No G20 For Me (and Other Stories of Single Parenthood in the Foreign Service)

It has been a year and a half since I was approached to write an essay on being a single parent in the Foreign Service.  That essay was a revelation for me.  It made me reflect on, for the first time, what it meant to be both in the Foreign Service and a single parent.  It also connected me with other single parents serving in the US government overseas as I sought out advice and other viewpoints for the essay.

About a year after the publication of the first essay I was again approached to write on the topic for another book.  I had the option of just reprinting the original essay or updating.  Initially I thought, not much has changed—I am still in the same location and my daughter had yet to start school—so what more could I write about?  But then I thought about it and I realized I did not have to think all that hard to come up with more material.

keep-calm-and-single-mom-onOne of the first new challenges came early in fall 2015 when I had to make the difficult choice to be medically evacuated to Singapore for several days without my then-3 year old daughter.   I know, I know.  I am still trying to come to terms with how that particular scenario came to pass.  There was certainly pressure on me to leave her behind because it would be “easier” to do so, though easier for whom I never really understood.   I initially fought to take her.  I insisted that she would be included on my travel orders and I was successful.   I then tried to find child care, which is what proved impossible.  There was a high likelihood I would be hospitalized, though the time frame—maybe a few hours, maybe overnight, maybe a second night—was uncertain.    Although there were several hotels in Singapore listed to have babysitting services, not only were they all the most expensive in the city-state and well above the government reimbursable rates, and while I would be hospitalized the hotel would not be covered anyway, but how do you arrange a sitter for an indeterminate amount of time?   So instead her nanny stayed with her overnight three nights and two other single Foreign Service parents served as Power of Attorney, checking in on her and emailing me daily.  It was not easy – I thought a lot about the fact I was separated from my young daughter not only for several days but also by international boundaries at least a five hour flight away.  Now, I am not 100% sure of the right way through what happened but I know I will be a better advocate for us both should it happen again.

By the following summer I was presented with yet another challenge.  The G-20 was coming to Hangzhou, China, within our Consular coverage area.  Oh, how I wanted to volunteer to assist in any way I could.  As a Foreign Service officer, assisting with such multi-national organizational meetings is part of what we do.  As a political officer, particularly one who has yet to serve in a political position, it would mean so much more.  And yet I had to be realistic.

In my original essay I had said something along the lines of it not being necessary for the single parent to put his or her hand up for every volunteer opportunity because their colleagues are not.  I was wrong.  Some of my colleagues were and are.  Some of them seem to have inexhaustible reserves of time and energy.  Many of those doing so are single without dependents, but not all of them.  Many are also married and some have children.  I cannot compete.  But honestly I do not have to.  I will not say it has been easy to come to terms with these limitations and to be strategic in what I volunteer for; it has not.  But I stand by my original advice to be realistic with oneself, to set expectations, and to have a straightforward conversation with your supervisor.   I may have missed out on the temporary duty opportunities to Hangzhou and India and Haiti and Ecuador and around China, but I found other meaningful and equally important ways to support our mission.  And although I did not get a picture of myself with the US President, I did walk my daughter to preschool on her first day, something I would have missed if I had been at the G-20.

working-parent-aheadPreschool, that was my next test.  My first experience with the preschool came in the form of the email requesting payment of tuition.  The entire 17,000 RMB (US$2474) tuition and 1000 RMB (US$145) registration fee were to be paid in cash on one of two days between the hours of 9 and 9:30 AM.   Although the letter noted that should someone be unable to pay the tuition on the stated days and times then one could notify the committee and they will try to make alternative arrangements.  “Try” seemed the operative word – implying the parents who were unable to pay on those dates and times were inconveniencing the committee and it would be at the discretion of the committee to be accommodating.  Wow.

Recently the preschool teacher sent out a message to all the parents to ask for volunteers to teach a cultural class each day for a week.  The message went out on a Monday for classes two weeks later, after the Chinese New Year.   I would have loved to have participated. Unfortunately, my job required me to submit my requested leave dates for the August 2016-February 2017 time period last June!  It is not impossible to change, but it can be denied.  This very issue nearly derailed my attempt to attend the preschool Christmas pageant when the date was abruptly changed two weeks beforehand despite being on the calendar the previous three and a half months.

I had expected to feel some pangs of jealousy missing out on a few school activities, but I have had other unexpected negative feelings.  The very narrow and specific times to pay the tuition and the sudden rescheduling of the Christmas pageant (seemingly to accommodate the travel schedule of one parent on the preschool committee at the expense of others) felt at best just inflexible, based on some kind of outmoded idea of family.  At worst…well, maybe I will leave that to your imagination? I am still working out how I feel, but one thing I did realize is that my experience in this area is not unique to single parenting, but is part of a broader challenge to working parents.

In all of this my daughter C and her friends are becoming more aware of differences in family structures.  While trick-or-treating I overheard one of C’s school friends ask “How come you don’t have a dad?” And C, not yet 5 years old, responded matter-of-factly “I have a dad but he doesn’t live with us.  He lives in Kentucky.”   Although I will say that particular moment warmed my heart, I was feeling much less confident when just before the Christmas pageant she burst out crying because it would be the nanny and I attending and her father and I.  The outburst came out of nowhere and hit me like a cast iron pan to the head.   In these issues too I am not alone.

support-just-aheadNow I am in the middle of preparing to move us – myself, my daughter, our two cats, and our stuff – across three continents in a matter of four months, I am reminded again of the Herculean effort Foreign Service Officers put in to move themselves from Point A to Point B.  That is not to say we have no help, but we do a surprising amount on our own.  I am not going to say it is harder as a single parent – every FSO whether single, married, with children or some other permutation, has equal but different challenges.

Here though is where I circle around and mention again the connections I have made that have helped make single parenting in the Foreign Service easier (not easy, just easier).  The affinity group myself and a colleague started has in just two years grown from a handful of members to over 80.  That may not seem like much but it makes a difference to me and our members to know we are not single parenting in this career alone.  Beyond a support group I have also found allies and advocates.  These may be former single parents, those raised by single parents, or just plain awesome people who acknowledge my situation, support me, and lift me up.  I have been extremely fortunate at my current post where I not only serve with other single parents but also have received friendship and encouragement from two former single parents and seven, yes, SEVEN colleagues who came forward to tell me they were raised by single parents.   And they became diplomats!

Of course there is more to come!  Childcare while I am training in DC remains a challenge without resolution.   And soon enough we will arrive in a new country where I will start a new job, need to find a new nanny, and C starts kindergarten.   Whew.  At least so far, so good.

 

 

A Krabi Chinese New Year

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The confusing duck display at Pudong Airport.  Our first year seemed to be the year of the ram/sheep/goat/deer so I guess for the Year of the Rooster any fowl, water or land, will do

It is Chinese New Year again and our third (and final) one in Shanghai.  Having already done our Chinese New Year in the city penance once, it was time to get out of Dodge yet again.

Initially the plan was to visit to a new country.  I mean a new-for-me country and that is becoming increasingly hard for me to do in Asia.  I had a few ideas.  I had been debating about someplace in the Middle East, particularly a country where a good friend is posted, but as I was bidding one country in the region I decided to hold out until after I had secured my onward assignment.  Having waited until that auspicious time I discovered it was going to cost me an arm and a leg and maybe a few digits to make that trip, so I started to look closer to home.  I hemmed and hawed.  I recalled a friend from Shanghai had visited Krabi.  I looked up the ticket prices.  Yikes!  Chinese New Year price gouge.  I closed my eyes and hit “purchase.”

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Long-tailed boats in Ao Nang Bay.  Nope, not a mistake to come here.

This will be our last big trip from Shanghai.  It comes in the middle of the crazy wrapping-up-my-work-and-life-in-Shanghai and preparing-to-move-across-three-continents period so I wanted it to be easy.  I have been to Thailand so many times I have lost count (I can say that about no other country).   Although I had never been to Krabi, and that appealed to me, it is, for the most part, just a beach destination.  As a result there was no pressure to go here and there to see things.    I made few plans other than to book a resort hotel with kids amenities.

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The magical and wonderful Kids Club

This vacation has turned out like no other.  First it is because of the kind of hotel where we stayed.  While we did stay at an all-inclusive resort hotel in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic in October 2015, this is not my common travel practice.  That hotel too was quite isolated.  The Holiday Inn Resort Krabi Ao Nang beach is not.  It is located on the main strip in the beach town.  We have options to head out and about.  But for the first several days I simply chose not to do so. Secondly, C is finally old enough to go to the Kids’ Club all by herself.  I had no idea how this would impact the vacation, but my goodness, what a change!  She spends hours and hours there coloring, making crafts, watching kid-friendly television and movies, playing with LEGOs, and making friends.  The very first day she won the title of “dancing queen” at the Kids Club dance party (complete with crown and snack prize) and was invited to a birthday party to be held at the club the following day.  This has led to the third difference in this vacation- the amount of things that I have been able to do on my own.  Unfortunately, given that this trip comes at a time when I am under a lot of pressure to manage our move on top of other commitments, I did bring some “work” with me.  In the course of the week I have written three blog posts (this one included), completed uploading a huge number of photos from my computer to a cloud storage (and in so doing learned just how incredibly slow my Internet is in Shanghai), have reserved several hotels for during my home leave in popular places where hotels are likely to sell out, started and finished my next book club book, and started and completed my taxes!

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Do not feel too bad for me.  This was my view as I did my taxes.

I know, I know.  Not exactly the things dream vacations are made of.  While my daughter was at the Kids Club I did also go for an ill-advised run (my first in months) in the sweltering noon heat and took advantage of the hotel spa more than once for some very much-advised massage.  My daughter and I also were able to spend a lot of quality time together in the pool, at meals, walking along the beach or to shops in town.  I asked her about her time in the Kids Club and she shared her artwork and stories with me.

We also did some special activities together.  On the fourth day of our vacation C and I went horseback riding.  C loves horses and the only brochure to catch her eye at the nearby travel and tour booth was the one with horses.  I grimaced.  She’s 5.  In most of my online research, places generally allow horse riding from 8 and a few places from 6.  I quietly informed C of this and she burst out in tears.  I told her we would ask.  We sat at the booth with baited breath as the attendant made the call and had what felt like the longest conversation possible to find out the answer to what seemed a simple question “what is the minimum age for this horse riding activity.”  C patiently waited the verdict.  Just kidding.  She asked me every 5 seconds if she could go horse riding.  Imagine my surprise when the woman told us that C could in fact go horse riding as all of the horses are led.  C gave a few fist pumps and danced for joy.

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C on the beach during our ride

We waited in the hotel lobby for our pick up.  C scanned every vehicle and immediately noticed the truck with the pictures of horses when it drove up.  We sat in the back of the songthaew, on the long benches, a side for each of us.  There were no other passengers and we made no stops to pick up anyone else.  The wind blew through our hair and C let out whoops of delight.  I felt an incredible feeling of lightness and bliss.  At the riding center, some 15 minutes away by truck, we disembarked and were quickly given our mounts.  C could hardly contain her excitement — her own horse!

The ride was one hour along the beach.  I felt fairly confident that C would grow bored with the riding after 10 minutes, 15 minutes tops.  But she did not.  We had gone a full 50 minutes before she told me that she would like to go back to the barn.  The beach was okay — the tide was high and there was little beach at all, with the horses stepping into the shallow water to get around low hanging branches.  There was little scenery.  A few long-tailed boats floated near the shore and a few of the iconic rocks jutting out of the sea that Krabi is famous for were visible in the distance.  Yet none of that really mattered.  My horse followed behind C and as I watched her sit proudly on her very own horse, chatting away to no one in particular(the horse? the Thai boy who led the horse?  To me?) I simply felt happy.

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C helps this elephant take a bath

When you ask C what her favorite animal is she will tell you that she loves ALL THE ANIMALS.  But I know she does have a particular fondness for cats, horses and elephants.  To round out our holiday I decided on one more activity–elephant riding coupled with an elephant bath.  This time the truck that picked us up would pick up 8 more passengers, filling the back of the songthaew.  There were no other children and though at first I worried about this – is this a child appropriate activity? what kind of mother am I? – I soon felt an absurd amount of pride to be able to give C this kind of experience.  We set off on the elephant trek through the jungle, crossing some streams.  Our elephant ride in Chiang Mai was 15 minutes and plenty long enough (ooh, my bum!) so I had some concerns about a full hour but again it was just right.  After the ride we were given fresh pineapple and water but C had disappeared – I found her sweeping up leaves with a Thai mother and her 2 year old son.  We all then headed to the river to help a playful 7 year old elephant take her bath.  The laughs we had!  Some of the best money ever spent.

It was not easy to leave Krabi after such a wonderful week especially now that I am back in cold, grey, poor air quality Shanghai.  We relaxed.  We played.  We had adventures.  I wrote.  C made friends.  I saw a glimpse of C’s increasing independence (and mine).  It was just what C and I needed and I am ready (sorta, kinda, do I have a choice?) to tackle the last ten weeks here.

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(I am also VERY happy to report that I neither forgot to pack something for the trip nor lost anything, which given the last few trips and all that I have on my mind is a major accomplishment.)

 

 

 

The Trip in Inappropriate Shoes

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As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of emails I sent on past travels.

In December 2001 and January 2002 I took the five week winter break between my first and second semesters of graduate school to travel in Southeast Asia. I spent the first two weeks in Indonesia, on the island of Bali, with my then-Balinese boyfriend. Originally we had planned to travel together for the rest of the weeks, but soon after my arrival it was apparent the relationship was not going to last. So, we broke up and on January 1 I flew into Bangkok to begin three weeks of travel split between Cambodia and Thailand.

I started this trip with only one pair of ill-advised shoes — a pair of cheap sandals I had purchased in a mom-and-pop store in northern Bali the spring before.  They were two inch high pieces of foam rubber with a wide blue band with no grip whatsoever on the bottom.  One time while walking in Lovina, the town in northern Bali I lived in for several months, I slipped on the sidewalk and landed on my behind in 2 seconds flat.  These were clearly some high quality shoes and just perfect for some backpacking.  I have long wanted to write a story of this trip with this title, though the shoes are only a minor actor in the tale.

On January 1 I flew to Bangkok.  I was exhausted and did not have the energy to do much searching for a cheap place.  The place I stayed the last two times appeared to be closed so I went a few doors down and paid $8 for a room.  I believe this is the most I have ever paid for a room in Thailand.  I did not do much for the next two days but eat and sleep and read.  I needed a rest.  Then I booked a bus ticket to Siem Reap.

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Me and my backpacks at the Thai/Cambodian border

The bus was supposed to pick me up at 6:45 am.  I was a little anxious as the last time I was to be picked up early for a bus in Bangkok it failed to arrive.  But at 10 til 7 a man showed up in front of me and asked “Siem Reap?”  I nodded and I was moved about 10 feet from where I had been standing.  Ten minutes later another person came up and asked “Siem Reap?” I nodded and was ushered along with another group of groggy foreigners shuffling down the street.  We walked about 10 minutes and crossed a rather busy road to wait in a highway circle.  There were buses there but the herders made no move to get us on them.  We stood for about 15 minutes and then the selection process began.  We were asked to show our tickets.  Some people got yellow tape or a badge to place on their shirts.  I received neither and was held back in a smaller group.  I began to wonder what was going on.  Then we were motioned to move onto a second bus.  The first bus looked more posh, but ours was less crowded and I actually had two seats to myself.  Our tickets were checked again and we were given orange pieces of paper, and then we were off.

We drove to the Thai/Cambodia border where we disembarked for lunch and visa applications.  We went through immigration on the Thai side and then walked across to the Cambodian side.  It seemed a strange border as all kinds of people were simply walking across without checks.  Unfortunately one person from our bus was denied entry and had to return to Bangkok.  We changed to a mini bus on the Cambodian side and our orange pieces of paper were collected.  Unfortunately some riders had lost the paper, were berated by our “guide” and were forced to pay more money to continue.

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Me among the ruins of Angkor

This time we were squeezed in shoulder to shoulder and the road was incredibly worse, if it could be called a road at all.  We were told we would arrive at Siem Reap at 7 pm, but instead finally made it at 9.  The trip had been fun for the first few hours and then it became very tiresome.  I guess that it is part of the beauty of travel, it was easy to get there then some of the fun is lost, at least then fun in re-telling the journey, and everyone would do it.  Again, exhausted, I took the first guesthouse I found.

I stayed three days in Siem Reap and saw the incredible temples of Angkor.  I spent hours examining the amazing carvings in the largest of the temples and clamoring over ruins in those ridiculous shoes of mine.  And yet I wrote very little of this part of the trip. 

On January 8, I had a 5:30 am pick-up for a truck to take me to Tonle Sap lake and then the boat to Phonm Penh.  I had a choice seat in the back with my legs crushed awkwardly under other people’s backpacks.  As we bounced over the steadily worsening road, I was sure I was going to bounce out backwards into a rice paddy, but after some 30 minutes we all made it safe and sound.  We boarded small boats to ferry us out to the “BIG” boat, which turned out to be not all that big.  I sat in the very last row in the back of the boat where the boat vibrated so loudly I could not hear the Cambodian karaoke movie properly (a blessing?).  I tried sleeping bu the vibration made my nose itch beyond control.  Instead I read my book (which I left behind and I will never know what happened in Mexico) and watched the mute videos.  Four hours later I gratefully disembarked in the capital.

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The sobering country map at Cheoung Ek

The same day I went to visit the Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek.  After a bumpy 25 minute motorbike ride I arrived at the field where the Khmer Rouge killed thousands of people, bludgeoning them to save bullets.  There is just the excavated graves and a pagoda with 17 shelves of skulls, almost 9,000 of them.  And 43 graves yet to be excavated.  My guide lost his parents there.  The weather was beautiful – a sunny day with blue skies, the fields green.  It reminded me of when I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau.  On the 9th I visited the Tuol Sleng Museum, which used to be a school but was turned into a prison for interrogation and torture.  Not a day of lightness.  Is it strange that this country boast the architectural achievements of the Khmers in monuments of beauty and grace and yet is also home to some of the sites of the most atrocious horrors done by humans to other humans.  Not uplifting, but it should be seen nonetheless.

I flew from Phnom Penh to Bangkok, stayed one night, and then flew to Phitsanulok in Thailand, where I took a bus to Sukhothai.

As soon as I step off the bus in Sukhothai I am accosted by a woman who demands to know where I want to go. I look at my guidebook.  Yupa guesthouse?  OK.  Forty baht.  I look at her dubiously but agree.  As we head to the “taxi” I realize it is a little truck, a songtheaw.  I also notice another songtheaw full of Thai people though I am being led to an empty one.  I aks her, how come all the Thai people are over there?  Farang (foreigner) 40 baht and Thai 5 baht, I ask her.  She laughs as she helps me into my own personal truck.  You must walk far if you take Thai truck, this truck right to door, no walking!  I wearily agree and off we go.

I do not have much energy for the day so I have lunch and take a nap.  I meet a woman from Belgium and we agree to have dinner.  She tells me the truck from the bus station is 10 baht.  The woman from Belgian tells me that the guesthouse is blissfully quiet.  I can hardly wait.  As I lay down to sleep after a furious storm a concert begins.  It is Children’s Day and some pop star from Bangkok is in town and there is nothing more enjoyable to do on Children’s Day then to set up a huge outdoor concern and keep all the children and everyone else in town awake until after midnight.  I put in my earplugs and try to get some sleep.

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A bridge at Si Satchanalai

iOn January 13 I decide to visit Si Satchanalai, another town 56 kilometers north of Sukhothai, where there are some nice ruins.  I consult someone at the guesthouse down the road and discover I can take a bus in the direction of Chiang Rai.  The owner of my guesthouse gives me instructions to the bus station.  He tells me “PingBaBaBuKaLa.”  I look at him.  He repeats “PingBaBaBuKaLa.”  I repeat after him.  He looks at me.  I realize he is saying “Pink Purple Bus Color.”  Ah ha!  I am set.

I write nothing about my time in Si Satchanalai or Sukhothai.  I am always curious of my choices to record some things and not others.  I remember renting a bicycle and riding around the ruined city and my ridiculous shoes constantly fell off as I cycle and I walk right out of them when I get stuck in some mud. 

I travel next to Chiang Mai.  I take part in a Thai cooking course.  I take a three hour Thai massage introductory course at the handicapped center.  I visit Doi Suthep, the temple on the top of the mountain, where I assist an Italian woman bitten by a dog.  I then follow it with my unexpected trip to the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Facility, which I chronicled in another post.  As I sit in a hotel room, once again in Thailand many years later, I feel nostalgia for this trip, for the kind of travel I used to do.  Though this time I have some better shoes.

 

 

 

 

I Hope They Have Cheese

I have to be quite honest here, grocery shopping in Shanghai is pretty great.  I want for few things.  It is China after all, where they manufacture and grow just about everything under the sun.  That is not to say you may not miss some things.  For example if you are a die hard fan of Trader Joe’s or Amy’s Enchiladas or the shrimp and avocado sushi rolls they make at the deli at Whole Foods, then you are gonna have to do without.  But with a few adjustments you can find most of the things you need and want.  Sure, sometimes you might pay through the nose for your must-have items (see my earlier post) and other times you might have to set aside some of your food safety and security concerns.

I generally shop at four supermarkets, all within a half mile radius of my apartment.  The one I patronize the most is the City Shop supermarket located in the basement of my apartment complex.  Located in one of the swankest addresses in town (voted several years running as one of the top serviced apartment complexes in the city), the prices are not going to be the most competitive, but I am all about paying a little extra for convenience.  And being able to stop in on my walk home, or during lunch, or a quick visit before the nanny heads home (i.e. without my daughter) is worth the extra money to me.  I will also go with my daughter.  They have child-sized shopping carts so the kids can help out, which C generally loves to do.  They also sell, right next to the front cash register, medium-sized jars filled with water, plants, and tiny fish that serve as mini aquariums or a bunch of cheap plastic kids toys with candy — either of these items will keep my daughter entertained while I shop.  And when all else fails (i.e. C opts to roam free at the supermarket — though not in the fish tank aisle, which she is afraid of because sometimes the shrimp jump out of the tanks), I know my daughter is safe there as all the staff know her.

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The Olé fruit section is a thing of beauty

Once or twice a month we head across the street to the Olé supermarket.  This place is so swank that they have an accent over the “e” in Ole.  Reportedly some 70% of their items are imported and their places reflect that.  If I buy a single can of Diet Coke at City Shop it costs me 2.5 RMB (US$ 0.36) but I can get what appears to be an identical can at Olé for 9 RMB (US$1.30) because it is imported from South Korea.  Still their fruit section is dazzling.  I may not want to spend 80-100 RMB (US$12 to $14.50) for a few pints of raspberries or some white cherries, but sometimes I like to look at them stacked up beautifully in the section and wonder about the people who do.  There are times though that City Shop’s fruit section is sometimes wanting and a trip across the street will mean acquiring the strawberries or pomegranates I know are in season.  Olé also has this super-delish Italian-imported vanilla gelato made with Madagascan vanilla bean that makes my heart leap.  I do not often eat ice cream, but when I do, I forever want it to be this kind of creamy goodness.  Olé also has better seasonal – i.e. Halloween and Christmas – selections when those times of year roll around.  C sees heading to Olé as a real treat – she often asks at odd times, like 9 PM at night, to go to the “across the street supermarket” because they have carts in the shape of cars and sell miniature hot dogs baked in bread.  Dreamy.

Then on the rare occasion I also shop at Pines, a mom-and-pop kind of enterprise that tends to have imported goodies you can find no where else.  I have found Country Kitchen pancake syrup, Betty Crocker cake mix, and some Chef Boyardee.  OK.  I realize that some people might have just balked at calling these “goodies” but it is all a matter of perspective and upbringing.  For me, these preservatives in a bottle/box/can remind me of my childhood and America.  I do not buy them often, but sometimes I  feel better knowing they are available if and when I want them.  There is also a supermarket in the basement of the Westgate shopping center (梅龙镇广场 or Plum Dragon Town Square is you were to translate it directly), where the U.S. Consulate visa section is located.  It is part of the Isetan Department Store and so has lots of Japanese imports.  Fruits are often astronomically expensive but so perfectly beautiful that at some price points I cannot help but buy.

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A Trader Joes/Whole Foods-kind of experience at Hunter Gatherer

There are also tons of little family run stores, often for fruits and vegetables.  Urumuqi North Street is one not too far away that has dozens of these along its length, including the famous “Avocado Lady.”  If I happen to be walking back from the main Consulate building, located on the same street, I will pop in for some bargain priced locally-produced fruit.  Some people make an effort to head out to wet markets to buy their produce.  If you scroll up to paragraph two you will note that I shop very close to home.  Some might say I am lazy but really I am just a time-strapped working single mom who chooses time-saving proximity to less time conscious bargain-hunting (!).  Wet markets also tend to be places where one can buy “fresh” meat, sometimes so fresh it is still alive, and live seafood.  C does not just avoid the seafood aisle of our City Shop due to spontaneously jumping shrimp, but because she also has a history of sudden, um, illness when she sees crabs, lobsters, and such.  Not really my idea of fun.

There are also other grocery experiences for those who want something different.  Hunter Gatherer is an organic, farm-to-table, restaurant/grocery or a “seed-to-table ecosystem that serves and celebrates real food” according to their website.  In addition to store shopping you can also order online at one of numerous places like Kate & Kimi, Fields, and Epermarket.  I used to do the online grocery shopping and delivery when I lived in Washington, DC as a childless hipster.  (Okay, when I was childless because I do not think anyone would have ever called me a hipster)  However, I was really slow to catch on in Shanghai.  While I had colleagues who had ordered their first grocery delivery within a week of arrival it took me, oh, I don’t know, 18 months?  I received an online invite to join in the grocery delivery revolution, and all I had to do was order my first order and I would receive a welcome basket of seasonal veggies for free.  I ordered something like 250 RMB (US$36.20) of groceries to give it a go.  Imagine my surprise when they were not only delivered on time but the box of free stuff was enormous!

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The free welcome box!  It contained a bag of potatoes, a bunch of eggplant, a box of tomatoes, a box of mushrooms, a box of carrots, 2 ears of corn, 2 avocados, 2 bell peppers, 1 zucchini, 1 head of broccoli, and 1 pumpkin!!

Shopping in Shanghai is not always bliss.  Although I prefer to head to one supermarket each one has special things that the others do not.  One will have Japanese soy bean rice crackers.  Another will have frozen raspberries.  A third will have Tartare, the French cream cheese with fine herbs.  Yet another will have Tostitos.  Or at least they will some of the time.  There is always the chance that a store that has a favorite import today will not have it tomorrow or next week or maybe ever again.

About six months into our time in Shanghai, C and I are on one of our trips visiting Olé when C spies a box of chocolate Lucky Charms.  She has never had them before but declares suddenly she must have them.  I am reluctant to spend US$12 on a box of cereal she might only eat two bites of, but I find myself buying it anyway.  She loves it. I buy a second box.  She wants to eat it for breakfast every day.  I go to buy another box, they do not have anymore.  Not that week, or the next, or months after that.  I buy a couple of boxes while on Medevac and again on R&R and bring them back in our suitcases.  Friends bring a few boxes when they visit.  But I do not find it at my supermarkets again.

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Where did the rest of the cheese go?  Evidence of the beginning of the Great Cheese Shortage of 2015

There was also the Great Cheese Shortage of 2015, followed by another Lesser Cheese Shortage of 2016.  It was the first that prompted me to first consider writing a blog post about grocery shopping in Shanghai with this title.  It was right around the National Day.  In mid-September the once full shelves of cheese began to empty out.  Little by little the good, imported cheese was gone leaving only “cheese” cheese — you know, the kind of cheese that has to be put into parentheses.  I took the photo above of the limited cheese selection and another of a depleted imported processed meats section and a supermarket employee tried to stop me.  Seriously?  Yes, seriously.  I was approached and told to stop taking pictures and she tried to swipe my phone.  I guess the Great Cheese Shortage was supposed to be kept under wraps, not shared with the outside world.  But now you know.

I cannot remember how long the cheese shortage lasted either year but they did not appear to be isolated incidents because the cheese selection diminished in all the shops I frequented.  This past year I thought I might circumvent the shortage and order my cheese from Epermarket, only to find that they too reported that the items I wished for were currently out of stock.  Yet eventually the stocks returned and appeared even more bountiful than before.  Huge bags of Monterey Jack cut into cubes for the ridiculous price of US$20.  I will leave you wondering if I bought them or not.

It has taken me far longer to get around to writing this particular post than I had anticipated.  And here I am nearing my time in Shanghai.  This puts things into perspective.  I know how good we have had it here.  I am ready to have some extended time back in the US during home leave and training to get my fill of all those food items I have missed and a good ole US of A prices, not high-import-taxes prices.  But then we head to Malawi and I think about what might be in store (or not in store, get it?) for us there.  I have heard about some food shortages that make my complaints here seem especially petty.  I am really not sure what to expect, but I still hope they have cheese.

 

100 Days and Counting (Shanghai)

100 Days and Counting (Shanghai)

100-days-and-countingFirst, a little something about the title.  It is actually now less than 100 days until I depart Shanghai but I thought the title Less Than 100 Days was nowhere near as catchy.  And if the title were 90 Days and Counting* then I would not be able to use this cool graphic I found.  Besides I thought of the title 100 Days and Counting just before it was actually 100 days, liked it, and am therefore am sticking with it.

Regardless of the title, the fact is clear:  OH MY GOODNESS I HAVE LESS THAN 100 DAYS LEFT IN SHANGHAI!!  Um, excuse me.  I panicked for a little bit there.  <throat clearing>  I mean <in my most diplomatic voice> I have precious little time to do the host of things necessary before I depart this post. It is just that it caught me off guard.  I received the handshake for my next post (Malawi) in early November.  In mid November I began looking at the training I need.  In late November my HR Assignment Officer contacted me to confirm the months of my departure from Shanghai and arrival in Malawi and suggest probable training.  Improbably, just a few days later in early December I was approved (“paneled”) for the position and received the official cable notifying me of my transfer.  I reached out to the incumbent to learn of his projected departure date.  I reached out to my next post to lay out some options for my arrival.  Then went on vacation to Mauritius.

Then suddenly it is January 2017 and it hits me: this year is going to be one crazy roller coaster.  Three and a half months in Shanghai.  Then three and a half months in the US divided between home leave and training.  Two intercontinental travel days in which time is suspended.  And five months in Malawi.  Yep, one crazy roller coaster and I am already strapped into the car rolling out of the station.

Roller Coaster Track

Wait, I want to get off!

First is the Shanghai portion, the 100 days.  And in that time all I have to do is organize getting myself, my daughter, our two pets and all our stuff from Post A (Shanghai) to Post B (Lilongwe) via home leave and training at the Foreign Service Institute.  Oh, if only it were so easy.  Naturally it is on top of my regular full time work.  It is as if I have acquired a second, part time job.

I am by no means alone in this; I know my situation is not unique.  There are Foreign Service Officers all over the world preparing to transfer this summer.  While it is comforting that the majority of us will get it done, it does not make this process any easier.  I often find myself lying awake at night fervently hoping that I will love living and working in Malawi so that I can extend and put off this next time I take part in this fabulous migration activity.  Geez, if I just kinda like my job I will do what I can to prolong my tour and postpone the next PCS (Permanent Change of Station).  I daydream about what it must be like to have an adult EFM (eligible family member) to be my partner in move preparation. (Applications currently available.  No deadline.  Rolling acceptance.   Open until filled)

Just this week I did the following: Completed and submitted my proposed travel itinerary from Shanghai to Malawi and in-between.  Filled out and emailed registration forms for my daughter’s school in Malawi.  Filled out the paperwork to renew my daughter’s medical clearance.  Scheduled a doctor’s appointment for my daughter in relation to her 5 year old well appointment.  Contacted the State Department lodging office regarding housing during my training and secured a reservation.  Completed and submitted the housing and community questionnaire for Malawi.  Secured child care for my daughter for the week that I am in training in West Virginia.  Firmed up my reservations with a friend at Walt Disney World for during our home leave.  A great start, but it barely scratches the surface.

There are vaccinations.  Plane tickets.  Check-ups and exit paperwork and plane reservations for the cats.  Figuring out the buying of a car in Japan and getting it to Malawi and financing that whole shebang.  Child care for during the rest of my training in Arlington.   More home leave planning.  Organizing our stuff into what we leave behind, what we give away, what we put in the suitcases, and the UAB (unaccompanied air baggage) that will be delivered during training, and the HHE (household effects) that we will not see again until Malawi.

You know.  Just a few things.

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Do you know what you are eating for the next 90 days? I do. And this is not even all of it because all of it would be even more embarrassing.

And I mentioned this before this is of course on top of my regular job and all the other regular life kind of things.  Like filing my taxes.  Completing my one year work evaluation- due April 15 just like the taxes. And organizing my daughter’s 5th birthday party this month.  And sleeping.  I have had a bit of trouble with that last one of late so I think it important to remind myself it is something I should be doing.

I think the biggest shock to my system regarding how much time we have left was when I opened my cabinets at the very beginning of the month.  From the huge amount of food items I saw staring back at me I knew I had been in denial for awhile.  Why in the world did I buy myself another box of cereal and more of my breakfast smoothie mix just before Mauritius when the other packages were nearly done?  Seriously?  I already had 20 packs of instant oatmeal too.  And peanut butter.  I seem to have A LOT of peanut butter (not pictured because you do not need to see that kind of thing).  Guess what the kids at C’s birthday party are going to be eating?  PB&J sandwiches for everyone! (eat up kids and take the extras home)

Finally, I have to prepare to say goodbye to Shanghai, our home for the past two plus years.  This is where C went from being a 3 year old, a newly minted “preschooler” to a 5 year old ready to begin Kindergarten at our next post.  She has gone from saying “hello” and “watermelon” in Chinese to having full on Mandarin conversations with the nanny.  I too have grown a lot in these two years at work and as a mom.  We have lived here and Shanghai is a part of us.  Also, I still have things left on the bucket list because are just too many things to see and do in this city!  Ok, Shanghai, just stop being so chock full of activities already.  I cannot keep up.

And all of it has to be done in this first quarter of the year. Whew.

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The late afternoon view from my apartment yesterday.  How am I to say goodbye to this?

*In reality there there are only 88 days and counting as of today. It took me 12 days to get my sh*t together to write this.  And I was committed to this title I tell you.

 

 

Mauritius for Christmas

Even if you have never heard of Mauritius or are not quite sure where it is, you have probably heard of its most famous bird, the Dodo.  Yes, the large hapless, flightless bird extinct since the 17th century is a symbol of the island country.   It is on their coat of arms, their currency, their postage, and tourist maps.  Yet there is so much more to this crowded tiny island nation.

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A major feature of Northwest Mauritius is the Moka Mountain range featuring Pieter Both Mountain, the island’s second largest peak with a large rock perched on top

I was giddy with excitement as C and I headed to the airport to begin our trip to Mauritius.  This trip had been long in the making–when some three years before a FS friend of mine learned her second post would be to the island nation.  Initially we were to visit our first Christmas in Shanghai but an unexpected addition to KB’s family meant we had to place our trip on hold for another year.   But at last it was time for our trip and for the first time in what seemed a very long time I would be etching a new country into my travel belt.

Mauritius might seem a long way to go for vacation and honestly before my friend was posted there I had not given much thought to visiting.  Once in Shanghai though it seemed that the former Isle de France was the place to go given the number of billboards advertising Air Mauritius flights around where I lived.  On the visa line, even the applicants with little foreign travel might list Mauritius among their international destinations alongside South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Maldives.  It was destiny.

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One of our first views of Mauritius

We landed at 7 am.  Yes, 7 am.  Almost immediately I was given a lesson in island patience.  While on the plane, the Air Mauritius flight attendants had given out the immigration landing cards.  Unfortunately they did not have enough for everyone on the plane and we were two of the unlucky ones.  No problem, the flight attendants assured us, we could get them before immigration.  Except they were out too.  It was maddening to see almost no line for immigration and yet be unable to do anything because no forms were available.  Several of us waylaid an official-looking person but he too seemed perplexed by our situation and asked yet another person to locate the forms.  It took about 20 minutes for someone to return with forms in hand and we swarmed around him.  He had only 7 to 10 forms and there were more than 10 people waiting.  I decided this was not the time to be polite and grabbed two forms from his hand.  I filled them out quickly and vowed to not look back at those who were left behind. I had a vacation to get started!

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C and M enjoy the crystal clear waters of Grand Baie

We were picked up at the airport by a driver arranged by KB and then whisked off to the other side of the island, a whole hour and change away.    We slept most of the way.   Then we arrived at KB’s home and were immediately welcomed by the family.  We had an easy day.  First KB and I sat by the pool and talked as the kids swam.  Then we took the kids to the Beach House Restaurant for lunch.  As we drove into Grand Baie and I caught sight of the water for the first time I gasped.  Wow.  The Beach House is located right on the bay and as we waited for our meal (the service was on island time so we waited quite awhile) the kids frolicked on the beach and in the shallow warm waters.  The afternoon involved more play time for the kids and then we attended a birthday party for a local boy.

On our second day KB, myself and the kids drove from the northwest to the southwest (again a whole hour to cross the island!) for a day at the Casela Nature Park, a mix of zoo, petting farm, and activity park.  There is quite a lot to do at the park, but much of it, like walking with lions, driving ATVs, riding horses or camels, or ziplining, were for those aged well above 4 or 5 years old and thus not on our agenda.  Still, the kids enjoyed watching the 4D movies (well, 2 of the 3 kids did) seeing the birds, feeding the bunnies (not so much the rather aggressive deer), seeing tortoises, feeding the giraffes and playing on the playground.  We still managed to spend nearly 5 hours at the zoo (nearly 45 minutes of it in the line for a shuttle bus from the giraffes back to the main park. Major fail.).  That evening KB showed us around La Croisette, one of the few true shopping malls in the country sporting one of only two cinemas on the island.

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The Chateau de Labourdonnais – this just does not do it justice.

The third day began with KB and I leaving the kids with KB’s extremely amenable husband while she and I indulged in some mommy only massages.  We then picked up the kids and headed to Labourdonnais, a 19th century sugar mill and estate restored to a museum, garden, and working orchard.  We all had lunch first at a lovely cafe adjacent to the grounds and then KB insisted she would take all the kids through the gardens so I could have an hour of peace to visit the chateau museum.  (I am SO grateful)  Then after some waiting (with some very impatient small children) we all took the toy train through the orchards.  Following the Chateau our next stop was the L’Aventure du Sucre Sugar Museum and Factory.  As you may begin to guess sugar production has a long and checkered history in Mauritius.  The sweet stuff has been manufactured there since 1696 and remains the country’s second largest export today (after processed fish)!  So the history of sugar is intertwined with the island’s history.  The museum makes great use of its space in an old sugar factory.  Informative displays of sugar’s role in the history and economy of the island wind around actual gears and boilers and the chimney, all part of the production of this important crop.

Our fourth day started with a glass bottom boat adventure in Grand Baie with KB’s husband and the three kids.  (KB gets sea sick easily and sat this activity out).   Then KB and I escaped again to have a just friends (sans kids) lunch and then we headed to Goodlands for some shopping in a colorful Indian bazaar (the majority ethnic group is Indo-Mauritian, making up 68% of the population) and a visit to the Shipmodels Factory and Museum.  We returned in time to collect C for a late afternoon photo shoot on the beach with a talented local photographer and then the whole lot of us had dinner at Luigi’s, reportedly the best Italian restaurant on the island.

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A worker puts some finishing touches on a model ship

The following day we said farewell to KB and her family and we headed back across the island to pick up a rental car at the airport.  It was a little hard to find my rental car as I had apparently booked with the one company that does not have an office at the airport (OLA) and I spent 30 minutes wandering around until I found a guy with a sign.  We followed him to the parking lot where he did the paperwork in the trunk of the car.  But it was a car, it looked good, it had a child seat included, and so I rolled with it.  Immediately I was reminded that I would be driving on the left hand side of the road as I backed out of the parking space and ran over the curb.  I did manage to get us out of the parking lot and to the hotel, all of a mile away.  Once checked in and fed I got us back out on the road and on our way to La Vanille Nature Park.  

It was an adventure being on the road with only a basic tourist map with a bunch of squiggly lines that I hoped approximated true roads.  We drove through several small towns that presented challenges to driving–two lane roads with no shoulder, no sidewalks, just a couple of feet to the residences and businesses.  Along the sides of the road people walked, sometimes two or three abreast, others pedaled old bicycles weaving like drunks, dogs trotted without a care in the world.  Buses stopped with little warning and little room to pull over.  Delivery trucks and people stopping at stores or to talk to a friend did the same.  Every turn I tried to make, I first turned on the windshield wipers.  And road signs tended to announce a turn just feet before I needed to make it.  It is a wonder I found the park at all!.

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And when not passing through a town these are the roads of Mauritius. Lovely but no indication of where you are or where you are going.  Yet amazing for a country with one of the world’s highest population densities to have open areas like this

I think La Vanille was originally just a crocodile park and then a crocodile and tortoise park and now it is a Nature Park because they added a few other animals like some Indonesian deer, some sad Indonesian macaque monkeys, and reportedly some mongoose and lemurs although their enclosures appeared empty.  Still, I am not a crocodile fan the giant tortoises were great.  Their enclosure was large, you could feed them, and kids under 10 were allowed to sit on large, resting ones.  It is also a breeding facility and they have extensive information on their program and animals of all ages from egg to likely nearing 100 years.  C especially liked this part and the pony rides in the petting zoo.  The funny part was the tour bus loads of 40-60 year old visitors.  Something just seemed odd about that — the lack of children visitors.

The following day I was pretty worn out by my Mauritius driving experience and bored by our food choices at the hotel.  So I came up with a plan to head to La Bagatelle, the largest mall in the country and then the nearby Eureka creole plantation house.  But I missed the exit.  I figured I would turn around at the next roundabout, but there were no more.  So instead I just kept going and ended up at Le Caudan waterfront in Port Louis.  It seems to be the shopping and restaurant district in the capital.  After I figured out not only how to get there but to also park in the crowded parking garage (yay me!), we had lunch, a stroll along the waterfront, and visited the Blue Penny Museum, so named after one of the most famous, rare, and valuable stamps in the world, and the first to be issued in Mauritius.  Like the Sugar Factory Museum, the Blue Penny presents the cultural and economic history of Mauritius, tying it to the history of a product and a service — the postal system.  It is a small but lovely museum — just the right size to visit with a 4, almost 5, year old.

On December 23rd I struggled with trying again to find the Eureka plantation as it would be closed on the 24th and 25th, or a visit to the Chamarel area.  I went with the latter.  Things started off rocky as I drove through the same town Plaine Magnien a good 5 times.  I cannot exactly explain why. Every turn I made, every time around a roundabout, it all led to that darn town.  I started to sing a made-up song about the town that would not let us go in order to calm my nerves (and keep me from just giving up and driving back to the hotel) and to amuse C in the back seat.  It worked because once I started singing I finally figured out what I was doing wrong.  And then we drove through several more really small towns.  For what seemed like forever.  At long last I saw a turn off for the Bois Cheri tea plantation and factory.  It seemed a good place to stop.

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A view of the Bois Cheri plantation from the hilltop restaurant

Bois Cheri is the island’s first tea plantation, established in 1892.  Tea is the country’s second major crop, after sugar.  A visit to Bois Cheri includes a visit to a small museum, a tour of the factory (interesting enough for a 4, almost 5, year old!), and a tea tasting.  It was just the stop I needed before getting back in the car and driving on to Chamarel.  At long last we arrived.  I had begun to suspect the whole thing was an elaborate joke on tourists.  Honestly, the whole purpose of driving all this way is to visit the 7 Colored Earth of Chamarel, and some of the reviews I had read online had warned me of the likely disappointment.  But perhaps since I had rather low expectations I found the place larger and prettier than I had imagined.  But the drive back was longer and less fun than I expected.  I joked with friends online that I had driven through every small town in the south with the hashtag #leavenotownunseen.  It sure felt like it.

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Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden

Christmas Eve we drove to the far north of the island to meet up with RS and her son K who previously served in Shanghai and are now in South Africa.  (RS is also a single mom in the Foreign Service and is awesome).  I had thought we might visit them from Malawi but when I found out just days before our departure that they too would be in Mauritius it was too much of an opportunity to pass up.  My plan was to visit the National Botanical Garden on the way up — I checked my phone before heading out and it was supposed to take about 30 minutes to get to the Garden.  Um, yeah.  Nearly two hours later I gave up and just headed toward RS’s hotel.  And just for fairness sake I made sure to drive through every small town on the north of the island.  C and K were thrilled to have some time to play and as they frolicked in the pool, at lunch, and in the room RS and I had a chance to catch up.  Luckily enough on the drive back I quite easily found the botanical gardens (you know, Murphy’s Law).

Our last day was Christmas.  With a late flight back we took full advantage of a late check out and just binge watched the Disney Channel, as one does.  Then I realized I had lost C’s one pair of pants and we were heading back to winter.  Oh no! I cannot seem to go on vacation anymore without losing something and I did not want 1. my child to freeze and 2. to face the hard stares and tut-tutting disapproval of the Chinese mom mafia when they see my child without pants.  Don’t worry, I improvised. Shorts but a pair of the Air Mauritius in-flight socks pulled up to her thighs.  Yeah, I’m smart.  I’m no dodo.  (see what I did there?)

 

 

Visitors to Shanghai- At Last!

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Shanghai shows off for my visitors

I will let you in on a secret: Most Foreign Service families relish having friends and family visit them.  I know this is true because one thing that is always taken into consideration when bidding on the next assignment is if it is a place people will want to visit.  I am not sure why it is a secret but I have found and heard from others it is difficult to get people to visit us.  I get it.  Foreign Service families are posted all over the world, in some far away and challenging places.  It can take a lot of planning and money to get to where we are and not everyone has the means or the inkling to travel the way we do.

So when family members or friends make the trek out to see us – especially if we happen to live somewhere other than Western Europe – it is pretty exciting.  We get to show you our life abroad.  Our apartment.  Maybe our office.  Our local supermarket.  And all the wonderful, horrible, crazy, fun, fabulous aspects of our new city/country.

Therefore imagine my level of excitement that friends were coming to visit me in Shanghai! After 20 months in country I would finally have my first guests.  It is a little hard to believe that I had more visitors to Ciudad Juarez (my mother for three weeks, my aunt and uncle for a week, and my sister for one night over from El Paso so she could say she spent the night in one of the most dangerous cities in the world) than Shanghai.  My mother had planned to come, my aunt too, and my other sister and her family considered it, but none had come.  My friends D&D had booked a trip but my Medevac back to the US last October/November put the kibosh on that.  Yet finally, after some 265 days in the preparation stage visitors were here!

My visitors: My friend CZ, whom I have known 24 years, nearly a quarter of a century (!),  and who is also a single mother, her 2 year old son Little C, and CZ’s older friend PK, whom I met in May 2015 and who wanted to visit China to fulfill a childhood dream.  My visitors would spend a week in Shanghai and a week in Beijing, with C and I joining for three days of the Beijing portion.  I am generally into organizing and planning my holidays/vacations, but given our motley crew including yours truly I developed only ideas of activities, and just hoped all would go well.

On the first day, October 1, I took everyone the few blocks up the street to Jing’An temple.  As it was the Chinese National Day, entrance to the temple was free and it seemed that at least half of Shanghai’s 24 million residents were stopping by.  Crowded is an understatement.  We headed to the park across the street from the temple where we found the other half of the 24 million were milling around.  And that was all we managed that day.

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Which is more impressive?  Three of the world’s tallest buildings or a pollution-free day in Shanghai?

Our second day we were blessed with a glorious National Day weekend blue-sky, almost as blindingly wonderful as G-20 Blue.  We decided on a hop on hop off sightseeing bus and parked ourselves at the stop in front of the hotel in my complex. And there we sat and sat and sat for about 30 minutes until I suggested we hail a taxi to stop #1.  The bus is a great idea for people with kids – ride around the city, looking at the sights and listen to commentary.  Except that since kids under 5 are free they do not provide kids with headphones (though who am I kidding? As if a 2 and 4 year old are gonna listen to the history of Shanghai, but it might have entertained them for 5 minutes.  Okay 3.), and the bus just sat at stops waiting longer than it spent driving, and the commentary recording kept skipping or just played a Spanish sounding dance track, which seemed just a little strange.  We got off the bus at the Bund, the second go around (in order to enjoy the commentary one full way around, though “enjoy” might be a strong word), so we could transfer to another line to head over the river to Pudong for our river boat tour.  At the Bund we bought sandwiches and the kids threw a delightful fit over ice cream.  Once on the bus we drove over to Pudong.  That is literally all the bus did.  No stops.  No commentary.  Just a high speed zip over to the land of Shanghai’s tallest skyscrapers.  On the open top of the bus I saw my life flash before my eyes as the driver careened around the loop onto and off the bridge.

To get to our boat trip we had to disembark the large bus, wait around in front of the Shanghai landmark Disney store with sightseeing company staff (waiting in front of a Disney store with children and not being able to go is really fun!), then board a shuttle bus to drive us several blocks, then walk down stairs, and across planks, and then up and down a few more stairs to our boat.  Years ago, in 2002 in fact, when I took a tour on the Huangpu River, it was on a large vessel, maybe the size of a paddle steamer?  This time however imagine my surprise when we find a midsize cabin cruiser that comfortably seats about 20 with both upper and lower decks.  That hour cruise was bliss.  The kids were happy.  The view was wonderful.

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The Arts & Crafts museum, like a mini White House, in a renovated 1905 French Concession home, and some of the beautiful crafts on display

Every day something seemed to not work out right.  PK really wanted to see the Shanghai Arts & Crafts museum and CZ and I agreed to visit with the kids as information online suggested it was child-friendly.  It was a little hard to find but turned out to be a pleasant hour long distraction.  However then PK wanted to visit the Blue Nankeen Exhibition Hall, which was several blocks away but not really for kids.   We did it but emotions were starting to run high.  Another day we took a half day tour to the water town of Zhujiajiao, the closest of the Venice-like towns to Shanghai.  The tour bus arrived late.  Water towns of narrow stone pathways and stone step bridges are not stroller-friendly.  It started to rain.  And once again it seemed a good portion of the Shanghai population had planned to visit the exact same place.  The return bus trip took over an hour longer than expected due to traffic.  I had such high hopes this would be a chance to see the most traditional of Chinese vistas while visiting Shanghai, but it felt like far too much work.

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It looks beautiful.  But pushing our way through the crowd was a struggle.

On our last day together in Shanghai I opted for a mommy and daughter day just with C.  I had been prepared for another day with my guests but at the last minute I pulled out; I felt too strongly that we all needed a break from each other.  C and I headed to Pudong for a trip up the mega-skyscraper Shanghai Tower, currently the world’s second tallest building (the first being Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, which C and I have also visited), but the world’s tallest building by usable floor–floor 127!   Afterwards we had a nice mommy and daughter lunch and then a visit to one of C’s favorite shopping destinations — the Disney Store.  It was just the kind of day we needed, all of us, and that night we were all able to share the stories of our respective adventures.

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It might have been a cloudy day but the view from the top was still amazing

Then we took our show on the road.

I cannot explain some of the following decisions.  One, waking up at the crack of dawn to take a 7 am flight to Beijing.  Two, my friends and I booked different airlines in order to get miles on our respective chosen airline partners.  Yet at some point it must have seemed like a really good idea.  The problem is we landed at two different terminals.  In most airports that would not be an issue, but in Beijing Terminal 2 and Terminal 3 are located FIVE miles apart.  It took nearly 30 minutes to get from one to the other, while C and I were on one shuttle bus, PK, CZ and Little C were on a shuttle bus in the opposite direction.

Luckily we all made a decision at some point to stop looking for each other at the airport and just head to the hotel.  Just a few kilometers we hit Beijing’s notorious traffic and we sat at a standstill for 30 minutes. Eventually we reunited at the hotel. To think the original plan had been to arrive early, leave our things at the hotel and pack 2 kids under 5 off for a several hour tour of the Forbidden City.  Yeah, I am still trying to wrap my head around what I might possibly have been thinking.  It was raining, the kids were tired, we were all tired and hungry.  We took a deep breath, had lunch and  rested.  In the afternoon, after the rain stopped  we took a stroll down to Tian’an Men, where we took photos of all the Chinese taking photos of our kids in front of the gate where Mao’s portrait hangs.

beijing

The kids enjoy Jingshan Park and C makes climbing the Great Wall look like child’s play (Follow the arrow to find C)

Our last two days things started to turn around.  The sun came out and the air quality index stayed low.  Sure our plan to visit Jingshan Park (the once imperial garden behind the Forbidden City) AND the Temple of Heaven meant we only visited the first and then called it a day. On our last day we were again graced with blue skies.  We had a tour guide, Glenn, whom a colleague of mine had recommended, pick us up at the hotel and drive us to the Great Wall at Mutianyu.  I thought back to the Wall of 1994, that was not a place I would take a small child.  But now it is possible.  We took the cable car up to Watchtower 14 (a cable car!) and then walked to Watchtower 6.  The kids did great with the help of snacks, drinks, plenty of breaks, and the great help of Glenn the Guide.  At Watchtower 6 CZ and I rode double toboggans down with our kids.  Back in 1994 I remember my much younger and fitter self slogging down stairs on wobbly legs — the toboggan is the best way to descend for sure.  At the base we all enjoyed a well deserved pizza, yet another thing that was not available back in the day (the few pizzas available my first time in China certainly left much to be desired).

As C and I said goodbye to our friends to head back to Shanghai, I had much to reflect on.  The visit certainly had not gone anywhere according to plan, and it was so much harder and exhausting than I had anticipated, yet I am so glad for the chance to have welcomed friends to my current hometown at last.