Last Friday night Jess’s school hosted a night fair; parents and staff could set up booths in the classrooms and parents and kids came to buy their homemade foods and crafts. Jess signed us up for an apple-themed booth and she made a bunch of applesauce and I made some individual apple pies and cheddar-apple muffins, and we went into business! We didn’t make a lot of money but we covered our costs and used the rest to book round-trip train tickets to Tianjin and hotel costs. We’re thinking about taking the show on the road and opening up a street-food cart to fund our travels (joking, joking). So keep an eye out for trip photos in a couple weeks!
Also just a few photos from our nursery rhyme lesson this week. We’re learning Humpty Dumpty so I decorated an egg-which I was quite proud of-then we incorporated some science and wrapped him up in tissues and marshmallows and balloons and threw him off the third floor balcony to see if he would break. In a surprising twist to the original story, he survived!
I was up bright and early Sunday to go explore Hoi An. Hoi An was once a busy trading port on the Thu Bon River and the river is still a big draw, with various tour boats and fishing boats everywhere. Tons of shops line both sides of the walk along the river and the whole place has such a cute, small-town feel; it was easy to walk everywhere. One of the things the city is known for is the tailor shops. There are more than 400 and they can make practically a whole new wardrobe overnight. One of my first stops Sunday morning was to Bebe’s, one of the best-known tailor shops. It was even more fun than shopping. You can look at pictures from their catalog or anywhere you find them, like Pinterest, and they’ll sketch out the items you like and make any changes you want, then you can pick from hundreds of fabrics. It’s relatively inexpensive but I never have money when I travel, so I only got one dress, but it was custom-made from Hoi An silk and still less than I would have spent walking into a shop at home and buying something similar. They had it finished 24 hours later so I could come back and try it on and the seamstress could make any adjustments. She finished the hem and it was ready to pick up Tuesday morning. I wish I could do all my shopping there! Afterwards, I just spent some time walking around the old town.
Monday morning I booked a tour/cooking class where we visited a local market, then took a boat downriver to Cam Thanh water coconut village. It’s a small fishing village at the edge of Hoi An. During wartime, soldiers and locals would hide here, but now they hive a thriving eco-tour business. From the large riverboat, we transferred to traditional woven basket boats, which were fun to float around in. Each boat had a local guide to row us around and show us how to weave grass, catch crabs and fish. I was in a boat boat with a girl named Haley from the U.K., and our guide was a sweet lady who must have been about 80. She spoke only a few words of English but would talk to us in Vietnamese and gestures, smiling the whole way. Her husband was in the boat rowing a couple ahead of us, and their son had his own boat as well.
After floating around for an hour or so, we were rowed over to a big open-air kitchen to prepare lunch. I liked the cooking class a lot. Sometimes, they are too touristy, more like demonstrations, but this one was really hands-on and the instructors knew a lot about the ingredient and could explain the technique. Hoi An is also known for its cuisine so it seemed like every restaurant in town offers cooking classes, but I would definitely recommend this one, especially since it includes the coconut boat tour.
When I got back, I rested up at my Airbnb and did some homework, then went out to see Hoi An at night, which was both wonderful and frustrating. The city was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999 to try to protect its culture, but it appears to have done the opposite. The streets are busy enough during the day, and just about everything in the old town area is now a shop or restaurant, which is bad enough, but at night the area is just flooded with tourists. It’s sad to see. I still enjoyed seeing all the lanterns and the small boats going out on the river, but I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more 10 years ago.
That said, the view on the river is amazing. I tried to narrow down my photos but it was hard! I got there just before sunset and stood on the bridge (with about 400 other people) to watch it go down.
Evidence of environmentalism was everywhere. Recycling bins, recycled planters, like the ones below, were really common, restaurants and vendors are cutting back on disposable items. The place where I got a breakfast smoothie one day had hollow wooden straws instead of plastic. All the fishermen and tour guides had nets in their boats to nab any bits of floating trash they came across in the river or sea.
One question I’ve gotten more than once is how people act toward Americans, or were there still any signs of war. It seems that’s all Americans really know about Vietnam. It’s impossible to answer definitively; I only visited four cities and I certainly didn’t talk to every person in the country. I can only tell you what I saw and heard from others. I’m sure there are still people who hate us; I would, frankly. But I didn’t feel that at all. What I’ve read, what I had been told by other people I know who have been to Vietnam, is that Vietnamese people love Americans. I don’t know if I’d go so far, but I certainly found them all friendly and welcoming. (Of course, Vietnam now has a thriving tourism industry with Americans pouring money into it.) This article has a much more detailed perspective if anyone is interested. In general, they view us as just one more invader they conquered, the way they did China, Japan, France, and others. Others appreciate that we tried to help. There are likely as many opinions as there are Vietnamese people. Another factor is that many revere Ho Chi Minh, and took his words to heart when he told them to blame governments, not people, for their trouble. (Something we could all learn from right now.)
You don’t have to look far, though, to see that America has had a big impact on this small country. What we call the Vietnam War, they call the American War. On a tour of Hanoi, driving down the shaded road between Trúc Bạch Lake and the West Lake, the guide was sure to detail the account of John McCain crashing down in Trúc Bạch Lake and point out the small memorial of the event there. We went by Hoa Lo prison where the POWs were held. In souvenir shops there are t-shirts like this:
I found a vintage poster shop with replicas of propaganda ads from different eras. I just bought a few, but there were dozens and dozens featuring America, American soldiers, American presidents.
Everywhere I went, people would quote prices to me in USD. I find this completely useless since I now think in RMB, and I don’t even really do that when I travel. I exchange my cash, since my Chinese debit card doesn’t work outside China. I take the amount I have, divide it by how many days I’m staying in any given country, and that’s my daily allowance. I had roughly 1 million VND per day (about USD $44-a lot, compared to my usual budget; I probably could have gotten by with half) to spend. So shopkeepers waving me over to buy things, “Very cheap, only 5 US dollars”, meant nothing to me. I had to keep asking people to tell me the price in VND, which confused them. They assume all Americans must have money and simply didn’t believe me when I told them I couldn’t afford things. “Beautiful necklace, 20 dollars”. To most tourists, that’s nothing. To many Asians, and me, $20 is a lot of money. It doesn’t sound like it, but when I convert it to VND or RMB, my first thought was usually, “Are you crazy? I’m not paying that!” Most of my hotel rooms didn’t even cost $20 a night, and they were nice rooms! I suppose this pricing is helpful to most American tourists, but I didn’t encounter many of those; most were from Europe, China, New Zealand, or Australia. Still, it shows how pervasive our currency is, and our language. Nearly every person I encountered spoke English.
After 3 days in Hoi An, I left to spend a night in DaNang. Hoi An is so small it has no airport or train station, so you have to fly in to nearby DaNang, the 3rd largest city in Vietnam, and from there it’s nearly an hour’s drive to Hoi An. (However, even in a private car, the trip was only about $11.) I had a 6 am flight back to Hanoi Wednesday morning, so I thought it would be more relaxing to go back to DaNang around noon on Tuesday and spend the night there, instead of trying to get back from Hoi An so early Wednesday morning. It worked out well. My hotel was only a ten-minute drive from the DaNang airport and I was surprised to find it was only a five-minute walk to the beach. I got some lunch at a seafood restaurant (incidentally, this is the only time in my life I’ve ever gotten sick of seafood-I think I ate it for every meal in some form) and then spent a couple hours walking up and down. I covered every inch of me I could reach in sunscreen, rubbing it in to my skin, then added another layer on top so I looked like a mime. I added a hat, some sunglasses, and still got burned. Not as bad as I usually do though. The sand was actually sparkling with some sort of gold mineral mixed with black, and there were tide pools everywhere, some up to my knees, and light was reflecting everywhere. It was a beautiful day, and the beach was relatively quiet. I’m sure it’s more crowded on the weekend, and in a few more years it will be unbearable touristy, as seems to be the trend in Asia currently. For now though, it’s perfect.
I had one more night in Hanoi before flying back to Beijing Thursday. I spent most of the afternoon wandering around the streets of the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake again, enjoying the sights. I found a rooftop cafe overlooking the lake and the busy central square and was kind of mesmerized by the flow of traffic. Everybody just keeps moving at their same pace, dancing around each other. There are so many motorbikes! The government taxes cars between 100% and 200% person, so most people use bikes. I have seen a mom and grandma with four kids on a bike, two guys carrying a 6’x4′ framed mirror on a bike while going down the highway around 55mph, fruit vendors with baskets and bundles piled up on the seat behind them. I’m constantly amazed by the innovations people come up with.
I just thought I’d share a brief history of Thanksgiving with all my friends and family across the world on this occasion. Disclaimer: I threw this together in 20 minutes before my kids arrived this morning, it was done entirely from memory, any resemblance to people, places, or things, living or dead, is entirely coincidental, yada yada yada, yes there are stereotypes, I have the illustration skills of a second grader, and it was intended for 5 year ESL kids who have the attention spans of a fruit fly with ADHD, so yeah, let’s not take it too seriously. But I was trying to explain briefly what Thanksgiving was and keep their attention:
Then we all made Thanksgiving lunch. Turkey isn’t really available but we roasted chicken and the kids mashed potatoes and made instant stuffing and pumpkin pie. I made some green beans and we ordered some canned cranberries online. The kids had never had them but they loved everything!
After lunch-which the kids inhaled-they were a little dopey. Which worked in my favor actually. We watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and I took them outside to enjoy some crisp fall air. It’s been beautiful the last few days.
Beautiful, but icy cold. Winter is either mild and smoggy, or freezing and clear. The same arctic winds that come down to clear away the smog also cause a major temperature drop. It’s also unbelievably dry. I took my sweater off earlier and it nearly electrocuted me. At night, my sheets actually throws of sparks in the dark room anytime I move. Crazy!
Tonight Jess and I went to a Thanksgiving buffet at EAST hotel. Their food is always amazing: ham, lamb, turkey, all kinds of side dishes, salads, and seafood, fruit, wine, beer, soda included. It’s a popular holiday spot for expats. Two Thanksgiving dinners in one day though-bad idea. I think I’ll go into hibernation now. Work tomorrow sounds awful.
Yesterday we talked about gratitude and made a Gratitude Tree. The kids wrote all the things they’re grateful for on leaves-mom, dad, flowers, butterflies, cake, eggs, friends, eyes… Then they glued them to the tree trunk:
I’m way behind on this blog! Later this weekend I’ll catch up and post about our trip to South Korea. For now, here’s a few pictures from our field trip to the aquarium last week:
Then we read the Rainbow Fish and made our own rainbow fish to go with the story, since we’re learning about caring as our character trait, and different habitats in science. They turned out really cute!
Crazy fun couple of weeks here! Officially my kids graduate next Friday so we’re just having fun right now. Some of them will leave after next week, but the rest will still stay through the end of June. The smog went a little crazy last week so I had to keep the kids inside for recess, but then had the idea to make a tent/cave out of tables, chairs, and tablecloths. It reminded me of being a kid and my grandma let us take pillows and blankets and hide under the furniture. Creativity is seriously lacking here-they don’t know anything about pillow forts. It was sad. But I taught them everything I know so my work here is done.
We’ve been learning about Africa lately, and last week we focused on Egypt so I let them build sugar cube pyramids and we made the Nile out of tin foil and little clay camels and boats. They loved the idea of mummies too so we made some out of pipe cleaners.
Last weekend Jess and I wanted to see the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie (Loved it, btw). Jess found a new website to book tickets in English and we randomly picked a theater which turned out to be a 40 minute drive outside the city. But it was fun to explore a new area. The Shine Hills mall in Shunyi is this huge outdoor shopping center with tons of stores and restaurants with all kinds of cuisines. It’s full of these fun sculptures and play areas too-we took pictures with some of them. We even found an amazing Italian restaurant and a small petting zoo! So random 🙂
And since Tuesday was Dragon Boat Festival, we had a four-day weekend to enjoy, which, even better, meant a three-day workweek this week. So after a much-needed break, I came back this week, taught Wednesday, then we had a big blowout party for Children’s Day on Thursday. It’s a big thing here-my school set up a wading pool and rented a big bounce house/slide. The kids all brought water guns and we filled up water balloons. I unfortunately did not think to buy a water gun, but found a watering can and threw buckets of water at the kids when they attacked me, because you can do that here without getting sued by hyperactive parents. In fact some of the parents came and ran around shooting the kids with water guns. Everybody was soaked by the end of the day. The kids even talked me into going down the slide with them. It was all fun and games till the upstairs neighbors came home and called in a noise complaint. Super fun day though!
Friday morning the kids had class with their Chinese teacher, then in the afternoon, since we’ve been learning about dinosaurs in science, I set up a dinosaur dig. I took a Lego dinosaur kit and buried all the pieces, plus small plastic dinosaurs and eggs, in two big containers of dirt and rocks. Then I split them in teams and had them put on gloves, and, because I’m diabolical like that (and had time to kill) told them they weren’t allowed to use their hands. They had to dig everything out with coffee stirrers, chopsticks, tweezers, dust them off with paintbrushes and q-tips, and then piece the dinosaur together as a team. It was awesome. Then I let the watch the (original) Land Before Time movie. I don’t think I’d seen it in 20 years and we were all tearing up and laughing in the same places. They loved it.
I got some great news this week too. I thought I’d only have a two week break this summer but our summer camp was canceled so I actually get a full month off. I’d been planning to travel around Vietnam and Cambodia but since I get more time I decided I’d rather go home for a while, since I haven’t been home in the summer time in about three years! I can’t believe it’s been that long. I’ll definitely do southeast Asia sometime this year hopefully, but for right now I’m just excited to go home, see my family, walk around barefoot, swim in the pool, and play with my dogs. Only 6 weeks to go!
Malaysia was incredible-Jess and I are already planning a return trip in October! This weekend we had a four-day break for the Chinese QingMing holiday so we took off after work Friday. The flight to Kuala Lumpur was a struggle since we left at 2am. But we landed and were out of the airport before 10:oo so we had time to explore the city before our next flight. We caught the express train to the center of the city. It went straight to the Petronas Twin Towers. Then we walked all over the center of the city and saw some of the old town and the Central Market.
Then we went back to the airport for our evening flight to Langkawi Island where we were going to stay-only to find out we were at the wrong airport. Apparently there are two-oops! So we got a cab to the other side of the city. Fortunately, Subang was a much smaller airport than KUL so we had plenty of time. The flight to Langkawi was only a little over an hour, and the resort we stayed at-The Daun-was only about 10 minutes or so from the airport.
There were so many things to do on Langkawi but we were kind of limited for money and time, and some things had to be booked in advance. So we have a full itinerary lined up for next time we visit. But for Saturday we still got to go on a boat tour of the mangrove forests and see some wildlife. We went with Dev’s Adventure Tours and our guide, Khirien, was excellent. Highly recommend both to anyone visiting the area-they do other tours too. Next time, I want to go kayaking. Khirien was knowledgable, funny, and very eco-conscious, which was great. We went first to see the bat caves, then spotted some local wildlife-water monitors, venemous pit vipers, that sort of thing. Sadly we missed seeing one of the deadly cobras known to haunt the island. Maybe next time.
One area in particular was home to numerous eagles. A lot of the tour companies feed them but ours did not, which I prefer. Khirien told us that for years the tour operators fed the eagles kilo after kilo of chicken skin to attract them to the boats. It affected their diets drastically; the birds hunted less, didn’t get enough calcium, and their eggs were too fragile to survive. With fewer birds, the snake population went up. Fortunately, officials have taken some steps recently to curtail the amount and frequency of the feedings and things have improved. But it’s frustrating to see what happens when we interfere with nature.
After the tour we went back to the resort to change and head out to the beach. It was starting to drizzle a bit and Aizat offered to drive us into town, although it’s just a short walk. We found chairs and an umbrella and sat and drank mojitos in the rain for a bit. Then I figured I was already wet so I might as well swim in the rain. The water was perfect and I had fun splashing around; Jess opted to go parasailing instead once the sky cleared up. It’s rainy season now, but the rain is sporadic and we got pretty lucky overall, with quite a bit of sun between showers.
This was the first predominately Muslim country I’ve been to and I have to say it was unusual to see women wading and and swimming in headscarves and long sleeves and pants. But after my inevitable sunburn, I have to say I was tempted to do the same! And people were really nice everywhere, in both Langkawi and Kuala Lumpur, very friendly and helpful.
I really can’t say enough good things about the resort we stayed at. We found it on Airbnb and thought it was odd that there were no reviews but the price and location were great so we took a chance and it turned out to be wonderful. The Daun had only officially been open a week and we were the only ones there for the duration of our stay. The staff, especially the manager Aizat, were friendly and accommodating. Aizat sat and chatted with us over breakfast, gave us advice about different places and activities, called to book our tour, and drove us around when he was available. If anyone’s looking for a place to stay on Langkawi I would definitely suggest this one! (On Airbnb: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/17964652).
Before we left for Kuala Lumpur the next day we decided to rent mopeds and drive around the island. Turns out it’s easier said than done if you’ve never ridden one before. Or if you’ve never driven on the wrong (left) side of the road. Aizat drove us into town, arranged the rentals, and gave us a crash course on how to use them. Jess chickened out a bit and didn’t want to ride on the street so he drove her back to the resort in a big loop and I followed. It was so much fun! When we got back to the resort we took turns riding around and practicing on some back roads. Aizat went with us in his car until we got the hang of it and showed us a little fishing port.
Nobody fell off or hit a tree so I’d call the day a success. It’s possible I was driving on the wrong wrong side of the road-i.e. the right side-at one point but the road was deserted and no one saw so it doesn’t count.
Aizat took us into the airport, which is tiny; we got there less than an hour before our flight left for KL and made it with no problems. Jess got some great shots of the islands from the plane:
For National Holiday in October, we’re planning to save up some more money, go back, and try the things we missed-ziplining, jet ski tour of the islands (Langkawi actually consists of 99 islands, 104 at low tide), snorkeling/scuba diving. We’re going to stay at The Daun again to see how it progresses. They will be adding a restaurant and a pool by the end of summer, if everything goes as planned. Can’t wait!
Beijing back in Beijing is taking some serious readjustment. It’s cold, smoggy, and I’ve been fighting the jet lag all week. So I cheered myself up by booking a couple more trips for this spring. Taiwan in March and Shanghai with Jess in April to see Wicked. I couldn’t get tickets in Beijing because the only ones not already sold out were crazy expensive. Shanghai had way more performances. Plus, I finally get to see Shanghai!
My kids were loopy this week after their break. I was so happy to see Friday. Kiki invited all CEC teachers to her house for dinner after work and we enjoyed Japanese hotpot and wine. Lots of wine.
Note: experimenting with layout. If you click the smaller photos it will pull up a slideshow with larger photos and captions.
Finally got to tour the Sagrada Familia today! A little history, for those who don’t know: Construction began by public subscription in 1882 and the artist Antoni Gaudí took over as director about a year later. He dedicated the rest of his life to it but the church still isn’t completed; in 2010 it was finally considered half done and there doesn’t seem to be a projected completion date as the work depends on donations and ticket sales. Eighteen towers were planned but only eight have been finished so far. The central tower (that doesn’t exist yet) will make it the tallest building in Barcelona (and the tallest church in the world), but 1 meter shorter than the highest hill-Montjuíc-, as Gaudí believed that he shouldn’t build anything higher than God did. There really aren’t words to describe this place, so:
I paid the extra fee to go up the lift into the towers and it was well worth it. The lift takes you up 50 meters to a narrow open air walkway where you cross from one tower to another, and get to take in the view of the city. Then you walk down a spiral staircase in the opposite tower. The stairs are maybe 18 inches wide all the way down, steep, and, oh, spiral. For 50 meters it’s down and around, and down and around, and around, and did I mention I get vertigo? Oh yeah, it was bad. My legs were still shaking about an hour after I got to the bottom. I’d do it again though. It was breathtaking at the top. I doubt it will be completed in my lifetime but I wish I could see it finished.
I am not Christian, and more spiritual than religious, if that makes sense, but I have always wanted to see some of these European cathedrals. Most of what I do know of religion comes from studying art history extensively. For so long the two were very closely entwined. The Catholic Church in particular commissioned some of the greatest masterpieces and employed some of the greatest artists of all time. You can’t help but feel something here, surrounded by the beauty and the history.
After I left La Sagrada, I packed up and headed to my next destination: another Airbnb apartment in the Gothic quarter. I wanted to see different areas of Barcelona so when I booked my trip I decided to split my time here in a couple locations. I will try to post a video of this place tomorrow because it’s awesome-built on the ground floor of a 14th century stone building in La Rambla, that used to house a mint for making coins.
After I checked in here I took the metro a couple stops to Passeig de Gràcia. I’d heard good things about the area and the tour bus drove past yesterday but I didn’t get off there. I wanted to see Casa Batlló and Casa Milá, or La Pedrera, more Gaudí masterpieces, just a few blocks from each other.
I forget what the building next to Casa Batlló is but it’s beautiful too
Casa Batlló windows
I love the design of these benches/streetlamps
Casa Batlló windows
Casa Milá, or La Pedrera
I’m pretty sure I could stay here forever, drinking cava and sangria and eating tapas and taking pictures of amazing places (or until I run out of money). It’s a wonder I haven’t been hit by a car yet, I’ve spent so much time wandering around gaping up at these buildings. (Kidding, Mom.)
And now, let’s talk food. Or rhapsodize, more like. Also, the drinks. For lunch, I stopped at TapaFina, a small tapas bar by the Jaune 1 station on my way to my new apartment. They had display of various snacks set up on the bar, buffet style, and a “pick 6” deal, so I tried that. Tapas are just a wide variety of snacks/appetizers, so actually this place had pinchos, aka pintxos. “Pincho” is Spanish for “pierce”, and these are usually appetizers pierced to a piece of bread with a cocktail stick. Whatever you call them though, they’re amazing. Especially with cava; made like French champagne but called cava when it’s produced in Spain. For dinner, I found another tapas bar-Txapela’s-across from Casa Batlló. Highly recommend that one too. Here they have a menu and you order piece by piece, about €1-3 each. Word to the wise though-watch out for their sangria! Delicious, but I couldn’t quite see straight after only half a glass. Yeah. But it was a nice evening, a little chilly outside on the patio, but they were blasting the heaters and I ordered a cappuccino to keep warm (and sober up) while I waited for the sun to go down. I wanted to see Casa Batlló lit up at night.
Crab salad with cheese and olive
Toast with red pepper, hard boiled egg stuffed with tuna and covered with cheese. I don’t even like tuna, but somehow this was still delicious.
Pinapple, brie, and strawberry sauce
Cream cheese with nuts and strawberry drizzle
Sundried tomato, brie, and red pepper
Hamburguesa with carmelized onions and whole-grain mustard.
Traditional potato omelet on tomato bread
Shrimp, mushroom, bacon on toast with pesto.
For dessert: mint chocolate ball drizzled with olive oil and sea salt. It sounded so weird I naturally had to try it, and it was amazing. Also, help, I think I’m running out of adjectives for this country.