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.)

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Kites of all kinds, Bondi Beach.  Look at that blue sky!  No need for an air quality monitor here.

After months (it felt like years) since my previous vacation, through the hard slog of a busy Shanghai visa summer, then into a strange low visa-demand month that was challenging nonetheless with the whole “half the staff is gone for 1-3 weeks in Hangzhou to support the G-20” thing, I was so ready for a vacation.  I would especially need it as my trip was sandwiched between the summer/G-20 season and my first foray into mid-level bidding, which is State Department speak for “virtual cage fighting for your next job.”

So off to Oz we went with stops in Sydney and the Blue Mountains.

We flew Shanghai to Singapore and then overnight to Sydney.  (I love that my four year old asks before we travel how many planes we will take.)  My friend K and her family picked us up at the airport — K used to work at the US Consulate in Shanghai as a locally-employed staff (a local hire) but she relocated to Sydney with her husband’s job and now she works for the US Consulate in Sydney — and then whisked us off to Bondi Beach for the annual kite flying festival.  It did not have nearly the number of kites we expected and K’s husband could not find a parking space so he just drove around and around the area until we had our fill of beach and kites, but to be honest I didn’t care because it was just great to catch up with K, and her son KZ and C, who are the exact same age, really bonded.  After Bondi we headed for a quick lunch on our way to the wonderful Featherdale Wildlife Park in the northwest suburbs of Sydney.  The wildlife center is all about native Australian birds and animals, so it is a great place to see cockatoos, kookaburas, emus, cassowaries, koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, dingoes, quokkas, echidnas, Tasmanian devils and the like.  KZ and C pet a koala — one of the few places where you can do so complimentary with your entrance ticket — and some wallabies.  We finished up with ice cream.  Then we headed back to K’s house and while her husband prepared dinner K and I took a stroll in a nearby park while KZ and C zoomed around on a scooter and a bicycle.  And while this might sound like your average day out with friends — meet up, have lunch, drive to a kid friendly place, dinner at home, and a walk in the park — I have not had a single day like that in Shanghai.

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Only 45 minutes on the train and I get this look

The following morning, a Monday, K headed out early to work and her husband drove C and I to the nearby Blacktown train station to catch the 7:57 am train to Katoomba.  Initially my plan had been more complicated and involved renting a car.  But the logistics and cost and dragging C’s car-to-booster-conversion seat for a short drive to and from Katoomba was outweighed by the simplicity of taking the train.  Me–I was incredibly impressed with myself for packing one large backpack I could put on my back, a smaller backpack I could wear on my chest, thereby leaving my hands free to push C in the stroller.  I felt I was almost, sort of, kinda, not really, really, but as close as I have been in awhile, close to my old backpacker self.  C was less impressed.  For some reason she found the idea of a relaxing 1 hour 22 minute ride on the train seemed incredibly boring.  In true 4 year old style she asked at every station if that was our station.  I only had to endure her asking 16 times before on it finally coming true.  But she is 4 and she would have asked every five minutes if we were there yet had I been driving.

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Great location, historic charm: the Carrington

We arrived at 9:22 am and headed straight for our hotel, the historic Carrington located just half a block from the Katoomba train station.  The restored historic hotel is the oldest hotel in town having opened in 1883.  I opted for us to stay in the “traditional rooms,” which are billed as “budget” accommodation that channels the original rooms of the hotel, i.e. they share bathrooms down the hall as the hotel would have had prior to 1927.  Again, to me it was a tip to my backpacking/hosteling days and I was curious as to how C would take to it. Her assessment at the end of our stay: “I liked the room, I liked the bed, I liked the TV, but I did not like the bathrooms outside.”

It was a gorgeous day.  It was warm (in the upper 70s), the sky was a brilliant blue.  There was no time to dawdle.  We were at the hotel WAY too early to check in.  I left our bags with the front desk and whisked C in the stroller off to see the sights.  I decided to walk from the hotel to Echo Point, the location to see the Three Sisters, the three iconic pillar rock formations that are the most recognizable symbol of the Blue Mountains.  I had hoped the walk to Echo Point would be interesting, but it was not.  We simply walked down a sidewalk that started in the commercial center of Katoomba and passed through a nondescript residential neighborhood.  There were no views until the end when suddenly you find yourself at Echo Point 30 minutes later.  And here the Jamison Valley opens before you.  It is the Grand Canyon of Australia and it is awesome.  C agreed that it was worth the trip only because I gave her some ice cream.  Whatever.  (I want to be upfront about travel with a four year old; C is a very good traveler but she is four.  Ice cream ranks higher than amazing natural wonders right now).

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The Three Sisters and Jamison Valley view

We were beat though.  We had flown through the night to arrive in Australia.  Been whisked around on a wonderful whirlwind first day right from the airport.  Then we woke up very early for the train to the Blue Mountains.  Despite the stunning views and great weather we needed lunch and a rest.  We lunched at Echo Point watching a kookabura sitting in an old gum tree (get it?) and then road the hop on hop off bus back to the first stop, across from the hotel.  We bought fruit and sandwich fixings from the local grocery store and were in for the night.  (I want to be upfront about travel with a tired thirty, ok forty-something, mom with a young child.  Sometimes a nap ranks higher than natural wonders.)

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Are you sure there is a contraption of any kind on those cables?  The Skyway disappears into the fog…

The following day I was kicking myself.  It was cooler.  The fog was thick.  Sigh.  This is the day we would go to Scenic World, a privately run wonderland of activities in the Blue Mountains.  The activities include riding the steepest incline railway in the world, riding the steepest aerial cable car in the Southern Hemisphere, ride the skyway tram that crosses a chasm 270 meters above the valley floor, and enjoying various walks on elevated boardwalks through the forest.  I was not sure how great it would be in thick fog. It is called scenic world, but it might be a bit hard to see…  At AUS$70 for the two of us it seemed to be a bit pricey to look at the inside of a cloud.  The upside is the fog had no affect whatsoever on the thrilling ride on the scenic railway.  You whizz down what seems a near vertical track, you pass through a tunnel, and then some trees.  C and I screamed.  Then C laughed while I continued to scream.  At the bottom of the railway we enjoyed a 30 minute walk through the forest with stops to ride the bronze statue of a pony in front of an old mine, swung on a tree limb outside an old minters cabin, and just enjoyed the fresh air.  With the fog we had almost no wait for the cable car back up.  And while the Skyway is supposed to afford riders incredible views, the fog gave the ride an otherworldly feel.

We had spent several hours at Scenic World and then an hour in the town of Leura before once again calling it a day.  With most sightseeing buses stopping at 5 and the sun beginning to set around 5:30 PM, this is not as crazy as it sounds.

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I could have put a normal beautiful day at Scenic World photo but while there I accidentally discovered my camera has this awesome setting. 

The weather for Wednesday, our last day in the Blue Mountains, was supposed to be pretty bad — rainy all day.  Imagine my surprise when we woke up to blue skies!  I made the decision to head back to Scenic World.  Imagine my surprise and sense of wonder when at the ticket counter the cashier let us in for free!  He had asked, “Have you ever been to Scenic World before?” and I had answered “Yes! We were here yesterday but we could see very little with the fog so I thought we would come back.  My daughter loved the railway and cannot stop talking about riding it again.  Here is a picture I took of the fog around the Skyway.  Isn’t it great?”  He told me he would give me a discount, but when I handed him my credit card he declined it and told us to have a great time.  Customer service is not dead.

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This trail is rated perfect for 4 year olds by gift store employees

We rode the railway twice more (once down and once up) at C’s request.  Then I decided we would ride the Skyway one-way with the stroller and walk along the Prince Henry Cliff Walk to Echo Point.  It was only 30 minutes and a woman in the Scenic World gift shop assured me it was stroller friendly.  She must have never, ever, ever been anywhere near that cliff walk because it was not stroller friendly in any possible interpretation unless you mean carrying your stroller the entire time as you fumble along several hundred dirt steps while praying your adventurous preschooler does not walk off the edge of the trail.  My favorite part was the 9 or 10 rung metal step ladder affixed to a rock in the middle of the trail.  Super kid friendly (not).  But we survived the walk and luckily arrived at Echo Point before the skies darkened and poured.

The following day we took the train from Katoomba back to Sydney.  As C found the 1 hour and 22 minute ride up boring she was even less impressed with the 2 hour trip to Sydney Central.  And even more disgruntled to learn that we would transfer trains to ride to Circular Quay where we would find our hotel.  But once again I was massively astonished at my travel-with-small-child prowess.  We checked into our hotel located in a historic building in “the Rocks,” the location of the oldest European settlement of Sydney and headed off to Darling Harbour.  There we got more animal time in at both the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium and the Wild Life Sydney Zoo.  At the latter C pet a snake, got up close and personal with a sugar glider, and rubbed the belly of a spotted quoll.  All fine and well except she noted I had yet to produce a platypus.

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C feeds a giraffe.  This is NOT the AUS$29.95 professional photo.  That one, which makes me look like the Hulk in blue and is taken from an angle that looks directly up my nose, will never be seen online.  Ever. 

What I did produce were partial views of the Sydney Opera House from our hotel room.  This is what we were here in Sydney to see.  The Opera House (which of course is featured in the Disney movie Finding Nemo), kangaroos, koalas, and the duck-billed platypus.  I was beginning to fulfill my promises.  Our second day in Sydney we rode the ferry across to the Taronga Zoo where I could at long last produce a platypus and make good on the promise to have C feed a carrot to a giraffe.  It only cost me AUS$29.95 for the privilege though we got to take home one of the worst “professional” photos I have ever paid money for proving C and I were near a giraffe with vegetables.  C loves it though and that is what matters.  The highlight of the zoo though was the hour we spent on the kids playground adjacent the lemur enclosure where C made fast friends with Sarah, an equally adventurous and outgoing Australian-Korean girl.

We also made a trip to the Sydney Tower Eye for views of the city just before sunset.  It sounded nice and I already had tickets given I bought a 4-sites-in-one ticket that included the tower, but the views, while nice, are not as great as one might suppose.  The two most iconic structures — the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge — are obscured by large and unimpressive buildings.  I also had to contend with C’s deep displeasure at visiting the tower.  If I have not mentioned it before, she is not yet into taking in the views.  Not even “look mommy has already taken you to four animal venues and now it is time for something mommy wants to see” swayed her.  Luckily she fell asleep in the stroller and I enjoyed the views in peace.  And the next day I took her to Manly Beach to our fifth and final animal adventure, the Manly Sea Life Sanctuary.  There she had her face painted and balance was restored to her world.

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Yes, I arranged our trip to Sydney at this time of year so I could run across the bridge (on a night stroll across the street from our hotel)

Then of course on Sunday morning, if you have been following my adventures with any sort of regularity you may have guessed it — I participated in a run.  Originally I had signed up for the Sydney Running Festival half marathon, but a last training run a week before departure made it very clear a half was probably a bad idea.  Luckily there was still time to contact organizers and downgrade to the 9K Bridge Run.  I just wanted to be able to run across the Sydney Harbour Bridge with a few thousand strangers.  The “flat and fast” course was neither flat nor fast and seemed to me to be much longer than 9K, but I finished.  And before the rain.  Despite rain predicted for most days of our vacation, only the one day was blustery and rainy with both the wind and rain holding off til the end of the running events.  We celebrated with lunch and a walk at Darling Harbour with K and her family.

The day after the run was another beautiful, glorious day.  Unfortunately it was our last (half) day in Australia.  We strolled along Circular Quay to the Opera House and through the beautiful Royal Botanical Gardens (it is a wonder that such prime Sydney real estate is set aside for a large, public park).  I did not want to leave.  Although I usually find 9 days away is very restorative, this time I still felt it was just too short.  But it was time to return to Shanghai and get ready for bidding on my next assignment.

 

A Stroll down the Street of Eternal Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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C hides in the stroller outside the flower shop

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

 

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.

Palau – Islands on the Edge (2011) Part Two

On my second day I was signed up for a snorkeling tour in the Rock Islands including a visit to Jellyfish Lake.  I was just a tad apprehensive about the jellyfish bit, but had no time to think on it.  Best for me not to think too much.  The first stop was at a Japanese Zero, submerged where it crashed in WWII, just 10 feet beneath the surface.  At first we just stopped to look at it, but one of the guests asked if we could snorkel there and after just a few seconds of hesitation, and a quick scan at the sea, our guide said “Sure, why not?”  The others quickly threw on their fins and masks and jumped in.  I was a bit slower – I am always hesitant before jumping in the sea.  But once I was in, it was, of course, really cool.  And it was my first chance to test out the underwater camera a friend from work had loaned me.

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Hamming it up with the mud ladies

We continued on to an area called Rainbow Reef for snorkeling – and it was stunning, like swimming in an aquarium.  Then on to the “milky way” where the limestone mud just a few feet below the surface of the water is supposed to have therapeutic properties.  We all slathered up and then washed it off with a dip in the crystal clear waters.  Then it was on to Jellyfish lake.

Many, many thousands of moons ago, Jellyfish Lake was open to the ocean.  Over time it became closed off and a species of jellyfish became enclosed and isolated inside the lake.  With no predators, over time, they evolved to no longer have a sting.  Our boat docks at Eil Malk island and we walk up a small staircase trail and then down again to a dock jutting out into the saltwater lake.  “Ok,” our guide says, “go ahead and get in and swim out in that direction and we will swim with the jellyfish.”  Right.  I stare at the water.  I am not the only one of the group just staring at the murky green water, where underneath the surface teem millions of rumored-to-be-sting-free jellyfish.  Oh, and possibly a crocodile.  Thanks Tour Guide for that wonderful story about the crocodile sightings here at the lake.  I jump in and start swimming.

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Surrounded!

Perhaps ten or fifteen feet in I see my first jellyfish and my instinct is to jerk back and dart in another direction.  I swim around it. But then I see two.  And then five.  And then more and more and more.  No turning back now.  I reach out and touch one.  Nothing.  It feels like thick, flexible latex.  It slides benignly along my hand and away.  I am giddy.  All of us are giddy.  We swim among them.  Through the swarm.  It is amazing.  I completely, well almost completely, forget there might be a crocodile lurking in the depths ready to take me down.  After half an hour or more we swim back to the entrance point and return to our boat.  Once settled and ready to move on to our lunch area, we spot a moon jellyfish floating in the water.  I want now to reach out and touch it and it takes a moment to realize we are back in the real world where jellyfish are not our friends.

It was lunch time and we headed out once again in the boat.  Our stop was a small, flat, palm covered islet.  From the small beach, the drop off is steep and quick.  Maybe 30 to 50 feet deep within 10 feet of the  shore.  Several beginner scuba diving classes were in progress when we arrived.  After lunch I ventured into the water.  This was a big deal.  Our guide had called it Shark Island or something like that.  If you know me at all, you know that I have an irrational fear of sharks and the ocean.  I know it is irrational but I have the fear all the same.  When I was five years old my parents took me (and my younger siblings) to see the movie Jaws.  Apparently I had been hounding my mother for weeks on end to see it.  So she did, and I had nightmares for weeks, maybe months afterwards.  [I used to think my mother was half crazy to do this but now that I have a 4 ½ year old child myself, I completely get it].  It complicates matters that I wear glasses and once they are off, as they are for snorkeling, I cannot see all that well.

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Sharks just below me — unclear due to being underwater and not my my shaking or anything

So there I am in the water, halfheartedly paddling about, trying very hard to appear at ease, while pushing back the scenes running through my head of my impeding loss of life and limb by shark attack.  And there below me I spot a circle of divers practicing some basic scuba lessons.  And off to the side is a circle of black tip reef sharks doing what appears to be staring at the divers.   I felt a flutter in my chest.  I might have peed myself.  Wait, it is the ocean, I did pee myself.  I felt terribly brave and slightly panicked at the same time.  But I stayed put.  I willed myself to stay put and watch them.  I took pictures with the underwater camera a colleague had loaned me.  I had just seen sting-less jellyfish and touched them and now here I was in the water within quick swimming distance of some sharks and I was relatively, surprisingly calm.   Would wonders never cease?

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Monument at the top of Bloody Nose Ridge.

On my third day in Palau, I joined a full day WWII tour to Peleliu island, the site of one of the fiercest battles of the Pacific War, resulting in the largest casualty rate of any amphibious assault in US history.  It was here that 1000s of marines were met with an entrenched Japanese force of nearly 11,000, all on an island only 6 miles long and 2 miles wide.  Over two months of fighting resulted in 40% of the 28,000 marines killed or wounded.   Although I am not a WWII buff I am very interested in history and before my trip I had watched the miniseries “The Pacific” and read the autobiography Hemlet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie, one of the true characters from the documentary who had served and was wounded on Peleliu.

An hour speedboat trip from Koror brought us to the shores of Peleliu, the southernmost of Palau’s main islands.  It looked like any other tropical island with palm trees and a short sandy beach.   Like any other place in history that has seen atrocities, I felt strange standing there looking at the beautiful sea and sky and greenery and trying, completely in vain, to imagine the horror that both sides faced and wrought upon one another.   The divers in the group headed off for their morning dive, which just left me and a family of 3 for the full land tour.   We walked with our guide through the small town, investigated several caves (one with a large spider that I might never get over),  to the old airfield, through the jungle to see rusted out tanks,  downed planes, armaments, and gutted bunkers and buildings.  We lunched and the divers returned to join the second half of the tour including a hike up Bloody Nose Ridge and to the small, but informative museum.   Our hike up Umurbrogol Mountain or Bloody Nose Ridge, a 300 foot high peak, took maybe 30 minutes.  During the US offensive, military leaders planned on 72 hours to take the ridge, but instead it took 73 days.  It was a sobering day but well worth the trip.

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Storyboard depicting Ngibtal

My fourth day was a lazy no-tour day.   I got a lift down to the town center for a visit to the Palau Aquarium.  I love aquariums and I try to visit them wherever I can.  It was a nice little place, part of a larger coral reef research center, but after actually snorkeling around the actual reefs of Palau, the aquarium could not hold a candle to the real thing.   I then walked over to the Koror Prison, an important stop on any tourist to-do list of Palau.   Unlike my visit to the Women’s Prison in Chiang Mai I was not here to see a specific prisoner but to call on the prison workshop where you can browse the beautifully wood-carved storyboards made by the prisoners as part of a rehabilitation program that benefits them and their families.  I hemmed and hawed between two particular storyboards while chatting with the carvers before deciding to purchase one depicting the legend of the fish-bearing breadfruit tree.  From the prison I meandered through some neighborhoods before getting lunch and then visiting the pleasant Belau (as Palau is sometimes spelled) National Museum.

Pouring rain that looked like it would not end but suddenly did, almost sunk my kayaking and snorkeling tour on day five.  Four people cancelled.  Luckily one other person had not as the tour company required a minimum of two.  My tour companion was an American working on a US naval vessel who just wanted a quiet day of swimming and boating in the Rock Islands.  We stopped first for snorkeling above a reef and then at a partial cave, more an opening in one of the smaller islets.  At another location we picked up the kayaks to begin our trip along the mile-long Long Lake, a saltwater lake surrounded by mangrove forests.  It was quiet and relaxing.

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Some of the stone monoliths of Badrulchau amongst the lush greenery of Babeldaob

Rain the next morning nearly washed out another tour but again the skies cleared just in time.  This time it would be just me.  I agreed to pay extra for a solo land tour of Babeldaob, the country’s largest island, and the largest island in Micronesia (other than Guam).   Despite its size, only about 30% of Palau’s 18,000 residents live there, and is one of the least developed islands in the Pacific Ocean.  Babeldaob.  It is a mouthful but it sounds exotic.  Unlike the other islands of Palau, which are limestone, Babeldaob is volcanic.   It is hilly and still very much covered in foliage.  Here in 2006, Palau established its new capital of Ngerulmud, moving it from the most populous town of Koror.   Though the capital is the only settlement to have its own zip code (the country is serviced by the US postal system), and it has a few capital-looking buildings, it does not have the feel of a bustling capital city.

My tour took in the capital, ruined Japanese WWII sites, the mysterious stone monoliths at Badrulchau dating back to 161 A.D. (sort of like Palau’s version of Stonehenge), waterfalls, and traditional Palauan meeting structures, it was my conversation with my young tour guide as we drove around the island that stuck most in my mind.  “A” spends most of her time leading scuba dive tours.  Her father, also a scuba dive tour leader and instructor, worried about his daughter spending too much time underwater and the toll it might take on her body.  He wanted her to find another job.  So “A” did go the United States for college.  Palau, with its small population, only has a community college but no four year institutions.  But there are special considerations and scholarships for Palauans to attend university in the US.   Many go to Hawaii, but not all.  “A” went to the mainland, but quickly became homesick and after a year or so called it quits and returned home where she returned to the job she loves, much to her father’s consternation.

On my final day, I was picked up once again by representatives of Sam’s Tour, the company with which I had taken every single one of my tours.  My flight to Manila, like the one I arrived on, would depart in darkness, after the sun had set.   I would spend the day at the Sam’s Tour headquarters – where they have their dive shop, gift shop, bar and restaurant facing the marina with beautiful views of the water.  I arranged one final tour – a helicopter flight over the Rock Islands.  I was joined on the tour by two 20-something Japanese girls whom the pilot inexplicably assumed were my daughters.  Seeing the islands from the air was breathtaking.  And it was a great end to having experienced Palau from land, sea, and air.  I spent the rest of my trip awaiting transfer to the airport, sitting in the bar, nursing beverages, as I looked out at the water.

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Sunset at the Sam’s Tours marina