The Paris Excursion

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It was a trip loooooong in the planning.  We had easily been talking about it for a year.  I bought my plane tickets and booked my hotels six months beforehand.  It was Springtime, even Easter time, in Paris after all.  There was no time to waste.  We both had visited Paris in the past and this was just about seeing each other and introducing the kiddos to the City of Lights.  Single parent friends with a 25 year old friendship.

As the departure date grew closer, I began to have a few misgivings.  The forecast indicated cooler and wetter weather than we had hoped for.  And work, it was busy.  Very busy.  I began to think this could possibly be the worst time I could have chosen for a holiday.  But it was C’s school holiday.  Also, our first longish vacation since arriving in Malawi.  And, as one person told me, “croissants still taste good in the cold and the rain.”

We departed on a Friday.  Ethiopian Airlines from Lilongwe to Addis Ababa via Malawi’s second city Blantyre.  A two hour layover in possibly one of the worst airports in the world (Bole International Airport seems to be in constant construction mode), then a seven hour flight to Paris, arriving at 6:30 AM.  Yes, AM.  We both had the sniffles and had developed a cough, but we were no worse for wear.  After a wee bit of difficulty finding our shuttle to our hotel, we checked in before 10.  CZ and Little C, who also visited us in Shanghai, were already in Paris, though at a different hotel.  CZ reserved her hotel with points and had been able to redeem at the swanky Westin.  Swank was too dear for me, so I booked around the corner at half the cost.

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View toward Montmartre from the Roue de Paris

We met up and hit a sidewalk cafe for brunch.  It was simple.  Avocado toast.  Fruit salad.  Hot cocoa.  It cost a pretty penny but there is nothing like it in Malawi.  We headed then to the Tuileries where C and Little C enjoyed the carousel and trampoline park.  Next, we rode the Roue de Paris, the Paris Ferris Wheel, located at Place de la Concorde.  This summer the wheel will be disabled so I wanted to ride it before it is gone.

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I just wanted a picture of my kid on the carousel, but that metal scaffolding in the background…

Not having tired out our 6 and nearly 4 year olds nearly enough, we hustled them on to the metro and headed over to the Eiffel Tower.  We had no plans to go up but both kids wanted to see it.  And the moment when they caught sight of it — fantastic!  They were so taken it with it took a little convincing to get them to move along to the beautiful double-decker carousel across the street.  Several rides and a snack later they were satisfied.

Next up we planned to take the one hour cruise on the River Seine with the Bateaux Parisiens.  We could all use a little time off our feet and give the kids a good view of many famous landmarks.  But here is where we ran into our first bit of trouble.  The boats were running, but due to heavy rainfall the Seine levels were too high to take the usual route.  We declined.  We headed back to our hotels.

Day 2.  Easter Sunday.  We had been lucky to score tickets to an egg hunt and Easter festivities at the Parc Andre Citroen.  We had a late start in the morning – CZ and Little C still had jet lag and C and I had overnight-flight-itis.  It was also on the cold side and quite overcast.  Yet the Easter event turned out to be quite a lot of fun, and all for 5 Euros.  The kids took part in a super easy egg hunt and then turned in their eggs for a fabulous gift bag.  They also were able to play a few free games and pick up some more toys and books.  Afterwards though the plan had been to ride the hot air balloon (actually a gigantic helium balloon) that is also located in the park; however, due to high winds it was not operating.  The kids were happy to play at the park’s many playgrounds but I felt a bit grumpy to miss out on something else from my Paris 2018 must-do list.  We had lunch and headed over to the Paris Aquarium.  At least that was on my list (because I have a passion for aquariums — I am serious).

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The children play in the shadow of Notre Dame

By the third day, the sniffles C and I had acquired during our flights had turned into full on colds with hacking-up-lungs strength coughs.  Instead of admiring the Moulin Rouge as we awaiting the mini train to the top of Montmartre, I headed to a pharmacy.  I came all the way to Paris to go to a pharmacy… Then as I drugged myself and C and we waited for the mini train, C and Little C played on a giant sewer grate with air flowing up.  One of our best 30 minutes in Paris.  I kid you not.

The train ride was fun.  The massive crowds of people at the top, less so.  We grabbed lunch in the square.  C tried chocolate mousse for the first time.  Declared it delicious.  No doubt about it, it was really, really good.  The architecture beautiful.  The artists’ works amazing.  I had been to Montmartre in 1989 and 2003; I love it.  Yet the low temps, light rain, pushing a stroller on cobblestone through swarms of people, and our colds were getting to us.  We decided to locate the Dali Museum — CZ had read that kids actually respond well to Dali’s whimsical and quirky works of art and it would be a chance to be indoors for awhile.  We found it, but wouldn’t you know it, closed for renovation!  And then C had had it.  She had no interests in taking the funicular, no interest in finding the carousel.  Something is definitely wrong when my kid does not want to ride a carousel!  CZ and Little C stayed at Montmartre and C and I made our way back to the hotel for a nap.

I expect right about now everyone is really, really jealous of our trip to Paris.  Flooding, high winds, chilly temperatures, a closed museum, and taking care of a sick kid while feeling under the weather yourself.  It certainly had all the hallmarks of a magical getaway.  Then we learned of the transportation strike to be held over the next two days.  #winning

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C as Princess Anna in front of the Disneyland Paris entrance

On our fourth day luckily I was not the only tired mommy.  CZ too was flagging.  With the strike we were not sure of our transport options and wanted to stay close by.  Lucky for us we were staying in the heart of Paris, so we walked through the Tuileries to pass the Louvre and then over to Notre Dame to show the kids the church and gargoyles.  They oohed and ahhed and then made haste for the playground.  Given the state of the few playgrounds in Malawi, this still made our trip to Paris worth it.  Although it felt the coldest day so far, the restaurant in the Latin Quarter warmed us all right up.  It was cosy, crowded, with good food, and the waiter messed up multiple things on our order.  C’est la vie.

No worries.  The following day we headed to one of the happiest places on Earth: Paris Disneyland.

First though we needed transport.  We had had the idea to take the RER train to the Paris Disneyland station.  Kids love trains.  CZ and I love trains.  But there was the transportation strike.  Although both of us were beginning to think walking 15 minute from the hotel to the train station with 2 little kids, their strollers, and our luggage might be too much.  (OK, I was still convinced we could do it though I was strongly sensing CZ thought me off my rocker on this point.) So we booked an Uber – and we rode to our Disneyland hotel in the comfort of a sleek Mercedes van.  And the sky was blue!  And the weather warm!  C’s cough was gone!  The magic of Disney?

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I watched the kids so CZ could ride Space Mountain

I would like to say our 5 days at Paris Disneyland were idyllic, but any parent of a child would see right through that.  Little kids passing the Rainforest Cafe gift shop, the World of Disney, and LEGO stores every single day, not to mention all the goodies in Disneyland itself, is not a recipe for contentment — well unless the parent buys many of said goods.  C managed to wrangle a whole Princess Anna costume, including cloak, out of me.  She wanted the boots too but I negotiated for 2 LEGO sets instead.  Yeah, I have never been very good at haggling, clearly.  We all just had a really good time.

It was with great sadness that our final day in France arrived and we had to say goodbye to our friends (and to Paris and all it has to offer, which is, no surprise, different from Malawi).  C and I had our final dinner in Paris in the airport — at McDonald’s.  Don’t judge.  There is no McDs in Malawi.  Then we boarded our overnight flight from Paris to Addis Ababa.  We settled into our seats, preparing to start snoozing as soon as possible.  We watched the safety video, the flight attendants prepared for push back…

Then someone in the back of the plane, about ten rows back, started yelling.  In the first few seconds I will admit my thoughts went to terrorism — when someone in the back of the plane suddenly starts yelling “Listen up people!” once we are all buckled in, it is probably natural to think so.  But as he continued his purpose became clear “Help me!  I am a refugee.  They are taking me back to my country and they will kill me.”  He repeated this over and over and over in loud yelps.  He was a handcuffed deportee being escorted by 2-3 armed French police.  What was amazing — still amazing — to me is that so many other passengers inserted themselves into the drama.  Passengers were verbally sparring with the police officers and the flight attendants.  I am fairly sure in the US this would guarantee these passengers an escort off the plane.  But in this case, it did not.  Over time, other passengers came from the front of the plane to also throw in their two cents.  There was definitely a camp for the deportee and a camp against.  And no respect for the police or flight attendants.  It took over an hour to resolve the issue — the removal of the deportee from the plane.

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CZ watched the kids so I could get my hot air balloon flight at the Disney Village

Our Addis to Lilongwe flight too had a late departure.  No reason given.  I fell asleep soon after boarding only to wake up two hours later and find we were still on the tarmac!  As soon as we landed I sent a message to my nanny/housekeeper/driver who had come to pick us up at the airport.  She said she was there though not feeling very well.  I tried to get C and I through immigration and baggage claim and customs as quick as possible.  TJ, our nanny, waited outside.  As we walked to the car, she collapsed in the parking lot.  Malaria.  There I am after traveling for 14 hours with C, a cart with 2 suitcases, a stroller, a backpack, still with my racking cough that doubles me over, attending to my disoriented and very ill nanny lying in the parking lot.  I do not know where my car is — TJ has the keys in her hand but can barely talk or lift her head.  But a bunch of good Samaritans help us out.  One man runs through the parking lot with me looking for my car — my nanny had been able to whisper my license plate to him.  We find it and I drive quickly to where my nanny and C wait.  I had left my 6 year old and my handbag with my wallet and passport sitting on the luggage cart.  Two men helped TJ into the back seat.  Another put my luggage in the trunk.  And yet another got C into her car seat.

My nanny went to the hospital for four days.  I was diagnosed with a lower respiratory infection and stayed home from work for two days.

So wow, yeah, that was certainly not the Paris getaway I had planned.  Never a dull day for sure.  CZ and I cannot wait to plan our next trip!

 

The 2nd Home Leave Part 2

For whatever reason I have found it difficult to write this blog post.  And yet I knew I had to write it for if there were a Part 1 there had to be at least a Part 2, or in this case if there is a beginning to the Home Leave there then needed, eventually, to be an end.  Perhaps it is because this second part of the trip felt so much longer than the first?  From Charleston, SC we continued on with our trip – traveling from SC to Orlando, Florida, on to Lexington, Kentucky,  then to Salamanca, New York, and returning to northern Virginia – all told some 2,500 miles by car.  Or maybe because all of these miles driven have provided me ample opportunity to think on so many, many topics ranging from career trajectory, life choices, the meaning of family, an appreciation for things in the US often taken for granted (such as our incredible highway system or our extensive candy selections)?  Or because we have wandered through so many states, and different climates, and interacted with so many people?

Following Charleston, SC I drove us south to Orlando, FL.  It was time for more mother-daughter time.  Although I had of course made sure to include C-friendly activities in Charleston (the aquarium, the children’s museum, the horse carriage ride), it was on the itinerary more for me than her.  So I booked six (yes SIX!) days at a very kid-centric Waterpark Resort hotel.  Our room included a small kid’s room with bunk beds, bean bag chair and even a TV where C could watch Disney Jr–and I could actually watch my very own shows and news in the other room.  Be still my heart.  As C watched the giant bucket fill with water spill over the massive water slide center she jumped up and down and hugged me.  I had done good.

Our days there were filled with sleeping in and staying up late, playing games in the arcade, frolicking in the pool, playing a round or two of miniature golf, and challenging one another to races to the bottom of water slides.  We only left the resort twice — once so I could attend a timeshare presentation (oh indeed, I got suckered in, again!) and then the second time to SeaWorld to use those free tickets I had earned fending off the timeshare professionals.  It rained once briefly but afterwards C breathed deeply and declared the air even fresher and more beautiful than before.  The joys of not having to check the Air Quality Index!  We even had wildlife encounters with C delighting in spotting the anhinga (waterfowl) and turtles and fish that made their home on the resort’s pond.  Together we found a baby orange ringneck snake near the pool and a raccoon crossed our path one night as we walked the resort grounds.

I did realize one glaring mistake – the lack of child care!  I was sure when I booked this family friendly place that it included parent-friendly child care.  It did not.  As a single parent it meant I was “on” all the time.  C swims well but is still too young to swim or hang out in an hotel arcade unattended.  I thought back to the glorious resort we had stayed at in Thailand where C was finally old enough to play at the Kids Club without me.  I had all that free time to myself.  I was envious of the dual parents who could split child minding time.

From the waterpark resort we drove just a few miles down the road to the Art of Animation Disney hotel for more Florida fun.  My long-time (nearly a quarter of a century) friend CZ and her son met us there for single mom and kid fun at Disney.  It was at times hectic.  Despite us being two adults with two children it still sometimes felt we were outnumbered.  And yet we were able to tag-team parent in ways we on our own are unable.  One could get lunch while the other watched the children.  One could take the kids on a kiddy ride while the other could sneak off to enjoy a ride where the height restrictions were over 48 inches tall.  During a very brief moment both children were wiped out asleep in strollers and we grabbed a drink together at a poolside bar – my one drink of the year.

After five days we said farewell to CZ and son and we turned back north.  After an incredibly long and frustrating drive we stopped in Suwanee, GA to stay the night with my friend SG, who had been one of my roommates in Singapore where we had both been graduate students over a decade before.  This was not initially on our itinerary but SG had reached out to see if we would be passing by and when I checked our route I found it worked.  I struggle to describe how extraordinary social media can be to maintain linkages with friends from across one’s life.  But the ability to see someone in person and meet their family, even if for a short time, is unparalleled.

Our destination after Florida though was Kentucky, just south of Lexington, where C’s father lives.  C would spend four days and nights with him and his wife.  C was so incredibly excited, chanting “daddy! daddy!” the last few miles in the car and bouncing from one foot to the other as she stood on his front step after knocking on the door.  For me it was a little bittersweet.  Four days is the longest C and I have been apart, yet I know it is important for her to have the connection with her father.  After thirty minutes of catching up C desperately wanted me to leave so she could have her dad to herself.  I drove to a nearby hotel lobby to figure out what in the world to do with all of my free time.

Over the course of the next few days I visited the Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park and Mammoth Cave National Park.  At the latter I took a two hour very non-5-year-old-friendly historic cave tour and 45 minute surface walk and talk.  I watched a non-animated film at a movie theater.  I went to a spa for a facial.  I toured Ashland, the Henry Clay estate.  I stayed in a historic hotel.  I listened to NPR in the car as I drove around and did not once have to hear how my backseat driver was tired of listening to all that talk, talk, talk.  I watched adult television shows without hearing a complaint about how boring it all was and could we now switch to kid TV?  On Facebook I took pictures of myself for a change and my friends noted I looked refreshed. I missed my chatterbox and caught myself numerous times pointing out cows and horses alongside the road to an empty backseat, but I also savored the quiet.  As an introvert I can say one of the things I miss most as a single mom is silence.

After picking C up at her dad’s we headed for Ohio.  We were on our way to New York but I had discovered in looking at our route we would pass by my cousin Lucky’s place.  I had messaged her and she was glad to have us stay with her for a night.  Lucky and her husband are accomplished artists and extraordinary people.  Their home, for lack of a better description, gives off an aura of happiness and positivity.  We enjoyed dinner out and breakfast in, and an impromptu art session on the living room coffee table.

Our next stop was upstate New York where C’s paternal family lives.  I again struggle for the right words to articulate how fortunate we are that they embrace us as they do.  Her father and I were never married, our pre-C relationship rocky and short-lived.  But his family welcomes us–they welcome me–openly.  We met with her grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousin, whom we had met before, but also met another aunt and cousin for the first time.  Her grandmother’s brother stopped by to see “the girl” he had yet to meet.

From New York we returned to Virginia, to my aunt’s home for a few more days.  We collected the rest of our things and the cats and then moved into an apartment in Arlington to stay in through the end of my training.

I am extraordinarily lucky to be able to take a journey like this – to have both the time and the means.  All the gushing about Home Leave in the beginning piece is very much how I feel.  Not to say that somewhere around 2.5 weeks into this I had just about had enough.  I did, at times, find the driving monotonous.  I tired of hauling around our suitcases from one hotel or home to another and longed for some semblance of continuity and routine.  Yet for every thought about how nice it would be to just get some place and stay more than a few days there were ten or twenty thoughts about how I wish we had more time to see more of the country, to spend an extra day or two or three with a friend or relative.  Home Leave is the closest I get these days to my former backpacking self, who would spend weeks on end traveling around a country or from country to country, moving every day or two, sometimes deciding the next destination on a whim.

Still this home leave did feel more difficult than my first in the summer of 2012 for three reasons: child care, the timing, and politics.

In 2012 I, smart cookie that I was, arranged child care for then-2.5 year old C at most of our locations.  This included taking C daily to the Sheraton Waikiki daycare while we were in Hawaii, to the incredible drop in child care center in New Bern, NC, a community gym with child care in Pigeon Forge, TN, and friends and family who minded C so I could run in San Francisco, South Dakota and New York.  For some reason I neglected to work out anything this trip except when C was with her father or the one night she spent at her grandparents in NY.  This was a mistake.  I needed more downtime.

My first Home Leave lasted an amazing eight weeks after which I started 19 weeks of language training, then a week of consultations/pack-out/administrative tasks, to prepare for heading to Shanghai, where I would continue visa adjudications as I had in Juarez.  This time I had seven weeks of home leave, five of which I spent traveling, two I am spending in the DC area, before either seven to nine weeks of functional training, and then head to Malawi to take up a completely new position.  During the course of my home leave I fielded emails regarding the maritime shipment of my newly acquired car from Japan to South Africa then on to Malawi, the air delivery of my UAB (Unaccompanied Baggage) from Shanghai to Virginia, and reviewing advertisements, contacting references, and interviewing for child care in Malawi, among other things.  Truth be told I sometimes felt resentful these things encroached on my Home Leave.

Finally, this time the political climate is also different.  At this point I will remind the reader that my blog comes with a caveat – that the viewpoints expressed here are mine and mine alone and do not represent the State Department or any office of the Federal Government.  My blog is not political; I have strong opinions on things but I rarely state my views on social media.  Yet it would be disingenuous to say the current state of affairs does not directly and indirectly affect me–it does.  I have never been so attuned to political news in my life as I am now.   During my Home Leave I have consumed news and political commentary at an alarming rate.  It has been stressful.  And also strange because I am not currently at work.  But what I did do was to introduce myself and what I do to people I met along the way.  Not out of the blue mind you, but when asked “where do you live?” I answered honestly: That is not such a straightforward question.  I am a US Foreign Service Officer and currently between assignments.  I just returned from Asia and will soon be moving to Africa.  I am on my Congressionally-mandated Home Leave traveling around the US with my daughter.  And this opened the door to some incredible conversations.  Some did not know what a diplomat is or what they do.  Some thanked me for my service.  Some asked how they could become one themselves.  Outside a restaurant in Charleston I met a young man, waiting for a table with his wife, mother, and infant child.  His dream is to become a diplomat.  I gave him, a couple from New York I met at the Disney hotel pool, and a waitress at a pizza place in Bowling Green, KY my contact information.  At each National Park I thanked the Park Rangers for their service.  At Mammoth Cave I discovered one, a former Army Officer, also spoke Chinese.

It was an extraordinary five weeks.  Stressful.  Fun.  Tiring.  Eye-opening.  So many things come to mind.  Having now written out the trip I think the biggest thing I feel is gratitude.

Farewell, Shanghai

When I arrived in Shanghai there was a bulldozer parked on the sidewalk on one of my two ways to walk to work.  There it sat day after day after day, month after month.  Then the other day, two years and 31 days after I arrived in Shanghai, the bulldozer was gone.  It was like a symbol that my tour had come to an end.

Bucketlisting Bonanza

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The former Morris residence, built in 1917.  Built by Henry Morris, the owner of the North China Daily News, the first English newspaper in China.  Now part of the Intercontinental Ruijin hotel..

The last several weeks have been a whirlwind of final preparations but the bucket-listing has continued!  With spring arriving in Shanghai, bringing unpredictable temps (some days deliciously warm in the 70s and other days depressingly cool in the lower 50s) and rain, I played my bucketlisting by ear.  When we had an unexpectedly beautiful weekend I packed up C and headed to the French Concession to wander around the Sinan Mansions area, an upscale chic area of beautifully renovated 1930s era homes where you can also visit the former home and office of Zhou Enlai, now a museum.  Nearby there is the beautiful former Shanghai Official State Guest House and historic Morris home where many of the celebrity and historic elite of Shanghai once entertained and visited.

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The massive Chinese sailing junk in the middle of the China Maritime Museum

I took a day of leave so I could participate in C’s preschool field trip to the Zotter Chocolate Factory.  It was a long bus trip on a drab and dreary Shanghai day but I felt so happy to be able to take part with my daughter and the other parents.  I took C to the plaground at the historic Shanghai Children’s Palace just a few blocks down the street from our apartment.  We happened to catch the soft (re) opening of the Hard Rock Cafe.  The restaurant chain had been in Shanghai in the 1990s but closed in 2004 — but just re-opened, and again is located just a few blocks from our Shanghai apartment.  We went down to the international cruise port — nothing at all was happening there despite the information I had found on a Shanghai tourist brochure saying otherwise.  On another nice weekend we headed out to the Shanghai Wild Animal Park, reportedly one of the best zoos in China.  Hmmmm….I probably could have given it a miss though C loved it.  The enclosures were pretty good, the animals looked healthy, but it was the behavior of the other visitors, Chinese who ignored the signs EVERYWHERE, even broadcast on loudspeakers on loops, to not feed the animals, that made me crazy.  But it was on the bucket list.  Finally on our last weekend we headed WAY out (two hours by metro one way) to the China Maritime Museum out at Dishui Lake.  Though that far out it is still in the Shanghai municipality.  But it is a pretty cool museum.

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While not the entertainment complex as advertised, this interesting architecture at the Shanghai International Cruise Port was cool to see up close

In addition to the above I have in our two years in Shanghai visited:

  • Jing’An Temple
  • Jade Buddha Temple
  • Shanghai Aquarium
  • Nanjing Pedestrian Street
  • M&Ms World
  • Hengshan Moller Villa
  • People’s Park
  • Shanghai Museum
  • Shanghai Municipal History Museum
  • Shanghai Urban Planning Museum
  • Tianzifang
  • Shanghai Postal Museum
  • Propaganda Poster Museum
  • Oriental Pearl Tower
  • Bund Sightseeing Tunnel
  • Dishui Lake
  • Soong Qing Ling’s Residence
  • China Art Museum
  • Natural History Museum
  • Fuxing Park
  • Sun Yatsen’s House
  • Fuxing Park
  • Shanghai Natural Wild Insect Kingdom
  • Science and Technology Museum
  • Soong Ching Ling Mausoleum
  • Shanghai Acrobatics show (at Shanghai Centre)
  • Jiangnan Shipbuilding Museum
  • Shanghai Himalayas Museum
  • Shanghai Circus World
  • Xintiandi
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    Samples at Zotter Chocolate Facotry

    Yu Gardens

  • Nanxiang Ancient Town
  • Moon Boat
  • Shanghai Glass Museum
  • Shanghai Legoland Discovery Center
  • Changfeng Ocean Park
  • Site/Museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Party of China
  • NBA Playzone
  • Shanghai Astronomy Museum
  • Chenshan Botanical Gardens
  • Jewish Refugees Museum
  • City Sightseeing Bus
  • Huangpu River Boat Tour
  • Shanghai Arts and Crafts Museum
  • Shanghai Disneyland (4 times!!)
  • Shanghai Tower
  • Jin Mao Tower
  • Shanghai World Financial Center tower
  • Century Park
  • Shanghai Public Security Museum
  • Power Station of Art
  • Lu Xun park, museum and masoleum
  • Duolun Cultural Street
  • Shanghai Railway Museum
  • Puppet show and exhibition
  • Film Museum
  • Yuan Dynasty Watergate Museum
  • The Bund
  • Telecommunications Museum
  • Rockbund Art Museum
  • Shanghai Children’s Museum

Not too shabby, eh?  There were other places we tried to visit but were denied.  For example, we visited the Shanghai Matchbox Museum, with it’s unique design to look like a giant matchbox.  Although the exterior remained, it had been closed and gutted, with furniture and exhibits strewn in front.  A visit to the only residence of Mao Zedong’s in Shanghai open to the public found it closed and under renovation.  Wild Animal Park, Shanghai Maritime Museum

There were also places we did not get to like the Shanghai Tobacco Museum (odd hours) and the museums for Chinese Traditional Medicine and the China Imperial Examination System, because, um, not only were they located in the suburbs but, um, not even a museum lover like myself could muster much enthusiasm for a visit.  Also as much as I like the odd Jackie Chan movie I did not visit the Jackie Chan Film Museum.  And I did not ride the Maglev train.  I gave myself multiple attempts to do it in the last few weeks when it was apparent I would never ride it to or from the airport (as we would have to walk to the metro, then ride to the Maglev transit point and then the Maglev itself) and in the end I simply did not want to pay to just ride a train, no matter how fast it was.

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Beautiful courtyard at the former Zhou Enlai office and residence at Sinan Mansions

We also did some travel further afield making it to Hangzhou, Nanjing and Suzhou by train, and Beijing and Sanya (on Hainan Island) by plane.  Unfortunately our epic trip to Chengdu with friends was cancelled due to my unexpected month-long Medevac back to the U.S.  I am a bit sorry we did not make it there.  Yet honestly, two years and several months ago as I prepared for our travel to Shanghai I thought long and hard about my daughter’s age and travel in China and figured two places outside of Shanghai a year would be the minimum and we did that.  So all in all I feel good.  There is just an inexhaustible number of places to see and things to do in Shanghai and China that one really cannot do it all.  I feel C and I certainly made a dent though.

Saying Goodbye

Something I learned many years ago while studying cross-cultural psychology is the importance of saying farewell to places you live.  It is important to recall the things you will miss but also those you will not — the latter so one does not get too nostalgic for all the good things while sugar-coating the bad.  Every place has it’s positives and negatives.

What I will surely miss:

My daughter’s preschool.  I was not previously sold on preschool.  It is not covered by the educational allowance and in Shanghai it is not an inexpensive proposition.  I did not attend preschool as a child and somehow I did alright.  But I am ever so glad I took the leap (and opened my wallet) because the Shanghai Centre preschool is amazing.  My daughter was a smart, verbal, imaginative, creative, thoughtful Chinese-speaking child before preschool but this school tapped into something she was not getting at home with only her nanny (and me, let’s be honest).   Somehow in three hours a day her two incredible teachers, through play time, song, crafts, and snacks taught leadership, cooperation, kindness, and personal expression.  And to top it off, although parents were not allowed to drop in, at the end of each week the teachers shared some 50 to 80 pictures of the children learning and at play alone and with classmates.  I look forward to those photos every Friday night when I get home from work.  For any parent who has asked their child “what did you do today?” and if lucky received a few sentences and at worse a sullen “nothing” and a shrug, this is like gold.  I kinda want to give her teachers in Malawi a disposable camera each Monday to record the week.

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This is where we lived.  Yeah.  Pretty awesome.  Still counting my lucky stars.

Our apartment/complex.  The 15 minute door to door commute on foot.  The location on one of the oldest commercial streets in Shanghai and between two metro stops on one of the first and arguable most convenient metro lines (Line 2).   Consistently awarded as one of the city’s best serviced apartments in the city’s original multi-purpose skyscraper complex.  What is there not to like?  This is where statesmen stay and celebrities get married.  This is where they hold waffle making and bench press competitions and Zumba-thons.  This is where I do my grocery shopping, eat at restaurants, see the doctor, have my hair cut, my nails done, work out, and where C has had her swim and ballet lessons, her preschool and her Kids’ Club activities.  There is a monthly farmer’s market and annual back-to-school and Christmas markets among others.  Every day I come home to a beautiful 19th floor apartment with views across one of the most dynamic cities in the world.

The city.  Shanghai may not have the thousands of years history of Beijing but it is still a historical city that has played a prominent role in world events.  And still there is SO much happening here.  This is where the entrepreneurs – whether Chinese or foreign – set up their businesses.  The Shanghai subway system–16 lines and counting–is fast, efficient, inexpensive, and can get you just about anywhere you need to go.  The juxtaposition of modernity with history, tradition with innovation, is on display everywhere in Shanghai.  Walking the streets of the former French Concession, where my apartment complex is located, is all of this right up in your face.  That was not always a negative feeling.  It is thought-provoking and astonishing and humbling.  I loved the energy of Shanghai, even if some days it wore me down.

The people. I had the opportunity to work with some of the absolute best officers in the Foreign Service and most proficient locally employed staff anywhere (though the local staff of Juarez were without a doubt also top-notch).  The level of professionalism, creativity, efficiency, and innovation on display every day in the visa section was amazing.  It was sometimes exhausting and did not give us a lot of time to get to know one another, and yet on occasion I had the chance to talk more at length and get to know some very extraordinary people.   And these were just some of the people I had the pleasure to get to know.  Even the  random strangers who helped me when out and about with C.

What I will not miss:

Poor Air Quality. I know there are places in the world with worse air quality.  Heck, there are places in China that have it much worse.  But still it is a drag.  It is checking the Air Quality Index on the computer or phone.  After only a short while here you do not need to check the AQI to know it is a bad air day, but you check the AQI to know how bad.  It is that we have air masks to wear (although after awhile I stopped wearing mine — since I wear glasses and the worst of the poor air quality days come in winter, when I wear the mask my glasses fog up and I have to choose between breathing better or seeing where I am going) and we have air purifiers running 24/7 in each room in the apartment and also at work.  As an asthmatic who has to use my inhaler more frequently here than in other places.  It is not awful, but I would generally prefer to live somewhere this is not an issue.

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What do you mean I cannot feed this lemur?  A sign?  Where? I do not see any signs.

Crowds. I am never alone.  Granted no matter where I would have been in China at this time in my life, coming with a 3 year old and leaving with a 5 year old, I find it nearly impossible to be alone.  But in a city of some 24 million it really is not possible.  Even if you take off a random Tuesday from work, leave your child with the nanny, and head to a museum, said museum will still be full of people.  It might not be jam-packed, but you will not be alone.  And in crowds people push.  In my last several weeks in Shanghai I have been very much reminded of this — as I forced us to go out and see these last things on the bucket list and we ride the metro or trains and get in lines.  People push and people jump the line.  The Chinese culture reveres children and my daughter gets a LOT of attention – some positive and some negative.  But it amazes me how many times when standing in line how someone has not only walked right up and stood in front of me, but they have stepped over my daughter’s stroller to do so.  And when I cough loudly or tap that person on the shoulder and ask them, in Chinese, why they thought they could stand in front of me, the answer is almost always “I didn’t see you there.”  It seems impossible you could miss us, particularly when going out of your way to step around or over us, and yet it has happened so often that I begin to wonder if it could be true?  This is not everyone — as I noted before I see a real change in the culture for waiting ones turn — and yet it still happens far too frequently for my taste (its a big pet peeve of mine).

And what about adjudicating all of those visas day in and day out?  I do not yet know how I feel.  As you probably know I am a Political-coned officer who has yet to serve in a political position.  I have instead served in the Consular section at two high volume visa posts – in fact two of the largest in the world.  I have a lot of mixed feelings about it.  Too many to go into now.  But there are things I enjoy about visa work, things I find satisfying.  But also the volume in Juarez and Shanghai…there were just some days I had a hard time with it.

My final Shanghai tally is:

Total visa adjudications: 52,178

Total hours scheduled to interview: 1,208

Total fingerprints taken: 15,834

The numbers make my end of Juarez post about the 10,000 club seem naive.  I have adjudicated over 71,000 visas in my four years as a visa officer.  Whoa.

The final weeks were stressful and bittersweet and, if I am honest, a teeny bit boring.  I had fewer responsibilities at work and could not volunteer for new ones.  At home I had only the final packing to do and I did it half-heartedly.  Even on the last day, which I took off work, I went into the office “for just a few minutes” because I could not stand a moment longer packing the suitcases.  Then suddenly it was time to go to the airport. It was time to bid farewell to Shanghai and head off on the next adventure.

Single Parent in the FS: DC Childcare Trials

In September 2011 I placed my 17 week old fetus on the Foreign Service Institute Child Care Center waitlist.  Yeah, you read that right.  Only a handful of people even knew I was pregnant – my sister, my aunt, a few friends, my doctor, my A-100 coordinators, two other pregnant FSOs in my A-100 class, my Career Development Officer…it was an interesting time.  So as weird as it was it also sort of made sense to find myself filling out a child care form for my yet-unknown-gender Baby C.

Arranging child care in America is hard.  If you do not have a child or know someone with a child or have never seen a news story on this topic, then crawl out from under your rock and Google it.  Finding child care in the Washington, DC area is notoriously difficult.  Summer is especially hard as kids are out of school.  Try finding short term child care in the Northern Virginia area in the summer as a single parent while living half a world away…  It is like buying a book of Sudoku puzzles and skipping right to the Expert Samurai level at the back of the book.

I never got off the waitlist.  When I signed up we were number 17 on the waitlist, when I checked in December, at 31 weeks, I felt hopeful when I saw were were number 5.  That is until they told me there was no chance that would change; the next openings were in May, several months after my due date.   Other places in the area wanted non-refundable deposits of between $100 and $250 to place my unborn child on their waitlists.  Just to be on a waitlist, no guarantee.  These same ones also wanted to schedule meet and greets and I wondered how that worked for kids still in the womb.

Perhaps unsurprisingly I had other things going on in my life besides trying to find a child care provider.  I had a job (learning Spanish for my upcoming assignment).   I had homework.  I had friends.  I met up with my family.  I was pregnant.  Yet the child care problem hung over me until I could find a solution.  My mother started to talk about retiring.  I mentioned I might have a little something for her transition.  I lucked out.

Fast forward two years later.  It is January.  I am preparing for my departure from Mexico six months later and training at FSI to begin nine months later.  Once again I am put on the waitlist for FSI.  I am not particularly hopeful.  I call FOUR additional child care centers in the vicinity of the housing unit I am likely to be placed.  ALL of them tell me that unfortunately they have no space.  Nine months before I even arrive they all already know there will be no space in their two-year-old class.  I opt to move further out and deal with a 50-minute one way commute so I can put my daughter in a place that has space and again, luckily, near my parents.

So once again I recently found myself returning to FSI for seven weeks of training.  The first three and last three will be at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia but the fourth week will be in West Virginia.  I start looking online for in-hotel babysitting services or a company that will send sitters to hotels in that city in West Virginia.  Nothing.  After days of this I reach out to my sister and she agrees to have my daughter over for an extended play date/sleep over with her kids for five days and five nights.  Right after returning home from her ten year anniversary trip in Jamaica.  I lucked out.  My sister and brother in law are saints.  I felt so relieved having found a solution for what I thought was the hardest part.  I was wrong.  Once again in January I began making the dreaded calls and emails.   But third time is supposed to be the charm, right?

I call the first place.  It is located only 5 minutes walk from where we will live.  The website is great.  They receive high ratings.  Sounds amazing!  I call and am told right off the bat they have space.  I am over the moon!  Wow, right out of the gate.  I tell them I will hand over my left kidney if I can receive the registration papers now.  They say ok.  But then I ask how much it costs per week.  They tell me they do not have a weekly rate but the monthly tuition is $1770.  That works out to be $442.50 a week.  For two weeks my daughter will not even be there.  Not loving it.

I call the second place.  It is also within walking distance, maybe 15 minutes.  I talk to a very nice gentleman for 20 minutes.  There may be space but they are reserved first for Arlington County workers.  I am asked to sign up for a waitlist, and I do (it’s FREE!) but I never hear from them again.

I call the third place.  This place is cheaper than the first two ($385 a week) AND charges by the week.  It is further away, but only two metro stops and a short walk or a quick drive.  I have a really great conversation with one of the directors and am told they do have space and we can register soon.  I am SO happy.  It took a bit of research and I had to stay up a couple of nights to make the call (thirteen hours time difference – during daylight savings – folks!) but only the third call and I have found the place.  Hooray.

I email them right away.  The next day they respond.  FYI, they casually mention, we are not actually enrolling any children after May 31 because we are moving locations soon and we do not yet know where.  <sound of record playing stopping>  Wait, what?  I most certainly mentioned dates — first thing — the evening before.  It was if I were being punked.  Except I wasn’t.

Some friends suggested I sign my daughter up for summer camps.  That sounded like a great idea.  Except as it has been a long time since I have had the summer off from school and my daughter is not yet old enough, I do not really have a concept of summer.  And it turned out the summer camps begin June 19.  My training begins June 5.

So I call another place and they tell me their five-year-old class is currently full but the can take my name and contact me after Memorial Day.  Right, after Memorial Day.  May 29.  My training begins June 5.  That is not. going. to. work.

I call several more places and sign myself for the FSI child care center waitlist yet again.  I also contact the WorkLife4You number — it is a resource and referral service for State Department families.  They can assist with medical, financial, attorney referrals, school information, and even to help with finding child care centers with openings.  Getting close to my wit’s end I call.  The woman I speak with for about 30 minutes makes me feel like she really,  really cares and she is going to do everything in her power to help.  She tells me she will contact me in about two days with the information — however after a few days I instead received an email saying she was still working on a solution and it would take several more business days… Even the professionals were stumped.

After lots of thinking I decide to sign my daughter up for four weeks of summer camp with the before and after camp extended hours option.  I found the spouse of a Foreign Service Officer who does occasional babysitting willing to watch my daughter for two whole weeks.  The first week I would pay out of pocket and the second week I would utilize our five days of annual emergency back-up care (a State Department benefit), filing for reimbursement.  So it would look like the following:

Week 1: At babysitter’s house (out of pocket)

Week 2: At babysitter’s house (for reimbursement)

Week 3: Summer camp 1 with extended hours

Week 4: My sister’s house

Week 5: Summer camp 2 with extended hours

Week 6: Summer camp 3 with extended hours

Week 7: Summer camp 3 (continued!) with extended hours

Sure it was complicated.  Sure, I would have to keep reminding myself where I should be driving my daughter and picking her up.  But I had found child care for all seven weeks!

Then I received an email from the FSI Child Care Center.  My daughter was being offered a spot!  I read it, and re-read it.  It was like my kid just got into Harvard.

The email said I needed to call the next day, which given I live 12 hours in the future meant I needed to call that night.  I could hardly wait.  I was so excited.  OK.  Maybe I should dial it back.  I wasn’t that excited.  I totally have other things going on in my life.  Really.

So I call.  I am again informed my daughter has a spot.  I say I want it, but I have a few questions.  I was being offered a slot starting in May, two weeks before my training even begins.  That seems off.  I explain I would technically still be on Home Leave at the time but ask if I could still get a spot.  And the pause came…. Um, wait, your training doesn’t begin in March?  Um, no, it begins in June.  Oh, I see….Hmmmm…..I must have written down your information incorrectly….let me see….could you hold…. And I held for what seemed an eternity. I felt my child care dreams slipping away.  It was okay, I told myself, I had that other ten step plan ready for execution.  No problem.  She came back.  Hello?  This is Laura*, right?  (*name changed to protect me from Laura*).  Ummmmm…..no.  Oh, I see…. Another pause.  I wrung my hands.  I could feel the “I’m sorry, but….” coming.  I braced for it.  And then, “well, I already offered you the space, so it is yours if you want it and send in the deposit.  We will make it work.” (Sorry Laura*)

I will lose the camp deposit on all three camps and must pay for the week my daughter is at my sister’s.  There are somewhere around 100 forms to fill out and turn in (Ok, maybe only seven….).  No worries. We have a spot in the best place possible.  My daughter and I can ride the shuttle to FSI together; I can visit at lunch.  My DC child care trials appear to be resolved this year.*  Next up: finding child care at the next post!

*Disclaimer: I knocked on wood, threw salt over my shoulder, crossed my fingers and my toes, and waited until I had the confirmation email of receipt of my deposit before posting.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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

IMG_2290

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.

C

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.