Two Weekends on the Outskirts of Shanghai

August is hot in Shanghai.  And like most places I have been there seem to be no holidays the whole long, hot month.

Shanghai municipality mapThis August is expected to be busier than last because of the G-20 Summit being held in Hangzhou, just an hour outside of Shanghai and within the Shanghai Consulate region.  Though the G-20 leaders meeting will be held in early September, advance teams and preparation begins weeks beforehand and a large number of staff from the Shanghai Consulate have key roles.  As a single mom of a young child I opted not to put my name forward to TDY (be sent temporary duty) to Hangzhou for potentially weeks, and instead volunteered to take on additional roles in Shanghai.  Before the madness would begin I wanted to spend two long weekends away with my daughter.  As I did not want to travel far I opted for two staycations, of sorts.  We would stay at hotels within Shanghai municipality (though outside the city proper) for some quality mom and daughter time, where I could also tick a few things off my Shanghai bucket list.  Thanks to a G-20 clean up campaign, we experienced days with some of the lowest AQI (air quality index) since we arrived, with the most startling blue skies I have ever seen in Shanghai.

Weekend One: Sheshan

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The Sofitel Sheshan swimming pool – C liked the hotel so much she asked if we could move there for 5 years

After lunch on Friday, August 12 we departed for Sheshan via metro.  C was not all that happy as she has a generally low opinion of traveling on the Shanghai subway.  Her preference is for taxis.  But with an hour ride ahead of us from Jing’An Station to Sheshan Station (with one change of lines), the 5 RMB metro fare (C rides free as all children under 1.4 meters tall do) was more attractive than the 150+ RMB taxi fare.  I thought it might take awhile too to find a taxi driver willing to make the one hour journey.  So it was worth it to me to drag C, the stroller, my bag, and our suitcase (full of enough toys and books for at least a week) the three blocks to the nearest subway station and through the transfer.  Thankfully an hour later I still had not regretted it.

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View of Sheshan with the basilica and observatory clear against the startling blue sky

We booked at the Sofitel Hotel Sheshan Oriental.  The plan was to arrive around 2 pm, check-in, and then head out to one of the nearby sights.  I should know by now that traveling with C never means we “just” check-in and we head out “immediately.”  It is almost laughable how much I persist in this fantasy.  C is a true traveler and hotel connoisseur; she likes to check-in and then check out the hotel.  We were wooed by our large corner suite room, the make-your-own-ice-cream-bar bar in the lobby (50 RMB but the front desk clerk gave me coupons for two free ones just because I asked about the ice cream stand), and the two swimming pools – one for kids and one for families.  In the evening after dinner, we went for a walk around the extensive grounds, stopping also at the two kids rooms — one an arcade of sorts and the other with ball pit and slides.

For day two I was determined to get some bucket list sightseeing done, so we were off to Sheshan – or She Hill (pronounced like “shuh”), which is the highest point in Shanghai.  How high seems to be the subject of much debate as I found 97, 99, and 100 meters online, but since most of Shanghai is quite flat, this hill stands out regardless how high it may be.

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C gets cheeky before we begin our climb

The hill is located in the Sheshan National Forest Park.  I find Shanghai to be a fairly leafy city; even in the heart of the concrete jungle of downtown, there are trees on every street and given my view from my 19th floor apartment, many high rises with rooftop gardens.  Still I was unprepared for the amount of greenery I found at Sheshan.  Entrance to the park is free, one only has to bring some energy to climb.  Ninety-seven to 100 meters may not sound like much, but if you are braving it with a 4 year old and a stroller (that you have to carry half the time and push up inclines the other half) in 95 degree weather with 80% humidity, then it does feel like the mountain the Shanghaiese sometimes jokingly call it.

I chose the wooden walkway vice the “difficult path” on the map located near the pagoda at the top of a steep flight of stairs from the parking area.  The boardwalk-like pathway was very nice.  Thick bamboo forest could be seen on one side of the hill.   I had a hard time believing we were still in Shanghai.  After some time – I lost track – we arrived at another rest area from where we could choose to visit the observatory or the basilica.  I could tell you we made it to the top without complaints, but I would be lying.  It was hot and C may have said a few times that she did not want to walk, did not want to see “Snake Hill” (“she” can mean snake, but it is not the character used for Sheshan), and that the whole thing was “boring.” A second Chinese popsicle might have helped us to get up the extra bit.

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The view from Sheshan including the hill with pagoda and the conservatory at Chenshan Botanical Garden

At the top we visited the small but interesting Shanghai Astronomical Museum and the pretty Sheshan basilica. The original observatory was built in 1900 by French missionaries and was one of the first modern observatories in China.  The basilica is purportedly “the largest cathedral in the Far East,” and a church has been on the site since 1863.  C seemed to rally for both the sites but I did reward her for her cooperation with a delicious lunch and more pool time once back at the hotel.

On the last morning I again had a plan – to arrive at the Chenshan Botanical Garden at 9 am, right when it opened.  We made it by 10. The gardens, at 207 hectares or 511 acres or 2 million square meters (whichever measurement makes the most sense to you), is one of the largest botanical gardens in the world and Shanghai’s largest green space.  Thank goodness I had a stroller and I sprang for the 10 RMB sightseeing bus.  We stopped first at the Children’s Garden, which of course is more a giant playground than a garden.  But it being the first weekend in August, at 10-something in the morning, it was already well over 80 degrees and climbing.  The playground had almost zero cover.  C played for about 10 minutes as I slowly melted into a puddle.  I found a double chair swing in the shade but I was antsy to get moving.  I spotted what appeared to be swans and used them to distract C, and we were off.

We visited the tree house island, where the water fowl were hanging out, and then headed over to the rose garden via the topiary garden and a long way around the western edge of West Lake.  The roses were naturally pretty and the perfume from the flowers extremely fragrant, but with no cover, the flowers and me were wilting.  C seemed happy enough though so we pressed on.  But as we walked (and C rode) I could feel my enthusiasm for the gardens diminishing.  It was too hot.  I planned on one last stop – the quarry garden (listed on the brochure as a “recommended attraction” during the summer months) – and then a ride on the shuttle bus back to the visitor’s center.  But once inside the abandoned quarry, now a large artificial lake with a floating walkway, complete with dual waterfalls cascading down from the top of Chenshan hill, I found my second wind.  The floating bridge led to a tunnel through the rock leading us from the Quarry Garden to the Rock Garden.  We walked on, until we found ourselves at the conservatory, a 12000 square meter greenhouse, the largest in Asia.

After about 45 minutes in the greenhouses we were on the shuttle back to the Visitor’s Center.  We had survived three hours in the gardens, but now I was feeling concerned about getting back to the hotel and home.  The hotel had arranged an Uber driver for us to the garden, but at drop off it was clear this was not a location where taxis frequented.  It seemed we might have to wait for the bus that would take us to the Sheshan metro station from where we could catch a taxi back to the hotel to collect our belongings and then head home.  But as we crossed the vast parking and entrance area I spotted a taxi across the road, idling.  I began to sprint, pushing the stroller with an energy I was sure I had sweated away hours before.  We secured the taxi, one of the nice new caravan taxis with fully functioning A/C and no stench of stale cigarette smoke, back to the hotel.  Along the way, C fell asleep, hard.  I asked the driver if he was up to driving us all the way back to our home downtown with just a quick stop at the hotel to grab out bags.  He agreed much to my relief.

Weekend Two: Chongming Island

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The bridge linking Shanghai with Chongming island

Depending on whether or not you count Taiwan, Chongming is either the second or third largest island of China.  It is 1,267 square kilometers (489 square miles) with a population around 700,000 people.  Given that Shanghai total, the municipality including Chongming, has a population of 24 million, that means that the island makes up about a seventh of the total land area but has only 3% of the population.  High rises are few – though there appears to be a building boom on the island – and for now nature is the primary thing to see.

I had read about the Hyatt Regency Chongming in a Shanghai family magazine aimed at expats.  The island and the hotel sounded so nice I quickly added it to my bucket list and determined it would be my destination for my second weekend staycation.

The concierge at the Portman Ritz Carlton, part of our apartment complex, arranged an Uber for us to the hotel.  Even with an Uber it cost us 220 RMB for the hour plus ride including tolls.  Once we hit the tunnel to Changxing Island (in-between Shanghai proper and Chongming) it already felt like we were very far from the city.

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A room fit for my princess

I knew better this time than to make some big plans after our arrival.  There is less to do on the island than in Sheshan and this weekend was going to be more about relaxing.  Once again I shelled out the extra dough for an upgraded room that would include breakfast, a better room, and club access including “happy hour,” where we could fill up on a full dinner meal.  Still there was a bit of a mix-up with the room, but the helpful hotel staff arranged for us to have a further upgrade for one night to one of the kids’ character rooms.  C chose a Frozen-inspired room (though she was also quite taken with the Captain America room too).  The rest of the day was devoted to walking (ok, running) through the hotel’s sunlight wooden corridors and the extensive grounds, rocking in the comfy swing on our balcony listening to bird song, saying hello to dogs (it is a very dog friendly hotel, with specially designed rooms with enclosed patios for those who bring their furry companions), and swimming at the pool.

The next day my bubble was burst.  My plan was to rent one of the “mommy and me” bicycles available at the hotel for a nice bike ride to the Dongtan Nature Reserve.  When I explained my plan to the woman at the rental counter her draw dropped.  “But,” she stammered, “it is really hot right now.”  She had a point.  It was hot as blazes outside, again forecast to climb into the mid-90s.  But hey, I am fit and I wanted to ride the bicycle.  “But,” she explains patiently, as if talking to a child, “the reserve is very far away.”  The magazine I had read indicated the reserve was a “short trip from the hotel.”  She told me that it was not, it was actually about 20 minutes away by car.  She told me if I took a regular bicycle it would take me at least an hour, but with the mommy and me bicycle, it would take me about three because is is really sloooooooooow.  Yeah, three hours one way on a weird bicycle in 90 degree heat did sound like a terrible idea.  Scratch that.

Meanwhile C had already decided she wanted nothing to do with a bicycle that had her just sitting the whole time.  She had her eye on the children’s bikes with “stabilizers” (she watches a lot of Peppa Pig so does not even know the American term “training wheels”).  I asked instead about Dongping National Forest Park, also claimed to be “close to the hotel” in my trusty magazine.  The huge park is perfect for long walks and also apparently includes an area with horse rides, bumper carts, and other carnival type rides.  The helpful concierge could barely keep from snorting her incredulity at the proximity I believed the park to be.  She informed me it is AN HOUR taxi ride from the hotel.  We might as well head back to Shanghai.

So C got to ride a bicycle for the very first time for nearly two hours in the sweltering heat.  She was so happy I don’t think she noticed it was warm.   (When we returned the bike though, a bellman gave me props for our long time outdoors because he told me he could barely stand 5 minutes outside. C and I are dedicated to “relaxing” at all costs.)

I was determined to see some of the natural sites on Chongming – or any site at all other than the hotel.  After lunch and the heat of midday I again asked the concierge about a trip to Dongtan Nature Reserve, this time booking a taxi to pick us up.  Because there is no dedicated taxi stand at the hotel (it isn’t near anything other than a new retirement apartment complex on the one side and a new Tuscan-style housing complex on the other), she had to call a taxi to come from Chenjia town about 10km away.  And the meter starts from the taxi leaving the town, not picking us up.  So our 20 minute ride to the Dongtan parking lot cost 80 RMB, about four times more than a similar ride would cost in Shanghai.

The nearly empty gravel parking lot at Dongtan and small ticket shack did not give me much confidence that this had been a good idea.  At 2:30 in the afternoon it was still sweltering.  Again, there was no cover to be seen and I had decided to not bring the stroller, probably a poor decision on my part.  I shelled out an additional 10 RMB for the golf cart shuttle to take us from the parking lot to the furthest stop.  At 60,000 acres, the wetland reserve, is no small feat to get around.  Even had we brought the stroller there was simply no way for us to really get around to all the areas.  Bicycles are for rent, but there are no “mommy and me” ones here.  So I limited us to two areas – the far wetland marsh area where one can walk through the tall marsh grasses on a boardwalk and the area around the visitor’s center.

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This cannot possibly be Shanghai anymore – boardwalk through the wetlands at Dongtan

Though the reserve is a migratory location for some 1 million birds representing nearly 300 species, we heard only a few and saw even less.  Given it was 3 to 4 PM and around 1000 degrees outside, I think the birds had the right idea to lay low somewhere.  Yet the sheer size of the reserve, its layout, its mission, and the incredible scenery under those G-20 blue skies, made sweating away a few pounds of water while occasionally carrying a disgruntled 4-year-old worth the effort.

The following day, having decided that Dongping Forest was not worth the two hour round trip for a 50 RMB 5 minute pony ride (which I was sure what we would end up doing), was just for lazing around the room, swinging on the balcony, and snuggling with C.  I had planned to leave the hotel right after check out at noon, but I am glad I asked the concierge yet again about getting back to Shanghai.  Turns out it is no simple matter if you do not have a car.  Chongming taxis are local and only licensed for the island.  Therefore in order to return to Shanghai, the concierge would have to call a Shanghai taxi to pick us up, for which we would incur a steep fee and at least a 90 minute wait.  My other option was to hire a local taxi to come from Chenjia town to take us to the island bus station.  We would have to wait 30 minutes for that taxi and pay at least 80 RMB.  Then we would take a bus from the island to the Science and Technology Museum metro station in Pudong, then ride the metro seven stops to West Nanjing road, and then walk several blocks home.  Weighing my two options I decided the latter offered the greatest amount of adventure.

As luck would have it, I struck up a conversation with a couple traveling with their 18 month old son whom I had helped direct to the swimming pool the night before.  While I was in line for check-out, psyching myself up for our taxi-bus-subway-walk journey, the wife approached me and said they would be happy to drive us home.  It turned out the couple, both fluent in English and German, having studied in Germany and worked for German companies in Shanghai, live only a 10 minute walk from our own apartment.  They saved C and I from myself and my sense of “adventure” and we had a lovely trip home.

Palau – Islands on the Edge (2011) Part Two

On my second day I was signed up for a snorkeling tour in the Rock Islands including a visit to Jellyfish Lake.  I was just a tad apprehensive about the jellyfish bit, but had no time to think on it.  Best for me not to think too much.  The first stop was at a Japanese Zero, submerged where it crashed in WWII, just 10 feet beneath the surface.  At first we just stopped to look at it, but one of the guests asked if we could snorkel there and after just a few seconds of hesitation, and a quick scan at the sea, our guide said “Sure, why not?”  The others quickly threw on their fins and masks and jumped in.  I was a bit slower – I am always hesitant before jumping in the sea.  But once I was in, it was, of course, really cool.  And it was my first chance to test out the underwater camera a friend from work had loaned me.

32. mimicking mudmen

Hamming it up with the mud ladies

We continued on to an area called Rainbow Reef for snorkeling – and it was stunning, like swimming in an aquarium.  Then on to the “milky way” where the limestone mud just a few feet below the surface of the water is supposed to have therapeutic properties.  We all slathered up and then washed it off with a dip in the crystal clear waters.  Then it was on to Jellyfish lake.

Many, many thousands of moons ago, Jellyfish Lake was open to the ocean.  Over time it became closed off and a species of jellyfish became enclosed and isolated inside the lake.  With no predators, over time, they evolved to no longer have a sting.  Our boat docks at Eil Malk island and we walk up a small staircase trail and then down again to a dock jutting out into the saltwater lake.  “Ok,” our guide says, “go ahead and get in and swim out in that direction and we will swim with the jellyfish.”  Right.  I stare at the water.  I am not the only one of the group just staring at the murky green water, where underneath the surface teem millions of rumored-to-be-sting-free jellyfish.  Oh, and possibly a crocodile.  Thanks Tour Guide for that wonderful story about the crocodile sightings here at the lake.  I jump in and start swimming.

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Surrounded!

Perhaps ten or fifteen feet in I see my first jellyfish and my instinct is to jerk back and dart in another direction.  I swim around it. But then I see two.  And then five.  And then more and more and more.  No turning back now.  I reach out and touch one.  Nothing.  It feels like thick, flexible latex.  It slides benignly along my hand and away.  I am giddy.  All of us are giddy.  We swim among them.  Through the swarm.  It is amazing.  I completely, well almost completely, forget there might be a crocodile lurking in the depths ready to take me down.  After half an hour or more we swim back to the entrance point and return to our boat.  Once settled and ready to move on to our lunch area, we spot a moon jellyfish floating in the water.  I want now to reach out and touch it and it takes a moment to realize we are back in the real world where jellyfish are not our friends.

It was lunch time and we headed out once again in the boat.  Our stop was a small, flat, palm covered islet.  From the small beach, the drop off is steep and quick.  Maybe 30 to 50 feet deep within 10 feet of the  shore.  Several beginner scuba diving classes were in progress when we arrived.  After lunch I ventured into the water.  This was a big deal.  Our guide had called it Shark Island or something like that.  If you know me at all, you know that I have an irrational fear of sharks and the ocean.  I know it is irrational but I have the fear all the same.  When I was five years old my parents took me (and my younger siblings) to see the movie Jaws.  Apparently I had been hounding my mother for weeks on end to see it.  So she did, and I had nightmares for weeks, maybe months afterwards.  [I used to think my mother was half crazy to do this but now that I have a 4 ½ year old child myself, I completely get it].  It complicates matters that I wear glasses and once they are off, as they are for snorkeling, I cannot see all that well.

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Sharks just below me — unclear due to being underwater and not my my shaking or anything

So there I am in the water, halfheartedly paddling about, trying very hard to appear at ease, while pushing back the scenes running through my head of my impeding loss of life and limb by shark attack.  And there below me I spot a circle of divers practicing some basic scuba lessons.  And off to the side is a circle of black tip reef sharks doing what appears to be staring at the divers.   I felt a flutter in my chest.  I might have peed myself.  Wait, it is the ocean, I did pee myself.  I felt terribly brave and slightly panicked at the same time.  But I stayed put.  I willed myself to stay put and watch them.  I took pictures with the underwater camera a colleague had loaned me.  I had just seen sting-less jellyfish and touched them and now here I was in the water within quick swimming distance of some sharks and I was relatively, surprisingly calm.   Would wonders never cease?

50. bloody nose ridge memorial

Monument at the top of Bloody Nose Ridge.

On my third day in Palau, I joined a full day WWII tour to Peleliu island, the site of one of the fiercest battles of the Pacific War, resulting in the largest casualty rate of any amphibious assault in US history.  It was here that 1000s of marines were met with an entrenched Japanese force of nearly 11,000, all on an island only 6 miles long and 2 miles wide.  Over two months of fighting resulted in 40% of the 28,000 marines killed or wounded.   Although I am not a WWII buff I am very interested in history and before my trip I had watched the miniseries “The Pacific” and read the autobiography Hemlet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie, one of the true characters from the documentary who had served and was wounded on Peleliu.

An hour speedboat trip from Koror brought us to the shores of Peleliu, the southernmost of Palau’s main islands.  It looked like any other tropical island with palm trees and a short sandy beach.   Like any other place in history that has seen atrocities, I felt strange standing there looking at the beautiful sea and sky and greenery and trying, completely in vain, to imagine the horror that both sides faced and wrought upon one another.   The divers in the group headed off for their morning dive, which just left me and a family of 3 for the full land tour.   We walked with our guide through the small town, investigated several caves (one with a large spider that I might never get over),  to the old airfield, through the jungle to see rusted out tanks,  downed planes, armaments, and gutted bunkers and buildings.  We lunched and the divers returned to join the second half of the tour including a hike up Bloody Nose Ridge and to the small, but informative museum.   Our hike up Umurbrogol Mountain or Bloody Nose Ridge, a 300 foot high peak, took maybe 30 minutes.  During the US offensive, military leaders planned on 72 hours to take the ridge, but instead it took 73 days.  It was a sobering day but well worth the trip.

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Storyboard depicting Ngibtal

My fourth day was a lazy no-tour day.   I got a lift down to the town center for a visit to the Palau Aquarium.  I love aquariums and I try to visit them wherever I can.  It was a nice little place, part of a larger coral reef research center, but after actually snorkeling around the actual reefs of Palau, the aquarium could not hold a candle to the real thing.   I then walked over to the Koror Prison, an important stop on any tourist to-do list of Palau.   Unlike my visit to the Women’s Prison in Chiang Mai I was not here to see a specific prisoner but to call on the prison workshop where you can browse the beautifully wood-carved storyboards made by the prisoners as part of a rehabilitation program that benefits them and their families.  I hemmed and hawed between two particular storyboards while chatting with the carvers before deciding to purchase one depicting the legend of the fish-bearing breadfruit tree.  From the prison I meandered through some neighborhoods before getting lunch and then visiting the pleasant Belau (as Palau is sometimes spelled) National Museum.

Pouring rain that looked like it would not end but suddenly did, almost sunk my kayaking and snorkeling tour on day five.  Four people cancelled.  Luckily one other person had not as the tour company required a minimum of two.  My tour companion was an American working on a US naval vessel who just wanted a quiet day of swimming and boating in the Rock Islands.  We stopped first for snorkeling above a reef and then at a partial cave, more an opening in one of the smaller islets.  At another location we picked up the kayaks to begin our trip along the mile-long Long Lake, a saltwater lake surrounded by mangrove forests.  It was quiet and relaxing.

24. Badrulchau monoliths (2)

Some of the stone monoliths of Badrulchau amongst the lush greenery of Babeldaob

Rain the next morning nearly washed out another tour but again the skies cleared just in time.  This time it would be just me.  I agreed to pay extra for a solo land tour of Babeldaob, the country’s largest island, and the largest island in Micronesia (other than Guam).   Despite its size, only about 30% of Palau’s 18,000 residents live there, and is one of the least developed islands in the Pacific Ocean.  Babeldaob.  It is a mouthful but it sounds exotic.  Unlike the other islands of Palau, which are limestone, Babeldaob is volcanic.   It is hilly and still very much covered in foliage.  Here in 2006, Palau established its new capital of Ngerulmud, moving it from the most populous town of Koror.   Though the capital is the only settlement to have its own zip code (the country is serviced by the US postal system), and it has a few capital-looking buildings, it does not have the feel of a bustling capital city.

My tour took in the capital, ruined Japanese WWII sites, the mysterious stone monoliths at Badrulchau dating back to 161 A.D. (sort of like Palau’s version of Stonehenge), waterfalls, and traditional Palauan meeting structures, it was my conversation with my young tour guide as we drove around the island that stuck most in my mind.  “A” spends most of her time leading scuba dive tours.  Her father, also a scuba dive tour leader and instructor, worried about his daughter spending too much time underwater and the toll it might take on her body.  He wanted her to find another job.  So “A” did go the United States for college.  Palau, with its small population, only has a community college but no four year institutions.  But there are special considerations and scholarships for Palauans to attend university in the US.   Many go to Hawaii, but not all.  “A” went to the mainland, but quickly became homesick and after a year or so called it quits and returned home where she returned to the job she loves, much to her father’s consternation.

On my final day, I was picked up once again by representatives of Sam’s Tour, the company with which I had taken every single one of my tours.  My flight to Manila, like the one I arrived on, would depart in darkness, after the sun had set.   I would spend the day at the Sam’s Tour headquarters – where they have their dive shop, gift shop, bar and restaurant facing the marina with beautiful views of the water.  I arranged one final tour – a helicopter flight over the Rock Islands.  I was joined on the tour by two 20-something Japanese girls whom the pilot inexplicably assumed were my daughters.  Seeing the islands from the air was breathtaking.  And it was a great end to having experienced Palau from land, sea, and air.  I spent the rest of my trip awaiting transfer to the airport, sitting in the bar, nursing beverages, as I looked out at the water.

27. sunset (2)

Sunset at the Sam’s Tours marina

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Palau – Islands on the Edge (2011) Part One

[As part of my blog I am posting stories from my past travels.  These are edited, augmented, versions of email stories I sent to friends and families, or in some cases meant to send but were never completed.  They are at times supplemented with information from my diaries and/or memories.  This trip to Palau was one of my last before I started carrying a baby on board and joined the Foreign Service.  It was a trip in which I pushed up against my comfort zone (swimming in the ocean with a twist), bent to convention (signing up for lots of tours – because the nature of the islands make it nearly impossible to get to places on your own unless you have your own boat – and realized what things I might be too old for (like running after Taylor Swift in the Manila Airport during transit–I did not do it in case you were wondering. I only thought about it.]

19. placid Palauan waters

The incredibly stunning and calm waters of Palau

“The Caroline group includes, besides coral islands, five mountainous islands of basaltic formation, beautiful and fertile with rivers and springs…They look very picturesque as you approach them, with the white shining sands of the beach in the foreground dotted with their queer-looking canoes; then the cocoanut [sp]palms, lifting their tufted feathery heads seventy or eighty feet in the air, the long drooping leaves of the pandanus trees, and the dark, shining foliage of the bread-fruit, while beneath all one can here and there catch glimpses of thatched huts of the natives.  With a closer inspection, however, the beauty vanishes, and the barrenness and isolation of the island are realized.  The heat is intense, and there are heavy languor and lifelessness in the air, which is heavy with the odors of decaying vegetation and the rancid copra, as well as the odor which seems inseparable from heathenism…To establish protectorates over any of these groups must be purely philanthropic work—a laying up of treasure in heaven for there will certainly be none to lay up on earth.” —Harper’s Weekly, November, 20 1900

Palau.  A string of small sun-kissed islands in the Western Pacific Ocean.  Who wouldn’t want to visit?  Certainly not the author of this Harper’s Weekly article over 100 years ago!!  Funny, how our visions of far-flung tropical islands (and heathenism) have changed.   I suppose if more than just a few die-hard divers, WWII history buffs, and Asian honeymooners knew the place existed (and I am none of the above), I expect many people would like to make their way there.   Yet these days even many guidebooks seems to have given up on Palau.  Perhaps a decade and a half ago I had myself a Lonely Planet guidebook to Micronesia.  I was going to visit Guam and had visions of myself soon after somehow making my way to these other difficult to reach islands.  That did not happen.   But it must not only have happened to me because Lonely Planet no longer makes a guide book to Micronesia.

4. sunset at hotel

Sunset view from my hotel

I had a number of reasons to visit Palau.  I love visiting different countries and cultures.  But I do have a particular interest in the South Pacific after spending 6 months in Hawaii as a visiting fellow and then visiting the Cook Islands and Samoa in 2004.  I am not quite sure when Palau came on my radar – but it was sometime after 2004, just 10 years after Palau’s independence from the United States, after 47 years in trusteeship status.  Just a few years ago I started thinking I would really like to visit Palau, but it seems a long way from anywhere.  Unlike Hawaii, which, although it is the world’s most remote island chain in the sense of distance,  is connected to many places by daily flights, Palau has but a few flights a week, some only by charter, from Manila, Guam, Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei.  Although it is perhaps closest to Indonesia (they share a maritime border!) there are no air connections between the two countries.

I love that Palau is home to the longest river and second largest island in Micronesia.  And amazingly enough there are bridges between several of the main islands!  I find this extraordinary in the Pacific.  Also the famed Rock Islands, featured in multi-years of my National Geographic Islands calendars, are here.

Another interesting tidbit about Palau is that in 2009 the country offered asylum to the 20 Uyghurs held at Guantanamo.  Eight took them up on the offer (and on my first day a guide took me by the apartment where they all supposedly reside.  According to the guide, they are all “very nice”.)  Several months later the US offered Palau something along the lines of $240 million in long-term assistance and in September 2010 the first permanent U.S. Ambassador to Palau started work.  Previously, the US Ambassador to the Philippines also covered Palau.

Palau is different.  Most flights arrive in the darkness.  Mine landed right on schedule at 2:05 am.   Despite that, I noticed something was off as soon as I got into the car to take me to my hotel.  My driver got into the right side of the car, but we also drove on the right side of the road…  Uh, what?  When I asked him why he was driving on the wrong side of the road he said he was not.  So I asked him why his steering wheel was not on the other side of the car.  Turns out, a majority of the vehicles in Palau are from Japan.  i.e. for the Japanese market.  Though the traffic patterns of Palau are those of the US.  I found this confusing because well, the Philippines is perhaps Palau’s closest neighbor (though parts of Indonesia might be just as close, there are no direct flight connections) and they manage to have their steering wheels and their lane directions matched up.  But this is just one of Palau’s many idiosyncrasies.

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Clothing store downstairs and the German Consulate upstairs.  Old school representation in Palau

Like when I went into a souvenir shop and looked at the postcards.  First, the selection was really limited.  But then I noticed that some of the cards were not even of Palau!  I noticed three cards were of Yap, Micronesia.  Okay, I guess that is relatively close by, but it is a different country, the Federated States of Micronesia.  And then I noticed a card that showed an aerial view of a village.  I picked it up to look at it closer – and thought there was far too much land visible for it to be of any island in Palau or Micronesia.  And, wait, the houses looked European.   What?  I turned it over and the card information was not in English, but I noticed the words C. Krumlov.  Oh my goodness.  I have been to Cesky Krumlov.  It is in the Czech Republic!  Why in the world would they sell a postcard of the Czech Republic in Palau?

I had only a few things planned for my first day.  Buy sunblock, get my watch battery replaced (it died the day before I flew to Palau), arrange a few tours, and take a walking tour of Koror.  The live-in-manager of the hotel, Maisa, drove me down to the main shopping center in Koror around 10 am.  (well, at 10:15 am she told me she wanted to leave at 10 am! – but hey, I got a free lift to town).   I browsed through the supermarket to check out what was available, had my watch batter replaced (check) and bought the sunblock (check).  Then I decided to talk a walk around town.  Funny, but that morning as I looked out from the hotel balcony, to see swaying palms and the crystalline sea, I thought, “I could live here”.  After about 10 minutes of walking in the blazing heat, along the main road lined with nondescript buildings, I thought, “there is no way I could live here.”

Koror reminded me of Suva, Fiji, and even parts of Hawaii.  Blessed with beautiful blue skies, warm trade winds, palm trees, and stunning vistas across clear aquamarine seas – but cursed with ugly, functional concrete block architecture.  Maybe it is a result of so many WWII battles being fought in the Pacific that so many of the buildings resemble bunkers? Tall, often colorfully painted, bunkers.

I had a delicious lunch at an Indian restaurant staffed by Filipinos before calling Maisa to come and pick me up.   She let me know that she had arranged a river tour for me that afternoon and they would be picking me up in about 40 minutes.  I was thrilled.

The River Tour was great!  First, on the way there, the self-employed Polish couple from Chicago with whom I shared a pick-up service regaled me with their hilarious tales of tourism in Palau.  When asked how long they would stay in Palau they said 2 months – but so far it was three weeks and they wryly said they were not sure how much longer they would stay.  They said that Palau is odd because it thrives on tourism and yet is not very helpful to tourists.  There are few, if any, maps available.  Many tourist sites have no signage.  For example, they told me how they tried 3 times to visit the Crocodile Farm.  The first 2 times they went it was closed.  So, on the third try they called the place at 8:30 am to ask their opening hours and were told until 11 am that day.  But when they showed up an hour later it was locked up tight!  So they parked the car, scaled the fence, and took a look around themselves!  They also told me when they arrived and the immigration officer asked them how long they were staying, he laughed and asked them “what are you going to do here for that long?”  They loved my story of the postcards!

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I am quite sure I would never grow tired of seeing tropical flowers

Once at the river boat tour site we had an opportunity to hold a juvenile fruit bat and a baby crocodile.  I think fruit bats are cute.  I really do!  Their faces look like puppy dogs.  It is just when they spread their leathery wings and reach out with their clawed toes that things start to get a bit scary.  Still, I held him as he pawed my shirt, then licked and nipped my hand.  Until the nipping got a bit too hard.  However, better than the little crocodile, which I dropped as soon as he started to squirm…

So, yes, there are crocodiles in Palau!  I was rather surprised myself.  As part of preparing myself for snorkeling in Palau, I googled “sharks in Palau” and came across some articles about the crocodiles, which some divers seemed a little concerned about.  I know I certainly became concerned as well.  I get that the Philippines and Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have crocodiles – they have some fairly large islands – but the little islands of Palau, a minimum of 400 kilometers from anywhere?  However, an online search of the worldwide habitat of saltwater crocodiles revealed that they were in fact in Palau.  Though there has not been an attack, at least a fatal attack, on a human being since the 60s.  That attack turned the Palauans against the crocodiles, nearly wiping out the island population.

While meandering down the river we saw only one crocodile.  On the way down river, we saw him sunning himself on the bank, on the way back he swam up to the boat.  Otherwise there was little to see along the river – a few birds and fruit bats, but mostly lush green vegetation on either side.  It was quite relaxing.  The tour was supposed to last around an hour, but I think our guide took at least twice as long.  Time seemed unimportant.  There was no hurry.

Back at the hotel, the owner told me that she would be going to the supermarket at 6 pm and I could join her.  I told her it was already 6:10 pm.  That’s Palauan time.  Her friend ended up taking me at 7:30!

Shanghai: Inside a Year

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Spring comes to Shanghai–blossoms and celebratory lanterns at Longhua Temple

I joined the Foreign Service in part because of my love of travel and experiencing other cultures and as much as I may come to care for one place, after some time I itch to head on to the next.  And I rather prefer knowing approximately when that might be.  I knew that I would head to Shanghai for my second tour before I even arrived at my first.  That is not usual in the Foreign Service, yet that was my experience.

Back in February I celebrated one year in Shanghai (see From Sheep to Monkey: Shanghai Year One in Review). One year in a two year tour is a milestone.  Knowing the length of a tour gives one a natural timeframe–literally a frame, to bookend your period there.  But in my case I have extended, so one year, well it marked one year, but not half way.

I struggled with this, I will admit it.  It actually made me just a tad crazy.

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The very cool facade of the Himalayas Center

So to keep myself busy through the spring I worked through my Shanghai bucket list.  There is so very much to see and do in Shanghai.  Given my circumstances – an introverted tee-totaling single mom of a young child – I am not into the bar and restaurant scene.  I am however into museums and historical sites and Shanghai has those in spades.

In February I took C out to the Shanghai Himalayas Art Museum.  Yes, there is such a thing.  There is such a surge in museum construction in China that there seems space for museums on some very specific topics.  The museum is located in the Pudong Himalayas Center located just outside the Huamu subway station.  You might not think a museum about the art and culture of the Himalayan regiona would be that entertaining for a four year old, but C seemed into the replica rooms of a few of the Mogao grottos and several of the murals.  Well, ok, she seemed into it for ten minutes and then she started pointing out all of the exit signs…I still highly recommend it.

In March we headed out to see the ERA Intersection of Time show at the Shanghai Circus World.  The show was spectacular.  I had enjoyed the show at the Shanghai Centre theater but it could not compare with ERA and the theater space that Shanghai Circus World could provide – for example the giant metal sphere into which up to eight, or maybe it was ten, motorcycles drove into and around.  C seemed delighted, but that particular performance had me covering my eyes and crossing my fingers.

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Great weather for a visit to Yu Gardens.  Beautiful but a LOT of work to visit.

The first weekend in April is a long one as it coincides with the Chinese holiday Tomb Sweeping Day.  It would seem like a good time to take a nice short holiday, except that this weekend also tends to be a very wet one; I learned this the hard way last year (see Hanging in Hangzhou).  I was glad I did not tempt fate again with a trip out of town because it did not defy expectations – it poured all weekend.  Yet the following weekend was absolutely beautiful and it coincided with the Longhua temple festival.  We visited the temple awash in sunshine and blossoming peach trees decorated with small lanterns; the stone temple lions festooned with large red bows made them seem more like pets than fierce guardians.  Next to the temple we saw the pagoda, one of the few in Shanghai, and explored the Longhua memorial park, martyrs cemetery and museum.

Later in April we also braved a visit to Yu Gardens and bazaar, a must-see listed in every single brochure and tourist website about Shanghai. We went on a weekend.  With Every, Single, Person in Shanghai.  The zig-zag bridge leading to the Huxingting teahouse, designed to foil evil spirits (who cannot turn corners), was so packed to the gills with people such that our progress was not only slow but totally in the control of those around us.  I imagine from above it might have seemed the bridge itself was moving like a writhing snake.  Yet we were trapped on it – and there I was with a curly blonde haired child in a stroller.  She was the subject of a lot of unwanted attention.  Once inside the garden itself, where the entrance fee dissuades some of the throng from entering, we had a more enjoyable time.

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A quiet place for reflection at the Guyi gardens at Nanxiang

Then there was our epic R&R, two visits to the world’s newest Disneyland, and on Memorial Day I took advantage of the nanny watching C and headed out solo to Nanxiang “Ancient Town” a Suzhou-like water town in miniature located in northwest Shanghai and the nearby Ming-dynasty Guyi gardens.  As I do most things in my free time with my four year old daughter in tow, being on my own for sightseeing is an extremely liberating but sort of bewildering experience.  I am grateful for the chance to walk longer and further than I can with C, but invariably I come across something, for instance a stone horse, that I know C would have enjoyed seeing.

In June I managed a work trip to Jiaxing to participate in Dragon Boat holiday festivities, visiting the newly opened Museum of Zongzi (dumpling) Culture and taking part in a dumpling wrapping contest for foreigners.  The skills I learned hurriedly at the museum came in handy and I clinched third place in the contest.  Alright, I tied for third place with nine other people, but third is third, and I proudly accepted my certificate.   July brought about a mini getaway within Shanghai and also a visit to the Shanghai Museum of Glass, with the super-fun acronym SHMOG.  A glass museum might seem a terrible place to take a small child, and indeed there is a display in the museum  thoughtlessly damaged by poorly behaved children and video-recorded by even more irresponsible parents.  (The museum plays the surveillance video of the crime next to the damaged artwork to serve as a warning and reminder.  I used it as a teaching moment with C).  Yet we stayed at the museum for FOUR hours – visiting the main museum, having a nice lunch in one of the three or four museum cafes, running around the beautiful rainbow chapel, exploring the co-located children’s museum of glass, and finally watching a glass blowing demonstration.

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C contemplates the beauty of the SHMOG Rainbow Chapel

All of this eventually brought me to this point – I am now comfortably at the “inside a year” mark.  Where inside a year I am is still very much up in the air.  At this point I still do not know when I will head to my next tour.  It will depend very much on where that next post will be.

While there are still a lot of unknowns and it is unlikely I will have the answers until sometime late this fall, I am fairly confident that I have less than 11 months left at post.

This is in part because I am a pack-rat dependent in recovery.  I grew up with pack-rat parents: I dislike having too many things in my home.  You may recall back to when I first arrived and I wrote about the storage unit mishap with my apartment assignment.

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In my bid to conquer the bucket list C and I also visited the Moon Boat, which had been the Saudi Pavilion during the 2010 Shanghai Expo.  This is from the upper inside floor looking down the spiral walkway.

My use of the ninth floor storage unit ended on July 15th and all of my remaining belongings have been moved into my guest room.  Well, I can stop kidding myself.  I have been living here in Shanghai for 18 months and have not hosted a guest yet.  I might as well call that room my storage room.

I hate it.

Ok, hate is a strong word.  I really dislike it.  I keep the door to the room now closed because I do not want to look at it on a regular basis.   It makes me want to get rid of things in this apartment NOW.

I will admit to having already begun to make the lists of items that will not come with us when we depart.  To have already begun the UAB and HHE lists.  To have started calculating the timeframe for using up those consumables (the laundry detergent, the shampoo and conditioner, the toothpaste, and the like) I brought with me.  I am losing interest already in buying things on Amazon…  Yes, I just said that.  Losing interest in buying things on Amazon.  You know things are getting pretty serious when someone says that.  And I may still have 11 months to go!

The consulate is in the summer transfer season.  Each week brings yet another long-time colleague/neighbor/friend leaving post.  In the past four to six weeks four of my daughter’s closest playmates have left Shanghai.  They head to South Africa, Los Angeles, Jamaica and Ohio.  I too have had to say goodbye to many good colleagues over the past several months, some of whom had become good friends. I am feeling  a little jealous of those departing.

Next year though will be our year.  We will get to do the pack-out survey and the pack-out.  We will get the farewell party and the confusing check-out survey, visiting offices that have to sign off on our departure that I had little or no interaction with during the tour.   I will see who has lasted longer in Shanghai – my daughter and I or that darn bulldozer that has been sitting on the sidewalk on my way to work since day one. Eighteen months later and it is still there.

I am sort of rooting for the bulldozer.

Current Shanghai visa tally:

Total visa adjudications: 36,096

Total number of fingerprints taken: 8,997

 

July 4th Mini Holiday

June was over.  At last.  It is the busiest season for the Shanghai Consulate visa section.  And it had culminated with the Consulate’s July 4th event, our largest representational event of the year.  An event I had once again volunteered to help organize.

About a month before I had reserved one night at the JW Marriott Changfeng Park even though its location is only 15 minutes away from my apartment.  If I stay at home I find my weekends are often consumed with the little mundane things that capture one’s attention when you are at home.  Grocery shopping.  Meal preparation.  Facebook checking.  Watching meaningless shows on television (and I only have three English channels other than news channels so this can get pretty repetitive for me).    I wanted to be “away.”

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The view of Changfeng Park from the executive floor of the JW Marriott

 

On the morning of Sunday, July 3 my daughter and I headed downstairs for the taxi queue to head off on our adventure.  The taxi driver appeared to have an interest in making a go at breaking the land speed record, zig-zagging through traffic on the elevated highway with a fervor and intensity best suited to the Indianapolis Speedway.

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The Pudong aquarium might be the one everyone has heard of, but Changfeng has beluga whales.

But we made it to the hotel.  I cannot say for sure if it was the taxi ride, the beautifully appointed lobby, the thrill of having a night away, or the helpful bellhop with the English name Buttery (I kid you not) that led to my agreeing to a $70 upgrade on top of an already $150 room, but I did.  Probably it was the option letting me check in right away that appealed to me most.  With the upgrade we secured a room on a higher floor with inclusive pricey breakfast in the executive lounge as well as snacks throughout the day.  Worth every penny.

 

According to my plan though we had little time to dawdle.  It was off to Changfeng Park right away.  Because I wanted to take C to see the beluga whales.  Some months ago I bought her a book on whales and she has been fascinated by the idea of white whales since.  Watching Finding Dory recently only solidified her need to see them.  Imagine my surprise while Googling one day to come across the Changfeng Ocean World.  We had to go.

There was a show at noon.  We arrived at the ticket line at 11:40.  It seemed possible to make the show.  There were only about 25 people in front of us.  And yet at 12:30 we were still in line.  How is that even possible?  It could be that there was only ticket seller.  But I think the real reason behind the wait were the line jumpers.  There were a few people who were behind me in line who kept trying to move ahead of me, but I called them out and they edged back.  However there were other groups of people who went straight to the front of the line and after a short conversation with the person second in line, handed over money for that person to buy their tickets.  I saw one older woman mouth “you paidui” or “there is a line” as she motioned to all of us behind her and shook her head.  At first I was buoyed that she would turn them down, but then she agreed to buy their tickets.  Argh!

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Which one of these kids does not belong?

So by 12:35 we had the tickets.  I thought we could go in to see the aquarium first and then see the show.  We entered and went through a small section with fish.  It took about 5 minutes.  It turned out the rest of the aquarium was in a separate building on the other side of the park.  Also, although the next show began at 1:30, they would let people into the arena at 1:00 and at 12:45 a line was forming.  So once again we got in line.  Luckily we were able to snag a front row middle seat, right in front of the show tank.  Unluckily we were now there 30 minutes before the show.  More waiting.  I was forced to buy a light-up beluga whale toy on a necklace.  If you have kids and have ever had to wait for a show like this you know exactly why I had to do it.

 

The “show” started at 1:32.  Well some very loud screaming into a microphone began at 1:32 as the emcee welcomed us all.  Then six children were selected from the audience to participate in a quiz game that dragged on for 10 minutes.  C was selected after one of the show’s organizers confirmed with me she could understand Chinese.  Except the questions were rather complicated, aimed at upper elementary aged.  Poor C was likely chosen because of her blonde curls than her chance at winning.  The winner got to pet a seal.  C was not the winner, but she and the other runner-ups did each get a plush sea animal.

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The three belugas.  My daughter named them Cupcake, Sarah, and Wonder Woman

So there was a short show with a seal.  The winner of the kids quiz show and her mom got to pet a seal.  The rest of us watched them pet the seal.  Riveting.

 

And then six more kids were selected for another kids’ quiz.  Ten more minutes we watched.  Then the two winners of that quiz and their parents got to go in and touch the nose of a beluga whale.  We all watched them touch them.

Then FINALLY it was time for us all to watch the beluga whales do their thing.    They swam in formation.  There were one or two jumps.  They poked their heads out of the water and looked at us with their cute faces. My daughter was very happy and that made me happy.

Still when the whole show ended at 2:30 I wondered where the last 3 hours of my life had gone.  That as a lot of time for 10 minutes of beluga watching.  Part of me wanted to just go back to the hotel, get my things and go home.  But there was more aquarium to see.

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In my book an aquarium with information like this gets bonus points

Last year my daughter and I visited the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium in Pudong over the Chinese New Year holiday.  There we fought the crowds to catch a glimpse of anything at every single display.  The cacophony was deafening.  After some 30 minutes of the noise and the chaos I just wanted to get out of there.  The aquarium at Changfeng was busy; there were school groups, and yet you could still see everything.  I was quite impressed with the information placards, in both English and Chinese.  They had an impressive number of seahorses, one of my absolute favorite sea animal.  Equally impressive were the signs about protecting sea life.

 

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This was supposed to be a cool museum at one time

Then I wanted to shift into the mommy phase of this mini-vacay.  It was time to head over to an adjacent park for a visit to the Shanghai Matchbox and Brand Museum.  As we walked up to the building I saw what appeared to be a large amount of debris lining the sidewalks in front.  Piles and piles of abandoned desks and tables and filing cabinets.  And sure enough on the dusty front door was a sign indicating that the museum was closed.  Strange.  Just a month before I had found an online article about visiting the museum.   This is not the first time I have gone to visit a a sightseeing spot in Shanghai only to find it closed, but it is disappointing nonetheless.

We had a great night at the hotel enjoying the cake and cheese desserts and beverages in the executive lounge and just being away.

On Monday morning we headed to the Parkside Plaza mall, right next door to the hotel.  Here is where you can find the Shanghai Legoland Discovery Center, which just opened in April.  They promised “2-3 hours of fun” and they were not kidding.  I think it was three hours and one minute of fun when I called “time.”

This was my first time to any Legoland, amusement park or discovery center, so I do not have a comparison, but this place was not only fun but really cool.  There were two rides, a play area with slides for toddlers and another for older kids, building areas, a car build and test drive space, an amazing miniature Shanghai built entirely of Legos (of course), a 15 minute 4D Lego movie (all in Chinese but after a few minutes even I was so into it I sort of forgot I could hardly understand the dialogue), a cafe, and more.

It was a great getaway and a good reminder that not only is Shanghai chock full of awesome things to see and do but also just a 1 1/2 days of fun and a night away from home can be enough to re-charge.  Long live the mini vacay.

Kathmandu 2002: Part Two

I should have known better.  I went to the same restaurant.  Again I had the same plans for the following day:  to visit the Buddhist Boudhanath Stupa and the Hindu Pashupatinath temple.  Clearly I was tempting fate.

Well, I have certainly learned a very valuable lesson, and that is DO NOT eat a second time in a restaurant from which the first time you received food poisoning.  I thought perhaps to give the New Orleans Cafe another go.  It might have been a coincidence to become sick after one meal, but twice?  I woke up about 1:30 in the morning and dragged myself to the bathroom.  Despite my illness I did notice that my two handsome neighbors were playing, of all things, the Greatest Hits of Whitney Houston!  So while ridding myself of my dinner I could enjoy the Greatest Love of All and the theme song to the Bodyguard.  What a strange place is Nepal!

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Buddha’s eyes watching from Boudhanath

The day after my visit to the “Poison Café,” I could barely get myself up.  But I managed to eat a few pieces of fruit and have some tea before heading out to Boudhanath and Pashupatinath, the most famous of Nepal’s Hindu and Buddhist temples.  Boudhanath is apparently the second largest Buddhist stupa in the world.  It is also home to a large Tibetan community in Nepal.  All around were monks of all ages in their red robes and women with their traditional garb with colorful aprons, some carrying their wooden beads.  I walked up onto the stupa and looked around at this amazing little Buddhist village.  It was very charming.  I even saw people walking their dogs, when I thought in general dogs were not pets, but just street animals.  A sign on the stupa tells visitors in English to not do immoral things while there, such as smoking, gambling, spitting and the like, while all around me I saw people doing these exact things.  Several young novice months, maybe 6 to 12 years of age, stood around a gambling area, placing their bets.  And I saw many people smoking, some quite young.  And spitting, of course!  The sound of the throat clearing and the spit is as common as car horns!  I walked around the stupa about three times, soaking in the atmosphere and decided to then try my luck walking to the Hindu temple, which I had been told was about 30 minutes on foot.

I headed off in the direction of Pashupatinath along a gravel and dirt path between two store facades.  Immediately I was transported into the real life of Nepali people, away from the tourists.  The first scene I came upon was a group of boys throwing stones at another boy.  Without thinking I intervened, telling the offending stone throwers “No!”  They hesitated and slyly threw a few more stones for good measure.  I then came upon also three people washing in a stone bath outside, though they were all wearing saris, and a woman bathing in an area outside her house. There were lots of children playing.  Along one side of the road a bus stood broken down, though for how long it had been there, who knows, and three men stood talking conspiratorially behind it.  On the other side, three young women stood gossiping with each other.  Perhaps they, the men and the women, actually wanted to talk with each other.  It reminded me a bit of a scene I had seen on the first day as I walked to Kathmandu Durbar Square.  One one side of the street a young man sat on the stoop of a store smiling shyly.  On the other side of the street, a lovely young woman in an all red sari stood, brazenly flirting with the man.  It was enchanting to watch.

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Nepalese children

Further along the path I saw a boy hitting some cows hard with a stick.  I thought here was a boy who had not learned that cows are sacred in Nepal!  I took a picture.  This did not make the boy shy; he only hit the cows harder.  As I walked, I would come to a fork in the road and would just ask someone “Pashupatinath?” and I would be pointed in the right direction.  A few children yelled hello to me, but for the most part I seemed to pass by unnoticed.  This was such a relief after the constant “Hello friend,” “Tiger Balm, cheap for you madam,” “Where are you going? Rickshaw?” and “Come inside, just looking, very cheap” calls in Thamel.  Also the interesting proposal I received of “Tour? Sightseeing? Marriage? Madam” from a rickshaw driver.  Tempting, but no. 

I began to grow tired and feel sick.  My legs began to feel like lead, my stomach to hurt, and my head to pound.  Just at that time by my side appeared a Nepali man who spoke English and told me the temple was not farther.  Thank goodness!  Although a 30 minute walk would usually be a piece of cake for me, this one was beginning to feel it would never end.  The man asked me questions along the way, and showed me the path to the temple and the way inside.  I knew I was earning myself a “guide” but I did not have the energy to tell him to go away.

Those who are not Hindu cannot enter the temple grounds proper but only the area alongside the river and up to the cemetery.  I paid the entrance fee and he led me inside, immediately to the right of the ticket booth we went to the riverside where the cremations are performed.  I looked over the side of a wall and there lay a body almost burned and another wrapped in white cloth being prepared for cremation.  My guide points out to me a hand on the pyre.  “Can you see it?” he asks.  “No,” I say, “and I am not sure I want to…ah there it is.”  My stomach churned.  “Can you see the foot?” my eager guide asks.  “I need to sit down,” I say.  That the smoke in my face is coming off the burning pyre and the ashes as well are from this just burned body, is too much for meI sit down and my head spins and my stomach leaps about.  I tell my guide I think I need to go.  “No, no, I have more to show you.”  I tell my guide that I am going to call it a day.  I pay him some money and catch a motor-rickshaw back to town.  I feel every bump in the road and I slide further and further into the depths of the rickshaw clutching my stomach and moaningThen the rickshaw breaks down.  A policeman watches the driver tinkering with the engine but does not offer to help, while I slump in the back holding my head and wondering at it all.  After perhaps 10 minutes the driver gets us going again and we bump our way back to Thamel and my hotel.  I dragged myself up to my room for a long nap. 

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Cremation at Pashupatinath

The following day I woke up quite late, about half past eleven.  I was still tired.  I think the air of the Kathmandu valley quite tires me out.  I have to use my asthma inhaler quite frequently and I feel lightheaded at times.  I was not too worried about getting up late, I am here after all to relax, and I had been sick the day before.  I was just worried about being sick still.  I decided I would return to Pashupatinath.  It took me a couple hours to get going and I did not arrive at the temple until about 4 pmAgain a guide joined me almost immediately and though I tried to shake him, he hung on tight.  But he was very informative and I was glad I had him to tell me about the temple.  I saw a cremation on the commoner side of the river.  Though actually on the same side of the river as those for the rich, in government positions, or in the royal family, the cremations for the commoners are separated from the others by a bridge.  For each caste there is a separate platform.  On the commoner side there are four platforms for the four castes.  On the other side were three platforms, one for rich and high government positions, one for, I believe, the sons and daughters of royalty, perhaps for the queen as well, and one for the king. 

My guide told me what a sad time it was last year when so many members of the royal family, who had been murdered in the palace, were cremated.  That royal homicide occurred just weeks after I last left Nepal, and things have become even more difficult for the struggling country. I was not the only spectator; there were many more, most Nepali.  How strange I thought to watch a funeral.  But I thought this in Bali too.  I sat and watched a Newari cremation ceremony until the sky grew very dark and the first fire was lit under the pyre.  Beforehand each member of the family and friends had gone down to the holy river (which flows to the Ganges in India) to dip their hands in and to carry a handful of water to the lips of the deceased.  At last the eldest son dressed all in white and being supported by another man, walked three times around the pyre and then placed the first flame beneath the head of the deceased.  He then fled to the back of the crowd wailing; his loud cries could be heard across the river. It was very sad and very strange for me to be sitting across the river from this rite of passage.  When I said this to my guide, he told me not to worry for this is human life, part of the cycle of life. 

That evening I enjoyed a nice dinner in a cafe overlooking one of the main thoroughfares of Thamel.  Enjoying Mexican food, writing in my journal and reading for my exams (yes I did in fact study) it was hard to reconcile the life on the street below, the shops, loud music, strands of blinking lights and people preparing for or returning from a trek or others selling their wares, with the end of life I had just witnessed, but there it was – the cycle of life.

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Riding in style – Kathmandu public buses.  See the goats?

The next day I had plans to go to Bhaktapur, the UNESCO World Heritage city about 18 kilometers from Kathmandu.  Last year my friends and I had decided to skip it because we were too angered by the entrance fee.  The fee is 750 rupees (or $10) for foreigners and 50 rupees (.75) for citizens of SAARC countries or China. This time however I was prepared to payThis time I would not take a taxi.  I was determined not to take the easy traveler’s way.  I had hoped to take the bus there, and the trolley car back, but was disappointed to learn the decrepit trolley had finally seen its last days.  I walked down to the City Bus Park in Kathmandu and asked the first police officer I saw to help me find the bus to Bhaktapur.  He kindly helped me find one.  I was delighted because it looked to be about a century old!!  Well actually it looked as though it was rather newly made, welded together from other century old buses, pieces of wood and carpet, which with grinding gears and horrible exhaust belched its way down the highway.

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Beautiful carved door opens to a courtyard in Bhaktapur

The 18 kilometer trip to Bhaktapur took about 45 minutes.  I arrived though in good spirits right outside one of the city gates.  Who needs to take a 300 rupee taxi ride when they can take an 8 rupee bus ride?  My first glimpse of Bhaktapur, just inside the entrance, was disappointing. It looked shabby and the houses in disrepair.  But on my left a courtyard opened up, with an old woman sitting on a wooden parapet and weaving on an old loom.  Beside her a young girl stood, just in the doorway to this courtyard.  Inside women were threshing rice and the yellow grain littered the ground beside Hindu temples.  Ah, this is Bhaktapur!  From the courtyard I hurried up the street to see more of the city’s treasures and came upon a square I mistakenly took to be Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square.  It was wide and open with some big temples and a totem like pole in off center.  A lovely tea shop set up right into an old building with beautiful windows, porticos and balconies to my right.  I thought I would come back there for lunch, but I did not.  As it was still too early to eat, I headed off down a side street.  I saw two boys rolling thin rubber tires with sticks; they spun their tires quickly up another side street and away. 

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Hanging out in Bhaktapur

Off I went down another street and I came upon the true Durbar Square.  It was truly beautiful.  There were some temples there which seemed like those I had seen in Lopburi, Thailand or Angkor in Cambodia.  Along the steps were parades of animals.  Once again I acquired a guide, though this one, a student, said he wanted no payment, only a chance to practice his English.  He told me his name was Dave.  Dave gave me a wonderful tour around Bhaktapur, telling me many wonderful things about the city I would never have known on my own.  And he told me about himself. Seventeen, he just taken his high school exit exams and is waiting to go to university.  We had cokes in a cafe overlooking the Durbar Square.  We had a nice conversation and I watched the school kids just let out of school scatter across the square.  I also bought a Thangka painting, painted by my young guide.  It was not expensive and it will help him to go to school.  Dave brought me out another of the gates to another bus park and I hopped aboard a smaller bus back to Kathmandu.  This time I had to stand the whole trip.  It was fine.

Tomorrow is my last day in Nepal.  Then I fly back to Bangkok for an evening and back to Singapore the following day.  Back to the exams.

The trip must have worked.  I scored very well on my exams.  Quite well in fact.  When I graduated I received a gold medal for achieving the highest score in my program that year.

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My Thangka painting by Dave

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kathmandu 2002: Part One

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One of my favorite pictures from the trip: Temple bells.

As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of stories I wrote on/of past travels.  I have been thinking a lot on the person I was before I joined the Foreign Service.  The person I was before I became a mother.  My by-the-seat-of-my-pants travels, the ones without hotel reservations, the ones where I carried everything in a single mid-sized backpack, the ones where I stayed not in hotels but in shared dorms or cheap guestrooms, sometimes with shared facilities, sometimes without hot water.  The trips where I would walk for hours instead of taking a taxi or tuk-tuk or rickshaw that I thought cost too much.  The trips on which I might wear the same pair of pants or shirt for days.  I sometimes really miss those footloose and fancy free vacations.

Still I am, and was, a planner.  I poured over maps and guide books, train time tables and bus schedules.  Once on the road things could change.  If I arrived somewhere and I did not like it, I could leave a day earlier, even that afternoon, off to somewhere else.  If I liked a place a lot I would stay longer.  But I still had a very good idea of what I would find in any given place.  I was prepared.  Yet my 2002 trip to Nepal is the least planned of all my trips (except maybe that time I went to Albania).   I always wondered if I could be one of those people to show up at an airport and simply buy a ticket and fly to anywhere same day.  This is the closest I have come.

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Look at those snazzy hiking pants!  One of my first acts in Kathmandu was to buy two pairs.

I was a graduate student in Singapore and we all had one week off between classes and our exams.  I wanted to get away, out of the country.  I decided to fly to Thailand.  Inside my bags I had my class notebooks.  My plan was to sightsee during the day and then study for my exams in restaurants and in my guestroom in the evenings.

After a day in Bangkok listening to the thumping sample CDs competing with the bars and restaurants on Khao San Road, I knew Bangkok was not the place I wanted to be.  The day before, I had met a Japanese rafting instructor who was on his way to Katmandu.  I had been considering going to Brunei, but who goes to Brunei for a week?  So I went to one of the Khao San Road travel agents and instead of asking about a ticket to Brunei I asked about Kathmandu. A day later I was on the plane.

Now about 30 minutes before landing at the Kathmandu airport I am wondering if this trip was a good idea.  For one thing, I have no guide book.  For another, I have no cool weather clothes with me.  The pilots just announced the weather is in the 70s.  I look around the plane to see the majority of people dressed in khaki pants, long sleeved shirts with pullovers or jackets and hiking boots. I look down at my own knee length skirt, a short sleeved shirt and sandals.  I have one jacket in my checked luggage.  The flight attendants hand out the customs forms.  One question asks me to declare how much currency I am bringing into the country.    I realize I have about US$50, (US$30 is to cover the cost of the visa on arrival) and 50 Singapore dollars. I cannot recall if Kathmandu has ATM machines. Thailand has them on every street corner so it had not occurred to me.  Until now.

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I sought calm and inspiration in Durbar Square.  I am not sure who I liked more: the uber cool Sadhu chillin’ out at the temple, or the young man just below him staring up in rapt attention

But it was enough.  I bought some pants, found a place to stay, and have managed. It turns out there are two ATMs in Katmandu, although I was in a bit of a panic when I went to the first outside of the Kathmandu Guest House and found it out of order.  However the owner of the Thamel guesthouse where I found a small, quiet room on the third floor with a wooden desk perfect for studying and a window that looks out on a busy pedestrian street, told me not to worry and to just pay him the following day once I located the other ATM (which thankfully worked because it turns out that the banks are closed for two or three or four days for a holiday). 

I am so glad to be here in Nepal.  I love the atmosphere.  I am a bit envious of all the people I see heading off or returning from treks.  There is the excitement of starting something so amazing and the uncertainty of whether one will be able to complete the trek.  Then for the returnees there is the joy of accomplishment, of having the smiles and pain and blisters and stories about the journey.  I spent some time last night with some women about to head off on a two week trek to Everest Base Camp, and how much I longed to bunk my exams and head off to the hills.  I think they would have made lovely companions.  But as spontaneous as I can be on travel, I usually remain practical. No, this trip is just for a week.

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Festive colors for Diwali and the Newali New Year

I feel lucky to have come to Nepal at this time even though I had not planned on this trip.  It is a week of celebrations.  First, it is Diwali.  The streets are full of lights.  Candles and carpets of yellow flowers lie at the entrances to many shops.  Groups of children are caroling from door to door for tika, a blessing and a small amounts of money.  Tomorrow the boys will receive tika from their sisters. They give a small present to the sister, who will then give them some small amount of money.

Today Kathmandu Durbar Square was full of holiday makers buying fruits, flower garlands, and new clothes for the occasion.  The last time I was in Kathmandu, although there were certainly people in the Square it was more of an oasis from the crowded narrow streets, but today the Square rivaled the streets in energy and raucous noise.  It was rather wonderful. On the way to the square I was blessed by a Sadhu, who planted a tika on my forehead, put some flowers in my hair and doused me with holy water.  I returned the favor with a “donation.”

 It is also the Newari New Yea.  At first I was a little confused.  New Year?  I thought it was New Year the last time I visited Nepal, in April 2001.  And it was.  Then it was the Baishakh New Year 2058.  Now instead it is turning 1132.  What luck to always turn up during such celebrations.

Because I have been to Kathmandu before and am a little familiar with the

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I felt pretty blessed to receive “tika” from this happy fella

streets and restaurants, I can sit and study in a cafe enjoying a cup of Nepali tea or in a Kashmiri’s shop having lemon tea, do a little studying, but still enjoy a different atmosphere..  It feels just right.  I hope I feel the same after a week (or even tomorrow because I tempted fate by having dinner in the same restaurant that A&P had our last dinner together the last time I was in Kathmandu, and the following day I was extremely ill.  I sat at the table beside the previous table.  I think I even had the same surly waiter!  But it was a delicious meal then, and it was tonight too.)

I am growing a bit tired. Although it is just 8:45 Nepali time, it is 11 pm Singaporean time (Nepal doesn’t like to have the same time as India, so it is 2 hours and 15 minutes different from Singapore).  It’s time to head back to my hotel and sleep.  I want to get up early tomorrow and head out sightseeing.

Namaste & Happy New Year