Wednesday, May 30, 2012

IKEA = Happiness

I love IKEA like some ladies love Nordstrom. I love the smell (which I've just been told is formaldehyde), the displays, the whimsical names of the products, the Swedish meatballs, cheap candles, and the semi-disposableness of it all.

My cousin Dar introduced me to it in college, when she realized I couldn't cook and was going to starve to death if something didn't change. She taught me to cook, but she also taught me to love 99-cent Swedish meatballs and lingonberry juice.

The biggest appeal to me is how they display all their products in those little exhibition-type rooms, laid out like a real house. I'm a very visual person, beautiful things make my heart swell and frequently (sometimes to Michael's dismay) cause my eyes to well up with tears. I'm not a "spacial" person, I'll throw three things in a box when we move and call it full. Michael and my Mom come along after me and shift it around and add twenty-seven more items before taping it closed. So I respond deeply to IKEA, which manages to make an improbable amount of furnishings fit in even the smallest of spaces, while fitting it out with simple, inexpensive items, creating beauty with very little money.

I call IKEA my Happy Place, and one of my most favorite days of the year is when the catalog is delivered to my mailbox. Though there was no IKEA in Macau, you could find many of their products on the shelves of a few shops. Hong Kong has three, and we rarely made a trip across the Pearl River Delta without at least a quick stop in to restock my candle supply.

I'm happy to see that Shanghai has two IKEA stores, one on the Puxi side, one on the Pudong side (where we currently reside, geography lesson coming up soon). We passed the Puxi IKEA this morning on the rainy hour-long drive to get our medical tests for residency validated, and my face hurt from the huge smile spreading ear to ear.

I know the importance for the kids to have some continuity of recognizable places as we hop around the world, which is why we've taken them to McD's quite a bit in the places we've lived/visited abroad (though we almost never go there in the States). IKEA, with its weird and wacky product names which stay the same no matter where in the world you go, represents a little continuity for me. Hey, don't judge, it totally works! And with our lifestyle of hopping around every year or two, selling off our household goods every few years, it's nice to know that the EXPEDIT bookcase we get rid of today can be purchased again a couple years down the road if need be.

I'm thinking we need to make a little visit to the Pudong IKEA ASAP. Our new (temporary) house is sadly lacking in my signature spicy IKEA candle scent!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Relocation Observations

It's Monday, and Michael's first day of work in Shanghai. Though it's just a very short day, as he's only in to sign paperwork and get a tour of his office and computer. This afternoon we'll begin the process of looking in earnest for long term housing and waiting anxiously for our dog, Lucy, to arrive on a flight from Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong.

I have lots of thoughts swirling in my brain and I know I better get them down now because in about a week all the things that are strange will start to seem normal. So here's a peek inside my head. It's word-heavy and picture-light. Sorry.

Shanghai is so green. On our honeymoon, Michael and I drove from Orlando, Florida to New Orleans, Louisiana. The highways were wide, with large center dividers filled with grass, reeds, plants, streams, and/or bushes. Shanghai looks identical. It's only the occasional road sign in Chinese or the sound of the wicked-fast Maglev train flying by that clues you in on our actual location. Macau was also very green, but considering it is one of the most densely populated places on earth, filled with high rise buildings, and a very, very small place, the green spaces were very confined. Here the roads are wide and lined with trees. And there is grass everywhere! I am racking my brain, but I don't remember seeing grass in Macau much at all. Even the parks are cement, with perhaps a little grass as accent. There were some big houses behind our high rise building, and in the back yards they had flagstone pavers. It could just be the fact that we are currently staying in "Green City" but even beyond this neighborhood I see trees all over.

Shanghai is so big and spread out. Macau is approximately 18 square miles. You could quite feasibly walk from one end of the SAR to the other and back again in a single day. We are accustomed to walking everywhere. Our first evening in Shanghai, we asked the front desk how to get to the Carrefour (the vastly enormous Costco-sized grocery market that I remember from our time in Japan), and we were told we had to take a taxi because it was too far. We took the taxi, thinking they were right based on how long the drive from airport to home was. Of course, Carrefour was only 1.2 km away, and totally walkable in our opinion (we've done it twice since our first night). But that's the exception. We tried to go to another store which the front desk told us was "close" and the taxi ride took nearly 20 minutes in fairly light traffic. We come from Los Angeles, where everything is an hour away, so you'd think we'd be more used to the vastness of Shanghai. But a year in tiny Macau has skewed our sense of distance. We've been told to avoid the bus system due to huge crowds and the lack of English signs (sounds like a challenge to this girl). Due to Michael's position, we are not allowed to drive a car (too dangerous, a risk the company doesn't wish him to take). So we're stuck with taxis. They are fairly inexpensive, but the drivers do not speak English and we don't even know where to ask them to take us. Yet.

Cantina Agave Chicken Verde Enchiladas... muy delicioso!
The food here is so good. In Macau we didn't eat out very often. There were a few places we went to, but there was almost nowhere that we'd actually crave, as most places had bland, plain choices. It was more of a convenience. And while I don't love to cook, I found that I could make everything I wanted to eat at home and it would taste better (though it would not necessarily be less expensive than a meal out). Since we arrived on Thursday, we've eaten out every single day. And mealtime has become very, very quiet. We're all eating with our eyes closed, savoring the explosion of flavours, stuffing ourselves until we almost have to unbutton our pants just to make it home. A foodie friend of mine from Macau (by way of Mexico) recommended a Mexican restaurant here, Cantina Agave. Friends, if Heidi recommends a place, take it as the gift it is because oh my goodness, the food was so good we've already been there twice, in less than a week. The staff remembered us and our drink order and brought it right out as we sat down. Which is something else I've missed in Macau... excellent service!

It will be easier/harder than expected to live here. Easier, because the grocery stores stock everything you've ever purchased in the United States. We will lack for nothing. Harder, because the price of said goods are 5 to 10 times more expensive than what you'd pay in the U.S., or even Macau (if you can find the products to begin with). Easier, because every restaurant chain and type of cuisine that we have missed while living in Macau is here, just waiting for our order. Harder, because the wait staff at the restaurants do not speak English, or have English menus. We ordered water at a pizza joint and got a hot, lemonade-type beverage (Which prompted our first words learned in Mandarin beyond hello and thank you: Cold water!).
Reese's Peanut Butter Cups... not available in Macau.
Reese's White Peanut Butter Cups?
Heaven to this girl who cannot consume chocolate!
And fully available in Shanghai!
If you don't mind paying $2.75 USD.

Hong Kong and Macau are NOT China. As "western" as Shanghai appears to be on the surface, it is very much a foreign country. Initial impressions made me compare it more to areas in the United States than with the Special Administrative Regions to the south. Hong Kong was a British colony, and Macau a Portuguese colony until they were recently handed back over to Chinese rule. But they still have almost every freedom you would find in the rest of the western world. This is not the case here across the border. The first major difference was the physical exam we had to undergo to get entry visas which will then allow us to gain residency (do not fear, this is not necessary if you're just coming for a visit!). The "simple" test was alarming to me. We were tested for colorblindness, eye health, and vision, given an EKG, weighed and measured, had our chests X-rayed, and gave up a few vials of blood which was tested for HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, cholesterol, liver function, Hepatitis, and blood type (I'm an overachieving A+, Michael gets an A-), and then given a thorough physical exam, all at the government hospital in Macau. Now that we are here in China, we'll go through the same tests again on Wednesday at another facility to move forward with residency permits. A second major difference from Hong Kong and Macau? As soon as I popped my Macau SIM card out of my iPhone and popped in the brand new China SIM card, access to the world of Facebook and Twitter closed down (along with any apps which use those sites for access). My sons had a few dozen questions about why the government would block social media. I'm not sure they were satisfied with the answers. But I was quite satisfied with their very intelligent observations and questions. At least they're becoming aware that different places in this world do things differently.

I am way harsher with myself than I need to be. We've only been in Shanghai four days. Four 24-hour periods. And my level of frustration at not having things figured out already is pretty high. I'm normally the queen of research with insatiable curiosity. I want to know everything about everything, and it's frustrating when presented with so much that I don't know, particularly when I don't even know how to find the answers. Vacationing in Thailand or the Philippines was a completely different mindset. We were exploring for the joy of the adventure and thrill of discovery, and we knew it was just a week, tops. Here in Shanghai, it's less about joy and thrill and more about finding the things we'll need to survive for many years: how to work the washing/drying machine, where to find affordable groceries because we can't eat out forever, how to communicate with farsighted taxi drivers who don't speak English and can't read the writing on the map you're trying to show them, and how to quickly make friends in a very established expat community which is more stable/less transitional than the one we just left, and therefore a bit more set in their ways, less friendly to newcomers. And still manage to be a great wife and mother, making this transition manageable for my family.

Because we moved here directly from another foreign country and not from our "home" country, my confidence was pretty high. After all, I was an expert in getting around by foot or public transportation not just in Macau, but also in Hong Kong which we visited at least once a month. Having a bad day? Nothing boosts your mood or confidence like successfully getting from one end of a country to another using public transit with nary a glance at a map or guide. Not having a car of my own never stopped me from exploring far and wide! And now suddenly going from one foreign place to another, which looks similar (Chinese writing, taxis, buses, trains) but isn't, has completely destroyed my confidence.

What I do know is that it was easy to navigate Japan, Hong Kong, and Macau as soon as I found the key. In Japan, it was learning to read and speak the language. In Hong Kong it was just figuring out the MTR maps and how to board the Star Ferry and Trams with a stroller. In Macau, it was randomly getting on buses and riding them around until I was fully oriented with the place (and knowing it was small enough that I could never be truly lost). I don't yet know what the key to Shanghai is. And I don't know why I think I should have it figured out in only four days. I put too much pressure on myself. But it is my job, my role in my marriage, our family, to pave the way for us to make a new place a home. I take it pretty seriously because I know what it takes to make an international relocation successful for our family. I guess I can just say my anxiety to have it all figured out immediately is in my A+ blood.

I need to remember the lessons in patience I received in Macau and apply it to Shanghai, being patient with myself first and foremost! Right now I'm quite impatiently waiting for our puppy to arrive!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Luxury Tax

In Macau we saw Ferrari and Lamborghini cars every single day, along with other high-end, rare, expensive vehicles. Of course, living right next to an exotic vehicle dealership ensured that we never went long between sightings.

Since we arrived in Shanghai, we've been playing a game called Three Things. Everyone has to point out three things they've seen that stood out. One of my three things wasn't something that I actually saw, it was the absence of something I was used to seeing: high-end vehicles.

Volkswagen cars are plentiful (more about that later), but I haven't seen anything with a horse on the back. Until today. Parked on the sidewalk no less! I had to stop and take a photo of the Ferrari that blocked our path, and then of course I had to write about it because I just read the reason for the lack of Lamborghini's populating the roads here. The taxes in China for imported luxury vehicles runs between 145 and 300%! Ouch! Which means the guy (or gal) who parked this beauty on the sidewalk was just protecting their investment, right? Though we've seen plenty of cars with lesser price tags parked similarly, so I think it's just a China thing. Either way, she sure is pretty!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Skip to the Loo...

Clever (and non-Chinese speaking/reading friendly) way to differentiate the ladies from the gents when it comes time to use the restroom!

Waiting

Our first full day in Shanghai was packed. We were met by the relocation representative and a driver, who took us to open a bank account, visit a dozen grocery stores, drive by possible housing, check out the local medical centre and meet a doctor or two, get a sim card and phone plan for my iPhone, get a second sim card at another location for Michael, sit through an orientation on adjusting to life in Shanghai, lunch, a scenic drive around the French Concession and the Bund, and then a drive back across the river to our house. Whew!

Through it all, the boys were champs. They asked intelligent questions about why the government does certain things, ate every bite of lunch, seemed interested and in awe of their surroundings, and didn't complain once about how long things were taking. I think they were a little happy with all the stops, as it meant they could pull out their iTouches and build tiny towers or whatever kids are doing these days. I wish they were like this everyday, but if they had to pick one day to be on extra good behavior, I'm glad it was the first day in our new country.

Temporary digs

We get to spend our first month in Shanghai in temporary housing while we look for a more permanent home. Permanent is a ridiculous word to use to describe any place we live! The company has put us up in a three bedroom, three bathroom, multi-story townhouse. It feels amazing to have a front door and a back door which both open to a yard and green space rather than stairs and an elevator!

One photo shows us checking in with half the luggage we brought, the other is the boys playing in the communal backyard as seen from our bedroom window.

You know what's nice? Kids coming inside with mud on their legs, dirt under their fingernails, and scrapes from tree branches on their arms. Every place for kids to play in Macau is cemented over and carefully planned. The boys never got dirty. Sweaty, yes. Now they are changing clothes twice a day because they are caked with dirt. Isn't that what childhood is supposed to be like? Though I won't be thinking it's nice for long, now that I've lost the person who did all my laundry for me, and I'm reduced to a teeny-tiny washing machine which also dries. Or at least tries to!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

TTFN

Here we go again! All loaded up and ready to head north. Or east, as our stuff will actually head to Hong Kong first, and then get loaded up on a ship which will sail north to Shanghai. Our belongings spend more time on boats than we do, and we spend a lot of time on boats! So ta-ta-for-now, stuff. See you on the other side!


Turning off the computer and disconnecting the internet now. Our brand-spanking-new China visas are attached in our passports, our bags are packed, our flights are confirmed. All we have to do now is wait about 24 hours to board our plane for Shanghai. Hoping for a decent night's sleep tonight... we're all pretty beat!

Hot for Summer: Corrugated

Brown paper packages tied up with packing tape is a strong decorating trend this summer, as these images would imply. Or maybe it's just another one of our quirky traditions in the Chase household: moving on an annual basis.

In fashion news, yes your eyes aren't fooling you. Our dog is wearing a pink tee in one of these photos. I am not one for putting clothes on animals (though my childhood kitty, Fluffy, might tell you otherwise), but we took Lucy in to the groomers and asked for a short summer cut since its so hot and humid and uncomfortable for dogs with long curly hair. There's a joke in Macau that if you ask for shoulder-length hair, you get ear-length (I'm a perfect example of that), and I guess in Macau if you ask for your dog to have a short summer cut it's code for "shave to the skin." So now our dog who was just panting in the heat is now shaking and shivering in the air con which is running overtime in our house to keep down the body odor of the gang of movers pushing those boxes around. She looks less like a fluffy puppy and more like a naked mole rat. So we got her a tee made from a towel and she's no longer shaking. But her pride is shaken. Or maybe that's my pride...

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Me Tarzan

Wow. After a couple of weeks where we tried to force ourselves into a more normal sleep schedule of going to bed at 10 or 11 and getting up by 7, we just went and messed it all up. We stayed up until nearly 2:00 a.m. this morning, disconnecting things and scanning documents before we go a month without a printer or scanner, and then we got up at 6:00 a.m. to get ready to head over to the China Foreign Services office. I'm exhausted. So exhausted that I was snoozing, curled up in the middle of our stripped mattress while the house is full of workers ripping packing tape and dragging things here and there while they all converse in noisy Cantonese. I don't ever really rely on caffeine, in fact I've gone over two years without a daily dose, but today I'm dragging like a muffler that's come loose, so my husband made me a deal: I put up a blog post and he will make a run to Starbucks AND send me for a final two hour deep tissue massage this afternoon. Who wins in this deal? Why, everyone! I just hope the coffee keeps me awake for the massage. If not, it won't be the first time I've snored my way through a kneading!

I really want to write about our elephant experience, but I know what my husband is really asking me to do: write about our zip-lining experience. Okay, Michael, I will. I just wish all my writing gigs paid in iced caramel beverages and massages!

First of all, know that when I was a kid, I used to climb trees like a monkey. I'd climb up on the roof of our house. Scale any ladder. Heights were not a concern at all. And then in college, I took a lighting design class (I was a theatre major), and we had to climb up to the catwalk above the stage to learn about counterbalancing the rods that the lights hang from. The strangest thing happened... my vision tightened to a tiny circle, I started sweating profusely, my ears began to ring, and I froze. My fellow students thought I was just being my normal, dramatic self, but the teacher realized I wasn't faking and had great compassion, managing to get me down by keeping her face about two inches from mine and telling me exactly what to do, "lift this foot, put it here. Breathe." From that point on, heights and I haven't been chums at all.

At the other end of the spectrum, you'll find my husband, who loves heights. When I met him (about two days before my freakout in the theatre), he was working as a stage tech at Disneyland, doing all the rigging for the Colombia Sailing Ship for Fantasmic!, which incidentally just celebrated it's 20th anniversary. Riggers climb. High above the ground. This made me very nervous. Especially because he was just so darn comfortable up there. He loves to climb, happily scaling any height. And then I went and had two boys, who both love to climb, and have no fear of falling.

When I booked the hotel in Thailand, I noticed the list of activities they could arrange for us included zip-lining. Zip-lining is where you put on a harness and attach yourself to a wire which is attached between two stationary objects (like trees), and then zip along the line from one object to another. For fun. I didn't mention the zip-lining to Michael, but of course when we checked in, our four happy attendants saw our boys and were only too happy to mention it! So we signed up to go. The three boys in the family with great enthusiasm, the lone girl very reluctantly. I decided that I wasn't going to think about it until it was time to actually do it, so I had a couple really great days without any thought of flying through the air on a wire.

The day finally came, and we were picked up at the hotel and driven an hour away up the side of Doi Lankah, one of Thailand's five tallest mountains. It was so beautiful and green, and once again nice to go on a little road trip up a winding road in the middle of nowhere. Soon enough we arrived, and they ushered us directly into the bathrooms to empty our bladders before getting in a harness.

Most of the time I think my kids are so huge, but seeing them in this equipment made me think how very little and vulnerable they are! Here's the photo of all four of us, freshly suited up:

Michael looks totally at ease, the boys are speaking out of the side of their mouths, saying, "can we just get in the air already," and I'm looking a little green. They made us wear lovely pink shower caps under our helmets. Michael checked all of the equipment and told me it was a good brand, but that did little to put my mind at ease.

They walked us through a tiny village where everyone makes their living off the tourists who come to zip-line:

And then we on the first platform, ready to zip over the first line:

In our group there were a a couple of brothers from Switzerland and a trio of friends from Kuala Lumpur and us. And of course my kids volunteered to go first. There's Nathan:

And there's my baby Ben:

Did I scream the entire time while I was going across? Why yes, yes I did. The guides said it was okay to scream, but it was not okay to cry. I didn't cry at all, but by the end of the day they told me I have a fabulous scream which should be used in horror films. No acting at all, folks, I was truly terrified.

Jungle Flight takes you on a circular route through the jungle, with lines of varying length and height, along with some circular staircases that go around a tree and a few abseils (rappelling for the Americans) straight down from the tree tops. For the zip-lines and abseiling, I just concentrated on the harness and hanging on for dear life (and perfecting my scream). But you know what frightened me the most? The sky bridges. They attached our harnesses to the side, but my feet did not want to walk. My legs were already like jelly from the experience of soaring in the jungle canopy. Add in the previous day's elephant riding which left me sore and bruised, and suddenly trying to walk across a jiggly, bouncing bridge was almost too much for me to handle. This is the first one, lowest to the ground.


The wildlife was amazing. Our guides kept talking about Thai monkeys (which I think is what the guides call themselves!). We saw all sorts of birds, lizards, beetles, huge spiders, enormous ants, and these amazing seed pods that would fall gracefully from the tree canopy down to the ground below, spinning as they fell.

This was one of the longer lines, and they let Nathan and Ben go together. I've never seen them willingly hold hands, but they were sure hanging on here!


This is the midway point, where we took a break. I think breaking was worse than just pushing through, as it forced me to think about what we were doing...

Here is the final platform, 40 meters (131 feet, 13 stories) off the ground:

And how did we get off this platform? They sent us straight over the edge on a rope. Here's a video of Nathan (email subscribers, click through to the site to watch it) going over the edge:
video

And here is one Michael took as he was falling:

video

They asked me if I wanted to go slow or fast. I said slow, please. They let me go slow for the first few feet, then stopped me and asked if it was slow enough. I said yes, and then they let go and I fell like a rock, screaming one final scream before they stopped me just shy of the crash mat.

At the end of the circuit there was a sign, which we of course had to stop and photograph. It's pretty fitting in our present circumstance as we leave Macau.

Happy ending indeed.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Cancelled

We're back home in Macau. Though the number of days we can call Macau home are dwindling rapidly. I have much more to post on Thailand (Elephants! Zip-lining!), but it will have to wait a week as we do the last minute disconnecting of computers and canceling of Internet service and just all the many little details that must be taken care of in the days leading up to a move.

In the morning we head to the China Foreign Affairs office and turn in a ream of paperwork to get our resident visas to enter and live in China. Also in the morning, the movers arrive and pack up our belongings. In the afternoon we pick up the paperwork that will allow us to bring our dog out of Macau and into China. Wednesday the movers return to collect everything they've packed, and then mid-day Thursday we're on a plane to our new home in Shanghai. I'm so grateful for the Thailand holiday which kept us busy and occupied, not allowing us to dwell too much on the immediate future.

I have honestly and truly adored living in quirky, bizarre Macau. I've made terrific friends this year, for which I'm overwhelmingly grateful. Leaving is very difficult for me. And I'm not even ready to write about how difficult it is for my kids (currently up past their bedtime, crying on Daddy's shoulder about not wanting to leave).

Thursday will be rough. But today was challenging enough. We had to relinquish our passports to Macau Immigration for the day, who cancelled our visas in bright red ink. Tonight I feel like we're in limbo. One visa cancelled, the other not yet affixed into our passport pages. And now back to packing so my hands can be as busy as my mind...

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Adventure Footwear

I'm a girl who lives in flip-flops or bare feet. In Southern California it's not a big deal to wear sandals year-round, as it never gets all that cold. Macau was a different story, and I had to adjust to wearing actual shoes and socks. The horror! True story: when I went back to the States briefly for my Uncle's funeral in February, a friend of mine who met me and gave me a ride informed me that I'd changed. Preparing for a compliment along the lines of you've lost weight, I was surprised to hear her say, "Look at your feet... you're not in sandals!"

I knew we were going to be doing crazy things in Thailand like zip-lining and wading in rivers with elephants, so I wanted all of us to have footwear a little more substantial than flip-flops. I also know it's a bad idea to get new shoes right before a trip without wearing them in first, but we were against a wall of time and did it anyway.

I love Merrell brand shoes for my kids. It is the only brand of shoes that they grow out of before they have a chance to destroy them. So we picked up some Merrell water shoes for both Michael and Nathan. Michael isn't much of a sandal person, but Nathan is just like his mama, barefoot or flip-flops only, please! I was surprised Nathan went for full shoes, but I think the idea of wearing them without socks was what made them appealing.

Ben got a pair of sandals that have a neoprene foot covering and heel strap, so he was good to go. For me, I knew I couldn't handle a water shoe. If I'm forced to wear a shoe, it has to be with a sock. And who wants to wear socks if you know you're going to get wet? I was looking for some Teva-type sandals that have a supportive foot bed but plenty of straps to keep them attached to you. I'd seen some in Hong Kong a month ago, and began to kick myself that I didn't pick them up at the time. I found a pair of Merrell brand water sandals that I hated at first glance, but with time and the number of stores to look in running out, I realized I couldn't be too picky. So I tried them on. I was surprised that they were so low to the ground, but was happy with the fact that in walking around the shop, nothing was immediately rubbing me the wrong way. I decided to get them, despite the fact that they looked a lot like the shoes my granny used to wear, with three straps across the foot.


It wasn't until the next morning when we were walking out the door to grab our flight that I pulled off the info tag which said the sandals use "Vibram Technology." I don't know if you've seen anyone wearing those freaky Vibram Five Finger shoes that look like gloves for your feet, but they make you feel like you are barefoot, which is supposed to give you all sorts of benefits. I have no desire to get a pair of the five finger shoes (even just those socks with toes freak me out), but I was happy to walk in them and realize the sandals were incredibly comfortable. The info tag also mentioned that it may take a week for you to get used them, since your body (evidently) uses different muscles to walk barefoot than it does to walk in more supportive shoes.

I have to say that all my time barefoot has paid off, because the sandals were perfect straight out of the box. I wore them all week, nearly nonstop. They were perfect for walking long distances, hiking through trails, riding elephants, wading through a river, zip-lining through the jungle, and wearing on the plane, which usually makes my feet swell up a bit. After our crazy adventurous week, every muscle and joint in my body hurt except for my feet. They sure aren't the best looking sandal around, but I'm a devoted convert to Vibram Technology. But don't expect to ever see me in those five finger shoes. They're just not for me! Merrell + Vibram = Happy "Barefoot" Girl!

Dining with Wildlife

Chiang Mai, Thailand is home to the most incredible place, the Night Safari. It's similar to the San Diego Wild Animal Park in California but with more direct access to the wild animals. The tram you ride in has completely open sides. And they sell you baskets of carrots and bananas which you can feed the animals which follow along, poking their noses into your laps. Most of the animals roam free, separated by cattle guards (pipes set in the ground which discourage them from moving to the next area).

We fed so many animals, but the highlight for me was a particularly hungry zebra who wanted what was in my basket... The more I tried to move it out of his range, the more he went after it. His head was across my legs, and realizing he was going to end up in my lap, I grabbed a carrot to toss behind him. His tongue swept across my leg, and he grabbed the carrot from my open palm before I could toss it. I took advantage of the proximity and dared to give him a quick pat. Pretty amazing stuff.

Since the Night Safari takes place after dark, it's quite hard to photograph. Prior to the start of our tour, we ate at the Giraffe Restaurant. It shares a glass wall with an enclosure filled with giraffes and zebras on one side, and lions on the other. It was nearly impossible to get my kids to eat their dinner, what with the giraffes eating theirs just feet away! As soon as we were done, we went upstairs to the second story which is wide open, giving you access to the animals.

We bought a couple of baskets of greens and fed the giraffes from the palms of our hands. Their tongues are purple and feel like big grit sandpaper, and their saliva felt like rubber cement, thick and sticky. But oh my goodness, weird sensation aside, it was the most amazing experience. There was no one else up there with us, so we got lots of attention from our long-necked friends.

I would say the Chiang Mai Night Safari is a must if you're in the area!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sign Language

I've become accustomed to the beautiful blue and white Portuguese tiles that mark each street in Macau. They make the street signs in America feel cold and utilitarian, which I suppose is what they're aiming for.

The street signs here in Chiang Mai (when you can find them) are gorgeous little works of art. I stopped to take a photo of this one and marked myself as a tourist, attracting half a dozen touts trying to get us to take a tour of the city in their taxi or tuk tuk. Not this time, boys.

Going my way?

So we still haven't taken a Tuk Tuk for a spin, but we did get to experience another common mode of Thai transportation, the songtaew. The word means "two rows" and it's basically a pick-up truck with a high shell covering the back, which is lined with bench seats on the sides. It very much reminded me of the jeepney trucks in the Philippines, but unlike the garish and crazy colors of its Filipino cousin, the songtaew comes in two colors, red for in town and yellow for destinations beyond.

We'd been told that Chiang Mai is home to some great Mexican restaurants, so with the guidance of our concierge we set off on foot for the one with the best reputation (Miguel's). It was a longer walk than expected (and living in Macau we are used to long walks), but the food did not disappoint, our taste buds and tummies were satisfied. But toward the end of our meal, our kids began to wilt like plucked dandelions after a day riding elephants, so our plans to stroll back to the hotel by way of the night market were scuttled and we decided to grab a taxi. Before we could even look for one, a songtaew pulled up and asked our destination. He said he'd take us there for the standard rate of 20 Baht a head. So we climbed aboard along with a Thai couple and two girls backpacking through Southeast Asia. I felt a little silly when he pulled right into the hotel grounds and dropped us off at the doorman of our luxury hotel behind a string of fancy cars, but you can't beat the price of .60 cents US for a ride home with sleepy children!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Homeless

"Where do you live?" is the common but difficult question we are getting this week. The answer is long: we live in Macau, we are from the United States, we are moving to Shanghai next week, we are spending the time in the middle touring around Thailand.

One of the nice things about traveling is finding kindred spirits whose answer to "Where do you live?" is just as freakishly long and complicated. This is comforting, running into someone completely different yet exactly like you, thousands of miles away from our respective homelands. It's a beautiful thing, being both homeless yet perfectly at home all at once.

Our view from breakfast:

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Magic Kingdom

We've arrived in Chiang Mai and checked into our huge suite. Because we had to book the suite (the only room which could accommodate a family of four, though honestly we could fit two more families in here if we tried), we got "Club Level" service. Whisked away to a private lounge for check in, we were treated to mint juleps, juices, coffees, cakes (yummy cakes!), and had the devoted service of four attendants, who checked us in and then booked all of our activities for the week along with transportation. Seriously friends, this is pretty much the least expensive vacation destination, even with all the little extras we are getting!

Thailand isn't a country, it's a kingdom. The current king is the longest ruling monarch in Thailand's history. His portrait is everywhere. Frankly, I feel like a princess based on all the amazing service we're getting! The boys love this place for a completely different reason: The Disney Channel! We've been without it for the last year in Macau, and they are currently glued to the screen in their plush bedroom, catching up with old "friends" on the telly.

We are cleaning up to head out for a big Thai dinner and night safari amongst the wildlife. Tomorrow we spend the day at an elephant camp where we get to work one-on-one with an elephant all day, training, bathing, and riding bareback. The next day we are going into the jungle canopy for zip-lining, followed by a visit with some baby tigers which we get to snuggle (scary, but I think for me the zip-lining high above the jungle floor will be more so!).

Forgive me, Walt. It has been 12 months since my children last watched your television channel... but I must tear them away to make lasting memories that no TV show can compete with!

Donut Whole

It's funny how when something is readily available, you don't feel the need to consume it regularly. But take it away and suddenly you crave it (isn't that why most diets fail?). I remember halfway through our year in Japan making a long trip to the American Market in the center of Tokyo just to see what they had, since my grocery store had almost no western products to speak of. It's better now, but a decade ago there were less expats, less demand, less supply. The American Market stocked marshmallows and the sight of them made me drool. Which was funny considering I'd never in my life just opened a sack of marshmallows and popped them in my mouth like snack food. Before that day anyway!

I've written previously about our cravings for In-N-Out Burger, and how we about died of sugar bliss when we visited the Philippines and came across Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. Asian sweets are much less sweet than American. Or Filipino sweets. If I order cake in Macau, it's generally a sponge-type cake that lacks flavor, with fruit in place of frosting. When I want cake, I want a dense cake with buttercream frosting shaped like roses. But alas, unless I make one myself (fat chance!) it just isn't happening.

Our first day in Thailand we make a quick stop into a huge shopping mall (biggest in Bangkok called MBK) and made it about four feet inside before we saw something we could not resist: Dunkin' Donuts. A whole wall filled with shelf after shelf of American style-sweetness in cake form. Yes, we stopped in and had dessert before dinner. Because that's what vacation is all about, right?

I don't remember the last time I had a Dunkin' Donut in America... They're on every corner so not all that appealing! But Ben said, "I've been waiting my whole life for a donut this good!" My sweet-loving, American-tastebud, short-memory sentiment exactly!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Tuk Tuk

We have a restaurant in Macau called Tuk Tuk Thai. It's tasty and cheap Thai food.

Today we saw many Thai Tuk Tuks, three wheeled open-air passenger vehicles you can use like a taxi. We made sure to take a photo, but we passed on the ride and just hired a private car and driver to take us all over Bangkok. The cost? About $30 USD to have someone drive us everywhere we wanted to go (and recommend places we might like), and then wait around while we explored and took our time. Not bad considering he was with us for nearly eight hours and gave us lots of insight into Thai culture and history. It sure helped us make the most of our limited time in this city.

We all nearly nodded off in the car- Macau is so tiny that all car trips are generally ten minutes or less. Tonight the ride back to our hotel was nearly an hour and we were fighting the urge to snooze as the tires on the highway hummed us a lullaby! I don't think sleeping on a Tuk Tuk is possible... You might fall out, and all the bugs pelting your face would likely keep you awake!

We have arrived!

I love the blogging app on my phone! And more than the app, I love my phone! It's amazing how small the world becomes with an iPhone.

Late last night my ear started hurting and now it's throbbing with a rhythm like a high school marching band. Not good! But I travel with antibiotics and I'm hoping to kick this quickly because we've got a lot to do this week!

We're spending just one night in Bangkok. We booked in a hotel which gave us an enormous suite. We could find no hotel with two queen beds or two double beds, which is suitable for a family of four. It's either one king bed or two twins. So for both our hotel tonight and the room for the rest of the week in Chiang Mai, we booked huge suites that could accommodate us. Quite the luxurious life, yes? But the nice thing is that Thailand is such an incredibly inexpensive travel destination that a huge suite is still a third of the price of a normal hotel room in Hong Kong.

Stepping off the plane allowed the kids to say they've been to seven different countries in their lives. I'm a little jealous of that! Though I've been to many, many more, I didn't even leave US soil until I was 14 years old. Of course seven countries is a tiny amount compared to some of Nathan and Benjamin's peers in the international community of Macau. But you gotta start somewhere, right?

We're off to explore Bangkok! I hear adventure calling in a language I've never heard before!

Our Chariot Awaits

I love Macau International Airport. It's so tiny with amazing views. Can't tell you how much we really, really need this vacation!

Michael managed to catch us walking up to the plane... Sitting on it now! Let's get off the ground!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Happy Mother's Day

To my Mom... you ROCK! Seriously, I wouldn't be who I am today without all you have done and continue to do for me.
I love you!


To my Mother-in-law (pretty in pink)... thank you for raising the best possible son, and for loving my sons!


To my boys... I wouldn't even be a mom if it wasn't for you. You are amazing. Especially considering our crazy life. You make it all worth it. And you could you please pretty please stop growing?

(They are standing on something so this isn't their height relative to mine, but the photo above is them almost a year ago... why must they get bigger at all?)

And to everyone else, Happy Mother's Day!

We're off to Thailand in the morning, so don't fret if you don't hear anything from us for a bit! So excited to be taking a proper holiday with my family. Little Miss Lucy will get a holiday of her own with friends who are dying for a pup of their own. As soon as we return, we'll be in a whirlwind of craziness, filing for our China resident visa, managing the movers, and saying goodbye to the place we've called home the past year. The hardest part will be saying goodbye to friends. That never gets easier with practice! But the good news for local friends is that we'll just be a two hour flight away, and we'll still have a guest bedroom, so come visit! The invitation to visit still stands for people further than two hours away as well! And now I have to get back to packing for our flight in the morning!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Beauty is my love language

The last few days have been so stunning that I cannot tear my eyes from the view. The blue skies, the visibility for miles, the brown water finally appearing a bit blue... So beautiful.

After months of mist and high fog blocking it, we can see Hong Kong once again from our flat. The hilly island there in the distance is Lantau (home of Hong Kong Disneyland and our home away from home).

I'm both grateful and sad for the sudden postcard views... It's going to make leaving that much more difficult!