Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Fall 2010, Embracing the expat life in Asia!

Yuyuan Gardens, Shanghai

Posting on a monthly basis, as it turns out, is not as realistic as I first envisioned.. Who knew I would get so busy (!?!). It seems like this was all very predictable knowing me, but I truly didn't know how things were going to shape up. As it turns out, there is always something to do. Doesn't really matter where in the world you are, but I think when an expat, in addition to the day to day, there is so much new to do, to discover!

In any case, the fall has been pretty busy. The kids have well settled into school and after school activities. Each are getting satisfactory results, given the new system and the language acquisition they have to surmount. They have established themselves with their teachers as serious students who work hard and will do well in time. I guess that is as good as we can expect, 3 months in the school year.

Sports activities are fun, exciting and challenging for both kids and music lessons are going on with great progress. So overall, they are set and comfortable, I think they are starting to even feel at home in HK. Grant had his 9th birthday party and invited his 9 best buddies; all very nice boys. Audrey and her 3 best friends organized and managed the party. They are definitely well settled.

We had the opportunity to do some traveling as well; we went to Singapore for the fall break in September. Hooked up one afternoon with the Zallers, who lived in Atlanta and whose boys Luc and Leo went to AIS. The kids were happy to reconnect with old friends and had a great time. Steve, Lara, Tom and I had a nice dinner by the river and a nice river cruise while the kids played. We found Singapore to be very clean - figures! - and people to be very friendly, especially the cab drivers, who are all instant tourists guides! They must all go to the same "Welcome to Singapore" school because they are all - without exception! - very informative, outgoing and helpful. Quite different from the Hong Kong cabs where you are lucky if they speak English and are VERY discreet (I am being very politically correct here). We visited Little India under the rain, Arab Street for dinner was the best, we went to the Bird Park - highly recommended - the Night Zoo, The Flyer and the Marina Bay Sands. We had our first ever Fish Spa, which I loved and Steve enjoyed while the kids were literally tickled to death!

In October - lucky us! - we went on our first trip to China. We started in Shanghai, followed by the Wild Wall and finally Beijing and Mutianyu. Shanghai was fantastic. There was not enough time to get together with the Shepherds nor the Hansens, but we did talk. So many things to see and do in Shanghai, it was just very nice. Once you got used to the driving, that is! Never, ever heard so much honking (well actually... until we got to Beijing, but OK). It appears there are two reasons for this: 1- honking replaces direction signals (flickers) and so is used at every lane change, every turn, etc., by everyone. 2- bicycles include pretty much everything with less than 4 wheels: scooters, motorcycles, 3 wheel tricycles, rickshaws, you name it. And ALL of them have bells, horns, etc., and ALL are exempt from any road/traffic rules. They are everywhere, in and out of traffic, crossing on any
light, driving on the sidewalks...It is crazy, dangerous and noisy! No wonder expats packages come with drivers.

Shanghai was great fun. We walked through some great neighborhoods such as the French Concession and Old Shanghai. Went throught the Yuyuan Gardens - just so beautiful - Xintianti and The Bund. We had a nice day to Tongli, an ancient water village where we experienced a true tea ceremony. We went to the Pearl TV Tower where the kids were at first curious, later annoyed at their star quality: it is not every day some Chinese people see "golden" hair and they love to take pictures of themselves with either or both of the children, sometimes quite forcefully! With cameras, with cell phones, all the while talking and laughing in Mandarin so we have no idea what this is all about. Very funny.

On Halloween weekend, we flew to Beijing and traveled about 2 hours north of Beijing to a small village where William Lindesay and his wife Chi and sons Tommy and Jimmy welcomed us into their school house-turned into a hostel home. The temperatures north of Beijing were very cold (-2C at night), and the Barracks are not heated... So we thankfully were well prepared and very cosy in our huge family bed.. Up at 5AM Saturday and Sunday mornings for 12 to 15km hikes up the mountain to the wild wall - unrestored sections of the Great Wall of China, where we hiked as the sun came up and the land warmed up. It was magical. The very best way to experience the wall. William is one of the most well known and recognized proponents of the Conservation movement of the Wall and a great historian. Staying with him and his family, hiking the wall away from any tourist - this particular section was actually closed to tourists - the cool but gloriously beautiful weather, the fantastic home cooked foods and the exciting, interesting lecture on the history of the wall, just made for a fantastic weekend. The kids even got to carve a pumpkin, a very sensitive touch from Chi. ( Call William if you ever find yourself in the Beijing area with a weekend free and want to see the wall.

On Sunday, we traveled back to Beijing where we spent the next 4 days visiting all the sights: Tienanmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Lama Temple and so much more. We stayed in a Hutong Hotel: a kind of courtyard style house, had Peking Duck one night and a HotPot another.
Talked with our good friend Dal - who for those curious, is loving Beijing and The Beijing International School.
Then an overnight in Mutianyu - what can be described as a "civilized" trip to the "civilized wall" with chair lifts to the wall and toboggan slides all the way down! Kids loved it. And it was nice to see both aspects of the wall.

This was a trip we were very much looking forward to. We expected to find austerity and greyness from years of communism but instead found vibrant cities, beautifully kept, lots of parks and green spaces, very modern. Friendly people, open and welcoming. Great food and incredible history. Of course, when you talk to people, you can feel the effects of the regime: our young guide's conversation was fascinating when overlaid with our historical perspective and different knowledge of certain events. It is apparent that most people are frugal and take care of each other: grandparents coming home with children is a common sights while mom and dad are at work! Materialism may be up and coming in some Chinese circles, but the vast majority of Chinese seem to live happily on very little, in tiny houses/apartments taking care of grandma and grandpa and vice versa. It was great. Steve, who had only been to Shanghai on business, found a completely different city and got a much better appreciation for this great place. We will go back, China is huge and there are many, many places to visit. The biggest problem is to choose and find the time to do it all. We want to discover new places away from tourists areas, this was a must trip to the well known China. Next, we will venture in less known places. But first, I have to get the kids to like Dim Sum!

As we return to Hong Kong in November, temperatures are dropping - in the teens and low 20sC now - beautiful blue skies, low humidity, just the best time of year. Hiking season is here and we are taking every opportunity between baseball and soccer practices and matches, to enjoy the thousands of forest and mountain trails around the island. You would not believe how much green space is here. My thoughts of HK before getting here was of a huge city full of skyscrapers..And it is! But 85% of the island and territories is actually undeveloped green space, and full of trails of all levels of difficulty. It is the best! Did anyone know hiking is my #1 favorite thing to do? Always has been. I am in hikers paradise here. It is fabulous.

Thanksgiving is upon us, we are invited to our neighbors for a traditional feast. They have invited many US and Chinese families, it will be our very first huge Thanksgiving gathering: we typically celebrate with only family on Fripp. We will miss Santa's arrival on the Firetruck and Mrs Elf!

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Monday, August 16, 2010

End of the Summer.. And Back to School!

The view from our home in Hong Kong (lining up not exact but close)

We had momentus last few weeks in Hong Kong after our Australian vacation and before school started: We continued our exploration of Hong Kong with daily outings. We visited many things; bicycling in the New Territories along Tai Po Waterfront, walking along The Peak, visiting the Jade, Fish, Bird and Flower markets, going ice skating at Dragon Center, going to Ocean Park (similar to Sea World), visiting the zoo and botanical gardens as well as Macau, Sai Kung
Town and Hap Mum Bay Beach, we went paddle boating at the TaiTam Reservoir and visited the Space, Maritime and Science Museums.

Also before school started, we took a cruise to go see the endangered Pink Dolphins, and visited a few more museums such as the History, Heritage and Coastal Defense Museums, The Mai Po Wetlands and Inspiration Lake Park. More exploring of Causeway Bay, and finally finding the bus back to Repulse Bay (!): we can now come and go taxi-free. Pretty busy schedule!

Our visit to the bird market was fascinating: thousands of birds in all colors and sizes, parrots speaking every language. Birds are the most popular pet in HK and we decided to join the crowd and got Finch and Sparrow, a couple of Gouldian Finches, also known as Rainbow finches. They are delightful and their song is soft and beautiful. But oops.. a couple of weeks after their arrival to our home, Sparrow was found on the bottom of the cage in eternal sleep.. So no more propagation possibilities. Finch now sings solo.

School finally started September 6th. Grant is happy, making new friends and really enjoying the bus. He got to know several boys in the building who take the bus with him which is great fun.. They are the "cool" older boys who have somehow appropriated the back of the bus. His teacher, Madame Texier, is sweet and efficient. She loves the kids, is very patient and just lots of fun, although Grant says she is now starting to get much stricter! Go Maitresse!!

Audrey also is happy at school; likes her classes and teachers. She is really enjoying Secondaire: lots of freedom, flexible schedule, changing classes and teachers and being treated much more independently. She shows great responsibility, gets things done without being reminded. I see independence growing in more ways than one, not all positive but all in all, excellent! She has made a few friends and enormously enjoys our neighbor Colleen, whom she gets along with perfectly. They had a lemonade/brownie stand this weekend at the playground which was a huge success! "Part" of the proceeds are to go to Unicef.. The rest, to the "Bird's Nest" their private/members only hideout in the service elevator bay.

The house is settled, all is in place and we are very comfortable. Our helper, Carning, has been a GREAT addition to our family (no kidding...) My worries were unfounded. The kids love her and the dogs are super spoiled. Steve is getting into potentially unhealthy habits (if he expects the same treatment at our return to the States, then it's potentially lethal!) and I have more free time than I have ever had. So I am back at the gym with a new trainer, a Swedish guy named Nike that looks like a refrigerator, and I have found a new Pilates instructor as well. I am enrolled in Mahjong classes once a week and Mandarin Classes another day. The classes are called "Survival Chinese": you have no idea how accurate that is! I have joined both the French and the American Women's Associations and will go on hikes and Discovery walks around HK. I have also decided to pursue better knowledge and understanding of photography which I really enjoy while getting to know HK better with the Photography group of one of the organizations. Life in Asia is really nice for expats. I am spoiled. No thoughts of work for now... We'll see if I get tired of this life of leisure!

Steve's work was crazy in August, with travel to the US and Mexico for a month to complete a 7 year old case. He came home, unsurprisingly, sick, tired, gaunt and overall in pretty bad shape. It took us a good week to get him back on his feet and to a normal outlook. Things are looking up with no more extensive travels and him being able to concentrate on the task at hand here in HK, where he really likes the energy, enthusiasm, proffessionalism and ambiance of the place. It is not easy starting something from the ground up, but if anyone can do it, Steve is THE man! So, we have full confidence in his success. I am just hoping it doesn't happen to quickly.. We are enjoying living here very much!

The kids are now involved in boating, sailing once a week each on different days, which is possibly the most convenient and easily accessible sport here. We can actually walk to the Sailing Club from home and they sail right in the bay in front of our building. The bay is beautiful, they are so lucky to have this opportunity. They both show promise, apparently - I can't follow them on the water - and were tagged for the racing team if they continue to train and improve. Very exciting.

Other sports are in place: Audrey plays soccer for HKIS and made the "D" grade team which is the select team that plays in local and international tournaments around the area. She is the only non HKIS student on the team which was picked out of all the players of the League, a selection of 16 girls out of 95. We are pretty proud. Practices twice weekly with games/tournaments on WE. Lots of soccer. But she is excited, so that is good. Aren't you proud of me Kim?

Grant is involved with the local Little League which is ran differently than in the US with teams of boys in the minors from 7 to 11 years old and therefore "kid pitch" and full on rules followed. Looks like he is being trained to be both pitcher and catcher - catcher being his favorite position and pitcher because the coach thinks he has a good arm. Practices Saturdays with games on Sundays against the local teams: Japanese little league, Korean little league, etc. Very interesting set-up, nice families, great coaches, lots of fun. He also continues his TaeKwonDo.

Both kids are set with their music teachers: Grant with Lieke who comes home to teach him piano and Audrey with Henry who she sees on Saturdays, and the French International School Orchestra for Wednesday afternoon practices - no school Wednesday afternoons in the French system.

French is improving DRAMATICALLY daily for both kids in total immersion, while Mandarin is coming along: Audrey has 6 hours per week at school while Grant is in the Wednesday afternoon program. So all in all, everyone is healthy, happy and BUSY!!!

Next up, a trip to Singapore next week for a long weekend, then the last week of October in Shanghai where I hope to connect with Valerie and Sarah, and the first week of November in Beijing to visit the Great Wall, celebrate Grant's birthday and the Fall Break!

Please keep in touch, we miss our Atlanta friends. Take care and back to you in October!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Steve's Birthday Down Under

I like to think of Australia as Texas on stereoids.. Of course, I have never been to Texas, so just think stereotyope here. HUGE country, long distances, the biggest, meanest crocodiles - not to be mistaken for our friendly/tame alligators (really?) - millions of birds, lots of Wallabies (where are the kangaroos?), water buffalos that can kill you if you get in their way - so NO running on your own Steve, I will be happy to follow you in a 4X4, no worries mate!..., the biggest termites mounts you have ever seen, the greatest number of things that can kill you from poisonous toads, to snakes, to the most inviting little orange berries: 4 hours, they tell us, you taste one of those growing along the road, and you are done for!

Thank goodness we had read Alan's "Australia for Dummies"!

This was the vacation of a lifetime, just as we hoped for. We first flew to Sidney where the temperatures were cool, requiring jeans, sweaters and a light wind breaker.. Heaven for the sweaty HongKongers that we have become. 2 days of touristing in Sidney was very enjoyable. We stayed at Circular Quay which was walking distance to The Rocks, the Opera House and the Botanical Gardens, and not far from Darling Harbour which were all very nice.

Thanks Diane for the recommendation! We had a great time.

We then flew to Cairns - pronounced Kains - then took a bus to Port Douglas, a charming tourist town, our base for snorkeling trips to the Great Barrier Reef.

The weather was perfect. But this being winter in Australia, the pool and ocean were a little on the chilly side, not helped by the north winds blowing. So a little cold for my taste but the Reef - in wetsuits - was fantastic. We also had dinner at a restaurant in Port Douglas called The Nautilus: if you ever find yourself there, you cannot miss that place. It was, very possibly, the most beautiful restaurant I have ever been to, and the food - French - was very good. The decor is worth the stop, you will just not believe it.

Finally after 4 days in Port Douglas, snorkeling, bicycling and fishing,we flew to Darwin where we were picked up the next morning by Sab Lord, our guide and host for the next 8 days.

There is no way that I will be able to convey how amazing this trip was, nor do the pictures do justice to the beauty and wilderness of the places we went. But here goes. Sab Lord - Lords Safaris - Kakadu National Park & ArnHemland - picked us up in his Toyota Land Trooper with custom made trailer carrying all the gear, food/drink, tents, camping stuff, towels (which we managed to loose one of, among other things (!..)) and everything you could possibly need for a week out in nowhere with no convenience store around.
We first drove to a nature interpretation center that described a little of the flora, fauna and habitats we would encounter while in Kakadu National Park. That's when we found out about the nice little orange killer berries growing in the parking lot!. We then took an Adelaide River cruise to see the famous jumping crocodiles.
The kids were very impressed - didn't need to be told twice to keep arms in the boat. These were 4-5 meters crocodiles! Neat.

We then drove - lots of driving in Australia! - south - I think - toward Sweet Water Creek Station for a 2 nights stay at Bamurru Lodge, a just amazing place. Very luxurious bush experience with permanent structures all solar powered, fantastic accommodations a nice infinity pool, wonderful staff and great food. This Lodge is located on a privately owed "station" the equivalent of a Texas ranch I would say, but 200,000 acres big! This is a water buffalo and cattle station on a wonderful flooded plain where airboat rides took us to fields of lotus flowers, water lilies and other flora that was incredible. Mangroves type of under woods and birds in so many species and numbers, it felt really incredible to be there. Picture yourself on an airboat (Skippy the Kangaroo TV show anyone?) with thousands of spooked egrets, ducks of several varieties and other birds just taking off right in front and sides of the boat. Something I won't forget. That was the best of Bamurru.

We then left with Sab for the less pampered portion of the trip - so I thought - but as it turns out, camping with Sab was a 5 star experience. Great campsites and tents, super beds and swags, and excellent food, all in the bush, all cooked over an open flame and all 3 course meals, including warm pies and ice cream. In the bush! Several nights of camping, several days of hiking in some of the most remote and beautiful places you would ever want to be in, with noone - not one tourist, other than us that is, but as Sab says: "There are tourists and then there are the Huyghes!"- around!

First camping night at Gunlum where an incredible pond with a high cliff and waterfall were the site of a scene in Crocodile Dundee. Next morning took us to Barramundi Gorge on an incredible hike..

We jumped off cliffs into pristine natural billabongs and swam from pool to pool, under waterfalls in waters we actually filled our water bottles from. THAT clean! Koolpin Gorge, for anyone interested, is worth the effort and the hike. Sab carried picnic lunches of meats and veggies, rolls and fruits in his backpack and set us up overlooking Grand Canyon-like places, like we were Royalty.

We continued on toward ArnHemLand and the Aboriginal community of Maningrida where we visited some fantastic caves covered in Aboriginal art dating as far back as 10,000 years. Our guide Nelson, an Aboriginal young man talked to us for several hours about his people, his culture, the life of today and the ceremonies boys still to this day must follow to become men. It was fascinating. We later spent the night at an Aboriginal lodge where we met Lea and Stuart, who showed us how to fish, cook, find materials to make spears for fishing, how to find the right roots to use for staining fibers, which fibers to use for baskets making, how to prepare and stain the fibers and so much more. A whole day with them, on their land, living like one of them. It was memorable, especially when Crocodile Dundee Sab decided to join Stuart and sample the local grub, a nice plump 3inch worm...

Not appetizing that was...

Overall a really nice trip, a memorable adventure. We were very lucky to happen upon Sab and Ann-Maree to prepare our Outback experience, and recommend their service to anyone in search of true experience in Australia's Northen Territories (

Next up, back in Hong Kong, more exploring, sailing camp and return to school! Keep in touch.