When your daily activities are in concert with your highest priorities, you have a credible claim to inner peace. – Hyrum Smith


2/27/15

Good morning, Vietnam!

There are a number of perks of living in Asia.  The kids are in a school that doesn't have a strict attendance policy.  We can easily extend their vacations by a day or two simply by sending the teachers an email.  They encourage travel, as they view it as a learning experience.  Can I get a hallelujah?  I wish American schools in the States felt the same way.

There are also a boatload of national holidays here.  Thanks to the great diversity in religions and cultures (and the government seeking to honor them all), there are ten national holidays per year.  Woo-hoo!  The most recent holiday was the Chinese or Lunar New Year.  Because we are so close to China (and many Singaporeans have Chinese ancestry), it's a really big deal here.  So, the kids' school shuts down for 3 days.

Another perk is that travel to different countries is relatively easy, since there are tons of Asian countries/islands clustered in close proximity.  Close proximity = short flights = happy [or at least sane] momma.

Our latest adventure was to a place I thought I would never see (or even want to see)…Vietnam.  My dad served in the Vietnam War.  Whenever he talked about "Nam" (which was extremely rare and brief), I always had an overwhelming feeling of sadness.  I realize the war is still a very politically and emotionally charged topic, and I do not want that to be the focus of this post.  I want to focus on the beauty of the country and the healing that has taken place in the years following the war…and of course, the madness of traveling with our circus of six.

I really had no idea what to expect when we arrived.  I suppose I imagined dense jungles like the footage of the war I'd seen on the History Chanel.  Wrong!  We stayed in Hanoi.  It's a city alright.  Complete with a lovely, modern airport.  However, once you exit the airport, buckle up!  Or don't.  Most people don't because they are on scooters.  So many scooters.  So many people.  So many people on one scooter!  It was common to see four people on one scooter.  I kid you not.  Once I spotted five…a toddler on the front, dad driving, mom holding a newborn, and a kid on the back.  Whoa, Nelly!

Hanoi, the capitol city located in the heart of northern Vietnam, is where we stayed for the first part of our trip.  It felt so crazy to have the freedom to walk down the streets of what was once enemy territory.  We stayed in a section called the Old Quarter.  It was gritty and loud.  No apparent traffic laws, no crosswalks, small fires burning on the street corners or on the rows of endless balconies nestled above tiny, brightly lit shops  whose merchandise spilled into the street.  Roosters strutting in alleyways, very few dogs. (I heard there was a whole section of a market where one could purchase a whole, roasted dog…We didn't go there.)  It was everything Singapore was not, and I found it strangely refreshing.  It was as if someone had peeled back the veneer, and I could peer into another world.

I had so many mixed emotions on this trip.  Emotions I never anticipated.  It was just another vacation, right?  It suddenly felt like much more as I stood in front of the Hanoi Hilton (the infamous Hoa Lo Prison) where so many American POWs were tortured.  Almost without exception, every passerby smiled at the kids.  Shouldn't we hate each other, I wondered.  At the same time, I was so grateful that we didn't.  I could look at the people and see people, not enemies.  Moms, dads, grandparents, children.  Just people.

As we walked toward Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, we found ourselves skirting a massive wall topped with barbed wire.  There were gates at irregular intervals, manned by guards carrying AK-47s.  At the main gate we read the sign: Defence Ministry [I know the spelling looks incorrect, but I promise, it's right].  Again, I had that strange feeling that I didn't belong there.  Then a young guard approached our ever-grinning, waving baby boy and gave him a Hong Bao.

A Hong Bao is a gift.  It is a red envelope with money or treats inside given during the Chinese/Lunar New Year.  A Vietnamese soldier gave my boy a gift.  The irony and beauty brought tears to my eyes.  See, the Vietnamese celebrate the Lunar New Year, too.  They call it Tet.  As in the Tet Offensive launched in 1968 during which the Viet Cong hid massive loads of arms in carts carrying decorations and flowers for the festivities into South Vietnam and lead an attack that changed the course of the entire war.  Crazy.

Anyway, I just wanted to write a bit about the trip while my emotions were still fresh.  There will be more to come with pictures and descriptions, and our par-for-the-course misadventures.


2/13/15

Bali - Part III: The Elephant Safari Park and Monkey Forest





We took several day trips.  Thankfully, the hotel had a car big enough to transport our family together.  One day we visited the Elephant Safari Park.  It is a sanctuary for rescued Sumatran elephants whose homes are being destroyed by slash-and-burn farming.  We were able to ride the elephants, feed them, watch demonstrations (the kids especially enjoyed the elephants playing soccer and painting),  and eat a delicious lunch.








Then there was there was the Monkey Forest.  Cuh-razy.  According to Wikipedia, as of 2011, there were over 600 monkeys inhabiting this forest.  Yeah, kind of wish I knew that before we went.  Actually, our first visit there was quite nice.  It was the late afternoon.  The hotel dropped us off in the middle of downtown Ubud, and we walked and walked and walked to get to this forest.  The concierge at the hotel warned us not to feed the monkeys, as they can scratch, but when we got there and saw just how cute they were, and how there was a banana stand just outside the entrance, and other people were feeding them, well, we just couldn't resist.  And it was fun!  How many times in your life will you be surrounded by wild monkeys and be able to feed them?  Too bad Jack was asleep in the stroller the entire time.  He missed it all!  We decided we just had to go back.  

1st visit: Happy kids
Sleeping Jack

Sweet, docile monkey


We decided to return on a different day, early in the morning when Jack would be wide awake.  Early in the morning…Do you know what monkeys are early in the morning?  Hungry!  Hungry, aggressive little monsters.  We were swarmed.  It was bad.  The minute the bananas were in my hands, monkeys began to jump on my shoulders.  Poor Caleb was in the carrier on my back and had monkey butt in his face.  My shorts were all muddy from their paws.  It was nuts.  The kids just threw the bananas at charging monkeys.  Jack was screaming.  Ah, the stuff memories are made of, right?  Oh, but it gets better.  Aaron thinks we should leave, but I whine that we just arrived, and there were cute baby monkeys to see, and ancient temples to explore, and besides I'm sure it's safe now that we don't have anything they want.  Yeah.  Well, I guess we did have something they wanted.  Turns out untrained monkeys can actually work a zipper.  As in the zipper on the backpack that is hanging off the stroller.  One really big guy unzips the pack, steals Caleb's bottle, and pops it in his mouth.

"Hey!" I shouted angrily, instinctively taking a step toward him.  Um, did I really plan to arm wrestle this giant monkey for a baby bottle?  With a baby strapped on my back?  Did I mention monkeys have claws and fangs and diseases.

Each time I retell the story this monkey gets bigger.  Let's just call him an ape, shall we?  So this big ape gets up on two legs, shows me his fangs, and lunges at me.  He swipes as I run away (backward - so I can keep an eye on him).  The whole thing lasted only a few seconds, but even writing about it now makes my heart race.  Needless to say, we decided we had seen enough monkeys for one day (or lifetime) and practically jogged out of that park.  There is a reason people don't feed wild animals, kids.  Lesson learned.

2nd visit:

My first visitor

Baby monkeys I just had to see


Monkey temple

More monkeys (I know, I know.  Enough already.)

Okay, just one more...



Bali Part II - The hotel




We arrive at our hotel nearly an hour after we'd left the airport.  I spot Aaron getting out a cab just in front of us.  Hallelujah!  Aaron made our reservations, and whoa - did he do a good job!  The place is called The Mansion, and that's just what it felt like.  It was like something out of a movie…I was certain our kids would destroy it in no time.  But of course, my amazing Type-A hubby had done his research to find the most family-friendly place on the planet.  Lots of kids, super-friendly staff, and limited breakable items in our rooms (plural because due to our family size, we had to book two).  

The kids were in hog heaven.  They actually requested to bathe because the bathtubs were so glamorous and huge.  One room was on the top floor of the main house, past a chess table (where Parker challenged us to innumerable games) and a up a curved staircase.  The other was just down a stone paved path, right next to 3 pools and a lily pond where frogs sang to us in the morning. 

(I didn't take nearly enough photos.  The pictures I took of the hotel were mainly taken during the night when the kids were asleep, and I could explore on my own.)

These were taken in front of the hotel.

As you get closer to the entrance...


And closer...


 All the statues lining the walk made me feel like I was in a museum (okay, an Indian Jones movie if I'm really being honest here…just waiting to trip a booby trap and watch a poison dart shoot out of this guy's mouth).


The entrance hall

Up we go...

Looking back down, you can see they still have a Christmas tree up.  They were playing White Christmas on the speakers…I recognized the tune but not the language.

Portrait of a traditional Balinese dancer.

Our room upstairs.


Luckily Aaron took some pictures of our other room, which was really its own little cabana.
The lily pond [death trap] just outside the door that lead to some pools.


The inside of the cabana...


The magical tub (in that the kids actually wanted to bathe for once).


This picture of the master bed do not do this place justice!  It was gorgeous.  There were sheer, colorful curtains and canopies everywhere.  Maddie was in hog heaven!



Now on to the pools.  There were about ten, all very different, down paths overhung with vines and bananas, through stone archways, along mossy stone sidewalks.  I didn't get a single picture of them!   Maybe it was because I was too busy having a ball with the kids.  We swam and napped, watched cartoons and played chess, snacked, took long baths in the giant tubs, ate, and swam some more.  

Lucky for me, Aaron did take some shots….










Next stop…Monkey Forest and The Elephant Safari Park!