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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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A Krabi Chinese New Year

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

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

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

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

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

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The magical and wonderful Kids Club

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

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

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

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

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C on the beach during our ride

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

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

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C helps this elephant take a bath

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.

 

Two Weekends on the Outskirts of Shanghai

August is hot in Shanghai.  And like most places I have been there seem to be no holidays the whole long, hot month.

Shanghai municipality mapThis August is expected to be busier than last because of the G-20 Summit being held in Hangzhou, just an hour outside of Shanghai and within the Shanghai Consulate region.  Though the G-20 leaders meeting will be held in early September, advance teams and preparation begins weeks beforehand and a large number of staff from the Shanghai Consulate have key roles.  As a single mom of a young child I opted not to put my name forward to TDY (be sent temporary duty) to Hangzhou for potentially weeks, and instead volunteered to take on additional roles in Shanghai.  Before the madness would begin I wanted to spend two long weekends away with my daughter.  As I did not want to travel far I opted for two staycations, of sorts.  We would stay at hotels within Shanghai municipality (though outside the city proper) for some quality mom and daughter time, where I could also tick a few things off my Shanghai bucket list.  Thanks to a G-20 clean up campaign, we experienced days with some of the lowest AQI (air quality index) since we arrived, with the most startling blue skies I have ever seen in Shanghai.

Weekend One: Sheshan

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The Sofitel Sheshan swimming pool – C liked the hotel so much she asked if we could move there for 5 years

After lunch on Friday, August 12 we departed for Sheshan via metro.  C was not all that happy as she has a generally low opinion of traveling on the Shanghai subway.  Her preference is for taxis.  But with an hour ride ahead of us from Jing’An Station to Sheshan Station (with one change of lines), the 5 RMB metro fare (C rides free as all children under 1.4 meters tall do) was more attractive than the 150+ RMB taxi fare.  I thought it might take awhile too to find a taxi driver willing to make the one hour journey.  So it was worth it to me to drag C, the stroller, my bag, and our suitcase (full of enough toys and books for at least a week) the three blocks to the nearest subway station and through the transfer.  Thankfully an hour later I still had not regretted it.

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View of Sheshan with the basilica and observatory clear against the startling blue sky

We booked at the Sofitel Hotel Sheshan Oriental.  The plan was to arrive around 2 pm, check-in, and then head out to one of the nearby sights.  I should know by now that traveling with C never means we “just” check-in and we head out “immediately.”  It is almost laughable how much I persist in this fantasy.  C is a true traveler and hotel connoisseur; she likes to check-in and then check out the hotel.  We were wooed by our large corner suite room, the make-your-own-ice-cream-bar bar in the lobby (50 RMB but the front desk clerk gave me coupons for two free ones just because I asked about the ice cream stand), and the two swimming pools – one for kids and one for families.  In the evening after dinner, we went for a walk around the extensive grounds, stopping also at the two kids rooms — one an arcade of sorts and the other with ball pit and slides.

For day two I was determined to get some bucket list sightseeing done, so we were off to Sheshan – or She Hill (pronounced like “shuh”), which is the highest point in Shanghai.  How high seems to be the subject of much debate as I found 97, 99, and 100 meters online, but since most of Shanghai is quite flat, this hill stands out regardless how high it may be.

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C gets cheeky before we begin our climb

The hill is located in the Sheshan National Forest Park.  I find Shanghai to be a fairly leafy city; even in the heart of the concrete jungle of downtown, there are trees on every street and given my view from my 19th floor apartment, many high rises with rooftop gardens.  Still I was unprepared for the amount of greenery I found at Sheshan.  Entrance to the park is free, one only has to bring some energy to climb.  Ninety-seven to 100 meters may not sound like much, but if you are braving it with a 4 year old and a stroller (that you have to carry half the time and push up inclines the other half) in 95 degree weather with 80% humidity, then it does feel like the mountain the Shanghaiese sometimes jokingly call it.

I chose the wooden walkway vice the “difficult path” on the map located near the pagoda at the top of a steep flight of stairs from the parking area.  The boardwalk-like pathway was very nice.  Thick bamboo forest could be seen on one side of the hill.   I had a hard time believing we were still in Shanghai.  After some time – I lost track – we arrived at another rest area from where we could choose to visit the observatory or the basilica.  I could tell you we made it to the top without complaints, but I would be lying.  It was hot and C may have said a few times that she did not want to walk, did not want to see “Snake Hill” (“she” can mean snake, but it is not the character used for Sheshan), and that the whole thing was “boring.” A second Chinese popsicle might have helped us to get up the extra bit.

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The view from Sheshan including the hill with pagoda and the conservatory at Chenshan Botanical Garden

At the top we visited the small but interesting Shanghai Astronomical Museum and the pretty Sheshan basilica. The original observatory was built in 1900 by French missionaries and was one of the first modern observatories in China.  The basilica is purportedly “the largest cathedral in the Far East,” and a church has been on the site since 1863.  C seemed to rally for both the sites but I did reward her for her cooperation with a delicious lunch and more pool time once back at the hotel.

On the last morning I again had a plan – to arrive at the Chenshan Botanical Garden at 9 am, right when it opened.  We made it by 10. The gardens, at 207 hectares or 511 acres or 2 million square meters (whichever measurement makes the most sense to you), is one of the largest botanical gardens in the world and Shanghai’s largest green space.  Thank goodness I had a stroller and I sprang for the 10 RMB sightseeing bus.  We stopped first at the Children’s Garden, which of course is more a giant playground than a garden.  But it being the first weekend in August, at 10-something in the morning, it was already well over 80 degrees and climbing.  The playground had almost zero cover.  C played for about 10 minutes as I slowly melted into a puddle.  I found a double chair swing in the shade but I was antsy to get moving.  I spotted what appeared to be swans and used them to distract C, and we were off.

We visited the tree house island, where the water fowl were hanging out, and then headed over to the rose garden via the topiary garden and a long way around the western edge of West Lake.  The roses were naturally pretty and the perfume from the flowers extremely fragrant, but with no cover, the flowers and me were wilting.  C seemed happy enough though so we pressed on.  But as we walked (and C rode) I could feel my enthusiasm for the gardens diminishing.  It was too hot.  I planned on one last stop – the quarry garden (listed on the brochure as a “recommended attraction” during the summer months) – and then a ride on the shuttle bus back to the visitor’s center.  But once inside the abandoned quarry, now a large artificial lake with a floating walkway, complete with dual waterfalls cascading down from the top of Chenshan hill, I found my second wind.  The floating bridge led to a tunnel through the rock leading us from the Quarry Garden to the Rock Garden.  We walked on, until we found ourselves at the conservatory, a 12000 square meter greenhouse, the largest in Asia.

After about 45 minutes in the greenhouses we were on the shuttle back to the Visitor’s Center.  We had survived three hours in the gardens, but now I was feeling concerned about getting back to the hotel and home.  The hotel had arranged an Uber driver for us to the garden, but at drop off it was clear this was not a location where taxis frequented.  It seemed we might have to wait for the bus that would take us to the Sheshan metro station from where we could catch a taxi back to the hotel to collect our belongings and then head home.  But as we crossed the vast parking and entrance area I spotted a taxi across the road, idling.  I began to sprint, pushing the stroller with an energy I was sure I had sweated away hours before.  We secured the taxi, one of the nice new caravan taxis with fully functioning A/C and no stench of stale cigarette smoke, back to the hotel.  Along the way, C fell asleep, hard.  I asked the driver if he was up to driving us all the way back to our home downtown with just a quick stop at the hotel to grab out bags.  He agreed much to my relief.

Weekend Two: Chongming Island

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The bridge linking Shanghai with Chongming island

Depending on whether or not you count Taiwan, Chongming is either the second or third largest island of China.  It is 1,267 square kilometers (489 square miles) with a population around 700,000 people.  Given that Shanghai total, the municipality including Chongming, has a population of 24 million, that means that the island makes up about a seventh of the total land area but has only 3% of the population.  High rises are few – though there appears to be a building boom on the island – and for now nature is the primary thing to see.

I had read about the Hyatt Regency Chongming in a Shanghai family magazine aimed at expats.  The island and the hotel sounded so nice I quickly added it to my bucket list and determined it would be my destination for my second weekend staycation.

The concierge at the Portman Ritz Carlton, part of our apartment complex, arranged an Uber for us to the hotel.  Even with an Uber it cost us 220 RMB for the hour plus ride including tolls.  Once we hit the tunnel to Changxing Island (in-between Shanghai proper and Chongming) it already felt like we were very far from the city.

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A room fit for my princess

I knew better this time than to make some big plans after our arrival.  There is less to do on the island than in Sheshan and this weekend was going to be more about relaxing.  Once again I shelled out the extra dough for an upgraded room that would include breakfast, a better room, and club access including “happy hour,” where we could fill up on a full dinner meal.  Still there was a bit of a mix-up with the room, but the helpful hotel staff arranged for us to have a further upgrade for one night to one of the kids’ character rooms.  C chose a Frozen-inspired room (though she was also quite taken with the Captain America room too).  The rest of the day was devoted to walking (ok, running) through the hotel’s sunlight wooden corridors and the extensive grounds, rocking in the comfy swing on our balcony listening to bird song, saying hello to dogs (it is a very dog friendly hotel, with specially designed rooms with enclosed patios for those who bring their furry companions), and swimming at the pool.

The next day my bubble was burst.  My plan was to rent one of the “mommy and me” bicycles available at the hotel for a nice bike ride to the Dongtan Nature Reserve.  When I explained my plan to the woman at the rental counter her draw dropped.  “But,” she stammered, “it is really hot right now.”  She had a point.  It was hot as blazes outside, again forecast to climb into the mid-90s.  But hey, I am fit and I wanted to ride the bicycle.  “But,” she explains patiently, as if talking to a child, “the reserve is very far away.”  The magazine I had read indicated the reserve was a “short trip from the hotel.”  She told me that it was not, it was actually about 20 minutes away by car.  She told me if I took a regular bicycle it would take me at least an hour, but with the mommy and me bicycle, it would take me about three because is is really sloooooooooow.  Yeah, three hours one way on a weird bicycle in 90 degree heat did sound like a terrible idea.  Scratch that.

Meanwhile C had already decided she wanted nothing to do with a bicycle that had her just sitting the whole time.  She had her eye on the children’s bikes with “stabilizers” (she watches a lot of Peppa Pig so does not even know the American term “training wheels”).  I asked instead about Dongping National Forest Park, also claimed to be “close to the hotel” in my trusty magazine.  The huge park is perfect for long walks and also apparently includes an area with horse rides, bumper carts, and other carnival type rides.  The helpful concierge could barely keep from snorting her incredulity at the proximity I believed the park to be.  She informed me it is AN HOUR taxi ride from the hotel.  We might as well head back to Shanghai.

So C got to ride a bicycle for the very first time for nearly two hours in the sweltering heat.  She was so happy I don’t think she noticed it was warm.   (When we returned the bike though, a bellman gave me props for our long time outdoors because he told me he could barely stand 5 minutes outside. C and I are dedicated to “relaxing” at all costs.)

I was determined to see some of the natural sites on Chongming – or any site at all other than the hotel.  After lunch and the heat of midday I again asked the concierge about a trip to Dongtan Nature Reserve, this time booking a taxi to pick us up.  Because there is no dedicated taxi stand at the hotel (it isn’t near anything other than a new retirement apartment complex on the one side and a new Tuscan-style housing complex on the other), she had to call a taxi to come from Chenjia town about 10km away.  And the meter starts from the taxi leaving the town, not picking us up.  So our 20 minute ride to the Dongtan parking lot cost 80 RMB, about four times more than a similar ride would cost in Shanghai.

The nearly empty gravel parking lot at Dongtan and small ticket shack did not give me much confidence that this had been a good idea.  At 2:30 in the afternoon it was still sweltering.  Again, there was no cover to be seen and I had decided to not bring the stroller, probably a poor decision on my part.  I shelled out an additional 10 RMB for the golf cart shuttle to take us from the parking lot to the furthest stop.  At 60,000 acres, the wetland reserve, is no small feat to get around.  Even had we brought the stroller there was simply no way for us to really get around to all the areas.  Bicycles are for rent, but there are no “mommy and me” ones here.  So I limited us to two areas – the far wetland marsh area where one can walk through the tall marsh grasses on a boardwalk and the area around the visitor’s center.

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This cannot possibly be Shanghai anymore – boardwalk through the wetlands at Dongtan

Though the reserve is a migratory location for some 1 million birds representing nearly 300 species, we heard only a few and saw even less.  Given it was 3 to 4 PM and around 1000 degrees outside, I think the birds had the right idea to lay low somewhere.  Yet the sheer size of the reserve, its layout, its mission, and the incredible scenery under those G-20 blue skies, made sweating away a few pounds of water while occasionally carrying a disgruntled 4-year-old worth the effort.

The following day, having decided that Dongping Forest was not worth the two hour round trip for a 50 RMB 5 minute pony ride (which I was sure what we would end up doing), was just for lazing around the room, swinging on the balcony, and snuggling with C.  I had planned to leave the hotel right after check out at noon, but I am glad I asked the concierge yet again about getting back to Shanghai.  Turns out it is no simple matter if you do not have a car.  Chongming taxis are local and only licensed for the island.  Therefore in order to return to Shanghai, the concierge would have to call a Shanghai taxi to pick us up, for which we would incur a steep fee and at least a 90 minute wait.  My other option was to hire a local taxi to come from Chenjia town to take us to the island bus station.  We would have to wait 30 minutes for that taxi and pay at least 80 RMB.  Then we would take a bus from the island to the Science and Technology Museum metro station in Pudong, then ride the metro seven stops to West Nanjing road, and then walk several blocks home.  Weighing my two options I decided the latter offered the greatest amount of adventure.

As luck would have it, I struck up a conversation with a couple traveling with their 18 month old son whom I had helped direct to the swimming pool the night before.  While I was in line for check-out, psyching myself up for our taxi-bus-subway-walk journey, the wife approached me and said they would be happy to drive us home.  It turned out the couple, both fluent in English and German, having studied in Germany and worked for German companies in Shanghai, live only a 10 minute walk from our own apartment.  They saved C and I from myself and my sense of “adventure” and we had a lovely trip home.

Shanghai Disneyland Trials

I have seen colleagues around the world be involved in some rather substantial events.  From important election monitoring to Presidential or other high level visits, from attending major sporting or art events to standing in the room during key speeches of global significance.

At long last I am at post when something of major historical significance occurs: the opening of the world’s sixth Disney park!

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We got the “golden” tickets

And not only am I here for the opening but I was able to be one of the few to experience the park before the official opening day on June 16, 2016.  Okay “few” might be stretching the truth.  The park opened in early May for a six week trial period.  Though closed Mondays and Thursdays, each day the park welcomed somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people to experience the park to allow cast members and crew to practice and rehearse.  So, that would mean approximately 600,000 people would visit the park even before opening day.  By May 20 Fortune reported that one million Chinese had already made their way to Disney Town, the ticket-free Disney restaurant and shopping mecca next to the park.   But still, for my daughter and I to be two of the lucky ones felt pretty darn awesome.

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The shortest Main Street (called Mickey Avenue) and the largest castle

C and I visited the park not just once, but twice!  Once we went as part of a group of tickets purchased through a special release to the US Consulate.  We had a second chance for a visit because C has friends and those friends have parents who work for Disney.

I am not a Disney expert.  I know some Disney experts and they could really provide you with a detailed treatise on the similarities and differences between the Disney parks.  I have been making a valiant effort to become more of a Disney authority—Shanghai Disneyland is our fourth park in the past year.  We have been to Disney in Orlando, Anaheim, Hong Kong, and now Shanghai—but I still have a long way to go.  I can only tell you my impressions, share only what we experienced. And this was during the trial period so hard to say if it will remain the same when the park opens.

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I have no personal experience with the TRON coaster, but it looks cool.

There are familiar rides at Shanghai Disneyland such as a carousel, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and Stitch Encounter.   There are also brand new to Shanghai rides such as the TRON Lightcycle Power Run and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.  I have heard the last two are pretty spectacular but I can tell you absolutely nothing about them.  I have never even been on the Mine Train.  I am a single mom of a four year old girl.  We ride a lot of Dumbo and Pooh.  We meet a lot of Princesses.   And that is totally okay.  That is one of the great things about Disney. We can enjoy it now when my daughter is 4 and we can enjoy it again as she grows older.

We loved the Fantasia inspired carousel.  The Hunny Pot Spin, the Shanghai version of the Mad Tea Party spinning cups, was also a huge hit.  I enjoyed the Voyage to the Crystal Grotto boat ride, mostly because it is probably the longest lasting ride and if you have a sleepy or sleeping child it can provide the most break time for the parent.  I expect C would have enjoyed the displays from Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Mulan and more but I certainly was not going to wake her.  After holding a snoozing C for 20 minutes in line I was grateful for the ten minutes or so I actually got to sit down.  C loved Shipwreck Shore in the Treasure Cove area.  It is an interactive pirate boat activity area with water guns, ropes that lift pirate treasure or a shark from the water, and barrels that shoot water out on unsuspecting guests.  It was really the only thing for a single mom and a four year old to do in Treasure Cove.  We also had fun on the Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue.  It is a fun ride that allows two passengers to each shoot his or her own laser gun and rack up points video game style.    Well, to be honest C spent the first minute or so hiding under the dash of our rocket ship so although she came around she could never quite catch up to me and lost something like 240,000 points to 3,200.  Still I told her I could never have defeated Zurg without her.  Then she wanted to ride again.  (I said no because the line was a slow moving 50 minutes at least)

I also really liked both the parade and the Golden Fairytale Fanfare, which is a musical show in front of the Enchanted Storybook Castle featuring Snow White, Anna and Elsa, Aladdin and Jasmine, Ariel, and Merida.  The downsides were that like any Disney parade route you need to get in place early, so I could only see what I could make out over the heads of the five people deep Chinese crowd (though C got a seat on the ground in front with other kids) and for the Fanfare the “host” speaks all in Chinese and it is standing room only. Although there are 5 or 6 rows they are flat rather than rising.  So if you are in the back rows you have no height advantage facing the stage over those in the first rows.  We stood in the very front of the second row and still had a limited view.  (I put C on my shoulders though so she could see unobstructed) I also really liked the Alice in Wonderland Maze.  The “Once Upon a Time” Adventure in the castle though felt like a waste of time. Character meetings with Baymax, Stitch, Rapunzel and Belle made up for that though.  You can even meet Captain America, Spiderman, and Darth Vader in this park.

If you think about it, this is the only park in the world where the majority of international visitors will require a visa to visit.  Of course international visitors will still come.  And of course there are a lot of foreigners who live in China who will come.  But the majority of visitors to this Magic Kingdom will be citizens of the Middle Kingdom.    And the park has been designed with the locals in mind.

For example, probably 75% of the toilets in the park are the squatting kind.  You read that right.  And for the Chinese that is not a problem.  And look, I have been around Asia long enough that it is not a problem for me.  I would just prefer not to use a squatting toilet if I have the option.  I am getting a bit old to squat.  Seriously, my knees are just not as forgiving as they used to be.  Also my daughter is not a fan of the squatty potty as she once fell in.  That was not a fun day for me either.  So I sought out the western sitting commodes and unfortunately on more than one I found footprints.  Probably where children—at least I hope it was children—tried to stand on the seat.

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Picky Western eaters, you will not starve!

Then there is the food.  If you are a fan of Chinese food or the Chinese version of Western food, then this is the park for you!  Rice bowls, noodle bowls, steamed buns, dim sum, Mongolian beef, and grilled squid skewers are all available in the park.  If you want a Mickey shaped pizza that is most certainly not Chicago or New York style, topped with seafood and sweet soy sauce then you have come to the right place.  None of these float my boat.  If you want a gigantic bin of popcorn then be prepared for the super sweet kind.  It smells divine but if you like salty and buttered you are out of luck.  Western food is not out completely though.  You can find German style bratwurst, Australian-style meat pies, and gigantic turkey legs in the park.  The Stargazer Grill in Tomorrowland also serves up some nice hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken fingers, fries and salads.  In Disney Town you can find a Wolfgang Puck eatery, Starbucks, a California sushi joint, Thai food, BreadTalk, and Asia’s first Cheesecake Factory.

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This is joy!

There are a few downsides…

The FastPass system.  It kinda sucks.  When we went to Disneyworld in Orlando, each single day ticket included three FastPass selections that can be chosen as much as 30 days before arrival at the park. If you wanted to change the ride or the time, you just go online.   In other parks there are FastPass machines.  Shanghai Disneyland also has the machines but you must visit the Guest Services kiosk in the section of the park where your FastPass eligible ride is located.  The line to use the machines was in many circumstances as long as or longer than waiting in line for the attraction itself.  I much prefer the Disneyworld model.

Line Jumpers.  This was a disappointment.  Despite the “reminder for your enjoyment” on the brochure to “Line up together with your entire party, please respect other guests while queuing, and guests should not jump ahead of others in the queue” I saw people blatantly disregard this repeatedly.  At the security line, the ticket line, lines at the carousel, Dumbo, Buzz Lightyear, Storybook Court…just about anyplace there was a line I witnessed people trying to bypass it.  At the security line on our second visit a woman walked right up and then stood in front of me.  When I pointed this out, in Chinese, she turned to look at me, responding in English, with “I did not see you there.”  When I indicated this was pretty unlikely as she stepped right in front of my daughter’s stroller she shrugged and told me “This is China.  You are not going to be able to control us all.”  That does not bode well.

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Stitch in Chinese.  As annoying as you can imagine.

Language.  Although there are English and Chinese brochures the primary language is, naturally, Chinese.  You may have heard that Chinese is a difficult language.  i.e. You cannot sound out characters and figure out what they mean.  Not a chance.  Most shows and information for attractions are in Chinese.  Disney even created a Mandarin-only live production of the Lion King for the theater in Disney Town.  We went to see the Stitch Encounter.  I should have known that something was up when there was only a 10 minute wait.  In Hong Kong you can see shows in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English.  In Paris, it’s in English or French.   In Shanghai, It is all in Chinese.  (Though in their defense Tokyo has only Japanese).   My daughter loved it—I expect it is a combination of her understanding of Chinese and connecting with an annoying animated alien—but I learned to never get in line for that attraction again.  Ever.

And as usual in China, my daughter became an added attraction for local guests.  She entertained other people in line simply by also being in line.  She was photographed by far more than myself and the Disney photographer while chatting with princesses and other Disney characters.  It added another exhausting element to a day at the park.

I do not have many tips other than take the metro to the park.  It has its own stop on line 11 and reportedly even a few trains are decked out in Disney.  It’s an inexpensive and quick way to get there and back.  Just check the last train times because once its closed I hear the taxi drivers are unforgiving.  Oh, and also, if you are riding the metro do not buy any of those beautiful Disney balloons—no balloons are allowed on the Shanghai subway.  I found out the hard way leading to once very sad little girl.  But luckily I knew before we went to Disney.

So did we have fun?  We sure did.  This is the closest I may ever live to a Disney park.  Though given I am in the Foreign Service (Hong Kong, Paris and Tokyo could be possibilities) and I could choose to live in either Florida or California…  I expect to take C again once the park officially opens so we can also stay at least one night in the Toy Story hotel.  Even with the negatives it is still Disney and we are on the path to hardcore Disneydom.

 

The First R&R (Shanghai)

Ah, R&R. Good ole Rest and Recuperation.  Or Rest and Relaxation.  That time when the State Department pays for you and your family to get out of dodge, er post, on holiday.

The Foreign Affairs Handbook (3 FAH-1 H-3721.2) defines the need for R&R as Conditions of life at the post present distinct and significant difficulties of sufficient severity to justify temporary relief for an employee and employee’s eligible family members during a period of assignment.

That sounds pretty dull actually.  I searched and searched for something in the FAH that had a bit more pizzazz but to no avail.   Some might not think Shanghai is the kind of place that would justify temporary relief.  I will be the first to tell you that we have things pretty good here.  Our apartment and apartment complex is amazing.  The city is full of great things to see and do.  The supermarkets usually have a good selection of fresh produce and restaurants are plentiful.  However the poor air quality, the internet restrictions, the crowds, the language, the pace of work can get to a person.  I will tell you I feel a palpable sense of lightening when I am outside of China.

This was actually my first R&R with the State Department.  Yeah, that is right; Ciudad Juarez had no R&R because well, it was literally five miles from the US.  None of the Mexican border posts had R&R although interior Mexican posts did.  I will refrain from my personal opinion on this but suffice to say that some of my colleagues were not too pleased that the dusty desert border city with 15% danger pay was a no but culturally rich and exciting Mexico City was a yes.

I am just grateful to have an R&R, even if I have to work on the resting and recuperating.

Part One: Virginia

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Jet lag?  What’s that?

We landed at 5:40 am at Dulles International Airport.  My father loaned me one of his cars for the duration of our time in Virginia, so I drove him home (my parents live only ten minutes from the airport) and then to the hotel.  The hotel management was really awesome to let us check in at 7 am.   All the luggage into the room, a shower, and then we were off to our first activity.

 

My daughter loves horses.  I mean LOVES horses.  At 4 she is a bit young for horse riding lessons but there is a wonderful stable in Aldie, Virginia called Stonelea Farm that has a Hello Pony program for kids ages 2-5.  They get to groom a horse, ride it twice several times around an arena, feed the horse snacks and receive a horse shoe souvenir.   The program is only on Saturdays and we only had the one in Virginia…so fresh off a plane, jet lagged and all I took my little girl to see a horse.  Afterwards we headed to a restaurant to meet my parents, my aunt, and my sister, brother in law, niece and nephew for lunch.  We made it to 5pm before falling asleep.

On our second day we met a friend of mine who had recently relocated from New York to DC.  And we went to PetSmart because we like an entire store dedicated to animals where people bring their pets to shop.  And then we went to Target because I love that store with a special kind of love from deep within my core.  You never know what things mean to you until they are gone.  Target is my happy place when I come back to the US.

We spent the third day in historic Manassas, Virginia.  It being a Monday the museum was unfortunately closed and we did not have the time to visit the battlefield, but we did enjoy a stroll around the historic section.  After lunch we drove to the home of an A-100 colleague.  A-100 is the 6 week course that all new Foreign Service Officers take.  Your A-100 class is like a freshman dorm or hall – it is your identifying mark, your built in network.  Although this colleague has left the Service she still remains in touch and had offered my daughter an opportunity to meet her beautiful horse and I was finally taking advantage.

On Tuesday I went into “Main State,” the Department of State’s headquarters on C Street in Washington, DC.  Why pray tell did I use up a day of my vacation to do that?  Believe you me; the day before and morning of I too was wondering the same thing.  Later this year I will go through the mid-level bidding process for the first time.  “Bidding is a wonderful experience,” said no one ever.  From what I understand bidding appears to be a special long-drawn out form of torture we put Foreign Service Officers through again and again and again.  We may have a career but we need to make a huge effort to get each job.

Flags Flown At Half Staff At The State Department After Ambassador Killed In Libya

Not the usual R&R destination

With this in mind my mentor had suggested I consider taking part of my R&R in or around Washington and make my way through the halls of the Harry S Truman (HST) building to meet with people.   I embraced this idea wholeheartedly and managed to score four meetings with desk officers working in countries where I have a strong interest in serving (and which at this time are projected to have a vacancy in a political job at the time I transfer from Shanghai) and also a meeting with my mid-level Career Development Officer.  I had lunch with two friends who are currently desk officers.

Yet that morning I really was feeling resentful.  This was my vacation.  I wanted to be vacationing, not networking.  Once inside the building though I felt different.  First, I was immensely pleased that I managed to get from the front door to the cafeteria to buy a snack and to my first appointment on time.  I may have been lost for only 20 minutes.  For me, Main State is akin to the Winchester Mystery House.  I have actually not been to the haunted home in San Jose, California, but I read about it in a ghost book when in elementary school.  I was fascinated with the idea of a crazy house with stairs that lead to the ceiling, doors that open to nowhere, and secret passageways.  HST has corridors cut in half, stairways that lead to doors outside but will take you nowhere else in the building, and hallways that are labeled the same number but are not connected.  Second, I felt connected to the greater work of the State Department in a way I do not feel at post doing visas.  Visas are a big part of Consular Affairs but there is so much more going on.  It seems obvious but it felt like a revelation nonetheless.  My meetings went well; I have no idea if it will help in any way come bidding time, but I learned a lot.

Phase Two: Kentucky

IMG_2307Off we flew to Louisville.  I was there for a few reasons.  One, I had never been to Louisville, which is generally, in my opinion, a good enough reason to go somewhere.  Second, I was signed up to run the Derby Half Marathon.  Of course.   Few R&Rs are complete without running a long distance that one is not well-prepared for.  Third, my daughter would spend two days and two nights with her dad – the first time she would visit with him without me.

The first day was for my daughter and me to get out on the town.   It was just 10 days before the Derby so it felt essential to start our visit at the Kentucky Derby Museum at the famous Churchill Downs.  The museum has the right mix of the modern and historic, and exhibits for adults and children.  The admission price included a tour of the racecourse, and we were there at an early enough time in the morning to see several horses being put through their paces.  It is hard to say which my daughter loved more—the real horses on the track or the pretend Derby race in the museum.  I really hope someday to take her to see the real thing.

ANext we visited the Louisville Slugger Museum, which was a lot of fun.  C seemed a bit hesitant at first, until she saw the Captain America statue out front.  She was more impressed with that than the 120-foot tall baseball bat.  I really enjoyed the factory tour and C tolerated it enough to let me get through the whole thing without incident.

The following day we met her dad and his new wife for lunch and then the two of them drove off with C to the zoo.  (Just for clarification I was never the old wife.  Someday I might address our particular situation, or not.  But suffice to say we get along and he loves C).

What to do with myself though?  Now that I was on the town on a Friday night without my child?  With the half marathon the following day?  Well, the weather was predicted to be less than ideal, with the rain set to begin around 2 am.  And my training had not been particularly inspiring.  Once again, I just wanted to get out on the road and run.  So, I went to the Jim Beam Stillhouse.  Because bourbon was the best thing I could think of.

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This seemed the appropriate way to celebrate both before and after a half marathon in Kentucky.

The next day I was up early.  The rain had not started in the early am.  Even at 5 am the skies were cloudy but dry.  A little before 7 I walked over to the start line.  Just before the race was to start at 7:30 my heel began to hurt.  So, that was a great sign.  At the one mile mark my chest started to tighten and I began to wheeze.  It felt like the start of asthma.  It had stopped bothering me by the 3rd mile.  I stopped at a port-a-potty at mile 5 but the line didn’t move after five minutes so I just started running again.  Around mile 5.5 it began to rain, lightly but steadily.  At 6 I stopped to put on the one-time-use rain jacket I had bought at Target the day before.  (See?  Target.)  At mile 8 we entered Churchill Downs.  There are no spectators allowed inside, but I had heard on the TV that morning a reporter say she would be there and to stop at her tent, covered from the rain, to say hello.  So I did.  We chatted.  We did an interview.  I told her my goal was a personal worst and I looked to be on track.  The rain became harder.  I was getting tired.  But I kept going.  I’ll tell you it was not easy to clinch that slowest time.  Even with all those stops and the bourbon I barely beat my next slowest time.  I really had fun though.  What a great course  Good support throughout.  I celebrated with lunch at the Hard Rock and a visit to the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse for some more tastings on 4th Street Live.

The following day I took a drove to pick up my daughter.  Her face was glowing. She had had a really wonderful time.   She had so much to tell me.  Her favorite thing about her dad?  His wife!  Given how happy she made my kid she gets super high marks in my book too.

Part Three: Virginia, again

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A girl, a dog, and a cabin in the woods.  This is R&R.  This is America.

This time we landed around 4 pm.  The jet lag had nearly worn off anyway.  We drove out to Winchester, Virginia to stay with my aunt.  We spent two nights at her home there and one at her cabin at Stone Mountain, West Virginia.  I had visited the cabin with her before.  Heck, my sister got married there.  C had even been there before for a July 4th celebration.  But something about this time felt like it was where I was meant to be on R&R.  That perhaps this is where, if I were really after rest and recuperation, I should have spent the whole vacation.  There is no television.  Internet service is extremely weak, mostly non-existent. The cabin is a studio with a loft.  When it rains the pitter-patter on the corrugated roof is about the only sound you hear.  The activities?  Setting and up swinging in the hammock.  Sitting on the porch and looking out at the field.  A walk down to the river. Maybe a conversation with a neighbor that stops by to tell you of a rare orchid he finds in the woods.  Then a search through the woods for said orchid.   A hike up Stone Mountain.  More conversation.

We departed my aunt’s on Thursday late morning.  There was another day and a half left.  We spent some more time at Target, of course, another meal with a friend, a pizza and movie night at my sister’s house.  Then it was time to return to Shanghai.

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I made it to the top of Stone Mountain and the view is so worth it.

 

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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