Saturday, December 27, 2014

2014 - No Shaving For Two Months

So, one day at work, a colleague was trying to keep his beard while his wife disagreed and suggested that the guys in the department should have a pact to not shave until the new year (this was back in October) and I stupidly agreed to it.

This has been quite the experience, almost all females unanimously hated it while most guys seemed okay with it.  Some were even surprised by how much I was able to grow (as was I since this was my first time keeping it).

Join me now and have a look at some before, during and after pictures.

End result after roughly two months in.
One of the patterns chosen while removing it all =(
Before and after!


Neutral semi-cleaned Wai.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

2014 - Mont Tremblant

Our first time hitting the slopes this season and it will be at Mont Tremblant!  We took Friday off and made it a long weekend (driving Friday, ski/snowboard on Saturday, returning on Sunday).  This is my first time here and I was excited to try a new mountain but was less excited about the drive there (from Toronto, it is roughly a 6 hour drive).  This time, Mike arranged a large group of us to go (there were 10 people in total) and it was quite fun.

Most of the group at the top of Mt. Tremblant
Having never been to Tremblant before, I didn't know what to expect.  When looking at the numbers, the local mountain, Blue Mountain, has a vertical of 732 ft.  We went to Sugar Bush earlier this year at Mt Ellen and it has a vertical of 2,552 ft.  Mt. Tremblant by comparison is 2,031 ft.  Honestly, after going here, I don't know if I feel that the 500 ft difference is a big one since you will be tired either way from the long runs.  I did greatly enjoy the fact that Mt. Tremblant had gondolas for going up the mountain instead of chair lifts.  This meant that you wouldn't freeze yourself in mid-air when the lifts were stopped.  A big plus and I'm not sure I can go back to chair lifts anymore.

Jang trying to catch a ball.
Christina booked a place through AirBnB and it cost us $600 CAD for two nights with enough beds for 8 people but more than enough space for more (we had 2 extra, one slept on the couch, one on an air mattress, all of which was supplied).  The place had a well stocked kitchen, 3 rooms, 3 washrooms and was just outside the mountain.

Roughly 1/3 up the mountain looking at the village.
The drive wasn't as bad as I imagined, although do make sure to turn off 'Ferries' on your GPS because it took us on a route that required us to get a on ferry which caused to us to lose about 40 minutes.  Get gas before the 323 because gas was cheaper before 323.

Us at the top of Mt. Tremblant.
The view from the top was really nice.  As we got to the top, with clouds surrounding us, it was beautiful.  Unfortunately, since it was early in the season, not all the runs were open and so we ended up doing very similar runs multiple times through the day.  I think we got about 6 runs in.  They don't do night skiing/snowboarding, and the last lift up was at 3:30pm (December 13).

The village area is nicely lit although there honestly isn't much there from what I saw.  There were a lot of shops that are catered to outdoors people who probably needed a new jacket or clothes but they weren't places that I imagine people who stopped there would be shopping for.  We didn't see much in terms of food, and unfortunately the crepe place that we went there for was closed for renovations.

The village area at night.
For food, we bought everything at Costco, made pasta / salad for dinner twice and we had Allison's Portugese Chicken which I think is really good, although when I added more rice, there wasn't enough sauce, so, less rice next time!

On the way back to Toronto, we stopped at Pressed for lunch, a sandwich shop that was featured on 'You Gotta Eat Here'.  It is a quick sandwich shop that has some pretty good and quick sandwiches.  Also serves waffles as well.

Us at Pressed.
Overall, it was a great time and I would go back.

Costs were accommodations, $60/person for 2 nights, $10/person for Costco food, $33/person for gas, $47 for lift tickets (Black Friday promotion).

Sunday, November 30, 2014

2014 - Black Friday (Michigan)

After several changes to the itinerary, we settled on driving to Michigan to do some Black Friday shopping this year, leaving Thursday afternoon and returning on Saturday.  We decided to go to Michigan due to the snowstorm in Buffalo and the fact that the borders there would be very busy.

This would be my very first black Friday experience and I basically expected to be at awe at how long the lines are and just leave and go to the hotel and sleep.  Luckily this was not the case.

We took a half day on Thursday, leaving at around 2pm, and drove to the Hyatt Place in Auburn Hills.  The drive itself on Thursday afternoon was good with no real traffic and the border took roughly 20 minutes only because we picked the wrong line (there were only 3 cars/trucks in front of me).  From Toronto to Hyatt Place took roughly 4.5 hours with the border crossing.

Note that on Thanksgiving, basically everything is closed, even fast food restaurants.  We were lucky and next to where we were staying, Hyatt Place, there was a McDonald's that was open although the workers weren't too happy about it.  For $13 USD after tax we got TWO Big Mac combos, I forgot how much cheaper food is down here.  We chatted with the cashier for a bit and she was very enthusiastic about our Canadian coloured money and we showed her some and it was like someone finding a unicorn.  Her reactions were priceless.

After a quick bite, we went to our first stop, Birch Run.  We arrived at roughly 8pm and the mall wasn't as busy as I would have imagined with parking lines out the mall and people circling for parking spaces, I was able to quickly find parking by the Banana Republic area which is what we wanted to visit anyways.  Birch Run is an OUTDOOR outlet mall, so make sure that you dress appropriately.  With a CAA/AAA/passport, you can go to the information center near Old Navy for your free coupon book!

We shopped until roughly 1am and we got some good deals for an evening of shopping.  The more popular shops like Columbia, Coach, The North Face, all have line ups out the door.  Here's what we ended up with after Birch Run.  The top two pants (one pair of jeans, one pair of khakis) set me back $30 USD, the 3 dresses, 1 blazer and 1 blouse cost Allison only $80 USD!  The black one was a surprising $12 USD!

Black Friday 2014, after Birch Run
By then, we were tired and just headed back to the hotel and we would go to Great Lakes Crossing in the morning.  The room that we got was a bit odd in terms of layout.  It is a good size with a king bed and a sofa bed with a mini fridge and additional sink.  The oddity is that the sofa bed and king bed are on the same side of the room with a 2-foot wall separating the two and the TV is smack dab cross from the wall.  This means that the TV needs to be swiveled in order for one side of the room to see the TV properly.  Also, the washroom was just a shower and toilet, the sink for some reason is OUTSIDE the washroom.  There is probably a reason for this, but I couldn't figure it out (maybe so that someone can groom/clean up while the other takes a shower/uses the toilet).

Breakfast at the Hyatt was a bit disappointing, it is a continental breakfast which is basically a breakfast buffet.  They served eggs and pancakes but no meat (no bacon/sausage/ham), there is cereal, yogurt, various types of bread with a toaster and various types of juice and of course tea/coffee.  For the second morning, there were sausages and instead of pancakes, we got french toast.  Again, it wasn't anything good, all seemed like cheap instant food instead of fresh (our past experiences with breakfast has ranged from good to really good).  Service however was really good, no complaints there.

Onto Great Lakes Crossing!  We probably got there at around 9:30am and parking was easy to find and had no issues doing any shopping since it was still early (or late depending on if people started at 6pm on Thursday).  It was nice to be indoors since it meant we could leave our bulky winter coats in the car.  There were only lines at the big brands like Victoria Secret and Coach.

Here's what we ended up with after our initial run at Great Lakes Crossing and Birch Run.  I have since added a pair for dress shoes, 2 tops and a suit and Allison got a cardigan and another dress.

Black Friday 2014, after our first visit of Birch run and Great Lakes Crossing
We broke for lunch at around 1:30pm and by then, it was getting busy so it was a good time to have lunch and return after a bit of rest at the hotel.  Our meals were at Olive Garden and Applebee's.  I still haven't gotten used to the portion sizes in USA, even our lunch portions had us bringing back leftovers back to Toronto after each meal.  We were eating like kings for roughly $10 USD a person! 

Upon returning to Great Lakes Crossing after our break, it was clear that the madness was over since once again, it was easy to find parking and the lines for the big brands were no more.  We found a few more things and called it a night when the mall closed at 10pm.

The following morning (Saturday), we had breakfast and did a quick stop at Best Buy to get Allison's Canon ELPH 150 which was on sale for only $100 USD and headed up to Birch Run for one final browse before leaving.  I ended up walking out with a set of Columbia winter boots, Columbia running shoes, and Sorel suede shoes for only $81 USD after tax!

Here's our final haul ($570 USD later).

Final haul from Black Friday 2014

Roughly, here are the costs of what was picked up:

- Canon ELPH 150, $100 USD
- Haggar Suit, $90 USD (includes jacket/pant)

- Bostonian dress shoes, $70 USD (this wasn't a crazy deal but I was looking for dress shoes for awhile)
- Columbia winter boots, $40 USD
- 64GB Samsung MicroSD card, $25 USD
- Columbia running shoes (the blue ones), $18 USD
- Sorel suede shoes (the grey ones), $18 USD
- everything else in the picture was $25 USD or under with a lot of it being under $15 USD


Based on this experience, I'd probably do this again next time.

Expenses

- Hyatt Place Hotel was $120 USD a night, the place has free wifi, swimming pool, gym and breakfast
- Gas, we needed two tanks of gas from Toronto to Auburn Hill, Michigan and back (roughly 1,000km)

Monday, November 10, 2014

2014 - Scarborough Convention Centre (Anojan and Kaja's wedding)

My second brown wedding and it happened within a span of a month!  This one will be with our friends, Anojan and Kaja, and will be held at the Scarborough Convention Centre.

Photobombed!

First of all, let me say that this location needs to invest some money in some proper signage because if you did not know the exact address, you probably wouldn't find this place.  It is situated in an industrial area and it is deep inside so it is a bit hard to find if you were looking for signs to direct you.

Podium for the bride/groom
Now that that is out of the way, the convention centre itself is very nice.  Lots of chandeliers although the colour itself could be better.  The lights give off a very orangey colour which ruined a few of my pictures.  It was very nicely decorated and the ceremony itself was very long but at the same time, very interesting.

A crepe-like appetizer which comes with a sauce like condensed milk and something spicy
The ceremony seemed to last roughly 2 - 3 hours long with a lot of different things happening.  There was an outfit change for the bride, there was a gold necklace ceremony, exchanges of leis (rings of flowers), swapping of reed rings (yes, they had rings made out of what looks like reed), putting on toe rings, circling of fire and probably more that I missed out on.

Kaja (bride)
Lei exchange

Toe ring ceremony
It was a morning ceremony and lunch was included and the included lunch was nice although too spicy for us (it doesn't take much spice to scare us).

Us with the bride and groom
All-in-all, a really nice ceremony at a nicely decorated hall.  I look forward to the reception which is scheduled for next year!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

2014 - Peru (Trip Report)

Peru, a place where people travel from all around the world to visit Machu Picchu, one of the 7 Wonders of the World. We spent 16 days there (plus 2 days to get there and back) and it is a great place to visit.

View of Cusco
For our trip, we visited Lima and Cusco, although from my talks with friends, it sounds like there are a number of other places to visit.  Based on my experience and personal preference, I would say that Lima is skippable and just focus on Cusco.

Realize that you will be spending a lot of time haggling whether you are catching a cab or buying souvenirs.  I personally found a lot of joy doing this whereas Allison would just leave the bargaining to me.  I would say, haggle everything starting at 50% off what they say and go from there (you are probably still being ripped off at this point).

Cusco is an amazing city that is full of history and scenery.  It was nice walking in a city where all major franchises that I know don't have a huge presence here.  Only in the main square (Plaza de Armas) did we see Starbucks, McDonalds and KFC.

Cusco's main square
The two specialty dishes to try are alpaca and guinea pig (known at cuy).  They are worth trying, I enjoyed the alpaca and Allison really liked the guinea pig.

Tours
Alpaca Expeditions (4 day Classic Inca Trail), $615 USD (haggled them into providing us with free sleeping bags which are normally $20 USD since there were 3 of us on the trip).  I have no problems recommending this company based on our 4-day Inca Trail hike.  Herlin who was our tour guide was great, has a lot of knowledge behind the history of the Incans.  The crew of porters works well together and it was great to see that they would work as a group.

Pantiacolla (7 day Manu Biosphere), $1,270 (originally $1,370, got them down to $1,270 with some haggling).  Jose was a great tour guide.  He was very knowledgeable and had great eyes and ears for finding animals and insects.  Pantiacolla are very responsive to emails and generally get back to you within the day with any questions that you have.  My only issue after doing the trip is that you spend a lot of time traveling.  I had an idea of how long it would be, but when you are stuck on a boat/bus for a long period of time with no form of entertainment (unless you spot animals), it lessens the excitement (not that there's anything you can do about it).

Accommodations
City: Cusco
Accommodation Name: Hostel Wara Wara
Cost: roughly $60 USD a night
Verdict: wouldn't recommend


159 steps up from the main square, it is quite the trek uphill when you have just arrived and are trying to adjust to the altitude.  The place could use a bit of cleaning up.  It isn't refined in how it could be presented, but for the price, there isn't much to complain about.  The included breakfast was nothing special, came with bread, scrambled eggs and 2 slices of sausage (yes, slices of sausage).  While there, I did notice that when it rained, there was an area in the main lobby that was leaking a bit, but it may be fixed by now.  I do wish that I could say the same about the water situation.  Due to altitude (I think), the water pressure sometimes stops and that means no water.  They need to restart the machine but that might mean, in the middle of your shower, you may suddenly lose water (happened to me).  Based on that, I wouldn't recommend it.

City: Cusco
Accommodation Name: Wifala Thematic Boutique
Cost: roughly $52 USD a night
Verdict: no problem recommending it as long as you don't mind the 20 minute walk to the main square

Situated roughly 20 minutes away by foot from the main square.  While it sounds far, it actually isn't too bad when I think about how much time we must have spent walking up the stairs to Wara Wara.  The rooms are small but more than enough room for us and the showers and service was top notch.  The front reception did change on us a few times, so when we first arrived, the receptionist was great with directions and English, the other one spoke English but not to the same level.  The included breakfast was good and the server for breakfast was always the same and we had no problems communicating.

City: Miraflores (in Lima)
Accommodation Name: Tierra Viva
Cost: roughly $100 USD a night
Verdict: no issues recommending it.

Tierra Viva (roughly $100 USD a night).  Great location within Miraflores and the staff are very helpful and knowledgeable about the area.  The place is clean and spacious with a king size bed.  The breakfast buffet was delicious and with a great spread.  I wouldn't have any problem recommending them.

Attractions

I have only included the attractions that we had to pay to get in.  I did not include the markets or squares that you would likely visit while you are here.

City: Cusco
Name: Cusco Planetarium
Cost: 50 soles

Cusco Planetarium
Worth a visit if you are into astronomy and worth it even if you aren't.  I found the information provided to be pretty fascinating although a fair amount of it was covered during our Inca Trail hike.  The planetarium is home grown and you can tell but it doesn't take away from what it is and when we got to see the stars and Saturn at night, it was worth it.

City: Cusco
Name: Salinas (salt pans)
Cost: 7 soles

Salinas
Well worth a visit if you are coordinate a way to visit.  It was really interesting to see thousands of salt pans and try to understand that this is how this country creates and exports salt.

City: Cusco
Name: Ollantaytambo
Cost: Included in the boleto turistico

Ollantaytambo
Very cool Incan ruins that you would read up on the history before going to.  The views at the top are quite stunning and you can send quite some time here if you are interested.

City: Cusco
Name: Chincero
Cost: Included in the boleto turistico

Chincero
Skippable in our opinion.  It is a nice town, but I noticed that we saw very similar markets and terraces that make this a stopping point.


City: Cusco
Name: Moray
Cost: Included in the boleto turistico

Moray
Well worth a visit if you are doing this tour.  I thought this place was really fascinating for about 30 minutes that we were there.  Just to walk down to the bottom to get a sense of the scale of the site was great.

City: Cusco
Name: Pisac
Cost: Included in the boleto turistico

Pisac
This place is enormous and if you can, I would focus most of your time here if you are traveling to the sites within the boleto turistico.  This places has a set of ruins of a small town and endless amounts of terraces on the side of the mountain.  We didn't get enough time here since it was our last destination and I wish that we could have had more time here.

City: Lima
Name: El Circuito Mágico del Agua

Cost: 4 soles

El Circuito Magico del Agua
If you are in Lima, this is probably one of the places that you will end up visiting.  It is easily worth the cost of admission although the show was a bit of a let down for us.  The other water fountains easily make up for it though.  Do try to eat before you go because the shops inside are very disappointing.

Restaurants
City: Cusco
Name: Divina Rosa


Divina Rosa's menu
Divina Rosa, cheap meal but cheap for a reason.  A 4 course meal for 12 soles, the food comes out warm but good value.  If you want something cheap, it isn't a bad choice.

City: Cusco
Name: Inka Grill

Alpaca steak from Inka Grill
Located in the main square of Cusco, I was worried that it would be a cash grab and based on reviews, I thought it would be okay, I was wrong.  There is nothing wrong with the food here nor is the service bad, but it is just really expensive for what you get.  This definitely feels like a tourist trap and we had much better food elsewhere.  Entrees were roughly 60 soles.

City: Cusco
Name: Kushka Cafe

Us at Kushka
Located just 5 minutes away from the main square, we really enjoyed this little shop.  The food that we had was delicious and wasn't very expensive.  We liked it enough that we actually went twice.  Entrees were roughly 30 soles.

City: Cusco
Name: La Cusquenita

Guinea Pig from La Cusquenita
If you ask ANY local, they will be able to direct you to this joint.  If that isn't a sign that this place has great food, I don't know what is.  Go for the a la carte meal and you won't be disappointed.  Make it before noon and you may end up watching a free show as well!  Entrees were roughly 25 soles.

City: Cusco
Name: Uchu

Uchu's steak
Want steak?  Want it on a hot stone?  This is your place.  They serve steak on a hot stone where you can cook the steak to your liking and it was fantastic.  I'd recommend going for a view if you want some steak.  Steaks were roughly 45 soles.

City: Lima
Name: Salon Capon

Salon Capon dim sum
Located in Chinatown, it was suggested by Lonely Planet and while it was decent Chinese food, I don't know if I would suggest making your way here unless you were in the area.  We ordered dim sum here after two weeks of Peruvian food and it was good enough to satisfy our cravings.  Our dim sum order of 4 dishes was 35 soles.

City: Lima
Name: Mangos

Us at Mangos
In Larcomar is Mangos, a restaurant that is built into the side of the cliff.  If you like, you can eat outside where you have a fantastic view of the coast.  The food was nice and the view was great.  The entrees were roughly 45 soles.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Corned Beef House (Oct 14 2014)

This would be our dinner destination after we tried the Mirvish lottery for Book of Mormon tickets (which we lost).

Front of Corned Beef House
Located at the corner of John St and Adelaide is Corned Beef House, a shop known for their corn beef and montreal smoked meat sandwiches.  $7.99 gets you a 7 oz sandwich of various types of meat.  The portion is generous for the price and the sandwich is customizable based on their bread type and sauce.  I opted for the marble rye and regular sauce which I thought was pretty good.  We also got the poutine which was $5.99.  The portion was pretty big for $6, but the gravy is a bit salty for my taste.

Menu

Corn Beef Sandwich with Marble Rye (Huge portion)

Poutine
It's a good and quick place for a sandwich that will hit the spot if you are in the area.

Verdict: I'd go back but it isn't anything special.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

2014 - Apollo Convention Centre (Ahmed & Jihan's Wedding)

Quote of the evening 'When two people get married, the man gives up his bachelor's degree and the woman gets her master's degree'.

Apollo Convention Centre is where our friends, Ahmed and Jihan, got married. Our first Indian wedding and I was excited to see what it would be like based on what we heard from some of our friends.

Apollo Convention Centre
The venue is nice, although my first impression was, 'there doesn't seem like there is enough parking here'. There is parking all along the parameter of the building and there is some parking on the second level (the roof) of the building. For a building that can support up to 1,200 people (according to their website), I assumed there would be more parking spaces (unless I missed some).

Allison and me!
There was a programme included at the dining table which gave us an idea of what was to come and it was nicely laid out. The food was nice. The food was served family-style where there would be dishes out on the table and you would take what you want.  In the event that you want more, simply ask the servers for more and they brought more.

Our table (12 of 33)

Programme of the evening

Menu
The part that strikes me as really odd is, did the bride and groom eat? During the evening, there is a stage where I'm used to seeing the head table and they have their meals when everyone else does. But, for this ceremony, there is no head table, there is a bench where the bride and groom sit and that's where they were all night (at least when I was looking).

Head table?

Jihan (left) & Ahmed (right)
It was interesting that this culture actually has an ending ceremony. At the end of the night, the bride and groom are walked out by family and friends as part of the handing-off ceremony where the bride is 'given away' to the groom. I was told this was because in the past, the bride may not see their parents since back then, they may be towns/cities apart. So as we walked them out, we took some pictures, watched as they drove off and that concluded the night.

I had a good time, thanks Ahmed and Jihan for inviting us to your big day!

Sho Ryu Ken Ramen (Oct 10 2014)

A new ramen shop has opened up in Allison's area and we decided to pay them a visit!  By this date, they have been open for 4 days so I assumed that they would have fixed any issues that they would have by now.  I was wrong.

The restaurant is a play on the name of a move in the video game Street Fighter.  As such, they even have painting up that depict Street Fighter characters doing something with ramen (whether cooking or eating).

Street Fighter Ramen Art
The prices are reasonable at $9.80 for the normal Tonkotsu ramen, add $1.00 for a soy based version of the tonkotsu or get one that is spicy.  We ordered the regular tonkotsu ramen and the spicy version of the same thing.  For reasons unknown to me, it took 30 minutes before we got our meal.  The restaurant barely holds 40 people, so I thought the orders would go by pretty quickly but I was wrong.

Spicy Tonkotsu
The dumplings seem like potstickers that I could buy frozen from a grocery store instead of hand-made on site.  The ramen was disappointing.  I'm not sure where they are imported from, but they are nothing special.  The soup base lacked flavor, and the two pieces of chashu that we got were VERY fatty.  My $1.00 meant that I got a spoonful of hot sauce with my tonkotsu.  They don't mix it in, isn't a different soup base, it is just the regular tonkotsu with a spoon of hot sauce!

Dumplings
We arrived at the restaurant at around 7:50pm which I thought was late, but we still had to wait around 10 minutes to be seated.  By the time we got our order (8:30pm), the restaurant was already sold out of ramen for the day.

Verdict: I would not recommend coming here and I don't see it lasting very long.