’t be too quick to judge all Tsingtao beers!

Anyway, 39 RMB ($5.5) is definitely the best deal you will ever get on all you can eat and drink in China. Don’t expect a gourmet meal, you get what you pay for. I definitely recommend this place for a cheap meal or if you want to try a wide variety of Chinese food without breaking the bank. Thank you Jinjiang Inn for offering budget travelers an alternative to Western fast-food!

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China Problems: Air Pollution & Thirst

No bottled water + bad air pollution = health dilemma.

Sometimes it feels like China is taunting me. Today I woke up coughing which usually means that pollution levels are high. Normally this is when I shut all the windows and hide in my badly insolated apartment. I don’t know why we haven’t bought any air purifiers yet… Anyway, today we happen to be out of bottled water.

No bottled water means a trek to a convenient and cheap water dispenser. It is absolutely not possible to drink tap water. It’s bad enough to shower in it, so we have special filters that make water pressure horrible but keep our skin from getting dry and my hair from falling out.eww

Going to get water is a pain in February even when it’s just cold outside. But today, getting clean water is outright dangerous. Right now the AQI is 177 which is pretty bad. An AQI between 151 and 200 is dangerous for sensitive groups and unhealthy for just about everyone.

I grew up in Prague which is said to be the most polluted city in Europe. I never had asthma or any other problems and I never even noticed when the air got bad. Since moving to China, everything changed. I got very sick with bronchitis on a trip to Beijing and although all my other symptoms got better, my cough never went away. Any time the air quality is over 150, I’m coughing and wheezing unless I drink ridiculous amounts of water.

chinaThe AQI levels in Shanghai are usually worse than in Huaqiao, and right now their pollution levels are at 190. This doesn’t seem too much higher than here, but if it goes up by just 10 more then everyone, even non-sensitive people, may experience serious health effects. At 200 you can taste that something is wrong with the air!

The highest AQI that I’ve ever experienced was 350 on a random November day in Shanghai. When we arrived in the city it was already 200 but it only took 2 hours for it to skyrocket. It was hard to breathe and almost everyone around us pulled out their masks. We went to see the famous view of the financial center from the Bund but it was barely even visible. Anything over 300 is considered “hazardous” and a health warning is issued.

This year, one city in the north of China near Beijing experienced an AQI of over 1,000. They weren’t able to see two meters in front of them: schools and flights were canceled. You can read more about it here. It must be strange growing up in China where instead of snow days, school is canceled because of pollution. Can you imagine getting excited about the air being unbreathable?

Speaking of school being canceled… one middle school principle didn’t seem to care that the pollution was so bad and he forced 400 students to take a test outside! Fortunately he was quickly fired, but some of those children may be effected by his mistake for the rest of their lives. You can read about that here.

A great pollution detecting app is http://aqicn.org/. There are plenty of mobile apps too that you can have right next to your weather app… and yes, these apps have air quality forecasts up to a week in advance. It’s pretty bizarre! But so is life in China.

This year pollution levels in the Czech Republic and several US cities reached an AQI of 200. If you’re in a city where this can happen, I strongly recommend buying a mask and wearing it. It looks dumb, but it’ll prevent a lifetime of coughing. Speaking of which, I need to stop making excuses, put on my mask and go get some water before I cough up a lung. Wish me luck!

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Vegan Heaven: Kale in Shanghai

Everyone knows that eating kale is good for you. But who knew it could decorate a city!

I moved to Shanghai from kale-less meat-loving Prague. That is my excuse for being in the dark about the super-food that has every hipster vegans panties in a bunch. Turns out that all of those strange cabbage-looking flowers all over the city are actually kale!

Shanghai is surprisingly green with an abundance of large parks, plants in every restaurant and trees or bushes along virtually every single sidewalk. Even highways are lined with flowerbeds so you at least have a nice view while you’re stuck in perpetual Chinese traffic.

Kale can be found all over the city. The French concession and even People’s Square show off potted kale that looks good enough to eat. You know, if it wasn’t for the pesticides, road-side fumes, cigarette butts, unavoidable Chinese spitting and an atrocious Air Quality Index that often goes over 200 (micro-grams of pollutants per cubic meter of air).

So as hard as it might be for vegans and vegetarians to have a hardy meal in China, I advise against nibbling on the kale… no matter how tempting it may be. Anyway, since kale was so last year, you might not even remember why kale is so awesome. You can read all about it here.

Kale photo from: https://pinterest.com/pin/89157267597896765/

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Getting (& Giving) Red Envelopes

Red Envelopes come in two forms: traditional paper with intricate designs and the increasingly popular digital alternative! People love Red Envelopes because they contain money. Amounts can vary from worthless 50 cent coins given to children to significant amounts of money for newlyweds. It doesn’t even have to be Chinese New Year to get (or give) them. Pretty much any party or celebration is a reason to share money with friends and strangers!

I’ve read many articles about how Chinese people aren’t generous. This has not been my experience at all! Chinese people have taken me out for fancy dinners, given me gifts and refused to accept any payment from me. Except in the form of Red Envelopes…

In the olden days people would hide physical envelopes for people to find. Today, we use apps. WeChat is a popular app that is basically WhatsApp, Instagram and PayPal all in one! Everyone in China has WeChat and uses it to communicate, share photos and pay for purchases. WeChat connects to your bank account and allows you to send money to other users, pay vendors and send Red Packets (an alternative name to Red Envelopes).

Another very similar app is Alipay. It features a particular Red Packet game that is basically a hybrid between geocaching and Pokemon Go but the treasure is money. People hide the packets in specific locations by taking a photo. Logging into the app shows you nearby locations and a distorted photo – if you find the spot and take the same photo, you get the money!

Usually, the amounts sent in digital Red Packets are small. WeChat lets you choose the total amount you’re sending and how many people can open it and share the amount. You can send amounts as little as 1 RMB ($0.14) and have ten people share it. A more common amount to send is 10 RMB ($1.4). Of course, you can send larger amounts but they will be taxed. To avoid unnecessary paperwork, leave the larger transactions to your bank.

Lighting fingers are essential to get an envelope because you need to act FAST. If you know an envelope is coming you need to prepare: stare at your phone unblinkingly, hold your finger over the spot where the next message will appear and click the second it does! You might click immediately and still be too late. Competing against locals is really hard as Chinese have perfected their envelope-clicking technique.

Getting AND Giving Red Packets is very important. It is good etiquette to send as much money as you receive. At the last party I was at, one lucky person kept getting all the envelopes! As expected, he immediately started sending out packets. Competing for Red Packets is just good fun, no one actually expects to get rich from it. It wouldn’t be polite to win large amounts and keep it all anyway.

As cool as the digital Red Envelopes are, nothing beats the paper ones. They are beautiful, usually red and are decorated in either pictures of zodiac animals, fish (they are lucky) and sometimes just best wishes written out in fancy fonts. The only catch, you are not allowed to send money in these envelopes by mail. So hand-deliver those babies and share some love and fortune with your loved ones!

The photo used is from a blog about making beautiful lanterns out of Red Envelopes! Please check it out here.

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Outsmarted by a Japanese Toilet

Japanese toilets will sing to you, clean your butt and offer you a massage! I am not even kidding.

I was ready for just about anything when I walked into the KFC bathroom in Tokyo. I brought some tissues in case there was no toilet paper, which is common in China. I gave my bag and coat to my husband because I was prepared to wobble over a hole in the ground. But despite everything I knew about Asian bathrooms, I was completely dumbfounded by this Japanese toilet.

The entire bathroom was spotless and there were dozens of buttons next to the toilet. It was an emergency, so I sat down before I could investigate. Immediately, I was surprised by how warm the toilet seat was. I assumed someone had recently spent a long time sitting on it but I quickly realized that it was actually just heated!

The panel of buttons was intimidating. There were pictures of water streaming out of the toilet with a “rear” or “frontal” option as well as five levels of water pressure. Not a fan of bidets, I stayed far away from these. I moved on to the privacy button – pressing it made a continuous flushing sound that drowned out all other noise. Interesting. There were several other buttons that I didn’t understand and avoided pressing in fear of a robotic arm wiping my butt since anything is possible in Tokyo.

Later, at our Airbnb, I discovered that we had our own high-tech toilet! Ours even had a sink on the back of it. This is done for water-conserving purposes. It automatically starts running once you flush, filling up the toilet with water for the next flush. It’s completely clean so you can use it to wash your hands AND flush afterwards. How neat is that?

I decided to do some more research. Without access to dozens of random toilets, I turned to the internet. Did you know that higher-end Japanese toilets can have up to 38 buttons? Most of them control the bidet, which offers various pressures, water pulses, soap options and so much more! Apparently the pulsating function can help you poop. However, if used often, it can also weaken certain muscles and can leave you painfully constipated. Yikes.

Okay, I’m almost done talking about toilets. But did you know that even fancy Japanese restaurants in Shanghai, China have proper high-tech toilets? Some Asian hotels have pretty nice ones too, although I’ll never be brave enough to try the massage or “penetrating” functions.

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Raising Awareness – Pangolin Love for Valentine’s Day

Pangolin may not look cuddly but their story will melt your heart. You can help them too!

I have always been a fan of Google Doodles: the witty images, interactive games and educational material are always a great way to start the day and learn something new. This Valentine’s Day I was extra impressed because Pangolin Love is a fun game created to raise awareness! You can play it here.

Pangolins are unique mammals that look like reptiles. They can curl into balls to protect themselves from predators as well as use their sharp talons. These cute creatures need your help because they happen to be the most-trafficked mammals in the world! They are kidnapped from their homes and murdered for fashion, medicine and meat.

The World Wildlife Fund works with various organizations and governments to help protect these creatures. In 2016, 180 governments signed agreements to end all legal trade to protect them from extinction. Unfortunately, illegal trade continues to drive the species to extinction.

All eight species of pangolin are under threat. Four species live in Asia and the other four in Africa: two of these are critically in danger. Over 80% of pangolin living in Asia have been devastated by poaching. Google.org has given a grant to to the WWF that enables them to use advanced thermal imagery technology to help track poachers and stop the illegal trade.

Even you can help the pangolin from the comforts of your home. Raise awareness by sharing this article, the Pangolin Love Google Doodle, donate money to the cause or adopt a pangolin (and receive a really cute stuffed pangolin as part of the adoption kit)! Find out more about ways to help here – I got all the information for this blog post from this WWF page.

Did you know that the WWF has a bunch of free Valentine’s Day e-cards that you can send your loved ones? If you want to learn more about how the romantic holiday is celebrated in China, please read this blog post about Qixi.

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Colder on the Inside – Winter in Southern China

Winter mornings are always unpleasant. Unraveling those warm covers always fills me with dread. It takes me a few minutes to prepare for the plunge into the freezing air. I run to the bathroom to take a warm shower and brush my teeth, hopping up and down on my tows to keep my feet off the cold tiles. After that, I get dressed.

Layers are the key to surviving a humid winter. First, I put on thermal pants that make me look 5 kilos heavier (worth it). After that, I struggle to get my skinny jeans over the thick fluffy pants and somehow succeed, making a mental note not to bend over or they’ll burst. Then I put on a tank top, a t-shirt over that followed by a turtle neck pullover and finally I wrap a fluffy sweatshirt over everything.

Then come the final touches: two pairs of socks, fluffy boots, finger-less gloves, a scarf, obnoxious ear-muffs and a huge ski jacket. Once I’m ready, I sit down at my computer and turn on the space heater. What, you thought I was going outside? I wouldn’t need two layers of sweater for that… and I’d wear my nicer looking light jacket instead of the ski coat.

I live near Shanghai, where central heating is not considered necessary despite the cold winter temperatures. Numerically, it doesn’t even get that cold. During the months of December – February it only drops to about 0ºC (32ºF) at lowest. The culprit is humidity, which stays well over 50% year-long, making 0 feel more like -10!

Working from home has been less than pleasant during these cold winter months. The landlord came over once to check on something and told me to ventilate more. I was bundled up but not wearing a jacket, so when I complained that opening the windows was too cold, she shook her head disapprovingly at my attire. I should have been dressed warmer.

We’ve visited several Chinese homes since and realized that our landlord isn’t crazy. No one has central heating and few people bother with space heaters. The elderly watch TV dressed in skiing gear while young children play in poofy colorful coats. They aren’t bothered by the cold and are used to dressing up indoors.

There are many heating devices that can make life a little more bearable. First, there are essential electronic drying racks – without these, clothes would take weeks to dry in the cold humid air! Then there are heated blankets as well as foot and hand warmers. They simply plug into the wall and keep you toasty.

Unfortunately, people do share horror stories of waking up with burnt feet! Still, BBQ toes sounds a lot better than frost bite to me… Anyway, whether you live in Southern China or the tropics (I hate you), make sure to stay warm this winter!

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Our 1st Sushiversary: Conveyor Belt Proposal @ All-You-Can-Eat Sushi

A year ago today, my boyfriend proposed via conveyor belt at our favorite sushi restaurant in Prague!

On February 12th 2016, my boyfriend ruined my diet plans by asking me to our favorite all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant for dinner. I was hungrily waiting for some more salmon nigiri when I first saw it. My very first thought was that it was a dessert, but I should have guessed from Isaac’s nervousness that it was something better than that!

The gemstone was big and green, set in silver with a twist of gold. The peridot is my birthstone and happens to be the same shade as my eyes. The ring looked like a beautiful dragon’s eye and of course, I said “yes”.

He was so nervous putting it on that it ended up on the wrong finger. “You’ll be telling people about this for the rest of our lives, won’t you?” he sighed knowingly as I giggled. Speaking of telling people things… I had spent the entire work day joking about getting a proposal out of Isaac.

You see, we had been talking about our future for a while and I had always wanted a long engagement. So as an early Valentine’s day present, I bought him a gigantic bottle of his favorite whiskey and wrote a romantic note full of hints. Leaving the office that Friday evening I held up the whiskey and announced: “this is how you get a guy to propose to you!”

Of course, I had no idea that I would come back on Monday with a ring on my finger. And the ring has quite a story behind it… Isaac bought it in Walmart on New Year’s Eve while we visited his family in the US. I had just told him that they sell $5 engagement rings and I remember him asking if I’d actually say “yes”. I would have been suspicious when he said he forgot something in the store if he hadn’t returned with fireworks.

Remember those life plans that I mentioned earlier? None of them ended up going as we had planned. My dreams of a long engagement were crushed when Isaac got a spam email about teaching in China. One day he was joking about how great it would be explore Asia before we settled down in the USA and just a week later we announced the move and our impromptu wedding. #yolo

We celebrated our one year engagement anniversary in our new home in Huaqiao, China. There were flowers, disgusting amounts of chocolate, a bottle of rose champagne and of course, sushi. Tune back in on June 10th 2017 to read about our wedding day. Trust me, you want to know all about our snail cake and our first dance on top of a rickety table in a pour-your-own-beer pub…

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