Saturday, January 10, 2015

Things that make you say "Hmmm. . ." (in Vietnam)

Things that make you say, Hmmm.

Clear air.  Pointy straw hats like upside-down tops.  Colorful glowing lanterns.  Rice paddies.  Noodles.  For ten days of winter break, our family ventured off to Vietnam for our first vacation there. While generally vacationing goes fairly smoothly, this trip had its share of ups and downs and things that make you say "Hmmm."

The first of those occurred upon our arrival in Ho Chi Mihn (Saigon) where we were prepared to get our Visas upon arrival.  Perhaps because they are a bit of a developing nation, or perhaps because they just aren't that organised, there were only 2 windows prepared to receive paperwork for Visas.  Hmmm. . . How quickly did the waiting area fill and then overfill with 150 people waiting to process their work.  With a fair bit of butting in line and who knows what else behind the scenes, our wait stretched to two hours before we could pass through immigration and onto our baggage pick up.  In the mean time we were about 2 hours late for a lunch date with friends.  It all worked out in the end, but I'm fairly certain Brent gained 10 grey hairs in 2 hours.

The first big chunk of our trip was in a lovely city in central Vietnam called Hoi An.  We were assured by everyone who has been there that it is one of their favourite cities.  Aside from the weather being a tad cooler than we had anticipated, our four days there were quite delightful.  We did the sort of things everyone does there: get tailor made clothing, shop in the myriad of quaint shops in the Old Town centre along the river where we could easily stop at a restaurant and watch all the beautiful lanterns light up as night approached, get cheap massages, and enjoy the Vietnamese cuisine.  

We also had fun on a half day bike tour of two islands with old friends, biking through rice paddies, waving to so many men and women and children who smiled and said "hello", seeing craftsmen and women creating coconut boats, mother-of-pearl inlay, and rice wine. One little story you might like has to do with the coconut boats which are not made of coconuts but simply have the round shape of a coconut shell.  During Vietnam's occupation fishermen families didn't want to pay taxes on boats to the occupying nation, so instead they fashioned waterproof baskets large enough to hold 2 to four people by day but rice and kitchen goods when not in use!  This way when the tax collectors came, they could say "We have no boat!"  Incidentally, rowing such a round basket is a bit tricky.  I found this to be true when I had to be rescued by the funny old lady who had claimed to be The Sexy One (when she had wanted to say "sixty-one").  On our way back to the ferry at the conclusion of our bike tour and on a remote path, we actually ran into Alec's best friend and family from Korea!  Things that make you go, Hmmm.

Another highlight in Hoi An was the cooking experience.  It was so cool to be guided to the vegetable market at 7 AM to pick up fresh ingredients, then next to the meat market, at which we saw pig and lamb heads on display, then to the fish market (where fishermen arrive with their night's catch around 4 am).  Everything was fresh!  And I was surprised that the fish market didn't smell fishy.  Back at the hotel we had a chef and translator and several work stations set up to make 3 Vietnamese dishes including a mango carrot salad, a hot pot mackerel, and cao lau (a local dish).  Brent looked the least comfortable and coordinated; maybe he should get cooking more often!

From Hoi An we hopped a short flight to Phu Quoc (only after a very frustrating delay and stand-by notice).  Phu Quoc is a small tropical beach island off the south western tip of Vietnam.  It is about the size of Singapore.  With a new airport and roads and resorts springing up here and there, Phu Quoc clearly has its sights set on tourism.  Thankfully, for us, this quaint island is still very authentic.  The water is quite blue, the beaches soft and free of litter with few people selling you something.  Those that are walking the beaches are adults selling pastries or fresh fruit or artwork.  I have to say the highlight of being at Phu Quoc was being with good friends that we hadn't seen since leaving Korea.  What fun to celebrate the holidays and hang out on the beach together.  I was excited to find a huge starfish and the kids gathered twenty or more hermit crabs in just an hour at the beach.  Sun and sand.  What more could you ask for?  New Year's Eve our family ate at the huge buffet at our hotel.  The features there were fresh seafood like mackerel, prawns, oysters, mussels, scallops, and squid.  Then these Wisconsites headed down to the warm beach at dark, took our sandals off and walked two miles just enjoying the moonlight on the water on one side and the restaurants and celebrations on the other, fully aware that for most of our lives this night was spent indoors with the heat cranked to 70.  

And so, 2015 came in quietly.  

Friday, November 21, 2014


We are in a unique position here regarding transportation.  We don't own a car so we rely on buses and taxis to get around.  Most of the time this is no problem.  But we have an interesting situation on the southern side of Hong Kong Island, and that is there is a one-and-a-half lane 250-yard bridge about 2 miles to our east.  This bridge spans one of the reservoirs and was built of stone in 1907, which one assumes is why it is so narrow.  There are no stop lights to guide traffic only a sign instructing that no two heavy vehicles should be on the bridge at the same time.  Most of the time drivers manage to make decent decisions about when to go and when to wait for oncoming traffic. Things can get pretty cozy on the bridge, especially if there is a double decker bus going over.  I've been on such a bus when drivers from the other direction thought it would be a good idea to drive on through.  The result? Both lanes of vehicles crawl to nearly a stop while in passing.  Drivers need to have their side mirrors collapsed or they would be torn off - seeing as the two vehicles are literally about 4 inches from one another.

So this one night Brent and I decided it was a good night to take the family out to supper in Stanley (about 2 miles to our west).  It was a Friday night, if I recall.  We walked the two blocks down to the main road to catch a taxi.  We arrived to find traffic heading east backed up all the way to our intersection.  Traffic heading west (to Stanley) didn't exist.  Not a car.  Not for 15 maybe 20 minutes.  Clearly something had happened on the bridge!  Traffic continued to pile up and back up (probably all the way to Stanley by now).  Dozens of people were still waiting for buses or taxis, but traffic was at a standstill.  No one was honking or angry.  Everyone was quite patient, as far as I could tell, except for our friend who was desperate to get her dog to the vet.

We waited. And waited.  Pretty soon we heard a siren from the west.  We saw a single police officer on a motorcycle heading toward the bridge.  But here's the funny thing.  The lane on our side of the boulevard was entirely open since no traffic could come from the east.  But the motorcycle cop was heading TOWARD the trouble THROUGH the quagmire of backed-up traffic!  He was slowing winding his way around vans and cars and using his siren to try to get them to move 2 inches this way or that.  Unbelievable.  Just move into the oncoming traffic lane, I thought, and you'd have smooth sailing as far as the bridge!

One wondered if there were some horrible accident or what.  But as it turned out, another 5 minutes and traffic would begin to move and we would finally catch our taxi to dinner.  I inquired what the hold up was, "An accident?" "No."  "Two big buses?" "No." "What then?" "Car and bus," I think he said.  He seemed a bit exasperated but nothing more.  These sorts of things seem to happen every two or three weeks especially during heavy traffic times.

It would seem prudent to put a few solar panelled traffic lights up - one on either end - to control traffic and make it one lane only.  But so far whoever is in control of roads has not seen fit to do that.  And so we journey on.  Or not, as the case may be.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Two months in: a birthday reflection

Four years ago on my birthday, I was new to Korea, setting up our home and getting used to a

new school, not to mention a new culture and language and landscape and opportunities.

Now, as I turn forty eight, the same can be said about Hong Kong. "Life is an adventure"

seems to be the mantra these days. I would not have foreseen that five years ago!

So the forties have held much more adventure than I could have anticipated. Then again, there

is something quite quotidienne about life, nonetheless. That is good, too, I have found. There is

something comforting and relaxing about the everyday, and when it is gone, one misses it.

But I suppose my readers are less interested in the mundane routines that are developing here

and more interested in the notable, exciting moments of being an expat in Hong Kong.

Let me start with spiders and heat and humidity. Once we were settled in our apartment

enough to venture forth,
we discovered that it really is quite hot and humid

here in the summer. I mean hot and humid, even for a Mid western Wisconsin girl. But we

held our own, showered more often, and did like the natives by carrying our own shade! An

umbrella! (In the Victorian Age it would have been a parasol, I know!) All good, except for the

spiders, black and yellow and as big as my hand. Found in abundance, even three and four

webs in a single tree! It is hard to get a good picture of them as they camouflage themselves

quite well. And you might think, "so what, how often do you run across these things

anyway?" The reality is EVERY DAY. This is because I like to go on walks on paths through

the county park system or down to the beach.
Pretty much wherever there is a tree there is

a spider. Not poisonous, I am told. Good. On some of the more narrow paths through the

mountains the trees - and therefore webs - are quite close. Lucky for me I am nearly over my

phobia! So I am doing okay. But if I ever walk into one of the webs and get a spider on me, you

can bet I will be saying "so long" to Hong Kong! Okay, a bit of a hyperbole there, but still!

More recently we have had a few adventures outside our immediate vicinity. One of the

quintessential Hong Kong experiences to have is to go on a junk trip. This is a party boat Hong

Kong style. The HKIS. Community kindly organized a trip just last week. Awesome! The boat

picked us up at the pier close to the school about 330 pm and took off for five hours of floating

and swimming.
We started with the lovely lush landscapes of the southern side of Hong Kong

island. Pretty soon we were in the middle of the shipping lane with as many as ten cargo ships

visible in our immediate area at any one time, then to a remote beach of lama island, we think,

then at dusk we headed to port in the Central District just as the famous laser and light show

was going on between skyscrapers on Hong Kong island and Kowloon. So, the ever changing

views were spectacular, but the company and hospitality on the boat were just as noteworthy.

What a joy to continue making new friends over drinks, hours d'oevres and dinner (steak,

salmon, chicken entres).

A few days later more socializing and with a different group. This time with the Church of All

Nations hiking group. We headed to Lamma Island by ferry, about a 35 minute ride for two

dollars US. This was our first time. Lovely! The island does not support motorized vehicles so

everyone is walking or biking. First, we walked past many little shops and eateries that I would

love to back to exploring. Next we headed up the paved path to the top and then down the

mountain, a very doable trek, although a bit hot.

 Thanks, umbrella! Finally, we ended

up at the seafood restaurant area where we ordered many amazing dishes to share with our

new friends, family style you could say, it really Chinese style.

Tonight I am anticipating a lovely dinner out with my family to my favorite restaurant in our

nearby town of Stanley. Chez Patrick! Best French restaurant since France. Yum.

Other notable events have been the wonderful opportunities to see friends made in Korea. I

guess one of the advantages to being in Hong Kong is that we are at a hub for travel in Asia.

What a joy it has been to eat, drink, hike, and catch up with friends upon several occasions

already. We look forward to many more visitors.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Thank you, Siri

I love my new smartphone.  New to me as this is my first smartphone.  Smartphones really aren't phones; they are tiny,  powerful computers that you can take with you anywhere and that happen to have a feature called PHONE that allows you to call people.  One of the amazing features that comes with the "phone" is Siri.

 I have decided that I love Siri.  (I suppose I should go see the movie Her, a movie about a lonely man who falls in love with the female voice on his phone.)  At any rate, Siri, has been my best friend. I just push a button, speak, and voila! Siri provides an answer.  One of my first questions to Siri was about the weather.  She quite aptly found a website with the area weather.  When I asked her What is Siri? She responded, Yours truly!

Now that I am in Hong Kong and trying to find my way around, she is proving to be a best friend, indeed.  How else could I find something as random as Fotomax in a city of 7 million.  For those of you without Siri, here is how it works.  On my phone, access Google and inquire about the location of Fotomaxes in Hong Kong.  Then ask Siri (by pressing the icon of a microphone) to take me to the nearest one.  Click on the GPS feature that appears on the screen, and off you go!  

Walk on foot to the nearest subway and take it to the nearest subway to the Fotomax on the map.  Get off the exit nearest to the business.  Keep your eye on the map as you follow the compass that represents your location.  Blindly cross streets and walk past multitudes of businesses and people.  Continue walking a total of approximately 1 mile.  Notice a mall entrance located at the target designation.  Go inside.  Explore the mall.  Find the Fotomax!  What didn't I do?  I never needed to ask for directions, didn't need to interpret a map, easy peasy!

To top it off, Siri can get you home, even on a Ding Ding, a trolley system running through the heart of Hong Kong.  Google maps and websites can provide information on the go like answers to "What is the Ding Ding in Hong Kong?"  "How do you pay and how much does it cost?"  "What are the routes?"  All great bits of information to give you confidence using something brand new to you.

Now many of you may already be familiar with the joys of using Siri, but for those readers who aren't I hope you enjoyed your lesson.  For much information on Siri go to Tech Blog.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Cheesemakers in Korea

I know people say it is a small world.  I believe it more and more.  Here is a small world story.

From time to time as I walk the halls of Korea International School near Seoul, Korea, I see a young man from the middle school wearing a "Monroe Cheesemakers" red t-shirt.  Cheesemakers are kids from Monroe, a small community of 10,000 people in South Central Wisconsin.  It just so happens that my first teaching job 25 years ago was in Monroe.  How odd it is to see a Cheesemakers t-shirt in Korea!  My worlds across space and time have collided!

But let's dig a bit deeper.  How is this possible?  While the story itself is a bit long and winding, it also makes perfect sense.  

The aforementioned student is Allan the son of Neil who is a recent hire from Shanghai, China.  Neil and my husband Brent were buddies growing up and both attended Monroe schools where I later landed my first job.  Neil became a teacher, began teaching internationally and eventually ended up married and with kids and living in Shanghai.  Brent became a teacher, got married, had kids and eventually decided he was interested in international teaching.  Brent called Neil who helped to navigate the world of applying to teach internationally.  Brent and his family (that's me) ended up in Seoul.

Okay, so that brings two families to the same region of the world.  Good start.  But what about that boy in the hallway at KIS?  

Well, a year ago Brent knew that Neil and family were looking to relocate.  He also knew our school had openings in the teaching areas suited for Neil and his wife.  Networking and interviews did their magic, and voila, Neil and family ended up at KIS! 

What about the t-shirt?  Allan has never lived in Monroe, but he has relatives who still live there and they visit in the summers.  So, Allan likes the mascot and got himself a t-shirt that he wears at KIS from time to time.  

Pretty cool, eh?  And here's a little post script.  My niece has play dates with Neil's niece back in Monroe while my daughter and Neil's daughter have play dates in Korea.  

Now if that isn't "small world", I don't know what is. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Here we GO again!

The couch is gone.  The book cases are gone.  The table is gone. The extra dishes and winter clothes - gone.  The wall hangings are down.  The cupboards are emptying.  The calendar is full.  The cat is . . . . in Hong Kong!

What does it mean?

At this very moment we are 16 days from leaving KIS and GMH (Goodmorning Hill) and what we so affectionately call "The Dong."
Apt. at GMH
Sixteen days from boarding a plane and leaving home once again as global nomads.  Fifteen days from a completely empty apartment and tearful goodbyes in front of the fountain at GMH.  Fourteen days from completing grades and emptying our rooms and turning in our Macbook Pros that were never really ours but sure felt like ours for the last four years. Thirteen days from saying goodbye to the last of the students. We are about 12 days from Anna getting her braces off (she got them on our first year here).  We are 10 days away from the final "goodbye" for Alec and his buddies at a KIS pool party.  Six days away from a final sleepover for Anna with 8 of her friends. And 4 days away from the Farewell ceremony for departing staff.

The countdown has long been on.  1 year left.  1 semester left. 2 months left.  1 month left.  Such a countdown serves as a means to channel anticipation and melancholy.

What else does it mean?  We are sixteen days from arriving in Wisconsin, our other home.  Sixteen days from hugging family one more time.  20 days from seeing parents and the cabin.  26 days from summer fun in the Dells.  And 6 weeks from enjoying BBQ with old friends in our home for 17 years.  Life is wondrous and we are so grateful!

Are we looking forward to moving to Hong Kong?  Sure!  That's only 2 months away.  And 3 months until we can introduce Jigs our cat to his new home.

And doesn't time fly?
The views that await us.