“Hey, I’m walkin’ here!” – A week in the Big Apple

Growing up in the 90s, my image of New York was based on Home Alone, TMNT and the odd episode of Sex in the City (you know, when it was on in the background). Numbered streets and Avenues; bagels, donuts and pizza; Central Park and the Empire State building. Having spent a week in NYC I can successfully confirm that it is exactly like the TV shows and movies. From the gorgeously quaint Upper East Side, to the madness of Times Square, to the beautiful tranquility of Central Park, to the food. New York really doesn’t disappoint.

City Scape from the Brooklyn Bridge

City Scape from the Brooklyn Bridge

Let me start off by saying that I could have easily spent more time. A week was a great amount of time, but there are basically unlimited amounts of things to do in the city. And that’s just the city, I didn’t even make it out to Jersey or Long Island. Roll the highlight reel.

Central Park

By far my favourite place in NYC. Central Park is gigantic, spanning over 50 streets and 3 avenues. I didn’t even have time to explore more than half of the Park. Walking around was beautiful, there are so many trees and ponds, with squirrels running all around. People walk their dogs or run around, escaping the hustle bustle of the big city. One of the hostels that I stayed in was only a block away, so I ate breakfast in the park each day I was there.

"The Pool" at Central Park

“The Pool” at Central Park

Central Park on a crisp morning

Central Park on a crisp morning

Donuts

As some of you will know, I’m a massive fan of Donuts. I used to be a big fan of Dunkin’ Donuts. But no more. I’ve tasted the real thing, and I might not be able to go back. I spent some time compiling a list of about 10 different donut stores around Manhattan and Brooklyn that I wanted to visit while I was there. I even took a one hour train ride out to deep Brooklyn to try Shaikh’s Donuts on a recommendation. Oh, boy, was that a worthwhile trip. Not only were the Donuts amazing, but they were dirt cheap too. I picked up 2 donuts and a coffee for only $2.40, what a steal. I estimate that I’ve eaten 10+ donuts in the last week.

Shaikh's Donut Shoppe. Best I had in NYC

Shaikh’s Donut Shoppe. Best I had in NYC

Minis at Doughnuttery. Cacao, Chocolate and Mesquite

Minis at Doughnuttery. Cacao, Chocolate and Mesquite

Blackberry ginger crunch from Dough Loco

Blackberry ginger crunch from Dough Loco

Pizza

No NYC list would be complete without a mention of Pizza. Sold by the slice, you can’t walk a block without seeing someone chowing down on one, folded in half because they are so big. I’m not normally a big Pizza fan, but I ate a lot of different pizzas. A lot of the places were super cheap, some selling slices at 99c. Some of the better ones ranged from $3-6 per slice. The base is slim, but not thin, crunchy but still floppy, and it’s heated just enough for the cheese to be melted.

Mama Jo's

Mama Jo’s

Sal's Pizza

Sal’s Pizza

The subway

Riding the NYC subway was such a novelty for me. I’ve seen it on TV so much, and heard so many things, so it almost felt nostalgic to be a part of it. I can confirm that you see some pretty weird things on the subway. Every now and again, if you are lucky, you will get a busker on your train. That’s right – the busker is inside of your carriage! My first experience of this was a lady with a guitar and a baby strapped to her back, rocking out Mumford & Sons in between stops. I also saw barbershop quartets, homeless people telling elaborate stories, and heard about a group of acrobatic kids who do flips and tricks on the hand rails in between longer stops.

Subway busker rockin' Mumford and Sons

Subway busker rockin’ Mumford and Sons

At first I was a little confused, you have to be on the right side of the track, depending on whether you are going to Uptown or Downtown, I had no idea what this meant when I got off the plane, but my guess was correct. I also find the subways mixed with the numbered streets very disorientating. It’s tricky to figure out which way to go when you pop up on the street, so I generally find myself walking a full block to discover I’ve gone the wrong way. Perhaps I’m just no good at navigating. It’s quite funny listening to different people give subway directions. Everyone has a different idea of how to get somewhere, as there are a whole lot of different options that criss-cross each other.

Where I spent a lot of my time in NYC

Where I spent a lot of my time in NYC

The city doesn’t sleep. Basically ever.

No matter what time of night there is always something open, always something going on. In Manhattan, most places are open seemingly 24 hours. I went to a restaurant at 1am on a Thursday morning, and the place was packed, showing no signs that they would be closing soon. I’m not really into nightlife, but I hear it’s unlimited. I did find an amazing Jazz bar though, the best bar I’ve ever been to. They always have a Jazz band playing, couches, tables with chess, checkers, cards and scrabble, pool tables, shuffle board tables, and then the outside was lined with ping pong tables. I went there twice on non-weekend nights, and it was packed all night. I think what I liked about it so much was that it wasn’t just a big room for people to get drunk in (like basically every bar in NZ), it was just a great place for people to come and hang out and have fun.

Fat Cat

Fat Cat

Architecture

Wherever you are, especially in Manhattan, you can just walk around staring at the buildings. They are really something else, with a lot of variation. Beautiful stone churches pop up throughout the city, as well as the rows and rows of apartment buildings with the intricate criss cross of bars on the doors and windows. Even the project brick housing looks nice, certainly a step up from Newtown Flats!

Exploring around Central Park

Exploring around Central Park

Flatiron building. Looks cool at all angles

Flatiron building. Looks cool at all angles

Generic Tourist Trail

There are a few things that when you are in NYC, you just kind of have to do. Like walking across the Brooklyn Bridge and seeing the City Scape. I went up the Rockefeller Centre rather than the Empire State building, as I heard that there were no queues. Even on a cloudy day, it was a pretty impressive view. Oh, and Times Square, of course. Times Square is hilarious. You can go there at 2am and you would think that it’s the middle of the day, the lights are that bright.

The lights, the people!

The lights, the people!

On the Brooklyn Bridge. A great view of the City Scape

On the Brooklyn Bridge. A great view of the City Scape

Top of the Rockefeller Centre at night

Top of the Rockefeller Centre at night

Grand Central Station was also very nice, although 90% of the people there were tourists.

Grand Central Station

Grand Central Station

Anything else?

The hustle bustle of the big city was starting to annoy me. When you’re walking down the street and the 5th person in the last minute bumps into you, despite their apologies, you just start to get really sick of it. I feel like people in the big city have no spatial awareness, slash, they only really care about themselves and what they’re doing. This is obviously a generalisation, but, it’ll be nice to go somewhere where I don’t have to dodge the umbrellas for fear of losing an eye.

I found a great coffee shop. Owned by Kiwis, all of the baristas were trained in the art of the Flat White and Long Black. I stayed a few hours here and had my first good coffee in a wee while. I also got to exclaim the classic line of, “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!” When a car tried to cut me off as I was crossing the street.

Oh yeah, it was also super cold. Some days it got down to -3 degrees! Unlike Sapa in Vietnam, I was prepared this time and had plenty of warm gear. As I sit here writing this post on the train to Philadelphia, it’s just beginning to snow. It feels a little magical, like New York is saying goodbye. It’s been a great stay, and I hope I’ll be back one day. Next up, Philadelphia and Washington, DC.

Apple pie with a slice of cheese is actually wonderful

Apple pie with a slice of cheese is actually wonderful

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Vietnam. Why the fuss?

Mention Halong Bay or Banh Mi to anybody who’s been to Vietnam and watch their eyes glaze over for a few seconds. It’s a magical country, filled with great food, wonderful people and beautiful landscapes; enough to leave anyone who has been with a warm heart and fond memories. I had the pleasure of gracing its shores through Christmas and January this year, and this post is a small summary of the things I came to appreciate about Vietnam. I’ve tried to keep this short, just be glad you didn’t have to sit through the 1,500 photo marathon that some of my family was put through.

Street food

Street food is a cornerstone of Vietnamese culture, there’s something very humbling about sitting on the side of the road on kindergarten sized plastic chairs eating amongst the locals. Vendors magically come and go depending on the time of day, so the same spot two hours apart will often sell a different delight. Oh yeah, and it’s cheap. So cheap. I mean seriously, you’re only going to charge me a dollar for this freshly baked baguette filled with meat and chilli, and fifty cents for a coffee?

6am Banh Mi and ca phe

6am Banh Mi and ca phe

People are often pretty reluctant when it comes to street food in Asia. It’s dirty, it’s unhygienic and the meat has been sitting in the sun all day. Yeah, I was a bit wary at first too. I went in with the mindset of, “Yes, this might give me food poisoning, but hopefully it will be worth it.” I ate off the street every day, and guess what? I didn’t get food poisoning even once. There are a couple of pretty basic rules that you can follow.

  1. The dirtier the better. This one sounds counter-intuitive but, quite simply, the dirtier a food stall is, the longer it has been in business.
  2. If you’re genuinely worried, go for food that has to be cooked in front of you. Like BBQ.
  3. Make sure the soup pot is boiling.

My favourite place for food by far was Ho Chi Minh City, still known as Saigon to many locals. The southern style food is really all on display here, simple but strong flavours,  huge variety, and everything super fresh. I spent a lot of my time here just walking around eating, Snail Street was a highlight.

Sticky rice with a gooey coconut center, wrapped in banana leaves and BBQd

Sticky rice with a gooey coconut center, wrapped in banana leaves and BBQd

Saigon's infamous Snail Street

Saigon’s infamous Snail Street

BBQ

Rats, frogs and snakes in the Mekong Delta

Approach to life

I felt like the Vietnamese approach to life was very much a ‘get it done’ and ‘what doesn’t kill you’ sort of mentality. It was very refreshing to see the lack of over the top boundaries that are imposed by Western Civilisation, whether it be through law or through social norms and expectations.

  • There didn’t appear to be any sort of hygiene standards at the places I was eating, yet I wasn’t getting sick.
  • I saw a man on a moped stick out his leg to push a trailer, because who really needs a car?
  • On a tour through the Mekong Delta, one of my guides grabbed a sack from behind a house and pulled out a large snake, he draped it over someones neck and then disappeared for 15 minutes while a group of us just passed it around.

Snake Oh yeah, and I guess we all know that you can transport literally anything on a moto, right? P1070698 P1060754

The people

From what I could tell, life in Vietnam is pretty hard. Most people work 7 days a week, and often go for months at a time before having any days off. Many of the locals I met were working two jobs. Although they don’t have a lot of money, they genuinely seem to be happy in their lives. Most people were very friendly toward me, striking up conversations in the street, offering me directions or advice on where to eat; sometimes even ‘treating’ me to a meal themselves. My friend Marcus calls this the “white man superstar” effect. I can see where he’s coming from; I am white, with a ginger beard and a metal leg, walking through their local eateries and markets. I guess it must be kind of exciting.

Christmas day in Saigon

Christmas day in Saigon

Easy riders in Nha Trang

Easy riders in Nha Trang

My friend Quang at Fansipan Hotel in Sapa

My friend Quang at Fansipan Hotel in Sapa

The sights

Drifting through the mangroves of the Mekong Delta felt like being in a dream. There were no sounds but the birds chirping in stereo, and the slow paddle grazing the water every few seconds. Nobody spoke, and nobody breathed, it was a completely surreal experience; it was the kind of experience that makes you contemplate life. Sapa was similar: quiet, pondering and back to basics. I wasn’t visiting at quite the right time of year, but still found it stunning all the same. I could write an entire post on Sapa alone.

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Rice paddies, Sapa

Halong Bay is a big ticket item, being a UNESCO heritage site. It is home to around 1,600 islands made of limestone, which you can spend a number of days sailing around. My experience of this was pretty touristy, on an overnight cruise boat with 20 other people, but still wonderful none the less. The fog cleared during the evening and there were some stunning views to be had.

Halong Bay

The coffee

Coffee easily gets a mention here. Strong drip coffee, iced or hot. I definitely came back addicted to condensed milk. You can also find it everywhere, there are cafes all over the place. In the south, people drink coffee like water. I was lucky enough to chance upon egg coffee in Hanoi, egg whites are mixed into the condensed milk, giving a taste somewhat like tiramisu.

Ca phe production line

Ca phe production line

Ca phe trung (egg coffee)

Ca phe trung (egg coffee)

Wet markets

Wet markets are like farmer markets on steroids. Early each morning the freshest produce is trucked in from the nearby farms. Hundreds of different types of fruits and vegetables are on display, as well as meat being freshly cut to order. Fish, snails, and frogs (mostly live) are also kept in buckets around the place. At first it’s a bit of a shock, a strong stench of rotten food greets your nostrils as you enter, and it’s just such a different experience to anything you might see back home. Locals ride around on mopeds and stop at their desired stall to haggle pricing, they never even get off the moped. Wet market

I didn't even know this many types of rice existed

I didn’t even know this many types of rice existed

If you’ve read this far, just know that it took my entire quota of will power for today not to add 300 extra photos and write a novel. To date, Vietnam is the most interesting place I’ve visited and this post gives only a taste of what it has to offer.  I’m really looking forward to going back one day.

You are what you eat

Addiction is something that every single person I know suffers from. But I’m not talking about drugs or alcohol, I’m talking about food. When was the last time you met someone that was 100% happy with what they ate? A few Paleo/Vegan extremists exist, sure, but for the majority of us, bad eating is just a way of life. In 2012 I weighed 76kg, not a huge number but certainly overweight for someone of my stature. I now average around 60kg (depending on which leg I’m wearing), so I thought I’d share some thoughts on weight loss and healthy eating.

People often ask me how to lose weight, or what kind of foods I eat that keep me so trim. Put simply, I don’t eat a shit tonne of carbohydrates. I don’t drink sugar drinks, or consume alcohol. I’ve swapped potatoes for pumpkin, rice for broccoli and bread for vegetables. In actual fact, I probably eat more food than I once did, but it’s the right food. I wasn’t however able to make these changes overnight, it was a gradual process where I incrementally removed bad things from my diet. Sugar and alcohol were the first to go – easy, who actually needs those? I then switched to eating kumara, brown rice and whole grains; these are known as complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates stick around in your system and keep you full for longer. As a general rule of thumb, any brown carbohydrate will be considered complex.

Orange kumara is delicious, it’s also freakishly expensive. One night I found myself with no kumara to cook, and instead I replaced it with a head of broccoli and extra carrots. It wasn’t until this meal that I realised that my body functioned fine without these traditional staple foods I’d been brought up to expect with every meal. It was around this time that the Low Carb High Fat (LCHF) type diets were fadding, and a guy at my work was losing 2kg per week eating as much food as he wanted. The idea is that the traditional source of energy (carbs) are replaced with fat, the concept of this interested me greatly. I, like the rest of the world, had been led to believe that fat was bad, it made you fat and caused heart disease. Well, fat in-fact does not make you fat. I now regularly use butter for everything, have a high intake of nuts, and devour roasted chicken skin whenever I get the chance.

Occasionally I go cold turkey on caffeine for 21 days, to prove to myself that I’m mentally strong enough to stop consuming it if I choose to. The first week of this involves headaches, restlessness and a dry throat. This is the exact same response I get if I go for 2-3 days with no carbs, my body is totally addicted. This is the biggest problem I see when people try to give up bad foods. They don’t realise that they’re dealing with an actual addiction, and try to go cold turkey. This is generally combined with an attempt to attend the gym 5 days per week. In my experience most people give up after two days, they miss that can of coke, or that hearty subway sandwich just a little bit too much. In this situation, less really is more. In the same way that 4 minutes of exercise per day is worthwhile, making one of many small changes to your diet can have a huge impact on your health and well being. Here are some examples of individual changes that have a huge impact:

  • Lower your portion sizes. Most people eat far more food than they actually need.
  • Snack on nuts. Nuts contain protein and healthy fats, and a couple of handfuls can easily get you through an afternoon.
  • Whatever you are currently eating for breakfast, switch it for eggs or meat.
  • Drop dessert.
  • Drink more water.
  • Opt for brown carbs (complex) over white.
  • Get to a farmers market. Vegetables are actually super affordable.
  • Read labels! People mock me for this, but seriously, you’d be surprised at what you are actually eating.

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Roasted Hazelnuts taste just as good as Nutella!

Roasted Hazelnuts taste just as good as Nutella!

I would say that two thirds of weight loss is attributed to a healthy diet, the final third being exercise. I’m not that into cardio, so my prefered form is lifting weights. I workout about 3 times per week, and that is enough. By manipulating the variables you can certainly lose weight with diet or exercise alone, but the two thirds approach feels like a nice balance to me. Besides the many health benefits, regular exercise feels good and provides a fantastic mental release from your work day.

So let’s recap. No potatoes, bread, rice, sugar or alcohol. Smaller meals, good snacks and read labels. Cool, lucky we’re all robots. In reality I don’t actually adhere to all of this advice. Fish and chips is still my favourite meal (consumed weekly), I also regularly eat chocolate, noodle soup and chicken rice. Do I consider myself a hypocrite? No, I’m a human being. I believe it’s about finding a good balance, and enjoying all the things that you want to in life. I tend to eat around one meal a day that has a decent sized carbohydrate component, this keeps my energy levels up without making me feel too lethargic. I also genuinely love to eat vegetables, enjoy drinking water, and get off on working out, which helps a lot.

Ultimately the best thing you can do is commit to some sort of lifestyle change with the purpose of making you feel good. All I do now is listen to my body and give it the fuel that it needs to perform the tasks I set it, the rest just takes care of itself.

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