Scooting around Siargao and Cebu

The prop plane to Cebu was up there as the scariest one I’ve had, with turbulence bad enough that I had to pull the trigger at the end of the long journey when we finally arrived in Siargao. All was well in the world once we got checked in to Harana Surf Resort, our home for the next 5 days. After freshening up, we naively began to walk into town. At one of the first shops we stopped in, we asked how long the walk into town was and the shopkeeper didn’t know; that is a testament to how few people make this walk. There is a different flavour of tricycle in Siargao, but even more prominent are scooter drivers that don’t blink at taking 2-4 passengers on a single scooter. Siargao has been a popular surf destination for some time but in recent years it has started to attract a growing number of non-surfers with its laid-back island life vibes and natural beauty. Street names are quite literal in Siargao, with the main drag named “Tourism Road” and a connecting road called “Australian Aid Road.” The surf has attracted a community of expat surfers that settled in Siargao and have played a major role in developing the local business scene—most importantly the food scene!! We finally settle on Bravo, a Spanish tapas restaurant (needed break from rice) for dinner.

The next day we opted to rent a motorbike for the day and head to the Northern tip of the island for one of the highly rated Alegria Beach. Nicks past life as a wannabe dirt bike pro positioned him well to drive us 2 hrs north. Our butts were the only thing ill-prepared for this ride. There was hardly any trace of tourism outside General Luna (the main town around the most famous surfing area). A group of local kids swarmed us when we stopped to stretch our legs at a small fishing town and were eager to take a selfie with the aliens.

We made it to the beach and had a few hours to chill out and dive into our books before heading back ahead of sunset, and the line at Kermits—the town pizza joint we had been recommended to try! Out of a wood-fired oven, the pizza did not disappoint after our big day of scooting around the island.

The next day we booked an excursion with a local tour company. We spent the morning island hopping around Siargao’s three nearest islands—Guayam, Naked, and Daku Island. The clear blue water and pristine beaches were straight out of a postcard, but a personal highlight was the adorable dogs we met along the way—a wiener dog for Nick and a litter of puppies on Daku for me!

After a lovely Filipino spread at Daku for lunch, we headed for Magpupunko Rock Pools. This spot is to be visited during low tide to get the dramatic effect of the pools. This spot was busy by Siargao standards, but spectacular nonetheless, with natural swimming holes full of all the normal marine life and surrounding rock surface for 40m out to the ocean drop off. We swam around for the bulk of the afternoon before heading back to GL.

We enjoyed another standout meal at a local “Italian-Filipino” joint. We ended most nights at our resort restaurant for one last drink or dessert, and also to check in on the resident dogs—especially Naki the pug who spent his day moving from beanbag chair to beanbag chair of the restaurant. The difference in service norms at restaurants irritated us at first, but quickly became charming and laughable. Common occurrences: no knives in sight (you try eating pork with a fork and spoon), Nick would be done eating before my food even arrived, minimum 4-5 menu items were not available, and the most hilarious one was remarks like “oh you didn’t want bread?…ya we don’t have any.”

We started the morning off right, with a Beautiful breakfast bowl at Shaka! Afterward, we rented a motor bike again and headed for the northwest town of Del Carmen, to then make our way to Scuba Lagoon. Unfortunately, we rode al the way to the marina only to find out the lagoon was still closed for maintenance and restoration. We headed back to GL to spend the afternoon at the infamous Cloud 9 surfing area. Before arriving in Siargao, we figured we would put our surfing lessons to use but after arriving we realized that this was more of a serious surf destination. Cloud 9 itself is rated as expert level, recommending 15 years of experience to ride. We weren’t about to end the trip early and get injured surfing and no one gets injured reading, so I continued to pump through more books than I have in years (would recommend Gloria Steinam’s ‘My Life on the Road’)! The interesting thing about Siargao’s landscape is that there is very shallow rock around most of the island for a great distance offshore. Even at Cloud 9, surfers walk out to the line-up in shallow water for nearly 60m; in low tide all of this rock is actually above water and in more sandy parts, the beach ends up becoming astronomically wider.

For our final full day in Siargao, we signed up for a day trip to Bucas Grande—an archipelago to the southwest of Siargao. The trip was a commitment, as it takes nearly 3 hours to get to by Filipino boat; we nicknamed these boats water spiders for their spider like arms. The main issue is that there are 2 motors with no muffler, making them loud enough to leave your ears ringing for days without earplugs. Nevertheless, we committed. The first activity was a cruise through the crystal blue waters to catch a glimpse of the areas infamous stingless jellyfish. They used to allow swimming but have since stopped for environmental protection reasons. As an island, Siargao was doing a much better job on the sustainability front than Palawan. Many resorts and restaurants did not sell plastic water bottles and offered cooler refill stations instead, and almost all restaurants served drinks with reusable straws to reduce the amount of plastic consumption. Maybe we were looking for it, but it felt like the Philippines was more in touch with climate change issues than we are at home and I think it could be because they are among the top 10 countries that will be negatively affected; some communities have already been displaced as a result of rising ocean levels.

We returned to the docks and got on a bigger boat to enter Sohoton cove by boating through a low cave. We had gotten a brief description of the activities for this portion of the tour but it was more or less a blur. As with the whole of Siargao, tourism in Bucas Grande has risen steadily and many activities and logistics have not scaled or adapted to the increased number of tourists. Our local boat guide described the next activity as “you go under water and hold your breath for eight seconds.” Needless to say I was utterly confused; when we pulled up to the limestone cliff and 20 tourists were splashing around near the rock face and the local guides began strapping wooden paddles to their feet, I was still really confused. I began to see guides with the wooden paddle shoes count to 3 and start forcefully dunking tourists underwater; the same tourists were coming back out minutes later gasping for air and I thought to myself ‘gee that’s not 8 seconds, I might be out.’ Eventually I figured out that there was some sort of opening underneath where people could breath but based on the organization of the entrance I was nervous there would be 40 tourists crammed in a small claustrophobic opening gasping for air. My turn was up and I had no time left to debate, my guide dunked me under and we swam under the rock face. To my delight, I emerged in a very cool and spacious cave with lots of room to swim about. Phew. The final activity in Bucas Grande was swimming and climbing up another cave for a big jump back into the lagoon. Definitely made me reconsider getting another GoPro!

Interestingly, Siargao seemed to have a lot more Filipino tourists than El Nido who had mostly foreign tourists. Our guide said this had increased very recently following a domestic film starring local celebrities called Siargao. We dug into a delicious lunch spread again before heading back to Siargao. One of my guilty pleasures that I got an overwhelming fill of in the Philippines was pork belly—I took comfort in knowing an entire country loves this exquisite food as much as me. After consulting with our tour guide, we settled on sunset drinks at Cloud 101 overlooking Cloud 9 and Indonesian food for our last dinner in Siargao and I got to indulge in one of my favourite dishes—laksa—for the first time in over a year, and boy was it good!

The next morning we checked out and headed for the airport for our final stop of the trip, Cebu. Our Airbnb was a couple hr drive from the city centre in the south. The residence is situated on top of a hill with a beautiful panoramic pool deck of the ocean for only $25/night! We chilled out for the afternoon and soaked in a beauty sunset.

The next day we rented a motorbike and set off on a day full of chasing waterfalls. Cebu attracts adventurists of all sorts, from divers, to mountain bikers, waterfall chasers, and more. Whale shark swimming is also one of the top attractions in Oslob, but we had heard too many bad things about the negative impact on the sharks that we opted to pass. We stopped first at Tumalog falls, the largest falls on our tour. The fresh water was a welcome change from all our ocean swimming!

Next up was Aguinid falls. Little did we know, this was also an exercise in free form rock climbing that required us to climb up 5 levels of falls, against waterfalls and around trees. We were assigned an awesome guide who showed us all the tricks and took more pics than we had taken the whole trip—the Instagram photographer I had been waiting for.

We searched for Bindalay Falls which has “(hidden falls)” in the google maps name. Turns out, it really is hidden and we were unable to locate said falls. The guide at our next stop said you had to go to one of the houses along the road to access the falls …lol. Needless to say, we continued to our last falls of the day, Dao falls. Most of the falls, but especially this one, seemed as though the nearby villagers just kind of claimed their local falls, created an “entrance,” made up a nominal entrance fee, and enforced a mandatory guide policy. That being said, this one did need it, with large parts of the trail unmarked and through the water. The hike to the falls reminded me a bit of a hike in Zion National Park called the narrows that I left unfinished on my last visit!

This falls had less than 10 other people, despite being every bit as impressive!

We headed back to Dalaguete, where we were staying, to eat and make plans for our final day in Cebu. We planned for sunrise at Osmena Peak before going on to Kawasan for canyoneering. Unfortunately some morning rain kept us from seeing the sunrise, which turn out to be a good thing for canyoneering. This meant that we were among the first to start that day at 730AM and allowed us to finish at Kawasan Falls before the droves arrived. We had tropical rain throughout the trip that usually only lasted for five minutes before subsiding. This was the only time on the trip where we had rain for a couple hours straight and, lucky for us, this was the only activity where it really didn’t matter. The only dicey part of the journey was the trek downhill to the start of our canyoneering route; Nick was using some subpar water shoes from Jamaica and practically slid all the way down the mud steps. The adventure started with a big jump into the river and floating through a series of beautiful caves.

I hadn’t really been sure of what to expecting but soon realized canyoning and canyoneering are two different things. Canyoneering is a combination of jumping into and swimming downstream, with bouts of hiking in between, while canyoning involves rappelling down canyons. I really really enjoyed the hiking/swimming combo, enough to consider buying Tevas, like the ones our guide lent me, for future ventures (and to relive my childhood). Our journey downstream was beautiful and super fun, complete with a natural water slide, a rope swing, and ending with a 40 ft jump into Kawasan falls. It felt much higher than it looked! Kawasan is the most popular falls in the area and with it being Saturday, the area started to fill up within 20 minutes of us finishing our adventure.

Once again, we had put all our eggs in one basket being the driver that had brought us to Kawasan. We had entrusted him to keep our luggage in his car while we canyoneered before taking us to Cebu city. Of course we had our most important items in our Christmas waterproof Fanny pack, but I reallyyyyyy didn’t feel like taking a 3 hr public bus in soaking clothes to go home with no luggage. Happy to report that faith in humanity was sustained and he was there waiting for us when we finished. We journeyed back to Cebu and treated ourselves to a nice final dinner at the Shangri La before our early flight home at 5am. Although the Philippines was definitely more expensive than other Asian countries I’ve visited—specifically for accommodation and some excursions, it is still super cheap by North America standards. El Nido was most expensive…because they can. But apart from that, we had nice accommodation for ~$70/night for most of our stay, motorbike rental was $8 with fuel refills at $1, and we rarely paid over $25 for dinner for two a drink or two. We became big fans of the DIY excursion via motorbike rental; besides being way easier on the wallet, there is something way more fun about figuring it out on your own—from navigation, to finally realizing that those shelves on the side of the road are self-serve gas stations!

Overall, I can’t recommend this beautiful country enough. But I will caveat that with, you better go soon! Tourism is seriously taking off and I fear it will not be as pristine and relative to most tourist destinations, untouched, in a few short years…at least in these destinations. I definitely want to return to explore some of the other ~7,000 odd islands the country has to offer!


Island Hopping in El Nido

The Philippines has been on my travel bucket list for a couple years now, ever since hearing rave reviews about it while traveling in SE Asia. When I happened upon round-trip flights on for $650, I couldn’t resist! After a long 24 hrs of travel via Shanghai, we finally landed in Cebu. We had 8 hrs to go before we would catch our final plane to Palawan, so we opted to catch a ride to a nearby resort to catch some rays and incur an inevitable day 1 sunburn. After a short prop plane ride, we touched down in El Nido. Shortly after we got our first introduction to the Filipino tricycle—think tuk tuk meets dirt bike. We had a quick bite to eat near our first bite before hitting the hay.

After a loooong nights rest in preparation for the first adventure, we headed down to the local beach to meet our captain for the next three days. We boarded the 36ft mono haul and set off on our three-day island hopping adventure. Our first stop was Cadlao Island, where we opted to stay overnight based on sheltered position in the greater area of Bacuit Bay. I got to channel my inner Little Mermaid at every stop, anchoring outside the reef and snorkelling our way into the island beach.

The best part about being on our own sailboat was the ability to go to destinations on a different schedule than the many tour boats from El Nido. The next morning, this allowed us a private viewing of one of the most popular spots in the Bay, Secret Lagoon. The beauty of this location can’t be captured through a camera lens, it is truly unique from anything I’ve seen. As we left, boats started to arrive and we realized that El Nido’s picture perfect lagoons are seemingly most vulnerable to the ecological impact of growing tourism, given that they are extremely shallow for metres off-shore yet tour boats still drive right up to the beach over the coral reef.

Our next stop was Helicopter Island, named appropriately for its shape. Before heading to the next stop, we enjoyed a lovely lunch. Eating was another high point of our sailing adventure, with authentic Filipino food prepared by our captain’s wife. We certainly ate our weight in rice over the course of the whole trip and I returned with three fav new foods: longaniza (sweet breakfast sausage), chicken and pork adobo, and halo-halo (dessert).

We made our way to Snake Island to spend the night in the protected cove. In low tide, there is a sandbar that connects the island to the neighbouring “mainland.” Better yet, there is a sandbar bar in the middle, serving up cold beer, smoothies, and snacks all day! At night our captain showed us the beauty of luminescent water—plankton that light up the water around motion or objects. Since it gets dark at 6, we had pretty early nights and early mornings; theres nothing like snorkelling, hiking to a panoramic viewpoint, and having a cold one all before 9:30AM!

After our action-packed morning, we spent most of the day sailing, as it was the windiest weather yet. We made a quick snorkel/eat pitstop before continuing on to our final destination, Pinagbuyutan island. With some challenging headwind, we arrived just before sunset. The wind and rain began to pick up, but we decided to stick it out unless it got worse so we could wake up to an island to ourselves one more morning. In my head, I had already drafted an elaborate escape plan to the caretakers picturesque shack in the event of an emergency.

Luckily, we woke up scot-free and had time for one last swim! Our captain had told us he heard Survivor South Africa was filming in the area and we found out later that they were actually filming on that island after we left. We even got a sneak peak at the challenge before the contestants! After getting voted off the island, we headed back to our boat for the final leg of our journey back to shore.

Upon our return to shore, we learned that the coast guard had issued a sea travel ban in advance of an incoming storm. This meant that our stay for the night was cancelled, as our next resort was on an island only accessible by boat. Luckily the resort had spent the morning finding alternative accommodations for guests; this is more challenging than it sounds in El Nido. We had gotten the sense already that tourism was really beginning to take off in the formerly inaccessible gem, but this was solidified when we learned that pretty much every single hotel in town is booked solid until end of March. There are essentially more tourists than accommodations in El Nido. The growth of tourism has already outpaced the local infrastructure in a number of ways and many are hopeful that the government doesn’t allow the town to replicate the mistakes of Boracay. After checking in to our alternate hotel (and showering for the first time in days), we hopped in a van to Nacpan beach, an especially popular spot during sea bans. The sea ban continued the next day, despite the storm never coming and the waters remaining calm; we concluded that the coast guard really ought to be more thoughtful when imposing sea bans, as it is a hugely impactful decision for both local businesses and tourists alike. The main problem is that bans are issued for the entire island of Palawan, which spans __ and cannot be reduced to a one-size-fits-all weather forecast. If there’s anyone that loves the sea bans, it’s tricycle drivers! Given that island hopping is the number one reason people visit El Nido, tricycle supply almost always exceeds demand. But during sea bans, demand certainly surpasses supply and trikes make their fortune taking land-trapped tourists to nearby waterfalls and beaches. Of course, we hired a trike—which seemed like it had been dug out of a garage after years of use for this special day—to take us to a waterfalls an hour away.

The next morning, we headed to our next accommodation, Duli Beach Resort. About an hour north of El Nido, we had been warned that the road to Duli is a bit rough. With the sea ban over, the power was back in the tricycle consumers hands and I quickly haggled a return bargain and off we went. To say the road was rough was certainly an understatement, there was two times in the final stretch of the road where we had to get out and walk so the driver could take a running go at the hills that would put his tricycle to the test.

The resort is just 5 villas and a restaurant on a remote beach with just 3-4 other surf rental/restaurants and hardly any foot traffic. We quickly understood the rave reviews this place gets on Airbnb. After settling in and enjoying a delicious lunch, we signed up for surf lessons with the resident instructors. Nick turned out to be quite a natural, while my previous couple experiences did not come through so much but it was the perfect spot to take a lesson with a small crowd and good beginner waves.

At breakfast the next morning, we learned that 60 odd baby turtles had hatched in the on-site hatchery and would be released tonight at sunset! We spent the day surfing, reading, and chilling…all in great anticipation of the turtle release! I had seen a sea turtle lay eggs and baby sea turtles hatching in Cabo, but had never witnessed this stage of the lifecycle. The owners said that releasing turtles at sunset is said to increase survival rates. Finally the time came and all 66 baby turtles were given their run at the sea! Some resembled Usain Bolt, breaking away from the pack, while others opted to sleep a little longer on the beach before making the journey. Seeing them enter the ocean was a beautiful sight!

We enjoyed a final dinner at this beautiful spot and made fast friends with a few young travellers from Ireland over a game of Jenga before calling it a night before our early flight to our next destination. We were a bit concerned that the whole journey was riding on the tricycle driver I had bargained with arriving to our remote location at 6am; we got the resort owners vote of confidence that he would be there (after telling him our price), and sure enough, he was there.

Brief Stop in Bali

Apologies for this longgg overdue last post of my trip–writing it slipped through the cracks of my back-to-school frenzy. To my dismay, the final stop in Bali was much shorter than my trip to the beautiful island last year. We headed straight from the airport to our first stop at Green School–the Green School on Earth located just outside of Ubud. We walked down a long path into the jungle before eventually reaching the entrance to Green School (seen below).


We were led to what looks like a giant treehouse where Green School founder John Hardy was waiting for us. He told us his personal story of growing up in the GTA, travelling to Bali and picking up on local jewelry-making techniques, founding a jewelry business he later sold for tens of millions of dollars, and finally his latest project–Green School. We toured the entire school grounds; it is an absolutely stunning place with brilliant bamboo architecture. The school offers K-12 teaching for international students and locals alike. Below is an example of a Green School classroom. IMG_1156

Below is a panorama of the Heart of School building–the photo really doesn’t do it justice. Another cool feature of this building is the names of all the donors written on bamboo poles inside the structure–I even spotted Richard Branson’s pole! Green School aims to be the #1 model of sustainability in education in the world. Although certain aspects of Hardy’s talk were far-fetched, Green School students really are doing amazing things. He told of us of students’ project to abolish plastic bags in Bali; a government official told them they would need 1,000,000 signatures on a petition to make this possible and they have already reached close to 90,000. And who did we see at the airport on our way out but Green School students collecting signatures from travellers on their weekend!IMG_1159

We stayed in John Hardy’s “luxury eco hotel” overnight–to put the ‘luxury’ part in perspective, these cabins were $400/night while I was paying $25/night in Bali to stay in very nice villas last year. The resort was comprised of many small standalone houses on a gorgeous property overlooking the rice paddies. We only had 12 hours to relax at this beautiful hotel but it was a very relaxing way to end the trip! My house was the one on the far right.


We had one final stop in Kuta at Pro Surf School before we had to begin our long journey home. We heard from the founder of the Surf School about the growth of tourism in Bali over the past couple of decades. He attributed the rise in popularity of Bali as a destination to be largely due to surfing–at least initially. From the little that I saw of Kuta I was happy Elai and I had decided against spending any time here last year. Kuta is by far the most touristy part of Bali and the beaches are quite dirty, with piles of trash all along the beach. It is interesting that so many people are still drawn to this location considering the rest of Bali is much more beautiful. I guess surfing must still play a bigger role in tourism than I may have thought!

Jakarta Part 2

The rest of our time in Jakarta was a 50/50 split between business and pleasure. We began our third morning with a guided tour of Istiqal Mosque–the largest mosque in Southeast Asia. The size of the building was quite impressive but it was quite industrial in terms of decoration compared to pictures I’ve seen of mosques in Turkey etc. Afterwards we headed to a local market before heading to our first meeting of the day.



First we met with Lippo Group–the Indonesian conglomerate that owns and operates the hotel we were staying in. They also do business in retail, real estate, healthcare, tech, financial services, and education. Lippo Group stressed that they feel Eastern Indonesia is where the future of the country is headed due to richness in natural resources. Next we met with a panel from the Asian Economic Development Bank, who highlighted regulatory uncertainty and bureaucracy, a large informal sector of the economy (66%), and sustainability as Indonesia’s key development challenges. Our last meeting of the day was at Norton Rose Fullbright–a UK-based law firm that has established operations in Indonesia through a partnership with local firm Susandarini & Partners. In this presentation we learned about the legal environment in Indonesia and the challenges faced by foreign firms. Shamim Razavi, Senior Foreign Legal Counsel for the firm, put it quite nicely: a good London lawyer would do very poorly in Indonesia. In London, everything has been done and it is just a matter of finding the right precedent. In Indonesia, nothing has been done.

The following morning our first meeting of the day was with the UN World Food Programme. The representative emphasized that the goal of an organization like WFP is to be able to be out of a country as soon as possible. They attain this by creating programs that require buy-in from beneficiaries rather than spoon-feeding aid. He also mentioned that as a result of Indonesia’s fast growth, obesity is now on the rise. Our second meeting of the day was at Ogilvy & Mather, an international advertising, marketing, and PR firm. Their office was everything a creative office should be–beautiful, inspiring, and fun–complete with a slide to enter the main part of the office! A key talking point in their presentation was that Indonesia is a very happy country, with 51% of the population claiming to be “happy”; only 27% of the Canadian population feels this way! This combined with other important Indonesian values of collectivism, embracing ambiguity, work-life balance, and religion, have powerful implications on the way in which content must be marketed.

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We then set out for the office of XSProject–our local charity of choice for this year’s trip. The organization’s mission is to raise awareness of environmental damage and poverty through education, innovative product design reusing consumer waste, and creating new income opportunities for the disadvantaged. At the office we were greeted with a delicious lunch and we had a chance to watch the trash cleaning process in action and buy some of their beautiful finished product. Finished products include bags, wallets, umbrellas, laptop cases, luggage tags, jewelry, and more.

Afterwards, we went into the village where trash-pickers work and live and met with the children of these communities before touring around. This experience was nothing short of humbling. Hundreds of people were living amongst disease-ridden heaps of trash piled 8 feet high and days were spent sifting through it, picking out items which could be re-sold. Despite all of this, the 50 or so children we met had smiles on their faces. Although trash-pickers are among the most impoverished people in Indonesia, they are still respected for their efforts to legitimately better their situation rather than beg, lie, or steal. Part of XSProject’s work is to purchase trash from trash pickers at above market prices, giving them much needed extra income. The other part is to fund 12 years of school for 50 children living in Jakarta’s trash picker community. Leaving a community like that only confirmed that I won the genetic lottery and am amongst the luckiest people in the world. Now it will be a matter of how I choose to leverage my luck to increase the fortune of others. To donate to XSProject and help my class reach our goal of $5,000 please visit!

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Jakarta Part 1

Our time in Jakarta has been absolutely action-packed. On the first day we started with a visit to BTPN–a medium-scale bank that integrates social change objectives into its business via micro-finance. Micro-finance means providing access to capital for all; loans are as small as $200 and can be administered to citizens in the most remote areas of Indonesia. This is especially important with the huge growth of Indonesia’s middle class–those that live on more than $2 and less than $20 per day. The proportion of middle class citizens has risen from 37% in 2003 to 56% in 2010. The unique challenges faced by BTPN are primarily associated with Indonesia’s lack of infrastructure and the transaction costs associated with serving a nation that comprises over 17,000 islands across a distance wider than the U.S.


Later we visited Deutsche Bank and two media companies–Femina Group and the Jakarta Globe. Femina Group owns a portfolio of women’s magazines that target the 20-34 age group mainly. They focus on issues like fashion, entrepreneurship, career, food, and lifestyle to name a few. It was interesting to look at the magazines and see examples of progressive Muslim media–that showed models with exposed shoulders and knees etc. The Group also puts on Jakarta Fashion Week, in which 2/7 days are dedicated completely to hijabi fashion. The Jakarta Globe is one of two English newspapers in Indonesia and our correspondent spoke at length about the changing media industry relating to the rise of the internet.


Our second morning started with a meeting with the Country Director for Asia Pacific of international consulting firm AT Kearney. We discussed the consolidation of the consulting industry and the intricacies for international firms operating in Indonesia. After we heard from the President of Aimia–the Canadian loyalty company that manages programs like Aeroplan. She provided an interesting perspective on working in Indonesia as an ex-pat and cultural differences. We visited the Canadian Embassy and heard from the Canadian Ambassador to Indonesia–a Saskatoon native–about Canada’s relations with Indonesia. He joked that “diplomacy is the art of keeping your mouth shut in many languages.” Our last meeting of the day was at Edelman, a global PR firm with clients like Starbucks, Chevron, Axe, and many more. They spoke to the need to localize services for foreign markets and specifically Indonesia.


Some of the interesting facts, figures, and anecdotes about Indonesia that came out in our meetings are as follows:

  • Despite being the largest Muslim population in the world with 90% of the population identifying with Islam, Indonesia is very tolerant and moderate; women play a large role in society and the country is not classified as an Islamic state
  • Traffic in Jakarta is horrendous and it was recently named the worst city in the world for traffic jams according to oil giant Castrol’s index
  • There are said to be between 10 and 20 families that control most of the Indonesian economy
  • Indonesian’s are very hopeful for the future after the election of their new President Jokowi in the fall–he is the first President to be elected without strong ties to the Indonesian elite
  • There are more phones in Indonesia than people and Indonesians are among the most active social media users in the world


Happenin’ Hong Kong

Jet lag had me up at 5AM on our first morning in HK so after getting out my first blog post I hit the streets for a workout. I decided on a stair workout after discovering Ladder Street the day prior; the street is a 30-flight stair case that extends up four city blocks.


After breakfast at the hotel, we set out for our first meeting of the day at Hutchison Whampoa with Frank Sixt. He is a McGill grad that now serves as the Executive Director for the multi-national conglomerate. He spoke about his career path, gave an overview of Hutchison Whampoa’s operations, challenges facing the company, and opportunities for growth. Hutchison Whampoa is a Fortune 500 company– chaired by the richest man in Asia–that operates businesses across 5 main categories–telecom, infrastructure, retail, energy, and ports. After a fascinating talk with Frank we got to visit one of their many businesses–Hong Kong International Terminal (HIT) at the Hong Kong Port; HIT is the largest port operator in the Hong Kong and the world, controlling 16/24 berths in the HK Port. We got a driving tour of the cargo terminal that was followed by a question and answer period with a HIT employee. The scale of the operations in Hong Kong’s port was jarring–last year alone the port moved 13 million shipping containers and employed 200,000 people. Perhaps the most shocking factoid was that there are 5 operators in the port and there is no common IT system between them for logistical coordination and communication.


We enjoyed a delicious Dim Sum lunch at HIT before heading to the Shangri-La for our last meeting of the day. The Shangri-La is a renowned 5-star hotel chain based in Hong Kong with 89 luxury hotels across the world. The chain is a family-owned business and we were lucky enough to hear from Chye Kuok–fa senior family member and McGill alumni. Kuok spoke at length about the emphasis on Shangri-La’s customer and employee obsession and the importance of customer experience in the 5-star hotel industry. A challenge facing the Shangri-La now is maintaining the “familial” feel of the chain as they grow and approach 100 hotels. The Director of the hotel we visited specifically added a personal story of a career highlight–when the former king of Saudi Arabia booked out the entire hotel for his stay in HK. We then took a one hour guided tour of the beautiful hotel which included two Michelin star restaurants, the Presidential Suite, the world’s largest painting, amazing views of Hong Kong, and more.


We spent our free evening grabbing a bite and drinking in the streets (totally acceptable) of LFK–the bustling nightlife strip of Hong Kong Central.


Our first meeting of Day 2 was with McGill alumni Bruno Roy–Director of Asia-Pacific for McKinsey. Bruno was a fabulous speaker that spoke primarily about working and living in Asia in general. He spent his first 5 years In Beijing and made the move to HK last summer. Roy said the reason he loves working in Asia is because there’s so much left to be done. North America is such a mature market and work in consulting is focused on incremental improvement.

Our second meeting of the morning was a panel discussion with five McGill alumni. The interesting and informative panel was focused again on what it’s like to live and work in Hong Kong.The key points I took away from the session were:

  • Low taxes are great–16.5% is the highest tax rate you could face in HK
  • HK is extremely expensive and owning real estate is completely out of reach for most–rent ranges from $2,500-$4,000/month for central locations in HK
  • Work/life balance is non-existent so you have to love what you do–12 hour work days are not unusual and leaving the office at 5:30 usually prompts the question “are you only working a half-day today?”
    • One panelist told us his company’s recent new policy that allows employees 1.5 hours/month of personal time
  • The opportunities in HK are endless but very competitive


After a quick lunch it was time to make our way to the airport to head to our next stop, Jakarta! All in all I can say that our stay in HK was only a teaser and I will definitely be returning for more. Further, our amazing speakers definitely piqued my interest in living and working in Hong Kong so perhaps I will be back for much longer next time!

Luxurious Layovers & A Taste of HK

Our excited group of 30 students, 2 professors, and 6 alumni departed on Thursday evening for the first stop on the Hot Cities Tour 2015–Hong Kong. Our route with Qatar Airways had us spending 8 hours in Doha before reaching our final destination. Normally, the words “eight-hour layover” do not exactly make me jump for joy, but this layover was a little different. We were picked up at the airport and driven to “the Pearl”–an artificial island similar to “the Palm” in Dubai that is the first land in Qatar to be available for freehold ownership by foreign nationals. Here we met Qatari native, recent McGill grad, and former Hot Cities Tour participant Majd Steitieh and her father for a short walk around the harbour. Afterwards we set out for the Steitieh family home where they graciously hosted all 40 of us as well as a number of other guests of honour. IMG_0963 We enjoyed an amazing dinner at their palatial home with a number of McGill alumni and Qatari locals. After dinner we heard from Morgan Waters–Executive Producer at Al Jazeera’s English channel, Andre Dubois–the Canadian Ambassador to Qatar, Issa Abu Issa–CEO of Salam International Investment, his son Mohamed–Dakar Quad Athlete and budding entrepreneur, and Stephen Anderson–Partner at PwC Qatar. It was absolutely incredible to hear from these individuals about life and work in Qatar and particularly about Qatar’s growth over the past 10 years. IMG_0962 Stephen left us with some striking statistics that make his consulting-driven branch of PwC an exciting place to work: 250,000 Native Qataris 2,000,000 people living in Qatar $210,000,000,000 GDP $50,000,000 available oil reserves per capita (native Qataris) $100,000 GDP per capita (highest in the world) To put this in perspective even further, Mohamed is planning to open a very unique and high-end gym concept in the coming year. Being a member at his gym would mean being matched with a personal trainer that monitors your progress and nutrition at the swanky facility–for $600 USD/month! 11025179_10153171586056388_6639082457885424660_n All this to say that this was a layover I certainly won’t be forgetting anytime soon! We flew Cathay Pacific for the last leg of our journey to Hong Kong and touched down late afternoon. By the time we were all checked in to our hotel it was around 4:30PM and I decided I needed to get out for a jog after 30+ hours of sitting. I find running to be a great way to explore a city–Hong Kong’s density presented unique challenges to city jogging but I still managed to dodge pedestrians, take in lots of interesting smells and wander the neighbourhood of Soho around our hotel for 30 minutes. IMG_0971 That evening, we attended an alumni dinner/cocktail in the financial district of Hong Kong. The event was facilitated by Alvin Chung–McGill’s Director of Asian Advancement–and we learned that there are roughly 3,000 McGill alumni in HK and they regularly have 200+ people turning up to events! The cocktail was a great chance to talk to a diverse group of alumni about living and working in Hong Kong. IMG_0985 Of course, it was only a matter of time before I ran into someone I knew… As I got chatting with one of the alumni at the event, it didn’t take long for us to realize that I played rugby with his daughter in first year at McGill! Of course we promptly took a selfie and sent it off to her. Despite being tired from a long day of travel, a group of us rallied to go for a walk which turned into a couple of drinks at a nearby watering hole. Hong Kong is full of expats and they definitely dominate the nightlife scene. A couple of the Brits we met at the bar described Hong Kong as a small town in a big city if you’re living in the expat community. Overall, a whirlwind 36 hours and I can’t wait to continue exploring HK tomorrow

Dazzling Dubai

We touched down in Dubai a few hours late after a small hiccup–our flight from Nairobi was diverted to Mombasa mid-flight after a crash on the runway in Nairobi (super reassuring). We arrived at our airbnb apartment in the middle of the night, caught a few hours of zzzs, and finally got ready for our 48 hour whirlwind tour of the UAE’s economic hub. We bought a two-day pass for the “big bus”sightseeing tour, as per a friend’s recommendation. Thank god we did; Dubai turned out to be the furthest thing from a “walking city”.

Our first stop was the Mall of Emirates. We headed straight for its most famous attraction–“Ski Dubai”–the largest indoor snow park in the Middle East. The park is complete with 5 runs, a chair lift, snow tubing, and zorbing. The funniest part to me was that no one has the proper gear so they are all forced to rent entire ski-wear and equipment. The end result is hundreds of people in the EXACT same outfit; just imagine how traumatic that could be as a child if you got separated from your parents in that place. Our next stop was Dubai Mall–the world’s biggest mall. At this point you might be thinking wow, why did they go to so many malls? Let me assure you that shopping is Dubai’s most beloved pastime and the malls are plentiful, luxurious, yet all a bit different. Another recurring theme of Dubai was “biggest, tallest, longest, best” etc. The city is obsessed with breaking records and having the biggest and best of everything. Below is a photo of an enormous aquarium right in the middle of the Dubai Mall (across from the world’s biggest candy store).


Dubai Mall is located in what is known as Downtown Dubai. Dubai felt like it was separated into three micro-cities–Old Dubai, Downtown Dubai, and the Marina. As the city continues to grow I’m sure the lines between these areas will blur, but right now they feel like fairly isolated clusters. Also in Downtown Dubai is the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower at nearly 830m high. The Burj Khalifa stands adjacent to The Dubai Fountain–the world’s largest dancing fountain (are you seeing the trend yet?).


We drove through Jumeirah, a residential area that passes by the notable Jumeirah Mosque, the beach, and the iconic Burj Al Arab. We took a stroll through Souk Madinet (souk means “market” in Arabic). This particular Souk was had all the fixings of a modern building but was designed to replicate a more traditional Arabian market.


Our last big stop of the day was the Atlantis Aquarium. The Atlantis is located on the outer bank of the famous Palm Jumeirah–the iconic man-made island shaped like a palm tree built just off the coast of Dubai. Neighbouring the Palm are the World Islands–300 artificial island constructed in the rough shape of a world map.

We ended up taking the metro to our dinner destination that evening. Dubai’s metro was hands down the nicest public transit I have ever experienced and it was built in less than two years! While riding the metro Casey observed that there were a lot of women on the metro. We looked around a little more and noticed that Dad was one of two men in our crowded car; however, the car beside us looked to be about 50/50 men and women. Eventually the other man got off and dad was left as the lone male in our car and I caught an older woman giving him a very dirty look. Sure enough, when we got off, we saw signs that indicated we had been riding in a metro car designated for women and children only.

We eventually ended up in an area called The JBR Walk (Jumeirah Beach Residence) which is a beautiful strip of restaurants and stores right along the beach and close to our apartment. Most of the stores and restaurants in Dubai are actually chains from the U.S. and other Western countries, so we didn’t feel bad when we decided on Cheesecake Factory after a long two weeks of African food. Even Tim Hortons has made it pretty big in Dubai!


On Day 2 in the Dubai, Casey, my mom, and I got off to an early start with a jog on the beachfront located a short 5 minutes from our apartment–airbnb for the win! Our next stop was a short one-hour cruise through the Marina and out into the Arabian Gulf. The marina is lined with million-dollar yachts and surrounded by sky-scrapers–including the tallest residential building and the world’s tallest high rise building with a 90 degree twist–and from the Gulf we got a great view of the Burj Al Arab and the city skyline.



Afterwards, we set off on our tour of Old Dubai. At this point, we had only really seen modern Dubai; this meant that most of the buildings we had seen were constructed in the last 10-15 years, and much of the area we had covered was sandy desert as recently as 2000. Modern Dubai feels like a giant Disney World in a lot of ways; there is no trash in sight, the buildings are brand new and perfect, and the entire city is characterized by extravagance. In Old Dubai we finally saw remnants of the city’s more humble beginnings as a port town known for its pearl industry pre-WWII. We drove through the less Disneyesque streets and along the Dubai Creek. We stopped at the world famous Gold Souk to see what all the hype was about. Dubai is the world’s leading physical gold market, with more than 40% of the world’s supply passing through the city! On our final night, we toured out to the desert for a traditional Arabian evening of camels, henna tattoos, and watching the sun set behind the sand dunes.


We enjoyed our final dinner right along the beach, non-alcoholic beverages in hand. We learned on the first night that only hotels are licensed to sell alcohol in the Emirate of Dubai because it is a Muslim nation. Each Emirate has its own rules on this but some are even more conservative and are completely dry. On our way back to the apartment we spotted this decadent Porsche police cruiser–yet another sign that the UAE is not strapped for cash at the moment.


On the whole, 48 hours was not nearly enough to see everything. But I still felt like we got a very good feel for the city. There is still so much development ahead for Dubai and I can’t wait to return in 5 or 10 years to see how the city grows!

Day 24: Island Life

Nusa Lembongan is only 8 square kilometers so we decided to rent some bikes for the day to explore. We were too scared to rent motorbikes so went with regular old bicycles which they call “push bikes”–we soon discovered why.

We set off with a physical map in hand, big tingz for kids of the smartphone generation. The bike did not have a head low enough to conquer this first hill so we ended up pushing our bikes (hence the name) for about 10 minutes until we reached this spot: Panorama Point, a great view of a big chunk of the island.


We continued on our journey to this suspension bridge which connects Nusa Lembongan and it’s neighbouring island Cenigan. We both agreed yellow was a great colour choice, so fun.


The rest of the day we beach hopped around the island to Dream Beach, Mushroom Bay, and Sunset Beach. Dream beach was our fav, very secluded and great sand.


Day 23: Nusa Lembongan

Got off to an early start but not without having room service breakfast on our front porch! I’m telling you, this is a pretty major perk of hotels in Bali: where else can you get a beautiful room in a great location with breakfast in bed included for $12.50/person a night!?


We had a private van drive us to the port where we then took a thirty minute speed boat ride to Nusa Lembongan, an island off the southeast coast of Bali. Waters were a little rough not gonna lie..kind of felt like you were stuck on the worst ride at the fair for half an hour.

We checked in to our new accommodations. I must say pre departure I was expecting that traveling on a pretty major budget would result in some less than luxury accommodations but SE Asia has proved yet again to be the king of budget hotels. We literally have an ocean view villa and breakfast included for less than the price of breakfast by itself at home.



We’ve had a pretty busy last couple days in Ubud so we spent the afternoon lounging on the beach that is right beside our hotel. Despite the beautiful weather it is actually low season for the islands so we wound up with the entire beach to ourselves for the whole afternoon–can’t complain.


Filled the canine void in my life by making friends with this little guy, too cute.