Malawi Yard Wonders

7. view

View of my backyard from my porch

Growing up I did not have a yard. We lived in a two story condominium.  There was a small patch of grass in the front and a common area to the side, as we were located on a corner lot.  Come to think of it, even as an adult I had never before had a yard.  I lived in a series of dormitories and apartments.  We did have a back patio in Juarez, half cement and half rock garden, but I would not call that a yard.  Now here in Malawi we are blessed with SO MUCH YARD.  While we do not have the conveniences we had in Juarez and Shanghai, our yard is a highlight of living in Lilongwe.

2. flowers

Flowers of our yard

Each morning I sit in my screened in porch or konde to meditate.  With my eyes closed I hear the chorus of bird song, from tweets and trills to caws and coos.  I hear the rustling of the wind through the branches and fronds.  With my eyes open I see only foliage and sky and it feels as if we are miles from other people, and certainly not living in a capital city.  (okay, as you can see from my photo I can also see my brick wall and concertina wire, but that detracts only a wee bit from the reverie).

6. playground

A view of one side of the back yard with playground and trampoline

To be honest, having a yard was a part of the calculus I made bidding on my job in Malawi.  Every other place I applied to had apartment living.  Every other place had a larger political section.  There is much I enjoy about my work here, but when the pressures of being the sole political officer bear down, I need only to sit on the konde and breath in the sights and sounds of our yard, talk a stroll around our house, or watch my daughter on her playground or run through the grass to know we made the right choice.

We arrived in August, at the tail end of the cool season, after there had been little rain for many months.  The grass was brittle and yellowed and much of the back garden bare,  but the jacaranda tree with its lilac blossoms and the small flame trees in full fiery bloom gave the yard color.  The palms, though with some brown fronds, still tall and green.  The papaya and banana trees were bearing fruit.  C and I began to make plans.  I hired a gardener.  We bought flowers and planted seeds.  I have never had much of a green thumb and was not sure what would grow but we planted green beans, peas, watermelon, broccoli, cauliflower, romaine lettuce, corn, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, onion, strawberries, tomatillos, turnips, and maize.  We started a compost pit.  We learned we not only had banana and papaya trees but also lemon, avocado, peach, mango, pomegranate, and guava.  We also had aloe and lemongrass.  Our yard was filled with wonders.

3. Growing Fruit

Some of our trees bearing fruit

Then like most of Malawi, where 80% of the population is involved in small hold agriculture, we waited for the rains to arrive.  From late November our patience was rewarded.  With each rain the plants became greener and more lush.  New plants sprouted, pushed out of the ground, and quickly grew.  The fruit trees became heavy with ripening bounty.  The transformation was astonishing.

1. Before and After Yard

Our garden section transforms from October to February

Not everything was a success.  The broccoli, cauliflower, watermelons, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, and more did not grow.  The papayas and peaches were poor.  The pomegranate and guava immature, withered on their bushes.  Our sweet yellow corn matured quickly, soon we had a good 20 stalks with one to two ears, but once picked the flavor was bland, the produce tough.  I am not sure what went wrong.  Was it poor soil, bad seeds, inconsistent rains?  At times the rainy season burned hot and dry like October, and at other times torrential storms pummeled the earth.  Having never cultivated plants in my life, I could not say.

9. fruits of our labor

We were rich in tomatillos, avocado, and carrots

Yet some plants did remarkably well.  Our banana trees regularly ripen massive bunches of 100 plus fruits.  We keep about 20 ourselves and then divide the rest among the nanny, gardener, and guards.  The five small mango trees produced a good 25 delightfully sweet fruits – deep green on the outside with bright yellow flesh.  I had not before been a fan of mangoes and had given several away before finally trying one of our fresh ones right off the tree.  My feelings on mangoes may have changed forever.  The massive avocado tree produced so many fruit we could not keep up.  Even eating countless bowls of home made guacamole, tossing some into smoothies, and giving them away like hotcakes, many ended up in our compost or fertilizing the ground where they fell.  The lemon tree has done well, the green fruits still turning yellow.  The scent of fresh lemon is wonderful, but given my limited culinary skills (to put it mildly), I am at a loss with what to do with so many.  C wants to make home made lemonade and sell it — not realizing that we do not exactly have a market here.  When the nanny informed us our carrots were ready, C and I spent a fun afternoon pulling them up and rinsing them off — only to learn later from our rather surprised nanny, that she meant we should pull them up gradually.  Oops, rookie gardener mistake.  The tomatillos did amazingly well, much to the amusement of the nanny, gardener, and guards, who had never seen them before.  They were even more tickled to learn that I had little idea what to actually do with them once picked.  I have a large bag frozen just waiting for me to make salsa or home made chilaquiles some day.

4. high maize

C and the maize.  C is not quite 4 feet tall

But it was the maize that grew the most.  Maize is the number one staple crop of Malawi and is part of the every day diet of most Malawians.  During the growing season, nearly every available plot of land is turned into a field of maize.  You will see it along the roadsides.  This is not the sweet yellow corn favored by Americans, but rather a more bland, white version.  In Malawi it can be eaten boiled or grilled but is most often dried and ground up into flour to make nsima, a thick porridge.  Unbeknownst to me my gardener planted a 15 x 15 foot area of my garden with maize.  Not that he could keep it a secret for long as the shoots sprung up and up and up.   I was surprised how tall it did grow.  First three feet, then five, until some was at least eight feet high.  I had the space so I did not so much mind, and I felt some solidarity with Malawian farmers.  In a way, I too was a small hold maize farmer.  When the President of Malawi announced a state of emergency when a fall army worm outbreak devastated at least ten percent of the crop in affected areas, my nanny pointed out that the insect was attacking my crop as well.  When a massive rainstorm flattened about 80 percent of my plot, I realized how quickly nature can destroy a crop.

To round out our small farm experience we also acquired some chickens!  I never imagined I would own chickens; however, prior to our arrival in Malawi, the former occupants of our home offered to leave behind not only their playground but also their fowl.  I was unsure at first, but C was smitten with the idea, so I agreed.  Unfortunately for those chickens, there was a miscommunication with the former residents when they moved out, and although a neighbor was looking in on them, a few days passed and the guards decided they had been abandoned and made a quick meal of them.  We ended up being reassigned another house just days before arrival so we did not even have the left-behind-coop.  So, soon after arrival I commissioned a local carpenter to build us a coop and I placed an order for some layers (chickens that are best for egg laying vice broilers that are for meat.  Look at me, up on the chicken lingo!).  Just two weeks ago we took possession of our four point-of-lay chickens.  I had no idea how much I would like having chickens.  They are actually quite soft and they like to be pet.  One runs up to me when I open the gate and arches her back for a scratch between her wings.  We look forward to visiting them each day.  C named them Carmen, Car, Lou, and Leash.

chickens

Our coop and the chickens proudly show off their first egg

We have also had encounters with lizards and frogs, with a two foot long blind worm snake (we both touched it), and even an African pygmy hedgehog that waddled up to me and let both C and I touch her quills.

I look forward to spending more time in our yard – to getting more seeds and trying again with the garden, with I hope more success.  Our yard has offered us so much more than I could ever have expected.

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Malawi: Settling In…At Last

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Home Sweet Home

We have been in Malawi for six months!  Long before coming here, I knew this first six months would be crucial and it would not be easy.  I knew reaching this milestone would be very important for both myself and my daughter — to finally put 2017, the year of two intercontinental moves, three countries on three continents, two jobs plus training, two schools, two nannies, one childcare center, and so much more behind us.  So often colleagues told me (warned me?) that it would take at least six months to be comfortable in the new job and country.  In my previous government assignments in Jakarta, Ciudad Juarez, and Shanghai, it did not take me so long to acclimate; I felt comfortable within three months.  That did not happen here.  Not even close.

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99 boxes of stuff in the hall, 99 boxes of stuff… (actually only 91 boxes)

In the Foreign Service we seem to have an uncanny ability to forget how incredibly difficult it is to move each and every time, how difficult it is to arrive at a new place and wait weeks, if not months, before making the new house a home.  It is a defense mechanism.  If we remembered, perhaps we could not keep doing it.  We arrived in mid-August.  Amazingly, just 12 days later our Unaccompanied Baggage (UAB) arrived.  Even more incredible is my Household Effects (HHE) arrived from Shanghai, via a storage facility in Europe, in mid-September.  It was not until November that my supplemental HHE from the U.S. arrived after its epic journey from my apartment in Arlington, VA to the port at Baltimore, MD, then by boat to Beira, Mozambique, where it was loaded onto a truck and driven to Lilongwe.  Every day that passed C and I became more comfortable with our lives in Malawi, with the school, with work, with the grocery stores, with the ways to get around town.  The first time I drove to C’s school she guided me based on what she had seen out the school bus window.  The first time I figured out the other way to the supermarket was like winning the lottery.

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First room completed – C’s jungle bathroom

It was slow going.  New job.  New position.  New country.  New continent.  New colleagues.  New car.  New house.

In the Foreign Service, at the vast majority of posts, where you will live is mostly out of your hands.  We do fill out a housing survey to help direct the Housing Board in making their decision — but this is my fourth move with the government and every survey I have completed was fairly basic: your name, position, rank, family size, and maybe an area for few requests (near the school? shorter commute? pool or no?).  The Housing Board will do its best to assign you but are limited by when you arrive and what houses are available at that time.   At some posts, like Malawi, the pool of houses is tight, so there may only be one or two available when you roll into town and you are probably not the only person showing up then either.  And the houses available in each place is only as good as the local construction allows — in many countries/cultures built in closets may be non-existent or hall closets a luxury.  A bathtub might be really hard to get.  Or medicine cabinets or outlets in the bathroom.  Storage space may be plentiful or nowhere to be found.

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C’s play room

Building codes or shoddy construction practices or local preference may present you with some fairly interesting housing designs.  In Jakarta I had a room in the middle of my house.  Yes, right in the middle.  Four walls, no windows.  In Juarez there was no insulation in my bedroom floor, which sat right above the garage.  In the winter the floors were like walking on ice.  I had a patio but the cemented part of the patio was reached via a rock garden where scorpions lay hidden.  In Shanghai there were no hall closets to hang coats and all our bedroom closet doors were made of leather.  Yes, leather doors.  My cats liked those.  I did not so much like paying the $200 for damages and the inventive plastic cover I had custom made to protect them.

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My red and white (and horrid cabinet) kitchen

Our home in Malawi certainly has its quirks.  There are no outlets in the bathrooms.  So I plug my hair dryer in an outlet next to my bed where if I stretch out the cord I can check myself from a distance in the bathroom mirror.  The kitchen cabinets appear not to have been updated since the house was built, probably in the 70s, the off-white paint with wooden trim makes me think of wood paneled station wagons of the time period.  I hate them.  And they either do not close or they close so well I have to use all my strength to yank them open.  There is no hall closet anywhere near the front door though there is a nice built in wooden cabinet where I can store shoes and other random items — though when you look inside it seems about half of the back of the cabinet has been eaten away.  Luckily, I expect no one will ever look inside but me.  There is an odd bench-thing that divides my living room from the dining room.  I puzzle over its purpose and how I feel about it.  For C’s birthday party I used it to place some food and drinks but with kids it just seemed like I was asking for an accident.  Usually C uses it as a play platform — it can be the savanna in the Lion Guard or the forest for princesses or a surface to launch off cars.  We have a non-functioning fire place in the living room as well.  And our corrugated roofs… during hard rain the sound is so deafening we cannot hear each other speak and when the large ubiquitous black and white pied crows scamper around on top they sound like pterodactyls.

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C’s Moana inspired bedroom

Our bedrooms are small-ish and boxy.  And there is little wall space to hang pictures or artwork.  One side is all closet and a built in desk with mirror, one side is all window, and one side has to fit the bed with large frame to hang the mosquito net.  It is the same configuration in all three bedrooms.  I lose the fourth wall in the master bedroom to the dresser, the built in mirror, the door to the bathroom, and the door to the room.  There is only one small space to hang anything.  I know, why should I complain?  I have a built in desk and mirror.  I have LOADS of closet space.  And I have three bedrooms for two people.  I am honestly not complaining — just giving the facts, ma’am.

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The dining room.  Same old, same old furniture.  Zambia wall hanging, chair covers (because the cats like the chair backs too much) and my knickknacks in the China cabinet make it mine

As is usual for Foreign Service homes we have bars on all our windows.  We have bug netting attached to all our windows, which I assume is par the course for mosquito prone countries.   And like most homes in the Foreign Service we have the same old tried and true, and much maligned Drexel Heritage furniture.  Although I did not have this furniture in Shanghai (as we had furniture provided by the apartment complex), I have had this same furniture in Jakarta, Juarez, and now Malawi.  In one way it is comforting to know exactly what the dressers, dining room tables, side tables, china cabinets, sideboards, desks, chairs, sofas and more will look like.  Although I have little to no idea how my house might really look until I arrive, the furniture is not a mystery.  I plan decor around the furniture.

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Exhibit A

However, it can be really hard for friends and family to understand this lifestyle.  I have never picked out my own home.  Although some people paint, I have never done so and just use my wall art to change things up (you have to paint it back white before you leave).  With the exception of a few accent pieces, I do not bring or choose my furniture.   Sometimes we might be able to give some pieces back or exchange, but at some posts you cannot.  See exhibit A: the “between room.”  Another quirk of this house is this random room.  It is located between the living room and the room I have designated as C’s play room.  It has only two walls; it has no doors.  It has two cute, but strangely located windows.  It had the same boring but functional beige curtains found all over our house, in every single government provided housing I have had (again with that Shanghai exception).  It has an odd cut out in one wall and a built in shelf in the stucco of one of the walls.  It has plastic wiring covers snaking across the walls and a few oddly placed spot lights.  It’s weird.  I know.  But it is the house I have to live in for a few years and I must make the most of it.  But the picture I posted on my Facebook drew the ire of friends and family.  It is ugly!  Get rid of ALL that furniture!  Get a rug!  Throw away the curtains! The lamps and spotlights are dumb — get rid of those too!  People did not understand that A. I had changed out that sofa.  Initially it had been brown.  The same exact not-so-fetching brown as the sofas in the living room.  I thought this mustard an improvement.  In fact, knowing what was available in the warehouse, I had requested it!  and B. the photo represented my completed attempt at decoration and not a plea for help and design tips.

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Our living room with its unusual divider

But, here we are at last.  Six months, one quarter of the way, into my two year tour in Malawi.  Just now we are beginning to feel settled — in no small part because we have finally made our quirky, randomly assigned house into our home.  There is much to love about it.  From the wonderful enclosed but open air porch or konde where in the morning I sit quietly meditating and hear the sweet chirps and tweets and caws of no less than ten types of bird song and where I have had many a satisfying afternoon nap in my hammock.  To our high ceilings, pitched in the living room.  My daughter loves her Moana-inspired bedroom and does not care about the curtains or the carpet or the lack of wall space.  She and her friends love the play room (and let’s be honest the living room too — do not let that photo fool you, normally it is covered with toys).  No one else has to love it, just C and I.  And we know we are lucky to call this house and Malawi our home.

 

The Holidays in Lilongwe

1. Holidays

I do not always carve watermelons for Halloween, but when I do, my carving is awesome

I grew up in the US and had the usual holidays.  My mother used to sew our Halloween costumes.  She asked my sisters and I what we wanted to be several months before and then made it.  We trick or treating door to door in our neighborhood.  When I was younger, my aunt, and grandparents would come to our home for Thanksgiving dinner.  Once we realized we were not huge turkey fans we switched to our favorite: chicken schnitzel.  My mother made her own advent calendar and we made cookies and made crafts leading up to Christmas.

But there is a strangeness to moving frequently that challenges holiday traditions.  One never knows what will be available from one country to the next and what local customs may or may not exist.  We have to get creative.  Also, in the Foreign Service most of us head to a new post over the summer, and as we are struggling to settle in to new schools, new jobs, new homes, new routines, the holidays of autumn arrive.  One after another.

Prior to arriving in Lilongwe, C and I had already decided on her costume for Halloween.  She would either be Wonder Woman or a genie / belly dancer; one was packed in our UAB (unaccompanied baggage), arriving not long we we did, the other was ordered in August to arrive many weeks before the big day.  About a week before the holiday, the Embassy hosted a family-friendly snacks and happy hour with BYOP (Bring Your Own Pumpkin) for carving.  As the day approached I wracked my brain for where I might buy a pumpkin.  I vaguely recalled having seen something pumpkin-like at a supermarket.  But which one, I did not remember.  And, thinking back, the pumpkins had been white or green, but definitely not orange.  I asked around.  People were not sure.  An orange pumpkin seemed a tall order.  On the other hand, watermelons were in season and sold at regular spots alongside the road… Our first Halloween in Malawi also turned out to be my first time ever watermelon carving.  It turned out almost every had the same idea.  It also turned out that carving a watermelon is a little easier than carving a pumpkin, and the insides are more immediately consumable.

2. Holidays (1)

My “very confused holiday” trunk or treating decoration representing Halloween, Easter, Christmas, Birthdays, and Valentine’s.

The Embassy also arranged a little “trunk or treating” and party for the community.  I have now learned that other posts do this, but it was my first experience with it.  In Juarez there was trick or treating at the Consulate and in Shanghai residents of our apartment complex signed up with apartment management to give out candy.  In Malawi, we all live in free standing houses and although none of us live more than 15 minutes drive from another, we are somewhat spread out.  With trunk or treating, approximately 20 community members volunteered (me included!) to decorate the trunks of their vehicles.  The cost of admission for each trick or treater was a bag of candy.  Then bags of candy were distributed to each trunk decorator so there was plenty to go around.  Trunk decorators parked at the party location and kids trick or treated from trunk to trunk.  There was PLENTY of candy to go around, especially as kids could visit every vehicle in twenty minutes or less and then circle back around and do it all over again.  I had a few visitors come by about ten times!

Halloween in Malawi this year had an extra wrinkle.  Starting in September, rumors of supernatural “bloodsuckers” began in the southern part of the country.  Over the course of approximately two months, the rumors spread, accompanied by vigilante justice to capture, and even kill, those suspected of either being bloodsuckers or their associates.  While this may seem rather unbelievable–the rumors and the violent response–it was all too real and had a sobering effect on our work and celebrations.  The international school cancelled the costume dress up day; the Embassy cancelled an evening party; and I kept my scarier decorations in a box at home and came up with something else.

3. Holidays

Not my usual Thanksgiving tableau

For Thanksgiving C and I stayed in town.  There is just the two of us and I am not really much of a cook.  Certainly not Thanksgiving dinner kind of cooking.  You know, a meal that involves more than two dishes.  The Embassy Community Liaison Officer organized a event at a nearby lodge with a restaurant set by a pool and among gardens.  There, in 80 degree weather, approximately 20 of us met up for swimming and lounging poolside and a custom-made dinner.  The hotel staff did a pretty good job re-creating a traditional meal complete with turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, and corn on the cob.  The corn unfortunately was too tough / too raw to eat, but everything else was quite good.

Then of course the Christmas season followed.  Unlike other places I have lived overseas, Malawi went full on Christmas-mode.  In late October I headed to the Shoprite supermarket at Gateway Mall for some grocery shopping.  There the entrance was decorated in all its holiday splendor – a Christmas tree, gigantic tinsel arches, large dangling ornaments, and even a huge silver bow.  Inside there were two aisles of plastic trees, tinsel, lights, tree topping stars, Santa and elf costumes, and loads of wrapping paper.  Wrapping gifts would be no problem. Getting them is a little bit more work.  In late October the Embassy mail room notified the Embassy community that in order to ensure delivery for Christmas orders would need to be received at the mail facility in Virginia by November 10!   Impromptu gift shopping can be tricky for many of us overseas. Not even a chance to use Black Friday deals for Christmas gifts.

4. Holidays

Gingerbread house in the subtropics

C and I headed back to the US in early December; I had training. The stores there too were chock full of Christmas.  As usual the back corner of Target was as if Santa’s workshop had exploded.  C wanted ALL the Christmas decorations.  In particular, she wanted a three foot tall light-up lawn unicorn.   I tried to explain that it would not fit in the suitcase.  And that the plug and voltage would not work in Malawi.  And finally, that in America people decorate their lawns for other people to see, but we had a high wall all the way around our house.  C said that without that unicorn it would be the WORST Christmas EVER! But she also desperately wanted a gingerbread house, so I bought one.  I put it in the suitcase, snug so that it would not get crushed, and transported it the two flights and 17 hours back to Lilongwe.  Not a piece broken. C said it would be the BEST Christmas EVER!

We missed the Embassy Christmas parties, but returned in time for our own Christmas celebrations. We made the gingerbread house.  We put up our tree and decorated it–C had insisted I trade in the small tree I bought in Shanghai for a larger one, so I had purchased a five foot fake in the US and brought in my household goods shipment.  I hung up our stockings, with two new stocking holders just bought at Target — great for those who have no idea if they will have a fireplace or anything resembling one as they regularly shift around the world.  And I began the my tradition of the weeks of gifts for C.  We also prepared gift baskets for the staff.  I know, I still feel weird saying–and writing–that I have staff.  But it is a reality for many in the Foreign Service and there is no reason to pretend otherwise.  I had initially not been sure what to include thinking I might get something special while back in the States.  But I learned that what most people want are the staples – rice, sugar, salt, cooking oil, biscuits for tea – because Christmas in Malawi is about food and family.  I really enjoyed buying the baskets and the contents and assembling them, though giving was most definitely the best part.  Because I spend so much time overseas and even when back in the US my family has opted for the past several Christmases to do a gift exchange, it had been a long time since I had given gifts to so many people.

5. Holidays

The Christmas baskets

Then we headed to Majete for Christmas.  New Year’s was a quiet affair for us.  We headed out again to Gateway Mall – the closest thing to come to a US-style mall in Lilongwe.  C rode a motorized animal and we goofed off in the equivalent of the dollar store.  At home we had ice cream and watched The Goonies.  C, snuggled up against me on the couch, dozed off long before midnight — probably a good thing because when 2018 rolled around it sounded as if the neighborhood was under attack.  I hugged her tight.  Our holidays here, and our first five months, were different, but pretty okay.

I Hope They Have Cheese

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

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

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The Olé fruit section is a thing of beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Visitors to Shanghai- At Last!

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Shanghai shows off for my visitors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we took our show on the road.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

A Stroll down the Street of Eternal Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10

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

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

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

12

C hides in the stroller outside the flower shop

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