Saturday, April 30, 2016

Just Walking the Dog . . . in Hong Kong!

In Hong Kong there are a few places I can walk our dog Rigby.  The most frequent route is a 25-30 minute walk around Red Hill, a one-mile road that is one big circle.  The sidewalks shift from narrow to wide and the view shifts from sloped and maintained mountain, to beautiful distant mountains with inlet ocean water dotted with bobbing yachts, to 20 story blond brick apartments with a view of the mountains and water where some colleagues live, to 5 story pastel condos that cost $10,000 per month to rent, minimum.  On this route we meet many other dogs being walked on leash by their owner's helpers, mostly Philippina women who are likely to greet us "Hello, Mom."  The dogs range in size from golden retriever to jack russell and are either guided to the opposite side or take a moment to sniff each other in choice areas.  The women pick up droppings with newspaper and put it in the bins along the road designated specifically for dog poo.  Rigby, a milk-chocolate chow mongrel rescued from Hong Kong Dog Rescue, walks with a spring in his 6 year-old step and sniffs as often as I will let him.  He likes to back up against the slope on grassy areas to do his business.  Depending on the time of year we may come home wet from the humidity even though the route is leisurely.

Another, and even more breath-taking route I like to take, but less often, goes down to Tai Tam village.  First Rigby and I take the elevator from 7th to the 5th floor exit of our building, then down a series of four flights of stairs past the middle school campus, the track, the landscaped flowers, and the guard off of the grounds.  From there we wind down a paved country-road until we reach the water's edge.  This is a bay off of the ocean.  It is dotted with yachts to fishing boats floating equidistance from one another on the dark blue, quiet water.  We go left on the road with the sea inlet on our right and jungle underbrush and trees and a bit of trash on our left.  After a few more minutes we will hit the edge of Tai Tam village.  When I am alone I like to walk through the village and look at the gardens, the banana trees, the stone homes stacked up into the hillside with cemented in windows on the street level and signs of interesting water sports gear like kayaks and paddle boards.  But when I'm with Rigby we turn back here because there are a few street dogs that are quite territorial and Rigby is afraid of them.  They bark too loud and tend to growl or follow you, making you uncomfortable.

A third route is to take Country Road Park. This is the most beautiful of all.  This one begins just a few minutes past the middle school guarded gate where the guard always smiles and says hello.  We walk up an incline past drivers in Mercedes and Cadillac vans waiting for school kids when the day is done.  They are parked all along and on the sidewalk so that we are forced to walk on the road instead.  After crossing busy Tai Tam Road we reach the entrance of the Park.  Here there is a waterfall on the left, (really it's the run-off from rain and mountain water cascading down a cement stair from the catchment above).  On the right there is an amazing view of a 100 year old one-and-a-half lane bridge straddling a freshwater reservoir which begins where we are and ends below a dam just on the other side of Tai Tam village.  The reservoir reminds me of a Wisconsin lake, except because it is a reservoir the capacity ebbs and flows with seasonal rain and runoff and there are humans allows on or in the water.  Recently, with all the rain, the reservoir is filling again, so there is maybe only one meter of exposed red clay sloped beneath the jungle trees which line the water and seem to go on forever, turning into misty mountains stacked on top one another.    On a very ambitious day, Rigby and I could walk all the way over the mountain and into the city of Hong Kong.  The entire route would be paved black and wide and we would see dozens of people along the way making the long trek up or down the mountain.  But usually we just walk one hour; this takes us past three different BBQ picnic areas, over several bridges with the view of the pristine reservoir, and through the tree-lined, spider infested jungle.  Here large dogs are usually off leash, well-behaved as they greet each other and Rigby.  Singles, couples, families, expats, Cantonese, Chinese all come here to enjoy the walk, the hike, the picnic spots, or the view.  We might run into a bride and groom on a wedding shoot.  If we are ambitious there are many off-shoot trails we could take, some paved, some not.

Finally, there is the catchment trail.  This is a trail that takes about 5 minutes to reach.  It's entrance lies across Tai Tam Road just past our public bus stop.  One must climb up like a child (and on the return, jump down) to get to the long narrow stairs which take you to the catchment.  Turn left and you will eventually arrive at Stanley, our nearest town.  Turn right, and you will reach a stair leading down to Country Road Park and next to that waterfall I spoke of.  The catchment is a concrete ditch designed to catch the water run-off from the mountain.  Along one side is the sloped mountain rising twice to three times as high as the Southwestern hills of Wisconsin.  On the other side the concrete continues as a narrow sidewalk meant for repair workers to easily reach the catchment.  We use it to walk.  The views are beautiful up there.  At points the view overlooks the ocean and our nearby local Turtle Cove beach.  At points it overlooks the school and nearby Red Hill Plaza.  At points all you see is bushes, trees, flowers, butterflies, and huge spiders pressing in on you.  Much of the time there are metal railings, sometimes there are not.  Such a trail is perfect for letting your dog off leash to sniff and walk or trot as he pleases.  Here we spend about 30 minutes walking and enjoying the smells and the view, but NOT the spiderwebs that invisibly crisscross the trail and which cling to my arms and legs as I pass by.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Kids stories

As always, having kids can mean heartwarming moments and hair pulling moments.  I've got one of each to share.

First, the heartwarming one.

My fifth grader and I made sugar cookies recently.  He enjoys baking sometimes and was thrilled when there were enough cookies to share with his classmate.  "Mom, can I take cookies to school for my classmates?"  Me: Sure.  Just check with your teacher.  Him: I know!  I could pack little cookie snacks for our class walk-about in two days.  Me: Perfect!  My son proceeded to package ziplock bags of three cookies each and each labeled with the student group names for the walk-about.  He did this all on his own without any help from me.  He put all the bags into his backpack for the next day.  I was so proud of him.

Upon returning from school the next day I inquired about how his classmates enjoyed the cookies.  With just a hint of a downcast face he said, "I never gave them to them."  "Why?"  "Because they all got crushed in my backpack."  And with that, he took out the Ziplocks.  Oh!  Such a sad, sad sight, all those crumbs.  I felt so bad!  He was so thoughtful and giving and spent time and care preparing the snack packs, all to no avail.  But he didn't seem too phased, he shrugged, sat down on the couch and logged onto his computer to play a game.

I was very proud of my thoughtful, independent, kind son that day.

Second, the hair-pulling one.

So, my daughter decided that her passion project for school would be to create an auquaponics system similar to one her science class had made last year.  Over the course of several weeks we collected all the needed components like a plastic bin, gold fish, clay beads, net pots, styrofoam slab and plants. The day came for her assemble it all.  I happened to step out when she decided to move forward with the potting the plants phases.  This happened to involve removing the plants from soil pots to replant them in the clay beads. Sounds easy enough and logical enough, but to a thirteen year old brain. . . Not so much.  Her logic told her to loosen the roots from the soil by soaking them in water. . . In the bathtub!

I arrived home to a tornadic disaster in her bathroom which involved a gazillion little styrofoam beads and potting soil over everything.  But the best moment was when I pulled back the shower curtain (mom, we have a little problem).  The bathtub was full of black water deep enough for a luxurious mud bath.  That was the point where she handed me the drain stopper with, "For some reason it's not draining."

(Deep breath.  Count to ten.) 

What are you thinking, Mom?  Say something.

These are going to be the most expensive green peppers I have ever eaten.   Okay,  let's get a pail and you can start bailing over the balcony.

And that's what she did.

Two hours, sixty trips to the balcony,and a gallon of liquid plumber later the bathroom was good as new.


Repotting 101:  don't soak roots in the bathtub to remove soil. 




"My husband is Otterbox"

June 12th

An anecdote.

I am on my usual morning walk around Red Hill.  I have my phone in hand, earbuds in listening to a book.  During my walk I leave our lovely 3 bedroom apartment to stroll past much larger and expensive condominiums overlooking the South China Sea on the southern part of Hong Kong Island.  Perhaps it is only here in this neighborhood that my story can take place.

As I said, I was walking with my phone in hand when a black Mercedes past me, slowed and stopped.  Seeing a Mercedes is not unusual, but seeing one stop and having a woman get out and approach me is.  She wore expensive yoga clothes and carried a small box in her hand.

"Hello," she began.  "I noticed you are carrying your phone and don't have an armband."  

"That's true," I said, puzzled.

"Oh.  Have you heard of Otterbox?"

"Sure." 

"Well," she said, "my husband is Otterbox and we are promoting our latest product, an armband for phones and iPods.  Would you like one?"  She held out the small box.

"Sure!  Thank you very much," I stuttered.

"No problem," she finished, turned and walked to her car to drive away.

My phone is Otterbox?  Only in Hong Kong! 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Mumbai . . . Bombay. . . India! (Thanksgiving Break)

It's everything you've heard.  That is if you have heard the driving is crazy and the people are wonderful.  Or if you've heard that there are random cows that go where they want, including in the road.  Or if you've heard there is wealth and poverty visibly next to each other.  During Thanksgiving Break I had the privilege of travelling to Mumbai (formerly Bombay and still called that by locals) to visit my good friend, who recently moved there.

I got to do a bit of everything - see her prestigious international school, have a driver take me sightseeing, go to an Indian wedding (2 days' worth), eat great food, lounge by the pool and have brunch at an upscale hotel, get mehndi (henna tattoo) on my hand and wear my Sri Lankan saree, meet people from around the world, and talk talk talk to my friend.  Oh, and spend maybe 8 hours on the roads as a passenger experiencing the traffic and road conditions.  I LOVED it, but wouldn't want to drive in it daily.

This was the first trip I took ALONE in a long time!  What a thrill to travel by myself, see my good friend, and just be the "girls" for a long weekend.  As this blog is well overdue, I will let the following pictures tell the tale. Enjoy!
Ready for the wedding reception!

View from the second wedding reception venue.

Installation art in the mall
Close up of the installation art


McDonald is everywhere!


Crazy traffic with no clear lanes

Taj palace

At the Gate of India
Crazy - traffic lights but no clear lanes.

Museum

Mehndi on my hand

Side road drama - cow with garbage


Who would ever have imagined? Borneo!

First, allow me to acknowledge a miracle.  Our five day spring break trip to Borneo, Malaysia, was in jeopardy due to the flu.  My son had just finished two weeks with the flu, mostly fever.  The day before we were to fly out, I had full blown flu symptoms.  High fever and aches.  The morning of the flight I was at 102 degrees.  I loaded up on drugs and by noon which was go time I was at 99 degrees and the achiness  had disappeared.  We were off!  While the flu didn't leave me altogether, I did have respite enough to enjoy the trip.

As for the trip itself - one word = amazing.  We went to the area called Sabah to Borneo Beach Villas next to the Nexus Resort, where we were able to use their pool, restaurants and shops.  Our suite was on the beach front and lovely.  

During our five days we took two excursions.  One excursion was to Shangri-la Resort to the orangutan reserve.  According to the Sumantran Orangutan Society, 
  1. "100 years ago there were thought to be 315,000 orangutans in the wild. There are now less than 6,600 left in Sumatra, and less than 54,000 in Borneo. It is thought that Sumatran orangutans may be the first Great Apes to become extinct unless people help to protect them."
Where we were, they had just two five-year olds there.  The rest were gone, adopted (not sure by whom).  But it was a rare privilege spending an hour watching them (from a railed-in platform) in their habitat alone with the myriads of monkeys.  We watched them swing in the trees, pull in a rope and use it as a swing, interact with each other and the pesky monkeys who wanted the food provided by the worker.  It was blasted hot, though, so I was happy we each had our ice/water bottles along.

Our second excursion was to see the proboscis monkeys in the mangroves on the river about an hour away.  We were with two other expat families.  We saw those crabs that have the huge claw.  Hundreds of them on a muddy shore.  And more monkeys.  And a king fisher bird, beautiful.  But seeing the proboscis was more difficult.  We did have a tiny spotting for a few minutes, but never a real good view.  Then off to a buffet dinner by locals with about seven different Malaysian dishes and an amazing sunset.  For some reason there was a heard of cows at the beach at sunset, too.  Interesting.  The highlight was going back to the river after dark to see the stars and the fireflies.  I didn't know humans could communicate with them.  But our guide was a firefly whisperer.  He had a yellow flashlight that he used to speak to them.  As he spoke, they would light up like crazy inthe trees along the shoreline.  Then he would change to a beckoning motion and they would literally come to the boat and fly around and land on us. So super cool.  There were hundreds of lightening bugs! (So, no pictures!)

Other highlights were swimming in the pool and in the ocean.  We also just happened to be in the same place as the neighbors who live directly above us in Hong Kong!  We spent a whole day in the resort pool and ocean with them and then another evening was a nice long dinner together at the Malaysian restaurant.  Quite lovely.

Now for the things that we liked most.  1. The sunsets. 
2. No solicitors. 3. The super warm ocean, and clean. 4. The warm pool. 5. Interesting finds like the brain seaweed and the giant beached jellyfish.   

 6. The Easter Buffet. 7. The fireflies.  Okay, that might not be in the right order.


Altogether, one of the best locations we've traveled for beaching. 

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

Traffic

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.