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Archive for January, 2009

jumboIt’s “cold” here now, in the 40s, though we had a temperature spike today. While locals act like an arctic freeze is about to cover the city in ice (thick, puffy winter jackets are everywhere now), it’s actually great.  Last Saturday was crisp and clear. We took a taxi up and around near The Peak  to the Police Museum, a stop I was immediately skeptical of. What kind of exhibits are in a police museum, especially one that’s in Hong Kong (China)? The main reason for going to the place was from there it would lead us to a hiking path down to Aberdeen and finally to the famous Jumbo Restaurant. The hike was the goal, the museum was the “carrot.” F thought we were seeing dinosaurs, not because we told her so. She was determined to find them.

The Police Museum was, I suppose, nice to see in terms of satisfying F’s curiousity, but it sucked in terms of timing. T was asleep in the stroller. The museum is on the top of a hill, accessible only be a steep set of switch back steps. F and I scouted it and she really wanted to stay. I told her we’d yell for Mom to come up but F wanted to go down and get her. On the way down, F tripped in her too-small old red sneakers, and fell down the steps. Only a few steps thankfully, but her face hit a stair hard. She was fine. It’s a good thing she didn’t look in the mirror because there is a nice bump and bruise. (New sneakers have been purchased).

The Police Museum, as predicted, is not a place for kids. It’s not bad. F was interested in all the uniforms and the bomb robots. She thought the mock heroin lab was weird (‘I don’t very like the lab-ratory, Dad.”) She liked the guns, though I heard E quickly say that guns are bad. Luckily, she didn’t see the beheaded pirates, though she did see the tiger. She first thought it was a jaguar, but then learned it was a tiger. A pretend tiger, she said. It wasn’t pretend. The animal was the actual beast they found in the New Territories 100 years ago, that attacked several officers and even killed one. I think it was when F started marveling over an M-16 that E said “Okay, time to go.”

Before we headed down the paved path to Aberdeen, I looked out over the tops of trees below us. We were high up, with an amazing view of the valley and ocean. This is the Hong Kong wilderness that everyone talks about. And there are so many other similar, cooler places. The hike, fortunately, is all down hill if you start at the museum. T fell back to sleep in the stroller. F sat on my shoulders. We’d inspect drainage tubes and read the signs identifying trees and plants. Every sign that appeared, I had to read.

aberdeenThere were a few excercise stops too, a sort of “Par Course” I think they’re called. You know, chin up bars, step-up stumps, bars for dips and leg lifts. Of course, everyone of these we passed we had to check out too. Everytime the Aberdeen reservoir came into view, F would yell that she could see the floating restaurant. We’re reading a book to F called “Chopsticks” that takes place at the Jumbo.

The hike down took 45 minutes, exactly as guide books predicted. There’s even a little kid section at the bottom with signs detailing plant and bug life. F: “Ooooh. Look Dad. A Lady Bug. We have lady bug outfits at our house.”
F: “A Skink? I don’t very like a Skink. Can we go to the next sign.”
F: “(whimper). Dad, I’m scared of Daddy Long Legs. Can we go now?”
F: “Ooohh!. Butterflies!!!”

At the end of the paved trail, well-traveled by other walkers and joggers, is a main road that leads directly down into the heart of Aberdeen. Like most Hong Kong mini-cities, Aberdeen is busy. We trusted our instincts and walked straight for what we thought was the ocean. We scooted down tiny side streets, walked past temples and fish markets. Tiny intersections whizzed with busses, cars and taxis. Finally, we saw the ocean and the boats cruising up and down the main Aberdeen waterway.

This is where we scouted for sampans and found them. Sampans are little boats operated by locals. The sampans can be for fishing, logistics, sight-seeing, you name it. If you have HK$50 ($6) on you, they’ll take you anywhere.

img_9156We found an old couple sitting on chairs by the docks. They told us for HK$40, a sampan would take us to the restaurant, which we now could see. I can only imagine what this woman has seen in her decades in the port . She was short with wrinkled skin and a round, rice-paddy hat. If the man next to her was her husband, you could tell she was the one who ran the business. He was a nice, old man, but didn’t say or do much. Tiny tangerines sat on the ground behind their chairs–not lunch, but an offering to the gods for good luck. She smoked a cigarette while we waited.

The sampan came, and we boarded. The driver was another older woman, probably in her 70s. A hot pot of noodles sat near the rudder she steered.

When we got to the Jumbo Floating Restaurant (it’s a giant, two-wing restaurant literally floating in the harbor) we all looked for the dragons in the book. Of course, as soon as we found the dragon-sculpted pilllars F was “scared” and we retreated inside. She’s scared of most things, including Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus.

It was a great, late lunch. The girls were well behaved. Not a lot of running around, in part I think because the Jumbo offers crayons and coloring, and also because the long exposure to fresh air tired them out.

This kind of day–hiking, water-ferrying, eating at a great restaurant, still close to home–is the kind of thing that’s available all the time in and around Hong Kong, and it’s one of the reasons some people stay so long. Many of the UK people we know who have lived here for a long time move from Hong Kong island and live in the New Territories or in  Sai Kung . Or Lantau. It’s quieter there and you get even more of the hiking and greenery.

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samui, part iii

usm-anthong11All week we talked about going to the islands of Ang Thong National Park. The descriptions of the place were quite enticing; though spending a full day on the water with two young kids was going to be tough. Plus, the rain continued to fall. Nevertheless, we decided to book it. Glad we did, in the end, but I have some gray hairs as a result.

On the morning of our trip, the girls slept in. And, wouldn’t you know it, rain and wind pelted our bungalow. We had to leave by 0745 and by 0700 nobody was awake. But E and I discussed the day, the weather, and decided to go for it.

The ferry trip to Ang Thong is a story within itself. If you want to know the details, ask us over a drink sometime. So I’m going to skip that story, and instead talk mainly about Ang Thong itself, which is one of the more spectacular sights we’ve ever seen or been to. Roughly 90 minutes into the journey (in our case more than 2 hours), the ferry stops inside this circle of islands. thai_long_boat2The islands vary in size and shape—some covered in thick, green, tropical vegetation, others dominated by rock cliffs and peaks. The water, even on a rough day, is emerald green. On clear, calm days, you can see the bottom of the ocean. When the ferry anchored, Viking-esque long boats came and picked us up. These boats were propelled by loud, diesel engines with a long, tubular rudders with a rotating blade at the end. The rudders looked eight feet long. Because of the shape of the boat, if you sat in the middle, you felt you were below the water’s surface, which, in reality, you were. This was enhanced by the choppy water.

The boatsmen were fit, agile locals. They’d ride a wave in and then haul passengers overboard. Because of the weather conditions, we were still waste deep in water when we landed. The first stop landed us in this little cove with a tiny beach. The island we were visiting was Koh Wua Ta Lap. Above us was a wooden ladder which led to a lookout point and a lagoon.ang21 T and I stayed on the beach while E and F hiked to the lagoon, known as Koh Mae Ko. When F encountered a tunnel, however, she decided she’d had enough. E and a Portugese woman who lives in Macao helped F on the hike down.

The girls loved this beach because of all the cool shells and rocks. If you grabbed a fistful of sand, you’d pull out little coral fingers, striped and pink shells, sea glass—all kinds of great looking stuff. One shell had a leopard pattern. “Dad, Dad. Dad. Dad. You collect the small shells and I’ll collect the biggest, big ones.” That was F’s instructions. The multiple “Dads” meant she was extremely excited about what this beach had to offer. We collected our shells on a tree stump. Without fail, every time we amassed a decent collection, T would sweep it away. “T!” Fwould moan. We finally convinced T to leave the shell collection alone.

At last, F decided that the shell collection stump was going to be a birthday cake for her cousin (me) and that she was “the mom.” When I asked her who E was, she said “The granny.” E loved hearing that. T was game for the birthday party make-pretend session. By the time I was blowing out the candles, the long boats were back to take us to our next island, called Koh Sam Sao.

On the way there, Fmet a friend.  This little girl was 8 and from Jakarta. It was really cute how quickly the girls hit it off. The girl, Renee, was on an early boat to the second beach, so F was her impatient self trying to get us hurried onto the next one that left.

Renee was waving to us on the beach as we did our best Viking impression and charged in with our long boat, waves splashing up in our faces. She and F raced to the other end of the beach and started a sand castle, with my help. T took one look at the castle, stepped on its outer wall, and ran into the water. E played defensive back on T while I was on castle duty. T wanted to dive into the foamy water. A group of Russian, late teen boys were rolling around in the waves near their private boat. About a half dozen kayaks ventured out into the choppy sea for a paddle. There was an arm of rocks that swung around this beach, protecting it from big waves. The sound of the waves hitting that group of rocks was stunning. Like Mack trucks hitting a snow bank at full speed. There was something more relaxing about this beach. For one, it was wider and allowed more room to move. I also think people were more relaxed after the rough journey and landing at the first spot. If the sun was out, it would have been one of the more perfect hours I think we’ve ever spent. It was a great stay at that beach, but I admit that part of my mind was on the journey back. Renee’s dad said he expected to be a bit smoother, and he was right.ang11

Renee and F sang songs and giggled pretty much the whole way back. In most other settings people probably would have found it annoying. But I think the laughter and silliness of these girls took people’s minds off the rocky boat. I taught them the “Batman” version of Jingle Bells, you know, the one wear Batman smells and Robin lays an egg. We sang Irish songs and also theme songs from kids television shows. Renee and I did a great version of the Backyardigans. The goofing was equally satisfying for me, as it took my mind off the cauldron of emerald water that sloshed in front of us. T, as she did on the way there, slept the whole way back. The hell with this, I’m sure she thought. I’m going to sleep.

F fell asleep when we got back. It was too early for her to crash, so we hurried down to the ocean for our last dip. One touch of the water and F was back, jumping waves and splashing her Mom. T loved getting a running start and diving into the water. Several times she tripped and did a face plant into the sand before she could even hit the ocean – each time coming up laughing.

That night we walked the beach over to our neighboring resort’s buffet. It was a windy, warm night. The buffet was set up by the resort’s pool. At the top of some steps, two Thai lounge singers sang 80s tunes during dinner. The girls went up to the singers and messed around, to the performers’ amusement. T became obsessed with the candles on the steps, so that was the end of their wandering. My Singha beer took under a minute to finish. With some satays, peanut sauce and some curried vegetables in our stomach, we went home and packed.

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samui, part II

img_9093One day we decided to rent the Resort’s car that is on offer. For around $30 a day, not a bad deal. As the lady handed me the keys, I’m thinking of a Ford Focus kind of car. Turns out it’s a Land Rover-ish rig, stick shift, British side of the wheel. “Are you gonna be okay?” E reassuringly asked me. Meanwhile, both kids were wandering in the back, no seatbelts. The only belts in the car were on the driver and passenger side. I drove out of there, unknowingly, in third gear. I didn’t realize how poorly I was handling the car until we climbed a steep hill, in busy traffic. The car started to wobble, chug, huff, puff. Luckily there was a parking lot I was able to pull into it. Uturn. I was trying to find a flat place I could properly test out the gears. “Where are we going dad? We’re going the wrong way” F pointed out. I found a flat part and realized that what I thought was first gear was actually fifth, second gear, fourth. You get the idea.

Our destination was the Samui aquariuam, located just south of Lamai Beach. E was navigating and juggling both kids in the back. Fortunately, there is really just one road that rings the island, with maybe one or two turn offs. Like most days, it was raining. F demanded I put the wipers on as soon as a speck of rain hit. Like her mother, she insisted I turn them off when it was clear that the rain had stopped (F: “Dah-ahd. Turn the wipers off. It’s not rainin’ anymore.” E: “If she wasn’t gonna say it, I was.”) The aquarium was actually a zoo too (F says “actually” often, roughly every three or four sentences. “Actually Dad, I think I want a popsicle now” she says at 9 am.) Elephants were in front for feeding, and emaciated tigers were incarcerated there as well. A leopard slept, with a sign saying don’t get too close or he may “spray you.” The aquarium was great (actually) and the whole trip occupied a few hours.

On the way back we stopped by a swanky resort called Rockys. Amazing views of the ocean, and the best mango salad I’ve ever eaten…maybe one of the best salads I’ve eaten. T was getting agitated, so I had to take her out of her high chair a few times. At one point she started stomping in a nearby puddle. She stomped so much that she hit her head on a table and fell back into the puddle. T then dug holes with rocks in the parking lot. By the time we left it looked like she had just been in a mudslide. The fishsticks at that place were amazing too.

So the next stop was the Big Buddah, if for nothing else because it was a place on a map near our bungalow. Frustrations were building at this point. Poor E was wrestling with the two girls the whole time, while I drove. And now it was raining again. The Big Buddah is a tourist trap, but it’s a pretty amazing spectacle. If you stop and study the temple and its architecture its extraordinary. Crisis hit when, halfway up the Big Buddah steps, F’s orange popsicle broke. It was probably one of the only popsicles to have ever made it that high up the temple. I admit I had second thoughts about allowing her to bring a popsicle to a Buddah temple but sometimes you just don’t have a say in certain matters. When T got to the top she slipped and sat in a puddle. No shoes allowed. In the end, T was loving the challenge of walking around the wet spots and trying not to fall. And in the end, she slipped again, fell chest first into a puddle, then rolled over on her back. It was as if we had dunked her in a pool. Our plan of eating nearby was foiled. And a good thing it was.

When we came back I tried to look for a babysitter again. This one resort next door said they had someone in mind. When I met her, she didn’t speak a lick of English. No thanks. If you can’t speak to your babysitter, probably not the best $50 you’ve spent in a night. So that was that. We were gonna spend New Years Eve with the girls. F was thrilled. “I can stay up late and wear a fancy dress!”

The restaurant we wanted to go to was closed. Bummer, as it was getting late. 7 pm Hong Kong Time, 6 local time. Clock ticking on the over-tired-child-odometer. We loaded everyone in the car and drove East. We found what looked to be a decent Italian restaurant and kept that in the back of our minds. E suggested, just as I was about to turn around, I turn down a side street. At the end of it, was a spacious, friendly, beach-side restaurant. Happy New Year. The kids ate various things—rice, some kind of grilled cheese, French fries, eggs, French toast, milk—and E and I ate great thai food. All for $30. The girls were great. It was perfect having the beach there for them to run around. It bought us an extra half hour. During the meal T was now showing off all her new words: “rice”, “egg”, “wow”. After they ate and they were trying to climb a mini-sand dune. E and I were trying to finish our meals. Little to slightly big fire works were going off down the beach, which F at first found fascinating and then found annoying. F was falling asleep on the way home but still insisted on one more oreo because it was a “happy new year.” “It is a happy New Year” she shouted to the restaurant.

That night, people in bungalows near us took upon themselves to have their own fireworks show. All of them were setting off fireworks from 10 pm to 12 pm, big ones too. Amazingly, they all called it quits shortly after midnight.

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Samui, Thailand part I

img_9016After a day of lounging on our narrow, but pleasant beach on the north side of the island, we decided to venture out into Koh Samui. We tried to convince F to do an elephant ride but she wouldn’t budge. But she was happy to see a “Monkey Show.” So off to Namuang Safari Park we would go, an animal park located on the south western side of Samui. A pick up truck picked us up at 830am. We were a bit surprised to sit in the back of a pick up, but hey, when in Rome. After making a few stops, the trip to the “Monkey show” was a rather long one. The girls got tired just getting there, which took just under an hour. F continued to refuse an elephant trek, despite our varied attempts of convincing her it was okay. So we walked over to where they keep the animals. We touched snakes, jaguars, monkeys, elephants. Saw crocodiles. Every time we got near the crocs or mentioned them, T would shout “nap, nap!” and pinch her fingers together. Translation: Snap, snap. Actually, she would make the noises of every single animal we saw “Ssss” for snakes, “ooh, ah” for monkeys, and so on.

F kind of liked the elephant show, liked the monkey show, and was petrified of the crocodile show. In fact, she sat behind E during that segment and left half way through. E rightfully pointed out that the place was kind of depressing. All these drugged, shackled and caged animals. Sad really. But great to kill two or three hours with two kids.

We spent the end of that day the same way we spent the end of every day. Swim in the ocean – splash around and run into waves and play in the sand. On this particular day, I encountered an amazing image. On the way back from running an errand, I’m walking up the beach. I see T’s naked bum and E trying to contain her in the water. Next I see F, arms tucked, hair streaking back, sprinting into the water, nude. What started as a “walk on the beach to meet Dad” turned into a naked swim within five minutes. They love the ocean, and it was a few hundred feet from our bungalow. At one point F sprinted back, naked, to our bungalow where I was getting the bathing suits. She cruised by five bungalows, naked as could be, shouting directions at me while she ran.

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Santa, as he did across the world, made it successfully through Hong Kong on Dec. 25. It’s a miracle. I don’t know how he does it. He just does. But in our case, there was a hitch. F DID NOT want him entering our apartment. She loves the concept of Santa but is petrified of the person. She knows where he lives, knows what he does, etc. She smiles and gasps when she sees images of him. But she whimpers and breaks down into hysterics whenever the bearded man is in her presence. So before bed, she pleaded with us to not let him into our place. Her first suggestion was for him to mail the gifts. Fair enough, but the timing probably wasn’t going to work. The final plan, established five minutes before bed: Dad will stay up late, and meet Santa at the door and bring in the presents himself. Santa won’t step foot into 5A. So that was that.

F woke up around 0200, came into our bed. She doesn’t come into our bed that much anymore. She only does it when something unique is going on—like her anticipation of several new gifts and the possibly of a strange man traipsing through our place . F was a little groggy waking up. Saying “merry Christmas” when I saw those brown eyes open for good didn’t really register with her. So I told the story of how I met Santa at the door and I brought in the gifts. That woke her up. She jumped out of our bed and woke up T. She raced down the hall, and opened each gift with a gasp. After a few skypes and a trip to Starbucks, we realized we had a lot more work to do on the Christmas meal than anticipated. Neither the turkey nor the stuffing was in the oven, and people were coming over in three hours. SPOILER ALERT: Parents reading this, please forgive us, for we had to skip Christmas mass. We were practically out the door when I, and it was me, put the brakes on. No way were we going to pull off a Christmas party in a timely manner and make it to church. I explained to E and anyone else who would listen that Jesus would love the fact that we were having friends over on Christmas day.

When T would open gifts, she’d let out her usual exclamation of joy these days, which is loud and pure gibberish. It’s something like “HillAOhwoaywoiah”. Then she lets out her standard belly laugh, crooked/gap toothed grin and all.

F insisted on opening up and playing with every gift, first. So it wasn’t your typical, open-every-gift, kind of Christmas moment. She opened, T’s gifts first, one by one, and if it was a toy made us open that and played with it for a little while. Then hers, one by one, again playing with each toy she opened and ohhing and ahhing over articles of clothing. And you wonder why we missed mass? Finally E said something to the effect that it’s okay to open all the gifts up first. “No Mom, I have to open them up one at a Ty-ime.”

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I’ve been looking forward to F’s first holiday concert for a long time. I always envisioned chaos, hilarity, adorableness, tears (from adults and children). Maybe the scene in Partenthood is etched in my head. Her school’s 2008 Holiday concert did not disappoint.

I arrived with T about 30 minutes before the concert began, and frankly, about an hour and a half too soon. When it all began at 9:30 AM, T was running around yelling “MaMa” and trying to rush the stage. Attention was turning to her and not the kids, so I took her outside. She ran up and down stairs, dismantled a wicker basket, and walked in on a woman breast feeding. At one point, she walked into a corridor, which is where F’s class was waiting to go on. One of F’s teachers said that she better not see us or she might cry. I thought, hmm, that’s strange. Haven’t had a crying report for a while. E was with her all morning because she is a class parent, and was helping out her class and apparently when she left the group F cried a bit. So that’s why her teacher was afraid of F seeing us.

F did see us on the way to the stage at around 11 A.M. and flashed a huge smile and waved excitedly. She was pumped for the performance and pumped that the family was there to give a shout out. Slowly, her class trickled on stage. Teachers had to physically push (gently) some kids toward the center. One boy immediately started crying. Teachers and parents tried to help but he was inconsolable. His mom finally emerged from the crowd.

I really wondered if F would sing. When you ask her to sing Chinese songs she won’t. The only way you hear it is when she’s singing under her breath. She is easily embarrassed, shy, and has no problem standing her ground if she doesn’t want to participate in something.

On Friday, if I may say so myself, F was awesome. She belted out every song, to the point where you would occasionally hear her voice over the din. They sang “Feliz Navidad,” “Deck the Halls,” and “Ding Dong Ding” plus a Chinese song I didn’t recognize.

It was amazing. She waved to us several times, one of them I captured on film. I loved that the boy on the far left, who is short, had his arm around his classmate most of the time (who is quite a bit taller). Also, at one point, it looks as if her classmates are supposed to jump. But the only ones doing this are the “big kids” in the back.

F was one of the few kids who remembered to blow kisses to the audience after their gig. She nailed it.

I have to say, I was very, very impressed with the program. It didn’t sound great, but it was a diverse body of songs and there was minimal distractions, except for a few tears here and there. The teachers and organizers deserved a long weekend (and some strong drinks afterwards) for their coordination.

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Christmas Trees are available in Hong Kong, for those of you wondering. They’re expensive, and the ones we’ve seen so far are thin and smell weird. A five foot tree will run you at least HK$650, or around $80. We bought a six foot tree and, let me tell you, it’s the worst tree we’ve ever gotten. So let’s talk about our tree ordeal.

I had a bad feeling when I reached in to carry the thing home. My arm was immediately covered in dead pine needles. Things were snapping. I carried it around the corner and through the apartment building, leaving a trail of green for our poor doorman, Lai. When we brought it into the house and I cut the plastic wrapping stuff open, we had an explosion of needles. Literally half the tree fell to the ground. The picture above is after we cleaned up needles.

At this point, T is hysterical. She has no idea why on earth we’ve brought this tree into our house. The whole situation scared the crap out of her.  F, meanwhile, was ecstatic. Practically out of breath. Sprinting around the house. Offering to do this, offering to do that. “F, can you get the broom?” “Okay!” And bam, she was off, and back before you could turn around. She caught on that the dead pine needles were an issue, but we assured her it was fine. We opened all the ornaments at F’s demand. T thought we’d purchased balls, so she started throwing the ornaments. Thankfully the large, cantaloupe sized ones were fine to throw, we learned. T loved the fact that they bounced when she tossed them. We had to move the ornaments once she threw a glass one and broke it. F started crying. T laughed.

So many needles fell off that there’s hardly a speck of green on the last 12 inches of the tree, like the bare tail of an opossum.

And if that wasn’t enough, we think E is almost definitely allergic to the conifer. She starts coughing wildly whenever she gets near it and when she’s out of the house she feels much better.

However, I’m starting to think that, overall, the tree has character, other than its awful top. E, thank god, found an outdoor deck ornament meant for hanging. It’s an orange star and it fits perfectly on top of the tree. F hung so many ornaments we had to put the rest away. She hangs them all in one place, often three to a branch. F flipped out when E tried to put our red sofa blanket around the base of the tree to make the bottom look decent before we had friends over. I was with F on that one and she won that argument.

We played the Muppets and John Denver Christmas album. It was when they sang “Deck the Halls,” led by Ms. Piggy of course, that I realized F only knows the Chinese version of the song. She was singing it in Mandarin!

My Mom has mentioned on several occasions that this tree could be a fire hazard. It’s not a hazard, yet. We are contemplating going back and asking for a slightly more alive tree (what do you expect, I suppose, when you cut the trunk). I don’t know where this tree comes from, but by the looks of it I’d say Sweden, or the Saharan Desert.

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