Sydney Getaway


Kites of all kinds, Bondi Beach.  Look at that blue sky!  No need for an air quality monitor here.

After months (it felt like years) since my previous vacation, through the hard slog of a busy Shanghai visa summer, then into a strange low visa-demand month that was challenging nonetheless with the whole “half the staff is gone for 1-3 weeks in Hangzhou to support the G-20” thing, I was so ready for a vacation.  I would especially need it as my trip was sandwiched between the summer/G-20 season and my first foray into mid-level bidding, which is State Department speak for “virtual cage fighting for your next job.”

So off to Oz we went with stops in Sydney and the Blue Mountains.

We flew Shanghai to Singapore and then overnight to Sydney.  (I love that my four year old asks before we travel how many planes we will take.)  My friend K and her family picked us up at the airport — K used to work at the US Consulate in Shanghai as a locally-employed staff (a local hire) but she relocated to Sydney with her husband’s job and now she works for the US Consulate in Sydney — and then whisked us off to Bondi Beach for the annual kite flying festival.  It did not have nearly the number of kites we expected and K’s husband could not find a parking space so he just drove around and around the area until we had our fill of beach and kites, but to be honest I didn’t care because it was just great to catch up with K, and her son KZ and C, who are the exact same age, really bonded.  After Bondi we headed for a quick lunch on our way to the wonderful Featherdale Wildlife Park in the northwest suburbs of Sydney.  The wildlife center is all about native Australian birds and animals, so it is a great place to see cockatoos, kookaburas, emus, cassowaries, koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, dingoes, quokkas, echidnas, Tasmanian devils and the like.  KZ and C pet a koala — one of the few places where you can do so complimentary with your entrance ticket — and some wallabies.  We finished up with ice cream.  Then we headed back to K’s house and while her husband prepared dinner K and I took a stroll in a nearby park while KZ and C zoomed around on a scooter and a bicycle.  And while this might sound like your average day out with friends — meet up, have lunch, drive to a kid friendly place, dinner at home, and a walk in the park — I have not had a single day like that in Shanghai.


Only 45 minutes on the train and I get this look

The following morning, a Monday, K headed out early to work and her husband drove C and I to the nearby Blacktown train station to catch the 7:57 am train to Katoomba.  Initially my plan had been more complicated and involved renting a car.  But the logistics and cost and dragging C’s car-to-booster-conversion seat for a short drive to and from Katoomba was outweighed by the simplicity of taking the train.  Me–I was incredibly impressed with myself for packing one large backpack I could put on my back, a smaller backpack I could wear on my chest, thereby leaving my hands free to push C in the stroller.  I felt I was almost, sort of, kinda, not really, really, but as close as I have been in awhile, close to my old backpacker self.  C was less impressed.  For some reason she found the idea of a relaxing 1 hour 22 minute ride on the train seemed incredibly boring.  In true 4 year old style she asked at every station if that was our station.  I only had to endure her asking 16 times before on it finally coming true.  But she is 4 and she would have asked every five minutes if we were there yet had I been driving.


Great location, historic charm: the Carrington

We arrived at 9:22 am and headed straight for our hotel, the historic Carrington located just half a block from the Katoomba train station.  The restored historic hotel is the oldest hotel in town having opened in 1883.  I opted for us to stay in the “traditional rooms,” which are billed as “budget” accommodation that channels the original rooms of the hotel, i.e. they share bathrooms down the hall as the hotel would have had prior to 1927.  Again, to me it was a tip to my backpacking/hosteling days and I was curious as to how C would take to it. Her assessment at the end of our stay: “I liked the room, I liked the bed, I liked the TV, but I did not like the bathrooms outside.”

It was a gorgeous day.  It was warm (in the upper 70s), the sky was a brilliant blue.  There was no time to dawdle.  We were at the hotel WAY too early to check in.  I left our bags with the front desk and whisked C in the stroller off to see the sights.  I decided to walk from the hotel to Echo Point, the location to see the Three Sisters, the three iconic pillar rock formations that are the most recognizable symbol of the Blue Mountains.  I had hoped the walk to Echo Point would be interesting, but it was not.  We simply walked down a sidewalk that started in the commercial center of Katoomba and passed through a nondescript residential neighborhood.  There were no views until the end when suddenly you find yourself at Echo Point 30 minutes later.  And here the Jamison Valley opens before you.  It is the Grand Canyon of Australia and it is awesome.  C agreed that it was worth the trip only because I gave her some ice cream.  Whatever.  (I want to be upfront about travel with a four year old; C is a very good traveler but she is four.  Ice cream ranks higher than amazing natural wonders right now).


The Three Sisters and Jamison Valley view

We were beat though.  We had flown through the night to arrive in Australia.  Been whisked around on a wonderful whirlwind first day right from the airport.  Then we woke up very early for the train to the Blue Mountains.  Despite the stunning views and great weather we needed lunch and a rest.  We lunched at Echo Point watching a kookabura sitting in an old gum tree (get it?) and then road the hop on hop off bus back to the first stop, across from the hotel.  We bought fruit and sandwich fixings from the local grocery store and were in for the night.  (I want to be upfront about travel with a tired thirty, ok forty-something, mom with a young child.  Sometimes a nap ranks higher than natural wonders.)


Are you sure there is a contraption of any kind on those cables?  The Skyway disappears into the fog…

The following day I was kicking myself.  It was cooler.  The fog was thick.  Sigh.  This is the day we would go to Scenic World, a privately run wonderland of activities in the Blue Mountains.  The activities include riding the steepest incline railway in the world, riding the steepest aerial cable car in the Southern Hemisphere, ride the skyway tram that crosses a chasm 270 meters above the valley floor, and enjoying various walks on elevated boardwalks through the forest.  I was not sure how great it would be in thick fog. It is called scenic world, but it might be a bit hard to see…  At AUS$70 for the two of us it seemed to be a bit pricey to look at the inside of a cloud.  The upside is the fog had no affect whatsoever on the thrilling ride on the scenic railway.  You whizz down what seems a near vertical track, you pass through a tunnel, and then some trees.  C and I screamed.  Then C laughed while I continued to scream.  At the bottom of the railway we enjoyed a 30 minute walk through the forest with stops to ride the bronze statue of a pony in front of an old mine, swung on a tree limb outside an old minters cabin, and just enjoyed the fresh air.  With the fog we had almost no wait for the cable car back up.  And while the Skyway is supposed to afford riders incredible views, the fog gave the ride an otherworldly feel.

We had spent several hours at Scenic World and then an hour in the town of Leura before once again calling it a day.  With most sightseeing buses stopping at 5 and the sun beginning to set around 5:30 PM, this is not as crazy as it sounds.


I could have put a normal beautiful day at Scenic World photo but while there I accidentally discovered my camera has this awesome setting. 

The weather for Wednesday, our last day in the Blue Mountains, was supposed to be pretty bad — rainy all day.  Imagine my surprise when we woke up to blue skies!  I made the decision to head back to Scenic World.  Imagine my surprise and sense of wonder when at the ticket counter the cashier let us in for free!  He had asked, “Have you ever been to Scenic World before?” and I had answered “Yes! We were here yesterday but we could see very little with the fog so I thought we would come back.  My daughter loved the railway and cannot stop talking about riding it again.  Here is a picture I took of the fog around the Skyway.  Isn’t it great?”  He told me he would give me a discount, but when I handed him my credit card he declined it and told us to have a great time.  Customer service is not dead.


This trail is rated perfect for 4 year olds by gift store employees

We rode the railway twice more (once down and once up) at C’s request.  Then I decided we would ride the Skyway one-way with the stroller and walk along the Prince Henry Cliff Walk to Echo Point.  It was only 30 minutes and a woman in the Scenic World gift shop assured me it was stroller friendly.  She must have never, ever, ever been anywhere near that cliff walk because it was not stroller friendly in any possible interpretation unless you mean carrying your stroller the entire time as you fumble along several hundred dirt steps while praying your adventurous preschooler does not walk off the edge of the trail.  My favorite part was the 9 or 10 rung metal step ladder affixed to a rock in the middle of the trail.  Super kid friendly (not).  But we survived the walk and luckily arrived at Echo Point before the skies darkened and poured.

The following day we took the train from Katoomba back to Sydney.  As C found the 1 hour and 22 minute ride up boring she was even less impressed with the 2 hour trip to Sydney Central.  And even more disgruntled to learn that we would transfer trains to ride to Circular Quay where we would find our hotel.  But once again I was massively astonished at my travel-with-small-child prowess.  We checked into our hotel located in a historic building in “the Rocks,” the location of the oldest European settlement of Sydney and headed off to Darling Harbour.  There we got more animal time in at both the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium and the Wild Life Sydney Zoo.  At the latter C pet a snake, got up close and personal with a sugar glider, and rubbed the belly of a spotted quoll.  All fine and well except she noted I had yet to produce a platypus.


C feeds a giraffe.  This is NOT the AUS$29.95 professional photo.  That one, which makes me look like the Hulk in blue and is taken from an angle that looks directly up my nose, will never be seen online.  Ever. 

What I did produce were partial views of the Sydney Opera House from our hotel room.  This is what we were here in Sydney to see.  The Opera House (which of course is featured in the Disney movie Finding Nemo), kangaroos, koalas, and the duck-billed platypus.  I was beginning to fulfill my promises.  Our second day in Sydney we rode the ferry across to the Taronga Zoo where I could at long last produce a platypus and make good on the promise to have C feed a carrot to a giraffe.  It only cost me AUS$29.95 for the privilege though we got to take home one of the worst “professional” photos I have ever paid money for proving C and I were near a giraffe with vegetables.  C loves it though and that is what matters.  The highlight of the zoo though was the hour we spent on the kids playground adjacent the lemur enclosure where C made fast friends with Sarah, an equally adventurous and outgoing Australian-Korean girl.

We also made a trip to the Sydney Tower Eye for views of the city just before sunset.  It sounded nice and I already had tickets given I bought a 4-sites-in-one ticket that included the tower, but the views, while nice, are not as great as one might suppose.  The two most iconic structures — the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge — are obscured by large and unimpressive buildings.  I also had to contend with C’s deep displeasure at visiting the tower.  If I have not mentioned it before, she is not yet into taking in the views.  Not even “look mommy has already taken you to four animal venues and now it is time for something mommy wants to see” swayed her.  Luckily she fell asleep in the stroller and I enjoyed the views in peace.  And the next day I took her to Manly Beach to our fifth and final animal adventure, the Manly Sea Life Sanctuary.  There she had her face painted and balance was restored to her world.


Yes, I arranged our trip to Sydney at this time of year so I could run across the bridge (on a night stroll across the street from our hotel)

Then of course on Sunday morning, if you have been following my adventures with any sort of regularity you may have guessed it — I participated in a run.  Originally I had signed up for the Sydney Running Festival half marathon, but a last training run a week before departure made it very clear a half was probably a bad idea.  Luckily there was still time to contact organizers and downgrade to the 9K Bridge Run.  I just wanted to be able to run across the Sydney Harbour Bridge with a few thousand strangers.  The “flat and fast” course was neither flat nor fast and seemed to me to be much longer than 9K, but I finished.  And before the rain.  Despite rain predicted for most days of our vacation, only the one day was blustery and rainy with both the wind and rain holding off til the end of the running events.  We celebrated with lunch and a walk at Darling Harbour with K and her family.

The day after the run was another beautiful, glorious day.  Unfortunately it was our last (half) day in Australia.  We strolled along Circular Quay to the Opera House and through the beautiful Royal Botanical Gardens (it is a wonder that such prime Sydney real estate is set aside for a large, public park).  I did not want to leave.  Although I usually find 9 days away is very restorative, this time I still felt it was just too short.  But it was time to return to Shanghai and get ready for bidding on my next assignment.


Shanghai: Preschool Days and Activities


For 2 months a Shanghai mall hosted this amazing My Little Pony wonderland (amazing for the kids at least; I grew tired of the MLP theme song in Chinese blaring over speakers fairly quickly).

I struggled to come up with just the right title for this blog post.  Shanghai: The Kids Mecca or Parents Empty Your Wallets are both apt descriptions, but were not quite right.  Shanghai is chock full of activities for your progeny.  This is however not about all the kids activities on offer in this city–I am not that kind of blogger.  I expect you probably could find just about anything your kids’ heart desires, but this is, as usual, just about me and C.

I am now the mom of a school-age child.  Well, preschool-aged child, but it is school nonetheless.  Approximately a year before arriving coming to Shanghai, I learned that the State Department does not cover the costs of preschool.  It makes sense–preschool is not free in the United States and therefore it is not free for us overseas–yet it still came as a bit of a surprise.  No worries, I thought, I did not attend preschool and look at me, I became a US diplomat.  Not too shabby, right?  Therefore I figured C would do just fine without.


Just one half of the fabulous Shanghai Centre Kids’ Club. The toys! The colors!  Even I feel happy whenever I bring C here.

But things are different nowadays.  Even in the US, Kindergarten classes are more and more often full day and involve homework.  Preschool is the new Kindergarten.  And I am in Northeast Asia where there can be even more pressure for preschool to provide not only structured children’s recreation but also to prepare kids to excel not just in primary school but even to possibly decide their future university and their entire lives.  Yikes.

As soon as I arrived in Shanghai, I enrolled my daughter in the incredible Kids’ Club in our housing complex.  Besides being a wonderful play space open 7 days a week from 9 am to 6 pm where parents and the ayis (nannies) can bring the kids from 6 months to 6 years to play, they also offer regular story time (in Chinese, English, and Japanese), DVD time, music class, and exercise class but also special activities from Easter parties to Japanese flower arranging and soccer games to cooking classes.  And if you are  a member you can rent the space for birthday parties (no need to supply games!) It is not inexpensive at US$50 a month, but it is well worth it.


This is a stack of 180 one hundred RMB notes. For real.  Yes, I took a picture of the money.  I actually did a whole photo shoot…

Once part of the Kids’ Club there was pressure to enroll C in the preschool.  I was stopped in the supermarket, in the elevator, in parties at the Kids’ Club, with helpful suggestions that C might possibly be ready for school.  She is bright.  She will make friends.  She will learn a lot.  It is not that I disagreed per se, . but preschool, even full day preschool, does not actually last a full day (a full day is only 9 am to 3 pm; oh, how I wish that were my work day).  As a single working mom who had already lucked out in finding a really great ayi (in other words not someone I wanted to lose), I just was not sure it was right for us.  But after a year I came around to the idea C would benefit from some schooling.  So I bit the bullet and signed her up for half day.


Every week the teachers send photos to all the parents via WeChat as no parents are allowed in the classroom.

I did have a bit of sticker shock.  It would cost me 17,000 RMB for half day (9 am to noon), half a year.  Plus a 1,000 RMB one-time registration fee.  That total 18,000 RMB (approx US$2750) would need to be paid in cash on a Monday or Tuesday between 9 and 9:30 am.  That’s right, a full 30 minutes mid-morning.  Hmmmm…  As a working mom I have been part of enough conversations to know I am not the only person to face this kind of situation – where schools still assume a parent (usually the mom) is readily available during the day.  This, I am sure, was just my first such experience.  I do not expect it to be the last.  Luckily my daughter’s preschool committee turned out to be quite flexible — the treasurer (a very pregnant woman about to return to her home country to give birth), armed with an electric bill counter, met me at the Kids’ Club at 8 pm at night to accept my payment.  It felt a bit cloak and dagger, but the payment was made.


C gets her jump on at the brand new NBA Play Zone, another awesome indoor kids play area that will drain your wallet.  (only $36 for one adult with child on the weekend) But you love it.  Draining your wallet, that is.

As preschool tuition costs go, C’s school is an absolute bargain.  According to several online sites, private/international preschool programs in Shanghai cost between 5,000 and 20,000 RMB (US$758 and US$3,030) a month.  One prominent international school costs 204,000 RMB a year with a 2000 RMB registration fee and a 20,000 RMB non-refundable security deposit for a total of 226,000 RMB (US$34,242).   Just take a moment to digest that.  Not quite as much as the current annual tuition at any of the Ivy League universities, but it will set you back a pretty penny and a vacation or two.

My daughter is absolutely loving school.  What’s not to love?  I mean once you get over handing over all that cash (yes, I do think a credit card payment would have felt less painful).  This is a Montessori-based education.  A total of 11 students with 2 teachers and 1 classroom helper.  The student-teacher ratio is fantastic.  Of the three hours, 30 minutes is spent in Chinese class.  One of my previous excuses regarding the preschool was my daughter learns a lot from her ayi every day.  Yet in three weeks of class C’s Chinese level has skyrocketed to include multiple Chinese children’s songs.  Hearing her speak so much Chinese kinda makes me want to stay in China much longer.  Kinda.  Not really.  Well, maybe.  Um, no.


Look at my 4 year old climb this wall! (I know from personal experience I could not do it)

All kidding aside I love my daughter fiercely and I am happy that we have been posted to Shanghai where there are so many activities for her to participate in.  The Chinese culture loves children and the worldly and affluent Shanghaiese make sure the city gives them and their kids options.  My daughter is also enrolled in both private swimming and group ballet classes.  We are lucky that both of these activities are located in our housing complex!  I know.  Be still my tired single mommy heart — a five minute walk to both swimming and dance is ideal.  The swimming is hefty 250 RMB (US$38) per half an hour but I do think back to the mommy and me swimming we took in the US, which were $30 for half an hour with up to five kids and parents, and realize that our private classes are worth it.  Especially as C is really benefiting from the classes.  The dance classes too are extraordinary.  I had some doubts that the teacher — despite her incredible patience with the children — would be able to get 8 four and five year olds to learn a routine and execute it on stage, but she did.  The end of year recital was so sweet to watch.  Lots of proud parents and kids.   The 2,450 RMB (US$374) tuition is for 14 classes, the recital, and the show costume.  I took dance as a child (ballet, tap, and hula/Tahitian) from the ages of 4 to 12, and I thought back to how much I enjoyed it.

As the bidding for my next assignment will begin tomorrow (as soon as I return from vacation), I think again how incredibly fortunate we have been to be posted to Shanghai.  It is a place where kids are treasured and catered to.   There are so many organized activities and places for creative play.  Yes, it will cost you (it has certainly cost me), but it has been worth every penny to provide these kinds of opportunities for my daughter.


C and her Chinese swim instructor cover the basics as Rapunzel (lower right hand corner) looks on



A Stroll down the Street of Eternal Happiness


The Street of Eternal Happiness in the former French Concession of Shanghai

One of my most constant activities in Shanghai, outside of spending a lot of time in the gym poorly training myself for middling performances in random half marathons, is my book club.  This is no ordinary book club.  Besides getting me to read at least one book a month – an astounding feat for this tired Foreign Service single mom – it is also a dinner club.  As we meet at 6 PM on the third or last Thursday a month, dinner is part of the equation.  So not only do they get me to read, but they also get me to cook.  For those who know me, the latter is the much more impressive achievement.

Our book for this September is Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road by Rob Schmitz, an award winning journalist based in Shanghai.  The book is about the lives of several people and families along Changle Lu, the beautifully named Street of Eternal Happiness, where the author lives in Shanghai.  This post is not about the book, but rather my own walk down the street just yesterday.

1A few weeks ago my four year old daughter and I had to travel to the Consulate Office Building (COB), the main compound of the US Consulate in Shanghai, so we could have our vaccinations updated.  Although I work for the Consulate, I do not work in the COB; the visa section is located on the eighth floor of the Westgate Mall.  My daughter and I took a shuttle from our residence, where many Consulate families live, to the COB to have our appointments with the Consulate clinic.  Along the way, the shuttle bus turned on to Changle Lu, and I realized how very close the road is in relation to where I live and I resolved one day soon for C and I to take a walk along the 2 mile slice of Shanghai life–to bring the book club book literally to life.

We started off at No. 274 Urumuqi Road, just a block and a half south of where Changle Lu intersects.  This is the location of the Avocado Lady, a Shanghai institution.  What appears to be a small double-wide mom and pop grocery operation is the shopping destination for expats in search of fresh produce with a smile along with some rather hard to find exports from home.  The Avocado Lady has been recognized for promoting Mexican avocados and used to sport a plaque from the Mexican Consulate in front of the store.  Two weeks ago when C and I passed by the plaque was there, but yesterday the owners informed me that it had fallen.  This did not deter the customers; on a Saturday afternoon the shop was hopping.


“Build core values with one heart, and realize the great Chinese dream with one mind.” One of the many posters along the wall on Urumuqi Road.

A half a block and across the street up from the Avocado Lady one can find the wall that surrounds the demolished lot that was once Maggie Lane.  I have passed by this wall many times as I walked back from the COB to my residence.  I liked the posters.  There used to be one with a cat on it, I think also one with a carp.  I never thought of the significance of the posters until I read the book.  These posters sporting optimistic slogans about achieving civilization, progress and happiness while realizing the dreams of a nation, cover an ugly wall around an empty lot where once stood Shikumen homes built in the 1930s.  Although the at times vicious demolition began in late 2004, the area has still yet to be developed.  Progress. At a standstill.

5We headed on to Changle Lu and it did not take long until we fund another of the addresses: CK’s boutique restaurant 2nd Floor Your Sandwich, now called 2nd Floor Natural Flavor Cafe Bistro & Exhibition.  Not knowing what was on the menu at at 2nd Floor or the energy level of C, I opted to lunch at home before we headed out.  I wish we had waited to lunch at 2nd Floor.  The wrought iron spiral staircase is tricky for a 4 year old and the stroller was just a no go (I left it parked behind the blackboard sign in the nook in front of the stairs).  Yet upstairs the cafe is a comfy, crowded well-lit room with lots of windows. The ceiling of half the cafe is windows, like a greenhouse.  The walls are covered in artwork and different sized shelves with knick-knacks, old cameras, books, and plants. It is chic and eclectic, and the menu, with pancakes and burgers, pumpkin soup and buffalo mozzarella with arugula salad, looked inviting.  They were doing a brisk business for Saturday lunch.  I would have loved to sit down for tea and dessert but C was having none of it.  She was complaining loudly about having to climb the stairs and wanting to continue the walk, so I gave up and we left.  I will go back some day.

6Further down the road, on one side of the street large, imposing grey walls or brick and iron fences with  thick brush blocked the views of former French Concession mansions, on the other side small mom and pop shops with apartments on the upper level, there between the homes an alleyway opens up with a sign indicating just inside, just follow the signs, one will find the Chinese Printed Blue Nankeen Exhibition Hall.  As I was here to check out Changle Lu and all it had to offer, this invitation was too much to pass up.  I pushed the stroller down a broad alley with narrow passages on either side leading to both front and back doors of small apartments.  Up above clothing hung out to dry from make-shift clothing lines.  At the end of the alley, signs instructed us to go over a gate, heading first to the right and then to the left down a very narrow passageway about as wide as two strollers.  Again to the left, it opened to a courtyard and there you find the museum and shop of hand painted blue and white cotton cloth.  The shop beautifully displayed the cloth in clothing, framed pictures, fabric toys, table cloths and more, on dark wood shelves and walls.  I bought a small Nankeen blue cloth elephant to go with my cloth elephant collection (one from Thailand, Laos, and Indonesia).  Just outside the shop C caught sight of what appeared to be a mongoose running through the courtyard.  I imagine it is more likely a pet ferret that got away.  Nonetheless it added to our adventure down Changle Lu.

8We came to a small toy store.  This is what C had been waiting for — she had seen the shop from the windows of our shuttle bus on the way to the COB weeks before.  Her eagle eyes had spotted the My Little Ponies in the window as our bus sped by at 25 miles per hour.  And finally here we were in front of the little place.  Inside there was no place to move – both the proprietors, a husband and wife, sat in chairs watching a television placed on top of a pile of stock.  There was no place for the stroller inside, there was barely room for C and I to stand.  C did not care, as I am sure most children would not, because she was within touching distance of all the merchandise.  Most of the toys were no longer even in their boxes, but that too only seemed to add to the appeal.  To pick out her new toy for the day, C had to stand outside and make her choice through the front window display.  As we stood outside with our new purchase, C drew a small crowd as she chattered away happily in a mix of Chinese and English about all the other toys that she also wished we were buying.

It seemed strange that we would draw any attention as I had noticed quite a few foreigners on the road throughout our walk.  Even as we loitered in the cramped toy store, a very pregnant young foreign woman popped in to buy a 300 RMB China mobile phone card.  (Of course the toy shop would also be in the business of selling phone cards.)  I had begun to feel the foreigner to Chinese ratio was higher here on Changle Lu than it was on my own block, the very swank Nanjing Xi Lu.  Perhaps that is not surprising because the luxury brand name stores around my home are more likely to draw wealthy Chinese than hip but frugal foreigners.  I  felt more at home on Changle Lu, more at ease than I do on Nanjing Xi Lu, where I walk to work each day passing stores like Christian Louboutin, Ferragamo, Bvlgari, and Louis Vuitton.  The walk though was eye-opening in other ways.  I thought about how small our world, the one C and I occupy, is in Shanghai.  Most days I walk only the 3 1/2 blocks to work and return and C stays in an even smaller radius, to the playground, pool, Kids’ Club, preschool, and supermarket, all within our complex.  We go out frequently enough to museums and other sights around town, but it is rare we walk off the beaten path, just to walk.  We did so more when we first arrived, but I became caught up in work and my bucket list, and C with her swimming, dance,  birthday parties and school (again all within the complex) and we wander less and less.  The Shanghai we know is quite different from that others know – and were we to come back ten years from now, even if the city miraculously remained the same as it is now, it would be a different place to us.


The inviting kids corner.  (Yes, I do see the no photo sign though I swear I did not see it when I took the picture)

We passed the corner of the Street of Eternal Happiness and Rich Man’s Road, where the restaurant Chicken & Egg was doing a roaring business of mostly foreigners in their outdoor seating.  On we went, passing slick office buildings, upscale and downscale clothing and shoe stores, Chinese fried food stalls alongside trendy foreign food establishments from Thai to Mexican to Italian.  We came to a bookstore, and I had to go in.  Imagine my surprise to find a wonderful traditional English language book seller with a small cafe.  There were sections around the store; you could determine the travel book section, the foreign language learning section, the Children’s book section despite the lack of signage, but there were also just stacks of books on tables, on shelves of different heights, and in piles making a pathway just wide enough to carefully maneuver a stroller, but just.  It is the kind of place where those who love books could get lost for hours and leave carrying a heavy bag of unexpected finds.  I felt I had not been in such a store for ages and ages, and it is probably true.  If it were not for my book club getting me to read, I would be hard pressed to get through a book a month.  This from someone who devoured 100 books in more than one summer.  Also, these days most of my books are purchased on Amazon and within minutes transferred to my Kindle.  It is just not the same. We parked the stroller and C immersed herself amongst the shelves.  She delighted in the kids’ section though did have to run downstairs to complain to management, in Chinese, that the area with the toys trapped under a glass floor was “difficult” for children.  She actually pulled an amused manager upstairs to point this folly out.

11We continued on. Another block brought an unexpected sight.  The stores on the one side of the street seemed on the seedy side, with sex shops and risque lingerie stores, whose window displays reminiscent of Amsterdam’s red light district, on an upper level and small cafes and restaurants and other shops on lower levels, just a few steps down.  That one small section reminded me of a street in Amsterdam, U street in Washington DC and a part of Orchard Road, Singapore all at the same time.  we passed a small Mexican deli closed for the nuptials of the owner.  I not only loved the sign the owner posted but also that the small shop, like so many small business owners, would close for such a celebration because they do not rely on an army of employees.  No doubt it is a tough job running your own small business, but there was just something so joyous and infectious in the simple sign.


C hides in the stroller outside the flower shop

We ended our walk at the small flower shop at the corner of Changle Lu and Chengdu Nan Lu, featured in the book.  I was encouraged to see two women sitting out front in deck chairs fanning themselves in the heat and gossiping, though neither it turned out was Ms. Zhao the owner.  The shop, like so many others, was also too small for the stroller so C waited outside while Ms. Zhao’s eldest son made me a bouquet of roses that C had picked out.  While C fended of pinches and coos from curious older Chinese, the elder son told me his mother was back in her hometown, but would return the following day.  Shandong? I asked, because I had read the book and knew the location of her hometown.  He did not seem surprised in the slightest that I asked about his mother or knew her travel was likely to Shandong.  I suddenly felt shy and intrusive – almost as if I were talking to a celebrity.  I had after all read about him and his mother’s shop in a book.  I thanked him for the nice arrangement of the flowers, paid, and then we turned around and headed back home, about a dozen blocks away.  Well worth the stroll on a summer Saturday afternoon in Shanghai.


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.

79. jellyfish


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.

43. sharks

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.


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.

17. german consulate

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!


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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