Saturday, December 31, 2011

Christmas in Bali

Nothing says “Ho, Ho, Ho Merry Christmas” like having to stop at multiple security checkpoints (outside of the airport) on the way to your resort in a tropical paradise.   Due to the facts that there have been multiple terrorist attacks in Bali (one in 2002 and one in 2005 – something we didn’t make our parents aware of until after we left) and that the economy in Bali is so dependent on tourism, these checkpoints have been set up to both reduce the likelihood of further attacks as well as make tourists feel safer.  So, our car had to be searched both upon entering the area of the island where we were staying and before entering our actual resort.  Trunks and hoods were popped, doors were opened to inspect occupants (Quin even tried to get out as he thought we had arrived) and an explosive detecting wand was run through the car.  Just what you need to get you in the holiday spirit.  Now – don’t get me wrong; there was plenty of Christmas spirit around, from Balinese Christmas trees in the lobby

To Santas carved out of fruit

 To Balinese Nativity scenes

To Christmas caroling in a restaurant on Christmas

There was even a strange Santa with sexy assistants!

And while it was a wonderful trip, there seemed to be a bit of an edge running under the enjoyment.  Part of it was due to the enhanced security (which was everywhere you turned – going into malls, walking the streets, etc.); while it was designed to make you safer, it had the perverse effect of making you feel less safe.  Part of the edge was also due to a bit of sadness; while our trip to Thailand was pure escapism (a week off in the middle of October is something we never do), we couldn’t help but miss our family and friends on this trip.  
Nonetheless, we still managed to have a fabulous time.  There was lots of swimming in the pool and exploring the ocean.  A coral reef at the edge of the inlet we were on meant awesome breakers - if only we could surf!   More drinks by the pool facilitated by an engaging kids club.  The boys and I even tried one of those massages where the fish eat the dead skin off your feet (I was WAY more freaked out by it than they were).  

We enjoyed traditional Balinese food in an authentic restaurant, Bumbu Bali (so yummy!), and experienced a bit of the unique culture of Bali, which unlike the rest of Indonesia is predominantly Hindu.   

And, most importantly, Santa even came by to drop off new Kindle Fires for the boys. 

All in all then, a very different but enjoyable holiday experience.  I know that at the same time next year, when we’re at home celebrating Christmas in our usual way, we’ll definitely appreciate that ordinariness more and look back fondly at the time we spent in Bali for Christmas 2011. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Random Observations (12/21/11)

  • The China Daily coverage of the death of Kim Jung Il, the leader of North Korea, couldn’t be any more different than the coverage that we’ve read in the U.S. papers.  “A Friend’s Departure” ran across the first page in large letters the other day; inside, there was more coverage of his life, his accomplishments, and the dismay and despair of the citizens of North Korea upon learning about his passing.  There was also a story about how his son’s rise to power won’t lead to any real changes in North Korea’s relations with other countries.  If only we could be so sure that was the case.
  • Holiday decorations here seem to come directly from the reject bin.  Almost none of the displays show traditional colors, like red or green.  Instead, you get hot pink or burnt orange.  It’s almost as if they manufactured multiple runs of Christmas decorations in every color in China, then realized that certain colors don’t sell, so they decided to dump them on the domestic market. 
  • It’s also virtually impossible to find boxes and wrapping paper here.  I picked up some paper a few weeks back, but have now realized that I’m going to need more.  Despite the fact that it’s a few days before Christmas, I can’t find any, anywhere.  And don’t get me started on the lack of boxes – NO one sells them.  I guess you don’t wrap presents around here.  What I wouldn’t give for a Target or even a Wal-Mart right about now.  Doug and I were both saying how there’s no store like that here; I don’t know why they haven’t moved into this market.    I guess Wal-Mart has been making inroads in China, but we don’t have either here.
  • Every so often, we like to send the boys a treat in their lunches, so a couple of times this year, we’ve sent potato chips.  Apparently, this is a BIG no-no at the school – potato chips are on the list of forbidden, unhealthy foods.  Okay fine, but what I don’t get is that while potato chips are forbidden, candy is not.  In fact, Berkley came home the other day and said he had traded some of his raspberries for cola-flavored candy tape.  And this isn’t a one-time incident; Berkley is constantly coming home telling us how he traded yogurt covered raisins for cookies or baked goldfish for lollipops.  I just don’t understand the calculus where potato chips once in a blue moon are horrifying, but daily doses of sugary crap are okay.
  • Speaking of food, I’m a bit embarrassed to say that we ate at McDonald’s twice the other day (apologies to Annette and Tom for making fun of the company that provides so well for them).  Usually on Sundays, I cook breakfast for the family – typically either pancakes or French toast (no waffle maker here, so those are out of rotation) – but it’s a really PITA in our under-equipped kitchen.  Unfortunately, there’s no diner or IHOP around here to head out to on those Sundays when I just don’t feel like going through the work – or so we thought until Doug remembered that McDonalds does breakfast.  Brilliant – we all got eggs and pancakes with no laboring in the kitchen or mess to clean up.  But then later than night in Wan Chai, after a day out and about, we were looking for a promised desert for the boys; all we could find were Chinese bakeries (think pastries with fillings like red bean paste – yuck!).  Once again, McDonalds to the rescue;  we walked up to the Golden Arches and ordered some sundaes that really hit the spot.  At home, we almost NEVER eat at McDonalds – mostly because we don’t really do fast food, but also because if we do, we go to Burger King as they have a veggie burger on the menu.  Here, we eat at McDonalds more than I care to admit.  Now – it’s rarely a full meal as they still don’t have anything we can eat, but the ubiquitousness of Mickey Ds sure does come in handy in a pinch here. 
  • That’s it for now.  The boys are out of school after today, and then on Friday afternoon, we head off to Indonesia (Bali to be exact) for Christmas.  We figured if we can’t spend Christmas with family, then we’re going to spend it by the pool or on the beach.  It’s the first time any of us will have ventured south of the equator, so we’re quite excited.  Doug and I are going to go cold turkey on the email and internet (with the exception of going online to call family on the big day); I’m sure we’ll be back with more details about Indonesia than you’ll actually care to hear.  Merry Christmas everyone!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

That Would Be Creepy*

Yesterday, we visited Kam Shan County Park to hike a portion of Hong Kong’s famed Maclehose trail.  Aside from the trail and beautiful scenery, we were looking forward to seeing two attractions in the park: monkeys and World War II era relics.

The monkeys are macaques (both long tailed and short tailed); while the species is native to Southern China, these monkeys are believed to be the descendants of pets that were released into the wild.  The population has surged, mainly due to the fact that they can’t get people to stop feeding them.  And, judging from what we saw in the park, it seems that people here really enjoy driving through the park, feeding the monkeys as they go along.  This, as you can imagine, leads to all sorts of ill-effects, which we would soon experience.  The monkeys, which started out as adorably cute, soon became, well, creepy as we walked on.  When we first entered the park, we were so excited by seeing all of these monkeys in the wild.  They were walking down the street, hanging out in the park rest areas, and lounging around grooming each other.  

While we avidly checked them out, they mostly ignored us, although one of them did saunter over and stick its butt out at us – much to the delight of the boys.  Climbing up through the park, we encountered dozens of groups of monkeys.  At one stop, Berkley sat to rest, and a monkey wandered over to check him out.  Berkley named his lactating friend “Nipples.”  All was good until she showed her teeth in response to Berkley smiling at her – nothing aggressive, but still a bit creepy.

The situation got creepier as we crested a hill.  As we paused, surrounded by at least a couple dozen monkeys, one sauntered over to check Doug out, who was simply standing there with his hands in his pockets.  That monkey was joined by another small monkey; they both sat, staring at Doug.  We’re not sure if they thought he had food in his pockets or what, but what seemed cute at first took a turn for the mildly alarming as the body language of the monkeys subtly shifted from “hey got any food?” to “give me my food already.”  One monkey stood on its hind legs, and then the dominant male came over and started making noises.  We quickly decided it was time to leave.  

As we walked down the hill, though, we turned a corner to find a van surrounded by close to a hundred monkeys.  The van couldn’t move, and we were a bit scared to proceed.  I mean – there were so many monkeys, they totally could have taken us, and who knows if the people in the van would have let us in if things went south.  Luckily, there was a small bit of space between the van and a rock wall with only a monkey or two sitting there, so we were able to squeeze through without  having to confront the pack.  

I don’t know if the people in the van were actually feeding the monkeys (we didn’t see any food come out), but clearly the monkeys had been conditioned to equate slowing moving machine on paved path with easy fixings.  In fact, once we left the main road in the park, we rarely saw any monkeys.  No – they just liked to hang out where the stupid humans feed them.  I say stupid as there were signs EVERYWHERE you looked; despite this fact, there were people everywhere, tossing food to the monkeys, right in front of said signs.   

Now, I don’t want this to sound too scary.  I mean, the whole thing was pretty cool – seeing packs of monkeys, out in the open (I don’t want to call it the wild as the monkeys were essentially begging for food and had clearly been conditioned to humans), and up close and personal.  But clearly, there were some strange dynamics going on, and while we were happy to have experienced it, we were glad to move off the road and onto an actual hiking trail.  Doug had read that this trail went by a World War II British defense line, but we didn’t really know what to expect.  We certainly didn’t expect to find a whole network of trenches and rooms, open to exploration to anyone who hiked by.  The boys, Berkley in particular, were thrilled with the prospect of exploring a series of ill-lit underground passages, and  Doug and I really enjoyed the sense of history that pervaded our exploration.  The trenches aren’t preserved in any way, so there were really no explanations or interpretations to stand in our way of experiencing that history.  Wandering through Oxford, Piccadilly and Charing Cross, I couldn’t help but think of the soldiers who were stationed there (at least two who died there were from the UK), trying to making a connection to home.  

All in all then, it was really one of those perfect Hong Kong days.  Beautiful scenery, engrossing history and entertaining, albeit slightly creepy, wildlife.  As our time here winds down, I find myself looking forward to moving on, but I know that it’s days like these that we will remember for a long time. 

* Title taken from one of the boys' current favorite songs: Christmas is Creepy.   Note: I do NOT recommend listening to that song, unless you want bad schlock stuck in your head.  Since it was stuck in our head all day, we spent all day making up monkey lyrics to the tune of that song.  Think - if a monkey stuck out his butt, that would be creepy. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

A "Normal" Day

Several people have asked me what I’ve been doing here in Hong Kong.  And I suppose that’s partly due to the fact that the concept of a sabbatical is a foreign idea to most people.  The truth is – most of what I do here every day is things that I could and would be doing from anywhere.  Every morning, I have to wake up with the boys and get them ready for school.  Doug takes care of making breakfast and taking them to the bus; my duty is making lunches (an absolutely dreadful task, but one that I took on as I’m too lazy to get myself dressed to walk to the bus stop with them).  Then, after I read the news and practice my Chinese, I work on my research project.  Since September, this has consisted of entering and cleaning my massive data set (which is really 10 large data sets combined into one); now, I’ve at least been able to move on to analyzing my data.  As with all research projects, this one is behind schedule, but that’s only because my schedules are always too ambitious, not because I haven’t been working or making good progress.  This work is interspersed with things like laundry, dishes and cleaning – both because they need to be done and because I often need a break from my data. 

All that, then, is really not much different from what my days would have been liked had we stayed in Dartmouth during my sabbatical.  Normal here is like normal anywhere else.  It’s when I step outside the apartment that nothing is really “normal” for me (although to be sure the apartment itself isn’t “normal” either, but that’s a subject for a different post).  Most days, I go to the market for food; this is necessitated by two facts: 1) our refrigerator is so small that it can only hold a day or two of food for four people, and 2) with no car, I can only carry a day or two of food (and booze – can’t forget the booze) for four people.  Some days, I take the 46 bus to the grocery store in the Tuen Mun mall, as it has a wider selection of Western food products.  The bus is filled with locals, all talking rapidly in Cantonese.  Of course, I can’t understand a word they’re saying, and more than once, I’ve been chewed out by the bus driver when he’s asked me about a stop I requested and I can’t respond.  Definitely not normal.  Other days, I walk over to our local market; again, barely any one speaks a language I understand (except for our favorite grocery store clerk who loves practicing her English with us).  It’s quite common to see people pedal by on bicycles with kids perched on the back or hordes of school kids in strange uniforms walking by.  At these moments, I really do feel like a stranger in a strange land.

As often as I can, I also try to head out behind the apartment for a trail run.  Both Doug and I have really gotten into hitting the trails, due mainly to the fact that Lingnan borders on a spectacular county park.  10 minutes up a gut busting road, and we’re there.  Trails criss-cross the park, going up and down the hills, meaning that we rarely take the same route twice.  And when you’re not on the top of a hill, you’re completely isolated; it’s really easy to forget you’re minutes away from some of the most densely populated places on earth. 

Of course, it’s not all work and working out either.  Usually, Doug and I take an afternoon off each week (in addition to our weekend exploring with the boys) to go out to lunch and explore the city.  As of late, much of this exploring has focused on malls, as we try to get our Christmas shopping done, but it’s been nice to explore the city and spend some time with my husband.  So, some things are different, and there are reminders that “we’re not in Kansas anymore” pretty much every day, but really, life here has settled into a familiar routine.

In some ways, it’s a bit disappointing how “normal” things are.  You’d like to think if you move hallway around the world, that things in your world would radically change.  To be sure, some things do change; we’ve seen and done so many things that we never would have had the chance to if we haven’t moved here for an extended period of time.  But I also think it’s an important lesson: the grass isn’t necessarily greener somewhere else.  You still have to supervise homework and clean out nasty Tupperware from lunchboxes no matter where you are.  Of course, in just over a month from now, we’re going to have to pack up and establish a new normal all over again, and I can’t say that I’m not apprehensive about that.  But our time here has made me realize that we can and will do this when the time comes.  And our time here has also made me realize that when we return back to our old “normal” back in Dartmouth, you can be darn sure that I’m going to appreciate what we have.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Letter from Quin

Here's Quin's letter to his classmates at DeMello School. Much of what he's written is in response to specific questions from them.

The roller coaster at Ocean Park did go upside down; it was awesome. We also went to Disneyland on Thanksgiving because they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in Hong Kong. Space Mountain, another roller coaster, was my favorite ride. Disneyland was very small. This is a picture of me on the Dragon Roller Coaster at Ocean Park.

At Christmas, we are going to Bali. In Hong Kong, Christmas is not like home because few people celebrate Christmas here, but there are some decorations. But at school, we have a Christmas vacation; not all schools do.

School here is different from DeMello, but I still get a report card. I had an English test today. At Assembly, we learned about children around the world who have to do child labor. One boy had to carry the materials to make bricks that weighed 15kg. I could never do that.

I have been doing a lot of hiking. Even though Hong Kong seems mostly urban, there are many country parks and mountains. We go to the parks to hike up streams and climb rocks. This is a picture of me rappelling, which means climbing backwards down rocks.

Here it is hard to find the food we have at home, but I have tried some new foods that are good, like Time Out bars. Time Out bars taste like Kit Kat bars. I also tried chicken feet and fish eyeballs, but they are not so good.

We don’t have a car here, so we take buses and trains around. Many of the buses are double-deckers. I like to sit up top in the front row. There are two types of trains: the MTR and the light rail. The light rail only runs in the Western New Territories, but the MTR runs all over Hong Kong. There are some islands here you can only get to by ferry.  We went to one called Lamma Island. 

Shek O means “Rocky Bay” in Cantonese. There is a picture of me there below. It probably got that name because it is very rocky. The weather here is still warm, but not warm enough to go swimming any more.  It does not snow in Hong Kong. Has it snowed in Dartmouth yet?  

Your friend,