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Archive for March, 2009

2362141019_47227a801c_mOh what a difference a year makes. When we began our housing search in Feb ’08 it was the height of the market and what we saw in our price range was absolutely horrible – it made us cry. Of course we wound up going over our budget and our wallets have been hurting ever since. We had heard that the property market can be quite volatile but I don’t think we quite realized how much – and while it really hurt us last year, we are about to benefit greatly this year.

We decided we would ask for a price reduction in our rent and just to be safe, prior to asking our landlord, I spent a few days viewing apartments to see what we can get if our landlord won’t negotiate. I was pleased with what I saw both in our immediate neighborhood, as well, as others we are considering. So feeling like we had options to fall back on M contacted our agent and informed her we wanted to talk rent. She immeditely responded that our landlord would drop it 20% – which puts us at the rent we should have been paying in the first place. Me, being the terrible bargainer, was thrilled. He, reveling in the whole game of negotiating, decided to ask for more. I told him it’s up to him and any more he can get us would be great.   Well we had our sit down negotiation a few days ago and we agreed on a 25% reduction – YAHOO!!!! I am so relieved we are staying – we moved across the world a year ago so the thought of moving again, albeit within Hong Kong, overwhelmed me.  Here’s to another year in HK in what has become our home.

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I think this is fantastic – check it out:

On the sunny but chilly first day of spring, Obama joined about 25 fifth-graders from Bancroft Elementary on the South Lawn at three picnic tables set with baskets of apples and thermoses of hot cider. The children, who also work in a garden at school, were given shovels, pitchforks and wheelbarrows to help prepare the garden, where as many as 55 fruits and vegetables will be grown year round for use in the White House kitchen. The students will be invited back to the White House to plant seedlings, then again to harvest and learn how to cook with the fresh produce.

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turtlesWe’ve been having loads of fun showing Grammie all around Hong Kong. On her first day we took it easy and went Hong Kong park which is a favorite of ours and really is a beautiful oasis in the middle of Hong Kong island. There were tons of turtles sunbathing on the rocks, with the Koi fish, swimming behind them.  T kept yelling “tutle,” and then doing the fish sound. We must have stayed there watching them for 20 minutes. A few fish swam up as if they were saying hi to Grammie and F. We then went up behind the waterfall, which at first freaked F out, but once she got there she thought it was “so cool!” We had a nice walk through the park and then I showed mom a bit of central on our way to find the Immaculate Concenption Chapel to attend Ash Wednesday mass. Well, it was not easy to find as I got a bit turned around, and it’s also not a church but rather the chapel was on the 3rd floor of a high-rise building and it was VERY crowded. It was after mass that my mom first commented on the general oddness (or rudeness) of people cutting in line (which happened both getting communion and getting ashes!), pushing to get ahead, and a lack of awareness of those around them. It was something I really struggled with upon moving here, and I knew it would bother her, so it was somewhat amusing to see her amazed, annoyed, and baffled by some of the rude street behavior. It was also a bit reassuring that M and I aren’t the only ones who get frustrated by it at times.

happy_valleyWe also took her Happy Valley Racetrack that night.  I’d been once before but this was the first time for M. It’s a beautiful course with tons of people placing bets and enjoying themselves. We got general admission tickets which cost $10 hong kong, or about a $1.50 US. It took us sometime to figure out all the betting rules (it’s not as easy as you would think) but once we did we bet on three races. I won $50 HKD and my mom won about $7. We spent a lot to win that little but it was fun. It’s a must do for future visitors….

The next day we headed up the famous escalators to the Soho neighborhood. and enjoyed a nice lunch at the Peak Cafe. After lunch we took a really nice walk through Soho and then onto Hollywood Road, to Man Mo Temple, and Cat street to visit some of the antique shops. Some of the furniture and porcelain is simply stunning. We went to the club that night for dinner, and again met friends and mom was quite impressed. It really does have amazing facilities and after seeing our life with a helper and then the club – she was both delighted with and a bit concerned about out “faux-rich” lifestyle as I call it. Yes, we are getting totally spoiled, non more so than F who LOVES the club, but hey – we’re only here for a while and we might as well enjoy it!!!

stanleymarketWe went to Stanley and did some great shopping at the markets. F was a bit insane saying “I want this, I want that!” at pretty much each stall. Grammie wound up buying her Dora sandles that she loves (and I find a tad ugly) but it’s a grandmother’s perogative! After shopping we sat by the water and had a drink and snacks before heading back home.

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For her first Friday night in the city we were taking her to experience one of my favorite things in Hong Kong – the Aqualuna. It’s a beautiful, old Chinese junk that does a night time tour of Victoria Harbor where you sip a drink and watch the Hong Kong Symphony of Lights laser show. Here’s a cool video I found of it (and yes they really do have that music coordinated with the lights).  The boat is in impeccable condition and is filled with gorgeous antiques – it’s worth at least doing it once, especially to watch the show. We boarded the boat in Central and after 40 minutes we got off at Tsim Sha Tsui which is Kowloon side. We took her to the night markets in Jordan, which we had done with other friends, and loved, but we think we were at a different market that, unfortunately, we didn’t enjoy as much. We have to find the original one we went to.

Feeling a bit disappointed from the markets we made the wise decision to have dessert and a nightcap at the Intercontinental Hotel. intercontinentalWe sat in the Lobby Bar and soaked in more of the stunning views overlooking Victoria Harbor. I have to say I prefer it to the more famous Felix for a drink. All in all a great night. We squeezed in a lot for mom’s first three days but there really is so much to do and see here. I was really excited to show off Hong Kong and I knew she would really enjoy it – which she seems to have so far…

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burts-beeAn interesting article on trusted organic brands and who really owns them. I’ll certianly think a bit harder during my next shop…

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pigsJust read this about pathogens in pork and how the use common of antibiotics in the food chain is becoming problematic. It really scares me and makes me now want to take all pork out of our diet. We don’t eat a lot to begin with but all of this is so scary – and that it’s all starting to get cross-contaminated is even more frightening. When will the US and other countries stop these practices by agribusiness that is industrializing, and thereby, ruining our food supply. I don’t give my kids antibiotics unless it’s absolutely necessary because I believe they are being overused and am fearful of them becoming resistant to it, in fact my second has never been on them, but how can I protect them from being exposed by food (here’s an article on the increase of resistant staph infections in children).  I’m becoming more and more consumed by thoughts of what Nicholas Kristof writes below and I’m still searching for alternatives. Obama recently vowed to make food safety improvement a priority – I sure hope so…

We don’t add antibiotics to baby food and Cocoa Puffs so that children get fewer ear infections. That’s because we understand that the overuse of antibiotics is already creating “superbugs” resistant to medication.

Yet we continue to allow agribusiness companies to add antibiotics to animal feed so that piglets stay healthy and don’t get ear infections. Seventy percent of all antibiotics in the United States go to healthy livestock, according to a careful study by the Union of Concerned Scientists — and that’s one reason we’re seeing the rise of pathogens that defy antibiotics.

These dangerous pathogens are now even in our food supply. Five out of 90 samples of retail pork in Louisiana tested positive for MRSA — an antibiotic-resistant staph infection — according to a peer-reviewed study published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology last year. And a recent study of retail meats in the Washington, D.C., area found MRSA in one pork sample, out of 300, according to Jianghong Meng, the University of Maryland scholar who conducted the study.

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Just read this article confirming the use of carnicgens in baby products:

More than half the baby shampoo, lotion and other infant care products analyzed by a health advocacy group were found to contain trace amounts of two chemicals that are believed to cause cancer, the organization said yesterday.

Some of the biggest names on the market, including Johnson & Johnson Baby Shampoo and Baby Magic lotion, tested positive for 1,4-dioxane or formaldehyde, or both, the nonprofit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics reported.

The chemicals, which the Environmental Protection Agency has characterized as probable carcinogens, are not intentionally added to the products and are not listed among ingredients on labels. Instead, they appear to be byproducts of the manufacturing process. Formaldehyde is created when other chemicals in the product break down over time, while 1,4-dioxane is formed when foaming agents are combined with ethylene oxide or similar petrochemicals.

I’ve known about this being likely for some time and check many of the products we use against the skin deep database. This new research confirms that there are trace amounts of cancer-causing chemicals in over half of all infant care products.  Use the database and see if what you are using is safe…

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Happy Bike Bali Trip!

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UPDATE: Read the raving reviews on Happy Bike Cycling Tour

We had just entered a coffee plantation, and were ducking under cocoa trees, when our friends daughter spotted two Ox, roped to a stall, eating breakfast. “Look! I see his penis!” the observant, 4-year old yelled.It was the first stop on our bike tour, led by our local guide, Made. We weren’t on bikes yet, but the plantation is a scheduled stop and worth the visit. Z took up-close pictures of  the luwaks that were housed in a cage near where a man roasts beans over a woodfire. These raccoon/lemur type animals help produce a certain coffee bean through a process you and I know as defecation. Yep. They eat the coffee beans and poop ‘em out. That somehow produces a tasty and expensive bean. (Of course these beans are then cleaned and roasted.)

Z and I had a cup of the luwak and it was decent, far better than the plantation’s regular coffee. Bali produces coffee in higher elevations (where rice fields are harder to grow) but I found that most places stunk at brewing it. I went to one café in Seminyak that didn’t even serve coffee. The best drinks we were served that morning at the plantation was the sweet ginseng coffee and the hot chocolate. The place had an area where you could sit on wooden benches and drink their stuff for free, overlooking a hill and valley.

“Can we go to those tables down dare (there),” F asked, loud enough so that Made could here. He said it wasn’t a good idea to go down the steep path to the other set of picnic tables below. Why, F asked. “There is a cat down there. A mean one.” The girls froze.

The next stop on the tour was a restaurant overlooking the plains leading to Batur, a volcano that erupted three times in the 20th century, according to Made. The morning was getting late, and we told him it would best to make this a quick stop. It also started to rain. We scoffed down fried bananas, fresh mango juice, and some eggs and hit the road.

By the time we got to the spot where the bikes were, the weather had cleared. We were now down the mountain quite a bit. There were no bike helmets for the kids, but to be honest, we were pleasantly surprised with the equipment they had. Fairly modern mountain bikes, in fact.

The bike trip was really a coast down the lower part of the mountain, through rice fields and villages. Farmers, hunched over in triangular hats, tilled the muddy fields, shin deep in muck. One marvels at the irrigation system that feeds a rice field–without an ounce of technology. When we would pass or stop nearby, workers – a mix of men and women – would smile and wave.

“See. Everybody is happy. Everybody is working,” Made said. When he is not doing bike tours, he’s tending to his own family’s rice field. He said very little of the rice is exported. Bali rice feeds mainly Bali people.

We stopped at a 20090210_0383village temple, and Made went into what he called his program. But what he quickly realized was that with 4 kids in tow, the key was to keep things moving. At the temple, three beautiful young girls, probably around  6 or 7, came up to us and smiled and chatted about us. We took photos of them and they giggled when we showed them the digital shots. I saw an old woman with one black tooth, a sari and blade for cutting rice stocks. She smiled and said something to us as we passed.

School was getting out in most villages we passed. Word quickly spread of our arrival through town. A line of children formed outside of one school, all of them extending their hands for a high-five. I slapped every one of them. One boy took off his shoes and raced us on our bikes. When we stopped, they crowded around us, several reaching out to touch the blonde hair exploding from the edges of T’s rainbow bucket hat.

The baby was asleep in the backpack on Z’s shoulders. T fell asleep about 90 minutes into the trip, her body bobbing with every turn. So we ditched a bike and we lay her in the back seat of Made’s mini-van that trailed us. E and I took turns sitting with her for the remainder of the journey.

This really was the HIGHLIGHT of our trip. Made’s company is called Happy Bike, and he is one, of only a two, Balinese owned and staffed operators and he is also the tour guide. Made earned the money to start his bike tour business by working on a cruise ship. I think the cruise ship stint is common for Indonesians, trying to get away to make a buck. He has the frame of a speedy soccer player, and several tattoos on his legs. We were his tenth or so customer, ever. The two families promised to spread the word about his business, which we’ve already done through trip advisor.

Made is a sweet man, probably our age, with three kids and a wife at home. My guess is that he’s got a few stories to tell. He and his staff were incredibly accommodating to our needs and requests and knowledgable, friendly, and supportive.

The end of the tour is usually spent at his home, eating a traditional meal. But construction in his village detoured us to a nice local restaurant set on a hill (Made blamed construction, and not a 7-week old baby at home on the detour). Several Bali restaurants have elevated platforms, where you sit Indian style at shin-high tables, situated about three feet above the ground. It’s perfect for kids, especially one-year olds, who eat standing up and hate being strapped into a high chair like ours does.

The adults shared two Bitang beers and ate an amazing selection of Balinese food. It was the perfect way to end our vacation together, two families traveling to a foreign, Asian country on a shoe-string (more or less) budget.

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