Hong Kong Birthday

DSCF0046

At the Lantau Island Buddha in the summer of 1996. I look pretty stunned, which could explain why I have no recollection of this at all.

Hong Kong. To me, it is one of those places the very name evokes a sense of adventure and excitement. I first visited in the summer of 1996, a vacation from my English teaching job at an after school cram school in Seoul, South Korea. It was part of a wildly concocted two week trip that would include Hong Kong, Macao, Guam, an unexpected stopover in Saipan due to a typhoon in my flight path, and Guangzhou. The most thrilling part I recall was running full speed down a pier in Hong Kong and jumping aboard the boat that would take me overnight to Guangzhou, the gangplank pulled in behind me. The second time was in the spring of 1999; I was an English teacher in the government-sponsored JET Program in Yamaguchi, Japan and spent a few days exploring Hong Kong while securing my visa to re-visit Beijing. I must have gone up Victoria Peak in the tram that second time. Yet all I have are a few vague memories of cold, bureaucratic, but quick formalities at the Chinese Consulate.

How had it been so very long ago since I had visited? I wanted to visit Hong Kong once again. After some research online – determining that January was one of the best months in the territory – I decided my daughter’s birthday over the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend was the time to go.

Back in August, when I bought the tickets, it seemed quite reasonable and exciting to have trips planned for September/October (Dominican Republic), November (Chengdu), December (Sanya), and January (Hong Kong). By the time the Hong Kong trip was rolling around though I had instead come to the conclusion that I must have made these plans in a fit of insanity, possibly a function of having nearly survived a summer without leave through the biggest visa demand period in history. Maybe. Or maybe I just do crazy stuff like this all the time? (My past travel record would, I expect, point to the latter)

The Dominican Republic trip happened of course and it was wonderful. But Chengdu was cancelled because of my unanticipated month-long Medevac back to Washington, D.C. And Sanya, yeah, that one was far less restful than expected. (See Shanghai Escape, Derailed)

HK7

A colder and wetter view than I had expected. Star Ferry ride over to Hong Kong Island.

Given the Sanya episode I approached the Hong Kong trip as a nervous travel maniac. I double-checked, triple-checked, quadruple-checked the departure time of the flight daily on a travel website to make sure the flight time did not change. The last thing I wanted to do was miss a flight…again. I decided not to check a single piece of luggage. I hesitated to bring the newly purchases Kindle Fire Kids Edition (the replacement for the lost/stolen iPad), but in the end placed it and several other belongings into a new tote that would, I hoped, never leave my eyesight.

My soon-to-be four year old daughter too seemed traumatized by the Sanya episode. When a week before our trip she accidentally punctured a colorful sport ball we had had since Juarez and I informed her that we would need to throw it away, she broke down in sobs. “No,” she blubbered, “I don’t want to lose any more toys.” She insisted that the deflated ball was now her second most favorite toy in the world, after her beloved stuffed animal Black Cat, and that Pink Ball should also come with us to Hong Kong. I said no but then relented, imagining the hilarious pictures of Pink Ball in various Hong Kong locations. Unfortunately the day before departure I could not locate Pink Ball. <sigh>

The day before departure I wondered if maybe we needed to be at the airport earlier than expected? Sure enough I checked with a colleague who had just been and yes, we would be traveling through the international terminal and passport control on both ends. I thanked my lucky stars I knew that before rather than after the flight. Visions of Sanya, and the missed flight that started it all, swam through my brain.

Still the flight left late. I thought back to when I lived in China in 1994 and how foreigners fondly changed the acronym for the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) to “China Airlines Always Cancel.” I have heard that every single commercial flight in China must be cleared before take-off through an office in Beijing. I do not know if it is true, but I have yet to be on a flight that departed on time. Only flights we were not on (i.e. to Sanya).

nathan-road-shopping

Maybe it is Nathan Road or my own limited outings in Shanghai, but Hong Kong sort of felt more Chinese to me than China. Except with Facebook.

January is supposed to be one of the best months to visit Hong Kong. I read online, it has the lowest amount of rainfall and the most comfortable temperature. So imagine my dismay as I checked, and re-checked the weather report for our trip dates, and it was not only colder than expected but predicted to rain four out of the five days. Over 80% chance of rain each day, including our days at Disneyland and on C’s birthday.

Despite the late flight, the rain, the colder-than-expected temps, I felt pretty pumped when we landed and as we rode into town on an airport bus to central Kowloon. A very kind Indian woman, resident in Hong Kong for fifteen years, not only engaged my daughter in conversation on the bus, sharing photos of her own recent trip to Hong Kong Disneyland and explaining she was pretty good friends with the Princesses, but also helped us to get down from the crowded bus when we reached our stop. The ten minute walk down three long city blocks through the cold misty rain did not damper my spirits.

We arrived at our hotel, down a side street in Mongkok, somewhere near where I must have stayed in a cheap cramped guesthouse with friends in 1996, and in our room I posted direct to Facebook. Freedom. Hong Kong may have been returned to China, but with an international flight and immigration checks to get here and a very different Internet environment, it certainly did not feel like China.

On our first full day out in Hong Kong disaster struck.  C lost Black Cat, her much-adored stuffie who had been with us for over two years.  For a little stuffie Black Cat sure got around.  He or she, C referred to it as both, went with us everywhere from the grocery store to museums to across the globe.  Black Cat had been to seven countries and territories and approximately sixteen US states.  I thought Black Cat would be the stuffie that C would hold onto forever, into adulthood.  But Black Cat must have used up his nine lives.  He had been dropped, run over by the stroller, left behind and retrieved, so many times that our second chances had finally run out.

The last known location of Black Cat

The last known whereabouts of Black Cat

I took a picture of C sitting on a bollard near the Star Ferry terminal. She has Black Cat. Then she hops over to the stroller and informs me we need to make a pit stop before we head to the ferry. I spy a public bathroom just 50 feet away and off we go. By the time we make it to the stall she no longer has Black Cat. We run outside but in that space of time and physical space we have lost the stuffie; he/she is nowhere to be seen. C is inconsolable. She bawls loudly as I push her through the ferry terminal and onto the vessel. Huge tears roll down her face as she sits on the ferry. She sobs out loud “Black Cat, don’t leave me. Please come back. I miss you so much!” I tell her I am so sorry and ask if there is anything I can do. “Yes,” she tells me, “find my Black Cat.” There is nothing I can do. I tell her this. There is no reason to sugar coat it although I feel like the worst mom in the world.

On the other side, on Hong Kong Island, we meet up with my friend L who back in 2001 took a summer intensive Chinese class with me in Monterey, CA. We were roommates that summer and we both graduated from the Monterey Institute of International Studies. She has been living in Asia, in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore for most of the intervening years. This is not how I wanted her and her children to meet my normally high-spirited, effervescent daughter, now in the throes of her greatest loss. But it is what it is. And surprisingly, C, after pouting for a good 30 minutes, warms up to them all and is in good spirits at lunch.

I should have known something was up. By the time we return to the hotel by 4 PM she is calm and rested, having napped in the stroller the whole walk back from Tsim Sha Tsui. However, when she wakes she informs me that she will simply ask Santa to bring her Old Black Cat next Christmas. I am amazed at her creativity and feel like the Grinch when I tell her this is beyond Santa’s powers.

The next day we wake. It is Sunday and C’s 4th birthday. I again feel pretty bad about letting Black Cat get away. However, when I ask C about it she informs me, “Black Cat likes Hong Kong and has decided to move here to be with his Grandma and Grandpa.” I am stunned. Four years old and already so grown up. Plus Black Cat is one very wise stuffie; I too want to move to Hong Kong.

HK28

Hello wonderful Disney Hollywood Hotel.

We meet my friends D&B, who had come down from Guangzhou to visit Disneyland with us, down in the lobby. It is raining cats and dogs, heavy sheets of rain are shot down from the cold, steel grey sky. It looks like an unfortunate day to visit an amusement park. We cannot get a taxi. It is also the day of the Hong Kong Standard Chartered Marathon and no taxis are able to get to our particular road. We wait. The rain lets up and we all decide to try to walk over to the MTR stop some fifteen minutes away to try to take the train to Disneyland (there is a stop at the park). We are lucky to find a nice taxi driver willing to give it a go.

When we pull up to our hotel, the Disneyland Hollywood Hotel, the whole place smells like fresh flowers after the rain; it is a lush desert oasis after a terrible sandstorm. There on the red carpet leading to the hotel I cancel my hotel the following night near the airport and book a second night at the Disney hotel. The magic of Disney was already working on me.

We store our bags and head straight to the park. The sun, believe it or not, comes out. I know I cannot believe it but I am thrilled. I may have even danced a jig. I may have thrown my arms out and thanked the Gods, Mother Nature, or Kismet for this blessed event. I had wanted this day to be perfect for C and though determined to make it so despite the rain, I was glad I did not have to contend with a soggy day.

HK20

Of course we met with several princesses! Ariel wins for most awesome because she spent a lot of time with the birthday girl, even playing a little game of tag with her.

We rode the carousel, two times; it remains C’s favorite ride. We all took a spin on the tea cups, which by the way are not built for three adults and one child. Nor for someone my age who sometimes feels sick in the backseats of cars after spending so little time in them while living much of my adult life overseas. A trip on the Jungle River Cruise revealed that natives shooting arrows from an unfriendly village and a mountain that breathes fire are not four year old fare. I read the warning after the ride. Oops. Yet we even rode Space Mountain, C’s first roller coaster. I could scarcely believe that she met the height requirement, but she did. Just. Once the ride started I felt kind of bad to have brought her on, remembering my own fear riding this same attraction when I visited Disneyland California at age eleven. It was sort of hard to hear C crying over my own screams. Yet she surprised me once again when she declared at the end (after heaving a huge sigh of relief that we had survived), “I had to cry a little bit, but it was okay.”

We took a break, returned to the hotel, checked in and enjoyed a walk around the grounds and a rest before returning in the evening for the parade and fireworks show. I had expected just a good parade and then some good fireworks. Both were beyond anything I could have imagined. I sort of felt that other people who had been to Disney had been sworn to some secret oath not to reveal the true amazingness of the spectacle.

We said goodbye to D&B the following morning after breakfast and C and I returned to the park for another day of fun. The weather was even better than the day before. As a result, despite it being a Monday, the crowds were larger and the wait times for rides longer. More carousel time, a whirl on the Disneyland railroad, a visit with Anna and Elsa and Cinderella and we managed the Winnie the Pooh and Dumbo rides despite the longer lines. We called it an earlier day so I was very glad to be able to relax in our lovely Disney hotel room and catch the movie Up with C in the lobby bar and restaurant.

The next morning as we departed for the airport right after the 11 am check-out it had grown cold again, the fog so thick that visibility was very limited. Had we tried to head to the Lantau Buddha, my original plan until I realized that getting there would take more time than we had, we would not have seen much. Our flight was not until 4 pm but the man at the check-in counter moved us to a flight leaving an hour earlier. Of course though, this being a Chinese flight, it left an hour late…

All in all, even with the loss of Black Cat, Hong Kong turned out to be a wonderful getaway.

HK39

The view from our Disney hotel room on a beautiful, clear Hong Kong morning

 

Advertisements

Shanghai Escape, Derailed

It is winter in Shanghai, which apparently translates to short, cold, gloomy, and overcast days. When it has not been raining the air quality has been poor. It is not Beijing Red Alert poor, but it has already warranted twice receiving this message:

Consulate Pollution message

The second time we received it was the day before our flight. It was time to get out of dodge.

The Plan: Leave the drab, choking skies of Shanghai behind for a beach resort in Sanya Bay, on the southern Chinese island of Hainan, known as China’s Hawaii. The island is located at the same latitude as the Hawaiian Islands and is China’s only tropical beach destination. Blue skies, palm trees, warm weather, and a place in China where no one has to check the Air Quality Index. The perfect balmy Christmas getaway.

The Airport: We arrived at Pudong airport at 9:25 am for check in for our 10:45 am flight. Except it turns out that our flight time was moved up, to 10:05 am…and the flight closed 40 minutes before departure…so even before I stepped into the check-in line it was already too late. In all the years and places I have flown I have never missed a flight.

The airline was able to rebook us on a later flight departing at 3:50 pm. I felt rather thrilled we were still arriving the same day and I made sure to take advantage of the time at the airport. We had lunch and then C took a nap while I cracked open the 700+ page book for my January Book Club meeting. Then the flight was delayed two hours. No problem! There was a massage chair place located across from our gate – I had a massage and my daughter sat in the next chair playing nicely with her iPad.

Shanghai to Sanya flight

Just three hours by plane from wintry Shanghai to the balmy beaches of China’s southern most point

The Plane: Once on the plane I realize this is the first domestic Chinese flight I have taken since 1994.

I particularly remembered a flight from Chengdu to Urumuqi. There was no English to be found on the plane. Instead the information was in Chinese and Russian, the airplane seemed to be an old Aeroflot. The color scheme of the cabin was something like hospital white. Plane cabin temperature was set to somewhere around “sauna” and a leak of some sort dripped on me from the overhead compartment for the length of the flight. And smoking was allowed on the plane.

Fast forward to 2015 and the China Eastern flight is world-class. Comfortable seats, designer cabin colors in a palette of warm sand, professional flight attendants, English information. I sat back and relaxed, reading my book club book to page 345. We were on our way to vacation!

IMG_1933

The Holiday Inn Resort Sanya Bay. It is beautiful.

Arrival and Derailment: We land in Sanya at 8:30 pm, 5 ½ hours later than originally planned, but it is 77 degrees so I don’t care. Suitcases in hand we headed to the domestic airport legal taxi stand and wait.

Twenty-five minutes later we are in a taxi. Whew! We are soon to be on our way to the hotel to officially start this vacation. I feel so happy. I tell the driver the name of our hotel and she doesn’t understand. She confers with a taxi line attendant then she grunts in what I assume to mean “ok, yeah, I know where that is” and off we go–all of 20 feet before the driver pulls over, gets out of the taxi, and barks at the occupants of the back of the taxi line. Soon three additional passengers, two additional fares, are squeezed into the cab. I am forced to hold my daughter on my lap.

We stop and the driver tells the man in the front this is his stop. Then the driver gets out and opens my door, takes my daughter off my lap and places her in the street and tells me this is where I get out. “But where is my hotel?” I ask. The driver makes some noises that sound like “I don’t know” and “You can look around here.” She points to the suitcases in the back and I tell her the blue one. And then suddenly headlights are on us, a truck is heading our way, my daughter is in the middle of the street. I am distracted. The taxi driver takes off. I get my daughter to safety. I realize my other bag is in the taxi…with my new computer, my daughter’s iPad, and our jackets…

I walk two blocks with my daughter to the closest hotel. An English speaking manager helps to locate our hotel and takes us there by taxi. We had been nowhere nearby.

IMG_1925

Despite the rocky beginning, my daughter jumps for joy on the beach.

At our hotel the police are called. The officer who arrives is far more interested in my marital status than in my missing bag. He is fascinated that I am single, never married and have a child. He says he will return the next day, but I never see that cop again.

In the hotel room my daughter says, “Mom, I am sad about our bag, but this is a beautiful hotel.”

Fuel to the Fire: After breakfast and some beach time I head onto my first order of business to recover my vacation – obtaining chargers for my two phones (the chargers were unfortunately also in the bag).

The hotel furnished me with the location in Chinese where they promised up and down I could obtain chargers for both of my phones. I admit, I was skeptical, but I was thrilled when 30 minutes later we arrived at a phone supercenter, selling just about every phone and accessory you could imagine. Not only did they have a charger for my iPhone 4S but even for the Nokia dumb brick phone provided by the Consulate. I not only felt relief, I felt I had personally thwarted fate in a superhero kind of way.

IMG_1941

The Hui woman who sold us the Little Mermaid accessories, um, I mean, the shell necklaces.

We had lunch nearby and I bought C an ice cream cone that she nursed our two block walk to the beach and then as we walked along the waterfront. It actually sort of, kind of did remind me of the walkway in Waikiki. If I had been in Waikiki maybe in 1930? I bought C a shell necklace and conk shell whistle from an ethnic Hui woman on bicycle. Although the Muslim Hui are generally a northwestern minority, there is a large group on Hainan. I mused that perhaps there were more similarities between Hainan and Hawaii beyond their latitude and the letter “H.” There is also the military presence (with a base right in the middle of Sanya Bay fronting the beach, much like Waikiki’s Fort DeRussy) and an ethnic group subsumed and co-opted by tourism.

I had difficulty finding a taxi to take us back to our hotel – all the traffic on the beachfront road was heading in the wrong direction, all the cabs already with passengers. Even after turning up a side street to a crossroads, the taxis were few and already full. So I made the decision to take one of the two motorcycle taxis that had been vying for my business for ten minutes.

IMG_2021

What do you mean that airport is not a tourist spot? Doesn’t everyone hang out here on holiday?

I know, the parents amongst you may cringe and the Foreign Service Officers may tut-tut my decision. But the current and former backpackers might just give me a thumbs up. C, sandwiched between myself and the driver, yelling “wheee, wheee” as her hair blew in the wind. All was fine until we arrived back at the hotel. I got off the bike and burned my leg, badly as it turned out. Second degree. In all the times I was on motorcycles throughout Southeast Asia I was never burned before…

The Quest: My friends M&S from Shanghai also in Hainan for the weekend joined us for Christmas dinner for company and to get my mind off everything that had happened.  And as luck would have it, they hailed a blue colored cab on the way over and secured a telephone number for me. It turns out that there is only one dark blue taxi company in Sanya. How many female drivers could they have?

Bright and early on the second day I prepared for Operation: Get My Bag Back! I started up my iPhone – it was not connected to a phone network and had no VPN, but it could still connect to WiFi and I activated “Find My iPad.” Unfortunately it was offline, but I typed up a message in English and Chinese that would let someone know it was lost and how to reach me. Then I called the tourist complaint line number M&S had provided me and explained the situation in Chinese and then, almost unbelievably, the woman told me an English-speaking colleague would come in at 8 am and call me. Even more unbelievable is at 8 am an English-speaking person DID call me!

IMG_1978

Betel nut is popular in Hainan. I ironically found a bag of fresh betel nut left behind in taxi. I handed the bag over the driver and kept one for a photo.

At 9:30, after some checking she phoned me back and told me that I should phone the Airport Customer Service number. I did. Incredibly, they also had someone there who spoke English. That woman told me it would be best if I went down to the airport to talk with the Airport Police to locate the surveillance tape of the taxi line for the night in question. Of course! This is China and there are surveillance cameras everywhere!

Off we went to the airport. I located the police station on the second floor and again told my story in Chinese. The officer there did not seem too sympathetic as he stood in front of a four word police slogan that stated something like “integrity, honesty, service, hard work” – similar to one of those annoying motivational posters found in employee break rooms across the US. He informed me that in fact it was another police station that would be in charge of the taxi line and he gave me their number. I asked him, since I had just explained my whole story, if he could call for me. He shrugged and said he could not as it was my problem and not his.

I did call the number and explain again, in Chinese, my story of woe shouting in my phone above the airport and police station din. However, the policeman on the other end did seem nicer and told me he would see what he could do. A few minutes later my phone rang – an English-speaking woman who identified herself as Lisa and a friend of the second policeman. Lisa would prove to be not only sympathetic but incredibly resourceful.

IMG_1993

Despite the off-putting description of this area as a “Buddhist Theme Park” the landscaped grounds are quite nice and the statue is pretty cool. Not an amusement park ride to be seen.

While Lisa did whatever it was she was doing, I went in search of the surveillance tapes. Unfortunately, it turned out that due to airport construction the taxi line bay in the domestic terminal presently has no cameras. Of course it doesn’t! Despite this setback, I took advantage of our time at the airport to have lunch, visit the first aid center to have a nurse take care of my burn, and purchase the only thing resembling a diary from an airport book shop. (Yes, it turned out my diary too was in the bag. I have kept a diary since I was 12 years old and traveled with one all over the world and have never before lost one. Are you sensing a theme here?)

Back to the hotel. Lisa had sent the hotel duty officer the photos of the NINE female drivers employed by the dark blue taxi company for me to identify in a virtual line-up. I selected a few but emphasized that my driver had long black hair worn in a ponytail. We arranged to go to the taxi company the following morning to meet with the drivers and enjoyed the rest of the evening with pool time (well C was in the pool, I was sidelined with my second degree burn) and pizza in our hotel room watching either CNN or the Discovery Channel, our only two English options.

On Sunday we headed to the taxi company. I was quite disappointed to arrive to find only a single female drive in attendance – a woman with short, brown hair. When I explained my disappointment the two women at the taxi company appeared unphased. They said I had identified this woman as one of the possible drivers. I conceded I may have found the face similar from an employment photograph but in other aspects she did not resemble my driver at all. They suggested that perhaps I had confused dark blue with light blue as there was also a light blue taxi company in Sanya. They also incredulously suggested that perhaps I had mistaken a male driver for a woman? I stared at them.

IMG_1983

This taxi driver was worth his weight in gold – when C fell asleep on the way to the Goddess of Mercy, he offered to carry her.

I was told that this one female driver was the only one who had been to the airport on the day in question. Ms. Chen showed me the elaborate tracking system they use on all of their taxis – they could input a taxi driver number and a date and time and show exactly where the taxi had been. It seemed impressive but I could not help but feel they were trying to appear helpful without actually being so. In one final show of assistance they typed up a BOLO (Be On the LookOut) describing my lost bag and sent it out to all of their entire fleet of 200+ drivers. They suggested I also visit the Public Security Bureau, but I was done.

Instead back on the street I hailed a taxi to take us to the 108 meter high Goddess of Mercy statue located at the Nanshan Cultural District Buddhist Cultural Park. I may have lost a bag full of valuable items, received a second degree burn on my leg after an ill-advised motorcycle ride, and spent countless hours in fruitless pursuit of the aforementioned bag, but I was going to see one tourist site in Hainan! The funny part is that on the way I started to think about what I might see the next time we came.  If I was thinking about a next time, this time could not really be that bad, right?

I could have seen this as just a crappy vacation where everything went wrong or I could see it as a trip with some challenges and an epic quest, which though was ultimately unsuccessful in obtaining the sought after item, resulted instead in learning valuable lessons on what is truly valuable.  I did lose a lot of stuff (about $1300 worth) but I can replace them and am lucky to be in a position to say that.

In the taxi over to the taxi company, my almost-four-year-old daughter turned to me and said, “Mommy, I am sorry about our bag, but don’t worry, it is just games.” She was thinking about her lost iPad, but regardless, she had a point. And if my kid is telling me at this age, I have to be doing something right.

IMG_1919

The view of the South China Sea from our hotel balcony.

Decompressing in the DR

I really, really, really needed this vacation with my daughter in the Dominican Republic.

Yeah, I said the Dominican Republic.

Usually when I mentioned that we were headed for the DR for the combination holiday of Mid-Autumn festival and the multi-day National Day together called Golden Week I heard: Why?

Well, why not?

22

The Occidental Grand Punta Cana Resort. This will do.

I am aware it is nowhere near Shanghai. That is sort of the point. I have a history of traveling places nowhere near where I am living. When I lived in Jakarta I vacationed in Moldova, the south of France and South Africa. And when we lived in Juarez we visited places such as Panama, the United Arab Emirates, and the Isle of Man.

Do I have friends in the DR? Did family meet us? No and no. I just had a few criteria for this trip: warm weather, a beach, small child-friendly hotel, in a new-to-me country, and fairly far away. The DR met them all. Check. Check. Check.

It might seem a bit crazy to travel 27 hours and 45 minutes or so with a small child to get to a vacation destination. Maybe.

The population of Shanghai is approximately 24 million people squeezed into an area of 2,445 square miles. It is almost impossible to ever be alone in Shanghai (and as I have a small child any chance to be alone is already infinitesimally small). The DR on the other hand has a population of 10.7 million in an area many times larger than that of Shanghai. Even with the near constant music in the DR – the wonderful tipico band that greets arrivals at the Punta Cana airport and the Merengue or top 40 hits playing in the restaurants or during the nightly resort entertainment – it felt quieter than most any day in China. That most of the sounds were the soft roll of ocean waves and the rustle of the wind through palm fronds and laughter did not hurt either.

I also did not run into a single Chinese tourist. Not one.

87

Sunrise. Not a Chinese visa applicant in sight.

I very much enjoyed hearing and speaking Spanish again. Granted I would be very hard-pressed to score above a 1+ (if even) on a Foreign Service Institute test in Spanish at this point, having forgotten terribly important words like nuclear non-proliferation or labor union. Yet I remembered the word for bacon so though FSI might not agree with me, I feel I am winning that balance sheet.

13

Sunrise.

This was not my usual vacation. Any of my previous travel stories will tell you that much. I am not generally the stay in one place and do little kind of traveler. But strange times (adjudicating 16,000 visas and counting let’s say) call for strange measures, which to me is an all-inclusive resort with nine restaurants, three swimming pools, a Kids’ Club, nightly entertainment, tennis courts, archery, spa, gym, “Punta Cana’s best nightclub” and a bunch of other amenities. I’ll tell you I was so downright lazy that we went to only two swimming pools, ate in only four restaurants, and managed to do little else.

Most of my days went like this:
Wake up (and this started around 1 am due to jet lag and then gradually managed to move closer to 5:45). See sunrise. Eat breakfast. Laze around room. Laze around pool. Eat lunch. Laze around. Walk on beach. Eat dinner (though this was only once the jet lagged had eased and we did not fall asleep before sunset) . Sleep. It was magical. Once I had passed the half way point of my vacation I even began to wish I had booked two weeks of this instead of eight days.

54

The oldest cathedral in the Americas

We did make it off the resort twice. The first time was for an all day tour to Santo Domingo. As a self-declared history buff, if there was anything I was going to do while in the Dominican Republic other than little-to-nothing at the hotel it was to see Colonial Santo Domingo, the first permanent settlement in the New World. Only the fourth day in of a twelve hour time difference, I was not sure how C or I would fair with the jet lag, but the trip went off without a hitch. Well, okay C woke up at 2:30 am and vomited for an hour or so, but hey that is just travel with kids, right? Right?? She fell back asleep, and then woke demanding bananas; 2.5 bananas later she was ready for our 2 ½ hour bus trip to Santo Domingo. We slept most of the way there and back and enjoyed all the sites for the day. They crammed a whole lot in and yet it did not feel particularly rushed. I would have liked more time at some places and to see others that were only drive-bys, but overall I was quite pleased with the trip. And C was not the only child on the trip. Another couple brought their one year old and there was also a two year old boy. All the kids did really well. Hooray for parents traveling and sightseeing with their kids!

34

Our first view of Santo Domingo

Our second off-resort trip was to Manati Park so that C could see some animals. We were the first picked up in what C referred to as the “Rainbow Bus,” the colorful US-school-bus-like transport painted in the full pallet blasting energetic Merengue music as it made its way from resort to resort and then through a torrential downpour before arriving at the park. Four other similar buses disgorged their passengers at the same time and a brief flood of people poured in. It is not a particularly large park and not particularly awesome, but it is a good place to take a small child who loves animals and is too small to take part in other outings like swimming with dolphins or snorkeling or caving. And she got to not only ride some ponies (a lifelong dream even at age 3) but the staff even let her help them as they brushed and washed a pony. The guy even gave her the lead so C could take the pony back to his stall.

114

At the Taino Village in Manati Park

It wasn’t a perfect vacation mind you. There was bored, beer-guzzling Bob from Chicago who took a little too much of an interest in my daughter and I, or maybe just in my mini-bar beer. On the evening of the lunar eclipse, I popped just outside my room for a look-see while C snoozed. It was just before 11 pm. The man I will call Bob appeared to be heading out but then stopped to comment on the moon. We got to chatting for a bit. He seemed friendly enough. He was headed to the all night pizzeria for a snack and, after I had mentioned I do not drink, he said he would come back to get my neglected mini-bar beers. Given the time, I expected he would head up to get pizza and then be back before 11:30 pm for the beers. He knocked on my door at 2:30 AM! And then asked if I would wake him for sunrise the next morning when we headed to the beach. It seemed harmless enough though he was drunk enough to be swaying dangerously as we made our way to the beach. And except that then he just kept stopping by at odd hours. Odd because it is an all-inclusive resort that includes free alcohol with most meals and at any of the seven bars open from as early as 9 am until 1 am. And odd because at no time did I say, hey Bob, my daughter and I would love to have you randomly insinuate yourself into our holiday.

1 lunar eclipse

I was pleased as punch to not only see the lunar eclipse but to actually get a decent photo with my point and shoot. But beware those you meet under the lunar eclipse.

I suspect Bob is just a lonely guy who got his signals crossed (or is so numbed by alcohol he is unable to read them) but nonetheless I requested a room change. Thankfully it was granted. We still saw Bob around the resort at least once a day, but at least I did not have to keep sitting in my room pretending I did not hear the knocks on our hotel room door.

There was also Jorge who came to my room to check my air conditioning unit. He was only in the room for maybe five minutes before his pointed questions revealed I am a single mom and we live in China. Jorge graciously offered to move to Shanghai to take care of me and give C a father. As romantic a proposal from an overweight only-Spanish-speaking hotel maintenance guy I had just met sounds, I turned him down.

Our final day was my birthday. I spent it, in very uncharacteristic fashion, doing almost nothing. I even took my very fair-freckled self to the beach for over three hours. After several hours of play my daughter wrapped herself up in a towel, lay on a beach chair and watched the ocean. She then turned to me and said, “Mom, let’s go home.” “To the hotel room?” I asked. “No mom, to Shanghai.” I told her the following day we would head home (via a little overnight stop in Newark).

Traveling to the Dominican Republic reminded me why I love to travel and see new places. It reminded me how much I love tropical countries and beaches. And it gave me the opportunity to relax and spend quality time with my child.

Oh, and not a single Chinese tourist.

125

Another sunrise.

Ode to Nanjing

Nanjing (南京), it means “south capital” but to me in the traditional Chinese fashion of associating long-winded English translations to a few characters it means “long weekend getaway from the sinking morass of endless visa adjudications.”

It had been 14 weeks since returning from my two-week May getaway. Fourteen weeks through a historically-busy, record-breaking crazy visa application summer. I needed a break.

43

View of Nanjing from the 45th floor of the Zifeng Tower

I know this falls into the realm of a “first world problem” and that even at home there might be quite a few people who would roll their eyes at my whines regarding lack of vacation time, but to me I really and truly had reached a breaking point.

“Capture of Nanking Rain and a windstorm rage blue and yellow over Chung the bell mountain as a million peerless troops cross the Great River. The peak is a coiled dragon, the city a crouching tiger more dazzling than before. The sky is spinning and the earth upside down. We are elated yet we must use our courage to chase the hopeless enemy. We must not stoop to fame like the overlord Hsiang Yu. If heaven has feeling it will grow old and watch our seas turn into mulberry fields.” ~Mao Ze Dong, April 1949

I could not find a pretty quote about Nanjing. Despite its significant role in Chinese history it is its more recent history, the brutal subjugation of the city in 1937, that it is perhaps most famous for. The weekend might also have been an odd choice of destination considering it immediately followed China’s newest national holiday – “Victory Day” – marking the 70th anniversary of victory in WWII. Although it was announced by the Chinese government in May it did not occur to me as I was buying the train tickets in early August that perhaps the location of one of the greatest atrocities inflicted on the Chinese as part of the larger WWII conflict happened in Nanjing. I wondered why some of the trains were already booked full (though it could have as much to do with a multi-day holiday as anything else, most people were given both Thursday September 3 and Friday September 4 off).

Regardless, our mini holiday in Nanjing became my reward, my focus, my mantra.

Nanjing! Nanjing! Nanjing!

And the trip finally arrived – and I remembered how I love to travel and learn about new places, the history, the culture, and especially to see another place in the country where I serve. I also was reminded how it can be a wee bit challenging to travel with a toddler especially when I insist on trying to do things certain ways.

15

The Zifeng Tower. Our room was waaaaaaaaaaay near the top

Like taking public transport. But I packed light and we were able to use not only the Shanghai metro line to reach the Hongqiao Railway station, get ourselves onto the bullet train to Nanjing (less than 2 hours – 300 kilometers or about 186 1/2 miles), then we easily maneuvered our way through the Nanjing metro system. Well, as easy as one can with a duffel bag, stroller with one malfunctioning wheel, and a preschooler. But then they made it easy for us – touch screens, choice of English, plenty of easy to read maps, and a direct 10 stop trip from Nanjing South Station to Gulou, our stop.

I booked us a room at the Intercontinental Nanjing, which occupies the lobby and floors 45-81 of Zifeng Tower, the tallest building in the city (at 1,480 feet tall). Regular guest rooms are on floors 49 to 71 and through a series of events we found ourselves with a room on the 71st floor! As we rode up the elevator, beginning on the 45th floor I thought that we were already well above the 19th floor I live on in Shanghai, which already seemed rather high up.

It was a bit of a cloudy day and our view was sometimes very nearly obscured during our visit – because sometimes we were inside a cloud.

After settling in we headed to the very old Jiming (Rooster Crowing) temple, one of the oldest in Nanjing. It was within walking distance of the hotel and I figured a worthy first stop. Because 3 ½ kids love old, historic Buddhist temples, right? She might have liked it more if we had not had to pass the Paleontology Museum on the way. Posters of cool-looking cartoon dinosaurs and a nearly full glass wall revealing some equally cool dinosaur skeletons just had to be on display. Any interest C might have had in Chinese/Nanjing/Buddhist history was quickly gone (I give my kid the benefit of the doubt). Then I had to keep hearing about the dinosaurs, the dinosaurs, the dinosaurs for the rest of the block.

20

Entrance gate to Jiming Temple, with a view of the Zifeng Tower in the background.

Thank goodness the temple included three large incense sticks in their ticket entrance price. C took these to be drum sticks, specifically her drum sticks and the temple as her castle and was placated for a little while. She was even okay with climbing up all the stairs. Particularly as once on the third or so level she could look down and yell at her subjects. “Hey, all you all down there! This is C! This is my castle. I am the police! Please listen to me! Stop what you are doing!” When I asked her why she kept yelling she said it was because no one was listening. I pointed out she was yelling in English and that most, if not all, of the people coming in to the temple were Chinese. So she switched to yelling random Chinese words of her choosing. Good thing the Chinese generally like little kids.

At the top level, just below the pagoda, we enjoyed some time joining the crowd throwing coins into the large Chinese urn for good luck. C likes this kind of activity. Then I showed her where everyone was placing their incense sticks and demonstrated how we would do the same. She seemed completely on board until we actually lit them and placed them standing with the other incense. Then she lost it. As luck would have it (perhaps the temple gods were smiling down on us?) we turned a corner as she sobbed and found three perfectly nice incense sticks lying on a temple step. The day was saved!

We headed back down and then on to Ming Dynasty City Walls, apparently one of the largest city walls ever constructed in China and still with large portions intact. C was not impressed. She made it clear that she did not want to see any walls but instead wanted to see dinosaurs! It started to rain. It was around 4 pm and we were just up the street from the Paleontology Museum and so made the correct mom decision to return to the dinosaurs.

C skipped up the steps happily right into the arms of a museum curator who informed us the museum closed at 4. What? Who closes a museum at 4? Smart little C immediately broke into huge sobs accompanied by the word dinosaur in both English and Chinese. As the door was wide open and other kids and their parents were still in the museum, he relented and said we could just visit the dinos in the foyer. C perked up immediately – though this was short lived when she learned after ten minutes it was time to go and she walked out, lip pouted, shoulders hunched, dragging her feet. The curator told us to come back that weekend – open 9 am to 4 pm Saturday and Sunday!

An hour at the hotel pool and another 30 minutes in our awesome tub and C forgot all about dinosaurs.

The following morning we took the metro to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. Yeah, I sure do know how to pick the family friendly locations. But C is a good traveler and she was very good here as well.

35

Outside the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall.

It was a Saturday and the one after the new Victory Day holiday, so there was a long line, but with the exception of a few line jumpers it was managed very orderly and well. I have long wanted to visit Nanjing and I knew that when I did I would visit this memorial hall. This is a sobering place and is on par to visiting the Holocaust Museum in DC or a concentration camp like Auschwitz or the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park or the Killing Fields of Cambodia – all of which I have visited. It is a hard place to visit yet also a “must-see” to understand a time in history and serve as witness to the horrors humans are capable of committing, appreciate the resiliency of survivors, and resolve in your heart to never allow this again.

We spent most of our time in the park area and not in the museum, though we did have some thirty or forty-five minutes inside. In theory I could have spent longer there – the displays are well-done and informative – but given the subject matter our total hour and a half at the memorial hall was all we could take. C demanded lunch and then either dinosaurs or elephants.

49

Elephants, even stone ones at a Ming Dynasty mausoleum, are cool.

After consulting C elephants it was. And those elephants would be the large stone ones, along with several other stone animals, flanking the Sacred Way to the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located at the foot of Purple Mountain. Thank goodness for those animals and the lovely shaded walk – C approved! She also did not mind the other walk with large stone soldiers flanking the way and climbing through some large gateways. She did show some rebellion at the Golden Water Bridge. The carved dragons, though I pointed out they looked like a bit like dinosaurs, did not impress her in the least. Arms folded, she delivered me a few pointed raspberries in my direction, but agreed to soldier on.
The Mausoleum is huge. We passed through archways and walked through or around memorial halls finally to the large palace-like building at the end and we climbed up all those steps too. Little C bounded up them like a champ.

Although there might have still been time to make it over to the Sun Yatsen Mausoleum, had I still been a single woman, I called it day. C agreed this was an excellent decision. We still had to make our way all the way back from the tomb and find a way back to the hotel. This proved to be much more difficult than I expected as every single taxi driver I saw refused to stop. Finally we found a bus stop that took us to the metro and we were back to the hotel for the evening.

On Sunday morning I did try to reward C with a trip to the Paleontology Museum, after all she deserved it for being such a good sport the day before. But wouldn’t you know it we arrive at the museum around 9:30 am and they tell me it is closed all day. Poor little C. She was disappointed. I owe her some dinosaurs for sure.

67

View towards Xuanwu Lake and Purple Mountain from the Nanjing City Wall.

We continued on to the Nanjing City Walls. C made it quite clear she did not want to see the “stupid walls.” She’s 3 and did not really use the word “stupid” but it was so implied in her huffy attitude. I insisted and she plodded alongside me, heavily sighing, shoulders hunched. It became warm – our hottest day so far and we were exposed up on the wall. And I began to think that maybe seeing the walls was okay but walking along them just might have been “stupid.” Sometimes mommy is wrong.

We did eventually make our way to the next gate, Xuanwu gate, from where we could descend from the walls and found ourselves in the middle of Nanjing’s Sunday matchmaking market. There are few things that matchmaking grannies and grandpas like to see more than a 3 year old, curly-blonde haired girl. C handled it pretty well.

Back at the hotel enjoying our welcome (farewell?) drink at the café while a hostess played peek-a-boo with C seemed a good way to end the trip. We successfully navigated ourselves back to the train station with the metro and onto the bullet train to Shanghai. Nanjing has a lot to offer and I think we will back. Maybe next time we will finally see the dinosaurs.

Hanging in Hangzhou

“Above there is Heaven, below there is Suzhou and Hangzhou” ~ really old Chinese saying

Well, I wouldn’t go THAT far, but it turned out better than expected given the weather.

Murphy’s Law: The day before, even the day of, our departure to Hangzhou was lovely. Then once we were on our way it wasn’t. Our first trip outside of Shanghai since we arrived 9 weeks ago and the weather was terrible. I cannot be exactly sure, but it may have begun to rain the minute our high-speed train departed Hongqiao Station.

And it kept raining.

Through the train journey. Through the ride in the taxi to our Hangzhou hotel. Through the night. And through our first day.

I had wanted for years to visit Hangzhou and had certainly been looking forward to this trip (almost desperately) for weeks and now…

2 Anna & Elsa contemplate weather

Queen Elsa and Princess Elsa seem as disappointed as I contemplating the poor weather.

We had breakfast in our room and I poured over the Hangzhou tourist brochure looking for something, almost anything, that we could do on a rainy day. But even the tea museum had an outdoor component. So I gave in.

I decided our first day would just be a relaxing day at the hotel. Just C and I. And I looked at the bright side.

I managed our first trip in China. Getting C and I to the train station on the metro and then to Hangzhou with the two of us sharing a single seat on the one hour journey. I managed, with the help of my little spitfire, to get us from the Hangzhou train station to our hotel. Surrounded by taxi touts refusing en masse to use their meters and tossing out crazy, inflated numbers. As I walked away and they followed, C yelled at them “Leave my mommy alone. BU KEYI!” Yes, in Chinese she told them to basically buzz off. (Well, she said “Cannot!” but I know what she meant.”) I negotiated from 80 RMB ($12.80) to 50 RMB ($8). (Though of course, as I learned later, the real meter cost is 12 RMB or $1.92).

We had a lovely lunch at the hotel and then we went to get a foot massage. Or rather I did while C enjoyed the adjacent chair – in our private room! – with her iPad and then fell asleep for her nap. This is the first massage I have had since a post-partum one within a month of C’s birth. I also read a book. Gasp!

We enjoyed an hour swim together in the hotel pool and then dinner. The hotel had a Tex-Mex promotion and did not do half bad. Sure, I had never before had Mexican Lasagna, but it was very tasty.

When I threw open the curtains on day two to find another overcast, grey day however, I felt a bit defeated. I debated just cutting our loses and heading back to Shanghai whether I received a refund on the third night at the hotel or not. I did not know however if I could get a ticket back on the train. It was a holiday weekend after all. And then, through the clouds, I saw a little glint of sunlight hit a nearby building. So I threw some clothes on C and myself and we headed out.

I thought I would first thing get a taxi to Hangzhou’s famed West Lake. But down in the lobby I thought to the glimpse of greenery, a park perhaps?, I had seen across the street with what looked like a traditional Chinese bridge. We would head there first to see and then back to the hotel for a taxi.

We did find not only a park but a canal filled with upgraded traditional dugout canal boats. In a little exercise park by the canal, friendly grandmas and grandpas getting in some workouts and moms and their kids out for a stroll, came over to check us out and chat us up. They were curious and sweet, testing my Chinese and practicing their English. One woman told us rather than head back to our hotel, why didn’t we head to the little canal boat dock on the other side of the bridge, and head down river a ways?

So we checked out the bridge, where we again became the subject of much kind interest and then over to the boat dock. Turns out the boats are canal taxis. They are fitted with mechanical transport card readers. I did not have a card of course and asked how much. I did not get far as a kind older woman motioned to me and C as she scanned her card three times. It was on the house. (I think it cost 3 RMB, or 48 cents, for a ride)

What a fantastic little trip! We meandered along the canal (or a river with incredibly tamed banks) for at least half an hour. I honestly lost track of time. Our canal trip benefactor took the opportunity to snap some pictures of C enjoying the boat (as did I) and since she had been so nice we both acquiesced to a photo with C on her lap and giving her a hug (because no one gets a photo like this unless C agrees). The canal was lined on both sides with a tree lined walking paths and periodically with covered Chinese gazebos where old people rested and watched the water, did exercise or played Chinese musical instruments. People walked their dogs. Moms and dads walked with their babies and children. The low clouds created a mist that only made it more inviting.

15 bridges

14 bridges Just some of the beautiful scenes along the boat trip.

We were let off at the terminus where pretty little white houses with grey roofs and red lanterns lined the canal. We walked back a little along the canal path, underneath willows and plum trees in bloom. C ran and laughed. Geez, it was lovely.

Then we made our way on foot several blocks to West Lake. We stopped for lunch and unfortunately the skies opened up and buckets fell. Thankfully it started after we entered the restaurant and by lingering a bit longer it ended before we left. A few blocks more and we found the lake.

The weather was still overcast. Clouds hung low and the opposite bank, even boats on the water, could barely be seen through the mist. Still it was beautiful and, judging by the crowds, we were not the only ones longing for a stroll by the lake.

We walked for hours. C alternated between the stroller and running excitedly ahead. When it drizzled, we found refuge under the trees or in one of the lakeside gazebos or even once in a temple. King Qian’s Temple was a wonderful respite from the buzz of the Chinese crowds. It cost 15 RMB to get in and I was a bit hesitant at first, but I am so glad we took the time to visit. Just off the main path around the lake it was as if we were suddenly transported a long way away. The crowds were gone, only a handful of other people were inside, and it was so incredibly quiet.

27 temple quiet

Enjoying the tranquility of King Qian’s temple.

I did not make it all the way around the lake. I had no such anticipation when I started as it is expected to take approximately FIVE HOURS to do so. Yet I did not even make it to Leifeng Pagoda. C conked out in her stroller and I too became tired. So I made the decision to head back to the hotel but told myself that Hangzhou is worth another trip, soon.

29 blossoms and pagoda

About as close to the Leifeng Pagoda as we got. Not a bad view, despite the clouds.

I think C enjoyed the trip. The one part though that seemed to disappoint her is that we never did find “Joe.” Seems every time I mentioned going to “Hangzhou” she heard something about “Joe” (zhou in Chinese is pronounced quite similar to the name Joe). Even just now as I write this, while looking over the pictures of our trip, she said, “Next time let’s visit Joe.”

So there is likely to be a next time.

Christmas in Bangladesh, December 1998

As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of stories I wrote on/of past travels.

This trip occurred several months before I started my first Internet account, so few if any of even my friends and family know of this story. I wrote part of this story on a few pieces of paper, which I happened to come across while unpacking my belongings in Shanghai! I will supplement with bits from my most-likely-faulty memories.

Last winter vacation I had planned to meet a friend of mine for a week in Thailand. This arrangement left me a week on my own before meeting her. I considered my options. I considered them a long time. By the time I called a travel agent my options were limited. “Where do you want to go?” the agent asked me (after informing me that many places no longer had flights available). “I don’t know. Anywhere. Bangladesh?”

She heard “Bangladesh” and phoned me a week later to confirm she had reserved my ticket. It hit me. I am going to Bangladesh. What in the world am I going to do there?
My destination of “choice” was met by mixed reactions with those I shared the news. My supervisor laughed and asked “Why do you always go to dirty places?” The Vice Principal laughed and waited for the punch line. Another teacher nervously told me I just should not go. Another asked if it were too late for me to cancel? The more people appeared to try to dissuade me to go, the more determined I became to have myself a fantastic time . Doing what, I was not sure, but I was going to have a grand time doing it in Bangladesh!

The first time through the Lonely Planet guidebook still left me wondering. It was a slim volume and easily half of it seemed to be taken up by the “Dangers and Annoyances” chapter. The things that stuck most in my mind were the deadly floods, cyclones, tigers, snakes, crocodiles and diseases. The second time through though I realized one week was not nearly enough time to scratch the surface of the country.

Bangladesh is hardly a tourist destination. The country has roughly the amount of tourists in a year that Thailand receives in an average week. The former tourism slogan was “See Bangladesh before the Tourists Do.” The country is one-fifth the size of Japan with approximately the same population. It has the highest population density of any country, with the exception of a few small city states. (and remains so today). Crisscrossing the country are three major rivers, the Padma (Ganges), the Jamuna, and the Meghna, which divide the country into four parts. Every year the heavy rains and the melting snow from the Himalayas inundate the rivers until they overflow their banks, making many places resemble a messy Asian Venice.

The country however also boasts the longest beach in the world, “shark-free” to boot (how they manage to keep the sharks away, I am not sure); and about two-thirds of the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world and home to the last Royal Bengal Tigers, is located in Bangladesh. There are cooler hill areas dotted with tea plantations, the most famous being in Syllet. Around the country there are numerous sites of Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist ruins as well as the crumbling rajbaris, the elegant homes of former British rulers.

Bangladesh has a lot to offer. Unfortunately, I barely made it out of Dhaka. Having flown a very early morning flight out of Osaka, with a five hour layover in Bangkok, I did not arrive bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as originally intended. My first good view of Bangladesh was Zia International Airport, all four gates, with a fifth a crumbling mess of concrete and steel. I could not tell if it was being knocked down or put up. Then I was robbed at immigration when informed my visa would cost US$45 instead of the US$21 I had expected. (The Chinese tourists in front of me paid US$10 each).

I dislike arriving in a new country late in the afternoon. The crush of people waiting outside the arrivals area was both exciting and intimidating. The taxi driver insisted I could not stay in a hostel in Dhaka, they are only for men. I had read much the same, and at dusk I am too tired to argue. He insists he will take me to a nice place. His brother’s place. Or the place owned by a friend of his brother. Or just a place of a guy he knows he calls his “brother.” I am not sure. I give in. He drives me to the nicer part of town, to a multi-story home converted to a guesthouse, gated and with an armed guard. Maybe this is better than a hostel… It is nice to have my own room and even a television to watch all the best Bengali programming.

IMG_5017

Welcome to Dhaka indeed. Almost makes you want to just stay in the airport.

Much of the rest of my trip I remember in bits and pieces.

What I remember most is it was Ramadan. At least in December the days were mild and the evenings cool. Yet in a country with such a high poverty rate, it felt particularly brutal to have no food or drink all day. I was not fasting of course, but I felt very subconscious when eating. I went to a local fast food chain called Wimpy for lunch and I was the only person in the restaurant. I felt strange even ordering given the staff were likely fasting as well.

One evening I shared the breaking of fast meal with the owners of the guesthouse. I saw a main part of the meal included puffed rice, like Rice Krispies. So another evening I waited around the market until it was dusk, the time to break fast, and bought a large bag (a several gallon sized bag) of puffed rice to give to a group of hungry kids. I thought it would be a nice gesture, but it turned into a feeding frenzy with children and adults grabbing the bag and pulling until it burst and much of the rice fell on the ground. Still, people were scooping it up off the dirt road. Instead of feeling good, I felt horrible. One small, hopeful boy followed me all the way back to the guesthouse, where I gave him some coins for his trouble. My heart hurt.

One day I decided to try to have lunch at the American Club so I would not be sitting alone in an empty restaurant feeling shameful. I had a bicycle rickshaw drop me off at the gate. I recall it being blue, but cannot be sure. There was a small sliding opening in the solid gate, which made me think of the main gate to the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. I must have knocked or rung a doorbell as a woman came to open the slit and asked me what I wanted. “I just want to have lunch”. Much to my surprise I was told no. I said, “But I’m an American,” and showed her my passport. The woman told me, “I can bring you a menu and you can order off of it and take it to eat elsewhere, but you cannot eat here.” So much for my first experience at the American Club. I will never forget being turned away.

Another day, returning from a tour along a busy, dusty road into Dhaka, I noted at a stop that there were no sellers in the road. At first I thought this so strange. Every other developing country I had been had roadside sellers who wander through traffic selling gum, snacks, water, single cigarettes, and the like. Then I remembered it was Ramadan. It was then that I could swear I saw the dead body of a woman lying by the side of the road, her bright sari wrapped around her very thin body. People walked around her as if she were not there. We drove on.

I recall I wanted to get out and see a market to buy something “Bangladeshi.” The guesthouse owner flagged down and spoke firmly with a passing auto-rickshaw driver. The owner assured me this driver knew where we were going. About 30 minutes later, it was clear to me that the driver had NO IDEA where we were going. He had driven onto a very narrow road, which barely fit two auto rickshaws side by side. He could speak no English and I no Bengali. I hopelessly blah-blah-blahed the name of the market to to him as he stared at me blankly. Suddenly, a young man approached us, a university student, who spoke English. He spoke with both of us and we were soon on our way to the market. Once there the driver apparently wanted more money than had been initially agreed upon at the guesthouse (where the owner had counseled me to pay a certain amount and NO MORE). I tried to give him the agreed upon price and he refused. He shouted and gestured at me. I blah-blah-blahed back. I put the money on the driver’s seat as he would not take it from my hands. He kept yelling at me as I started to back away. A group of five girls swept up to the vehicle, chattering in broken English, “Miss, Miss, you shopping?” and whisked me away with them. The market was a wash as there were no Bangladeshi handicrafts to speak of and the stall the girls took me to was full of t-shirts sporting Titanic and Michael Jordan themes. But I remember the girls.

IMG_5014

My rescuers at the market.

In Dhaka I visited a beautiful old mosque surrounded by a large bathing pool. The only visitors to this mosque, besides me, were men. Walking down the street to the mosque I was surrounded by a shuffling circle of men. They kept a respectful distance from me; the circle started three to four feet out from me, but moved as I moved. I also visited Ahsan Manzil, a former palace and now the National Museum. Though I do remember there were informative English displays inside, it was sitting out on the grass by the banks of the river and chatting with a local family that really sticks in my mind. At the beautiful Lalbagh fort, which made me think of the Taj Mahal (before I visited the real thing), I remember the incredibly beautiful saris of the strolling women and being stalked by a University student “practicing English,” who insisted that at my age I should be married and that he just might be the right guy for me. I searched everywhere for what I think was the Baldha Garden, listed in my guide as a beautiful, hidden must see gem. After probably an hour with an auto rickshaw, and about to give up, I finally located it, only to be rather disappointed. The buildings around the park had built up roughshod above the walls, with laundry and other detritus of life hanging unsightly through the trees. A film of dust lay on all the plants, muting the green. Young Bangladeshi couples giggled amongst the foliage and a mongoose scampered along the path. The mongoose though was worth the trip.

IMG_5023

Cleansing outside a beautiful mosque somewhere in Dhaka.

IMG_5022

Lalbagh Fort, where I met the love of my life (only I didn’t know it)

To get outside of Dhaka I found a travel group to take me on three trips: Sonargaon, the medieval capital of Eastern Bengal, a tour upriver to see jute production and a former Zamindar’s palace now a university, and also a half day river cruise on the Padma.
Though the buildings of Sonargaon were crumbling, which did make me feel melancholy because such a cultural and historic place should be preserved and cherished, I remember the colors so vibrantly and how good it felt to get out of the capital. The university at Murapara did not much impress me, though I liked the goats I found wandering across the campus. Far more interesting was the tour of the jute mill. Bangladesh is the world’s second largest producer of jute, a vegetable fiber, which, like cotton and hemp, can be spun and woven, and in the 19th century, many British made their fortunes as jute barons in Bengal. On the Padma river cruise I remember most that my travel companions were a Foreign Service family, husband, wife, and young son and that we did get to see two of the Gangetic pink river dolphins.

IMG_5020

A stroll in Sonargaon

Bangladesh was an unexpected vacation, yet it lingers in my mind as one that delivered more than anticipated. There were some clear hardships for most of the local people that were impossible to ignore and which made my heart ache, and yet the vast majority of the people I came across greeted me with kindness and brilliant smiles. I would like to visit again and see more of the country.

IMG_5016IMG_5015

The Diplo-Cats Journey to China

Kucing and Tikus (“Cat” and “Mouse” in Indonesian), my two cats, have at last joined us at our apartment in Shanghai. They are diplo-pets, about to start life in their fourth country of residence.

Getting them here to China has been a bit challenging, a story of logistics and miscommunication, incarceration in the quarantine facility and finally freedom.
It is never really easy to uproot yourself again and again and it is not any easier to do this with pets, but this trip really about did me in.

Indonesia to the U.S. was the cats’ first international trip. It was no cake walk, but once I found the pet shipper (the fantastically named Groovy Pets) and paid them a load of money, it did not turn out to be so bad. I had to fly over the Pacific using United Airlines, per the Fly America Act, but there was something tricky about them joining me, so I booked them on KLM cargo. They also flew out a few days before I did so as to arrive on a Thursday afternoon when quarantine facilities at Dulles Airport would be open. My aunt picked them up at the airport and they seemed in very good spirits, the KLM cargo person cooing at them affectionately. They also had a layover in Amsterdam, so I expect their flight was a sight better than mine.

It cost $400 for the two of them to fly cargo and another $800 in charges to Groovy Pets. When I asked for an itemization of this fee I initially received pushback. But after I pointed out a taxi to the airport and departure fees could hardly cost so much I was informed that some of this would amount to “gifts” to various officials. Oh, I said, you mean bribes. The woman pursed her lips and responded evenly, we prefer to call them gifts. I let it go.

To and from Mexico proved to be an even easier proposition. K and T only needed updated rabies vaccinations. I had all the documentation on the seat next to me in case Mexican immigration authorities stopped us, but no one did. Returning to the US we also encountered no problems.

China however has strict pet importation regulations and a “one pet per passport holder” policy. (Sounds reminiscent of the One Child Policy, right?). Pet import rules also vary by city, and unfortunately Shanghai’s is a littler stricter than some others, including a minimum one week quarantine at a Chinese facility at $320 per pet.

I did not like it, but I was prepared to do it.

Three weeks from departure I sent an email to the Consulate to check again on the requirements and that is when I learned – oops, sorry, it turns out it is one pet per ADULT passport holder. Basically I was being told that I would have to leave one of my cats behind. I could not believe it. I replied asking if there were anything that could be done. The reply was, no, our hands are tied.

I freaked out.

My sister could not take one of my cats as she is highly allergic. My parents could not for the same reasons. My aunt could not, although she loves cats to pieces, because she said she would have to choose between my cat and my uncle. (My uncle is quite the catch, so I understand her choice)

I put up a status on my Facebook and a Facebook group I belong to and I had some pretty great responses – from people (complete strangers) willing to watch my cat for a few months until I returned in May on vacation (with a plan to try to import the second at another time) to several friends offering to foster my cat for the entire two years if necessary. I was heartbroken and yet really, really touched.

The next day however I had another email from the Consulate informing me that one of the locally employed staff (a Chinese employee of the Consulate) had taken it upon themselves to call the section chief of the Pudong International Airport Quarantine Office, and according to him, the section chief, it would be no problem to bring in a one pet on a minor’s passport. However, the Consulate contact informed me, this was no guarantee. I emailed back: I am bringing both cats.

Not that the idea the information could be wrong did not worry me. It sure did. But I had a lot on my plate right then – from my Chinese test to packing out to my mom’s health – so I decided to take a leap of faith and hope it all worked out.

I booked both cats as in-cabin pets on United (the primary reason I chose to take United Airlines vice the contract carrier American is due to United’s more pet friendly policies). This was far less expensive than flying the cats as checked luggage or cargo.

Less than a week before departure I took both cats to the vet. It is a requirement for most places that rabies shots are no more than one year from importation and no less than 30 days (I had taken care of that the month before). Another requirement is that a vet must issue an international health certification no more than 10 days before importation. That certificate must then be endorsed by a USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) veterinarian. The closest USDA-APHIS Service Center to Washington, DC is in Richmond, Virginia.

Yeah, that is the closest. Because that makes sense, right?
(There are no offices in DC, MD, or DE)

Instead of chancing a round-trip FedEx, waiting and hoping it would arrive back before the flight, I decided to make the four hour round trip to have it signed. It literally took five minutes. I mean I put my car into 30 minute parking across the street, waiting impatiently in the security line to get into the building, hoofed it up to the 7th floor, had it signed, and returned to my car with minutes to spare. A crazy trip, but I had APHIS Form 7100 signed.
Then there was the flight – just myself, three year old C, my wheeled carry on, a large handbag, C’s backpack, an umbrella stroller, and two cat carriers. My cats are no lightweights either. Tikus is 10 pounds and Kucing a pudgy 14. (Diet commences for them now)

I am lucky my sister works for TSA since I had to travel without my mother unexpectedly.  I did not know how I would carry two cats through security – since you need to take each cat out of their carrier, put the carrier through the x-ray machine and then carry the animal through.  I called the Dulles  Airport customer service line to see if any of the volunteers could help me – but while they could help me get to security, they could not help me through.  My sister however, with her super TSA badge, could.

On the plane I tried not to concern myself with what may or may not happen upon landing. My immediate concerns were making sure they were comfortable and did not meow the entire flight and how in the world I would get them from the plane to quarantine after picking up our four suitcases at baggage claim.

The plane landed at a gate located approximately 10 miles from baggage claim. OK, that may not be true, but when you are jet lagged and herding a jet lagged toddler and all the crap I listed above, then it does not take much to feel far. I would like to thank all the people who offered us no assistance. Because that would be everybody. I get it, no one made me bring all that stuff, you have your own place to be, still… But despite jet lag C was a trooper and she walked the whole distance. And although it was not 10 miles, it could easily have been one or more. Thankfully about half way there were some small luggage carts, which did help things along, until we arrived at the elevators.

Carts could not be taken down the elevators to the immigration hall. At that floor there was a crush of people exiting from all planes to enter a single gate funneling us to multiple immigration lines. This was bordering on “every woman for herself” territory. There was not deliberate pushing or shoving but it was such a steady mass of people that for the first time I felt concerned I would lose C in the crowd. Again, no one helped. They stared, but did not help.

But we made it to the baggage carousel and it was deserted. We were (not surprisingly) the last from our flight to pick up our suitcases. I began to have visions of myself walking right out of the airport past quarantine without having to stop. I had heard others had managed to do this – simply walk out with their dog or cat without anyone being the wiser. The cats were quiet – they had apparently accepted their fate – and the pet carriers just looked like luggage…

But I saw the luggage carts. They were tiny. There was no way for me to get our four large suitcases, my carry on, and the two cats on one and how was I to push two carts and keep track of C?

This is when Quarantine Lady showed up. I knew she was quarantine lady because she wore a white lab coat. And she asked if I had some pets. Foiled!

But Quarantine Lady was super helpful, pushing my second luggage cart, not only to the quarantine office but also then out to the arrivals area where thankfully my sponsor was waiting. (Quarantine Lady also spotted my name first on my sponsor’s card.) She spoke English and she and her staff seemed very professional, which did put my mind at ease some. The only issue related to C being a minor is that the quarantine officials gently insisted she sign her own form, so I put her on my lap, the pen in her hand, and guided her to write her name.  Done.

C took our leaving the cats much better than I expected (no tears, no questioning my assertion that they were going to see the cat doctor) and, I think, better than I did. Leaving the office without the cats made me anxious.

For the first few days I did not worry; I had enough else on my mind getting over jet lag, stocking the fridge, and hiring a nanny. But by the fourth evening I woke in the middle of the night from a nightmare involving the cats and quarantine.

A week after we handed Kucing and Tikus over to the quarantine officials at Pudong Airport (almost to the hour) I find myself standing outside the main building of the Shanghai Animal and Plant Quarantine Station. I was not allowed to see where the cats were kept, but instead was directed to the main building where I presented our passports and paperwork, then signed a paper. The woman then made a phone call.

We stood together on the road leading into the facility. The pollution levels are very high and the haze thick, limiting visibility. Out of the haze a man approaches, slowly riding a bicycle with a two wheeled metal trailer. I can just make out in the bed of the trailer the tops of the cat cages and hear some soft meowing. The man stops in front of me and the woman directs me, in English, to check these are my cats and they are ok. I feel a giddy nervousness overcome me and I look into each carrier.

$266 vet examination and rabies shots
$248 vet examination and International Health certificates
$76 USDA-APHIS form 7100 endorsement
$250 for United in-cabin pet fees ($125 per pet)
$640 for mandatory 1 week Shanghai quarantine ($320 or 2000 RMB per pet)
$28 taxi ride to and from the quarantine facility

My diplo-cats back with me = Priceless.