Sydney Getaway

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Shanghai: Preschool Days and Activities

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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