w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
During our tour of Halong Bay, we met a young English woman who had, for the last several years, been stationed around the world as part of Unicef's urgent response team. When I asked about her job, she confessed that for many of her co-workers, working for Unicef was more a lifestyle choice than a career option. After a high stakes placement, they would return to "real life" unable to tolerate the routine of the every day. They had, for lack of a better explanation, become adrenaline junkies, and nothing, but the next disaster would do.
I would never equate our months of travel to doing something as noble as serving the world as a Unicef employee, but I can relate to their feeling of displacement as they struggle to return to "normal life". For 10 months not a day passed where we didn't taste, do, see or experience something for the first time. We were challenged in ways we'd never anticipated, made excited, uncomfortable, humbled, awed and yet, three weeks back and we are often met with the same refrain: "It's like you never left!"
I walk the miracle that is Whole Foods filling my cart with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables that can only be found in the U.S. The kids run through the aisles of the megamart deliriously grabbing Maple syrup, Goldfish crackers, toaster waffles, Cheerios - all of the foods they missed most during our travels. I re-buy the same bedside lamp, the multicolored cord the only variation. We spend a fortune on new dinnerware, linens, laundry baskets, bathmats, ironing board, spices for the pantry, meticulously repurchasing the things we worked so hard to purge; the path to Target so familiar I drive it as if sleepwalking. When I unpack a stack of boxes loaded with garlic presses and melon ballers, silicon spatulas and Japanese boning knives, I can't help but remember how we'd opened the drawer in countless Airbnb kitchens to make do with three spoons and one fork. We fit all of our new crap, each item the approximate heft of an anchor, into our rented townhouse just two blocks from our old place. The kids run with the same neighbors. The post office is familiar. Tomorrow Chris leaves for his first business trip. It is awful and wonderful and lonely and easy. I wake up at 3AM for my nightly anxiety attack, afraid that the past 10 months was just a dream, that nothing has changed and I've returned, as my mother gratefully sighs, unscathed.
When I tell Elaine I'm depressed, she laughs and says, "Well of course you are! Who doesn't want to be on vacation forever? Now it's back to real life, girl!" I wince. How do I explain that it wasn't just a "vacation", (a real vacation would have been much, much easier) and that the "real life" I once lived is something I'm stridently trying to avoid? Of course I'm happy to see family and friends, but, at the same time, I feel estranged. When I can't join the ladies for a blow out celebration weekend of shopping and a luxury hotel stay, it's not just finances that restrict me.
Chris and I are already scheming: a late summer trip to the East Coast, Winter Break in Brazil and Argentina, next summer in Madagascar. In the meanwhile, we struggle to continue to prioritize family and travel in a culture that measures success and ambition by the size of one's work title, to remain steadfast and decidedly open in an over-scheduled society, and to master the art of living with less in a community that prizes material goods. It's one thing to make changes away from home, quite another to resist the habits of a well-worn path.
Finally, I couldn't close what is my second to last entry without noting the final days of our trip. Five glorious days in nowheresville Costa Rica just north of the Osa Peninsula - a true mountaintop retreat in the heart of the jungle. It already feels like a million years ago. Nothing to do but read, write, meditate and stroll the dusty roads past rugged fields of milky cows and explore the deserted beaches. It could have easily been mistaken for a dream, except it wasn't.
The kids take in the morning view from the outdoor gym.
Pura Vida Eco"Lodge" was another last minute booking - a tiny mountain jungle retreat outside of sleepy Ojochal. A long drive up a steep, rutted, dirt road brought us to this little house surrounded by wildlife, birds, mooing cows and gorgeous views. The living was a rustic, open air, no internet, no paper down the toilet, solar everything, lug your own trash kind of place. And nothing to do but read, write, cook, eat, play games, yoga and take a dip in the little pool. A great time spent reflecting on the trip with my favorite people.
When I see pictures of howler monkeys walking around a terrace, my immediate response is not "Oh cool!" Instead my mind jumps to rabies, feces and nits. In fact, after Bali, Marrakesh and Chiang Mai, I was pretty over the whole indoor-outdoor living thing, but we took the chance on Pura Vida. Yes, we came home covered in mosquito bites and had to check for scorpions and snakes before sitting on the furniture, but we fell asleep to the chirp of night time insects and woke to the chattering of birds. And got to breakfast overlooking magnificent views.
Our town consisted of a little school and this supermarket stocked with a few dusty shelves of canned corn, mushy avocados and a sweaty cooler of pink hot dogs (we ended up eating a lot of rice, beans and plantains). If you needed gasoline, a bank or fresh milk, you had to drive several miles to the next town. This was certainly the sleepiest place we visited.
The ceviche stand at the edge of town.
Yes, Costa Rica has some fancy resorts, but outside the main tourist drags, the living is quite modest. Chris had a lot of trouble finding a birding guide willing to take him and Isoo out on a trip. When Chris was finally able to locate one, the guide was very late. Chris would have been peeved if Caesar hadn't ridden up on a rickety bike, covered in sweat and panting as he tried to make his way up the hill. It never dawned on us that many of the locals in the area did not own a car. Caesar traveled from several towns over just to meet them and then, after a long day stomping through rivers and fields, had to peddle his way back home. They didn't see many birds that morning, but what they did find was a renewed appreciation for the little (and not so little) things we so often take for granted.
Above left - A typical CR house, one leaning room topped with a corrugated metal roof (though ironically almost all are capped with a satellite dish). Above right - You know when you're surrounded by nature when the public trash bins are housed in animal proof cages.
Our daily traffic jam. Brahman cattle are the most common in Costa Rica. While not as meaty as the cattle found in the U.S., they have more sweat glands, and big, flapping, fan-like ears making them better equipped to withstand the Costa Rican heat.
In addition to exploring the nearby towns, we drove a couple of hours to Quepos to visit Manuel Antonio National Park. We hiked past sloths, monkeys, various birds, frogs and insects and then cooled off with a swim at the beach. We spent so long there that the tide came in and took with it our clothes, towels and bags making for a soggy ride home.
But my favorite beach was the one just a few minutes drive from our house. During nesting season, the beach is littered with sea turtles creeping up the coastline to lay their eggs, but on the day we visited, the only things we encountered were giant bleached fallen trees. It was our own private island.
Yes, I'm doing it - a sunset photo to mark the end of our trip. The view from our deck on our final night before returning home. Sigh,
I’ve been searching for a good analogy. The best way I can explain it is like if you find a good old house. One with a red door and metal mailbox out front just like you’d always wanted. One that right away feels like home. You can already envision what it will look like with the windowsills painted a thick coat of shiny white and how over time, you’ll renovate the kitchen and redo the bathrooms and grow herbs in the backyard until it’s exactly how you imagined your perfect house would be. Where you can raise kids, and later those kids would return for college holidays with big bags of laundry and a new boyfriend or girlfriend in tow. The kind of place you can grow old in, drinking lemonade while lying in the backyard hammock. And so you buy the house and soon the kids come and suddenly there are soccer practices and homework and swim meets and business trips. And meanwhile, the house quietly decays. You never do replace the chandelier. Moss grows on the West side of the roof. The garage hitches to one side like the leaning tower of Pisa. Of course, the kitchen never gets renovated. Every autumn, big slabs of flaking yellow paint mingle with the leaves until you can’t tell the difference between a falling house and the changing seasons. And then one day you wake up and nothing looks like what you thought it would.
OK, so that’s what it was like - our marriage, neglected during the business of living. We had been two people and then a couple. When the kids came, we became a team. We delegated responsibility: He made the money, I did everything else. Chris traveled four days a week and in his free time, he started a side project, sat on boards, mentored ambitious young talent. If he had people in his life I didn’t know existed, I couldn’t live without mine: When I got a flat tire on my way to drop the kids at school, I called Susan and Mike. Lonely dinners were replaced with potluck meals at Elaine’s. If my doctor’s appointment ran late, I called Sherri or Lisa to pick up the kids. We were resourceful and independent, the separation of roles cleaved so deeply that we ended up on opposite sides of a valley. I don’t know. Is that a lame analogy? It doesn’t matter, really; the end result is the same. Early January 2014, after 17 years of marriage, we privately and quietly separated.
The ensuing two months were a hot cauldron of bad soup, a period where I took to waiting in the car and wearing big hats and doing my shopping in the off hours just to avoid having to eke out one more false pleasantry (which, to be honest, I was never very good at anyway). And just as the kids finally started to sleep through the night and we’d begun the messy business of untangling our lives, Lillian sends me an email – a Groupon for a yoga class. Seemingly harmless, but it’s her note that catches my eye: “In case the life you’re rewriting includes hot yoga.” I put down my Candy Crush game. Seriously, had I forgotten that I was writing my life?
Let’s say you woke up one morning. Actually, you didn’t wake up so much as never really went to sleep. You just lay there waiting for the black ceiling to creep slowly from one shade of dark to another until finally the monochromatic wheels of grey have spun from inky to pale. You just lay there all night staring at the ceiling with the realization that you could start over.
What if you just got rid of the house and the car and cashed out the savings? What if you stopped worrying about whether it was the right thing to do or what was good for the kids and your parents? Who cares if you “earned it” or “deserved it” or whether any of it made “sense”? If the great wide expanse of the world was laid open to you (because it is), what would you do? Where would you go? Who would you be?
Chris and I had been talking about taking a trip like this for as long as I could remember, but I didn’t go on this trip to save our marriage. I didn’t do it for our family. I did it because I needed to know that I still had the balls to make myself happy, that I had the nerve to live the life that I’d always envisioned, one that despite everything, included Chris. And hell or high water, if I was going to be responsible for my own happiness, I had to get out of my own way and take whatever I needed.
So was the year everything I had imagined it would be? No. Twelve months turned into 10. We hit 21 countries instead of the targeted 12. We traveled faster and lighter than anticipated. We went (way) over budget. Homeschool was harder than I thought. Full-time parenting without the distractions of friends, classes and school is not the way to get one-on-one time with your spouse. And it took several months for us to understand that we were not on vacation (as we had no “home” to go back to), but that travel is a way of life.
In so many ways it was better. We now know that we can, and want, to live with way less. We all know how to BE without the distraction of TV and plans and friends and toys. And as if dip dyed in a vat of their own being, Isoo has become more vibrantly Isoo and, Oona more Oona. We four have gotten insanely, ridiculously close. Most of all, I gained a deeper understanding of just how endlessly fascinating the world is and how incredibly privileged and blessed we are to be American.
For the record, in breakneck speed we managed to separate, reconcile, sell the house (and all of our crap), pull the kids from school and away from their friends, and drag them around the world. To the untrained eye, they are the luckiest kids on earth. The truth is, it’s been a tumultuous and crazy year for them, which makes them either the most flexible, resilient, awesome kids ever or doomed for zillions of dollars in future therapy. Personally, I think they are super cool.
As for Chris and I, I’m not sure what to say. There have been many times I felt trapped on this trip with the world’s most annoying person. Other times I literally burst with pride at his ability to navigate tricky situations with calm and confidence. He is absolutely fearless and arrogant and loving and silly. My perfect co-pilot. And then I wonder what all the fuss was about; was love lost or were we merely weathering yet another rut in the often bumpy road that is marriage? What happens when we return to “real life”? I don’t know. I have no answers. But I can’t imagine having done this trip with anyone else, or having had as much fun.
If Panama was Isoo’s choice, Costa Rica, with its monkeys and sea turtles, was Oona’s. We had earmarked several days to volunteer with a sea turtle conservation program in the Osa Peninsula only to learn that the hatching season had yet to start. So instead, we flew to the Papagayo Peninsula and checked into the trendy Andaz Hotel to await the arrival of my cousins, Stella and Spencer, along with his family and their parents, who had booked a fancy villa on the property.
We had only intended on staying in Papagayo for a couple of days, but two days turned into four and finally, after much pleading from the kids, we dragged our battered bags to their place and officially moved in. I didn’t require much persuasion: When my brother called to ask how the trip was going, we told him we’d spent the day drinking margaritas on the private boat charted to cruise us to a secluded beach. Once there, the crew made us a big buffet lunch and we spent the afternoon snorkeling, boogie boarding, paddle boarding, kayaking and jet skiing. Afterwards we came back to the villa and went swimming in the private pool. Kyung’s response? “Ah, you’re on rich people’s vacation.” If you’re going to crash someone’s vacation, you should definitely crash my cousins’.
Thanks to Stella’s expert planning and the generosity of the entire Lee clan, we had a great time. The kids had a blast playing Pokemon and ninja and catching up on movies while the adults lazed and enjoyed delicious meals prepared by the private chef. Seriously, it did not suck.
Throughout the trip, we’ve been floored by the kindness of family and new friends: Alex and Mar who opened their home to teach us how to make a traditional Spanish tortilla. The Skibbereen Soccer Club that allowed our kids to practice with their teams. Pottery teacher Rita who kick wheeled through a power outage to make sure Oona’s birthday was special. John and Becky for ensuring a Christmas filled with joy and love. Janice for tour guiding us all over Chiang Mai. Komang and Elah for taking such great care of us in Lovina. Birders Steve and Begley who took Isoo under their wing in Sydney. Sylvia, for putting aside a busy work schedule to generously host us not once, but twice! in Macau. Miguel and Cristina who welcomed us like old friends and treated us to a delicious lunch and hike. Carol and Shannon for bending over backwards to anticipate our every need in Hong Kong. Natasha and Luke for allowing complete and total strangers to stay in their home without expecting a thing in return. My family in Korea for the lovely meals and priceless stories, and Katherine who trekked in to Seoul just for the chance to share a cup of tea. Helen (and Hans) for the sunny, fun, L.A. hospitality, and Mike and Elaine for the great hike and amazing views. My new buddy Kelly, whom I miss already. Stella, who insisting on sleeping on the couch to make room for us in Costa Rica. Kyung, the awesome Chung family, and Grandma and Grandpa for flying out to meet us and share in this crazy adventure. And my ladies Susan, Tavia, Lillian and Elaine who have been researching apartments, summer camp registration, and keeping me abreast of news back home to smooth our return. And especially Grandpa, for acting as our defacto accountant and executor for the last 10 months. Last but not least, my bro, Jisun and Cousin Jeanine for checking on my parents. The world is pretty remarkable and filled with amazing people. It would have been a long, lonely 10-months without them.
As for Costa Rica, while it turned out that it was not yet sea turtle season, we saw our fare share of howlers and white-faced monkeys, and many, many long tailed coatimundis. Aside from the abundant wildlife, there’s not much else to say about Costa Rica as much of the region’s indigenous tribes were wiped out by the Spanish 500 years ago, and the various Central American countries share deep similarities without many distinguishing features. Their collective history, coupled with the fact that 60% of Costa Rica’s industry is rooted in tourism means two things: very little in the way of cultural individuality, and a wide economic chasm between the locals and the tourists they service. All one needs to do is venture a couple of miles outside the lush, green property and through the pearly gates of the Four Seasons for a glimpse of the arid farmland and corrugated metal shanties to grasp the disconnect.
After six days in Papagayo, we loaded up the 4x4, said a begrudging farewell to the Lees and headed for the final leg of our trip – five nights in a remote jungle retreat in central Costa Rica. No TV, no Internet, solar powered utilities and no paper in the toilet. Just us four, the scorpions and long days left to reflect on our adventure.
Monkey Head Rock
Smooth sailing to our day at the beach.
Black sand beachcombing.
All smiles with Emo Stella.
Indulging in our need for speed.
Spen at the head of the table.
Chris and Oona take Auntie for a spin on the jet ski.
Isoo and Spencer hit the water.
Proof that if you hang out by the captain long enough, he will let you steer the boat.
I'm lucky to come from a big, noisy, crazy extended family of cousins. Wish they were all here for this fantastic day!
What’s not to smile about?
Me and Stella
Palo Verde river boat ride to see crocs, monkeys and you guessed it, birds.
Miyoung and Stella show me the ropes during my first yoga class.
Compare and Contrast: The entry to the Andaz/Four Seasons property. The corrugated metal rooftops of a typical Costa Rican village.
We let each child pick one location. If you're a birder, you know all about the birding mecca that is the Pipeline Trail so you can guess which kid picked Panama. According to Isoo, it was, hands-down, the highlight of our trip. People often ask how Isoo got turned on to birding since neither Chris nor I can ID a sparrow versus a bulbul. Nor would we ever choose a hobby that forces us to rise at the break of dawn to stand for hours in a parking lot in glamorous Zion, IL. We like to place the blame for Isoo's love of birding squarely on Chris' parents, Dick and Deedee's, shoulders. Joking aside, while I like to let Isoo write about his birding adventures on his own blog, www.traveltobird.com, I do want to say how much he's matured as a person and as a birder this year. As some of you may know, Isoo is on an unofficial Big Year, a year dedicated to seeing how many birds he can add to his life list (new species count). Halfway through the trip I told him that we would not hire (expensive) guides just to "spoon-feed" him birds to add to his life list. Since then, he's spent countless hours researching birds of whatever region we happen to be in. If you ask him, he'll say he's disappointed that his overall count is lower than anticipated, but I'm proud that he's truly earned much of his bird list the old fashioned way - with lots of research, reading and careful observation. That said, he was thrilled when his grandparents arrived in Panama. Not only did he have in them equally passionate birding companions, but great mentors and teachers with whom he was excited to "mop up" Panama.
Now comes the tricky part. What to do when you have two grandchildren, one with whom you share your greatest hobby, the other, who has zero birding interest and is a very physical 8-year old to your 70-something year-old self? How does one not seem to play favorites? Moreover, how does one keep up? We were all a tad worried about the potential for hurt feelings and the juggling of divided interests. In the end, we did some things together, some things separately, and all of us managed to have a great time. Isoo racked up 100 new birds to his life list and Oona exhausted Grandma with endless games of UNO and swimming. Most importantly, we all felt lucky to be able to make memories together that spanned three generations.
As for Panama, we stayed in a "resort" at the edge of the Pipleline Trail. While this made for some decent bird sightings and gave us a taste of the country's famed natural offerings, I regret not joining them on a birding trip to see the birders in action and get a true sense of Panama's wildlife. But we did take a fun ariel tram tour (twice) that literally, gave us a great overview of the jungle, and stomped the UNESCO appointed Casco Viejo to glimpse the crumbling ghost of Panama's French colonial influence. But the most impressive sight? The man-made wonder that is the Panama Canal - a fascinating homeschool subject that managed to capture everyone's attention.
We took an ariel tram up to get a look at some of Panama's indigenous plant and animal life.
As soon as we disembarked and climbed to the top of the 10-story Observation Tower the sky opened up and let out a torrent of rain.
We threw in the (wet) towel when the thunder and lightning started. Sadly, we didn't get to see much, but the guides let us return the next day.
From the distance we could see barges transporting cargo along the peaceful Panama Canal.
Our hotel was over a rickety one lane bridge which, we later learned, was closed for maintenance twice a week. A tad inconvenient, but the laid back locals didn't seem to mind.
Beyond the thicket of bamboo, the jungly resort, home to a wide variety of birds, iguanas, monkeys and many, many agoutis, a rodent that resembles a giant rat.
At the Orchid Garden in Gamboa.
See! Birders love parking lots!
Despite long, humid days in the heat birding, Grandma made sure to conserve some energy to go swimming with Oona. Chris could't remember the last time she got in the pool. Oona was beyond thrilled.
And of course, they had fun playing cards.
As for Panama City, color, heat and crazy traffic abounds. The outrageously painted Red Devil busses add to the mania.
I love the contrasting architecture of Catedral de Panama in the Casco Viejo. The tops of the twin towers are encrusted with mother-of-pearl from the nearby Pearl Islands.
Once the city's center, after the burning and looting of the Casco Viejo in 1671, it was left to commence a long, slow decline with the population relocated to the nearby peninsula. In recent years, the area has been enjoying a resurgence, but the renovation is slow going. In the meanwhile, color abounds and the city retains much of its dilapidated charm.
What's the difference between a good Panama hat and a bad one? A good one is woven so tight it won't split when rolled and packed. And a true Panama hat comes One Size Fits All - the ribbon should not just be decorative, but able to be tightened. After a while, the wearer's sweat will shrink the straw to fit snuggly on the head for a truly custom fit.
The indigenous Kuna tribespeople of Panama.
The defunct trolley tracks of the Casco Viejo. I'd love to see this come back once the area's renovation is complete.
The Panama Canal was one of those things I'd always heard about growing up, but until this trip, I didn't really understand why it was important or how it worked. Before it's creation, goods needed to be shipped down the Atlantic Ocean and then crossed by land over the Panama isthmus and reloaded onto a ship waiting on the Pacific side or, worse, endure the dangerous and lengthy trip all the way down and around Cafe Horn off the tip of Chile before heading back north.
A strip of the Panama Isthmus was basically blown up and then excavated until it could accommodate a ship. Then man-made Lake Gatun was harnessed to flood the channel and a series of three locks created to control the water level so that ships can be elevated and then lowered to meet the water height of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It takes about 8-10 hours for a ship to clear the locks (in addition to a 14 hour queue time). In total, 24 hours, but way faster than going around South America.
The creation of the Panama Canal transformed the shipping industry and made the world more accessible. Since the handover of the canal to Panama, the country has started plans to create a larger lock, which means bigger boats (in the form of cruise boats touring Central and South America) and lots more revenue. A great thing for Panama and perhaps, for our future travels!
We suspected that after our stop in LA, it would be hard to leave behind the familiarity of America, the beauty of California and most of all, friends and family. It didn't help that the only flights we could find using our frequent flyer miles required a 3:30 A.M. wake up call. Oona cried and cried as we carried her to the car, saying she didn't care about traveling or Mexico and just wanted to go back to bed, wake up at a reasonable hour and then spend the day at the beach with Helen, Kyung, Elaine, Mike and their dog Barbie. As far as she was concerned we were ruining her life by taking her on this stupid trip that she never wanted to go on in the first place. Isoo put it more succinctly. "This sucks. Why can't you guys ever shell out for better departure times?"
To entice the kids back on the road, we made our first stop Club Med Cancun. This meant nothing to them as neither they (nor Chris and I for that matter) had ever been to an all-inclusive resort. It was not the kind of travel we had ever done before as I never saw the point of going to another country only to stay somewhere that protects you from actually experiencing it. But after 8 months on the road, we needed a little break from the daily planning, the constant searching out of the next meal, the getting lost on public transport, the pantomiming that passed for communication. So when we found a last minute deal, we hopped on it, arriving just in time for the water aerobics class, the only pool like a giant pot brimming with white people dancing awkwardly to Katy Perry tunes. Isoo and I passed sideways glances, already hating place. Oona loved it immediately and for the next five days, she happily danced to Jimmy Buffet covers on the beach, rode the mechanical bull, and raided the dessert bar at breakfast (who knew we needed dessert after breakfast????). She sailed, kayaked, danced in the talent show, and swung on the trapeze. Eventually, even Isoo came around, playing bocce, soccer and pool basketball with a bunch of French boys. By day 3 they each had a new best friend and the much needed freedom to come and go as they pleased. Walking into the snack bar, I found Isoo sitting at a table for one, having ordered himself a quesadilla. Oona flagged down a golf cart to run back to her room for sneakers. Chris trotted out his rusty backhand to volley with the resident tennis pro. And I passed more than one afternoon perched on a lounge chair talking to my new friend, Kelly. We never once left the resort. Margaritas and chimichangas passed for culture. And aside from the occasional "hola" and "gracias", no espanol was necessary. It was exactly what we needed and didn't know it.
Isoo is my shy kid. This means it takes about a dozen French boys to urge him onto the soccer field. Between games, they competed in an elaborate made-up relay race that involved doing laps, pool basketball, racing on the beach, chugging water and then diving back into the pool. He slept well at day's end.
Our room with a view. Hard to get any sleep when you know this is waiting.
Swinging on a trapeze is apparently not good enough. Must also hang upside and do the splits. Where does she get this stuff?
Chris gave it a go as well. Not as fancy as Oona, but teacher Aki was proud!
Lora and Jorja are old friends, but only 5 minutes after our arrival, they generously made room for Oona. After that, the girls were inseparable. We were sad to see Lora leave early, but I suspect it won't be the last time we see the girls. Here they are with the awesome, Aki.
Lora's mom, Mariko, modestly claimed to be a proprietor of a wedding dress shop in Japan. Turns out it's a chain of 75 shops. Kelly, Jorja's mom, said she was a Wellness Director in a little town in Canada who had been rerouted on her way back from another vacation. That other vacation? A trip to summit Everest. She was in Nepal the day the earthquake hit. Old friends, the two spontaneously convened in Cancun to decompress and count their blessings. Both wonderful, fascinating women whom I was lucky to befriend.
Our other new friend, Popeye. The girls loved to torture him by hanging on him in the pool.
My snorkeling partner.
Oona performing in the talent show. She was the cat's meow.
Oona and Jorja, hanging out.
When Isoo and his buddy Xavier weren't playing ping pong, they were jumping waves and playing catch.
Isoo had lots of questions for Kelly regarding the earthquake. While it was an emotional, heartbreaking subject for Kelly, she spoke openly about her experience and the devastation she witnessed. Among the stories the one that shook me most: before any talk of a death toll, Kelly knew things were really horrible when she looked into the horizon and saw that there were no trees left. They had been cut down to use as firewood in accordance with the Nepalese Buddhist tradition of cremating the dead. Isoo was riveted and met her candor with the proclamation, "Kelly, I think you are the most interesting person I have ever met."
Fast friends, Jorga and Oona.
If Club Med Cancun is the fantasy Mexico imagined by wealthy foreign tourists, then Merida is the drowsy daydream of bygone days. Chris had been dying to visit Merida and at one point, it was put on the official itinerary only to be taken off after consulting the weather. But it seemed wrong to go all the way to Cancun and not make the short drive, so despite the 105 degree temps, we slathered on another layer of deodorant, loaded up the Nissan and, with the AC blasting, headed into the heart of the Yucatan.
Chris had snagged us a fantastic deal on a chic, five bedroom house in the middle of town. Think Mexican tile, traditional artwork, and hand crocheted linens meets modern furniture, poured concrete chef’s kitchen and a sleek courtyard with a private swimming pool. The house had been featured in Elle Décor and the NYT, but what the articles had failed to mention was the lack of air conditioning (you know it's super hot when the kids ask to go sit in the car). The house was also filthy with several outstanding maintenance issues. We packed it in and ended up at Rosas y Xocholate, a tiny, boutique hotel down the street. While we had a lovely stay, we were heartbroken not to be able to stay in the house. If it were ready for us, I'm sure it would have been a favorite of the trip.
As for Merida, we strolled down Paseo de Montejo to watch families ride bikes past the once regal 1900’s mansions owned by the henquen plantation owners. It was Sunday, Mother’s Day, and both the colorful Igelsia de Santa Ana and the plain Jane, Merida Cathedral hummed with prayer. After service the sidewalk cafes filled with families celebrating together, several generations seated at a table eating poc chuch (sliced grilled pork in adobo sauce) and cochinita (marinated pork wrapped in banana leaves and roasted under ground). We took cover from the enthusiastic street hawkers to browse the artwork in Pasaje de la Revolucion. We had planned to return to Plaza Grande that evening to listen to a band play mambos, rumbas, and cha-chas while dancers filled the streets, but after a long day in the heat, followed by a heavy Mother’s Day supper and an all too delicious mezcal tasting (accompanied by orange slices, flavored salt and crispy roasted grasshoppers), we ended up calling it a night.
We woke early the next morning to drive back in time to see the ancient Mayan pyramids of Chichen Itza. We baked in the heat as we counted the tiers of El Castillo and walked the magnificent ball court wondering how pok ta pok players could possibly shoot a rubber ball through a concrete hoop with just their elbows, knees and hips. Afterwards we cooled our sweaty asses by jumping into the icy waters of Ik Kil Cenote, an ancient swimming hole 130 feet deep. Chris and Isoo did tandem dives while Oona and I floated in the water amid black catfish and dripping vines. Even the throng of chanting Spanish tourists couldn’t squelch the experience.
The crumbling mansions of Paseo de Montejo, a street devised to mirror Paris' Champs-Elysees. On Sunday mornings, the street is closed to traffic and locals rent funny clamped-together bikes to enjoy a family ride around the city.
Andres Quintana Roo (Mexican liberal politician, lawyer and author) stands proud in Santa Ana Park.
The vivid Igelsia de Santa Ana.
The perfect place for a Mother's Day photo: Parque de la Maternidad .
The austere simplicity of Merida Cathedral. Any ornamentation was long ago looted during the Mexican Revolution.
Flying high at Plaza Grande.
Browsing the street stalls of Plaza Grande. Isoo settles for a kiss instead of a toy.
The fantastical sculptures of Pasaje de la Revolucion.
Cooling off at the pink and brown themed Rosas y Xocholate Hotel.
Merida is equal parts crumbly, sticky, gentile, romantic. I loved it.
When the Spanish colonized Merida, they named the streets numerically, however, the mostly illiterate Mayan population found the system confusing. So they added red plaques with images and names evocative of the street's significance. The older population still refer to the streets by those names.
Chichen Itza's El Castillo and its slithering snakes (not that Isoo noticed).
The Great Ball Court of Chichen Itza is indeed great. The largest in Mesoamerica, it hosted Pok ta Pok matches - an ancient Mayan game that comprised of two teams whose goal was to launch a small rubber ball through the rings on either side of the court using only knees, hips and elbows with the ball moving only in the direction of the rotating sun. Sounds easy, right? For sure. The reward for the winning team's Captain? He would present his own head to the losing Captain, who would then decapitate him, fast tracking him past the 13 steps that Mayan's believed took to reach heaven.
The ring. Quidditch, anyone?
The scenic Cenote Ik Kil. We swam in the chilly waters surrounded by dappled sunlight, dripping vines, black catfish and fluttering turquoise-browed motmots.
Chris and I tend to agree on locations. We loved Rome and Tokyo, were intrigued by Beijing, bored in Bali and Sydney. But with Mexico City, we couldn't be further apart. Chris was "surprised and delighted" to find that Mexico City was "complex, savvy, hip and modern" and ranked it among the top three places that we visited. While I enjoyed the Frida Kahlo Museum and the cool Museo de Templo Mayor, I found Mexico City to be far from the land of splendor of which he raved. Honestly, for me, the city still feels very rough around the edges, and not in a charming way. There are trendy neighborhoods for sure, but the roads are pocked with holes, the trains congested and dirty, the water undrinkable, lusty teenagers make out on street corners, and there's a general sense of unpredictability that left me ill at ease. While I've never felt a tinge of danger on this trip previously, Oona turned to me one night in Mexico City after narrowly sidestepping a drunken brawl and clenching my hand tightly said, "I think it's good for a parent to hold their child's hand here, don't you?" Don't get me wrong, Mexico City is not bad, (and it's anticipated that in the coming years, it will get much, much better; in fact, by 2050 Mexico is expected to be the world's fifth largest economy), but for me, it wasn't all that great either. During dinner at Limosneros, our waiter Luis confessed that at the age of 12, he had crossed to the U.S., not once, but twice to spend 10 years in California and Texas. When Chris generously prophesied that the fence would soon act to keep Americans out of Mexico rather than the other way around, Luis shook his head and said, "No. I miss America every day. I would not have come back to Mexico City if I didn't have to care for my father."
I'm not sure what any of this means. But I know if given the option, I'd take a few extra days in sleepy Merida any day.
Our room with a view. Overlooking Alameda Central and the orange dome of the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
Man, Controller of the Universe by Diego Rivera.
Imagine that you are an electrical worker sent to repair underground cables when suddenly, you hit a huge pre-Hispanic stone disk over 10 feet wide and etched with the tale of a mythical moon goddess. Imagine you keep digging and discover a gigantic underground Aztec city made up of two giant temples, numerous smaller temples, ceramic urns, sculptures, ancient tools, and countless animal and human skeletons. Then imagine you find this smack dab in the middle of Mexico City. Welcome to Museo de Templo Mayor, ancient Tenochtitlan.
Templo Mayor was constructed to reflect the Mayan belief that there are 13 levels of heaven and 9 levels of the underworld. With every new leader, the complex was to be expanded, but first, human sacrifices must be offered at the temples of Huitzilopochtli, god of war, and Tlaloc, god of rain and agriculture. The Aztec warriors would go to battle for the sole purpose of capturing would-be sacrificial victims. The still beating hearts of the captured would be placed in the stone bowl of a chacmool (reclining stone figure) and offered to the gods for a blessed construction. The sprawling complex is testament to the victorious fighting power of the Aztecs.
After the capture of Aztec ruler, Moctezuma II, Spaniard Hernan Cortes, asked for his ransom - a room filled with gold. After receiving his request, he killed Moctezuma anyway and took Tenochtitlan, looting it for treasures and then destroying the temples before constructing a Catholic cross on the remains. (Thus the origin of Montezuma's Revenge.) The ruins of Templo Mayor with Catedral Metropolitana in the distance.
Palacio de Correos de Mexico is truly a postal palace. I've never felt so under-dressed to mail a post card.
The sculpture garden of the (missable) Museo de Arte Moderno.
Chapultepec Castle as seen from Bosque de Chapultepec.
We spent an entire day learning about Mexican mythology at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. On the very crowded subway home Chris pulled me close and whispered, "Look." A woman with crazy piercings and extreme make-up had a hive of tiny winged bugs crawling all over her head. We were horrified and riveted at the same time. That night we all had weird dreams about human sacrifices, winged insects, blue pebbles in the mouths of the dead, plumed snakes and a man with painted eyes and the beak of a bird.
But my hands down favorite was the Frida Kahlo Museum.
Frida's studio though she mostly painted in her day time bedroom, a skinny room with doors that opened to a beautiful courtyard and garden. Her day time bed was a canopied contraption, with a mirror on the ceiling so she could paint her self-portraits while lying in bed. Also on view, an extensive doll collection featuring little figurines made in her likeness - a substitute for the children she would never bear.
Frida and Diego.
After dinner in the historic center, we thought it would be fun to stroll to Plaza Garibaldi and listen to the mariachi bands. It was only 9:30 P.M. and Mexico City was thumping with club music, the streets overflowing with drunken young people, roving mariachis grabbing dinner at the street carts, and stray cats weaving through our legs. Oona was so overwhelmed by the scene that she said she would never go to a bar or night club. Mark her words!
For $100 a mariachi band will serenade you a song of your choice. We were too cheap to shell out the dough, but lucky us, we got a show anyway.
We thought it would be a great idea to break up the long flight from Asia to Central America which is how we ended up in the U.S. Why L.A. is a longer, more convoluted misunderstanding, as it would have made more sense to stop through Miami. I think Chris “accidentally” booked our one-way flight to L.A. as part of a ploy to get us excited about a move to California, an idea he’s been toying with for years. Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of L.A., but I was, admittedly, super excited to see our friend Helen, my cousin Elaine and her husband Mike. Another perk? A trip to Target to replace threadbare underwear, holey socks and mysterious tasting toothpaste.
Three days before we were set to arrive in L.A., Chris and I still had no idea where we would go next. We had stockpiled our hotel and frequent flyer miles in the event of an emergency return and now that we were toward the end of the trip, it seemed the ideal time to cash them in. We spent hours investigating options. My suggestions for Argentina and Brazil were met with a collective groan (too long a flight), we couldn’t get a visa to Cuba in time, Machu Picchu tickets were sold out, the Galapagos too expensive. Costa Rica and Panama were already on the docket. We couldn’t use miles for Colombia. So when Helen, a family friend, and her husband, Hans, a friend and sometime work colleague of Chris’ asked how long we would be staying with them, we answered, “I dunno, maybe forever?” I’m sure Helen wanted to kill Hans for inviting us and then abandoning her for a the long planned week in New Orleans, but despite this, Helen was an excellent hostess, opening up her beautiful home to us, letting us do massive loads of laundry, playing dominos with the kids, and waking up to find Oona, brush in hand, waiting to do her hair.
The other surprise was that my brother Kyung was flying in on the red eye to meet the kids. When we got off the airport shuttle, Isoo and Oona were shocked to see him waiting in line at the Budget Car Rental Center. Needless to say, it made an already exciting stop that much better. More awesome family time strolling Brentwood with Elaine and Mike, touring picturesque Manhattan Beach with Helen and Kyung, and Helen whipping up a killer BBQ with our new friends Rose and Michael to watch the Mayweather vs. Pacquiao fight. The next day we all strolled groddy Venice Beach, but by the time we made our way down the mountain at Westridge-Canyonback Wilderness Park, I had drunk the L.A. kool-aid and it tasted of sunshine, the ocean and a touch of middle-aged hippie. And just to make sure I had the full California experience, I was jolted out of bed in the middle of the night by an honest to goodness (baby) earthquake.
In between we made it to Target (twice!) and shipped home the remainder of our cold weather gear so that we were down to two small suitcases filled with clothes and shoes, a small carry-on case of hard to replace items (medicines, eyeglasses, contact lenses, the kids’ blankies), a backpack for laptops, another for binocs and school supplies, and my purse. People often ask me how I packed for this trip and all I can say is that the old adage of “take half the stuff and twice the money” is true. Here is what I learned from my packing experience:
Things I regret bringing:
Nice shoes and clothes - Who are we kidding? Our kids did not have the patience for fancy dress up meals.
Pochard Box - bulky and seldom used. Crayons and paper work just as well.
Kids' Kindle keyboards - impossible to use even for small fingers.
Anything White - with the exception of the husband.
Toys and Games - who has time for games when there’s so much to see and do?
School Books - heavy, boring (just kidding) and so easy to find tutorials and worksheets online.
Things I’m glad I brought:
Kindles - cheaper, lighter and easier to carry than books
Jackery - a portable cell charger that can charge two cellphones at once at half the time. Super important during long travel days.
Blankies/Sweats - anything that makes you feel like you're at home.
Packsafe Travel Safe - Airbnb rentals seldom provide a safe, and with so many keys in the hands of past tenants, a portable safe has given us some peace of mind. Also handy for overnight train/boat trips.
Fabric softener sheets - believe it or not, fabric softener is hard to find abroad. I pack loose sheets in with clothes just to keep things smelling fresh.
Spices - cause sometimes all your kids want to eat is pasta with butter and dill. Or tacos.
Starbucks coffee packets - that is unless you want to drink Nescafe.
Antibiotics - in Europe you can pretty much walk into any pharmacy and they will happily cure you of gangrene over the counter. In other countries, it makes sense to buy and pack in advance.
Hand sanitizer - cause some countries do not provide soap in public bathroom (Japan, I'm talking to you!).
Flip flops - if you're Asian and used to being barefoot, this is the next best thing.
Sponges, shower curtain, Clorox Wipes - some Airbnbs are cleaner than others. If I'm staying in one place for awhile, I'll provide my own fresh sponge, new plastic shower curtain and a can of Clorox Wipes. I've also been known to purchase replacement broom heads. Wait did that just make me sound crazy?
Earplugs - Lisbon, anyone?
Things I Wish I'd Brought:
Robe/Pool Cover-up - especially if you find yourself RVing in New Zealand.
Full-size Travel Towel - you try changing on a public beach behind a hand towel.
Perfume - though we made ample use of the testers at the Duty Free shops.
Tevas and a fanny pack - these are two things I said I would never own. Alas.
Last but not least, the ABSOLUTE MUST-HAVES:
Schwab Banking- no ATM fees!
Chase Sapphire Card- no foreign transaction fees and a great rewards program. Saved us a TON of money.
T-Mobile Cell Carrier - fantastic global data and text plan. Seriously, we could not have done without this.
FaceTime, Google Hangout - both more reliable than Skype.
Whatsapp - free text app that's super popular in Asia. Fantastic for getting in touch with family members and landlords in Asia.
Google Maps - a godsend. How did anyone ever get anywhere before this was invented? With the exception of Marrakesh, Vietnam and Beijing where it was not available, we used it every day.
While I'm enjoying this trip immensely, and really loved our time in L.A., it felt strange to come so close to Chicago only to fly further away. In the back of my mind, a nagging voice said, "just end it here and go home and check on dad." But by then, we had our tickets to Mexico in hand and our bags repacked with all we needed (and none of what we didn't). Only one more month until we're back in Evanston for good (or until California comes calling).
Watching birds and surfers at the Manhattan Beach promenade.
Uncle Kyung!!!!! Reunited.
I totally get why Helen is Kyung's favorite "sister". She's pretty awesome. Hans, we understand that New Orleans needed their king, but we missed you!
Wandering Venice Beach.
That's about right.
Poor Mike seeking shelter from the sun. We gotta get this man a tan!
Here is Chris trying to convince me to move West. The views were on his side.
Oona and Barbie hiking Westridge-Canyonback Wilderness Park. Mike and Elaine better watch out for 8 year-old dognappers.
Isoo gives Helen some pointers on birding.
My L.A. family.
We spent two busy weeks in Japan, spreading our time between the mad hustle of Tokyo, the serenity of a Shinto Temple outside of Nara, and the gorgeous cultural capital of Kyoto. And despite the differing perspectives and the rich, varied experience, I realize how little I still know about Japan. It's certainly a quiet country, shrouded in ceremony and mystery, polite yet private. But it's more than that: as I get deeper into this trip, I realize how little I know of the world in general. The frenzied pace of this trip may have cured me of my chronic over planning, but even if I had had the time to research and read, to learn a bit of the language and study Japan's history, I wonder if I would be any closer to understanding this, or for that matter, any country.
How long does it take to really know a place? Should I have stayed another week? A month? A year? Does it bring me any closer to expert if I was born there? What must I see? Who must I know? I'm embarrassed by how often my answer to the kids' questions are "I don't know, let's look it up when we get home," or the equally ineffective "Beats me, go ask your dad". In this blog, I don't attempt to pass my opinions off as knowledge, it's merely my narrow perspective based on our family's experience; a place to catalogue our memories. But as I get close to the end of this trip, I realize travel is for me, a lifelong endeavor; one that requires me to return to locations, read, eat, make friends, and take chances beyond Tripadvisor and the guidebooks' recommendations. I'm sad that this trip is drawing to a close, but at the same time, I know with certainty that this is what I'm meant to do (now if only my kids shared my passion and I could figure out a way to fund it!). As ill prepared as I was for travel, I'm getting better with each place and the list of where I'd like to go next just keeps getting longer. It's humbling to travel, to not know the language or the rules. I find myself so often leading with an apology, and when it's late and raining and nothing is open and you're lost and none of the ATMs will take foreign cards and the kids are hungry and you're all running on the last remaining fumes not yet extinguished by jet lag, travel can really break you down. You start to fantasize about your old house and your old bed and a take-out deep dish pizza and a cold martini shaken expertly by Chris in the crappy old kitchen. But I do believe, and this is what keeps us going, travel can also build you up.
So Japan, I have questions: What's the deal with the geishas (or as they are called in Kyoto, geikos)? And the hedgehogs? And the people that dress up in kimonos to visit historical sites to take selfies? Japan is fascinating. A country where salarymen co-exist with funky Harajuku kids. Where cutting edge technology thrives alongside sumo wrestlers, geishas and ancient Buddhist temples, and serene pockets of nature flourish amongst neon towers. While at dinner, we met an American who'd recently moved from Brazil to Japan. When I asked him about his experience, he said, "In Brazil, nothing works, but everyone is happy. In Japan, everything works, but everyone is so...closed." It's certainly a hard country to know. Perhaps I'll find the answers on my next visit.
A couple of years back my cousins Sunny and Charles visited Tokyo and were walking down the street enjoying a snack when they were stopped by a police officer who crossed his arms in an X and bowing deeply, whispered “sumimaisen“ Translation: "I'm sorry [but forbidden]" . Sunny relays this story with a combination of amusement and reverence for the polite yet rigid formality of the Japanese culture. For sure they are rule followers. No one walks down the street chatting or sipping coffee. There’s no eating in public, no horseplay, and (a nightmare for Oona) no jumping or skipping. Despite the crowds and brisk pace, there’s definitely no jostling or touching. It’s like watching a fluid high speed ballet. Yellow sidewalk markings keep the walkways divided so you can remember to walk on the left and cross only at the designated rectangles. And while I was certain, based on Sunny's stories, that my spirited children and loud American husband would draw similar reproaches, the “sumimaisens” never came. We were, however, shot the occasional disapproving glance, so subtle only a child of Asian parents could detect.
Even subway travel is orderly and efficient, with commuters lined up in single file behind designated markers.
Riding the train during rush hour is surreal. A sea of black suits, brief cases and nearly identical ties.
The kids in the Harajuku neighborhood are as colorful as the salarymen are not. Filled with trinket stalls, funky shops, crepe stands and great people watching, Isoo and Oona loved this area best.
We followed a pack of rowdy teenagers down a staircase to find a purikura shop - a series of photo booths where you can get your picture taken and then enhance it with goofy stickers and images. Each booth offers a different theme and some even rent costumes and wigs so you can recreate your favorite anime character or pop star.
Blonde hair is surprisingly popular in Tokyo.
After browsing the jewel-like bento boxes at the sprawling Tokyu Food Show we headed to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden for a picnic lunch among the cherry blossoms. Hands down the most beautiful city park I've ever seen.
Frantically reading yet another guidebook.
My favorite area in Tokyo was the historic Yanaka. We bought homemade grilled senbei (Japanese rice crackers) and walked the streets filled with wooden houses, Buddhist temples and giant, gnarled trees.
While wandering the alleyways, we ran into a group of school girls in the midst of a photography class. They asked Chris to pose and burst into giggles when he agreed.
There's nothing like the night time energy of Tokyo. This photo was taken at 9pm though you couldn't tell. The streets are so flooded with neon and thumping pop music that it almost feels like you're indoors.
The streetlights at Shibuya Crossing are timed so that all five crosswalks are halted simultaneously. When the light changes to green, the street is flooded with bodies making their way across the massive intersection.
Oona's favorite thing about Tokyo? Karaoke! We went to Karaoke Kan, a high-rise of cozy rooms outfitted with a karaoke machine, overstuffed leather couches, strobe lights and frosted glass doors. $10 gets you a Singapore Sling and an extensive roster of American songs. It was hilarious to walk down the hallway and spy the lone Japanese businessman, tie loosened, drink in hand, singing loudly and off-key in the privacy of his own room. Oona sang her heart out, too. She loved it so much we went twice.
The sprawling Meiji Shrine was built to honor the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. The Emperor was known for introducing Western culture to Japan. He cut his topknot, drank wine, wore Western clothes and encouraged modernity in an otherwise traditional country.
We went to Meiji Shrine and strolled the 170 acre evergreen forest looking for, you guessed it, birds.
Chris loved Tokyo so much he kept threatening to quit the trip and set roots. But the one day he lost it and begged to go home was the day we tried to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market. Chris and I very much wanted to see the giant, human-sized tuna being auctioned, but we knew that there was no way the kids would be willing to cue up at 3:00 A.M.. for the 6:30 show. Instead, we meandered over around 9:00 A.M., just as the fishmongers closed shop and the lines for the sushi restaurants snaked around the block. After an hour and a half, sunburned, grumpy, starving and still only halfway to the entrance, we threw in the towel. Traveling with kids requires compromises, and sometimes, it feels like no one wins. If Chris had his way, he would have stayed up all night singing karaoke, hitting the top notch cocktail bars, listening to Japanese jazz and going straight to the auction. Alas, only 10 more years.
Scenes from the Tsukiji Fish Market. Check out the sword he uses to slice the fish!
The Tokyo subway takes some getting used to; fares are based on distance traveled so for every ticket one must consult the giant fare map. Once you get the hang of it, the subway is efficient, clean and fast. We took the train to Odaiba for what amounted to Isoo's (non-birding) dream day: the crazy arcade/amusement park Joypolis, ice cream, a visit to the Toyota exhibition hall, and a ride on the ferris wheel.
We decided to extend our stay in Tokyo, but because our little loft was already booked, we had to move to another location. A note about housing in Tokyo - the apartments are teensy and Airbnb, while lucrative for hosts, is at odds with the very private local culture. In fact the program is currently being evaluated by the city with new legislation to follow. In the meanwhile, after booking our housing, we were emailed a lengthy handbook with instructions not talk to, make eye contact with or engage any of the neighbors. Also prohibited: talking in the common areas, hanging out on balconies or rooftops and making noise. My favorite of the two apartments was the one in the Daikanyama, a mellow neighborhood with funky boutiques and a beautiful canal. If you ever go to Tokyo, I highly recommend this hood!
Tokyo in a nutshell. Shopping at the Tokyu Food Show.
Also spotted at the Tokyu Food Show. Oona said, "I thought she was a mascot!"
We must talk about the sushi! Ok, there are inexpensive places, but for excellent fish, the cost is high. Or, if you're willing to wait and wait and wait, you can get an awesome meal like this for a great price. We showed up at Umegaoka Sushino Midori Ginza when the doors opened to find we were #61. But it was worth the wait. I mean, the fish is practically swimming off the plate.
While in Tokyo, we crashed a sumo practice. We watched large scantily clad men wrestle, which to the untrained eye, looked as it they trying to flip each other over by grasping and pulling on the mawashi loin cloth and/or, pull their heads off by pushing on their opponent's throat. It was actually more violent and less theatrical than expected. I wish I knew more about its Shinto origins and the role of wrestlers in modern day Tokyo. Later, we shared a train to Osaka with a few wrestlers. I was dying to bombard them with questions, but felt suddenly shy. However, Chris did manage this picture.
While in Korea, I really wanted to do a stay at Golgulsa Temple. Days begin at 4:30 A.M. with hours of sitting meditation interspersed with walking mediation, Sunmudo training and modest vegetarian meals. As you could guess, the kids were not exactly thrilled about the idea (see above re: Tsukiji Fish Market). They cheered when we missed the train. Instead, they opted for a stay at the more relaxing Senju-in Temple in rural Nara.
One giant bed. Oona finally has enough room to spread out.
Jizo is the guardian of aborted, stillborn and miscarried fetuses. Those grieving often visit the altar and offer alms in return for the safeguarding of the unborn souls.
The monks at Senju-in do not go hungry. The fantastic chef treated us to an amazing vegetarian kaiseki (haute cuisine) dinner. It was one of many wonderful meals we had in Japan.
We hiked through vivid Shinto gates to mediate at the top of a mountain. How cool is that?
Our after dinner stroll through the lit lanterns.
We joined the monks for the 6:00 A.M. meditation service that begins with chanting and ends with the burning of wooden prayer sticks. I could have meditated all day. It was such a peaceful, perfect way to recharge.
None of the monks spoke English, though Mako carried a crib sheet around with him in an effort to learn. He was such a sweet, kind man and really lovely to the kids. The experience was so positive Isoo declared himself Buddhist and has begun to meditate regularly.
After Nara we hopped back on the train and headed to Kyoto where we stayed in a fantastic machiya (traditional wooden house) in the Gion area right around the corner from Yasaka Pagoda.
The view of Yasaka Pagoda from the end of our block.
Tourists ride a jinrikisha down our street.
One of many cute little courtyard restaurants in the Gion.
Chris absolutely hated the touristy kitsch of Kyoto, but I loved it for the traditional houses, breathtaking pagodas, lush mountains and scenic gardens.
Admittedly, Kiyomizu Temple was pretty awful. Crowded, noisy with construction and nary a hint of religious reverence. It was like Temple Disneyland. While its cliffside location is impressive, the lack of cultural and spiritual heft left me wondering if it warranted its UNESCO status.
Okay, here is curious phenomenon: for $35/day, you can walk into one of a dozen shops to style your hair and make-up and rent a kimono. The tourists then walk around Kyoto visiting the various sights and taking selfies of themselves in traditional dress. EVERYONE does this and strangely enough, don't seem to find it to be the least bit trivializing.
If you're lucky, you can spot geikos and maikos walking the Gion. People react like they've captured a leprechaun, cornering them for photos and making them impossibly late for work. Guilty as charged.
Geikos heading home after a long night of being charming. I am dying to know more about the geiko world, but their company is limited to a private group of referred customers eager to pay top yen.
Another Japanese mystery: in all the world the potter's wheel turns counter-clockwise with the exception of Japan. Even Eu, the kids' pottery teacher was stumped as to why.
More questions: on every doorstep in Kyoto is this guy. He resembles a happy little hedgehog. While often alone, he is, on occasion, joined by a hedgehog spouse and children. Sometimes he is holding a radish.
Other times he holds a pickle on a stick. Don't ask me why; just add it to the list.
Japanese school girls jump for joy at Yasaka Pagoda.
In Japan we had sushi, tonkatsu, ramen, dumplings, not enough matcha rice dumpling parfaits, and a super tender and oily tasting Kobe steak. But the most fun was the okonomi pancake. It's sort of like a Japanese pizza. Just pick your topping and watch it grill table side.
The whole yen garden thing is real. Big swaths of cordoned off gravel pits raked in simplistic patterns. One garden (which we unfortunately didn't have time to see) is said to feature a landscape of river washed pebbles raked and scattered with nine large stones. Viewers can sit on an elevated platform and meditate on the stones' placement.
We pilgrimaged to Arashiyama to see Kyoto's famous bamboo forest. It's a tidy lot filled with tourists, yet you can't help but feel transported as you walk through the thicket of green stalks. Sadly, I couldn't get a picture worthy of its beauty so you'll just have to trust me when I say its pretty awesome.
We had to take the train back to Tokyo to catch our flight to L.A. For our last night I booked us at the Hotel Nikko Tokyo because they alleged to have not one, but two swimming pools. However when we got there, we were told no kids were allowed in the pool. When I expressed my disappointment, the manager came over and in whispered, apologetic tones, offered us a room with a hot tub. We figured a jacuzzi bath was better than nothing. To our surprise, she led us to the top floor and as she dipped in the key card, Oona whispered excitedly "Mom, it's got two doors! This is going to be good!" It was: a huge suite with bedroom, kitchen, two bathrooms, a sprawling living room, several balconies and a private rooftop garden. Oh and don't forget the hot tub. Perfect end to a great visit.
Second only to the Chinese, Korean tourists are everywhere. We’ve seen them climbing the conical mountains of Cappadocia, taking selfies along the Tiber in Rome, picking their way through the rubble of Angkor Wat. They disembark double decker buses en mass, dressed in vivid track suits and multi-colored visors, chattering as loudly and joyfully as Rainbow Lorikeets. And every time I spied them, I would feel strangely comforted. We were all looking forward to Korea – the food, the culture, seeing family. And in those ways Korea felt familiar. For us, it was the closest thing to going home. In other ways, it was totally alien. Or maybe I was just made to feel that way. Everywhere we’ve been in Asia, the locals thought of me as their own: In Thailand, they assumed I was Thai. In Indonesia, I was Indonesian. In Vietnam; Vietnamese. A Cambodian taxi driver was so convinced that I was one of them that despite repeating, “Korean, from America” (because when you’re Asian traveling abroad, it is never enough to just say American), he watched me from the rearview mirror, blurting the occasional Cambodian word to see if my eyes betrayed a flicker of recognition. But in Korea, they took in my wide freckled face, the grey hair, heavy ass and shook their head suspiciously as if to say, “Oh no, you can’t possibly be one of us.” The young men are impossibly dapper and pretty as girls. The women are flawless, expertly coiffed and tailored. They don’t have pores or sweat glands and there is nary a wrinkle.
It’s different in other ways, too. Seoul is a city filled with smart-tech high rises and mega malls. Sure in the States we, too, can watch TV and pay bills on our cellphones, but in Korea, you can also use it to buy snacks at a kiosk, pay transit fares and start a load of laundry all from the wifi equipped tunnels of the subway. The roads are filled with cars we’d never of heard of: Ssangyong Rodius, Daewoo Matiz, Kia Carnival. And unlike other countries that have embraced American music and movie stars, here, the billboards and magazines don’t feature Kiera Knightley or George Clooney, but K-pop bands and Korean soap opera actors. Just 60 years ago Korea was annihilated by civil war, left so impoverished its GDP was equal to that of Somalia's. Back then, prosperity could only be found abroad. Today it’s charting the course as an internationally recognized leader in technology, beauty and popular culture.
Case in point: my cousin and his wife are gorgeous, effortlessly hip, funny, smart and incredibly kind. He runs an international luxury goods brand. She arrives to the cool Italian restaurant dressed in head-to-toe white just as I’m rubbing soda water on my shirt. Their 10 year-old daughter runs to greet us. Katie is already fluent in Korean, Mandarin and English and when she grows up, she will be your boss’ boss.
But Korea is a country seeded as much in the past as it is in the future. Despite having been invaded 400 times in its history, and having endured a 35-year occupation by Japan, Korea has still managed to retain its own unique language, food and traditions. There is a strong sense of national pride and a belief in honoring one’s heritage and elders, an appreciation that deepens during dinner with my great uncle. He regales us with stories of the past, and we, Isoo especially, are riveted when he tells us about the Korean war.
Although almost every Korean can speak some English, most are too timid to try (thus the popularity of group tours when traveling abroad). I begin every interaction with an apology, and to everyone’s surprise, we manage pretty well. So with my broken Korean, we worked our way around Seoul – seeing the ancient palaces and Bukchon Hanok, the traditional Minsok village, the trendy Gangnam and Insadong neighborhoods, the eerily surreal DMZ, and Namsan mountain glowing pink with cherry blossoms. It was a fabulous trip and one I would love to share with my cousins. So family, let’s put this on the docket for 2018!
Giant canvases adored with the Korean flag lead up to Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Leaving their mark (anyone what to guess what Isoo wrote?).
The changing of the Royal Guards ceremony,
Oona meets Gyeongbokgung Palace alive with pink cherry blossoms.
The Gyeongbokgung Pagoda - so iconic it used to be printed on the Korean won.
We went to Minsok, a re-creation of a Korean folk village. The kids watched a traditional farmers' harvest dance, played with ancient toys, and tried their hands at milling rice. They loved it even though we never made it to the adjacent amusement park.
Oona wearing a traditional water basket. Isoo carrying a baby cradle made of bamboo and twine.
Jumping rope with new friends.
We also took a rainy day tour of the DMZ. A memorable day despite the crowds.
Surprisingly, the DMZ is actually a working village comprised of 460 civilian farmers and their families. They grow soybeans, rice and ginseng and if you can endure the heavy military presence and 10pm curfew, you can enjoy tax-free and chemical-free status, making DMZ farmers one of the few organic, highly-profitable farmers in the country. The area's toxin-free status has also made the region a defacto wildlife refuge, home to 70 different mammal and 320 bird species. Isoo was eager to bird the area, but because of still active land mines, we had to clip his wings (I so do love puns).
The kids were deemed too young to see Panmunjom, the designated "neutral conference room" where the two nations meet for negotiations, but we did get to walk through the Third Tunnel. The tunnel was revealed in 1978 by a North Korean defector who claimed to have helped engineer the tunnel with the intent of attacking the south. Now it's a tourist attraction. Three more tunnels have been found with as many as 16 more believed to be discovered.
Driving to the DMZ, you'll see huge billboards hanging over the streets. It's more than an advertising strategy - in the event of an attack by North Koreans, the ropes holding the boards would be cut, dropping the billboards to barricade the path to Seoul. And of course the streets must be wide enough to fit tanks and land fighter planes.
The day of our visit was rainy and grey, but on a clear day, you can see straight into North Korea. If you squint, you can see the South Korean and North Korean flags in the distance. The South put their flag up first and the North responded by building theirs higher. So the South built a higher one and so forth. South Korea finally gave up when the North's Panmunjom flagpole was deemed the third tallest flagpole in the world.
Just beyond Panmunjom flagpole is Kijongdong village. The official position of North Korea is that Kijongdong is a vibrant, prosperous collective farming town. However, after viewing the village through high-powered scopes, it was discovered that the brightly painted multi-story houses are abandoned concrete shells lacking window glass and interior rooms, with building lights turned on and off at set times and empty sidewalks swept by caretakers in an effort to preserve the illusion of activity, thus giving Kijongdong the nickname " Propaganda Village".
At one point, reunification of the North and South seemed eminent. North and South Korean soldiers would fraternize, often playing soccer on the DMZ line during breaks. An even bigger step toward opening boarders was with the creation of Dorasan Station and the Gyeongui Line railway that would connect the two Koreas. Built in 2002, the first train took its maiden voyage in 2007, only to be shut down immediately after, when an incident involving the North Korean shooting of a South Korean tourist who accidentally wandered across the border re-ignited tensions. Now talks of reunification have quieted and South Korean soldiers are not allowed to talk or even make eye contact with North Korean soldiers. Many of the soldiers wear sunglasses to ensure adherence to the new rules.
The shiny Dorsan Station may only have run a maiden voyage, but it was fully operational with train conductors, ticket takers, customs desk and even a concession stand ready and waiting for passengers. Also prepared: a beautifully designed passport stamp, which for the time being, is merely a collector's curiosity.
My father lost his eldest brother during the Korean War, but gained a sibling when my grandfather "adopted" an orphaned girl. People often ask how South Koreans feel about reunification. Here's your answer: outside the station is a plaque filled with the names of donors who have contributed to the building of the railway. The war is recent enough that several living generations of families are still separated. Reunification may not happen in my lifetime, but I'm confident it might happen in Oona's.
We did the crazy steep hike up Namsan mountain to walk the city's ramparts. Our reward: great views of Seoul framed by pink cherry blossoms.
N Seoul Tower in the distance. If you visit, definitely check out the excellent burger joint on the first floor.
The traditional Korean style house is called a hanok. Most have been renovated into guest houses, art galleries and restaurants, but the 900 hanoks of Bukchon Village remain predominantly residential. We loved wandering the narrow corridors and took in the sunset over the picturesque tiled rooftops.
Next time we come to Seoul, I'd love to stay in one of these (instead of our dump near Seoul Station).
Want to know what the future looks like? Then you should visit Songdo! Well, maybe. Once just a landfill next to the Incheon Airport, Songdo is a planned city envisioned as a high-tech international business center and residential utopia. $35 billion later, with progress slowed by the recession, the city is still only half completed, with finished buildings at 70% occupancy.
Yes, it has the requisite shiny metal buildings. But there's more: Songdo's underground trash system is comprised of a network of pipes that suck trash from your apartment/office to a central plant that automatically sorts, recycles, buries or burns waste for fuel. Since there's no need for trash collectors or garbage trucks, the waste disposal department employs only seven people to service the entire city. Songdo's residents can also sit in front of custom television screens and from a subscription menu of items, take classes and talk to teachers from all over the world. And coming soon to Songdo? Micro-chip tracking of kids - just in time for Isoo's teenage years.
But the city is anchored around its parkland, which make up 40% of the terrain. The city's commitment to Green Living fosters transport by bike and as far as we can tell from the empty roads, residents are on-board (or should I say, on-bike?). And the city's sophisticated water system automatically separates filtered water for drinking from water used in showers and even toilet tanks.
We took advantage of the free-bike rentals and are happy to report that the trails are extensive, safe and well marked.
Who knew that in the future apartments resembled 1990's reduced income housing facilities? Despite Songdo's best efforts, the rate of development (slowed by the economic downturn) is already dating its advancements. The occasional shiny high rise not-withstanding, Songdo is not nearly as futuristic as the hype. In fact, it's a little depressing. Ironically, the empty streets, lack of traffic and the undeveloped lots give the city a post-apocalyptic feel.
If you really want to see the future, get a look at the one on the left. My cousin's daughter already speaks three languages and has the confidence and charisma of someone who will one day run the world. And more pretty girls - we got to have dessert with friend/family Katherine. We were so lucky to be able to see her face!
My Korea family. This is too rare a photo. We were fortunate to meet them for lunch. Later, my Kun-ah-pa (literal translation: Big Daddy) took us out for dinner and told us a bunch of fantastic stories. Here's one: When Kun-ah-pa was 19 years old, he was working as a grunt in a local hospital. One day he spied a young kid eating chocolate and after some questioning, learned that the kid had earned it shining shoes at a nearby US Army base. Kun-ah-pa, always one to find opportunity where it didn't yet exist, asked my grandfather, a tax collector for the liquor industry who was often gifted bottles of whiskey, for five bottles and an old newspaper. He wrapped the whiskey in the newsprint and waited on the trail often taken by the Army Major. When he finally passed, Kun-ah-pa gifted him the five bottles and asked for a job. The Major asked him two questions: Where do you live? Do you speak English? My uncle lied about both, but was assigned to the mess tent. The kitchen manager taught him to speak English and nicknamed him George. One day, the kitchen manager turned to him and asked, "George, what do you want to do with your life?" and Kun-ah-pa said that he wanted to go to college. The kitchen manager offered his help and Kun-ah-pa said, "Well, if you don't mind, the next time you place a supply order, can I get a bolt of nylon?" Back then, nylon was prized and difficult to procure in Korea. Three months later, Kun-ah-pa received a large package from the Sears & Robuck catalogue. He sold it on the black market for 100xs its price. That's how my Kun-ah-pa went to college, thanks to one double-wide bolt of yellow nylon.
We really wanted to see a k-pop concert while we were in Seoul, but there was nothing scheduled. Next best thing? A 4-D Hologram performance at the K-live concert arena. The technology was pretty impressive, and PSY, Big Bang and 2NE1 were not bad, but it wasn't quite the same without the throng of screaming fans.
Since the Olympics, signs in English have been added to major sights, however, none of the locals have any idea of what you're asking since the Westernized names are not recognized by Koreans. Even employees at the Tourism Office don't speak any English. Nonetheless, we were able to get around the city almost exclusively by public transportation. Yet it wasn't until we took the commuter train to Songdo that we understood just how cool public trans could be: regular fare tickets buy you a seat, but if you feel like splurging, you can rent a private room equipped with a karaoke machine and sing all the way to your destination.
How is it that Koreans look so flawless? It's not called the World Capital of Plastic Surgery for nothing. In the Gangnam district alone there are 400-500 plastic surgery clinics and hospitals in a one square mile radius. Approximately 1/3 - 1/5 of Korean women have had surgery. The traditional high school graduation gift is blepharoplasty (double eye lid surgery) and even a former President of Korea went under the knife WHILE IN OFFICE. No wonder when I say to Katherine, "Wow, the women here are beautiful," she shrugs her shoulders and replies, "Eh, they all look the same." Actually, she's right. Many do bear a resemblance to anime cartoon characters, or depending on the outfit, like "cute hookers" (my cousin Sunny's description).
Nose jobs are for sissies. In Korea, the menu of "improvement" options range from V-line surgery (jaw slimming, achieved by either sanding down the jawline using oscillating saws or breaking the jaw and then realigning), the Beyonce (teeth whitening), arm lifts, dimple creation, calf reductions, leg straightening surgery, leg lengthening surgery, eye puffiness reduction and mouth curls so your lips stay in a perpetual smile.
Personally, I was more interested in the food. I ate my fill of bulgoi (thinly sliced beef), gangjang gejang (marinated raw crabs), gamjatang (spicy pork and potato stew), chiages (spicy tofu stew) and mandoos (Korean dumplings). As spicy and fragrant as Korean food is, Koreans do not like to smell like their meal. Nowadays, if you enter a kalbi house a hostess will take your jackets and seal them in large plastic bags to keep them smoke-free. We were given two sets of forks to eat our spicy chicken wings so as not to have to touch them with bare fingers. I was given plastic gloves to eat these crabs, but much preferred to get down and dirty. Oh and if you do decide to enjoy a kalbi dinner, be prepared to pay up! A small piece of meat can set you back $100!
Most high rises in Seoul are multi-use buildings. That means offices or residences above, department stores and restaurants in the lower floors and in the basement, giant supermarkets. This one near our digs was noisy and chaotic with an extensive array of prepared foods, several dine-in specialty counters and crazy kimchi bars. We spent an hour sampling our way through the crowded aisles.
Seen around town: The newly constructed Dongdaemun History & Culture Park.
The meandering Cheonggyecheon Stream canal walk.
In the heart of trendy Insadong is the brilliant little Ssamzie-gil shopping complex. Instead of stairs or elevators, shoppers wind their way up a gently inclining ramp to pop into little shops selling boutique crafts, clothing and art.
We ate our way through Gangnam's little streets by night and window shopped Garosu-gil by day.
Namdaemun. Seoul is truly a city of the old and new living side-by-side.
Steamed pork buns in Gangnam.
The view of Seoul from our officetel (studio apartment). See you next time, Seoul!
This is terribly un-PC of me, but I was sort of expecting to hate Beijing. Not just the smog and communism, but frankly, I thought I would hate the people. See? Very un-PC of me. Why the assumption? In the last few months we've encountered many fellow travelers, but none more boisterous, pushy and culturally insensitive, and as in as great a number!, as the Chinese. I'm not kidding. They are everywhere, walking around fancy restaurants with their shirt pulled up to reveal a bulging, naked belly. Indulging in the hotel breakfast buffet for all four hours. Pushing past you and your kids to fight to the front of the line. Putting their hands under the public bathroom sink while you're still washing yours. Straddling sacred sculptures and monuments for photo ops. And then there is the constant goober hocking and farmers' blows. You can read all about it in the paper – the woman who pulled down her son’s pants in a middle of a crowded restaurant to let him pee into the water bottle that she keeps in her purse for just this purpose. The sign outside the Louvre in Paris, stating in Mandarin only, that one must not defecate on the surrounding grounds. And during our time in Macau and Hong Kong we heard plenty of people talk smack about their neighbors.
But with so much expendable income, the Chinese are everywhere. Last year alone, 100 million Chinese traveled outbound, and in the next 5 years, their numbers are expected to double. In response, China's Ministry to Tourism has created a list of traveler do's and don'ts to improve the country's reputation abroad. Among the tips: flush the toliet, no pushing in lines, don't vandalize sacred objects, keep your socks on in public spaces. Oh boy.
Yet I really, really wanted to walk the Great Wall of China and after much scampering about trying to get a last minute visa, we discovered that if we kept our visit to under 72 hours, we'd be able to scooch in and out without one. Unfortunately, 72 hours is just not enough time. Beijing is gray, smoggy, sprawling, difficult, complicated, and completely and utterly fascinating. The city is fully aware of its economic super power status and one can't help but feel its blossoming potential and along with it, its arrogant authority. People in Beijing work hard, move fast and contrary to my expectations, can be extremely warm and friendly. Plus, the Great Wall of China is all (and more!) that it's cracked up to be.
Why did I think Beijing would be congested and squat? The city is wide, orderly and dare I say, sophisticated.
As soon as we checked into the hotel we dropped our bags and ran around the corner to the famous Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant. The huge restaurant takes its Peking duck seriously. Chefs, with stoic, surgical precision, carve super lean ducks table-side. Pricey, but when in China, a must-do.
While in Beijing we stayed at the comfortable Marriott Executive Apartments. The apartment was very spacious with fancy bathrooms, great work out facilities, pool, etc. But, lest you forget you are in China, the hot water was limited, so were the newspapers, and after spending an hour on the phone with IT, we realized the reason we could not access our gmail accounts, Google or Facebook was not because of a wonky internet connection, but because we were in COMMUNIST CHINA. Duh!
And as if the constant body searches weren't enough, every time we entered a public park, train station, museum, etc., all bags needed to be screened. This made for long lines at the subway.
Chris and I dragged ourselves out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to watch the honor guard of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) march at precisely 108 paces per minute, 75cm per pace to raise China's national flag. The ceremony, which takes place every single morning, is accompanied by a chorus singing the national anthem, dignitaries dressed in traditional garb and, of course, a throng of tour groups.
No trip to Beijing would be complete without a visit to the Forbidden City, home to ancient imperial rulers and closed to the public for 500 years. Yes, it's a beautifully preserved piece of history, but my favorite were the looming, gnarled trees of the imperial Garden.
While we were wandering the Forbidden City, a man spied Oona and asked if she would mind being photographed with his son. Oona obliged, but after he took this shot, he said in Chinese, "Now take her hand and pretend she is your girlfriend!" Oona just laughed, but the mortified boy turned red, shouted "No!" and ran away.
The street food in Beijing is fantastic. Sold in little shops, carts and off the backs of bikes, you'll never go hungry walking the streets. We sat on tiny plastic chairs to nosh fantastic steamed pork buns and then finished snack time with candied crab apples and strawberries.
We spent three hours looking for a restaurant Sylvia had recommended in the aptly named Hidden City complex. We finally gave up and walked into the nearest spot. No one spoke English and we were the only tourists there, but the food was authentic and delicious. Being Korean, I'm not one to shy away from heat, but some of the food in Beijing was too hot to handle even for me. Twenty chopped peppers for like four shrimp.
Beijing used to be made up of hutongs, little warren-like alleyways that separate one neighborhood from the next. Most have been bulldozed to make room for wide roads and high rises, but a few, the most authentic ones located around the Forbidden City, remain. Life in the hutongs remain slow and secret with signs that keep out the curious eyes of tourists.
But one hutong that is decidedly not shy is Hutong Nanluoguxiang, a great little area for shopping, people watching and tea drinking. It's one of the few colorful places in otherwise somber Beijing.
How can you come to Beijing and not see acrobats? I took Chris and the kids to see the Golden Mask Dynasty show (think acrobats in Las Vegas produced on a big stage by Olympic director Zhang Yimou). Their jaws literally dropped when a waterfall raged down and around the sides of the stage. But my favorite was the peacock dance, when a dozen dainty women floated around the stage with giant birds perched atop their heads. As the last notes played, the peacocks alit and flew off the stage. Outstanding!
Beijing's contribution to China's culinary landscape is the ever important snack. Our hotel was across the street from Wangfujing Snack Street where you can get just about anything on a stick.
Name your poison (no pun intended): seahorse, baby cobra, scorpion, starfish or silk worm? Yum.
We took the train 70km to Badaling to climb the Great Wall of China. Normal tourists hire a car and driver, but cheapskates like us take public trans. Train seats were sold out so we spread out a map and popped a squat. The locals came better prepared boarding with floor cushions and picnic snacks.
We missed the train back so had to take a bus. It was crowded, hot and we had to stand for much of the nearly 2 hour long journey. The kids, especially Prince Isoo, were not happy. But many of the ladies on-board offered to sit the kids on their laps. The ticket taker finally yelled at a young man and made him give up his seat for the kids to share. No, the police will not give you directions and no one speaks a lick of English, but Beijingers are curious and friendly. It didn't matter that we couldn't speak Mandarin, they would gather around us, talking animatedly, patting the kids' heads or butts as we smiled and nodded dumbly. When they had had enough of their one-sided conversation, they would wave and move on. While Chinese tourists could use some practice in the art of cultural sensitivity, while on their home turf, they are absolutely lovely.
We made it! These pictures just do not do it justice. Constructed in the 7th century and over 5,500 miles long, it is an architectural wonder. Imagine, huge stones dragged up the steep incline, tamped down with mud, and snaking on the spine of a mountain wide enough to accommodate five horses abreast.
And bonus: We caught it just as the cherry blossoms were starting to bloom. Beijing, I'll be back, next time with stops in Taiwan and Shanghai.
In my time visiting Carol, I had questions: Why move to Hong Kong? What’s life like here? How long will you stay? Don’t you want to go home? Isn’t life here harder? Why is this life of uncertainty better? These questions, I know, are directed as much toward myself as to her. We are, though a decade apart, constantly searching, trying to make for ourselves and our families, a home. She may be my little cousin, but I sought her wisdom. After a week inundated with questions, Carol finally confessed, “Cheong, I’m not sure what comes next, but I know I don’t want to have a mediocre life.”
Needless to say, Carol is pretty cool. Not in the funky-haircut-hipster-clothes way that no one really cares about, but in the way that if she were a donut, her center would be an enthusiastic, emotional, all-in, creamy filling of goodness. So of course is her husband, except Shannon is very sensible, laid back, dry, hilarious and smart. They are the same good penny, opposite sides. Too bad their kids are so horrible. Kidding. Ava and Josiah are the best. The only thing that could have made our time in Hong Kong better was to have her brother Charles, his wonderful wife Sunny, and their two kids join us for an extended family vacation. Poof!
Good thing we got a chance to rest up in Macau because there is a lot to do in Hong Kong and Carol was raring to show us all of it (or kill us trying). A typical day had us up and out at 7:30 am to board a mini bus to the train station where we would meet up with Carol & Co., and then ride the spotlessly clean, super efficient subway to Charles & Co. Some days we’d have urban adventures (Disneyland, Victoria Peak to view the harbor and skyscrapers, the fantastic science museum). Other days were spent watching the fishermen peddle their goods in the bustling seaside village of Sai Kung or swimming in Cheung Chau island. But that’s the really cool thing about Hong Kong – city and nature, old and new, East and West all intermingled in one. It’s a fascinating blend. And despite its citizens’ apprehension as Hong Kong makes its 50 year transition from British to Chinese rule, it will be interesting to witness the transformation of the city and its people.
After eight months of being just the four of us, we had suddenly grown to a group of 12. Crossing an intersection I loved how easily and thoughtlessly Remy or Ava would slip their hand into mine. Sunny caught me up on all the news from home. Charles was always game for tasting something unusual. Shannon and Carol played tour guide and shared their HK knowledge. Everyone had a buddy. Head counts at every exit and entrance. Always someone to play with, to talk to, a hand to hold, a tired little body to carry. On our last night we went into Hong Kong Island for a hot pot dinner. We said our good-byes at the train station with endless shouts and one more hug. After they finally disappeared through the turnstile, Chris turned to us and said, "Well, it's just us again". We all felt such a deep sense of loss and loneliness. But there was no time for crying. We wiped our tears, packed our bags and geared up for Beijing.
You know the trip is going to be good when you get this kind of welcome.
You can get most everything in Hong Kong, except good bagels. This would leave me moaning and groaning, but that's not Carol's way. Instead she just Googles a recipe and viola! fresh homemade bagels hot out of the oven.
Carol & Co. live in the New Territories, about an hour commute from Hong Kong island. Yes, it takes awhile to get to the major sights, but this is the view from the back of their apartment! Another perk? You don't need to don a mask just to take out the trash.
Our view wasn't so shabby either. When we returned from visiting Sylv in Macau, we found that Shannon and Carol had schlepped all of our luggage to a great little apartment in the next village over (even stocking the fridge with groceries!). While their friends were out of town, we crashed in their place and got to drink coffee every morning to this view. Thanks Luke and Natasha for the fabulous stay!
The best cure for jet lag? Noodles, the Chinese breakfast of champions. Charles & Co. hung in there despite a long day of travel.
We stopped by the awesome school where Shannon teaches 6th grade. These very smart kids clearly love their teacher.
Hanging with Bruce at Madame Tussauds.
In the late 1800s, the British settled Victoria Peak to evade the deadly bout of bubonic plague that had overtaken Hong Kong. To protect themselves from the disease, escape the heat and humidity in the valley, and secure the city's best views, Europeans built mansions and lodges at the top and then passed an ordinance barring Chinese from the Peak. We took the tram, but in the olden days, the Europeans traveled by chairmen - sedan chairs heaved up the super steep mountain by the Chinese. Another example of racist policy making? The Light and Pass Ordinance requiring Chinese to carry lanterns while walking the streets after sundown (so Europeans could see them coming and avoid potential criminal activity). The ordinances have long been appealed, and today HK is 93% ethnic Chinese.
Bombarding Carol with questions as we stroll the hiking paths of Victoria Peak.
We celebrated Remy's birthday with a trip to Disneyland. The Hong Kong version is smaller and more manageable than its American counterpart, but just as crowded and fun (no snark intended).
Chris, Isoo and Shannon decided to skip the crowds at Disney and went birding instead. This was just one of two days Shannon took Isoo birding. It's safe to say that Shannon is at the top of Isoo's list of favorite people. Honestly, Shannon's pretty high on my list, too. Not only is he funny, patient and kind, but he forfeited his Spring Break to wake up early every day to help Carol cook, clean, shop and escort her crazy family all over HK. It was a treat to finally get to know Shannon and spend some time with him.
Carol took us all over town. And I mean ALL OVER. I think our biggest transport day had us on a taxi, ferry, bus, bus, train, mini bus, taxi. Our Octopus (transit) Card got a serious work out. But it was a great way to see the city and understand the sprawl of HK.
Skyscrapers and everything! Assuming the position.
Subway station somewhere.
I'm sure at one point the glimmering overpasses, skyscrapers and double-decker buses gave HK Island a futuristic feel. While that may still be the case, the city is starting to show some signs of wear and tear. Mixed in with big buildings are dated towers riddled with ugly balconies and heaving AC units.
Another indicator of the passage of time: Occupy Central. Students continue to line the streets to protest China's proposed electoral reforms, restricting the selection of candidates to those prescribed by Beijing. Many see this violation as a precursor to the changes that will slowly take place in Hong Kong, and fear for the wider, sweeping reforms once the "one country, two systems" amendment expires.
Added to the "Yet another thing I didn't know" file: Hong Kong's domestic helper community is comprised of young Fillipina workers. While they don't get paid much, its more than they would make back at home so they come with the hope of working for a couple of years, saving and then returning back to their homeland. Domestic helpers typically work 6 days a week, taking on tasks such as cleaning, cooking and childcare. Hong Kong law stipulates that in order to work here, they must live-in with their employers. Homes often have a "helper room" in the back of the apartment for just this purpose - a tiny space with a single bed piled high with all of their belongings. Unions have been fighting to change the live-in policy claiming that the law makes domestic helpers more susceptible to physical and sexual abuse. In the meanwhile, as their current situation doesn't afford much space or privacy to entertain, every Sunday thousands of helpers gather near the HSBC Building in Central Hong Kong. They listen to Fillipino music, share their native foods and trade news about life back home.
My favorite HK memory - always having a little hand to hold. Chris and Ava.
Goofing with the cousins.
We took the ferry to the supposedly quaint, sleepy town of Cheung Chau to ride bikes and swim at the beach. Surprisingly, by mid-day, the little island was packed to the gills and it was hard to find a grain of sand on which to stand. We had to wait hours for a spot on the return ferry. Thankfully, the kids (and we) managed to keep each other entertained.
Cheung Chau is a tiny fishing village just 10km southwest of Hong Kong Island. The island is known for its annual Bun Festival, a joyous four day celebration that culminates in the climbing of a giant bamboo tower covered in Chinese buns. For awhile it was also referred to as "Death Island" due to a spate of charcoal-fire suicides that took place in holiday homes in the early 2000s. Renters would light charcoal fires in a sealed room, thereby perishing from carbon monoxide poisoning. It became such a popular method of suicide that the Chinese government replaced charcoal grills in public parks with gas grills, and charcoal manufacturers began printing messages of "Treasure Your Life" on its packing. Nowadays the island is known for its great beaches and narrow, winding streets.
We all went to Easter Sunday service at Carol and Shannon's church. The kids had fun at Sunday School, but the real treat for Isoo was hearing Carol play guitar and sing in the choir (a.k.a. rock band) with Charles guest spotting on drums. Isoo was so impressed he wanted me to 1. Take pictures (wish I did!) and 2. Start going to church. I didn't want to break it to him that not all churches are as super cool as theirs, but I promised we'd try to find the right place for us when we return home.
As for the rest of the day, we had to clear out of the apartment for Luke and Natasha's return. While Chris and I packed up and checked us into a hotel, Carol and Shannon took the kids to an Easter egg hunt and party, and then kept them for a sleepover. Chris and I had our first date night in months! - a great dinner, uninterrupted conversation and a stroll around Temple Street Night Market.
We spent the next morning on the phone with our accountant doing taxes, Shannon took Isoo birding (again) and the rest of the gang took a boat to Hep Mun Bay. Afterwards we all met up in Sai Kung to watch the fishermen sell their catch while Sunny and I failed to stop each other from eating all of the dried squid.
Oona and Colette at Hep Mun Bay.
The pretty ladies of Sai Kung.
In the market for some fresh fish? Sai Kung is the place to go. Make your selection from the pier and the fisherman will send up your purchase in a fishing net.
If you don't want to cook at home visit one of the dockside restaurants. Tanks and tanks overflow with fresh fish.
This hot pot dinner was the last of many great meals in HK. Among the new foods we were able to try - chicken feet (belch), durian (double blech), fish balls stuffed with mozzarella cheese (not bad, but very weird), spicy curry fish balls (yay!). But our hands down favorite meals were at "shirtless man restaurant" where Shannon wowed us with his ability to order dim sum in Cantonese and we were treated to, you guessed it, shirtless men.
The many faces of durian.
Hong Kong sightseeing casualty of the day: Remy (though nearly every kid took a turn on someone's shoulder). Actually, I was impressed by the kids' stamina! Lots of sightseeing and long days on public transport and they all managed to stay happy and cheerful.
Aunt Carol with the crew. My of my favorite pics of HK.