Friday, August 24, 2012

When You're Born in the Tropics...

Things like this happen outside your nursery window each morning:

They are Oriental Pied Hornbills, and they are a little bigger than chickens. The crazy sound at 0:21 is their call. A whole family lives in the palm trees around our flat, and as often as not they hang out on Jonathan's window-sill in the morning.

Apparently they eat cockroaches, so they are always welcome at our house!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Hong Kong, China

We finished our trip with a few days in Hong Kong, with the most breathtaking skyline I've ever seen. We loved walking the Avenue of the Stars at night, taking in Victoria Harbor and the city lights.

We caught all the classic attractions like riding the Star Ferry,

admiring the skyline from Victoria Peak,

and all the various markets from the charm of Stanley to the bright colors at the Jade Market to the bazaar and chaotic cadence of Temple Market and everything between, all of which sold the same "Oba-Mao" t-shirt which Fabio insisted I capture on film:

(I'd like to say we didn't see the "No Photo" sign until I already took the picture...
I'd really like to.)

We also enjoyed some less known, but super fun attractions like the overpowering scent of coil incenses in the Man Mo Temple.

On our way back from Man Mo we watched a building burn down. Not all the way down... but it was still crazy and kind of scary.

And we also hit a few much-less-usual attractions like XTC gelato. We had to laugh because our friends in Singapore rave about this place as much as Victoria Peak, but our friends in Hong Kong had never even been there. I must confess, the coconut gelato did bring me back for seconds.

I was surprised by how similar Hong Kong was to Singapore. I suppose I was expecting something really different somehow, and while there were definitely some differences, I couldn't help but feel like someone had put Singapore in a bag with some dirt and cigarette smoke, shaken the bag, and then emptied it out to make Hong Kong.

On our last full day, we left the hustle and bustle of the city and spent the day in the more "suburban" areas. We went to the Hong Kong LDS Temple, and it was beautiful. Ever since it was dedicated in the 1990's I've wanted to see it in person. It was a particularly special visit, because we actually live in the Hong Kong Temple District now, which means it is a rare treat for us to be able to worship there. Fabio was so generous and stayed with Jonathan in the lobby so I could go in and enjoy the peace that only worshiping in the temple can bring (only members of the LDS church who have made specific covenants with God can enter a temple after it's dedicated... and Jonathan is still too little, of course).

We especially enjoyed visiting our friends, the Stices, while we were there. They took us to a fun Indian restaurant where the food was great but the walk there made us wonder if they were going to sell us to human traffickers instead of feed us chicken masala. Fortunately, in the end they were taking us out to eat, and amazing food at that!

The next day the boys talked shop while we girls (plus Jonathan) had lunch at a little fishing village by where they live.

And then we coveted the gorgeous view from their apartment.

At which point it was time to say goodbye--to the Stices, to Hong Kong, and to China. It was a whirlwind of a trip, and I'm so happy we were able to take it together. 

We were completely exhausted by the time we got to the airport, and for most of the flight back all three of us just stared into space until we fell asleep. And then something really special happened: I can honestly say that when we got off the plane and stepped into the Singapore's Changi Airport, I finally felt happy to be home in the most literal sense of the word, but more importantly in the much less tangible sense as well. Singapore feels like home.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Shenzhen, China

Fabio and I decided to have a tradition that whenever one of us hits a decade birthday, we treat ourselves to a vacation to wherever we want. Since one of Fabio's two conferences were actually on his  30th birthday, he picked China.

So Fabio turned 30 in Shenzhen, a random business-centered city in Southern China with absolutely no tourist attractions. His conference started at 8:00 in the morning and he didn't get back to hotel until late at night, so our official birthday celebration consisted of singing "Happy Birthday" in our pajamas under a pile of fluffy covers. While Fabio conferenced away the rest of his birthday, Jonathan and I wandered around the area by our hotel until we found ourselves getting a incredibly cheap (and yet, amazing) pedicure.

(please forgive the crooked and off-center family self-portrait  by remembering
it was taken at 6:30 in the morning, right after we sang to Fabio for his 3-0)

But don't worry. The day before we had a proper, un-official celebration wandering around the most amazing knock-off shopping wonderland either of us has ever seen, punctuated with the Shangri-La dessert buffet, ladened with "Converses," "Hermes scarves," "Longchamp clutches," "Burberry wraps," and huge, brightly-colored "original" paintings.

While Shenzhen wasn't as glamorous as the two previous legs of our trip, it was so nice to have access to facebook, blogs, church-websites, and all of back at the tip of our fingers. (Shenzhen is a special business district in China with different censorship standards.) Nothing to make you appreciate freedom of media like going without for a week and a half.

Shenzhen is less than an hour's drive from Hong Kong, so when Fabio's conference was all wrapped up how could we not accept a complimentary shuttle ride to the next (and sadly, final) stop in our China marathon?

Well, Happy Birthday, Fabio! Maybe it's just that gorgeous family of yours, but you look pretty good for an old guy.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Chengdu, China

I love pandas. A lot. When Fabio and I were first married, I found out China was looking for "Panbassadors" (panda ambassadors) to live in the Chengdu Panda Breeding Center and raise awareness of the endangered species, and I immediately started to apply. Fabio asked what I was doing and I told him I was applying to be a Panbassador.

Fabio: "To live in China?"
Me: "Live with pandas in China. And only for six months."

I eagerly clicked away until I realized they expected the Panbassadors to speak Mandarin. Cue sad-Charlie-Brown-music and imagine a crest-fallen Katie. I consoled myself by resolving to someday go to the Breeding Center in China to hold a panda cub myself, Panbassador or not. It's been one of those bucket-list, picture-on-the-fridge type things for me.

Fast forward to about a year and a half ago, when Fabio approached me about moving to Singapore. He told me about the amazing faculty at NTU and the wonderful resources and research opportunities he would have. I listened for a while and then asked the million dollar question: "How long does it take to travel from Singapore to Utah?" Because, you know, my Mom lives in Utah. He looked online and sheepishly answered, "Um, 30 hours. But we would be able to travel the world and see all sorts of amazing things!"

Me: "But we've never been to Singapore. How do you know we'll like it there?"
Fabio: "Because we like adventures, and we've never been anywhere we didn't like."
(I'll abbreviate a lot of the conversation and skip to the part that is relevant to this post.)
Fabio: "If we lived in Singapore, we could go to Chengdu and hold a baby panda."
Me: "Promise? You promise that if we move to Singapore we will budget enough for me to fly back to Utah three times a year and you will take me to Chengdu to hold a baby panda?"
Fabio: "I promise!"
Me: "Okay. Then we can move to Singapore."

(I know. I'm an easy-sell.)

So when Fabio had two conferences in China with three days in between, he decided to make good on his promise and fulfill one of only two conditions I had for moving here in the first place.

We got to Chengdu in the late afternoon, well after the pandas were sleep for the day. So we postponed our panda day to the next morning and just wandered around the huge, bustling city with our guide, Haba, learning about the history and culture of Sichuan Province.

When we got back to our hotel that night, I couldn't sleep. It was like Christmas Eve and then some. I tried and tried, and finally prevailed upon myself to drift to sleep through the flashing lights of Chengdu's skyline.

Then next day we got up early, made sure the battery was in the camera, and bounced to Haba's van to drive to the Panda Breeding Center. Well, I bounced... Fabio and Jonathan were still trying to shake the 7:30 am cobwebs out of their heads. We had to get there early because they only let so many people hold a cub each day.

While Haba made the cub-holding arrangements, we started with the adolescent enclosure:

And they were adorable. 

Then we went to the cub enclosure, and they were even more adorable!

Then we stood in line at the "donation center," which is really their polite name for "the place where you pay extra to hold a panda cub." We put on the surgical gowns, gloves, and footies, and then before I knew it one of my all-time-life-long-cannot-die-before-this-happens dreams was fulfilled! I was actually holding a panda cub in my arms. When they put the "little" 9-month-old on my lap he even snuggled into me. It was amazing--everything I imagined and more.  And even now as I load the pictures, I still can't believe it really happened.

I think Fabio got his money's worth for the whole trip from this one happy-Katie-face.
Go ahead. Tell me I wouldn't have made an amazing Panbassador.

When the workers saw Fabio and I trading Jonathan to take turns holding the cub, they offered to take a family picture.

The panda didn't move enough for Jonathan to be impressed.
(Fabio is leaning awkwardly away from me because he was genuinely worried 
the most docile creature in the animal kingdom might swipe at Jonathan.)

Fabio was the hero of the day, week, month, year... and he knew it. Just look at that grin.

After a day of pandas, we did some shopping at a "tourist" market. Except the only tourists that go to Chengdu are Chinese. They're mostly villagers and farmers that come to the city for holiday. So Jonathan's fan club was in full overwhelming force. Haba told us that for many of the people there, it would be the only time they saw a western baby in person their entire lives.

One of my favorite moments was as we walked around the market and a beautiful little girl looked at me then stopped dead in her tracks. She pulled on her grandpa's pant leg, pointed at me, and started chattering. Haba translated for me: "Grandpa! Grandpa! Her hair! It's different!" I got down on my knees and invited her to touch it. She hesitated, but couldn't resist. She stroked it so gently and tenderly, and then she asked Haba, "Is it made of gold?" So adorable.

I couldn't get over how cute and clever this baby carrier was.

Tibetan Women in town for some shopping

Prayers and wishes tied in the trees


The Chengdu Market

On our last day in Chengdu, we did a "Fabio thing" and went to the world's oldest and largest sitting Buddha, about two hours outside of Chengdu in a town called Leshan. Fabio has an affinity for the "world's largest" anything, so we made the trip. The Buddha was carved by hand out of the cliff's walls 1,200 years ago to protect the fisherman. It's at a juncture of two large rivers that eventually feed into the Yangtze and the waters are very turbulent. It's easy to imagine why they were losing a lot of fisherman and thought some kind of protection would be helpful.

We skipped the two-hour line to scale the harrowingly-steep and over-crowded Indiana Jones staircase you can see in the picture, and opted to see the Buddha by boat instead.

While we waited for our boat, we wandered Leshan's wet market. It was like stepping back in time. The town is almost untouched by any western influence. The men used abacuses and hand-made scales. The women carried huge baskets on their backs. The butcher chopped pig feet on a tree stump and the vegetables were laid out on the street. People stared at us as much as we (despite our best efforts not to) stared at them.

Then we boarded a surprisingly-sturdy boat and were swept down river until we found ourselves at the feet of this 71-meter giant:

As we drove back to the hotel through rice paddies and tea plantations with pointed straw hats peaking out of the crops, it finally hit me what was happening: that we were in China and I held a panda the day before, and that we had just seen a 1200-year-old Buddha by boat, and that we would be the only white people many, many families ever saw. I was so happy we chose to come to Singapore and that we've been able to take advantage of such special experiences as a family.

And then it hit me that our trip was only half over.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Xi'an, China

In July Fabio had a couple more conferences, both in China. Jonathan and I again decided to invite ourselves because, after all, one free ticket a vacation makes! The conferences were a week apart, so we filled in the middle with more China fun and came home having made some amazing memories together.

I loved being swept up in China's bustle

We started in Xi'an, China's ancient capital and home of the Terra cotta warriors. Michael Yang, our guide, could not have been better. He made the whole experience more meaningful by teaching us about the culture, the history, the language, and the food. It felt more like a friend was taking us around than a tour guide. Look him up if you go to Xi'an.

 Michael and Jonathan

The history part. Xi'an's city center is still surrounded by the ancient wall built by an emperor over a thousand years ago, improved and reinforced until 1400 AD. Impressive is an understatement.

The top is 10 meters wide, leaving plenty of room for a tandem bike ride.

 And, in a moment of spontaneous irresponsibility (Fabio seems to bring these out in me...) we strapped J to Fabio and did just that!

It turned out to be the perfect way to see the city and to stop at our leisure to enjoy different views. We didn't bike the entire 14 kilometer square, but I'd say we got our $6 USD worth.

Fabio and I were really surprised by how much we enjoyed the museums in Xi'an, since we're not particularly "museum people." Our favorite was the stone tablet museum, filled with tablets as ancient as 2,300 years engraved with spiritual texts, eulogies, and poetry. Our favorite tablet was a poem engraved around a depiction of a bamboo stem in such a way that the characters looked like the bamboo leaves. Perfectly beautiful. Unfortunately, I left my camera battery in the hotel so we had to keep all of our memories in our minds for that one.

Of course, the major attraction in Xi'an is the Terra Cotta Warriors.

More than two millenia ago, a Chinese Emperor used 700,000 slaves, artisans and architects design to build an incredible underground mausoleum complete with a mercury river and booby-trapped entrances. To guard his elegant afterlife palace he had an army of life-sized soldiers, horses, and officers made out of clay and buried in formation. Every single one of the 1,700-plus pieces has a unique face.

Until the 1970's, no one knew the clay army even existed since the emperor had anyone who worked on them killed. The government is still excavating and expect the full excavation project to take almost 200 years. I love that after they repair the excavated warriors, they put them back in the pits, in formation. It really puts the grandeur of the army into perspective.

This is less than half of one pit

Aside from Disney's Mulan and an Ancient China unit I had in 6th grade geography, I came to China almost entirely ignorant of its dynamic heritage and history. It's amazing to me that these people were sophisticated enough to undertake and complete such ornate and lasting projects hundreds of years before Christ. Fabio and I smiled at each other every time we heard someone say the words "only seven hundred years old."

The language part. I increased my Chinese vocabulary by 500% while we were in Xi'an! Before you get really excited, I only knew how to say "thank you" before we got there. Despite my grand intentions of purchasing and completing the Mandarin Rosetta Stone before we left, I only managed to download an app that would say "Where is the bathroom?" for me. Oh well, hope springs eternal.

The culture part.  We spent an afternoon at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, which is an ancient temple that people still use today. It was beautiful to watch as people prayed, lit incense, and meditated. I always feel something profoundly sacred when I see people sincerely worship, whatever their religion.


the pagoda

prayer cards

While we were there it rained.

A lot. To the point that the whole city center was flooded. The solution? Dozens of people with bundles of sticks, of course!

I feel like this picture is such a perfect summary of so much of our experience in China. 
It seems as though the entire country has been swept up in a whirlwind of innovation 
so swift that they are left with an often awkward struggle between tradition and innovation.

And it was at the pagoda that the madness began...

the first person who wanted to take his picture with us in China--
we thought it was so funny that we had Michael take a picture, too 
because we were sure it would be one of the only times...

According to a friend of ours from Guangzhou, there is a Chinese proverb that roughly translates to, "Fair skin covers a multitude of flaws." When she told us about it, we chuckled, not realizing she was trying to prepare us for the completely overwhelming attention Jonathan and I would receive. Everywhere we went, complete strangers wanted to take a picture with us, a picture with Jonathan, a picture of them holding Jonathan, a picture of their baby or child with us. I am not exaggerating at all when I say that hundreds and hundreds of people took our picture over the course of four days. Some of them were sneaky and took them as they pretended to fiddle with their phone, others walked right up to us and held Jonathan's hand as their friend snapped away. Eventually we started taking pictures of the picture-taking because, well... It. Was. Madness.

Okay, to be totally fair I could probably count as one of them.

I just can't help myself.

We also enjoyed a Chinese Opera (which turned out to be more like a variety show with really awesome costumes),

and the Muslim market where we tried sour plum juice and all kinds of Chinese pastries.

Living in Singapore, we thought we knew how cautious Chinese people can be about superstitions. But again, China managed to surprise us. Apparently most hotels and hospitals don't have a fourth floor because the word for four is the same as the word for dead and no one will stay on the fourth floor. They would rather change hotels or not go to the hospital. So they just don't have one.

The food part. Shaanxi province, where Xi'an is, is apparently famous for their amazing noodles. As they should be. Michael took us to this little local noodle shop just a few blocks from the pagoda.

Go there. Go to Xi'an to go there. I have no idea how to say the name of it so just print this picture and give it to your cab driver. And when you get there, order the "four-in-one." Spicy, flavorful yumminess will explode in your mouth while you slurp amazing noodles cooked to perfection. Nope. Not exaggerating at all.

Also get the "sweet potatoes" for dessert, which are not sweet potatoes, but potato fries drizzled in caramelized sugar. Mmm. Mmm. Mmm.

We loved Xi'an. The food was amazing. The history was impressive. Everyone was so happy, and friendly, and helpful, and kind.

But it was with electric anticipation that we boarded the plane for our next destination...