Tag Archives: Travel

First Impressions (Belated Post)

**Note: This post is quite overdue. I wrote it on my phone on the plane back from Los Angeles and forgot about it. Enjoy!

First impressions make a huge difference in the way people perceive things. Hence the phrase: “Judging a book by its cover.”

I remember when I went on a college visit in Michigan. My mother and I stayed at a hotel in downtown Detroit. It was the first time I had been there, and it made a lasting impression. When you walk the streets of a big city, in between all the high rises, you expect to see people walking the sidewalks and cars on the streets. In Detroit, all of those were conspicuously absent. It was like a massive ghost town. It was very unsettling and made me anxious and uncomfortable. This post is about my tip and how first impressions can color things and how they are hard to overcome.

I took a trip in late August to check out two potential cities I might move to: San Francisco and Los Angeles.

San Francisco

After my flight landed in San Francisco, I took the public transit to the city. I get off the train (called the BART) from the airport in the middle of the financial district and that eerie feeling I got in Detroit came back with a flood. The streets were devoid of people or cars. There was no one around except the people that got off the Bart with me. As I walked around, the only people I saw were two or three homeless people for blocks. I had some time to kill before I could check into my hotel, so I explored looking for people in the desolation. The more I wandered, the more I realized that the sidewalks and streets are very dirty here. I realized later that a large part of that is because it rarely rains in San Francisco, so the water cannot wash away the dirt. When the time to check into my hotel came closer, I started heading in that direction. And as I went I finally saw some people, but they were bands of homeless people.

Reflection. The deserted streets and abundance of homeless really put me off in the beginning. However I gave the city another chance and it rewarded me. I realized that the cheap hotel/hostel that I stayed in was cheap partly because of shared bathrooms and Spartan accommodation, but because it is right next to one of the worst parts of town. But that it’s the trade off with an expensive city and a limited budget.

As I explored the city and got to know it better, I realized that it is just like any other city, with its good and bad parts. I happened to be staying in the bad part, which skewed my first impression. With my exploration, came the discovery of the better parts of town; the parts that everyone raves about. I still don’t think I could live there, in part because it is so damn expensive, but I think I would really like the suburbs or the surrounding areas in the valley.

I took a tour bus out to Muir Woods and the coast. After growing up in the Midwest, seeing the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean was stunning. I cannot imagine what Lewis and Clark must have felt when their journey took them here.

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Los Angeles: The City of Dreams… and Nightmares

The conclusion to a couple of the most ridiculous two days of my life:

I fly into LA on Tuesday night and go to the Lego + Belkin launch party of their new iPhone case, with a Lego board on the back. On Wednesday I went to the Warner Brothers studio tour. We looked at all the sets for Conan, Two and a Half  Men, and Two Broke Girls. We then went to the on-site museum where the sorting hat used in Harry Potter sorted me into the Slytherin house (oh no!). I concluded the day with a night that I will never forget. The friend I was staying with, Chris, works for Steve Aoki’s music studio. That night Steve was filming a music video and needed extras. We found out after we got there that the music video included Richard Simmons. The premise was that the headphones teleported Steve Aoki into Richard Simmons for some reason. Now if you asked me for the most random “celebrity” I could have seen while in LA, I couldn’t have even gone that deep into the list of celebs.

Now, not only did we see him, but since we were performing our role as the crowd–A signature thing for Steve Aoki concerts is that he throws a cake out into the audience. So since he was acting as Steve, he threw a cake into the crowd, which I was a part of. Later, Richard dressed up in drag (apparently his thing?) and was walking through the people as we were acting like we were partying for the show. It was a very strange experience.

While we filmed the parts with Steve Aoki, he also threw a cake, and it happened to be on the girl standing right next to me. He also sprayed two bottles of champagne all over the crowd. So by the end, I was drenched in champagne and cake and in state of disbelief that that whole experience had happened. What a couple of days.

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Cambodge

How to approach this topic? I don’t want to seem biased or make any harmful judgments. It is for this reason, (and procrastination) that I have taken so long to write this post.

The later part of my time in Hong Kong saw my culture shock diminish as I got used to the differences. However, in Cambodia (and very briefly Thailand), the culture shock I experienced was much more intense. While the Hong Kong’s shock lasted about a day and a half, Cambodia’s lasted two weeks—actually more, I am still not totally adjusted after three weeks, but it is significantly better now.

My first couple weeks here were a major struggle. I left from weather that was about 10˚F with very low humidity, and came to 95˚F with VERY high humidity. As someone who does not deal well with heat in the first place, this was difficult to deal with. However, I expected to have to battle heat, but I was not expecting the horrible humidity. Even just sitting in on my bed with a fan going full blast directly at me could not stop me from sweating. I woke up in a pool of my own perspiration every morning, assuming I actually got to sleep at all—which was not very often and never for long. Thinking straight was harder because it felt like my brain was melting. I told myself that I just needed to wait till my blood thinned out again and it would get better. But the feeling of constant filthiness (which will always make me grumpy), heat exhaustion, and dehydration broke me down that first week. This was largely in part because since it was my first week, I did not have any regular duties to perform to take my mind off of how uncomfortable and miserable I was. I just stewed in my desolation and had no relief.

Nothing here works well and everything is inefficient. In my three weeks so far, the power has gone out twice. Each time was for about 3 hours. As if it wasn’t bad enough when the power goes out, so do the fans and my laptop (I brought my old shitty one with a 5 minute battery life). It starts to get sweltering hot in the house, and with candles lit it becomes even worse. I was dripping sweat into my own meal during dinner. People are also working on Cambodian time. Every day they take a 3 hour lunch from 11-2. This is unbearable to me, coming from America where half the time I would work straight through my lunch. Appointments are the same way. I was waiting in the house for a carpenter to bring some bunk beds; he was due at 2 o’clock. 3:30 rolls by and still no sign of him. He finally shows up at 4, two hours late. It is like this with everyone.

On top of the weather, the whole area is extremely poor. Now this is sad and I am not trying to seem like some stuck up American and belittling the people for not having much, but while I walk around and get stared at all the time, I feel embarrassed. I cannot control where I was born, but that doesn’t make me feel any better. Being stared at all the time makes it very awkward. Part of my internship is to go out to the poorest area of the district and interview families to determine their ability to run a business with as potential grant recipients. Therefore I see the worst of the worst situations. Some of the children out there have never seen a white person before and there were varying reactions. They ranged from terrified and running away, to grabbing my arms and legs and stroking my “pretty” white skin. It was very uncomfortable. This part didn’t surprise me too much, when my family and I were in Beijing, we were stared at constantly. I also thought I had seen poor neighborhoods before, but nothing compared to this. Even with the widespread poverty, everyone seems in good spirits and is timid, but friendly.

One of the grant families

One of the grant families

A nicer street

On a quick social structure and history tangent, I think that the Khmer Rouge Era really messed up all of the countryside as well as the country as a whole. The genocidal lunatics killed all of the people who had any sort of brainpower and sent everyone else into the countryside to become farmers. Pol Pot (the Khmer Rouge leader) had some sort of deranged agrarian society dream, but instead of using the rice to feed his people, he sold it all to China in exchange for guns to fight the Vietnamese. I think that the reason the people in the countryside are so poor is because the repercussions from this time are still being felt to this day. People always remember the Holocaust and the havoc wreaked there, but this was almost as bad and took place 30 years closer to today.

But back to the topic, it was like I had died and gone to a burning hell. I was about to just quit and go home, I was so miserable. Thankfully, the group was planning a trip to Phnom Penh the first weekend I was there, so I had an escape. We went out and saw the children’s school that was turned into a political prison and torture camp. Then we went out to the Killing Fields where the Khmer Rouge held more prisoners and (obviously) killed them. Very uplifting stuff. On the way out to the Killing Fields, my friend Ollie and I stopped at an old military base where they have a bunch of guns that people can shoot. We both shot a clip from a AK-47 and then I fired off 100 rounds from an M60. I’m glad that we did this before seeing the Killing Fields because it was quite a downer and would feel very inappropriate to go shoot a bunch of machine guns. Granted, most of the victims were not killed by guns, but still.

After my first two weeks, things started to get much better. Four more volunteers came the next weekend: three really nice (and pretty) British girls and one 17 year old dweeb from Colorado who I would have to live in a tiny room with. This last week was very busy as I had to interview 14 more families and help administer business training to people who have already been selected to receive grants. Since I was so busy, and the house was livelier, I was able to keep my mind off of the heat and any other problems I was having. I also just stopped caring about being hot and sweaty all the time.

The other night I was talking to Kim and Charlotte, the local coordinators. They expressed how happy they were with my work here, the way I conduct myself, and the ease with which I have spent my time. It was by no means easy for me, but as local coordinators, they have enough problems so I did not want to add on to them by being a pain in the ass.  I apparently have been the volunteer that has complained the least. They even jokingly said they want to steal my passport and kidnap me to make me stay. After my first week here they weren’t too sure I would make it as well as I did, but I overcame the adversity and made the best of my time here. It really makes me happy to hear this because I really was having a tough time and I wasn’t sure I was doing any good. Kim and Charlotte are good people. They work really hard under difficult circumstances and do good work here.

The day after tomorrow I will be heading back to the United States. The temperature is supposed to be -2˚ when I get back. Another 100˚ swing on the way back. I’ll be happy to not be sweating all the time. It will be sweet to go back to civilization and cool weather. But it will also be bitter that my journey is over and I will leave this place and probably not see any of these people for a long time (if ever again). I think that this experience has made me a better person in the end and I am glad that I fought through and didn’t give up after that first week. See you in a few days United States!

Thailand to Cambodia

My arrival procedure was to fly into Bangkok and take a bus from there to the Poi Pet border of Thailand and Cambodia. This was quite an adventure. By myself, with a huge duffel bag and a large backpack and an idealistic attitude. Once I crossed the border, I was to be picked up by the local coordinator and driven to my final destination is Battambang.

Once I landed in Bangkok and make my way through immigration, I needed to take a cab to the Ho Chi Mit Bus Terminal. I had to really hassle with the cab driver to get him to only take me to the bus terminal. He was basically begging me to have him drive me to the border. Eventually I get to the station and am confronted by totally different languages and culture than anything I have ever seen before. To quote Bill Bryson:

“That’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You cant read anything, you only have the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.“

I had to wander around the bus station for quite a while before I was able to get my bearings and find the window I wanted. I get a ticket for the border and wait a while till the bus is ready to leave. I am finding the heat much warmer here than in Hong Kong. Thankfully, the bus was air conditioned. Sure it smells like fish, but that is a trade-off I am willing to make.

While sitting on the bus waiting for departure, I was reading my book, Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. A white man and his wife/girlfriend (backpackers by the looks of them) walk by and he says how the book is very good and he has a copy in his bag. It is always nice to show some camaraderie on the road. It seems like he is living the vision expressed in the book.

From the bus

From the bus

My impressions of Thailand from out the window of the bus (not very authentic, I know), are that it looks a bit like Florida, but maybe after a hurricane and with mountains in the background

After the six and a half hour bus ride (only supposed to take 4 hours), we get off at near the border. As soon as you step out, you are swarmed by locals offering things. I make my way past them and grab my bags, only to realize that I have no idea which way to go and there are no signs around. I spot some westerners from my bus walking confidently away, so I take a chance and start to follow them. My gamble paid off, as they were heading to the border as well. I catch up and talk to them as we go and find out they have already acquired visas too, so we skip the super long lines to head to Thai exit immigration. There is only one line, so I let them go first since they were nice enough to show me the path. We part ways here and exchange words of good luck.

Now this is the first time I have ever crossed a border on land (other than driving to Canada, but that hardly counts), and I always assumed that it was basically just a line in the sand with officers checking passports and such on either side. At this border, that is not the case at all. There is like a no man’s land in between the border offices that is filled with casinos and all sorts of other stuff. I was quite baffled by this. As I walk out of the office, I get swarmed again, but this one man is really persistent. I start explaining to him that I’m getting picked up and don’t need a ride, when he says, “wait are you an American from Chicago?” Taken aback, I say yes, and he says he knows the guy who is supposed to pick me up. Now I am skeptical of this, but he takes me across the street to a man who asks the same thing and when I say yes, he goes, “Oh you must be Tim Hanlon! I was sent to meet you here and take you through the Cambodian side to the car!” I’m relieved. Most of the signs were not in English and I would have had some difficulty finding the other border office without this guy’s help.

I make it through and find the car (the driver had sent this guy to find me and help me get to him), in which myself and another volunteer–who was there to renew her visa–head to Battambang. After that all-day fiasco, I had planned on sleeping in the car. But driving in Cambodia is absolutely insane. There are tons of scooters and motorbikes on the roads at all times, and the car would get so close to them that if I wanted to, I could roll down the window, reach out, and squeeze someone’s brakes if I wanted to. Almost everyone drives recklessly. For example: passing on the narrow roads with just a few meters to spare from getting in a head on collision. We almost died a few times. It is safe to say that I got no sleep in the car.

We finally arrive at the volunteer house at 8pm, just 16 hours after I began the journey that morning. But I have finally arrived to my home for the next month.

Hong Kong: Part 2

Missed Part 1? Here: Hong Kong: Part 1

The mix of Chinese and British cultures is really an interesting combination. It always makes me laugh when I hear an Asian person with a British accent. But it’s the little things that are very similar to what I have seen in London: street signs, roads, arrows telling you which way to look at cross walks, etc.

I started to get my bearings around the hotel on day two. I also had Italian food for dinner the night before and a Starbucks coffee in the morning. This helps me remember that this place isn’t totally different.

On a side note, while I was sipping my coffee waiting for a ferry, I noticed a few things. Some customs must be very different here. I remember in Beijing that people were spitting snot everywhere on the street. I even was almost hit by an old lady. While I was sitting in the Starbucks, I saw three different people sneeze multiple times on the person in front of them on the escalator. Since it happened more than once, it couldn’t have been an accident. I feel that covering your mouth and nose while you sneeze is just common sense for health and just grossness reasons. But who knows, maybe it’s the norm here.

I headed to Macau for a day trip on day two. The ferry from Hong Kong Island to Macau is pretty cool. It seats about 14 across in airline style seats. The ride takes about an hour. I wasn’t aware that after you buy your ticket you have to go to another stand and get assigned a seat. So I was late getting assigned my seat, but my luck continued and I got a bulkhead seat with lots of legroom. I hope this lucky streak lasts the whole trip. The seas were choppy that day my friends. I shouldn’t have drunk a large coffee just before getting on the boat. I was praying that I didn’t get sick, and more so the baby next to me.

…..

And it threw up. I don’t know what the parents expected after they started feeding it 15 minutes into the voyage. At least the mother had the good sense to grab a barf bag.

…………

THEY ARE CHANGING THE BABY ON THE SEAT NEXT TO ME! This is outrageous. There are bathrooms right around the corner! The fact that it puked and is crying was bad enough, but changing it on the seat next to me? Jesus. My luck ran out. No wonder they gave me this seat.

I finally get to Macau. Once I got through immigration (good thing I brought my passport, didn’t know I would actually need it), I was scared they didn’t take Hong Kong dollars. So I went to an ATM to get Macau currency. I tried to just get a little, but I ended up having to take out $1000. The machine gave me two $500 bills. How am I supposed to break these?? The cab ride to Macau Tower cost about $28 and he wouldn’t take one of the bills. Fortunately, I still had some HK$ on me to pay. At least I have $500 to blow at a casino now.

From the top and the bottom.

From the top and the bottom.

The Macau Tower is pretty cool. The observation deck is open air on top, and there is a ledge on the outside where you can walk along the edge. You can also bungee jump or controlled freefall off the top. Insanity. If you watch “An Idiot Abroad,” you know what I am talking about.

Now I have heard that Macau is the Las Vegas of Asia, and boy where they right. I saw at least 3 Rolls Royce’s and a few Bentleys. One of the Rolls was a shuttle for a hotel. There are even branches of the Wynn and MGM casinos dispersed among the Portuguese and Asian ones. They are basically the same as in Las Vegas, but Asians LOVE baccarat. About 80% of the tables are baccarat. Could only find a total of 10 tables of Blackjack in the Wynn and MGM combined. I also didn’t see one craps table. After losing some money and getting laughed at for struggling with noodles and chopsticks by the couple next to me, I headed back to Hong Kong Island.

Day Three

I witnessed an older woman typing a text on her iPhone. To do it she had a drawing pad instead of a keyboard and needed to draw the Chinese letters then select one from a group of suggestions. This seems a very tedious and inefficient method of texting. I’ve always been curious how texting worked over here.

From the Peak

I took the tram to get to the top of Victoria’s Peak. It is sort of like a rollercoaster since it is so steep and on the rickety rails. I definitely am glad I waited to go to the peak, this is by far the clearest day I have been here for. Granted, it is still smoggy, but it’s better than before. Pictures don’t do the view justice. It’s much easier to see through the smog with your eyes than through the lens of a camera. The views from up there are fantastic. The lush greens from the mountainside contrast with the modern skyline nicely.

Victoria Harbor

That night I took a harbor cruise to see the Symphony of Lights. It is the world’s biggest lightshow with over 40 buildings on the skyline participating. The views were spectacular from Victoria’s Harbor, I wonder how they looked from the Peak?

Tomorrow morning at 5:15am I am taking a cab to the airport. Not going to be fun. However my last day in Hong Kong was an unforgettable one. I am ready to move on to Thailand and Cambodia.

Hong Kong: Part 1

It is quite the place. The term “concrete jungle” is made self evident here. The claustrophobia of the city streets is overwhelming at times. Narrow streets and sidewalks, very tall buildings, being a minority and alone, and signs in Chinese everywhere lend to this feeling. Sometimes is feels like the whole block is going to collapse in on itself. The winding streets and foreign language make it very hard to navigate if you don’t know where you are. Basically wherever you are, all of the buildings around you are at least 25 stories tall. This means that at ground level the buildings are so tall that they block any view of a very tall skyscraper, the 88 story IFC Building for example, that you could use as a landmark. I use this trick in Chicago with the Sears (Willis) Tower and other buildings. It helps me know where I am and what direction I am traveling.

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The fact that I haven’t the slightest clue what any of the signs say nor what the people are saying makes it much much worse. Street signs are almost nonexistent on smaller roads and even if they are there, the sign is small and gray; just so it can blend perfectly into the surroundings!

When you walk down Nathan Road, the main shopping road in Kowloon, the jungle creatures come out. I was harassed by every Indian man with a suit on about tailoring. Then shopkeeps along the road of the smaller stores come and yell at you to buy their wares. This is the China I remember from Beijing. However, these types of people were usually confined to the markets.

Traveling to such a foreign place seems like it would always be better with a friend or family member. I think that if I had a partner in crime, so to speak, the whole experience would have been very different. We would at least have two heads instead of one to solve a problem (or to beat off attackers). Just having someone to talk to during a meal or seeing a sight makes it more enjoyable. Being Steven Glansberg gets really old really fast. Even if the person was someone I didn’t particularly like, I would have someone to share the experience with for the rest of our lives. As a solo traveler, I cannot relate the experiences that I have lived with anyone in the same way. The sense of camaraderie and a shared laugh of nostalgia is a wonderful thing.

Hopefully this is just a mix of jet lag and culture shock. I hope so. This is only the beginning of my Southeast Asian excursion.

Part 2

The Journey: Leg 1

I always have the creeping suspicion when the plane is taxiing that while it is turning, the front wheel is going to snap off and the whole aircraft falls forward into the tarmac.

I walk up to the desk with my premium economy ticket and as they scan it, a loud beep comes from the machine. They ask me to wait at the desk. Now before the plane started boarding, they were asking people to give up their tickets because the plane was overbooked. I had a reservation to catch so I decided not to take them up on the offer of $400. So while I was waiting at the desk I started to get worry that I was one of the unfortunate souls who would get bumped to a later flight…

So they ask me to come to another attendant, and fearing the worst, the attendant hands me a boarding pass and says “Congratulations you have been upgraded to business class.” I couldn’t believe my ears! I was giddy with excitement as I walked down the tunnel towards the plane. The greeters say how my seat is straight ahead and to the right. So I am walking down the aisle past some posh first class seats and walked through a curtain into the next section. I remembered then to look at my actual seat number since it has changed from before. I look down, see 24G, look up and see 28K in the first row of the section I am standing in. Meaning, that that posh section I had just walked through was actually my section! How life is good!

I got a seat that had its own (roughly) 20” TV that could fully recline with lots of storage and its own noise canceling headphones. Things started off with a hot towel and a glass (yes glass and not plastic) of water.  Once everyone was seated we received a bottle of water and a toiletries bag containing lotions, chap stick, socks, a shoe horn, toothbrush and paste, and an eye cover.  After takeoff we were served a meal.  My food and drink consisted of Appetizer: red wine, shrimp salad with cocktail sauce, with a salad and rolls; Dinner: More red wine, chicken breast with green beans and cornbread (one of the many options that I chose); Post dinner: Port wine with cheese, fruit, jam and crackers; Dessert: Caramel flan cheesecake and coffee with gourmet chocolates. All of this was consumed while lounging in my chair and watching Lincoln and Killing Them Softly (terrible movie by the way). I proceeded to try to sleep, but was only able to get about a half hour of sleep at the most.

After my failed attempt at sleep I watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and moved into the movie, The Master.  I had seen a trailer for this movie before it came out and thought that it looked good, but it got very little publicity so when it did come out I totally forgot about it.  So I gave it a try.  What a waste of 2 hours and 15 minutes.  The whole thing made very little sense and really did not have much meaning (however I am a poor excuse of a movie critic).  Once this movie was over I looked at the clock. I wish I hadn’t.  Still seven and a half hours to go.  And I’m getting very hungry.

After waiting another 5 hours occupied with more movie watching, we were served our “breakfast.” Mushrooms, mushrooms, and more mushrooms. Oh yea, and fruit. Two of my favorite things… I scarfed down the rolls and crackers, leaving the food that my food eats alone. Going to have to feast after landing. 1:38 to go.

Of course as soon as the plane makes its approach for landing and turned on the fasten seatbelt signal, I get a strong urge to use the bathroom. So that final half hour in the air was excruciatingly long. After we get off at the gate and I relieve myself, I realize that if I had not been upgraded, that flight could have been much, much worse. I decided then to give myself a mental note to give Cathay Pacific a great review.

Now getting from my plane to Hong Kong Island was a breeze. Getting from the MTR to my hotel was not. Immigration had a massive line, but the attendants kept it moving fast. After that I headed to baggage claim, and spotted my bag right away. Next stop, ATM to get some $HK.

Buying a ticket for the Airport Express was a cinch as well. Now Chicago and London need to take a page out the Hong Kong MTR System for their subway systems. The Airport Express is a part of this system. The tickets are pretty cheap. The stations are large, spacious, and clean and include a board at each stop telling you how long until the train arrives. The stations can be crowded but it never seems overwhelming. The trains are long and the cars are large and sterile with lots of handholds, although since the ride is so smooth, they are almost unnecessary. The railways are enclosed so there is not much danger. The Airport Express has a route map lit up by LEDs so you can see where you are. From the Airport to Hong Kong Island at the Central Station takes about 30 minutes. The regular MTR stops have maps lit up with LED lights as well, telling you what line and stop you are on and headed to. There are also arrows showing which direction you are headed.

However, as soon as you step out of the clandestine buildings of the MTR, you step into the chaos that is Hong Kong. Streets are narrow, signs are in Chinese, lots of people everywhere, small indistinguishable street signs (if existent), and tall buildings. Its a bit overwhelming at first, coming from Suburbia, IL. I pull out my map and start walking in what I believe is the right direction. I come to an unscheduled fork in the road… Uh oh.. Decision time. I took the road less traveled (ha ha). I end up totally lost in a foreign city at night. Not a good situation. It struck me then that it was about 40-50 degrees hotter here than in Chicago, and I’m wearing a fleece and jeans with a backpack and a duffel bag, and I’m starting to sweat profusely. Things are not looking good.

Now I’ve seen pictures of the hotel online before I left, and its a 25 story blue building. So I after a few more ill advised random turns, I come across a street that I actually recognize off of my map. I know have some sort of bearing of where I am: about 6 blocks past where I needed to go. Finally I arrive, exhausted and sweaty, ready to begin my time in Hong Kong.

Hotel View