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5/22/2015 Enjoying the Desert

Time to finally get caught up on my travelogue.

May 18th (Monday): The Sonora Desert Museum
The Sonora Desert Museum is a combination zoo and botanical garden of sorts set a bit outside of Tucson. My family went there a long time ago when I was a little kid. My memories of that visit are pretty fuzzy, but I remember it being a nice place. So, when my dad suggested a family outing there, I figured it would be fun.
The museum turned out to be a bit further outside of Tucson than we remembered and involves driving through a nice stretch of saguaro filled desert. It may sound strange to some people, but I really do like the desert scenery. The rocks, the cactus, it can be really beautiful out here. I like the mountains, forests, and beaches as well, but, to some extent, I do miss living out here in the West.
Anyway, as I said before, the museum is part zoo and part botanical garden. There's trails winding through the desert leading to occasional animal inclosures and houses. The first one we reached was the reptile house, mostly snakes. That particular snake was the most energetic by far, it was moving almost constantly. As a note, the focus is animals that live in the desert, so keep that in mind when looking at the pictures. Fortunately, most of the snakes they had aren't harmful to humans, except for the rattle snakes, those you do need to worry about. Though they're not all that common.
One thing I remembered from my previous visit was the impressive fake cave they have set up on one part of the trail. It also leads to a nice display of the many cool types of rocks and minerals that can be found in this part of the country. Getting back out into the sun, we came across some more desert animals such as this squirrel and a coyote. As a note, the squirrel (and all the others I saw) weren't actually on display, they were just wild ones wandering around. This bird was wild too, but I'm really happy with how the shot came out. I think I've mostly got the hang of my new camera, at least for more ordinary types of shots. Back to the animals, the bobcats were kinda cute, but not something you'd want to get too close to. After a bit more nice desert scenery, we came to a bunch more animals including the big horned sheep (well, not those two so much, it's the adult males that have the really big horns) and an otter, which was a lot of fun to watch. They also had a really nice set of walk-in aviaries, which had a large variety of both birds and flowers. Even cooler, one was devoted entirely to hummingbirds. If we weren't on a bit of a schedule, I could have easily hung out in there for quite awhile longer, trying to get some more good pictures.
While it didn't really fit the desert theme, there was one last pleasant surprise on the way out, a nice little aquarium. It even had these cool little eels, which I haven't seen since I went to Yokohama Sea Paradise back in Japan.
It may be a bit out of the way, but if you're in the area I highly recommend spending a few hours at the Sonora Desert Museum. It's a really great way to learn about and appreciate just how much life and beauty there is out in the desert.


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5/20/2015 Escape

Gotta say, I'm enjoying my time back in Phoenix. It's a nice city and I do miss the desert a bit. I have a couple of travelogue entries to write, but I'm a bit short on time tonight so I'll do one now and save the second (and longer one) for Friday.

On an unrelated note, I'm selling a few things on ebay which some of your may be interested in. Check them out if you're curious.

May 17th (Sunday): Escape the Room AZ
Ever heard of escape rooms? I'm not sure where they originated (though I heard about them first in Japan), but they're a sort of real life puzzle game. Basically, a group of people is locked inside a room and given a certain amount of time to solve the puzzles inside in order to find a way out. If you've ever played 999 (on the DS) or its sequel, Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Rewards (on the 3DS and Vita), imagine something like that in real life, just without all the murder. On a side note, I recommend both of those games. Anyway, ever since I heard about real life escape rooms I've been wanting to try one but there haven't been any near where I lived and, the one time I was near one on a trip, I didn't have time to go. Then, a few days before I left for Phoenix, my mom sent a link to an escape room place she'd heard about over here and asked if I was interested. I was pretty surprised but excited, and the rest of my family was on board too.
On a side note, there were a bunch of geese crossing the road on our way there. The picture is horribly out of focus, but I only had a few seconds to snap it while holding my camera out of the car window, so I didn't have time to properly adjust it.
Anyway, we went to Escape the Room AZ in Scottsdale. As a note, you need to reserve a time in advance. And, unless your group buys up all the tickets for that room, you may be teamed up with some other people. They have three different rooms (with a fourth opening soon), and Hannah (my sister-in-law) had chosen the apartment one for our outing. After a brief explanation, our team (myself, my parents, brother, sister-in-law, and a couple unrelated girls we were grouped with) were locked in the room and the countdown began. You have one hour to solve the puzzles and escape the room. Fail...and they let you out of the room anyway, though without the sense of accomplishment that comes from escaping yourself. I don't want to say much of anything about the puzzles to avoid spoiling things for any of you who may want to try it, but our room was comprised of a three room apartment filled with puzzles and locks. Most of our job involved finding the various keys, codes, and the like needed to unlock cabinets, safes, etc. Some of the puzzles were fairly straightforward while others required a good bit of critical and occasionally lateral thinking. For better or worse, we all tended to split up and latch onto elements, often coming together in small groups to tackle one puzzle or another. There was a big monitor on one wall with our current time ticking down, as well as occasional hints provided by our guide, who was watching us on security cameras in another room. The hints were useful and targeted at whatever we were stuck on but, at the same time, they weren't too frequent and didn't give too much away either. Though they certainly did help us out at a couple of points. In the end, I think everyone contributed significantly to at least one or two of the puzzles and we managed to successfully escape with about five minutes to spare. Though it was never a sure thing and there were a couple of points towards the end were I was worried we'd fall just a little short. While we weren't the fastest group (the current record is 39 minutes to our 55), the guide said that only 20% of the groups successfully clear that room, so I think we did pretty well. Gotta say, it was great working as a group, but I do have to wonder how long it would have taken me on my own...
While not the cheapest way to spend an hour, it was a lot of fun and everyone (even my parents) had a really good time. While I don't know if I'll have time on this trip, I'd love to go back and take a crack at one of the other rooms. I may even try and design an escape room of my own in the future...


5/18/2015 Chinese Dance

I should have written this travelogue entry about a week ago, but was too busy and/or tired so here it is now. I've got some Arizona stuff to write about now too, though that'll have to wait until Wednesday.

May 10th (Sunday): Shen Yun
I first saw ads for Shen Yun (a touring Chinese culture / dance show) a couple years back in Florida but never went. Well, they'd been advertising their latest Honolulu show for months and, now that I have a Chinese girlfriend and all, I figured I really should check it out. Unfortunately, photos and videos weren't allowed so you'll have to search Youtube if you want to see what it looks like. Anyway, Shen Yun consists of a large number of scenes drawn from a mixture of Chinese history and mythology (various dynasties, the Mongols, the Journey to the West story, etc.). Each scene is comprised of a music and dance number. The music is a mixture of traditional Chinese and classical Western, both in composition and instruments. They had a live orchestra, which added a nice extra touch. Of course, the main focus is on the dance. They have a large team of dancers decked out in bright period appropriate (at least I think so) costumes for each scene. The dances were varied and I think they were traditional, though I really don't know enough about the subject to tell. There were quite a lot of twirls, jumps, and flips involved in some of them, giving a very gymnastic feel. Others were closer to ballet and then there were others (like the handkerchief dance) which were different from anything I've seen. All in all, it was very graceful, pretty, and well choreographed. Wouldn't say I learned much about Chinese history or anything (the only explanation of the scenes is a few lines in the program and from the hosts who introduce them), but it's a fun cultural experience. There were a couple of ballads (in Chinese, of course) as well, just to mix things up.
So, over all Shen Yun is a little expensive, and a couple of the scenes are dedicated to promoting a specific sect of Buddhism (one that's currently banned in China) and, as such, get a bit preachy. But that aside, it's a beautiful and interesting performance. It's not an absolute must see (like, say, a Cirque du Solei show) but, if it's in your area, you may want to give it a look.

Well, I really should get going. I'll aim to get some Phoenix travelogue stuff and maybe a restaurant review up on Wednesday.


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