Winter weekend getaways

21 02 2010

Canada is a great place to live, and I have thoroughly enjoyed my 13+ years living in the Great White North. But I confess that the winter months still make me homesick, my sun-deprived self always demanding some sun rays and a vacation down South between December and March.

This year, however, a mid-winter vacation was not possible, so we overcame our cryophobia and decided to spend two 3-day weekends up North in Muskoka in February. Both mini-vacations went so well that I’m considering going for these cold getaways much more often from now on.

The first trip was to a place facing the beautiful Oxtongue Lake, just a few kilometres from the Algonquin Park West entrance:

Oxtongue Lake in Ontario, Canada

It was a weekend with clear night skies, no wind, cold temperatures and a full moon:

Frozen Oxtongue Lake under a full moon

The picture above is a bit crappy, but the actual experience of walking on the frozen lake covered by snow under a full moon was memorable. The snow absorbed the sounds and reflected the moonlight, the lack of wind and proper insulation made the night walking pleasant and a very unusual sensorial experience overall.

Also unusual was barbecuing under the snow:

Hummm… Picanha BBQ…

Best of all, we had the tobogganing hill for ourselves for most of the weekend:

L trying solo tobogganing for the first time

And then doing it all by himself

Last weekend, we went back to Muskoka, this time close to Sparrow Lake. It was not as secluded as the other place, but it was good to try a variety of winter sports. The hotel offered free gear rentals for skating, cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing and curling. It was the first Winter Olympics weekend, and L was very excited in trying stuff he was seeing on TV:

First time donning skates


Cross-country skiing

Saying that I have two left feet for winter sports is an understatement. I excel in being bad in all sports, but there’s no word to describe my performance (or lack thereof) with skis or skates. Hopefully, L will not inherit my total ineptitude to brave snow and ice, and his newly discovered interest on winter sports will last beyond the Vancouver 2010 games. For the first time ever, I feel almost sad that the end of winter is already around the corner.

Itu 400 – Part 1: small town, large ambitions

19 12 2009

If you are not from Brazil, you probably never heard about Itu. Itu is a small city about 100 km from São Paulo, known by many in Brazil as the city where everything is exaggeratedly big. Well, not everything. I was born there, so all the 1.67 m of me (5’6″, generously speaking) are genuinely from Itu 🙂 .

Of course, everything being big is a marketing ploy to attract tourists, started by a local comedian in a popular TV show in the late 60s. That notwithstanding, that meme was so sticky that even today people in Brazil still call anything too large as being “from Itu”. This is my son last month, amazed by Itu’s public phone:

Here are some other X-Large oddities:

Traffic lights

Popsicle ad and chair

Popsicle ad, chair and another phone

The list goes on and on: you can get pacifiers, combs, hammers, pencils, paper clips and even condoms (!) as Itu-sized souvenirs. But there’s much more to Itu than that (in my naturally biased view, of course). On February 2nd, 2010, Itu will be celebrating its 400th anniversary:

Countdown to Feb 2nd, 2010

Founded in 1610, Itu is one of the oldest cities in the Americas. I wish I could be there for the big party, but since I can’t, I’ll settle for writing a few more blog posts about this beloved town over the next 44 days.

Five things I didn’t know about Darwin

28 02 2009

You should probably know by now that in 2009 we celebrate 200 years of Charles Darwin’s birth and 150 years since “The Origin of Species” was first published. I’ve been feasting on all the information flooding in the media about him, and I learned quite a bit about the man and the book in the last few months. Here’s my top 5 list, in no particular order.

1. A dinasty of sorts
The last publication by Darwin, written just 2 weeks before he died, was about a tiny clam found on a beetle leg. Nothing particularly interesting there. The person sending Charles the specimen was Walter Drawbridge Crick, a shoemaker and amateur naturalist. Even less remarkable, one could say, until you learn that Walter would eventually have a grandson named Francis, of Watson & Crick’s double helix fame, arguably the second most important insight in Biology, and perhaps in all sciences (Source: National Geographic Magazine).

2. Evolution
The word “Evolution”, so associated with Darwin in our collective mind, never appears in “The Origin of Species”. The closest you get is the last word in the last sentence of the book, a poetic gem of scientific literature: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” You can check that yourself by downloading a PDF version of the book here (Source: Quirks and Quarks podcast, CBC).

3. Survival of the fittest
Even more puzzling is the fact that the term “survival of the fittest” was first coined by Herbert Spencer in the book “The principles of biology” (1864), and only shows up in late editions of Origin, duly acknowledging Spencer’s authorship: “I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term natural selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection.  But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”. (Sources: The Phrase Finder and Gutemberg project).

4. The destiny of species
Long before coming up with his theory about where the species came from, many of Charles’ objects of study ended up in his stomach. Darwin used to eat several of the animals he helped describing, including, but not limited to, water-hogs (capivaras for Brazilians, a REALLY big rat, in fact the largest rodent in the world), birds of prey like the caracara, and armadillos. I guess that to provide a comprehensive description of a species, behaviour and looks were not enough: the more information the better 🙂 . I learned about this bizarre piece of trivia while watching the excellent “Darwin’s Legacy” course by Stanford University, available in iTunes U., but you can find a very good description of Darwin’s culinary adventures here.

5. Brazil according to Darwin
Charles, to put it mildly, didn’t enjoy much his time in Brazil, affirming at the end of his “Voyage of the Beagle” travelog: “On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country.” I’m not sure if slavery in Brazil was worse than in other parts of the world, but being the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery suggests that the Brazilian society of the 18th century relied heavily on it, to the point that even today Brazil still has the second largest population of black origin in the world (after Nigeria). On the other side, Darwin was awed by the forests in Brazil: “Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man; whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are predominant, or those of Tierra del Fuego, where Death and decay prevail.  Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature: — no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.” Both quotes are a bit surprising given their quasi-spiritual tone. Finally, to conclude on a lighter note, this is Darwin’s account of Carnival folies in Salvador, Bahia, written on March 4th, 1832:

This day is the first of the Carnival, but Wickham, Sullivan & myself nothing undaunted were determined to face its dangers. — These dangers consist in being unmercifully pelted by wax balls full of water & being wet through by large tin squirts. — We found it very difficult to maintain our dignity whilst walking through the streets. — Charles the V has said that he was a brave man who could snuff a candle with his fingers without flinching; I say it is he who can walk at a steady pace, when buckets of water on each side are ready to be dashed over him. After an hours walking the gauntlet, we at length reached the country & there we were well determined to remain till it was dark. — We did so, & had some difficulty in finding the road back again, as we took care to coast along the outside of the town. — To complete our ludicrous miseries a heavy shower wet us to the skins, & at last gladly we reached the Beagle. — It was the first time Wickham had been on shore, & he vowed if he was here for six months it should be only one.

Watching Darwin braving the festive Carnival crowds in Salvador would have been priceless. If only we had Flickr and YouTube back then!

Back from Brazil – from home to home

19 01 2009

I’m back to Toronto after 3.5 weeks in Brazil. When I moved to Canada back in 1996, my intention was to go “back home” every 3 years, so that I could use the scarce North American vacation days to get to know other places. In the last several years though, due to various family-related events, my yearly allowance was mostly spent in São Paulo. Something changed in the 12 years I lived abroad. When I entered my Toronto apartment yesterday morning, it became clear that Canada now also feels like home to me.

My mother immigrated from Japan as a toddler, and my father left Korea in his early twenties. They never went back. My mother clearly enjoys Brazilian TV shows and finds NHK programming a never-ending bore. She craves leitão a pururuca, (yes, it’s visually disgusting, but believe me, it’s delicious) and coxinhas. Sushi and miso soup? Not so much. She is much more Latin-American than oriental, despite her Japanese descent. On the other side, my father never really blended in in Brazil, and had all but forgot Korea. I remember offering him a trip to Seoul a few years before he passed away. He politely declined, saying that the country he once knew no longer existed.

Sometimes I wonder if I fit any of those two models. While I miss Brazil badly, I know that if I ever move back there, I’ll miss Canada too. It remains to be seen if this is a win-win or a lose-lose situation, but whatever it is, it’s all I have.

Of course, my case is not unique. In this age when the movement of individuals and populations is in overdrive mode, the concept of what is a native and what is an immigrant has blurred. Increasingly, we are all just nomads with many places we call home.

Flashback: Hawaii Superferry questionnaire

15 12 2008

Back in September, I went to Hawaii for a week with my family, and we decided to go from Honolulu to Maui by ferry. It’s a slow trip compared to taking a flight, but worthwhile especially if you are traveling with kids.

Hawaii Superferry

As you approach the boarding lanes, a Hawaii Superferry employee goes through the standard procedure of checking your vehicle and asking you questions about what you are taking with you. Even though you are hopping from island to island in the same state, the procedure resembles crossing the border with a neighbouring country or boarding an international flight, which makes sense in today’s world, and also for environmental reasons. So both sides engaged in this somewhat flat but polite conversation that goes like this:

“Are you carrying any firearms or ammunition?”

“Are you taking any domestic animals with you? Any livestock?”
“No on both accounts.”

“Do you have any flammable materials in your baggage?”

“Any plants, seeds or soil?”

“What about human bones?”
“No. Wait. What???”

I know that there must be a reason for the question, some historical precedent or technical legality justifying it. But I can’t help but wonder if anyone was ever caught in the process. “Human bones? Hummm, let me see. Hey sweetheart, are those bones in your bag human?”

Flashback: Hawaii

23 10 2008

I’ve been away from home for most of the month of October, first on vacation in Hawaii, then a swing through East Asia to speak at Singapore and a day-trip to Hawthorne, NY, for a client event. I wish I could blog every day – not that there’s anybody there to read, but I’d like to keep a record of things that are in my mind, for my own navel gazing reasons. I managed to update my status in Twitter/Facebook with some frequency, but blogging, despite being deemed as passé by Paul Boutin (WIRED magazine), is still my favourite form of 2.0 communication. Boutin is missing the point: the 2.0 communication space is definitely more fragmented now, but blogging still has its space. His article is similar to people predicting the death of newspapers, radio, TV and movie theatres in the past, each time a new media appeared. Blogs will evolve too, and may even converge or integrate with social networking sites, but Twitter, Flickr and Facebook simply are not replacing it, just allowing you more choices depending on what you want to communicate or your specific preferences. Of course, my guess is as good as anybody else’s.

It was my first time in Hawaii. I loved it. It’s interesting in so many levels: natural resources, friendly people, unique history, great food. I wouldn’t mind going again. Here are some random shortcuts from the trip that may be vaguely related to IBM or Web 2.0, and some subtle evidence that cyberspace is actually here:

1. It’s a wiki world out there

First thing I saw when I left the plane was the sign to the Wiki Wiki bus. It’s kind of bizarre to see things and places called wikis, but it’s all Ward Cunningham‘s fault 🙂 .

Not sure if’s readable, but the last picture is mind boggling for IBMers: a place called “Wiki Wiki Java”, that has nothing to do with computers. It’s like the first time I came to North America and thought that a hardware store would be the place to buy computers.

2. IBM Honolulu and the Beehive

I swear I was not thinking about work, but our hotel was very close to the IBM office, a very cool building resembling a beehive and sporting the logo used by IBM between 1956 and 1972 (if you are a history buff, you may like to check-out all the logos IBM has used throughout the years):

IBM Honolulu - The BeehiveIBM Honolulu - The BeehiveHawaii - IBM

3. Hawaii Superferry and Twitter

We took the ferry to Maui, and I found it to be very comfortable, especially if you’re travelling with kids. Free wi-fi is available aboard, and they use Twitter as a communication tool, something that would make Bernie proud of. They even have a “Twitter Us” link in their website.

Hawaii SuperferryHawaii SuperferryHawaii Superferry - Honolulu

The full set of pictures is in Flickr, but here’s a friendly warning that there may be way more pictures and rainbows and sunsets than a normal person can handle there. I’m using Flickr as my photo repository, so the majority of pics there are not that interesting. Here’s the preview:

Wrinkled shirts

4 06 2008

This happened on Sunday night in Istanbul.

All the hotels in the city were full, so Bernie and I had to move from the nice Conrad Hotel in Besiktas to the unlisted Villa Zurich Hotel, close to Taksim. I arrived there Sunday night, and my shirts were all badly wrinkled as if they had spent the weekend inside a bottle of Coke or, as they say in Brazil, in the guts of a cow (“na barriga da vaca”).

So, I called the reception and asked for an iron and an ironing board. The person there asked me why I needed an iron for. A bit surprised, I said, “well, my shirts are wrinkled and therefore I need an iron”. Then the person replied: “You want iron for your shirts?” Even more puzzled, I said: “Yes, would that be possible?” and heard “Okay, I’ll send that to you in a moment”.

After about 15 minutes, somebody knocks in my door. I open it, and this person from the hotel has a tray with a glass some white liquid and a straw. I stared at the white glass for about 10 seconds, thinking: this is getting really bizarre. Then I asked: “What’s this?”

The person said: “Didn’t you ask for yogurt?”

Then reality sank in, and I exploded with an uncontrollable laugh. In Turkey, Ayran is a popular salty drink made of yogurt and water. I’m not sure if it’s pronounced the same as “iron”, but with my thick accent I can’t actually blame the reception person for the confusion. The poor guy was probably thinking: this guest is weird, he uses yogurt to starch his clothes.

If you ever go to Turkey, make sure you bring your Picture Dictionary, as known as Universal Phrase Book with you. It can come handy if your Turkish – or your English accent – is as poor as mine. This is ayran:

And this is iron:

Electric Iron by Li-Sung