India, Here We Come!

What on earth have I gotten myself into? This may be the most stressful trip I’ve ever taken. I have spent hours researching India and still am not remotely prepared to leave tomorrow!

I know I’ve kind of disappeared lately. I’ve been super busy with teaching, my side job, and homework for AI. Here’s a link to the site I’ve been working on though; I had to create a portfolio for my photography class. https://p531niki.myportfolio.com/work I’m taking a little break now-no classes until March 19th. I don’t know what I’m going to do with all that free time!

I’m sure I have more pictures but I can’t seem to get anything off my phone right now.We’ve been celebrating Chinese New Year’s with the kids; today we had a cooking class and made oodles of dumplings, and then watched a movie. Then I came home and started finalizing plans and I’m about to tear my hair out.

Jess and I got our Indian visas a couple weeks ago which involved completing a 5 page application and forking over $75 USD. They were approved within a couple days though and it’s an e-visa so all we had to do was print them off and carry them with us. Then after much deliberation we narrowed our itinerary down: 2 nights in Delhi, with a day trip to the Taj Mahal in Agra, 3 nights in Jodhpur, and 5 nights in Udaipur, then back to fly out of Delhi. The problem is that this is a busy season and everywhere is packed with Chinese tourists traveling for Spring Festival. So when I went to book train tickets tonight…they were gone. I ended up booking a private car to Agra for a sunrise tour. Which is going to be brutal because we’re basically sleeping in the Guangzhou airport during our layover tomorrow night, then the following night we’ll have to wake up at 2am to leave for our Agra tour, come back to Delhi around 3pm, then take a 9pm sleeper train to Jodhpur (the only one still available), arriving at 8am the next morning. Not looking forward to the jet lag… After that, I have no idea what we’re doing for the next two legs of the journey but we’ll just have to figure it out as we go because I’m to exhausted to deal with the world’s most frustrating railway website anymore tonight.

Since I’m not enrolled in a class for once, I’m leaving my computer behind. It will be the longest we’ve been apart in three years, sniff. The withdrawal is going to be bad. I’m trying to pack light so I’m just taking phone/camera/clothes in a backpack. I’m going to do some old-fashioned writing by hand but I’ll take notes and tons of pictures to blog when I get back. I’ll try to put some up on Facebook if I get a chance, so stay tuned!

Winter Wonderland

Switzerland was definitely a good choice of pre-Christmas getaway! Zürich was charming, with lots of old cobblestone streets and medieval history, but also very modern. The scenery is stunning, surrounded by Lake Zürich and the mountains. Everything was all decked out for Christmas and there was just the right amount of snow. Not to mention heaps of chocolate and cheese. What else do you really need?

I booked a private room in this Airbnb apartment which was really comfortable. The hosts were nice and it was easy to walk to the tram-stops and get around. It was in a quiet residential area but easy to get downtown. I thought I might have a bit of trouble with language but nearly everyone I encountered  switched to English when they realized I didn’t speak German. I also heard so many conversations in French, Italian, Spanish, and more. I’m so impressed with the way people from other countries grow up speaking multiple languages. I wish schools in the States emphasized this, and from a younger age.

One thing I really loved about the city, once I figured out the transportation system, was the trams. There are regular trains/subway lines that run in and out of the city, I took one to the central train station from the airport, but within the city there are above-ground trams that run along the streets. I saw virtually no traffic while I was there. It seemed like most people take the trams. There’s only a few minutes between them, and to get from the outskirts of the city where I stayed to the central area only took about 20 minutes.

I enjoyed exploring the Old Town of Zürich so much, along the waterfront and down all the winding cobblestone alleyways. It’s like a maze in some places. The weather was cold but not horribly so. It snowed for hours one day but it was really nice to be out walking in the fresh air.

I found the Fraumünster Church really interesting. It’s built on the site of an abbey started in 853. The king at the time granted the abbess power to hold markets, mint coins, and appoint the mayor; effectively she ruled the city. I don’t have pictures of them, but the choir windows were designed by Marc Chagall.

One day I booked a tour to Mt. Rigi, which was amazing. From the center of Zürich, we took a bus to the town of Weggis, a little over an hour away. From there, a cable car took us most of the way up the mountain, then we switched to the cogwheel train-the first mountain railway in Europe-for the rest of the way to the summit of Rigi Kulm. It was a cloudy, foggy day, impossible to see up or down from the top, but still a lot of fun. I climbed a little way up from the train station. People were running around, having snowball fights and sledding.

The views on the way up and down the mountain were breathtaking:

From the summit, the train runs back down the mountain to the town of Vitznau, where we took a boat across Lake Lucerne to the town of Lucerne. I was excited to finally see the Chapel Bridge:

I returned to Beijing on the 23rd and lost my battle with jet lag. It was exceptionally brutal this time. I can’t stop napping. But Jess and I had a nice Christmas here:

We went to see Loving Vincent after dinner, which was a truly incredible film. I loved the artwork, but the storyline was great as well. Otherwise, I got to spend some time video chatting with my family and relaxing around the house. So it’s been a nice holiday overall.

Last but not least, check out mine and Jess’s new blog: http://travelswithpepperandpreston.com/ . You’ll find an explanation of the ducks, more of my travels, and also Jess’s trip to Japan!

Trip Announcement!

I’m excited to announce my Winter 2017/2018 Trip Itineraries! I just booked my last tickets this afternoon: October 27-29-Busan, South Korea; December 16-23- Zurich, Switzerland; December 26-29-Xi’an, China; and finally, February 10-22-Delhi and Agra, India. So stayed tuned for some stories!

Otherwise, it’s been an uneventful week. For science class, we’ve been learning about the 5 senses so I did a taste test experiment Thursday and let kids try different tastes: lemons for sour, coffee and super dark chocolate for bitter, cookies and sugar cubes for sweet, salt water (salty), and spicy beef jerky (spicy).

I also thought I’d share these paintings. The kids were supposed to be drawing elephants from this story their art teacher read them. These were the results; I’m a little concerned about the last one.

Friday night Jess and I held our Second Annual Halloween Movie Binge. Hocus Pocus, Nightmare Before Christmas, black bean and bacon chili, corn bread, and apple crisp. We even did some pumpkin carving.

July 25, 2017

I know, it’s been an absurdly long time. I was busy with end of school things and when I finally got through that I was just exhausted and didn’t feel like writing. But I’m home in Kansas City at the moment for a visit so it’s time for a long overdue update.

To begin with, my flight home was an adventure in and of itself. I took off work a couple days early, after two solid weeks of helping to write curriculum and planning lessons, so I could have a full month away from China. Got to the airport early on the 12th, checked in, no problems, my flight actually boarded on time, which is practically unheard of for BCIA (Beijing Capital International Airport). And then we sat. And sat. First, because of BCIA air traffic control. This is normal as it’s the second busiest airport in the world; there’s usually a line to get off the ground. But while we were waiting there was a loud bumping and shaking underneath us in the back of the plane. So then we waited for maintenance to check it out. And for them to fix one of the air conditioners which had broken. Did I mention it’s been over 100 degrees in Beijing? Yeah. Eventually they let people go back to the gate for about 20 minutes. When everything was fixed they reboarded everyone and about 10 minutes after we got in our seats they announced that we couldn’t take off because the crew’s time had expired. So, back off the plane, through immigration to get our exit stamps canceled, customs, and then we were all rebooked on another flight the next morning and shuttled to a nearby hotel for the night.

It wasn’t all bad though because I met some fun people and got to hang out with them at the hotel and while we were waiting around the airport the next morning. The hotel was really nice and the airline took care of everything, rooms, food, transportation, rebooking flights. My trip was a little more complicated because I actually had two round trip tickets, one from Beijing to Boston (with a stop in San Francisco) and another from Boston to KC (with a stop in Chicago). It was cheaper for whatever reason (I will never understand airline logic) to fly from Beijing to San Francisco to Boston to Chicago to Kansas City, than it was to fly from Beijing to Kansas City with a stop in San Francisco. And my youngest brother is in Boston so I thought it would be great to stop and see him on my way back to Beijing. But I didn’t particularly want to stop in there on my way to KC; it’s just always cheaper to book round trip tickets than one-way. So it was a bit of a hassle to reschedule my connecting flights.

The next morning we got back to the airport and were delayed again. Because they tried to put us on the same plane, again. And the air conditioner was broken, again. One of the crew had told us that this particular plane was supposed to be decommissioned last September. I’m not feeling very confident at this point… Eventually they told us to move to another gate and we boarded a different plane there. The people who were already at that gate got sent back to our gate to wait for that plane to be fixed…I hope they made it off the ground but I have my doubts. And all this running around made us miss our newly rescheduled connections in SF. Which would have made me miss my next connection in Boston. When I explained everything to the ticket agent though he was super helpful, and instead of making me fly halfway across the country and back he got approval to change my ticket to go from SF to Kansas City and skip Boston altogether. So despite leaving Beijing 26 hours late, I still got home the same day I planned.

There was a time when this kind of chaos would have sent me into a panic or angered me but the more I travel, the more I’m able to brush these things off. There were some people on the flight who were hopping mad and screaming at the gate agents and I just had to roll my eyes. Is it an annoyance? Sure. I get frustrated too sometimes. But is it worth screaming about? Screaming at people who have no more control over it than you do? In the scheme of things, does it really matter? I like to make plans-I have books full of notes and schedules and to-dos-but I also know things don’t go according to plan all time, or even most of the time. It’s the unexpected things that sometimes end up being the most memorable, good or bad. So what I remember about this trip is that I got to finish two books I’d been meaning to read while I was waiting. I got to have a nice dinner and interesting conversation with Baynie from Las Vegas and Meredith and Ben from Wisconsin, who gave me some great ideas of places to visit when I finally take my cross-country road trip, hopefully next year. I got to soak in a hot bath and get a good night’s sleep in a hotel that I can’t even afford-for free. I’ll remember the chatty business lady who flies back and forth to China every other month (didn’t catch her name), that befriended us at the hotel and later, when she saw us stuck in the check in line at the airport, went and bought us all her favorite breakfast rolls to eat while we waited. I’ll remember the friendly flight attendant who asked all about my life in China, kept us all updated on what was going on, and even tried to help me find a different connecting flight on her phone while we were waiting. And I’ll remember the ticket agent in San Francisco who could have told me that I had a non-changeable flight, as three previous representatives had, but instead spent half an hour on the phone with his corporate headquarters trying to upgrade my ticket and finding me a way to get home as soon as possible. People are people, anywhere you go, and people are generally nice if you’re nice to them. Most of things I hear folks complaining about could be solved with a smile and a simple “please and thank you”.

I had another situation in June when I went to Macau for my visa run. I usually go to Hong Kong but I wanted a change. And if I’d flown directly into Macau it probable would have been fine, but I also wanted to see Zhuhai, on the mainland, because I’d heard it was beautiful-one of the cleanest cities in China. So I planned to fly to Zhuhai after work on a Friday, crash, get up early and go the port, where you can walk through the immigration building into Macau on the other side. Solid plan. Except my flight was delayed and I didn’t get to Zhuhai’s little airport until almost 2am, when we were the last flight in and almost everything was shut down. I had booked a room online at a hotel near the airport, and stopped at the information desk to ask the only employee in sight how to get there. She didn’t recognize it, but called the number on my booking to ask them for me, since no one spoke English there. Turns out, the hotel did not accept foreigners, only Chinese people. This isn’t unheard of in China-either they didn’t want to deal with foreigners or they couldn’t accept foreign passports. (Some places require a 15 digit Chinese ID number.) At any rate, I was stranded with very little money, and would get my refund until later in the week. The girl at the information desk was a little lost too, but she pulled out her phone and between her English and my Chinese, and a really good translation app, managed to explain what was going on. By this time a curious security guard was hovering around trying to help too. He suggested a hotel nearby where airline staff stayed and they helped me call to book a room. Then the girl called her friend who also worked at the airport and had a car, and I waited a few minute until they got off work at 3am, then they drove me to the hotel, walked me in and negotiated a lower price with the girl at the desk, and made sure I was all set before they went home. I’m so grateful for people like that; they make the journey worthwhile. And I got to have a good time in Zhuhai (which was beautiful) and Macau:

I wanted to post some last pictures of my kids, too-I had some adorable ones of them in their little graduation cap and gowns-but I can’t find them! I need to get my computer organized. The last month of school was a blast though-we did experiments with eggs, trying different ways to wrap them and then throwing them off the roof (only one broke!) to see which was strongest, making baking soda and vinegar volcanoes, movie day, art projects, making a class book and just playing games. I’m going to miss those guys but I’m excited for next year. At least, I think I’m better prepared for next year.

I’m just enjoying being home for now and seeing family and friends. My driver’s license expired about a year and a half ago while I was out of the country. And since it had been expired over 6 months I had to retake the whole test. I had attempted this when I was home in December and failed the driving exam so I was actually nervous this time. I know how to drive; it’s like riding a bike. But I can’t stand being judged. I had a death grip on the wheel the whole time, and the examiner looked about 22 years old, which was annoying. But I passed! It feels good to drive again. I’ve been hanging out in the pool, playing with my dogs, and revisiting some of my favorite places. Definitely experiencing some reverse culture shock though. When I first moved to China I would automatically convert everything I bought into dollars; now I convert everything I buy in the States to RMB, and it hurts. Oh it hurts. Prices here seem outrageous to me. My mom is coming with me visit my brother in Boston when I leave KC. She booked our hotel last night at one of the cheaper places available, and the price of two nights there would cover accommodation, food, transport, and activities for two weeks in most places in Asia. And the choices here are overwhelming. I spent like an hour and a half in the grocery store the other day. Most the shops I go to in Beijing might have 5-10 different options for something, say, ice cream; here there is a mile-long aisle devoted to it. In a way it’s nice, but there’s also something ridiculous about it. We drive to places I would just walk to in Beijing. Life here seems foreign now.

Malaysia Rocks!

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!

Spain, Day 13-Barcelona

Actually I’m posting this from the airport in Rome, where I have a 5 hour layover, but all the pictures are from yesterday, my last day in Spain (for now). I will definitely come back someday though. I think Barcelona is my favorite of the three cities I’ve been so far. I wish I’d been more organized; I was trying to find something to do Tuesday night when I got back there but all the things I wanted had to be booked in advance, like the monasteries, winery tours, Dali’s house. So Wednesday I decided to go see Park Guell:

After that I went back and wandered around La Ramba area for a while. This area is so much bigger than I thought, especially once you get off the main road. I found La Boqueria market, a gourmet paradise. I probably could have filled another suitcase with cooking supplies. They had stalls with spice, all kinds of flavored salts and olive oils, fresh fruit, dried fruits and nuts, candies, marzipan, vegetables, dates, honey, seafood, meats, even whole rabbits and pheasants and quail still covered in fur and feathers (I’ll spare you a photo of those). Basically, everything.

For now I’m actually looking forward to getting back to a normal routine for a while. The last couple months have been crazy!

Spain, Day-Something-or-other, pretty sure I’m in Madrid

Yeah I’ve lost track of time completely, and I’ve been moving all over the place. In some ways it feels like I’ve been here forever, and I definitely don’t want to leave. I tried to pack as much as I could in today since I didn’t have much time in Madrid. But I got to see all the things I really wanted to though: Palacio Real, Plaza Mayor, el Prado.

First stop was Palacio Real, which is actually the largest royal palace in all Europe. It’s the official residence of the royal family of Spain, although they actually live in the outskirts of Madrid and the Palacio Real is only used for official ceremonies. The interior rooms were stunning. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside. Not that I could have gotten many good shots because the place was absolutely mobbed with tour groups. It was beautiful but I could only stand to be there for about an hour; it was just crazy.

After I left I went and had lunch at Plaza Mayor and did some shopping, then headed over to Museo Nacional del Prado, the main Spanish art museum with one of the greatest collections of European art in the world. Again, no photos and mobs of tourists 😦  But I got to see so many famous pieces I’ve studied, works by Velazquez, Rubens, Bosch, Titian, and many from Francisco de Goya.

And, of course, the food pics:

Tomorrow morning I’m off to Barcelona again for two days, then home to Beijing early Thursday.