About Visiting Hong Kong

As we’ve rhapsodized about before, we love having friends the world over as a result of living and working abroad. Last week was one of China’s Golden Week holidays–a time when holidays coincide to allow an entire week off from work. We called up a friend (okay, we didn’t even do that, we just used Facebook messenger to get in touch) who lives in Hong Kong, a mere 30 miles away. This is a pal we met while working in Russia. She now resides in Hong Kong, and it seemed like the Golden Week might allow us the chance to get together. As it happened, though, she already had travel plans. So when she went on vacation to Japan, she set us up for the week in her lovely studio apartment.

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#HongKong #MyView #RandTravels

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This meant we had a chance to explore Asia’s world city in a whole different manner than we’d have done if we stayed in a hotel.

Here’s the funny thing–after a week there, neither of us were blown away. We’d expected a place significantly different from Shenzhen. Don’t get me wrong; in Hong Kong you’re less likely to see a toddler popping a squat beside the road, but I did witness a kid taking a leak into a bottle his mom was holding while we visited a children’s science museum. There are signs posted all over the city forbidding spitting and littering, as well as stipulating mandatory fines for those behaviors. Indeed, before arriving in China, I’d heard horror stories about mainland Chinese people constantly spitting everywhere–and that maybe true of second tier cities, but I’ve only seen a few people hock up loogies during the seven weeks I’ve been in Shenzhen. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but it’s not a big problem I’ve encountered. Now, was HK cleaner? Maybe somewhat, but there was still plenty of grunge. In actuality, there are parts of Shenzhen which are cleaner (as well as dirtier, to be fair). Shenzhen shines in some respects, and even compares well to its much more famous neighbor. Let’s take the subway system, for example. SZ’s is nicer–cleaner, larger, better illuminated. While HK has a truly admirable network of public transportation, the electric buses in SZ are much quieter and represent a significant contribution to Shenzhen’s urban environment.

One of our friends here described Hong Kong as “China with a veneer of money,” if I recall his turn of phrase correctly. That’s accurate, although not everyplace in HK is wealthy. Regardless, HK represents a more picturesque place to spend time in than Shenzhen, with stunning cityscapes visible from Victoria Peak and Victoria Harbor.

It’s a big city, so there’s a ton of people. And with tons of people come huge crowds. Sometimes I wanted nothing more than to get away from the crowds. But then, that’s the same in Shenzhen. Now and again, popular places just get too packed for comfort.

We made a day trip to Repulse Bay, and found ourselves on a nice beach with pleasant scenery. It was relatively uncrowded, although there were bunches of people, often Filipinas enjoying themselves very loudly, occupying all the patches of shade. That was fine with us, as getting some sun is part of the reason we like going to the beach, but getting a tan is anathema to most folks occupying this neck of the woods. It was interesting watching the people and groups. There was a church conducting baptisms and singing praise and worship tunes. There was a 60 year old American man and his brother with a gorgeous 25 year old woman of Asian lineage (she was probably American, too, going by her accent) popping the cork out of a bottle of champagne. There were myriad women dressed up and striking poses while their spouses or friends snapped pictures, each doing their best to look like a model. And it must be said, the water was perfect for swimming.

During our days exploring via the cheap and fabulous Star Ferry, the famously creaky double decker trams, and also on buses and our own feet, we covered quite a bit of territory. For the most part, we took in all the touristy things on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, while skipping Lantau Island, since we can get there easily enough another time. One day we walked more than 7 miles, and others we covered 5 plus. That was tiring, since Hong Kong Island is something like San Francisco in the sense that it is very hilly. In fact, there are even a series of outdoor escalators to help make life easier. The sidewalks are also there one minute, and all but gone another, depending on where you happen to wander, which makes life interesting.

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#RepulseBay

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Some things we enjoyed seeing included Hong Kong Park, nearby the hugely popular Victoria Peak Tram (pro tip–go before 9:00 am), and the Zoological Park, which had a lot of monkeys who were very animated–except the humongous orangutans, who were more interested in lounging around with head coverings they’d fashioned from leaves than anything else. We found some of the temples, including Man Mo (which is in the process of being refurbished, by the way) interesting. Man Mo, for example, is named for two gods–the god of literature and the god of war. The customs observed by worshippers inside are very similar to those we observed when we visited a local Buddhist temple in Shenzhen (incense being burned, respect being paid, food and drink sacrifices being offered).

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Lots of #steps lead toward #VictoriaHarbour

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Here’s something we learned about traveling to HK from SZ–it’s necessary to fill out an immigration card when leaving China (yes, HK is part of China, but it’s treated as if it isn’t), and there weren’t any signs or forms to indicate that. So if you’re waiting in line to leave China and there aren’t any immigration forms at hand, go to an immigration officer and get some. It’ll save 10 or 15 minutes and the necessity to step out of the queue, because they want the forms all filled out before you get to the desk. Hong Kong wants forms, too, and they give you a little 1-inch square piece of paper with a stamp on it you’ve got to keep, too, so that’s a slight annoyance, ’cause man, it’d be easy to lose.

Make friends, visit them, or at least visit their apartments. Build some good relationships with fine people and enjoy their hospitality when the opportunity arises. It is something which helps develop and expand horizons, and it also can provide entirely new options for exploring the world.

 

 

 

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Highlights

How about a pictorial post featuring some highlights from our various travels the last few years? It seems like a good idea to me. As you probably know if you read the blog thoroughly, we do talk about our travels a bit, but we’re not really travel bloggers in the sense of step-by-step, day-by-day chronicling of our journeys. That has its own appeal, but lots of people do it and probably better than we could. Instead, I offer a handful of what I think are our best instagrams capturing some curious, challenging, or memorable moments from our adventures, and a micro-snippet of a story for each one.

You’ve gotta be kidding me. Another staircase! AAAAAH! Italy, 2014.

Maybe the coolest looking mall in the world? Even the bathrooms were awesome. You should go there, because it’s technologically amazing. Thailand, 2014.

I attended the Sweihan Camel Festival with a small busload of my students. It was phenomenally boring. We drank coffee together and sat around at one point. UAE, 2014.

South Africa, 2013: no better way to see the hills, or a mongoose. Thank goodness for our friend who watched the little one while we spent an hour doing this!

When you gotta drive following some rain. UAE, 2013.

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Hangin' on the beach with the cattle in Sri Lanka.

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There were cows moving about freely, and there was trash strewn everywhere, too.

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#russia #ryazan #kremlin

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Who cares about the frigid weather and icy walkways? Russia, 2012.

You never know what you’ll encounter in Downtown Dubai. 2012.

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In #Baktapur. #Nepal #BTspringBreak #Travel #Temple

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We strolled through Bhaktapur’s beautiful squares, toddler in tow. Nepal, 2015.

Turtle LOVED off-roading and exploring. Jordan, 2014.

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#wadirum #jordan #travel

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LOVED, not least because there were no seat belts in the Land Cruiser!

Curvy, narrow roads, steep drop-offs, staying just ahead of bad weather. Liechtenstein, 2014.

Seeing the Himalayas–from 32,000 feet. 2015.

Close encounters of the monkey kind, descending from Swamabhunath Temple on a hilltop–Nepal, 2015.

The child loved snow, too, but not mittens. Czech Republic, 2014.

Getting around Wadi Rum the old-fashioned way; the baby aboard in the Boba carrier. He got used to it and didn’t mind after a little while. Jordan, 2014.

The way out of the temperature-constant caverns. France, 2014.

Sometimes sitting on a park bench lets you witness a story. Could it be true love? France, 2014.

Peculiar local customs. UAE, 2012.

More peculiarity–drive-in shisha cafe. UAE, 2012.

Sometimes napping just can’t wait, like here in Nepal, 2015.

Fancy a freshly fried snack? We didn’t. This was at the night market in northeastern Thailand with friends. 2014.

Wrapping up Summer: A Money Monday Post

ADEC gives us money for flights home once a year, and if we are careful and spend lots of time combing Expedia, Sky Scanner, and similar sites, we can find airfare that is cheap enough that we can afford to make a pit stop along the way. This is possible because the allowance is (supposedly) based on economy airfare for direct flights to teachers’ home ports. Those flights are more convenient in a number of ways, and as a result a little more expensive than those with multiple legs. Anyhow, if you recall, last year we spent two weeks exploring from Amsterdam, because we booked a trip with layovers rather than going home directly. This year we did something similar. We booked a flight with a stop in Milan. From there, we made a big circle, driving almost everyday for a couple hours or more, seeing six countries during 14 days. Then we hopped an airliner for Abu Dhabi and got ourselves back to Al Ain via rental car.

As I’ve said, we couldn’t afford to do this if we weren’t careful about finding affordable airfare. Or rather, we couldn’t justify spending the coin. After all, one of the overarching reasons for returning to Abu Dhabi for a third year is to beef up our savings account and IRAs. A third year’s bonus will be very useful in that, but we aren’t relying on the bonuses alone to set us up financially. That would be stupid, because wherever we go next, be it back to the grand USA or another country, we will need startup funds. So money must go into the bank all along the way or we will be no better off than before.

Now, bearing in mind my Money Monday introduction, I want to share about our trip through northern Italy and the surrounding regions. We saw beautiful scenery, met wonderful people, and learned new lessons about exploring as married parents of a toddler.  How can we do it and not waste everything we have squirreled away into savings and/or plan to put to responsible use to make our futures brighter?  I’ll try to answer that as I write.

Our first stop was Milan. Milan is remarkable in its humdrumness, if that’s a word. It’s amazingly ordinary. I maybe ignorant of other more interesting sights in the area, but in a couple days, we saw everything most people say is worthwhile: the Duomo and nearby Sforza Castle, as well as the canal area. We found the place pleasantly affordable, excluding the shops near the cathedral. It was possible for us to eat dinner for under 20 euros. We spent only one night, and that with a blog buddy of Jenia’s, so we didn’t have to pay anything for lodging. Hooray!

One way we try to save a few bucks is by using ATMs (Bancomats in eurospeak) to make cash withdrawals. If you’ve ever converted cash, you know that the conversion process isn’t simply an even, exact swap of $100 for the equivalent currency. Every exchange place and even banks charge a fee for changing money, and it’s annoying to search for a place which offers the best rates. In fact, some advise you not to worry about looking for the best rates if you are trying to convert money–just do it at the airport where it’s convenient and you’ll save some time and effort, they say, making it worth whatever small difference you pay. But less expensive, if you make large withdrawals at once, is using an ATM, because there’s no conversion fee. This is only less expensive if you withdraw a fairly good amount of money at once, though, since you’ll still pay an ATM fee, potentially from both the ATM and your home bank. Normally we don’t worry much about cash, and try to use our credit card. However, many places in Italy (as well as other places we visited) don’t accept credit.

This brings me to my next point: be sure you authorize your ATM card for overseas usage.  I did that, but I did it two years ago, for a duration of two years (my expected ADEC time). So I couldn’t use my ATM card at all, and I couldn’t make Skype work in order to call the bank. Luckily, the wife’s bank card does still work, and we could use it. But in the meantime, before we’d sorted that situation out, we were limited to places that would accept credit.  We stopped in a gelateria, delighted that the sign on the door said “Mastercard/Visa,” looking forward to our first taste of authentic Italian gelato in many years. Two very friendly brothers ran the shop, and as one of them rang up the total for our two cones, the other had just scooped the first cone for Jenia and was working on mine. Seeing the Visa in my hand, the guy said their machine wasn’t working.

“Oh, crap,” said Jenia, “Stop,” she told the guy who was just about to plop a scoop of frozen deliciousness onto my cone. “I’m so sorry, but we don’t have any cash.  We saw the sign on the door about Visa, and that’s why we came in.”

The brothers exchanged a glance. The one finished my cone, and the other said, “For free!”

Our turn to exchange looks. How nice is that?

“Have a good night,” they said as we turned for the door.

“It’s a good one now,” I told them. We made sure to return the next day and pay for a couple more scoops.

So those guys were pretty cool, and in general, we found the people of Milan to be warm and friendly.  In retrospect, there wasn’t the air of tourist fatigue that some of Italy’s touristy hotspots have (understandably enough).

Right, so update your bank about your travel plans so you avoid any potentially embarrassing run-ins like that, even though it worked out well and put a very good taste in our mouths (that’s a pun, get it?) about the people and place.

The next thing that we dealt with was obtaining transport at a reasonable cost. Everyone knows about Europe’s many trains and convenient network of railways. What is less common knowledge is that the price of train tickets is climbing yearly, making riding the rails less and less appealing for those traveling on a budget. For example, getting a Eurail pass for the two of us and the baby would have cost between 300 and 500 euros a piece, depending on the type of pass and number of days we wanted to spend on trains. That’s a pretty substantial number–if we wanted to travel a little each day, for example, for two weeks, then there wasn’t even a rail pass available that we could use. Another consideration was the toddler. Would Turtle stay put on a train, in his seat, minding his own business? Most likely he’d want to run around the whole time, a tiresome proposition. Last year we used Sixt, and opted to go another round with them. Our rental Fiat Panda 4×4 (!) ended up setting us back about 550 euros, including a carseat for the little one. The seat meant Turtle could nap when we drove, and it didn’t limit us in terms of where we could go or when we could go.

There is a funny story about finding the Sixt location in Milan that I’ll skip, but suffice it to say that my little trip to get the car ended up taking about 3 hours instead of the 1 we’d figured it would, and I had to go to a different location to pick up the car than the one I’d reserved it from. Advice: be careful to map out your destination location carefully ahead of time, and be sure to note what time that place closes.

A nasty fact about traveling Italian highways–they are toll roads, and the tolls are steep.  We logged approximately 160 euros in tolls alone. Fuel is expensive, too, but the Panda diesel was economical (5.4 l/100 km, as opposed to the 13.1 l/100 km I’m used to driving the Chevy here in Al Ain) and we paid roughly another 175 euros for fuel during our stay.  Diesel prices ran about 1.75-1.90 per liter while we were vacationing, just to give you an idea of what to expect if you’re plotting a similar trip.  But still, even if costs surrounding it were high, the car afforded us more freedom and was cheaper than train travel, so we enjoyed it.

And we put it to good use.  Here’s what our travel map looked like, more or less:

From Milan, we made a big circle, with a panhandle added on so we could poke around the Cote d'Azur a bit.

From Milan, we made a big circle, more or less like what’s pictured here, with a panhandle added on so we could poke around the Cote d’Azur a bit. Thanks, Google Maps, for making it easy to plot such courses.

Another way we kept costs under control was to use our cell phones only as wi-fi devices.  There are some affordable options for SIM cards, but we didn’t bother. We took great advantage of wi-fi and used Google Maps for navigation almost exclusively.

Last year we couchsurfed fully half the nights of our trip, which cut hotel costs in half. This year beyond our first night in Milan, we had to pay, as there were no hosts available for us. Ah, well.  So we used Booking.com to look up lodging as we went, only having reserved a couple days in advance.

We stayed in Perledo at a cool Bed and Breakfast with views of Lake Como, along scary narrow roads.  A ferry took the Fiat and family across Lake Como to Menaggio, and we drove to Lugano, Switzerland, to meet another blog buddy of Jenia’s. The next day we were in Vaduz and more remote parts of mountainous Liechtenstein. Afterward we went to soggy Innsbruck, but the views were obscured by rain clouds, so we hit the road early and stayed along the highway in charmingly non-touristy Steinach, where pizza was affordable for a change. Next stop was Venice–an ever so romantic city, especially when you just wander the streets, rather than utilize the slow, crowded water taxis. A cool agriturismo called La Toretta in Siena was next, followed by a B&B in Casarza Ligure, not far from the beautiful (and wickedly crowded) Cinque Terre. Monaco and Nice rounded out the trip, and we returned to a hotel near the airport the night before our flight to Abu Dhabi, being sure to find one that offered a free shuttle to the airport so we could return the car the night before, thereby saving rental fees for an extra day just to go to the airport in the morning.

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Our ferry to #Mennagio arriving. #Italy #LakeComo

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We had pleasant stays in all of the lodgings we selected, but the one place that most stands out was in Casarza Ligure, called Ca De Pria. If you want a nice base of operations from which to explore segments of the Italian riviera, that’s it. The owners treated us like old friends, and could not have been any more welcoming.

Of the many things we did, places we went, and little observations and lessons we gleaned, one was probably more important than the others: traveling with a toddler is different from being on the go with a baby. Our toddler has developed a certain schedule, and when that was too terribly altered, we all paid a price for it. So our evenings were generally kept fairly early, and we discovered that nap times were yet more important–if Turtle napped too long, sleeping too late into the afternoon, he’d be up too late that night. One night I was up with him until 1:30am, which was much too long. It ended up that he would be awake for 6 hours after his last nap, so we tried to make sure we adjusted things accordingly.

One more Money Monday note and I’ll dispense with the formalities and share some pictures. If you live in the UAE and you’re in Al Ain, finding a ride to and from the airport can be a factor when budgeting. Other than phoning friends to do us favors, we’ve found the cheapest, most handy way to get to either DXB or AUD is by renting a car from Hertz. Their least expensive Toyota Yaris or Mazda 2 offers enough room for us and our stuff (but not much to spare) and costs only 89 AED (or 110, including a child seat) for one day. Taxis set you back almost 300 AED, and most people who offer paid transport do it for around 200. Hertz is the best bet by a mile.

Now, for some more photos, one of the rewards we enjoy a great deal for spending money in the way we did. As usual, Jenia made excellent use of her Canon and has some amazing pictures to share, and I’ll get her to upload some soon. I have some that I like, too, and these are among them. Click on the images for full screen viewing.

Il Duomo

Little One in L

Near Sucka

Artists Still in Venice

Statue

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Citroen

I Love Your Life

What a thing to hear, huh? About a week ago we were sitting under a rented umbrella on a rocky Nice beach, and a woman sitting nearby with her family asked where we were from. She has, by the sound of it, a good life herself, where she works from her midwestern home. Mrs. Kramer and her family were taking a shore day while on a Disney Mediterranean cruise, which seems kind of nifty to me. But when she found out that I teach in the UAE while Jenia does photography on the side, her eyes grew wide and she got a big smile on her face. A few more questions asked and answered, she exclaimed, “I love your life!”

That’s the kind of compliment that will make you grin every time. It’s also a little hard to respond well to. “Thanks,” I managed, while feeling a tad silly. I wanted to say, “Actually, my life is pretty mundane,” because it doesn’t seem too special. Yet, given more thought, I’ll admit my lifestyle is somewhat unusual. It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? I have set foot in 12 countries to date this year, including the one I live in, and yet life seems nothing if not, well, ordinary.

Jenia and the wee one enjoying time on the beach in Nice.

Jenia and the wee one enjoying time on the beach in Nice.

That is not to say I didn’t get a kick out of going for a speedboat trip in Thailand, or driving the confusing roads of Siena, Italy. I thrilled at touching Liechtenstein rocks as I hiked to the castle over Vaduz, and I laughed at being one of the many tourists cramming into a pizzeria’s doorway in Vernazza, one of the picturesque Cinque Terre towns, in the midst of a sudden downpour, trying to stay dry. I rejoiced in surprise when the kind brothers who operate a gelateria in Milan gave us free ice cream. Walking the avenues of Venice with my lovely wife was ever so romantic, even with toddler in tow. I’ll admit, this seems a life less ordinary as I consider it further.

But would anyone still smilingly say, “I love your life” if they knew what the normal, routine part of my life is like? The getting up at 6, going to scan my fingerprint to sign in at school, standing through my 13,340th morning assembly (hmm, I wonder how many I’ve really shifted my weight from one foot to the other through?) conducted entirely in Arabic, deal with difficult youth in a constantly changing and inconsistent environment, handle the workload in a responsible manner, try not to balk at conflicting expectations and realities, and then go home and do normal family guy stuff. This is boring at best, isn’t it?

Indeed, day trips to Abu Dhabi or Dubai are even blasé. “Which mall should we go to today, honey? Do you want to swim in the gulf again?” We find ourselves bored as we walk among folks clad in kandoras and abayas, as we notice at some point and then forget again that we are the only white people in the room. We yawn at the idea of going to the same old amazingly green park nearby again. Life in the desert has become normal. The special part is mainly what happens during holidays.

The saying goes along the lines of wherever you go, there you are, and that’s a tried and true if cliched sentiment for a reason. I’m no more happy now than I was when I had what you might call a regular job in a typical school in the States. There was a phase where I was really stressed out by moving, on the contrary, but I’ve adjusted long ago. I’m still me, and I’m the same in the USA, France, or the UAE.

That said, over time, assuming I am not resistive to it, traveling and working abroad does change me. I notice that I don’t bear the same political or social prejudices, and my cultural biases have altered. I think these changes are good ones, but who’s to say I wouldn’t change similarly if I worked at home in the USA? I’d grow and mature regardless of where I lived, wouldn’t I? But I certainly wouldn’t be able to explore the world as easily if I hadn’t packed a few bags and relocated overseas.

So here’s what I’m getting at. I live a life that is a bit unusual, yep, but much of it isn’t anything worth talking about. It’s a struggle, same as any life, anywhere. But Mrs. Kramer, thanks for making me ponder it a bit. Thanks for reminding me that I’m blessed. And I know you were thinking about the glamor of travel and life abroad in glitzy Abu Dhabi, but when it comes down to it, what really makes my life special is the people in it. Teaching a classroom full of kids is more rewarding when I learn some Arabic phrases from them, when I build some relationships there and remember that this is a job that’s different and memorable when compared to the one I had back home. So yeah, there are those people, students, but they’re not really the ones I’m talking about. Venice would have been ho-hum without my wife. Sitting on the sea-washed stones of Nice would have been less fun if I wasn’t able to watch my little son enjoy the waves in his mother’s arms. Going to exotic places is more fun when I can share the experience with my loved ones. Exploring is about expanding, and the most important thing to expand is the love in my heart. It’s easy to forget that in the clamor of day to day living, no matter where in the world I find myself.

Summer Vacation, Pt. II

The trip has been going well. It’s nice to catch up with friends and family, and the non-desert climate is ever so pleasant. Returning home requires a little adjustment, though, as one grows accustomed to the UAE after a while. We laughingly have listed things that we forgot about life in the USA.

Jenia’s list looks like this:

•Drinking unfiltered tap water
•Driving with your windows down
•Paying attention to gas prices
•Beer being sold next to soda, water, and juice
•How blue the sky is
•Credit/debit card readers (I keep handing mine to the cashier)
•Bugs
•People stopping at stop signs
•Flowers
•Having to keep an eye on your bags and child

Mine includes all those things, and adds:

•Good ol’ southern rednecks
•Walmart
•Drivers using turn signals
•People having the same accent
•New $100 bills (when did that happen?)
•The great selection of familiar foods in the supermarket

What a difference living abroad makes to how we view things. We are that much more appreciative of Breyer’s ice cream, for example, than ever before:)

Here are a few pictures from the last week, and I’m not sure you will revel in the non-desertness of the scenery in quite the same way as us, but still, revel in the greenery:

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The Thai Paradox

Our trip to Thailand was great. There were wonderful things (like mango sticky rice), weird but nice things (like hair washing – a 15-minute procedure at a local salon), weird and not nice things (like people eating bugs), and then there was what I called the Thai Paradox.

See, before flying to Bangkok, I emailed our friend in Udon Thani and asked if there was a dress-code (you ask this sort of question after living in the Middle East for 2 years). She was happy I asked and advised to stick with bottoms that are to the knee or lower & tops that cover my shoulders. I was a little bummed, but it wasn’t a big deal, since this is the kind of clothes I wear here every day.

We also did our research on Bangkok and found out that we both needed to wear long bottoms & closed-toe shoes to visit the Grand Palace. Ok, no big deal again, we packed accordingly.

And then we arrived to Thailand & I felt like I was the only woman under 40 in the city of Bangkok who was not wearing a mini. Seriously.

I thought, “Well, this is the capital, it’s more touristy, people are more wild here. It will be different once we head up north-east.”

Wrong! In the very non-touristy Udon Thani girls still wore cute little dresses and shorts so tiny I’d never dare try them on.

When I asked our friends what’s up with the clothing thing, they explained that generally, Thai people dress modestly, but the younger girls and women want to look Western. “Well, I’m Western,” – I said, – “can I dress like a Westerner?” Their answer stunned me.

“You can wear whatever you want and they won’t care, but if you start talking to someone & they find out that you are a) a teacher’s wife and b) a mother, and you are dressed like that, you will basically lose all respect. Because you should know better.”

Now, we are not talking about daisy dukes & cropped t-shirts. We are talking about something above the knee & without sleeves. Quite a modest culture, huh?  NB: I am not talking about the touristy beaches of Thailand here.

Where’s the paradox, you may be asking.

Well, you see, one of the things Thailand is known for is sex tourism. Male & female prostitutes abound, and while prostitution is officially illegal, I hear it’s actually government-controlled. Here’s a Wiki article on the subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_in_Thailand It’s scary, really, how many foreigners come on a vacation & buy a local for the duration of their stay.

What’s even more strange to me, is that it’s not just the foreigners. Our friends told us that it’s considered absolutely normal for a man to have several mistresses + a wife. Sometimes the women aren’t too happy with the arrangement (we heard a story of 3 girlfriends who found out about each other & joined forces: they sold the guy’s pricey electronics & split the money :)), but in general it’s expected and not frowned upon. Even in their non-touristy city, both of our friends have been approached by the locals. They and their expat friends have been offered “special services” at a massage salon, the guys are consistently asked about their Thai wives (and why they don’t have any), the women are being told that the fact they already have husbands “is not a problem”.

Prostitution and extramarital sex? Yay! Bring it on! Let the whole world come and sleep with our people!

Women wearing anything above the knee? No way! That’s too risqué. We are a modest people.

I just don’t get it. I don’t. 

P.S. The whole issue of modesty/modest clothes is something that I get passionate about very quickly, and since I seem to hold a somewhat not-mainstream-Christian view on it, you may not want to bring up the subject with me.

P.P.S. More reading on human trafficking in Thailand: http://www.humantrafficking.org/countries/thailand

NGO’s that help sex workers:

Empower http://www.empowerfoundation.org/index_en.html

SWING https://www.facebook.com/SWINGfoundation/info

If you know of any others, feel free to leave a link in the comments!

Spring Break Travels: Musings on Thailand

It’s back to the real world in a few days: back to work, back to the mundane, back to the routine.  Now we’re back to our apartment, life as usual.  But since that’s not too interesting, I’m going to share about the trip the little family and I made to Southeast Asia for the better part of two weeks.  We visited two countries, Thailand and Laos, but for now I’m focusing on Thailand.  We explored three distinct areas of Thailand.  Bangkok, Udon Thani, and Krabi (Ao Nang, more specifically).

Map borrowed from this website: http://samui-attractions.blogspot.ae/2012/04/map-of-thailand-koh-samui-hoh-phangan.html

You’ll see Udon Thani nearly at the Laos border in the northeast; Bangkok is center on the gulf; Krabi and Ao Nang are near Phuket.  Map is borrowed from another website, but it seems to have come from EmbassyWorld.com.

Let’s talk about scenery first.   Without a doubt, the Krabi area was the most scenic, with stunning cliffs and towering islands, verdant greenery, and multi-colored waters.  In contrast, Udon Thani isn’t picturesque at all.  It’s a city that’s grown rapidly in recent years, but it mostly lacks anything that lends itself to a photograph.  There’s a bustling night market, a nice mall, and street vendors selling whatever they can, and in the parks people play a sport that seems like a mixture of soccer and volleyball.  But it isn’t beautiful.  Bangkok was a surprise.  We’d both expected the city to be something other than it is.  What, exactly, I’m not sure.  But we didn’t find it pretty for the most part.  Until we reached Krabi on the tail end of our trip, in fact, we shared the opinion that Thailand generally wasn’t pretty, except for the temples and palaces, which seemed the only things well-maintained.  Bangkok has skyscrapers almost right next door to homes of a floor or two, paint peeling off the sides, yards ramshackle. It’s grimy and the sidewalks are uneven and difficult to walk.  

Longtail boats deposit tourists into the amazing island waters off the coast of Aonang.

Longtail boats deposit tourists into the amazing island waters off the coast of Aonang.

The Thai people seemed very warm and friendly, always smiling and courteous.  Even people trying to sell us trinkets and such weren’t usually pushy.  They’d try to get our attention, of course, but they’d accept “no thanks” as an answer without any of the irritating badgering that we put up with on a visit to the Old Souk in Dubai or to pretty much anywhere in downtown Kandy, Sri Lanka.  Wherever we went, the little blond baby boy we were carrying was an attraction.  Turtle himself thought the attention was quite alright, and enjoyed waving “bye” to people and pointing his finger up, which caused no end of giggles and imitations, bringing a smile to the little guy’s face every time.

In Udon Thani, a couple we’ve been friends with for years showed us around.  They’ve been there for a while, and were able to take us to the neatest places and help us sample the tastiest foods, as well as advise what to avoid and teach us a couple of Thai phrases.  It was awesome to catch up with them, and so good to have their inside view of and understanding of the area.

So what are some insights we gained from our trip?  Would we want to live in Thailand?  Is the Pad Thai (or Thai food in general) better than it is anywhere else?  Here are three things that made an impression on me.  Jenia has more insights, very interesting ones relating to culture, and she’ll write them up someday soon.  For now, here are my thoughts.

Insight one (if this is really an insight, perhaps I should call it an “observation”): there’s a palpable sense of freedom when compared to living where we do right now.  Yes, this takes the face of cross-dressing and prostitution in some places, but in others it’s the simple wearing of whatever clothes you feel like putting on, knowing nobody’s going to be offended.  There’s a sense of freedom in the (unregulated and kind of sketchy) selling of food on the sidewalks, off the side of a scooter with a sidecar contraption that contains rice and noodles.  This also means people run red lights or drive the wrong way on some roads (particularly the “motorcycles,” or scooters, in our understanding).  It’s got a touch of the Wild West about it, with all the associated connotations.  Regarding those who enforce traffic regulations, evidently extremely inconsistently, “The police here do stop you sometimes,” said our friends, “because they want a bribe.  But they usually only stop trucks and motorcycles, because they’re the ones that break the laws all the time.”  The bribes are usually small, too, which makes the harassment more bearable, they said.  Speaking of bribes, those are apparently also expected when doing some bureaucratic business, something us tourists don’t usually encounter much, and which I have no personal experience with.  “You just pay it,” we were told, “So things get done.  Otherwise you could wait forever.”  This freedom most certainly does not extend to making remarks about the King, and one guidebook we read advised tourists even to be careful about putting a banknote in your back pocket, as it could be deemed disrespectful to sit on a portrait of the King, whose face adorns all the currency.   If you’re interested in news about Thailand, check out the Bangkok Post.  The linked article is actually pretty interesting, being about the ivory trade, and it should supplement what I’ve written nicely.

Insight two: the place is still third world, despite fairly rapid development in the 20th century.  In terms of creature comforts, convenience, and the like, it’s a notch or two above places like Sri Lanka, though.  The electricity is generally reliable in Udon Thani, for example, however everyone’s prepared for a brief outage.  Also regarding electricity, it’s disconcerting to see the proliferation of wires that hang from telephone poles, sometimes easily within reach of anyone who might casually reach up and touch them.  We suspected the low-hanging ones were merely phone lines, but weren’t sure.  In Ao Nang, the highest wires were actually buzzing constantly, snapping, and popping occasionally.  At night you could see electricity arcing around the insulators atop polls sometimes.  Walking on the sidewalks under this wasn’t particularly nice, but we got used to it quickly, and it became normal after a day or two.

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A cloudy day on Phi Phi Island off from Ao Nang.

A cloudy day on Phi Phi Island off from Ao Nang.

Insight three: the food is by turns surprising, delicious, and tastebud scorching.  We found a couple of favorite dishes: papaya salad, a sweet and spicy dish, and mango sticky rice, which is exactly what it sounds like–slices of fresh, melt-in-your-mouth mango with glutinous rice.  We liked the fruit smoothies that were ubiquitous.  It was shocking to see bugs roasted up and for sale as snacks.  Want a crispy grasshopper?  Check.  Maybe  silkworm larvae?  Got it.  Other insect?  Probably available.  Neither of us ventured to try these, although my friend offered us this tidbit: “I’ve tried the ones under an inch long.  They don’t really have any taste.  They’re kinda crispy.  Just wings and things, you know.” And as for the Pad Thai: Ruen Thai, a restaurant half a world away in little Cornelia, Georgia, makes stuff that’s as good or better than we encountered in the actual country.  If you’re ever in Cornelia, you should go there, and you can have a wonderful Thai dining experience at a fraction of the cost of flying to Thailand and with none of the risk of food poisoning you run at a street vendor.

A maze of roads, rails, and walkways outside the MBK and Siam Center in Bangkok.

A maze of roads, rails, and walkways outside the MBK and Siam Center in Bangkok.

A tasty snack to some, these silkworm larvae were for sale next to more sizable grasshoppers and the like.

A tasty snack to some, these silkworm larvae were for sale next to more sizable grasshoppers and the like.

Insight four: the place is hot.  Really hot.  In UT it was 100F one day, and this was just barely April.  It’s also extremely humid.  This is no surprise, as Thailand is a tropical country, but still, 100F and high humidity is formidable.

Would we move to Thailand?  No.  “It’s too third world,” says my wife.  I agree.  It’s a neat place to visit, and we’d definitely go back.  The next time, however, we’d fly to Phuket and get the ferry from there to Ao Nang, skipping the bland northeast, grungy Bangkok, and go directly to the scenic coast, with its otherworldly pillars of rock and vegetation rising from the sea.  That’s all for now.  Stay tuned for Jenia’s upcoming post, one I think you’ll find far more interesting and insightful than what I’ve offered here.

Christmas Vacation

For the last ten days we’ve been traveling. Sorry if your comment has gone unanswered as a result, but internet has been a bit spotty for us, as we’ve been, most recently, in a tent beside Island Lake near George, South Africa.

Remember how we’ve talked about the friends we’ve made as a result of living in Al Ain? Some of those same friends have been showing us how South Africans spend their holidays.

We are having a ball in the Western Cape. There is much to write, but it can wait until we are home. Until then, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from beautiful SA!

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A Scene from France

The baby is asleep in his Graco car seat. The wife and I share bits of conversation as the miles (excuse me, kilometers, for we’re in France) drift lazily past. We haven’t gotten to the interstate highway yet, and I don’t think we will. It’s become increasingly obvious that those green signs with white letters that clearly pointed toward Luxembourg in the center of Reims weren’t indicating the most direct route.

Pop music plays on the radio until we get tired of it and switch it off. Most of the songs are in English, and it’s nice to turn the dial and be able to find any number of radio stations playing music that is comprehensible to the average Western ear.

We zip from one small town to another. The speed limit’s not posted, but the other cars on the two-lane road seem to be moving about 100 kph, so that’s where I keep it, more or less. Sometimes the road gets rough, the faded blacktop mottled with pockmarks, and I slow, and at one of these points a guy in a heavy black BMW sedan who’s been behind me for a while blows past. I wonder how he can move so fast on this rough pavement and not be endangering himself and his passengers.

The sun comes out for a little while just as we leave another of the villages, and as the gray clouds peel back to expose blue sky, we marvel at the beauty of the gently rolling hills that stretch out until the eye can see no more to either side. There are pastures and recently cut wheat fields in shades of gold and green. Monolithic windmills spin slowly in the gentle breeze, and farmhouses and barns perch picturesquely in the distance.

The French countryside somewhere along a rural road between Rheims and Luxembourg.

The vast and lovely French countryside.

“I know why Van Gogh found this worth painting,” I tell Jenia.

“It’s beautiful.”

Van Gogh's Wheat Field, 1888.

Van Gogh’s Wheat Field, 1888.

As we continue, the road is lined with trees on either side, trees that jut proudly upward, forming an umbrella over the road now and again. Beyond these, there are no trees to the left or right, just fields reaching out into the distance.

The Ardennes region of France, along D980, 7 km from Cauroy.

The Ardennes region of France, along D980, 7 km from Cauroy.

When we make our way slowly through a tiny town called Cauroy, there’s a community yard sale that seems to be in its final moments.

“Oh, I want to go,” Jenia says. So I take a side street that I figure will lead back to the little square, but the road instead brings us to a big shed and farm equipment. A man nearby watches us curiously. After turning around, I park beside the road and watch chickens through a fence while Jenia goes to browse the junk on sale. She comes back in 10 minutes with a couple of kitchen goods, items unique and inexpensive, nifty souvenirs.

This is because we took the long way.