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.

The 2nd Home Leave Begins

IMG_0337

C at the USS Yorktown at Patriot Point in Charleston, SC

After months of planning my second Home Leave finally is here.   Okay, really, after saving for, daydreaming about, and plotting my Home Leave from my arrival in Shanghai (and only finalizing after securing my onward assignment), the Home Leave arrived!  Well, before it could begin I would have to clear one more hurdle: the PCS trip.

PCS=Permanent Change of Station, i.e. the trip that moves you from one assignment to another or to the US for home leave or training at the end of a tour.  It sounds fairly simple I guess.  Well it is and it isn’t

Now I want to be clear here.  I know there are people facing far more difficult challenges in their lives than the government paying to fly them from Point A to Point B.  I might not be a complete news junkie but in my particular line of work I am, of course, aware of news and world events.  And no one made me have a child, get two cats, or pick this career.  That was all me. But now here I am and, with all things being relative, I do not want to forget the stress and discomfort experienced with this move.

So just try to imagine yourself embarking on an international flight that will consume approximately 24 hours of your life door to door and take you across 12 time zones.  Sure, no problem, you are an experienced traveler.  But add in your 2 checked bags and 1 carry on suitcase.  And a good-sized carry on backpack.  Still with me?  Add in a 5 year old child.  A good one who is also experienced at flying, but nonetheless is still 5.  And gets a checked bag and carry on allowance but who claims her 10 pound miniature backpack is making it hard for her to walk more than fifty feet.  SHE IS SO TIRED!  Also the car seat — you can check that too, for free, but you still need to bring it as you will need it as soon as you arrive at your destination.  Oh, and a stroller.  It folds up and you can check it at the airplane door.  But wait, I am not done.  You are also carrying two cat carriers because, why not?  They will fly in-cabin, under the seat in front of you.  So your 5 year old does not really get to sit in the stroller — the cats do.

There is no way to get to the check in counter, to the gate, or board the plane and look anything close to a suave, experienced flyer, diplomat.  Nope.  The flight attendants see me moseying up to the plane with the grace of a drunk penguin, hair askew, a cat cage on each shoulder and they peg me as the first time flyer I have GOT to be.  “Ma’am, can we help you find your seat?” they ask me slowly, enunciating each word.  I want to tell them that I am pretty sure I can figure out that row 25 comes after row 24 but I just smile.  A strained, crazy smile.

So the crazy parts:

1. I fly this particular airline quite a lot and my profile has me always in a window seat.  Yet for some reason we are booked for a middle and aisle seat.  And also for two in-cabin pets.  Every single aisle seat has a weird box taking up half of the space under the seat in front of me.  Where a cat needs to go.  I alert the flight attendant.  After surveying the situation she suggests I move one row back.  To a middle and aisle seat.  Yes, the exact same seats one row back.  I look at her quizzically.  Is she kidding?  She isn’t.  I point out that will not solve the problem.  She says one of us can just take the window seat and surely that passenger will switch.  I am extremely skeptical.  In fact said person has just arrived and is adamant that will not happen.  He says he doesn’t want to be a jerk, but… I say no problem, I get it.  He figures out two cat carriers will fit under the middle seat.  Problem solved.  Passenger ingenuity.

2. I spent a lot of time previously deciding between the midnight flight with on-demand entertainment on in-seat TVs and the noon flight that had personal device and way-overhead no-choice-of-movie movie.  I went with option 2 and downloaded the app to my daughter’s Kindle (you have to download before the flight or use the expensive wi-fi on board to do so in flight).  The app had not downloaded properly.  I could not access wi-fi for three hours due to Chinese airspace.  Then I purchase the overpriced wi-fi for one hour. But the personal device entertainment system malfunctioned.  As did the “no-choice-screens-from-overhead” entertainment — it was stuck on the welcome screen.

3. Flying from the US to China even with one stop was easier.  Returning, not so much.  Think customs and immigration at the first point of entry, picking up all checked bags, then re-check bags and then go through security again.  Scroll back to my list of stuff I traveled with and my travel companions.  FYI – pets need to be taken out of their carriers to go through security.  Yes.  Think about it.  Oh yes it was just about as much fun as you can imagine.

4. I am SO glad I did not opt to take the 2 checked-bags each we were allotted per government PCS travel regulations or the 3 checked-bags per my airline status.  For some reason the luggage carts located in the baggage claim area, before customs, seemed ridiculously small.  Remember the list of stuff we were traveling with?  It just would not fit.  Even with all my experience playing Tetris.  C pushed the stroller with one cat and her backpack through customs to re-check.  She is 5.  If she had been 3, the age she was when we PCS’d to China I would have been SOL.  She really stepped up.  Thank goodness.

But it was only 24 hours.  And honestly the worst parts were maybe 2-3 hours of my life.  The getting through security with the cats (in Shanghai I used pillow cases to bring one cat through at a time, which inexplicably caused my daughter to cry; in the US after some confusion by TSA, we were led to a private room where the cats were removed from their carriers so those could go through security and one cat might have hidden behind some boxes in that room in an attempt to escape, which might have made my daughter laugh hysterically and me expect I made the TSA agents’ weirdest passenger of the day list).  The boarding and disembarking.  The whole immigration and customs and re-checking of luggage.  Other than that it was just fine.

And THEN my home leave could begin!

Within 24 hours of landing I was in attendance at one of my best friend’s wedding.  As a Foreign Service Officer, often overseas, I miss so many life events.  Had her wedding been a week or even a day before or a week or a day after I could not have attended.  Newly arrived and jet lagged, with my parents watching my daughter, I headed in to Washington, DC to witness this beautiful event.  And during the reception I was seated next to a married couple with ties to Africa who had a friend moving to Malawi in six weeks.  Kismet!

The following morning I drove to my aunt’s home.  It was Easter.  My daughter had her first real egg hunt on the lawn — though without competition of course.  But oh was she happy.  For such a simple thing.  I was happy too.  American traditions re-created overseas are important (and often very creative and so necessary to our community) but naturally cannot quite be the real thing.

Two days later we drove — well I drove, 5 year olds are terrible drivers — to Charleston, SC to begin the first phase of our Home Leave holiday.  I had decided early on I wanted to spend some time in South Carolina on this trip, having only previously driven through the state on my way to college outside of Atlanta many, many years ago.  I hemmed and hawed about where.  Hilton Head?  Greenville/Columbia?  But settled on Charleston.  I know I made the right decision.  The purpose of Home Leave is for employees serving overseas for extended periods of time to reorient and reconnect to the US.  I see it as a time to see more and learn more about my country.  Charleston is beautiful and it has strong ties to just about every major historical period in our nation from the colonial period, early Republic, to the civil war and present day.  So it has plenty for a history and museum oriented mom and also children’s activities for fun-loving 5 year old C.

We visited the Children’s Museum of the Low Country and the South Carolina Aquarium. C enjoyed them both.  I think she was particularly struck by the aquarium’s bald eagle named Liberty as she kept asking me for the name later so she could use it during her imaginative play.  We also took one of the ubiquitous horse-drawn carriage tours.  C loves horses and has talked about it for days.  A visit to the Charleston Museum was also in order.  I was not sure if C would like it but she was struck by the giant whale skeleton (from the late 1880s), the dress up hoop skirts, some silver spoons shaped like shells, and the Egyptian mummy, purchased by one of the city’s early prominent men.  Purchased no less from one of the US’ first Vice Consuls to Egypt.  (I am in no position to purchase priceless artifacts at this time).  In addition, one could visit two period homes belonging to the museum, which we did along with strolls through the historic district.  We took a ferry out to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War rang out and visited the USS Yorktown located at Patriot Point.  At Magnolia Plantation, founded in 1676, C liked the train ride, petting zoo and mini horses and tolerated our garden walk.  A friend of mine and her family drove down from another part of South Carolina to lunch with us and visit Charles Towne Landing, the original site of the first permanent settlement in the Carolinas.

So we have seen and done quite a few things.  But what is it really like to be on Home Leave?  Honestly?  Well, this is only the first two weeks (we are required to take a minimum of four) and it feels very much like a vacation.  It also feels surreal – a jet-lag-fog fueled holiday, except one in which I know at the end of we do not return to our home in Shanghai.  It is no longer our home.  It feels wonderful to have this time to spend with friends and family in the US and the ability to travel around to wherever we would like in our country during this time. But it is also feels a little weird.

It isn’t cheap.  I know cost is one of the biggest complaints about Home Leave.  And that is true.  But I start my Home Leave savings account as soon as I arrive to my overseas post.  And this Home Leave I am lucky that my father loaned me a car for the 3.5 months we will be in the US and my aunt is watching my two cats for the five weeks we are traveling.  That saved me a bundle in rental car and kennels/hotel pet fees.  It does not mean I do not feel a little twinge of panic as the hotel, food, gas and entertainment bills roll in, but the time I get to spend with my daughter together in our country is priceless.

C is taking some time adjusting.  For these first two weeks she could not stop breathing deeply whenever we stepped outside.  As soon as we stepped out of the airport she took a gulp of air and declared it was “so fresh and smelled good!”  Yet whenever we are in a public place and need to use the restroom she says “I hope they don’t have the squatty potties!”  After Shanghai she is not used to such fresh air and all sit down commodes.  It is such a novelty.  Oh and the candy aisles.  They are presenting a bit of a challenge.  It has been a year since we have been in the US and she does not recall such a dizzying array of sweets.  She also often says “I miss Shanghai!” though when I ask her if she is sad it she says no, she is looking forward to our new home.  That seems a surprisingly mature answer for five but I will take it because the alternative would come with a side helping of mommy-guilt.

I too am taking time to adjust.  I have difficulty completely relaxing.  I have received emails about upcoming training with tasks that need to be completed and emails regarding the vehicle I have purchased from Japan and am shipping to my next post.  I think through all the things that still need to be completed before we take the next steps for our move to Africa: plane tickets, shopping for consumables, arranging pet travel to post, finding a nanny, and more.

Despite this I am so grateful for this time.  And just might already taking part in some preliminary plotting about the next Home Leave.  There are so many places to visit in our beautiful country, it is so hard to decide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

45 1/2 Days and Counting (Shanghai)

9

Time for spring cleaning and spring moving. (Blossoms in bloom in Century Park, Feb 2017)

The food (in my cabinets) is no longer interesting.

I have zero interest in my clothes.

Retail therapy cannot help me anymore as I have stopped making purchases.

I am not 100% sure, but I might want to never, ever, EVER move again.

Welcome to that time when the move is soon, but not really all that soon.

I am not a fan of this time; it makes me uncomfortable.  I do not feel like I have free time — because all the time I think I should be doing something to prepare.  I feel as though my life is divided into segments:  work (yes, I have to keep doing my job but also wrapping up work-related projects), preparing the logistics of the move, sorting through our things for the physical move, hitting the bucket list hard, and sleep.  The last is the hardest to do because if I am not doing one of the other things then I am thinking about doing them.

pulling-out-hair

Moving is fun!

In the last 45 days or so I have made real headway on some big and some small projects.  I made several hotel reservations for during home leave and purchased our tickets to Disney World.  I completed two really large personal projects — finally moved the last of my photos to a file hosting site in The Cloud and put together a photo book for C’s 4th year.  If you have ever made a photo book in your life then right now you are shaking your head in wonder at my incredible ingenuity completing it in just a few weeks.  Seriously. I am amazing.  My taxes are done.  So is a huge nine page document I prepared for my supervisor on my work accomplishments over the past year.  I scheduled my pre-pack out survey and pack out, requested a pay advance, filled in two departure related surveys for different Consulate offices, reserved our plane tickets as well as transport for our two cats, and wrote a recommendation letter for our wonderful nanny.  And perhaps THE MOST FUN was taking my two cats to the Shanghai Shenpu Pet Hospital to get their required-for-export vaccinations.

I wish I could tell you that I am done and for now on it is smooth sailing.

But that would be a lie.

There still is so much to do.  From completing my annual evaluation report to buying a car from Japan and shipping it to Malawi.  There is more fun with pets and export authorities still to come.  I also still need to organize childcare for when I am in training in the US and later in Malawi. And organize all our things for the actual moving day.

I am obsessed with the organization of stuff aspect.  There are the things to keep and the things not to keep.  Seems pretty simple.  But it isn’t.  Of the Things Not to Keep there are the Things to Use Up, the Things to Throw Away, the Things to Give Away and the Things to Try to Sell.  Of the Things to Keep there are the Things that Go in the Household Effects (the “HHE” i.e. the things that will go from Shanghai to Malawi and we will not see again for many moons), the Things that Go in the Unaccompanied Baggage (the “UAB” which we will see again in the US after several weeks of home leave), and the Things that Go in the Luggage (the items that I will try to stuff into our two pieces each checked suitcases).  BTW – these phrases are all official moving terminology.

hyenas-and-presents

C’s vision of Malawi?  Disney hyenas and gifts?

Every. Single. Day I try to make a decision about some item.  I use things up — the mound of foodstuffs featured previously is mostly gone. Sometimes I put an item into a suitcase and add it to the suitcase list, which is a piece of paper where I write the contents of said suitcase (I am brilliant at naming things, my cat’s name is “Cat” just in another language).  I toss things out, and, it is a bit embarrassing to admit this, I have a list for that too.  This is not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination, particularly for a child of Pack Rats.  My parents saved nearly everything.  I do not want to, but I agonize over possessions anyway.  Now it is not only my things but also my daughter’s.  Try convincing a 5 year old she does not need every drawing she ever drew or every picture she ever colored or every stuffed animal ever given to her.  I believe I have at least been successful in telling her we will buy no more here in Shanghai.  It is part of my The Best of Moving to Malawi Mix-Tape in which I regal her with all the benefits and wonders of moving to our new home.  She will go to school full time!!  (this works wonders because she is a half day student here in Shanghai and she wants more than anything to go to school FULL DAY)  She gets to decide on the theme of her new room!! (Moana.  No, horses.  No, I changed my mind, definitely Moana) We get to live where there are hyenas (Mom, do not let the cats out of the house in Malawi or the hyenas will eat them).  We will have a yard in Malawi (and she can kick the soccer ball in the house and not worry about downstairs neighbors.  She is right on not bothering neighbors, wrong on soccer in the house).  And the best of all is that there will be toys, toys, and more TOYS to be had in Malawi!  She seems to have confused Malawi with Christmas, but if it helps her to focus on our new home and not feel too sad about leaving, then I am willing to let the illusion stand for awhile.

30

Shanghai’s three giants at night (from left to right: SWFC, Shanghai Tower, Jin Mao tower)

Meanwhile I am also Shanghai bucket-listing like crazy.  Yes, I just made bucket list a verb.  Two weekends ago I reserved one night at the Grand Hyatt hotel in the Jin Mao Tower in Pudong.  The Jin Mao building is one of the tallest in the world and the third tallest in Shanghai and the Grand Hyatt is one of the highest hotels in the world occupying floors 53 to 87.  We had a river view on the 66th floor.  Wow!  The weather was pretty great with sunshine, low air quality index readings, and blue sky.  We visited the huge Century Park, strolling through blooming orchards and enjoying kiddie rides at the amusement park.  We also went to the top of both Jin Mao tower (on the 88th floor) and the Shanghai World Financial Center Tower observation deck on the 100th floor.  We went up the latter in the evening to get the bird’s eye view of Shanghai at night — C fell asleep thus enjoying one of the highest napping areas in the world.

dsc_0979

My ticket to the fascinating world of Shanghai policing – past and present

On President’s Day I visited the Shanghai Public Security Museum, reportedly the country’s first museum dedicated to policing and one of the few small museums in Shanghai open on Mondays.  This somewhat out of the way museum also appears on numerous “museums to visit in Shanghai” lists and as such made the bucket list.  It occupies the second, third, and fourth floors of what what appears to be a police building.  A uniformed policeman asked me to sign in and handed over my free ticket.  Although there was only a little English signage other than that introducing the content of each room (traffic policing, criminal investigations, domestic and international police cooperation) it was actually rather interesting.  I realize that people may call foul and say I do have the language, and you would be right, to an extent.  My Chinese long ago boiled down to little more than “why do you want to go to America?” and I have practically given up on reading.  I certainly do not have the vocabulary to read up on police procedures.  And yet, the graphic photos of a Black Dahlia-like case, a stuffed police dog, and fish sewn up with drugs inside were fairly self explanatory.

dsc_1012

C enjoys the rooftop cafe and viewing area at the Power Station of Art

I took advantage of another beautiful weekend day in Shanghai to drag C to the Power Station of Art, a contemporary art museum housed in the digs of a former power station on the west bank of the Huangpu River.  Although I am not a fan of modern art by a long shot, the museum had its highlights.  The use of the building architecture would be a plus.  I love re-purposing buildings and retaining a lot of the old structure to create a new space.   People watching too kept me busy — the museum was packed with a line out front, something I had not expected at all — and some of the hippest, most fashionable people of Shanghai were out in force.  I even found several pieces that I liked!  And yet the art installations of a block of 40-some black standing electric fans and the one of half empty paint cans, paint stained rags, and a half finished painted area had me scratching my head and wondering if I had taken a wrong turn and ended up in the supply cabinet.

On yet another day (I told you I was bucket listing — talk about action verb!) while C was in the care of the nanny I visited the Shanghai Railway Museum, the Duolun Cultural Street and the Lu Xun Memorial Park including the Lu Xun Museum and Mausoleum. I could hardly believe my luck with the weather — Shanghai wants me to see all of its places in the best way possible.

There is still more to see and still more to do before we leave.  And there is still a bit more time to do it in.  Just about 45 1/2 days, give or take a 1/2 day.

A Krabi Chinese New Year

dsc_0620

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.”

3

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.

14

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!

19

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.

img_0630

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.

45

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.

39

(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.)

 

 

 

Mauritius for Christmas

Even if you have never heard of Mauritius or are not quite sure where it is, you have probably heard of its most famous bird, the Dodo.  Yes, the large hapless, flightless bird extinct since the 17th century is a symbol of the island country.   It is on their coat of arms, their currency, their postage, and tourist maps.  Yet there is so much more to this crowded tiny island nation.

8-3

A major feature of Northwest Mauritius is the Moka Mountain range featuring Pieter Both Mountain, the island’s second largest peak with a large rock perched on top

I was giddy with excitement as C and I headed to the airport to begin our trip to Mauritius.  This trip had been long in the making–when some three years before a FS friend of mine learned her second post would be to the island nation.  Initially we were to visit our first Christmas in Shanghai but an unexpected addition to KB’s family meant we had to place our trip on hold for another year.   But at last it was time for our trip and for the first time in what seemed a very long time I would be etching a new country into my travel belt.

Mauritius might seem a long way to go for vacation and honestly before my friend was posted there I had not given much thought to visiting.  Once in Shanghai though it seemed that the former Isle de France was the place to go given the number of billboards advertising Air Mauritius flights around where I lived.  On the visa line, even the applicants with little foreign travel might list Mauritius among their international destinations alongside South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Maldives.  It was destiny.

DSC_0246.JPG

One of our first views of Mauritius

We landed at 7 am.  Yes, 7 am.  Almost immediately I was given a lesson in island patience.  While on the plane, the Air Mauritius flight attendants had given out the immigration landing cards.  Unfortunately they did not have enough for everyone on the plane and we were two of the unlucky ones.  No problem, the flight attendants assured us, we could get them before immigration.  Except they were out too.  It was maddening to see almost no line for immigration and yet be unable to do anything because no forms were available.  Several of us waylaid an official-looking person but he too seemed perplexed by our situation and asked yet another person to locate the forms.  It took about 20 minutes for someone to return with forms in hand and we swarmed around him.  He had only 7 to 10 forms and there were more than 10 people waiting.  I decided this was not the time to be polite and grabbed two forms from his hand.  I filled them out quickly and vowed to not look back at those who were left behind. I had a vacation to get started!

5

C and M enjoy the crystal clear waters of Grand Baie

We were picked up at the airport by a driver arranged by KB and then whisked off to the other side of the island, a whole hour and change away.    We slept most of the way.   Then we arrived at KB’s home and were immediately welcomed by the family.  We had an easy day.  First KB and I sat by the pool and talked as the kids swam.  Then we took the kids to the Beach House Restaurant for lunch.  As we drove into Grand Baie and I caught sight of the water for the first time I gasped.  Wow.  The Beach House is located right on the bay and as we waited for our meal (the service was on island time so we waited quite awhile) the kids frolicked on the beach and in the shallow warm waters.  The afternoon involved more play time for the kids and then we attended a birthday party for a local boy.

On our second day KB, myself and the kids drove from the northwest to the southwest (again a whole hour to cross the island!) for a day at the Casela Nature Park, a mix of zoo, petting farm, and activity park.  There is quite a lot to do at the park, but much of it, like walking with lions, driving ATVs, riding horses or camels, or ziplining, were for those aged well above 4 or 5 years old and thus not on our agenda.  Still, the kids enjoyed watching the 4D movies (well, 2 of the 3 kids did) seeing the birds, feeding the bunnies (not so much the rather aggressive deer), seeing tortoises, feeding the giraffes and playing on the playground.  We still managed to spend nearly 5 hours at the zoo (nearly 45 minutes of it in the line for a shuttle bus from the giraffes back to the main park. Major fail.).  That evening KB showed us around La Croisette, one of the few true shopping malls in the country sporting one of only two cinemas on the island.

25

The Chateau de Labourdonnais – this just does not do it justice.

The third day began with KB and I leaving the kids with KB’s extremely amenable husband while she and I indulged in some mommy only massages.  We then picked up the kids and headed to Labourdonnais, a 19th century sugar mill and estate restored to a museum, garden, and working orchard.  We all had lunch first at a lovely cafe adjacent to the grounds and then KB insisted she would take all the kids through the gardens so I could have an hour of peace to visit the chateau museum.  (I am SO grateful)  Then after some waiting (with some very impatient small children) we all took the toy train through the orchards.  Following the Chateau our next stop was the L’Aventure du Sucre Sugar Museum and Factory.  As you may begin to guess sugar production has a long and checkered history in Mauritius.  The sweet stuff has been manufactured there since 1696 and remains the country’s second largest export today (after processed fish)!  So the history of sugar is intertwined with the island’s history.  The museum makes great use of its space in an old sugar factory.  Informative displays of sugar’s role in the history and economy of the island wind around actual gears and boilers and the chimney, all part of the production of this important crop.

Our fourth day started with a glass bottom boat adventure in Grand Baie with KB’s husband and the three kids.  (KB gets sea sick easily and sat this activity out).   Then KB and I escaped again to have a just friends (sans kids) lunch and then we headed to Goodlands for some shopping in a colorful Indian bazaar (the majority ethnic group is Indo-Mauritian, making up 68% of the population) and a visit to the Shipmodels Factory and Museum.  We returned in time to collect C for a late afternoon photo shoot on the beach with a talented local photographer and then the whole lot of us had dinner at Luigi’s, reportedly the best Italian restaurant on the island.

52 (2).JPG

A worker puts some finishing touches on a model ship

The following day we said farewell to KB and her family and we headed back across the island to pick up a rental car at the airport.  It was a little hard to find my rental car as I had apparently booked with the one company that does not have an office at the airport (OLA) and I spent 30 minutes wandering around until I found a guy with a sign.  We followed him to the parking lot where he did the paperwork in the trunk of the car.  But it was a car, it looked good, it had a child seat included, and so I rolled with it.  Immediately I was reminded that I would be driving on the left hand side of the road as I backed out of the parking space and ran over the curb.  I did manage to get us out of the parking lot and to the hotel, all of a mile away.  Once checked in and fed I got us back out on the road and on our way to La Vanille Nature Park.  

It was an adventure being on the road with only a basic tourist map with a bunch of squiggly lines that I hoped approximated true roads.  We drove through several small towns that presented challenges to driving–two lane roads with no shoulder, no sidewalks, just a couple of feet to the residences and businesses.  Along the sides of the road people walked, sometimes two or three abreast, others pedaled old bicycles weaving like drunks, dogs trotted without a care in the world.  Buses stopped with little warning and little room to pull over.  Delivery trucks and people stopping at stores or to talk to a friend did the same.  Every turn I tried to make, I first turned on the windshield wipers.  And road signs tended to announce a turn just feet before I needed to make it.  It is a wonder I found the park at all!.

mauritius-roads

And when not passing through a town these are the roads of Mauritius. Lovely but no indication of where you are or where you are going.  Yet amazing for a country with one of the world’s highest population densities to have open areas like this

I think La Vanille was originally just a crocodile park and then a crocodile and tortoise park and now it is a Nature Park because they added a few other animals like some Indonesian deer, some sad Indonesian macaque monkeys, and reportedly some mongoose and lemurs although their enclosures appeared empty.  Still, I am not a crocodile fan the giant tortoises were great.  Their enclosure was large, you could feed them, and kids under 10 were allowed to sit on large, resting ones.  It is also a breeding facility and they have extensive information on their program and animals of all ages from egg to likely nearing 100 years.  C especially liked this part and the pony rides in the petting zoo.  The funny part was the tour bus loads of 40-60 year old visitors.  Something just seemed odd about that — the lack of children visitors.

The following day I was pretty worn out by my Mauritius driving experience and bored by our food choices at the hotel.  So I came up with a plan to head to La Bagatelle, the largest mall in the country and then the nearby Eureka creole plantation house.  But I missed the exit.  I figured I would turn around at the next roundabout, but there were no more.  So instead I just kept going and ended up at Le Caudan waterfront in Port Louis.  It seems to be the shopping and restaurant district in the capital.  After I figured out not only how to get there but to also park in the crowded parking garage (yay me!), we had lunch, a stroll along the waterfront, and visited the Blue Penny Museum, so named after one of the most famous, rare, and valuable stamps in the world, and the first to be issued in Mauritius.  Like the Sugar Factory Museum, the Blue Penny presents the cultural and economic history of Mauritius, tying it to the history of a product and a service — the postal system.  It is a small but lovely museum — just the right size to visit with a 4, almost 5, year old.

On December 23rd I struggled with trying again to find the Eureka plantation as it would be closed on the 24th and 25th, or a visit to the Chamarel area.  I went with the latter.  Things started off rocky as I drove through the same town Plaine Magnien a good 5 times.  I cannot exactly explain why. Every turn I made, every time around a roundabout, it all led to that darn town.  I started to sing a made-up song about the town that would not let us go in order to calm my nerves (and keep me from just giving up and driving back to the hotel) and to amuse C in the back seat.  It worked because once I started singing I finally figured out what I was doing wrong.  And then we drove through several more really small towns.  For what seemed like forever.  At long last I saw a turn off for the Bois Cheri tea plantation and factory.  It seemed a good place to stop.

90

A view of the Bois Cheri plantation from the hilltop restaurant

Bois Cheri is the island’s first tea plantation, established in 1892.  Tea is the country’s second major crop, after sugar.  A visit to Bois Cheri includes a visit to a small museum, a tour of the factory (interesting enough for a 4, almost 5, year old!), and a tea tasting.  It was just the stop I needed before getting back in the car and driving on to Chamarel.  At long last we arrived.  I had begun to suspect the whole thing was an elaborate joke on tourists.  Honestly, the whole purpose of driving all this way is to visit the 7 Colored Earth of Chamarel, and some of the reviews I had read online had warned me of the likely disappointment.  But perhaps since I had rather low expectations I found the place larger and prettier than I had imagined.  But the drive back was longer and less fun than I expected.  I joked with friends online that I had driven through every small town in the south with the hashtag #leavenotownunseen.  It sure felt like it.

105

Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden

Christmas Eve we drove to the far north of the island to meet up with RS and her son K who previously served in Shanghai and are now in South Africa.  (RS is also a single mom in the Foreign Service and is awesome).  I had thought we might visit them from Malawi but when I found out just days before our departure that they too would be in Mauritius it was too much of an opportunity to pass up.  My plan was to visit the National Botanical Garden on the way up — I checked my phone before heading out and it was supposed to take about 30 minutes to get to the Garden.  Um, yeah.  Nearly two hours later I gave up and just headed toward RS’s hotel.  And just for fairness sake I made sure to drive through every small town on the north of the island.  C and K were thrilled to have some time to play and as they frolicked in the pool, at lunch, and in the room RS and I had a chance to catch up.  Luckily enough on the drive back I quite easily found the botanical gardens (you know, Murphy’s Law).

Our last day was Christmas.  With a late flight back we took full advantage of a late check out and just binge watched the Disney Channel, as one does.  Then I realized I had lost C’s one pair of pants and we were heading back to winter.  Oh no! I cannot seem to go on vacation anymore without losing something and I did not want 1. my child to freeze and 2. to face the hard stares and tut-tutting disapproval of the Chinese mom mafia when they see my child without pants.  Don’t worry, I improvised. Shorts but a pair of the Air Mauritius in-flight socks pulled up to her thighs.  Yeah, I’m smart.  I’m no dodo.  (see what I did there?)

 

 

Chiang Mai Times

Way, way back in June I was thinking about vacations.  Well, daydreaming mad hard about vacations actually.  I had returned from my R&R a month before and I knew there was the long, busy summer of Shanghai-style visa adjudications and the G-20 timeframe ahead of me.  I would need something to sustain me.  Planning vacations makes people happy.  Studies have shown that even planning vacations can have longer term happiness benefits than the vacation itself.    I certainly wholeheartedly embrace this.

27

Thailand: worth visiting just for the food (pineapple curry chicken rice served at a riverside restaurant)

I looked at November.  Thailand came to mind.  My daughter likes elephants; although she tells me that “all animals” are her favorite animal she definitely has a top three: horses, cats, and elephants.  I recalled my friends JK1 and JK2, who had served with us in Ciudad Juarez, were in Chiang Mai.  I sent a quick message to JK1 and she confirmed they would be in town and would love us to visit.   I booked the tickets.

I first visited Thailand the winter of 1995/1996.  (Holy moly I am getting old) I was participating in a student/volunteer program at Trinity College of Quezon City and I traveled to Thailand to meet up with friends I had previously taught English with in Korea.  We hung out together in Bangkok and then went our separate ways.  I traveled north to Ayutthaya and Chiang Mai, and then south to Koh Pha Ngan and Khao Sok National Park, and then west to Kanchanaburi.  Over the years I traveled several more times to vacation around the country.  A week in conjunction with a week in Malaysia, another week combined with a trip to Cambodia, and a week along with a trip to Laos.  I also had several short trips to Bangkok–long layovers between Japan and Europe, a few days stopover to get a visa for Burma or to head to Brunei, and on my last trip several days for a counter-terrorism conference.   As I thought about it, I found it surprising that although I have a Masters degree in Southeast Asian Studies and used to spend quite a lot of time in the region and in Thailand, I had not been to Southeast Asia since joining the State Department over five years ago.

0

Signs like this – in remembrance of the king – were all over the city

Less than a month prior to our trip the beloved Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who had reigned over the country for over 70 years, passed away.  The people of Thailand were overcome with grief and the government announced a one year period of mourning.  For the first 30 days people were to avoid celebrations and bright colors and this would include some and perhaps all of the activities associated with the Loi Krathong Festival to be held around the time of our visit. Packing my suitcase full of somber colored clothing felt odd.

When we arrived it was raining.  It seemed fitting.  All around people were dressed predominantly in black and white.   And yet…although the clothing was subdued there was still a lightness in the air.  As we walked out of the terminal to see my friend JK2 and Little JK, I too could feel myself lighten.

We headed to a late lunch to meet JK1 who had finished up work at the Consulate.  The lunch was fresh and delicious.  The conversation and company more than worth the trip.  Afterwards we headed to a mall near their home and C and Little JK enjoyed some time crawling through a giant kids jungle gym while JK1 and I tried in vain to keep up.  Then we headed back to the JK homestead, a beautiful two story home with two car garage surrounded by a yard full of lush green tropical foliage.  They put us up in a cute little guest cottage connected to the main house by a wooden deck.  It did occur to me that I might have made a mistake not bidding on my friend’s job.

The weather forecast for the second day too was rain.  Thailand in general and Chiang Mai in particular is more of a place with outdoor pursuits – traipsing over historic temples, lying on tropical beaches, hiking through jungles and/or mountains in search of hill tribes or waterfalls or breathtaking vistas or all of the above.  JK1 suggested we check out Art in Paradise, a 3D art museum where visitors can, through a bit of illusion and creativity, place themselves into the artwork.  I had no other ideas and a quick online search suggested it was or had once been the world’s largest 3D museum and enough visitors gave it a thumbs up.  So off we went.  I could hardly imagine that we would spend more than 2 hours there laughing and shooting photos that seemed to place us in some fairly outrageous scenarios.

3d-museum

Just two of the fun photos taken in the Art of Paradise 3D museum

Our museum experience was followed by yet another amazing lunch in a simple but attractive riverside restaurant.  We then headed to the mall.  Because the JKs needed to get some items for Little JK and I, in my pursuit of clinching the Mother of the Year Award before the year ended, needed to purchase C some underwear having forgotten to pack a single pair except for those she was wearing.

Before I was a mother I rarely forgot to pack items nor did I lose things.  Alas now I am very adept at both.  Soon after our successful clothing acquisition disaster struck:  We lost White Cat. You may recall from our trip to Hong Kong in January we lost beloved Black Cat, C’s most precious stuffie.  White Cat became the new favorite and accompanied C everywhere – to dance class and preschool, out to eat, to Disneyland, and on every single vacation.   If you look carefully, White Cat is in each of the photos above, clutched in C’s hand.  But we went into an arcade and the sights and sounds and games were enticing.  C put her down to play a game.  Less than five minutes later and I was uttering “Where is White Cat?” (easily the sentence I have said more often than any other since January).  I looked down the aisle we had just walked.  I looked at each of the three game locations we had been before.  I crawled on my hands and knees (in a kids’ arcade!) looking under each and every machine.  I knew she was gone.  I had little doubt that some other child had snatched her up.  Despite her once white but now grey and matted coat, her scratched eyes, her lost whiskers and the small hole in the back of her head, she was still a very cute stuffed animal.  I looked for 20 minutes at least and JK1 and JK2 looked as well, inquiring with staff and arcade management.  We did not find her.  And for the next hour or so we were all treated to C’s forlorn and gut-wrenching wails as we walked to the car and drove back to JKs’ home.

31

Lanna fabrics at the traditional market

The next morning I woke up in the cottage to absolute silence.  I looked around and C was gone.  I found the sliding doors open but saw her shoes were sitting neatly side by side in front of the doors to the main house.  I thought of going in after her but there was something peaceful and not ominous about the quiet (and anyone who has a small child will know what I am talking about) so I slipped back into the cottage and enjoyed the peaceful solitude another 30 minutes.

Little JK and C were playing companionably together — Little JK had won C’s heart when he offered up two of his own favorite stuffies for her to hug the previous night as she slept.  After breakfast JK1 took a call from a colleague and our day’s plan began to form.

We met JK1’s local colleague, his wife, and 5 year old daughter at a traditional Lanna market.  Apparently this market occurs only once a year and we were lucky not only to be in town but also for the glorious weather.  C immediately took to 5 year old Witta and the two ran off together with Witta’s mother in tow.  The market was lovely — makeshift bamboo and straw stalls or tables set up on both sides of a narrow road, in green grass yards to the side of people’s homes.  For sale were traditional fabrics, handmade dolls, clothing, foodstuffs and beverages like the very refreshing and eye-poppingly purple colored Butterfly Pea iced tea.   Then the JKs and C and I headed to lunch.  We ate at yet another fantastic restaurant – set in an idyllic green location near the Chiang Mai Night Safari.  Besides delicious food, the restaurant had a grassy picnic like area and a children’s play area.  As JK1, JK2 and I sat in pleasant conversation at a shaded table by a koi pond complete with small waterfall and bridge, C and Little JK made friends with the Thai and Thai-Chinese children at the playground.  At that particular moment I could not imagine ever returning to Shanghai.

dsc_1187

Sunset across the lake at the Chiang Mai night safari

Although it was not yet night (in fact only 2 PM) we headed next to the Night Safari.  Outside the gates you can pet and feed deer that wander around the parking lot and area by the entrance, and also feed giraffes.  The 40 baht(US$1.12) I paid for the giraffe food and chance to feed them and take photos was so much more affordable than the AUS$25 (US$18.34) I paid in Sydney.  The park opened at 3:30 and JK1’s friends and daughter once again joined us.  The zoo is in a beautiful setting around a large artificial lake with Doi Suthep (Mt. Suthep) rising in the background.  We rode the two trams and walked the 1.2 km Jaguar Trail around the lake.  I generally avoid zoos in developing countries, but I found the Chiang Mai Night Safari to be pleasant with pretty good enclosures; the animals appeared, to my untrained eye, to be well cared for.

We woke the next morning in our hotel room.  I loved staying with friends but I also try to be really conscious of the toll a guest can take on hosts.  JK1 is one of the hardest working Foreign Service Officers you might meet and I felt she needed a weekend day to relax with her family.  I too needed a break.  The weeks leading up to the vacation — the bidding process and the election — had taken their toll on me as well.  C and I spent the morning at the hotel pool where we met a local Scotsman, 15 years living in Chiang Mai, and his 4 year old son Felix.  They invited C to join in the game of “diving for the tamarind seed” in the pool.  Felix had brought a hard, dark brown burnished tamarindseed about an inch in diameter and the tossed it in the pool and dove effortlessly to retrieve it.  Although C is a pretty good swimmer for 4 she could not out swim the fish-like Felix, yet he still made sure she could play.

50

This handsome feline was one of the stars at They Call Me Cat

Afterwards C and I walked about 15 minutes towards the old city.  I pushed the stroller across a two lane traffic bridge over the Ping river, and along some very uneven sidewalks, to the They Call Me Cat Cafe.  I have only anecdotal evidence, but I would guess that the two countries with the most number of cafes where one can dine with cats (or bunnies or other cute animals) would be Japan and Thailand.  I had to give it a try.  They Call Me Cat did not disappoint.  A small cafe with some 10 very fancy felines and some surprisingly delicious fries and smoothies, the place was just what we needed for a light lunch. For the rest of the afternoon we rested at the hotel until 7 PM when we boarded the free hotel shuttle to the Chiang Mai market.  Although it had been over a decade since I had been there last it felt instantly familiar.  I had no agenda, no plan to buy anything.  We browsed a little.  The striking kathoey (ladyboys) passing out flyers to their show fawned over C.  Then we stopped at a restaurant to enjoy yet another amazing Thai meal as we watched the activity in the market and C enjoyed the restaurant singer.  I felt so content.

dsc_1239

Apparently elephants paint better than me

On Monday, our last full day, C and I went out to the Mae Sa Elephant camp.  Our arranged driver picked us up at 8:30 AM for the 50 minute drive.  I know that some people have criticized Mae Sa as a tourist trap with poor treatment of the animals.  I did a lot of reading beforehand reading reviews from both sides and conducting some of my own research.  Looking at the other elephant experiences (and there are so many), there did seem some smaller outfits with higher ratings for fun and compassionate experiences.  Initially I had signed us up for a jungle sanctuary experience with elephants — but the 6:30 AM pick up and 2 PM drop off times, actual mud bath with elephants (bring a change a clothes!) and photos of bikini clad backpackers, made me think this was not the experience for 4 year old C and me.  Mae Sa too had been where I had had my first such elephant experience nearly 21 years before.  There we first watched elephants enjoying a bath in the river.  This was followed by a short show with several elephants kicking a giant soccer ball and then painting pictures.  C and I then took a short 15 minute trek on an elephant.  We went in search of the baby elephant nursery with bananas and sugar cane in hand but ended up handing over the foodstuffs to two other friendly pachyderms.  We were back in Chiang Mai just after noon in time to have lunch with JK2 and Little JK.

The evening of November 14 was the Loi Krathong and Yi Peng festival – a celebration of lights.  Once celebrated separately, the two festivals, one with baskets of flowers, incense and candles (Loi Krathong) set afloat on rivers, and the other with white wax-coated paper hot air lanterns that soar into the sky, are now held together.  As the 30 day ban on festivities ended the day before, the light festival could carry on.  I booked for C and I to join the hotel celebration including a massive buffet dinner, several dance performances, and included a krathong for each guest to place on the river.  I had imagined taking amazing photos of the Yi Peng lanterns but although I could see them in the sky we were far from the launch area.  The dinner was too long for C although I luckily snagged us two seats at the table nearest the stage for the dances, which C really enjoyed.  Once outside we had to wait in a very long line to launch our krathong as only two guests at a time could venture out on the hotel pontoon.  It took over an hour for our turn and by that time C was extremely grump, and admittedly so was I.  Still, although if I were to have the opportunity to experience the festival again I would probably choose another location to participate, I was nonetheless glad to have experienced it even if in such a small way.

loy-krathong

Traditional dances and a lantern

On our last half day the sun shown brightly and the sky was clear.  The view across the city was spectacular–the muddy brown Ping river, the cluster of low-rise homes and businesses, spreading to the base of Doi Suthep, and the sacred temple of Wat Phra That visible on the mountain’s slope.  We both had contracted colds.  The tropical warm weather and cleaner skies not something our bodies were ready to handle.  I wanted to stay longer but it was time to return to Shanghai.

Sydney Getaway

2-kites-on-bondi-beach

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.

25-too-long-on-train

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.

26-hotel

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).

73

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.)

53

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.

67

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.

72

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.

83

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.

88

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.