Tag Archives: food

Return of the Chinese Landlord – Mike Chen’s AirBnB

4 Jan Mike Chen's Kitchen

I have been travelling with AirBnB for several years, and have made the obligatory good and bad experiences. But sometimes life still surprises me with a kick so low that it is more entertaining than hurtful. This is one of these stories, and I take it as occasion for a thorough review of Mike Chen’s AirBnB situation in Toronto, Ontario.

Personally, I don’t have high expectations when it comes to cheap lodging. All I really want is a place to cook my meals, a place to consume them, one to rest my weary body, and safe shelter for my stuff. My needs actually boil down to a clean kitchen and a clean bed room. As simple as that might seem, Mike Chen was able to disappoint on all accounts.

Mike Chen's AirBnB Rental

It looks continuous, but every store front signals one separate building. One of these five buildings is Mike’s rental place.

The Room

Let’s start with the room, because it’s the most obvious and least accessible flaw of this adventure. The mid-sized bedroom was relatively well maintained, and although both the fake hardwood floor and the old mattress were a bit squeaky, the general set up was neither uncomfortable nor out of the ordinary. The panorama was somewhat squandered by the old dresser-drawer with one out of three drawers missing. The absence of an actual dresser, and its replacement with a slightly worn display case increased the impression that the furniture was either hauled in from various yard sales, or had been acquired by a very skilled dumpster diver. Surprisingly, none of the furniture was actually dusty, except for the top shenves. You know – the places Chinese people can’t reach.

The shear fact that the heating vent in the ceiling was bisected by a hastily painted dry wall made it clear that this room had been added as an afterthought. The Chinese landlord also had also inserted a drywall ceiling, so as to block the sky light which would otherwise have provided a natural light source for my dark and sterile cell.

These general circumstances could have made my stay dull and solemn, but luckily the neighbouring house featured a constantly playing radio. Not loud enough to make out words, but sufficiently loud to recognize any song that you know. The radio literally never stopped playing, and it is only due the loud heating vent in the ceiling that I enjoyed times of relief from enforced radio play. The single small window of the room led out to the hallway, so not only could I hear all the other tenants passing by my room, I was also able to partake in their cooking efforts without ever getting up from my gnarly old chair.

Mike Chen bedroom

This bed room is not great. It’s also not unusual, or bad. Just normal, windowless Chinese rental.

Bath Room

Mike Chen Bath Room

A layer of dust, carbonate, and soap covers most surfaces to varying degrees. The top shelves in particular, because Chinese arms cannot reach there.

As in any other Chinese rental the bath room was plastered with notes, printed in surprisingly good English. One note asked “guests” to avoid flushing toilet paper down the drain, which provides you with a pretty accurate idea of the state of the draining power of said toilet. It also tells you something about the olfactory features of the bathroom: when you toss used toilet paper into the garbage bin, it is bound to develop a characteristic odour, reminiscent of any unsanitary Porter Potty or Forest Loo. Luckily, everyone ignored the paper warning.

However, in order to soil toilet paper with your rectal waste products you first have to find some, because the Chen House is one of those bring-your-own-paper rentals (which, obviously, you are not informed about upon booking). Needless to say that the bath room did not come with soap, towels, or any other kind of toiletries. The only gifts offered by management are two carbonate-encrusted drinking glasses on either side of the sink, so you could disgust the hell out of your tooth brush, if need be.

The absolute highlight of the bath room was the note on the inside of the door, saying “please help keep this bathroom clean”. A laudable notion, only betrayed by the crust of calcium carbonates covering the walls of the shower, the layer of grime on both of the cup boards, the dirt that freely floated across the floor, and the various pale greys that seemed to cover both waste bins AND the sink itself.

Mike Chen's Toronto Bath Room

Except for the floor very few surfaces in this bath room get cleaned regularly.

Cooking time

To me the ability to cook my own meals represents a vital part of the AirBnB experience. I always carry a set of bamboo cutlery, but for the actual process of food preparation I need to scout for rooms that feature a fully functional kitchen. I can’t afford to go out for three meals a day, so, yes, the kitchen matters.

Hood Fan cover at Mike Chen's

Someone actually tried to clean the cover of the hood fan. Why did he/she give up after 30% completion? Did the cleaner die or despair? We may never know.

Admittedly, Mike Chen’s place offered the most elementary equipment, such as microwave, fridge, stove, and a variety of utensils. The state of those items, however, was more than sketchy. The stove was functional, and after a quick clean-up it was ready to oblige my wishes. Yet, finding the appropriate utensils, even to cook up ordinary oat meal involved a laborious journey through the house, because the many shelves of the kitchen were nearly empty, and what little utensils were available, needed to be cleaned in order to avoid at least the most common diseases and infections.

Overall, the second floor contains six bed rooms and two kitchens, and I had to search both kitchens to collect enough equipment to start meal preparation. After finishing my breakfast I stored the pot, the plate, the chipped ceramic bowl, and the metal spoon (the single available piece of cutlery on the ENTIRE SECOND FLOOR!) in my room, so that I would not have to invest the same cleaning efforts before starting my next cooking adventure.

I don’t even want to talk about the greasy microwave, or the grimy fridge. The photos I took of the kitchen should be sufficiently scary to put you off food for a while, and induce a month-long diet on freshly trimmed tree bark. And if you lack the ability to see with your eyes, be assured that the smell of the fridge easily signals its willingness to spread diseases that the Western world has deemed extinct since the dawn of penicillin.

The general ambient of unease was artistically underlined by a variable mixture of dust, grease, and brown sauce that covered the shelves and doors of all cup boards. All this invites the general viewer to give the kitchen a thorough scrub, but with only two cleaning cloths and one towel available this effort would be rather limited in its scope, especially since all three of these rags are rather rigid, indicating that the cleaning cloths themselves have not undergone laundry for a little while.

Mike Chen's Kitchen

The remaining shelves of the kitchen are emptier than these. All are dusty and greasy, though.

Smelly Time

Talking of odours, there are a few rather uncomfortable issues to mention. Firstly the heating vent appears to feature a mediocre amount of dust, and after every heating cycle the room smells like an old sack.

The ancient hole in the wall, containing the aforementioned switch and fuse box, added to that problem. The space between the walls smelled of cold, old smoke, like a pre-war casino that has recently been unearthed by the world’s least ambitious archaeologist.

My hosts did not leave the place unsanitary, though. At least once a week someone came around, swept the floor, and infused some part of the common area with an unhealthy load of bleach. Given the choice between cockroach and airborne carcinogen I would not quite know which way to lean, but note that one can clean a bathroom without making it stink.

Now, all of that would be alright, if you could open a window, and swap the dusty, smoky, bleachy air from indoors with the dusty air from the street. But since my only window went out to the hallway it rather conflicted my nose further with the smell of cooking. At least most of the other tenants used the hood fan when they fried their morning beef, so the overall mixture was never overwhelmingly terrible.

Mike Chen hallway

During summer tenants can slouch on this dusty sofa, and stare at the twenty year old TV across the hallway. Why my room did not incorporate the rest of that sky light is beyond my understanding.

Been there, haven’t done that

Fridge filled with decaying stuff

This fridge does not contain the food of two AirBnB guests. This fridge is the result of at least half a year of ignorance.

 “Hold on!” I hear you screaming. (A remarkable feat, considering that I am writing this blog in your absence.) One might actually be inclined to believe that all of these flaws result from a temporary lack of enthusiasm regarding the health and safety of this Chinese rental dive. However, one would incline the wrong direction – the depth and extent of the dirt covering nearly every surface of the common space indicates that neither kitchen nor bath room have seen any domestic cleaning in half a year or longer.

Back when I lived in Calgary, Alberta, I supervised a house that had long-term tenants as well as AirBnB guests. From that experience I know what effort is involved in maintaining a house, and what it takes to keep its tenants happy. Ten minutes of cleaning every day already suffice for keeping most grime out of the common area. And even if you’re too lazy for that, one hour a week will keep kitchen and bath room in good shape.

My kitchen was always stocked with utensils, dishes, and a huge load of pots and pans. When someone didn’t have time to clean a bowl right away, or broke a plate, or lost a spoon, that accident never impeded on anyone else’s ability to cook, because there were always enough utensils left on the shelves, and those were always clean. Even today you can purchase a box of kitchen utensils for $10 at thrift stores or yard sales, so even IF your guests steal some cutlery, you still have plenty left.

Furthermore, having basic toiletries and cleaning equipment readily available under every sink makes it much easier for your guests and tenants to remove any dirt that threatens to destroy their comfort. The absence of buckets and clean rags made it impossible for me to give the dirty surfaces the scrub that they needed. The general state of Mike Chen’s AirBnB rental showed that little to no effort had been spent over the past year to relieve any surface of its unsanitary load.

Goemon's kitchen in Calgary

This was my kitchen back in Calgary. Mark the absence of grime, and the availability of clean equipment.


Chinese Paranoia

The signs of sketchy accommodation were visible from the beginning. When I told Mike via AirBnB about my potential arrival time on Saturday evening he did not reply to my electronic message. Instead, I found his front door locked and unattended. If it hadn’t been for a friend helping me with my luggage, I might have stood in the cold in front of that building for hours, because it took several phone calls to get someone to open the door for us. It is always problematic, if the landlord does not actually live at the premise, and does not have a suitable person to safeguard the front door in his stead.

It is also rather unusual for an AirBnB host to demand payment of a $100 security deposit, particularly if this is not mentioned in the online description. But it did not even stop there. When Mike’s mom finally arrived at the premise, and handed me the keys, she asked me to fill in a guest book with personal information, such as passport ID and phone number. I’m surprised she didn’t ask for my SIN card! When I asked if I could take a photo of the “guest book” she did not even hesitate to open it again, thus revealing a page filled with the personal information of a long train of other “guests” in her house. If anyone needs phone and passport numbers of international visitors to Toronto, give me a call, and we can strike a deal!

Cleanliness is not a Chinese invention

The whole affair is colourful and smelly. Much like this microwave.

Chinese Rental

Imagine you just got off the airplane, after six hours of flight and one hour of travel through a foreign city. When you arrive at your chosen dormitory you find it locked and in the dark, and without door bell. So you call up the land lord, and for twenty minutes you wait in the tea house next door for the arrival of keys. When the Mistress of Keys arrives she asks you to sign a contact sheet that contains the phone and passport information of various other tenants, and she has no issue with you photographing it. Your room features slightly broken furniture, and a whole in the wall that a house keeper needs to access infrequently in order to restore power to some rooms. When you try to relieve yourself of the burden of a long journey you suddenly realise that the toilet comes without paper, and somehow you need to clean out your crevices without leaving the unsanitary bathroom or clogging up the toilet drain. When you waddle back to your room, to carefully claim the soap from your luggage, so as to clean your welting fingers, your gaze falls upon brown pots and plates that suggest nobody has taken care of this property since at least the winter before. Welcome to Mike Chen’s Toronto!

In conclusion, the whole set-up of the house screams “Chinese Landlord Trap”. The building looks like it was built as a restaurant, but the new Chinese owners then employed drywall and a bucket of paint to compartmentalise each floor into rentable rooms. They did not quite maximise the use of space, which I am thankful for. I know Chinese landlords who would have cracked another two or three rooms out of that second floor.

In good Chinese tradition the landlord does not actually live near the property, and maintenance visits are so infrequent that you should be thankful to enjoy clean floors, and a continuous supply of warm air and hot water. Anything else would require the occasional wet cleaning cloth getting rubbed over dirty surfaces, but that is already too much to ask of someone who really just wants to make money off a property. The front of the building does indeed feature a shop of some sort, but for the entire duration of my stay I only saw the shop open when one of the tenants moved in or out.

As a result you receive living space that barely scratches over the minimum requirements of any Health & Safety inspector. There are no bed bugs or related vermin, and I guess the accessibility of emergency exits does not matter as long as you avoid setting the house on fire. But for my understanding of comfortable housing this residence falls a few miles short of its target, just about out of sight of anyone who likes to cook, or breathe deeply, or who sleeps uneasily, or people who don’t want to remove the soggy hair sieve from the bath tub to drain water from the shower.

Encrusted pot at Mike Chen's

Crusty black bottom line: the terrible state of Mike Chen’s rental place is not a temporary accident. It’s the result of considerable neglect.

PS.: As a matter of completeness I should mention that the floors of the house were relatively clean, and no bugs or related parasites could be sighted. Unsurprisingly, considering the weekly force of bleach that was employed on key aspects of the house. However, why the person who wiped the floors lived in complete ignorance of the rest of the house is beyond my comprehension.

Also, the host was readily approachable (via digital message), and when I asked for a one-day extension of my stay it was granted within twenty-four hours. My damage deposit was returned without hesitation, and the web camera that was mounted in the kitchen made me feel a limited amount of security.

Bergen, and the hardship of pasta

2 Jul Aerial view of part of the port in Bergen, Norway

I just have to give a shout-out to Marcio, our Human Resource Manager, who takes every complaint serious, and tries to resolve it in a professional manner. (The fact that such behaviour is noteworthy provides should actually be enough of a reminder of how terribly distressing life is aboard the ABC RypMeOff.) A month ago I wrote Marcio a short essay in tightly-lettered words on the back of a complaint form (the front was too short), discussing six points in which the chef of the staff mess fails to deliver nutrition and quality, and naming a few possible fixes. After two weeks we had a meeting with the head chef, and ever since then it’s been pasta time.

You know me as a constant complainer, so you’re not even surprised about the length of my letter. However, Marcio was not prepared for my onslaught of words, so he went through great lengths of political yarn to find a solution. My main concern was the general lack of vegan meal options at the buffet, as well as in the crew mess. Half the meal options contain meat, most of the rest is fried in butter, just to add that extra level of salt and cholesterol. On top of that there are rarely ever fresh and ripe fruit available. The head chef tried to comment on my perceived misery, but did not quite persuade with his arguments.

Aerial view of part of the port in Bergen, Norway

Bergen is a nice place. If you like fish, you will love it here.

Firstly, both the ingredients and the recipes for the various kitchens aboard are prescribed by cruise management in Geneva. The head chef just passes on the orders, but apparently is not allowed to change any of the routines. That means we are stuck with the salty, fatty menu that ABC Cruises provides; it won’t change in the foreseeable future. I guess the people that prepare our meals have about as much experience as chefs as I have as a photographer, meaning that upon applying for the job they had enough confidence to microwave a lasagne, but not enough to eat it.

Upon hearing about my perils of finding a decent meal aboard this vessel the head chef granted me the gift of making special requests to the staff in the crew mess, who would then grab me a meal right from one of the kitchens that supply the restaurants. I only utilised that possibility once, because the restaurant times don’t align with my schedule, making it all but impossible to acquire a meal from there within the half hour dinner break I am given. A bloody pointless solution, isn’t it?!

Instead, ever since that meeting with Marcio I have been eating pasta and tomato sauce, for nearly every lunch and dinner aboard. That particular menu item is readily available, because the kitchen can cook it up in about five minutes, so it is a very reliable alternative to the beefy sausages and buttered potato cream that the mess usually provides. Since this food source is nutritious as well as delicious, literally half the photo team has joined me on my quest. There it is, the culinary delight of the cruise photographer: pasta, with tomato sauce.

A bar aboard the ABC RypMeOff

The restaurants of the ABC RypMeOff all look very fancy, but the food in the staff mess is far less glorious.

But why did I even have to write a complaint for this? Why can’t ABC Cruises just offer decent food three times a day? This all feeds into the main problem with employment aboard the ABC RypMeOff. [Here we go again. Stuff your ears everyone; Goemon found a reason to rant.] My overall criticism with ABC Cruises is not that life aboard is so difficult. I certainly had demanding job positions before I started working for this company. Rather, this job is needlessly difficult. It would not take much to improve on the food situation, yet nobody seems to care enough to even complain about it. The manager could offer words of advice and reassurance, instead of calling the entire team an “embarrassment for cruise photography”. Security could improve comfort by enforcing the smoking ban, instead of smoking in their own cabins. ABC Cruises could order the chefs to heat the dishes at the buffet to anything above room temperature, instead of asking its crew to meet every complaint with a smile. Just imagine how many passengers are not even complaining anymore, because they know from experience that the company does not give a penguin’s poop about customer concerns!

Anyway, pasta is cool, ABC Cruises sucks, and Bergen is a cool Nordish town. Here, have a look yourself in the updated photo gallery!

Breaking the cruise rules

19 May yellow fields in Invergordon, Scotland

“No-one is allowed to carry food or drink in hallways.” That message is posted every ten metres along the crew corridors, and is reinforced by our manager at least once a week. However, it creates a mysterious conundrum: if neither food nor drink are allowed to be carried through the hallways, how do they ever reach the cabin?

yellow fields in Invergordon, Scotland

One of my friends once bought a bread in port, and was not allowed to take it aboard. He stood in front of security, and ate the entire bread in one go.

The only acceptable way of transporting beverages and food items aboard the ABC RypMeOff is in sealed bottles and other containers. Said containers are to be carried in closed bags, which is why half of the crew constantly has a paper dangling from their arm, if they are moving between shifts. Those are the rules aboard our swimming hotel. So, whatever, let’s just pretend we are all too incompetent to carry a bottle of water without spilling its content over our guests.

Similarly, food is only allowed to exist in your cabin, if it is sealed. The masters mean “sealed by its maker”, so once you open a package of biscuits, you better finish them all. That would put all the weightwatchers aboard into deep trouble, if the cruise meals were not making them fat and unhappy already.

Fruits and vegetables are not allowed to visit our cabins at all. Again, those are the rules of society. Because some people keep mouldy peaches until fruit flies darken the sky, the rest of us are not allowed to store fruits at all. Every day I feel a bit more constrained by the plethora of rules aboard this vessel. A frustrating majority of those regulations are attempts to overcompensate for sleights of previous crew members. Filipinos and Asians in particular used to brew hot curry in their cabin, and toss the leftovers under the bunk bed. And because they had no concept of hygiene we now have to suffer that silly no-food rule, regardless of how inedible some of the mess food actually is.

Breakfast buffet for cruise crew

We wouldn’t need to bunker food, if the meals in the mess were tasty or healthy. Unfortunately they are neither.

Today the company added a novelty item to our lunch buffet in the Staff Mess: the green banana. Now, everyone knows that the perfectly ripe banana is brown like the average inmate of a US prison. But since such degree of ripeness requires the investment of time, and since ABC Cruises rarely spends any of that on its crew, I don’t expect to find ripe bananas aboard this vessel. But these green sticks are really taking the piss. I saw one of the crew members trying their teeth on it, and after initial struggle over the tough peel, and resentment over the stale-tasting interior he actually managed to consume it with a straight face. His taste buds have probably been sufficiently dulled by the amply supplied green apples that the company graced us with in these past weeks.

Once more I am happy that my dress pants have relatively deep pockets, which allows me to store two green bananas on the left, and a few bread roles on the right. Nobody else really seems to care about the ABC Code of Law, so I don’t see why I should. Back in my cabin the bananas go into the cupboard, where they will fester for a week. Room inspections are usually announced one week in advance, so in case of an emergency I would have enough warning to hide the green sticks somewhere in the common area. And thus I eat bread, and catch up on my writing. Yes, in my cabin. Take that, ABC Cruises!

CRUISE – Crew Food on Cruises: a bitter bill

11 May Vegan breakfast for cruise crew

It’s another sea day, *yawn*. On Sea days we have to work more hours, and don’t get to see a pretty port city; what a sorry trade-off. However, it also means I have time to eat properly, and wash my laundry. Yay!

Thank goodness the photo crew has access to the staff mess. When I was a university student all free food was good food, but now that I am committed to paid labour my standards have increased somewhat. The food that is offered in the crew mess comes in circa seven different bins. One kind of salad; some sort of sandwiches with sliced sausage and cheese; plain rice; coloured rice; chicken bits; sausage or meat bits; and some glob containing potato or pasta. As an added bonus you may get access to apples, bread roles, or something of the like.

Breakfast buffet for cruise crew

The breakfast buffet aboard the cruise ship is rather small.

It’s all pretty plain, and very repetitive. The food in the staff mess is somewhat better, often varied through trays of beans, various meats, sautéed vegetables, fried potato fingers, or cabbage. All that is also available in the crew mess, but appears to be of lower quality and quantity. But no matter where you eat – no-one really gets excited about the mess food; it just fills the stomach.

As a German I feel obliged to introduce problems beyond the exceptionally small degree of variety. I have been vegan for over seven years. My choice to maintain that dietary plan drastically reduces the layers of culinary complexity that the crew mess confronts us with, often reducing my choice to “plain rice with or without soup”. Because according tot the minds of the demented chefs of this vessel even beans or pasta require the support of sausage or ham to be counted as a meal option. In short – eating vegetarian is rather difficult aboard the ABC vessel; eating vegan (and surviving on it) is near impossible.

Vegan breakfast for cruise crew

Since I don’t eat eggs or other animal products my breakfast aboard the cruise ship consists mostly of fibres.

That leaves us with the Maya Buffet, the culinary wonderland on deck 14, where a wide range of food choices is offered at any major meal time. At the buffet I can fill myself with nutrients AND enjoy the process. It circumscribes a culinary journey through all the continents that our chefs come from, thus providing ample food for everyone. Yet, even here the vegan selection is rather sparsely spread. Apparently nearly every food item aboard the ABC RypMeOff has to be dunked in salt and butter before being fried. And nearly all rice or pasta dishes long for sliced animal parts. Thus, even with about thirty warm dishes to choose from my vegan selection is usually limited to two or three different items.

Now, that prospect might be devastating for anyone who expected this luxury liner to dispense luxury food. However, ABC Cruises is committed to underwhelm its passengers. The real tragedy lies in the timing of meals. As crew members we can only access the Maya Buffet a) for ten minutes during our evening break, or b) for lunch hour, on port days that do not foster an embarkation. One and a half meals a day won’t sustain my bodily needs, thus making visits to the staff mess unavoidable. The latter is open for approximately 2.5 hours during breakfast, lunch, and dinner time. Before or after this the designated room features an emptiness of trays, and a water fountain. If your schedule only allows you to fall into bed by 2 A.M. (as is not rare in our department), you may want to sleep until 10 A.M. For me those are the lucky days, because I can almost get enough sleep to not topple over during my late work hours.

Unfortunately, this schedule conflict asks you to choose between a healthy sleep and a healthy breakfast. After 9 A.M. you will not find a single bread roll anywhere in the crew area. The logistic and hygienic complexities involved in this conundrum escape me, and overall I am disillusioned by the lack of most basic food items for the hard-working crew during the non-meal hours.

The grand injustice in the distribution of food supplies has dire consequences. In the first two weeks aboard I was not very selective regarding my food items, mostly stuffing myself with all the foods that looked vaguely vegan. Often those foods turned out to be fatty and/or salty, thus fostering the placement of fat pouches all over my body. Already I can see myself growing chubby, mostly on my tummy and in my face. After only two weeks of this diet my face is markedly more round than before. And, thus, I have developed a diet plan. I call it Goemon Cruise Diet, and, no, I don’t recommend it to anyone.

Firstly, I limit my time ashore by returning to the ship for buffet time, whenever we are allowed to eat there. Since the crew has to dress up for the occasion to share meals with the passengers, this activity cuts approximately ninety minutes from my port exploration. However, it gains me a full meal of spring roles, samosa, and ripe fruit, thus allowing myself to be stuffed and healthy for an entire day. During dinner in the crew mess I rarely eat more than an apple and some bread for dinner on those happy port days.

During sea days I limit myself to relatively basic food items from the staff mess; mostly plain rice and uncooked carrot rasps, often accompanied by bread and some salty vegetable soup. This solution is rather uncomfortable for my taste buds, but considering how little exercise I get it should keep me in reasonably good health for the next few months.

Here we have it, another urban myth dispelled – cruise food is lavish and amply supplied, but the quality is far from amazing.


Grand Glittery Stairs aboard ABC RypMeOff

The Grand Stairs are are becoming a nice place for me. I like posing people on them.

PS.: I’m shooting stairs again tonight. I’m getting used to that “studio”, and it really is fun posing people on the glittery stairwell. Maybe one day my resulting portraits won’t be “shit” any more.