Top 10 Experiences in Kenya

I’ve spent the last three months as a fellow at Energy Access Ventures (a Nairobi-based Venture Capital fund). This was my first experience living on the African continent, and I must say that my time in Nairobi tops my list as one of the most fun places to be! I will forever cherish the many amazing memories and friends that were made in Kenya – I already miss you all!

Below, I share my top 10 experiences living in Nairobi. Enjoy!

#10: My morning commute (Nairobi traffic is not to be missed – or escaped)!

Nairobi Morning Commute

#9: My morning (6am) Muay Thai training sessions!

Nairobi Kickboxing with Eddie

#8: Experiencing the beautiful wilderness and wildlife! I loved it as much as the animals did!

#7: Friday nights at The Alchemist, by far my favourite nightlife destination in the city!


#6: Saturday morning brunch at River Cafe in Karura Forest – after a long run.

Brunch at Karura Forest

#5: Visiting (and jumping off) Victoria Falls (OK, this one is from Zimbabwe – but still makes it on this list!)

#4: Working with an absolutely fantastic group of people  who are hard-working and motivated to improve the lives of millions of Africans!

EAV Fellows

#3: Having INSEAD friends over to visit (just as I was about to suffer from INSEAD withdrawal…)

#2: One of the most magical nights! An incredible dinner at Ali Barbour’s Restaurant to celebrate Fatim’s birthday in Diani Beach, followed by dancing on a beach until the early hours of the morning.

#1: Getting called up on stage and dancing with the lead singers of Nairobi’s own Sauti Sol – one of Africa’s most beloved bands!


The INSEAD MBA Experience Arrives in Abu Dhabi!

INSEAD MBA students listen to a presentation by Mr. Mazen Hayek, Official Spokesman for the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation, about how the network became the largest pan-Arab media company in the Middle East and North Africa.

After 10 days of travelling through the relative wilderness of East Africa, my Etihad flight made a smooth landing at Abu Dhabi’s International Airport. My journey to a brand new continent had just ended, but another, entirely different adventure was about to begin. Aside from the sprawling lights from buildings and cars, I was greeted by a vast number of tower cranes erecting the new terminal expansion of the Abu Dhabi Airport – probably three times the number used to construct the new Vikings stadium in Minneapolis. When travelling through Abu Dhabi and Dubai, it is truly astonishing to see how fast the cities have developed. After all, this was a land of desert, bedouins, and simple fishermen just 50 years ago.

After stepping into the Grand Millennium Al Wahda hotel, I began meeting my fellow INSEAD classmates, some of whom I came to know on the Fontainebleau campus in France, and others from Singapore, who I met for the first time. Out of a group of just 44 students forming the pioneering class of INSEAD’s first 2-month residential MBA exchange in Abu Dhabi, a total of 30 nationalities are represented. Students arrived from all corners of the earth following a month-long recess for Christmas holidays, eager to begin their studies in an entirely different context and environment than before.

At first glance, Abu Dhabi is a city of simple architecture and urban design compared to neighbouring Dubai. The entire island of Abu Dhabi is arranged into neat blocks with large avenues that accommodate roughly 12 lanes of traffic. The buildings are all quite similar, and with few exceptions do not exceed 20 stories. INSEAD’s home for the past 10 years has been a modest office building around the corner from the Al Wahda mall. While rather simple from the outside, the interior has been transformed into a state-of-the art facility that caters mostly to executive education. There’s a small library, a restaurant, an open floor for seminars, three lecture halls, multiple break-out rooms, and offices for the school’s faculty and staff.

This period, our classes include “Doing Business in the Middle East” (DBiME), “Live Action Learning Project (LLP)”, “Negotiations”, “International Political Analysis (IPA)”, and “Macroeconomics”. DBiME is lead by INSEAD Professor Neil Jones, who has arranged for us to visit a variety of businesses across the region and attending various seminars and panels. To date, we have visited Mubadala, Masdar, Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC), Bain,Unilever, and look forward to more visits in the future. We will also prepare research posters on prevalent business themes in the region, which will be presented at INSEAD’s Middle East Talent Networking Forum on February 28 in Dubai. LLP has students working in teams of five on a variety of consulting engagements with local companies including Google, The Crown Prince Court of Abu Dhabi, Arthur D. Little, E&Y, and Deloitte. Our Negotiations course is INSEAD’s most sought after elective and will be taught by Professor Horacio Falcao, one of INSEAD’s most famous professors and author of the book Value Negotiation: How to Finally Get the Win-Win Right. IPA and Macroeconomics are the last of our core courses, taught by visiting professors from NYU Abu Dhabi: ProfessorJeffrey Timmons and Professor Jean Imbs, respectively.

IMG_1902 (1)
INSEAD MBA students enjoying a hike in the beautiful Hajar Mountains near Ras Al-Khaimah.

Aside from a busy schedule of classes and company visits, we have had many opportunities to explore the region. Some of the more memorable experiences include a hearty meal of fresh seafood at the Abu Dhabi fish market, ripping across sand dunes in a Landcruiser and trying sand boarding for the first time, a day of relaxation on the beaches of Abu Dhabi’s Lulu Island, sipping Moroccan tea and conversing late into the night in Dubai’s old city on the banks of the Dubai creek, waking up at 5 :30am to ascend the Burj Khalifa and watch the sun rise, and a day-long hike in the Hajar Mountains near Ras Al-Khaimah.

In just 5 short months, I have completed 14 courses, met hundreds of fellow classmates, visited dozens of companies, startups, and alumni, and travelled to 12 different countries spanning 4 continents. I am truly grateful for the opportunities I have been provided thus far to grow as a future business leader and look forward to my remaining time at INSEAD and the many journeys and adventures that will surely unfold.

MBA students in Abu Dhabi celebrate INSEAD’s ascent to the top spot of the 2016 Financial Times’ Global MBA Ranking.

You may follow the journey of INSEAD MBA students in Abu Dhabi on social media by following #P3inAD!

One of my favourite places…

I find myself once again apologizing for the lack of updated content on Well, the one thing I can assure you is that I will never post something on my blog if it doesn’t deserve to be shared.

As the summer is winding down.. at least for us Canadians, here’s a video I put together for a trip that never happened. (Wow, this sentence came out far more melancholic than I anticipated)

In any case, I will share it here in the hopes that it may inspire some of you who watch it to visit one of my favourite places on earth…

Questions? Planning a trip? Ask away.. my advice is free (for now)!

Life in a Small Town

Tumbler Ridge Panorama
A panoramic view of downtown Tumbler Ridge.

I know, I’ve been negligent in updating this blog! I can’t believe it’s been so long since my last post, and frankly, I’m a little embarrassed… But, let me try to explain.

For the past 9 months, I’ve resided in the small “frontier” town of Tumbler Ridge. Nestled in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies in the Murray River valley, Tumbler Ridge is like many small towns in Canada. It is quiet and peaceful, surrounded by mostly untouched wilderness (if you discount the coal mines, the occasional cleared area, and natural gas pipelines). Settled in 1981, Tumbler Ridge was a town built by coal companies to house a thousand (mostly single male) workers in a man camp, which eventually attracted a curious number of female hairdressers. Tumbler Ridge has since grown to become a respectable town complete with a quaint town hall, a golf course, and its own music festival. Every morning, workers donned in high-visibility clothing and carrying their lunch boxes gather at street intersections as they await the white bus that will take them to work in the coal mines. The town’s one and only tavern is also fondly named “The Coal Bin” and is located around the backside of the Tumbler Ridge Inn. Instead of a historical figure mounted on his trusted steed, you will find a large bucket from a coal excavator taking centre stage in the park across from the Town Hall.

Like many small frontier towns, Tumbler Ridge rides with the ever-fluctuating prices of natural resources. In late 2008, when over-inflated coal prices plummeted, mines closed down, workers were laid off, and the town stood nearly abandoned. In 2010, when coal prices recovered, mines re-opened and new mines were founded. It was also at this time that the Quality Wind Project commenced, bringing a diverse mix of workers from all over North America to a town that was suddenly struggling with lodging. In just a few short months, the town’s population doubled and every hotel was at maximum capacity. Houses, which previously sold for under $20,000 a few months earlier, were suddenly valued at over $300,000 as coal companies fought to find rooms for their employees.

While the town is endowed with the basic amenities one needs to survive, prices are inflated almost everywhere. The nearest town with a No Frills, Walmart, and Tim Hortons is Dawson Creek (approximately 140km away), famous for it’s “Mile Zero” monument for the Alaska Highway, where thousands of prospectors once passed through on their journey to their great gold-mining Meccas of Alaska and the Yukon. Grande Prairie, a booming town of 50,000 is located just across the BC/Alberta border directly east of Tumbler Ridge and is about a two-hour drive away (that is, if you are adventurous enough to navigate Northern BC’s network of unpaved resource roads). Located at the Western reach of the Oil Sands, it is truly the place to stock up on supplies and enjoy the finer comforts of modern society. At some of Grande Prairie’s many fine establishments, such as Starbucks, Costco and The Keg, the parking lots are packed with more Dodge Rams and Ford F150s than you will find at your neighbourhood dealer.

So what did I learn from my experience in Tumbler Ridge? First off, living in a small town constitutes that you plan ahead. When I flew into Grande Prairie after some days off work, I would immediately head to Costco where I would stock up on all the supplies I needed for the next month. When work is crazy, there is simply no time to afford a four-hour drive to pick up supplies. And if I do have a day off, the least thing I want to do is spend half my day driving just to buy groceries. While the majority of my time spent in Tumbler Ridge was during the spring, summer, and fall seasons, there were enough freak snowstorms to teach me that you can never take the weather for granted. A sudden squall can immobilize you in Tumbler Ridge for a day or more, as the only two paved roads out of town can take as many as 2 or 3 days to be fully ploughed. And if you do manage to slide and skid your way into Grande Prairie, you might just find that your flight home was cancelled. Already this fall, we have had two significant snowfalls and it’s only mid-October.

Bergeron Cliffs
A well-deserved view after climbing to the top of the Bergeron Cliffs.

It took me some time to get over the fact that I’ve been spoiled by a modern society for nearly my entire life, but once I accepted my fate, something curious happened. I suddenly enjoyed my 20-minute drive to work every morning in my Dodge Power Wagon as I beheld the views of mountains and wildlife in the early morning light. I embraced the proximity to nature and spent my free time bushwacking (exploring new roads and happening on unexpected surprises like a mother doe teaching her newborns to walk, or finding a spectacular vista). There are also a plethora of waterfalls to discover and riverbanks to wander. The local golf course, just a 2-minute drive from my house offers a bucket of balls at the driving range for $4, and an impressive community centre offers everything from an arena to an aquatics centre. I also capitalized on living in British Columbia by exploring Southern Alaska and the Canadian Rockies on two separate occasions. Skiing at Powder King, BC’s best kept secret, was truly a treat as you are guaranteed to find fresh powder there from early November until late April. With just four hours of darkness in the summer, many nights were spent around a campfire enjoying some cool brews, and the summer highlight was a terrific day spent heli-fishing at an otherwise inaccessible lake in the mountains.

My catch at Hook Lake
A fresh catch of Bull Trout at Hook Lake in Northern British Columbia! (Photo credit: Antonio Baldovino)

The most gratifying moments of my whole stay in Tumbler Ridge, however, were spent with the people of Tumbler Ridge, who were both welcoming and accepting. I’ll never forget my first weekend in Tumbler Ridge, which happened to be Easter. While most everyone from work managed to fly home to be with their families, I stayed, having just arrived in town. What I thought would be a morose and lonely weekend, became one that I now cherish the most. Ray and Josh, an amazing couple that truly embraced living in Tumbler Ridge, hooked me up with some avid powder seekers who were going skiing the following day. So, not knowing anyone in town, I immediately befriended Mark and James, two Brits who found a new home in the mountains of BC, and we were off to Powder King. On Sunday, Ray and Josh invited me to Easter dinner with their family, and I was simply blown away by their kindness after just meeting me a week prior. This good nature is shared by others in town as well! In fact, it was just last weekend that another family, whom I’d met at church, invited me to their Thanksgiving family dinner.

In a small town, everyone plays an especially important role in the continued success of the community. From the diligent workers at the post office that receive truckloads of mail-order goods every day to the local newspaper editor who patiently listens to each excited resident that rushes into his office and divulges the latest breaking news story. No matter someone’s place in society, they are happy with who they are and where they live because it takes someone with a deep love of their surroundings to weather blizzards, extreme cold, and long drives into town.

Certainly, the most important lesson from Tumbler Ridge is that small gestures make all the difference, because when you’re in a remote town, nothing is ever taken for granted. The community spirit in Tumbler Ridge was often surprising and refreshing. I saw people rush to help in the aftermath of a potentially fatal car accident. I saw strangers help a struggling old man lift his new mattress from the Sears Catalogue Order Store onto his car and tie it down. More so than simply good spirit and kindness, residents of Tumbler Ridge realize that if something serious were to happen, they must help themselves. When a heli-logging chopper had engine trouble and started a wildfire in a field, it took the local fire department over half an hour to respond with nought but a pickup truck. It was a water truck from our construction site that extinguished the blaze. This is in no way a poor reflection on public authorities, it is simply a fact that small towns have limited resources and they do the best they can with what they can afford. As a team at the Quality Wind Project, many individuals brought forth initiatives to help the local community, and the response was always immediate and overwhelming. We raised money to replace the gymnasium floor of the local high school, we raised over $10,000 to help a family who’s son is diagnosed with terminal cancer, we collected enough food for the local food bank to fill an enclosed trailer, and we helped a local church repair an overhead door that was left broken and unused for over 3 years.

Leaving Tumbler Ridge is a little bittersweet for me. While I am excited to move on to my next project and spend time at home with my family, I had just started to feel like a member of the Tumbler Ridge community. I will always remember those who welcomed me in this town, and surely hope to visit again in the future!

Are you from a small town? What’s your story? Feel free to comment below and share your thoughts (p.s. you can now login using Facebook!).

A Proper Visit to London

Exploring the lanes in Brighton upon my arrival in the UK.

It’s amazing that the entire year I spent in Spain, I only travelled to London once, and it was just a quick weekend visit of 24 hours. When I left Spain, I vowed to return to London and truly enjoy all the city has to offer. Last week, the opportunity presented itself: I had some time off from work and found a flight with Air Transat for just $620. Three days later I was boarding a plane to the Royal City.

My friend Alan, who is currently studying Pharmacy at the University of Brighton graciously offered me a place to stay, and so it was Brighton, on the southern coast of England, that was my first stop. I quickly discovered how easy to use and efficient the rail service in the UK is. Gatwick Airport is very well-connected to the rest of the country with frequent train service to both London and Brighton.

Travel Tips: I would highly recommend taking the train over other modes of transport because of its reliability, frequency, and price. In fact, if you plan your trips in advance and book online, you can benefit from incredible discounted fares. I traveled twice on the London-Brighton route for just £5 ($8) each way by booking just a few days in advance, whereas a regular ticket can cost as much as £20 ($32) each way. Discounted travel passes for local bus services at the origin and destination cities can also be added to your train ticket, and offers 2-for-1 specials to practically every London attraction if you travel by train.Visit for online bookings!
Enjoying the beaches of Brighton!

I spent the better part of my first day exploring The City of  Brighton. Overall, it really exceeded my expectations, and was glad I visited. Brighton is a coastal town, and has a long pebble beach spanning the city shore. One of the main attractions is the Brighton Pier: a classic amusement park built on a giant platform over the sea. Another oddity is the Royal Pavilion, due to its unusual architecture, which to me, resembles a futuristic lunar base conceived at some point in the 1950s.

Brighton is also well-known for its seafood, which is great if you’re craving a good fish & chips. The more you travel, the more you will develop a sixth sense, which enables you to recognize good, local restaurants and bars and avoid pricey and inferior tourist traps. It also never hurts to ask a local for a recommendation, and they’re usually more than happy to offer a suggestion. When asking for a good seafood restaurant a number of people suggested one called “The Regency”, which is located on the seafront road about where the ruins of the old Brighton Pier stand. We ordered Fish & Chips and were extremely satisfied. The restaurant also offers a great variety of seafood options including swordfish and shellfish.

The next day, we headed off to London, which still today remains the culturally rich and industrially advanced city it has always been. On our first day, we saw the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, and explored the districts of Westminster, Soho, and Covent Garden. While rather touristic, Soho and Covent Garden remain a great place to eat and drink if you’re in central London. Whether you fancy pub grub, Indian, Chinese, Italian, or British cuisine, you’ll find it here. The main reason this area is so popular for dining and drinking can be attributed to the vast number of theaters in these regions. One disappointment is that many London pubs are now being bought and managed by a number of chains. While each pub retains its character, the menus are the same at almost every pub! Despite this change, however, the quality of pub food has certainly not diminished, and is far superior than any pub you will encounter in North America.

The parliament buildings at Westminster.

We capped the night off with a ride on the London Eye, which is rather pricey (£18.60 per person, although we used a 2-for-1 coupon along with our rail ticket). In general, most London attractions are quite expensive, and the London Eye is no exception. Is it worth it? Well, if you have to do it once, the Eye will give you a stellar view of London which can only be matched by mounting St. Paul’s dome. The Eye, however, does offer you the best view of Westminster, which is equally stunning during the day as it is at night. If you can time your visit to coincide with sunset, you’ll be able to see a remarkable transformation as the city lights up; it is also the most romantic time to take a ride, if you don’t mind the other 20 people who you’re sharing a “pod” with.

The next day, we had a great breakfast at “Flat White”, a cozy little café in Soho on Berwick St. They serve a good cup of coffee and pastries as well as poached eggs. We then took a Thames river cruise from Westminster all the way to Greenwich. It was a worthwhile experience, and the tour guide pointed out many points of interest that I would certainly not have picked up on by myself. The river cruise also offers you a chance to see the transformation of London’s docklands from one of the worlds largest industrial hubs to a chique residential area. Many of the river-front accommodations now sell for millions of pounds. You’ll also get to see Canary Wharf, which is to London as “La Defense” is to Paris or “Pudong” is to Shanghai: essentially a newer second downtown area with many high-rise buildings inhabited by the world’s largest international corporations. Once you arrive in Greenwich, you can visit the Royal Naval Museum and the Royal Observatory. I didn’t actually venture into either of these attractions, but instead visited the Prime Meridian, which is marked just outside the observatory.

Rushing to catch a train to Hogwarts at Kings Cross Station.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the Tower of London, which is full of history and intrigue. Serving as the royal monarchy’s stronghold and refuge time and time again, it is practically a walled city with a number of towers where a great number of traitors lost their heads, heirs to the throne mysteriously disappeared, and the Queen keeps a nice collection of jewels and crowns. For dinner, we headed to Finsbury Park to meet up with my cousin Robert. On the way, we stopped at King’s Cross Station to try to find Platform 9 and 3/4. After a bit of searching, I managed to find it, and even tried my luck at taking a sprint towards the wall whilst pushing a trolley!Just outside of central London, Finsbury Park is a nice reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the city. There are a number of good restaurants in this area, most notably a Turkish restaurant called Gokyuzu, which is where we dined, and where I can say I had the best Turkish food of my life. I was also told by my cousin that this restaurant is on par with the best restaurants in Istanbul (as he has been there and can attest to this).

To start off the next day on a good note, I headed to the Nespresso Boutique in Knightsbridge for my customary purchase of coffee (which is roughly half the price in Europe than it is in Canada) and to enjoy a complimentary espresso. I then went for breakfast in Convent Garden at Monmouth Coffee, now my favourite café in London! The coffee is amazing, and there are bowls of ground cane sugar on each table which give it a rich nutty flavour that is not as sweet as traditional white sugar. After visiting the incredibly large flagship Apple Store in Convent Garden I took a stroll through Hyde Park and visited the Princess Diana memorial fountain. I continued on to Paddington Station where I boarded a train bound for Windsor Castle. I’ve visited a few castles in Europe, and Windsor was quite impressive! On a good day, you can tour both St. George’s Chapel, where you can see the banners of the Garter Knights (a tradition dating back to Sir Arthur and the knights of the round table), as well as the State Rooms, where your jaw will drop a little further with each successive room that you visit. What makes the castle all the more interesting is the fact that it is still in active use by the royal family, and houses approximately 150 staff in service to the Queen.

A view of the Occupy London protests, like many of its kind all around the world.

On my final day in London, I had breakfast in Islington, a rather nice area of the city that is a little off the beaten-track. We found a cool place for breakfast called “The Breakfast Club”, which serves great coffee, a delicious “Full Monty” fry-up, and fresh orange juice by the pitcher. In this area, you can also explore London’s vast network of canals and locks which are great for a Sunday stroll. I then hopped on a double-decker bus, which took me to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where I was faced with a truly bizarre sight! Just like many other major cities in the world, there was a shanty town of tents and youth who are occupying spaces in downtown areas to peacefully protest Capitalism and to attempt to rebuild our society. To me, it just looks like an excuse to camp out and party rather than actually accomplish anything tangible. St. Paul’s Cathedral is quite impressive and is quite central to the Church of England. It’s dome is visible from almost anywhere in the city, and is in fact, Europe’s second-largest unsupported dome after St. Peter’s in the Vatican. In the crypt, you can find many tombs of famous Britons, including Admiral Lord Nelson, honored for his victory against the franco-spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. You can also climb up to the top of the dome, where you can get an awesome 360-degree view of London from a height of around 350 feet. After crossing the Thames on the infamous Millennium Bridge, I allowed myself to be baffled by the many oddities of Tate Gallery of Modern Art.

All-in-all, it was a very enjoyable visit, and I’m glad I had a few days to look around the city. It is such a rich city, that even a week would not be enough to truly enjoy all that London has to offer. Check out my full slide show below!

Malta launches a new public transit system

Arriva Malta
A new bus, operated by Arriva Malta boards passengers at the new terminal in Valletta (Originally published by the Times of Malta).

While Malta was famous for its old fleet of yellow-and-orange buses servicing the public transport needs of the entire island by operating out of a central node in Malta’s capital city, I wholeheartedly welcomed the announcement of a new system with a modern fleet of buses. Nostalgia aside, Malta’s old buses were in need of replacement; they had no air conditioning, were heavy polluters, and were independently owned and operated by their drivers. Many Maltese would cringe at the thought of riding one of the old buses during the hot summer months when the buses were stuffed with sweaty passengers, let alone driving behind one of the dilapitated buses as they would expel a rather deadly concoction of fumes and smoke as they lumbered up a hill.

Malta’s new transit system was delivered in collaboration with Transport Malta, the local infrastructure planning and maintenance body, along with Arriva, a British public transit operator that runs public transit systems across Europe, which has recently been acquired by DeutschBahn (DB).

Malta was very well informed leading up to the launch of Arriva Malta’s service on July 3, 2011, and the general public was hopeful of new changes, better service, and air conditioned buses, however the actual turn of events no doubt sent a chill up the spines of upper management and became the largest front-page news item for the subsequent three weeks.

A classic Maltese bus (xarabank).

At 5:15am on July 3, 2011, Arriva Malta’s first buses were scheduled to roll out of Arriva’s bus yard, however that was made difficult by the fact that approximately 180 bus drivers, most of whom were drivers from the previous system, did not show up for work. It was touted as an act of sabotage by Malta’s former bus drivers who were unhappy with their new working conditions, and on Arriva’s first day of service, it instigated a complete disaster. Hundreds of unhappy passengers were seen stranded at bus stops and under the strong Maltese sun, tempers flew as passengers fought their way onto the reduced fleet of operational buses. The second day of service was no different from the first as around 60 bus  drivers still refused to show up for work, however Arriva was able to leverage their size by importing over 100 bus drivers from the UK to take over and get their buses on the road. For the drivers that did show up to work, they still managed to help sabotage the system by making unauthorized breaks mid-route, and even going out of service and parking their buses at home when they were supposed to be on duty.

When I arrived on the island on July 9, the buses were out, but not without problems:

  • Operating frequencies were not consistent, and buses operating on the same route were bunching up, to the point where I once saw seven buses servicing the same route running one after the other.
  • Bus capacity was not sufficient on most bus routes. It was quite often that buses would begin skipping stops as they were full of passengers, often stranding passengers for over an hour.
  • Some mainline bus routes are too long and make loops around every village that they pass which make certain routes unnecessarily long.
  • Some routes utilize roads that are simply not feasible for buses, either because of their poor condition or because they’re too narrow to accomodate the turning radius of a bus: this is especially true for some of the smaller villages like Gharghur.

By the time I was leaving, however, the operations had improved significantly. Buses were arriving more regularly, electronic display signs were in use with audio alerts for stops along the route, and revisions had already been made to several of the routes based on passenger feedback and analysis. Another major revision is scheduled for the beginning of September, which will hopefully resolve any major issues before the start of school. While most Maltese still grumble about the change, I am optimistic that the system will serve the island well and will continue to improve as time goes on.

For more updates on Arriva Malta’s service, visit their website.

China: Parting Thoughts

Beijing was the largest city I’ve ever visited with a population around 12.2 million (including the suburban areas which sprawl quite far it is probably as much as 20 million). It was truly fascinating to be there, knowing that it was where many historic events have taken place and where decisions are made today that affect China’s burgeoning populace of over 1.3 billion, which accounts for more than a sixth of our global population. The task to rule a country this large and maintain its unity is certainly no easy task. While it was the Qing dynasty that united China for the first time, it was Chairman Mao who truly unified China and paved the way for the modern development of the country.

As a Canadian, having been raised in a democratic and capitalist society, I was expecting shocking changes. The truth is that, nowadays, the big cities of China really aren’t all that different from the rest of the world. The only noticeable change is that everything is a lot cheaper. On the whole, Beijing is a very clean city, cleaner in fact than most European cities I have visited. Beijing is also a lot safer than most other cities I’ve visited. There was never a moment that I felt threatened, and aside from curious glances from the locals (partly because I’m white, and partly because my companion was a stunningly beautiful chinese girl), I never once felt uncomfortable. This was a pleasant contrast to say, Paris, which was not as clean as Beijing and a place where I often felt uncomfortable and tense due to the incredible racial tension that exists there (see me previous post about this). Aside from not being able to use Facebook and Twitter (which are currently blocked by the Great Firewall of China), I felt right at home.

Also, Chinese food in China is about 10x better than eating it abroad because all the ingredients used are fresh, whereas many restaurants in other places of the world use imported goods that are pumped with preservatives to give them a longer shelf life. It is well worth a visit to Beijing, even if just to experience the food!

I thank the many Chinese friends I made while I was there for their hospitality, and I truly hope to visit again soon!

Beijing in 11 Days

DAY 1: Tianamen Square, Snack Street, Wanfujing

A must see! I recommend eating Roast Duck in the large restaurant Quanjude in Wanfujing, and you really should venture down the snack street to see all the crazy food that is sold there. It’s probably one of the few places where you can see live scorpions squirming on a skewer waiting to be eaten. Other skewered oddities include moth cocoons, centipedes, a whole baby bird, and squid tentacles. I ate everything besides the scorpion and the centipede and lived to write this blog post.

DAY 2: Nanluoguxiang Hutong & Back Lakes

The Nanluiguxiang Hutong, Mandarin for “alley”, was absolutely beautiful! Not only was the streetfront view amazing, with an incredible assortment of boutique gift shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants, but it also provided a glimpse into Beijing’s past. Only a few hutongs remain, as the rest are demolished to make way for more skyscrapers. The back lakes are a pleasant break from the city, and are best enjoyed at night when the lake is lit up in colourful lights by the surrounding bars and restaurants. You can rent bikes to ride around the lake, or you can take a leisurely stroll around the lake stopping for snacks and drinks at the bars along the way!

DAY 3: Forbidden City, Opera, Market Shopping

The Forbidden City was another must see! We went up the mountain on the north side of the Forbidden City to first enjoy the view, and then walked through the city from North to South (most people enter from Tianamen Square and walk the other way). The central axis is quite crowded, but the east and west axes are less travelled and they also have some interesting sights. At the main gate, you can pay extra to climb up the gate for views of Tianamen Square, but the long wait discouraged us from doing so. Definitely stop by the controversial Opera House for some pictures.

DAY 4: Beijing Zoo, Markets, Olympic Park

You can pass on the Beijing Zoo, it wasn’t anything too special. The pandas, which were the main attraction, were quite lazy. Most of them were sleeping, and the one that was sent to the outdoor exhibit circled the perimeter and promptly started pawing at the door to be let back in.

If you’re feeling adventurous, venture into the underground labryinth of shops beside the zoo where, so I’m told, you’ll find the best deals in the city for clothing. I bought a few pairs of shorts for under $10 each, some good leather belts for around $5 each, and 10 surprisingly good “Calvin Klein” briefs for about $30.

The Olympic Park is definitely a must-see! You can take a nice stroll along the “Olmypic Green” and see the Bird’s Nest Stadium and the Water Cube. I didn’t go into any of them, although if you had to choose, the Olympic Stadium would be more fulfilling as the Water Cube simply holds a standard olympic-sized pool.

DAY 5: Lama Temple, Factory 798,  Da Dong Duck, Chaoyang Bar District

The Lama Temple was one of my favourite to visit in China. As you move through the temple you progress through a series of pagados, each of which houses a statue of Budha larger than the one before. When You arrive at the last station, you’re in for an incredible treat! Inside is a 26-metre tall statue of Buddha which has won a world record for being the largest statue of Buddha carved from a single piece of wood.

Factory 798 was a truly refreshing experience! Similar to London’s SOHO district, it is a refurbished industrial area that features some spectacular contemporary art galleries and stores for craft goods. It is also host to a good many cafes, restaurants, and on any given day, there will be future husbands and wives taking their wedding photos there.

The Da Dong Duck chain rivals the roast duck of Quanjude. In my opinion the overall dining experience at Da Dong was superior to that of Quanjude. Not only was it less crowded, but the presentation of the dishes was exquisite, the service was excellent, and it cost roughly the same (around 100 Yuan per person).

After enjoying duck, we headed to the Chaoyang Bar District, which is most popular amongst foreigners and open-minded locals. For not much at all, you can inebriate yourself and bar hop in this area that doesn’t sleep. Once you get the munchies, you can take a seat at a streetside vendor selling a variety of skewers, which are either boiled, fried, or barbecued.

DAY 6: Jinshanling Great Wall

The Great Wall of China is around 8000 km, which protected historic China and its Silk Road trading route from the Mongolians and other barbaric tribes. Close to Beijing, there are a number of nearby access points on which you can hike the wall, after which, according to a common Chinese belief, you become a hero. I’m not sure if that applies to obese tourists who take a cable car to the top, take pictures, and promptly slide down, but each person can certainly become a hero in his or her own rite. While the most popular section of the wall is Badaling, it is so crowded that you won’t really get a chance to enjoy the wall. For a more relaxed experience, go to the Mutianyu section, which is also beautiful, but much less crowded. For the most fulfilling experience, you can venture to a remote section of the “wild wall”. I chose the path less travelled and paid a little extra (about $40 in total) to take a tour to Jinshanling where I hiked about 6 km towards Simatai. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hike all the way to Simatai because they recently closed the last half of the hike for renovations. However, it was still a very fulfilling experience and I was able to enjoy some relief from the crowds in Beijing.

DAY 7: Ghost Street

The Ghost Street is a cool place to visit at night if you’ve got time. Lining the streets are a great many restaurants. Baby Lobster, served by the trayful, are the most popular dish here. Another popular dish is white fish served in a spicy soup, referred to as “Spicy Fish”. As is custom in Beijing, the fish you eat is first brought to your table alive so that you can approve of it, after which it is taken away to be prepared for your meal.

DAY 8: Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven is not a Buddhist temple, but rather, one where the emperor worships the gods for a good harvest. It is an impressive site and definitely worth the visit. Aside from the main temple, you can also visit the Echo Wall, which supposedly lets you have a conversation with someone on the other side, but I wasn’t successful in doing so. Finally, there is another worshiping hill, at the centre of which is a special stone upon which your voice is amplified to allow you to pray to the gods, or so they say.

DAY 9: Day of Rest (Yugang)

After seeing most of Beijing, we needed a day to chill. Luckily for us, cheap DVD stores are rampant in China and for roughly $10 each, we walked home with our own library of movies to watch. Since both of us have been living in a cave for the past 8 months finishing our final year of engineering, there was a lot to catch up on!

DAY 10: Summer Palace

The summer palace was another one of my favourite places to visit! The park is truly spectacular. From the temple on top of the hill, you get an incredible view of Kunming Lake. At the base of the hill you can take a ferry to central island. When the weather permits, you can rent a boat for up to 6 people and explore the lake on your own. Of particular note are the magnificent arch bridges!

DAY 11: Geothermal Spa & Fly to Dalian

On our last day in Beijing, we headed to a local spa, where there are naturally heated pools. Each pool has a giant teabag in it that diffuses into the water. Some are for your skin, some are good for your soul, and others simply smell good. After the spa, I tried my hand at making Chinese Dumplings with Nicole’s family. My first attempt was an utter failure, but I eventually got the hang of it. A filling meal of said dumplings was enjoyed by the whole family along with various other dishes and washed down with homemade rice wine. Full and happy we headed to the airport ready for new adventures waiting for us in Dalian!

Check out my photos here!

First Impressions of China

As a graduation present to ourselves, Nicole and I spent the month of May travelling around China. Over the course of the month, I had the opportunity to experience a culture so vastly different from my upbringing and as such, have a great many stories to share with you. I wish that I could have posted these live, but it was difficult to access foreign websites in China, and so I will be gradually releasing my posts throughout the month of June. Enjoy and feel more than welcome to comment!

Raphael in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

After a long journey, almost 20 hours in total, our plane finally touched down on the runway of Beijing’s Capital Airport. Flying over the surrounding area revealed a great many installations, likely factories, clustered together throughout the rather plain landscape. The day we landed, there was a bit of a haze, which gave the impression of a rather smoggy place. We exited into Beijing’s new Terminal 3 building, which was completed several years ago to accommodate a great many travelers for the 2008 summer olympics. Needless to say, the terminal is a testament to China’s incredible growth in the past years. It is certainly an impressive structure providing a modern and open space to greet its visitors. We were met at the airport by Nicole’s cousin and Uncle, who had been anxiously awaiting our arrival. I was a point of fascination for Nicole’s younger cousin who was particularly amazed by the geometry of my nose and the shape of my head, as well as how big my eyes were.

As we drove through the city to the village where Nicole’s family lives, there were two things worth noticing. The first is that traffic in China is best defined as utter chaos. It is a miracle that I have never been in or seen an accident occur, because it is a common occurrence that cars will cut each other off and pass within inches of the other car. In China, the horn is used as a form of communication, rather than waking up a driver who fell asleep in front of a green light. The most common uses of the horn are to warn pedestrians that the car is not stopping for them and they should run out of the way, or to tell surrounding cars that they are merging into traffic whether they like it or not. Safety is certainly never a top priority in Chinese cities, and this is evidenced by the fact that nobody wears seat belts (in fact, taxis have seat belts, but no latch for you to insert the buckle). The second thing I noticed was the incredible development of Beijing. Imagine the central business district of a typical North American city (like Toronto or Chicago) and now multiply it by 10 or even 20! From end to end in Beijing, there are massive buildings! It provides a new meaning to the phrase urban sprawl, whereby Beijing sprawls into the sky as much as it sprawls over land.

At last our journey was at an end, and we settled down into a rather large restaurant in town where we were staying that night. Most big restaurants in china occupy multiple floors and have several dining areas. The fancier ones also have VIP rooms, which is where families and parties dine, as if it was their own home. Eating out is very affordable in China, and therefore it is more common for working-class people to dine out rather than eat at home, at least in the cities.

Next: Beijing in 11 days.

Yet Another Transatlantic Airline: Sunwing Airlines

You’ve probably heard the radio ads: Sunwing Airlines, traditionally a sunspot charter airline, will begin operating trans-atlantic flights from Canada to various locations in Europe this summer.

Sound familiar? Well.. there was Zoom Airlines, which went bust in August 2008, stranding thousands of passengers, and there was also Globepsan Airlines, which operated cheap flights from Hamilton to the UK, which was notorious for equipment-related delays and also went bust in December 2009 after acquiring Zoom.

Montreal-based Air Transat and UK-based Thomas Cook (which code-shares with Air Transat) are the only discount transatlantic airlines to have survived the test of time and continue to offer scheduled flights to Europe.

This year, a new player has entered the market: Sunwing Airlines. Do you have reason to hesitate when booking Sunwing?

Sunwing’s main selling point is their service. Whereas Air Transat is a no-frills airline, Sunwing boasts comfortable leather seats and a glass of champagne upon boarding the aircraft to start off your vacation. In terms of pricing, Air Transat appears to be matching all fares from Sunwing for their popular YYZ-LGW route. So, given that Air Transat and Sunwing offer the same price (and will likely continue to match each other when battling for ticket sales this summer), which should you book?

First off, Air Transat has a stable track record. It has been operating flights since 1987 and is Canada’s third-largest airline (after Air Canada and WestJet). Sunwing has been operating charter flights since 2005, and this is the first year they are operating transatlantic flights. It goes without saying that Air Transat services many more European destinations than Sunwing, which provides you with greater flexibility in booking your eurotrip.

In terms of equipment, Air Transat owns all of its 21 planes. It typically operates its Airbus A330-200 series aircraft to Europe, with an average equipment age of 8 years.

Air Transat Airbus A330-200 in Madrid.

Sunwing will be contracting Portugal-based EuroAtlantic to offer its flights, and will be making use of 2 of their Boeing 767-300ER aircraft, with an average equipment age of 18.6 years.

EuroAtlantic Boeing 767-300ER in Vienna.

In terms of cabin layout, Air Transat features a seat pitch of 31 inches for economy seating (Thomas Cook offers slightly more) with seating arranged 3/3/3 (and 2/3/2 near the rear of the aircraft). Sunwing’s aircraft features a seat pitch of 30 inches for general seating with seats arranged 2/3/2.

In terms of baggage, Air Transat permits ONE checked luggage weighing 20kg max, and ONE carry-on luggage weighing 5kg max. Air Transat is generally quite strict about this policy and will ask you to weigh all your items upon check-in. Sunwing offers a total combined allowance of 25kg (30kg for flights to Rome), including both checked and carry-on luggage.

In terms of service, Air Transat offers complimentary snacks, meals, wine (served with the meal), water,  soft drinks, tea, coffee and juice. Sunwing offers the same as Air Transat, plus a glass of bubbly and a comfort kit.

So, what’s the verdict?

Well, if you want to fly on newer, more spacious aircraft, with a well-established airline that services all major European destinations, then you should stick with good ole’ Air Transat. Let Sunwing establish itself a little more, and perhaps purchase some newer aircraft before choosing to fly with them. If the Champagne is still enticing, remember that 8 hours after leaving Toronto, you can enjoy real French Champagne in France (or Cava in Spain) served to you in a quaint, outdoor terrace, rather than cheap champagne served to you in plastic cups on a crowded aircraft.