newsletter  /  august '08

This Issue:

Beijing Olympics : The Ring Dynasty

Every 4 years the world is treated to the ultimate test in athletic prowess and determination and 2008 is Beijing's year to host the big show. This will mark the first time ever the Olympic Games will be held beyond the Great Wall. The opening ceremonies kick off at the Beijing National Stadium on August 8th and are set to conclude on the 24th.

Beijing won the chance to host the 2008 games, back in 1998. A surprise winner, Beijing wowed the Olympic Committee, with plans to create some of the most unique and awe inspiring buildings to help host the worldwide event, beating out strong bids from TorontoParis and Osaka. The Chinese delivered on that promise, creating 12 brand new buildings to add to their 25 existing venues, set to house this year's games. The Beijing National Stadium and the Beijing National Aquatics Center are 2 that have received the most attention. The Bird's Nest (Beijing National Stadium) which will host all the track and field events, looks just like its moniker; a mishmash of steel and style, the stadium is an architectural marvel. No less impressive (and right next door to the Bird's Nest) is the Water Cube (Beijing National Aquatics Center) built for all the aquatic competitions. Resembling a monstrous sponge, the architectural award-winning cube, lights up at night casting an eerie glow over Beijing.

In 1984, the Summer Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles and were remarkable for a number of reasons: Russia's boycott of the games, incredibly tacky 80’s track suits, Carl Lewis's winning 4 gold medals while sporting a terrible slanted hair cut, perky gymnast Mary Lou Retton becoming the belle of the games (and subsequent desire of advertising executives everywhere) and it also marked the first time the Chinese ever won an Olympic medal. Xu Haifeng blasted her way to a gold medal in the 50m Pistol event. Since then, China has been on a tear winning 112 gold, 94 silver, and 75 bronze medals, with the majority being awarded in diving, gymnastics and weightlifting.

As per usual, this year the United States and Russia are expected to haul a bunch of medals home. With the 2008 version of the United States basketball "Dream Team" featuring Lebron James and Kobe Bryant, the race appears to be on for the silver and bronze. Jamaica's Asafa Powell is set to leave the Bird’s Nest track scorched. The former world record holder in the 100m has been sending dust into the eyes of his competition lately, as he amps up for the games at various meets. Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi lead their respective Brazil and Argentine football squads into the games, both with a legitimate shot at the gold. However with all the well known stars competing, it's the lesser-known athletes that seem to rise to the occasion during the Olympics, creating the drama and excitement of which is legend.

With the spotlight set squarely to shine on Beijing and all of China, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the world views the eastern power after the games. China, if you didn't know, has had a somewhat stormy relationship with the rest of the world. It's technically still a communist country (but don't tell Hong Kong that), it occasionally gets into trouble for human rights issues, and it really isn't a world leader for environmental causes. But recently, the intensely private Chinese government has started to show a different side. In the wake of the terrible earthquake earlier this spring that killed thousands and left more injured and homeless, the world received a better look at the Chinese and how they treat their own. How China and its 3 billion residents, will be perceived in the aftermath of the intense media focus the Olympic Games brings, is anyone's guess. One thing for sure, it's going to be a lot of fun to watch how everything unfolds.

Top Ten Strangest Foods From Around the World

They say one man's trash is another man's treasure. The same could be said about food: one man's nightmare may just be another man's delicacy. From cow's tongue and pig's snout to chicken's feet, from fried worms and frog's legs to sautéed snails, the list of weird stuff we eat is endless (and often quite tasty). If you've been indulging lately and need a reason to diet, take a read, you may just lose that appetite. Here is Agoda's list of the ten strangest foods from around the world.

10. Fried - brain sandwiches

Long before the era of Mad-Cow Disease, a sandwich made from fried calves' brain, thinly sliced on white bread was a common item on the menus in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. The sandwich is still available in the Ohio River Valley, where the brains are now heavily battered and served on hamburger buns. In El Salvador and Mexico beef brains, lovingly called sesos in Spanish, are used in tacos and burritos. The brains have a mushy texture and very little flavor on their own so the addition of copious amounts of hot sauce definitely helps.

9. Haggis

A traditional Scottish dish, haggis is made with the minced heart, liver and lung of a sheep mixed with onion, spices, oatmeal, salt and stock, and boiled in the sheep's stomach for a few hours. Larousse Gastronomique, a popular encyclopedia of gastronomic delights, claims that haggis has "an excellent nutty texture and delicious savory flavor." Haggis is available year-round in Scottish supermarkets and made with an artificial casing rather than a sheep’s stomach. In fact some are sold in cans to be heated in a microwave before eating. Similar dishes can be found in other European countries with goat, pork or beef used instead of sheep.

8. Bugs

The practice of eating insects for food is called entomophagy and is fairly common in many parts of the world, with the exceptions of Europe and North America (though bugs are apparently a favorite with the television show "Fear Factor"). It is not uncommon to find vendors selling fried grasshoppers, crickets, scorpions, spiders and worms on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand. Insects are high in protein and apparently consist of important fatty acids and vitamins. In fact flour from drying and grinding up mealworm can be and is often used to make chocolate chip cookies. So next time you think there is a fly in your soup, it may actually just be part of the presentation.

7. Rocky Mountain Oysters

What is so strange about oysters? Probably the fact that they're not the kind you find at the bottom of the ocean, but rather a fancy name given to deep-fried testicles of a buffalo, bull or boar. Rocky Mountain oysters (also called Prairie Oysters) are well-known and regularly enjoyed, in certain parts of the United States and Canada, generally where cattle ranching is prevalent. The testicles are peeled, boiled, rolled in a flour mixture, and fried, then generally served with a nice cocktail sauce.

6. Stuffed Camel

The recipe for a whole stuffed camel kind of reads like a bad joke, with ingredients that include one whole camel, one whole lamb and 20 whole chickens. The Guinness Book of World Records lists the recipe as the largest item on any menu in the world, conveniently leaving out any concrete examples of this dish actually being eaten. Legend has it that that a whole stuffed camel is a traditional Bedouin dish seemingly prepared like a Russian Stacking Doll, where a camel is stuffed with a whole lamb, the lamb stuffed with the chickens and the chickens stuffed with eggs and rice. The entire concoction is then barbecued until cooked and served. Fact or fiction, the shear amount of food created by this dish makes it deserving of a place on the list.

5. Hakarl

Anthony Bourdain, known for eating some of the strangest foods in the world, claims that hakarl is the most disgusting thing he has ever eaten. Made by gutting a Greenland or Basking shark and then fermenting it for two to four months, hakarl is an Icelandic food that reeks with the smell of ammonia. It is available all year round in Icelandic stores and often served in cubes on toothpicks.

4. Fugu

Fugu is the Japanese word for the poisonous puffer fish, filled with enough of the poison tetrodotoxin to be lethal. Only specially-trained chefs, who undergo two to three years of training and have passed an official test, can prepare the fish. Some chefs will choose to leave a minute amount of poison in the fish to cause a tingling sensation on the tongue and lips as fugu can be quite bland. Perhaps the fuss of fugu is more in surviving the experience than the actual taste of the deadly fish.

3. Casu Marzu

Found in the city of Sardinia in Italy, casu marzu is a cheese that is home to live insect larvae. These larvae are deliberately added to the cheese to promote a level of fermentation that is close to decomposition, at which point the cheese's fats are broken down. The tiny, translucent worms can jump up to half a foot if disturbed, which explains why some people prefer to brush off the insects before enjoying a spoonful of the pungent cheese.

2. Sannakji

With sashimi and sushi readily available the world over, eating raw seafood is no longer considered a dining adventure. The Korean delicacy sannakji however, is something quite different, as the seafood isn't quite dead. Live baby octopus are sliced up and seasoned with sesame oil. The tentacles are still squirming when this dish is served and, if not chewed carefully, the tiny suction cups can stick to the mouth and throat. This is not a dish for the fainthearted.

1. Balut

Balut seems to be on every "strange food" list, usually at the top, and for good reason. Though no longer wriggling on the plate like the live octopus in Korea, the fertilized duck or chicken egg with a nearly-developed embryo that is boiled and eaten in the shell is easily one of the strangest foods in the world. Balut is very common in the Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam and usually sold by street vendors. It is said balut tastes like egg and duck (or chicken), which is essentially what it is. It is surprising to many that a food that appears so bizarre-often the with the bird's features clearly developed--can taste so banal. In the end, apparently everything does indeed, just taste like chicken.

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Communication Breakdown: SIMple Cellphone Solutions in SE Asia

Never should you roam…when using your cellphone that is. Most of us want to stay in touch when we're travelling, and don't want to go broke doing so. Roaming services allow you to travel and still use your phone to make and receive calls, however make sure the roaming service is activated by your provider before you leave, and more importantly, make sure you know the cost. However, the big problem is when people call you. For instance, if you're in Bangkok and a friend in Bangkok calls you, they have to call your number back home (let’s say Canada). So they call Canada, and because you're not in Canada (you're in Bangkok remember), your service provider "roams" and calls your phone, long distance to Bangkok. So that's basically 2 long distance calls, overseas! The best alternative is buying a SIM card when you get to your destination. SIM cards are inserted into your phone and have stored amounts of call times allowing you to make local calls (and have people call you locally). Prices will depend on the number of minutes you buy initially and the cards are refillable. Make sure to ask around for the best provider, as the choices and prices vary, but for travelling to major centers like Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, this is definitely the way to go. Also, it's important to make sure your phone is on a GSM system prior to your trip. Some providers still use a CDMA system which doesn’t allow for SIM card usage.

Review of the month: Hotel Reviews, Kolbe Hotel

Created by Peter Higgins

This hotel appeared in some guidebooks as two or three-star hotel. It is most definitely a four-star hotel. There is no swimming pool but not sure many four-star hotels in Rome do anyway. Nice eco-friendly touch in the rooms asking to leave a card on the bed saying whether you wanted your bed sheets changed that day, allowing you to decide if it was necessary. Breakfast in morning was ample with lots of fresh fruit, breads, pastries, etc. as well as scrambled egg, bacon and sausage. Plentiful types of coffees, teas and chocolate also.

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