Steamboat Rock

There's a place in the Central Washington Desert called Steamboat Rock -- what a lovely name!

It's a massive rock peninsula jutting out into a lake just south of the Grand Coulee, and I hiked up to the top of it one evening last weekend.

Here are some pictures:

Yes, it looks massive, but it really isn't that hard to get up to the top. There's a trail that while admittedly steep at times, can probably get you up in around half an hour. Like most steep trails, coming down is the tough part because you'll worry about slipping and falling.

Yes, it looks massive, but it really isn't that hard to get up to the top. There's a trail that while admittedly steep at times, can probably get you up in around half an hour. Like most steep trails, coming down is the tough part because you'll worry about slipping and falling.

Wildflowers were in full bloom. April and May are good times to visit the desert, when the flowers are out and it's not too hot.

Wildflowers were in full bloom. April and May are good times to visit the desert, when the flowers are out and it's not too hot.

The top of the huge rock is a plateau that looks much smaller from the bottom. I spent more than an hour walking leisurely around its circumference, and taking in the gorgeous view of the little rocky islands dotting the lake and the desert canyon landscape.

The top of the huge rock is a plateau that looks much smaller from the bottom. I spent more than an hour walking leisurely around its circumference, and taking in the gorgeous view of the little rocky islands dotting the lake and the desert canyon landscape.

This shot shows part of the plateau, but if you squint really hard, you'll also see a herd of deer. My phone camera doesn't have a great zoom, but I counted 25 or so deer when I was there. I've never seen a herd of deer out in the wild before, so it was a real treat to just observe them.

This shot shows part of the plateau, but if you squint really hard, you'll also see a herd of deer. My phone camera doesn't have a great zoom, but I counted 25 or so deer when I was there. I've never seen a herd of deer out in the wild before, so it was a real treat to just observe them.

Umtanum Creek Canyon Trail

This past weekend, I went hiking in Eastern and Central Washington. One of the short day hikes I did was the Umtanum Creek Canyon trail.

Umtanum Creek is a little creek that branches off from the Yakima River, and the trail meanders roughly alongside the creek as it goes deeper into an increasingly narrower canyon.

Here are some photos from the hike:

The start of the trailhead is this gorgeous mint-blue suspension bridge above the Yakima River. 

The start of the trailhead is this gorgeous mint-blue suspension bridge above the Yakima River. 

This is a pretty lush canyon considering that we're in the middle of the Washington desert. Trees, shrubs and grasses abound by the sides of the bubbling creek.

This is a pretty lush canyon considering that we're in the middle of the Washington desert. Trees, shrubs and grasses abound by the sides of the bubbling creek.

Splashes of yellow and purple. Wildflowers dot the landscape during springtime in the desert. This is probably the best time to embark on a desert hike, before the weather gets too hot and the bugs come out.

Splashes of yellow and purple. Wildflowers dot the landscape during springtime in the desert. This is probably the best time to embark on a desert hike, before the weather gets too hot and the bugs come out.


Fresh Sea Urchin at Granville Island Public Market, Vancouver

Without a doubt, the highlight of my short weekend jaunt to Vancouver was fresh sea urchin at the Granville Island Public Market. 

Granville Island is located just south of downtown Vancouver, and it boasts a large public market that reminded me of Pike Place Market in Seattle. It's filled with stalls selling everything from seafood to local produce.

But the thing that got me most excited was chancing upon live sea urchin at one of the seafood stalls. I've been trying to find this for a long time but unfortunately, the places I frequent in Seattle don't carry live sea urchin!

$10 for each sea urchin. Locally harvested and live!

$10 for each sea urchin. Locally harvested and live!

If you've had sea urchin (also called "uni" in Japanese) at a Japanese restaurant before, you'll know that it's usually one of the more expensive items on the sushi menu. An uni sushi (a small dollop of sea urchin on top of a bed of sushi rice) usually costs above $3.

Imagine my delight when I found out I could procure a fresh sea urchin for just $10 each!

I promptly bought one, and the stall owner kindly opened and cleaned the spiny creature for me. She then packed it into a little container.

OMG.

OMG.

It's a tiny mountain of the freshest sea urchin, and I couldn't wait to start digging into it.

It was outrageously delicious - the sea urchin was soft and creamy with just the right hint of saltiness. It melted in my mouth and was extremely satisfying. Apparently, it's also good for you -- uni is rich in protein and healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

The next time you're at Granville Island Public Market, try some fresh sea urchin for yourself!

What to Do When You're Craving Durian in Seattle

Seattle is a much more cosmopolitan town than Providence, RI. Unfortunately, it's still impossible to find fresh durian in Seattle, but there are a couple of alternatives that I have learned to make do with.

1. Pink's "Extremely Pungent" Durian Ice Cream

Warnings that it's "extremely pungent" and "not for durian virgins" only serve to increase my anticipation. If you're a true durian lover, you never, ever shy away from the ultra-pungent variety. Serving a durian lover a mild-smelling, sweet-tasting durian is almost an insult. When it comes to durian, nothing but the most pungent will suffice.

I'm glad to report that Pink's Durian Ice Cream hits the spot. When you open the pint (retailing for about $6.99 at Uwajimaya), a waft of durian awesome-ness hits you. Yes, this may not be the durian fruit itself, but it's pretty darn close.

Available at Asian grocery stores in the Seattle area, or at a food truck that roams downtown Seattle

Available at Asian grocery stores in the Seattle area, or at a food truck that roams downtown Seattle

It's pale, creamy yellow color reminds you of the fresh durian meat, and it tastes exactly like how a good durian ice cream should taste. The durian flavor is strong, and it makes you want to eat many, many spoonfuls. I've had durian ice cream multiple times in Singapore, and I think this one would rank as a pretty good durian ice cream as far as they go.

Definitely worth a try.

2. Frozen Durian

Southeast Asia is too far away to ship fresh durians from, so distributors freeze them and send them over. These days, you can find frozen durians in the freezers of many Asian grocery stores, but they're usually priced per pound and are pretty expensive since the spiky exterior of the durian and its husk are very, very heavy.

There's a bunch of cheap, large Asian grocery stores just across the I-5 freeway from the International District, including Viet Wah and Rising Produce. Sometimes they do discounts on durian, and on one recent weekend, I was able to procure a frozen durian for $1.59/pound. 

A large (frozen) durian laid out on an old copy of the Wall Street Journal on my apartment floor. This durian cost $1.59/pound, and totalled about $12.

A large (frozen) durian laid out on an old copy of the Wall Street Journal on my apartment floor. This durian cost $1.59/pound, and totalled about $12.

I pried it open with a large, heavy knife and dug into the meat. Unfortunately, this one wasn't that great -- it was plain and sweet, instead of being pungent and slightly bitter, which is how I prefer my durians to be.

I find it really hard to tell how good a frozen durian is from its exterior. In Singapore, stallowners of fruit stands will usually open the durian for you after you've picked it so you can inspect its interior and make sure it's not a dud. When you're choosing a frozen durian in the frozen section of the supermarket, it's impossible to really know how good a durian is.

Still, when you're in Seattle and you have a craving for durians, you take what you can get -- whether it's durian ice cream, or frozen durian.

Las Vegas Strip

I knew Las Vegas was going to be overwhelming, but I just didn't know it was going to be this crazy. It's both opulence and ostentatiousness, right in your face. I think these five photos I took with my phone show just how unbelievable it all is (captions underneath each photo).

The skyline of New York is recreated in the New York New York resort.

The skyline of New York is recreated in the New York New York resort.

A huge, multi-storey gold lion stands guard outside the MGM Grand.

A huge, multi-storey gold lion stands guard outside the MGM Grand.

We stayed at the Encore, which is part of the Wynn resort complex. This is the Mizumi restaurant, and it features a $1.5 million, 27-foot crystal dragon hanging off the far wall of the dining room. As you can probably guess, Mizumi serves Asian cuisine.

We stayed at the Encore, which is part of the Wynn resort complex. This is the Mizumi restaurant, and it features a $1.5 million, 27-foot crystal dragon hanging off the far wall of the dining room. As you can probably guess, Mizumi serves Asian cuisine.

This is the gambling floor at the Encore. See those chandeliers? They took two years to create in Murano, Italy, an island near Venice that's famous for its handblown glass. There are 130 of these chandeliers in total at the Encore resort.

This is the gambling floor at the Encore. See those chandeliers? They took two years to create in Murano, Italy, an island near Venice that's famous for its handblown glass. There are 130 of these chandeliers in total at the Encore resort.

This gigantic Christmas tree and accompanying holiday-themed display is located in the Palazzo. 

This gigantic Christmas tree and accompanying holiday-themed display is located in the Palazzo. 

If you're interested in more Las Vegas ostentatiousness and opulence, check out my articles on the Le Reve show, a $28 million sculpture in the Wynn and the Best Asian Food in the US.

Death Valley

Did you know that the most popular time of year to visit Death Valley is during Christmas?

We took a two-hour drive to Death Valley and were surprised by the 20-minute way to buy a park pass at one of the self-service roadside stops.

Badlands, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere.

Badlands, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere.

I thought Death Valley was only just alright. The scenery wasn't spectacular, it was in fact somewhat plain. But then again, we didn't have too much time to drive around so we probably scratched the surface of the largest national park in the lower 48. I wish we had more time, that way I'd be able to hike off the road and see more of the park for myself. Nevertheless, I still hold firm to my conviction that Washington State has the best nature spots in the entire country.

Artist's Palette - because the rocks and hills have multi-colored hues due to the minerals present in them

Artist's Palette - because the rocks and hills have multi-colored hues due to the minerals present in them

Fun fact: Everything is closed on Christmas Day outside the Las Vegas Strip. We should've known - wanted to grab fruit cups from Whole Foods for our little roadtrip, but it was shut. We ended up eating at McDonald's twice on Christmas Day. There was literally nothing else open once you left the urbanized core of Las Vegas. Even in towns along the way, McDonald's would be the only thing open. 

One thing that's awesome about Death Valley: the night sky. It's one of the darkest place in the world, and you can literally just look up from where you're standing and see the entire sky covered with stars. It's gorgeous - and I highly recommend staying till sunset (especially in the winter, when the sun sets really early). Make sure you have enough warm clothing though - the day we were there, it was super windy and the wind chill prevented us from just sitting outside and staring at the stars. We had to make do with hiding in the car and warming our hands by the heater, and jumping out every now and then to gaze at the stars, then return to the car before we got too cold.

$28 million Jeff Koons sculpture

Does art become more valuable if its expensive?

This statue of Popeye, in its resplendent chromium colors, is worth $28 million. It stands in the Wynn shopping arcade, and there are two full-time security guards making sure no one gets close enough to it. 

Lots of people ask the security guard, "What's so special about this?"

Their jaws drop when they hear it was bought at $28 million and was recently appraised for a selling price of $60 million.

Good art shouldn't be ostentatious. One shouldn't need to know if a piece of art is expensive or not to appreciate it.

Spotting a Mountain Goat by Colchuck Lake

On a gray early summer morning in the Seattle area, I drove east for two hours in search of sunshine and some exercise. Based on a friend’s recommendation and some research using the awesome Washington Trails Association website, I decided on the Colchuck Lake trail.

colchuck1.jpg

This is a rather strenuous nine-mile round-trip affair off Icicle Road in Leavenworth, WA. The road to the trailhead is riddled with potholes and I was worried about whether my compact rental would survive. The trail starts off by following a fast-moving stream, and then it begins a rather steep ascent up a series of switchbacks. In my opinion, the most challenging part was that the trail wasn’t that much of a trail in some areas – there were times when I had to scramble across rock piles or step gingerly on stones to cross creeks. It was refreshing, but I wish I had anticipated these challenges before I started.

I had been hiking for over an hour and a half already and was starting to wonder why I hadn’t yet reached the lake. Just then, I spotted a large white figure about fifty feet in front of me on an open portion of the trail. It was a mountain goat! And behind the goat I could see the crystal clear waters of Colchuck Lake. The lake was stunning, but more importantly, this was my first encounter with a wild goat, ever! The goat stared at me for a good five seconds before resuming its graze on the lush grass that grew at the side of the lake. It didn’t seem to be shy and was in fact quite habituated to human activity.

I spotted a goat.

I spotted a goat.

I had great fun shadowing it for the next half-hour, snapping photos from various angles. Here are some of the pictures I took of the goat and of the lake.

I dipped my hand in the water and it was freezing! But I did see a brave soul strip down to his underwear and jump in (he stayed in there for about five seconds before shivering and screaming his way out in cold). Apparently Colchuck means "ice water" in the Chinook language. I did not enjoy the pleasure of a dip in the lake after my tiring ascent but the view was so mesmerizing that I think it was more than sufficient a reward for my efforts.

Cheap, Delicious Southern Food in Asheville, NC

Asheville, NC is not the first place you’d think of when you’re looking for great, cheap eats. But the city surprises with its gastronomic pleasures, and after a while you might find yourself visiting the same tasty restaurants two days in a row, and maybe wishing that you had a few more days to finish exploring the city’s best restaurants.

In many places, cheap food means bad food. It might mean that you get processed food instead of fresh food, questionable ingredients instead of organic harvests, and not-so-great-tasting meals. However, in Asheville, a tight budget goes a long way when it comes to food.

Rocky’s Hot Chicken
Crispy, spicy chicken you’ll drool over for days after your visit. You can pick your selection of chicken parts (thigh, legs, wings, breasts etc) and your desired spice level (there’s a handy chart on the wall that gives you handy references to other spicy foods. For example, the extra-mild is as spicy as Tobasco Sauce, and the Mild-ium is as spicy as Thai hot peppers). The sides are spectacular. Try the green beans and sweet potato fries.

$9.50 for a plate consisting of two thighs and two sides.

Homegrown
Organic but non-pretentious healthy fare. It’s most famous entrée is the fried chicken, but I had my fill at Rocky’s and decided to order the trout instead. I did not regret my choice – the fish was pan-fried and a classic example of crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. My girlfriend ordered a half-portion of the Farmer’s Salad and I stole a couple of bites of it. The dressing was really tasty and the addition of sunflower seeds made the salad very memorable. I’d come back to this restaurant in a heartbeat.

$3.50 for a half salad, $10 or so for the trout with a side

12 Bones Smokehouse
Barbecue at its best. You don’t want to miss this classic Asheville institution. Hell, Obama ate here twice! You’ll find yourself gnawing at the ribs and tearing at the pulled pork. Oh, the sides are lip-smackingly good too. Try the Corn Pudding and Collared Greens.

$6.50 for a pulled pork sandwich with two sides, about $11 for a half-rack of ribs (6 bones), two sides and cornbread.

Nicaragua: Final Reflections

It has been two weeks since I left Nicaragua, and I've finally found time to pen the final post in this series, an overall reflection of sorts.

Traveling in Nicaragua was a real adventure for me. I spent a year before college backpacking around the world by myself, so I'm no stranger to traveling alone, but this short trip of just 35 days was exhilarating just the same. I traversed the entire country, visiting Granada, Isle de Ometepe, San Carlos, El Castillo, San Juan de Nicaragua, Juigalpa, Managua, Great Corn Island, Leon, Matagalpa, Esteli and finally Masaya.

I engaged with nature in as many ways as I could, kayaking down pristine, jungle-laced rivers, trekking up volcanoes, riding horses across grassy fields, hiking through cloud forests and even skinny dipping in a deserted crater lake.

I also got more than my fair dose of urbanity, visiting several towns and cities. I drank one of the best cups of coffee in my life at Matagalpa, visited cathedrals in Leon, and admired colorful mural paintings in Esteli.

But it was the people that left the deepest impression on me. They were incredibly genuine, warm and friendly. I have never felt so welcome in a foreign country before. Everywhere, people waved and said hi, and were curious to learn more about me and my culture. At first, I couldn't even understand their questions. But being fully immersed in a country does help one pick up a language quickly, and by the time I was about to leave, I was able to speak halting Spanish without resorting to too many hand gestures.

From the friendly demeanor of the people I met, I wouldn't have been able to tell just how hard their lives were. But everywhere I went, I was confronted with widespread poverty in the form of homeless people, torn clothing and slums. Almost 80% of Nicaraguans live below US$2 a day, and the country's infrastructure is inadequate and crumbling. Perhaps it is most telling that 1 block away from the plaza at the heart of the capital Managua, was a large ghetto, beset by problems such as poverty, crime and violence, and where I saw shuttered storefronts and fires burning in the middle of the street in broad daylight.

Traveling in Nicaragua has made me even more thankful of where I am today. When I was in a taxi in Managua, I saw a young boy, who must have been no older than 6, furiously dashing from car to car with a bucket of soapy water and a cloth in his hand, working hard at scrubbing the windshields of cars stopping at a busy intersection in the city. It was noon and baking hot and I couldn't help but wonder why he wasn't at school. Maybe he didn't have a chance to go to school? Maybe he's not old enough to go to school yet? Whatever the case, there he was, sunburnt, working hard and sweating profusely, at the tender age of 6. And he was also barefoot.

I beckoned for the boy to come over and pressed a US$1 bill into his palm. He looked at me confusingly for half a second before a huge smile spread across his face. Then he jumped in happiness and ran back to his mother, who was also hard at work on the median strip, selling bottled water to passing motorists. The little boy waved the $1 bill high above his head, the picture of George Washington fluttering in the air. Still smiling, he described to his mother what had just happened and pointed excitedly to me.

I guess I should have waved back. But I didn't; I was deep in thought.

I've led a sheltered life since I was born, had access to good education, and never had to work to support my family. Like many in my generation, I never had to worry about getting by in life. And there I was, in one of the poorest countries in the world, making the day of a little boy just by giving him a US$1 bill. It almost felt too easy.

The lights turned green and as our taxi drove off, I turned back for a last glance. The boy was still smiling and pointing at me.