Bhutan Bound

Few things cause me greater discomfort than group meditation and cold, and yet in a few days I will willingly, gratefully spend 10 days fully immersed in both.  My mother was invited as a guest of the central monastic body of Bhutan to travel to the small Himalayan country, and she kindly secured an invitation for me to accompany her.  What I lack in heartiness and spiritual fortitude I hope I can make up for as the group’s chief photographer and scribe, the pragmatic optimist in a gathering of mystical heavyweights.

On the purely mundane level, I have never liked cold and since I was old enough to make my own decisions, have done my best to avoid it.  My college search revolved around temperature.  I picked Virginia because it was warmer than my home state of Pennsylvania and applied to schools exclusively in that state.  After college I moved to sub-Saharan Africa and then Los Angeles and except for two years in frigid Boston for grad school and a year in damp London, have lived in places where it doesn’t snow ever since.  My fingers go numb if it drops below 70 degrees.

My two coldest memories involve my mother, and I fear Bhutan may be the third.  I couldn’t have been more than seven when mom took me to the Poconos for a day of skiing where my loose knit mittens immediately absorbed the wet snow from my numerous falls, threatening frostbite to my little digits.  I can still recall the deep ache and tingling burn as they slowly thawed by the radiator in the nursery as she skied the rest of the day.  It took me a decade to attempt the sport again.

Years later, mom and I traveled in the dead of winter to Matinicus Island off the coast of Maine to interview year round residents for an article she was writing for the Island Institute’s periodical.  Exiting the prop plane onto the dirt airstrip on a gray, sunless January day, my lungs ached as I shallowly breathed in the biting cold air.   Our overnight hosts had a small home that was long hospitality, but short insulation.  I felt a little panicked at the idea of possibly freezing to death on that island and instinctively consumed the entire plate of hummus someone had made for the voyage, probably intuitively trying to store up some fat.

As I check the weather, Bhutan’s temperatures are scheduled to be just above freezing next week.  While East Coasters in the US are currently experiencing similar temperatures, the difference is that in New York while outside is cold, inside is heated and lovely.  From what I read, this is not the case in most places outside the fancy Aman resorts in Bhutan.  Our itinerary involves outdoor trekking to see magical, majestic sites and time spent in meditation and conversation with monks in monasteries throughout the western part of the country.  I’m taking everything warm I own and was pleased to read in the NY Times today that shivering is the body’s way of converting bad white fat into good brown fat which might help counteract my inevitable overconsumption of emadatse, the fiery hot chili cheese sauce that’s a daily staple of the Bhutanese diet.

As for group meditation, I am equally ill prepared, but well intentioned.  A birthright Quaker, 15 year practitioner of yoga, daughter of a Christian mystic, novice participant in Buddhist conferences at Hong Kong University and voracious consumer of neuroscience research, I sit at the intersection of faiths and science, a dismal practitioner of meditation, but with a deep sense of its individual and collective transformational power.  We will learn about the Mahamudra practices in Bhutan, and witness chanting and ritual as we talk with monks who have completed the 3-year/3-day/3-hour meditations at Cheri among other traditions.  If I return home with one thing from Bhutan, I hope it will be a greater patience with my own practice.  I expect to be uncomfortable most of the time I’m in Bhutan and I have to say at this point, I am totally comfortable with that.

(If you want to hear how it goes, click the link to follow this blog and stay tuned…).

Rwanda Revisited

Rwanda is an optimist’s paradise.  Naysayers and cynics move along.  This post is rife with inspiration, innovation and resilience in a country that 19 years ago was in unimaginable turmoil.

Continual controlled panic was the way I described my visit to Rwanda in October 1994, just months after a brutal genocide saw the massacre of a million people in 100 days.  On that visit I slept on the floor of the destroyed Ministry of Health office in Kibungo, eerily listening to dogs howl as they raided shallow graves for sustenance.  Tufts of hair and pools of blood still stained the floors of the new office space under consideration, and we’d speed up as we passed churches still full of the remains of those who’d fatally reasoned that the church would be a refuge rather than a mass grave during the worst of it.  I never saw a dead body that trip, but empty villages and the smell were enough to connect the dots in my imagination.  I never thought I would return.  Ever.

Yet last week that’s precisely what I did.  Invited as a strategic advisor to Vision for a Nation, a registered UK charity with a mission to make vision assessments and affordable eyeglasses available to all, I traveled to Rwanda and spent three remarkable days consistently impressed and inspired by what I saw and experienced.

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With 11 million people in Rwanda, Vision for a Nation’s goal to give every person (over 8) in the country an eye exam and provide relief for correctable refractive error is ambitious, but now that I have been there and seen their approach, I believe it is possible. VFAN was born from a simple adjustable lens technology and ‘train the trainer’ model that enables nurses to diagnose and correct refractive error in the 45 health centers throughout the country.  The adjustable glasses have dials on the sides which, when rotated, slide one lens in front of the other until the unique prescription is achieved.  Those with refractive error walk into a health center and walk out with glasses completely eliminating the need to return to the center to pick up custom glasses or the inefficiencies of pairing donated glasses from the developed world with end recipients.  It’s inexpensive, efficient and instant gratification.  Other benefits include diagnosis and treatment of cataracts, conjunctivitis and other easily treatable eye ailments.  Working in partnership with the Ministry of Health, VFAN will soon launch a public awareness campaign through a highly organized communication system in the country to educate and inform the public about vision care.  Eye care is generally not a life saving intervention, but it certainly improves quality of life.  This is one of many public health initiatives the MOH has embraced to improve the lives of those in Rwanda.

http://www.visionforanation.org

Speaking of the Ministry of Health, we were fortunate to have a private dinner with the remarkable Minister of Health, Agnes Binagwaho one night in Kigali.  The list of health initiatives she has implemented to improve the lives of Rwandans is impressive.  She is entrepreneurial, philosophical and pragmatic with a “can do” attitude I’ve never seen before in Africa.  She’s a total pro.  Dinner conversation included great one-liners like, “The best idea on the table is the one I take.”  “Money will come.  Good strategy is the important thing.”  “I want to die happy of what I have achieved.  I don’t want to be the richest in the cemetery.”   Her initiatives include the 80/40/20 plan to reduce non-communicable diseases (NCDs) by 80% for those under 40 by 2020.  To do this she began by implementing very concrete public health changes including mandating helmets for motorbikes, seatbelts, banning smoking in public places, cooking stove improvements and other initiatives that didn’t cost much, but had a huge impact.  She was the first to offer the HPV vaccine, countrywide, to schoolgirls of a certain age.  Her work in reducing HIV AIDS in the country is legendary.  Her entire staff has all gone to graduate school at the expense of the ministry and many are beginning PhDs now.  Government workers are mandated to do an exercise of their choice on Fridays during the workday and pay a fine if they do not.   She regularly tweets (as does the President) and responds to every tweet she receives.  She has 10,000 followers and has a regular Monday with the Minister show two times a month to address public health issues.  The Honorable Minister is a global health leader, not only for Rwanda.  I was honored to share a meal with her. 

Rwanda has two unique programs that contribute to its continued growth and improvement.  If I understand correctly, the Muganda is a compulsory gathering the last Saturday of every month at which time the entire country, divided into local communities, comes together to work from 7-10 on an improvement project and then from 10-12 to meet and share information.  They will paint a house that has fallen into disrepair, collect trash, build a road, or anything that the community deems as an improvement.  As a result, the country is tidy, fresh and continually improving.  Similarly, the Urunana radio programs reach an unprecedented percentage of the country with a soap opera-like ongoing storyline.  Intertwined in the programs are community health and agricultural messages.  This is one of the primary vehicles for spreading information throughout the country.  So radio that was once used for inciting violence is now used in a similar way for improving lives.

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Beyond health initiatives, last spring, in preparation for the TEDxHappyValley “Radical Resilience” event in Hong Kong, I was teamed up as a speech coach for a remarkable 27-year-old entrepreneur Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes, founder of the Akilah Institute for Women in Kigali.  Elizabeth taught me more than I her during the process.  When I agreed to go to Kigali, I knew that a visit to see Akilah would be important.   Akilah Institute for Women is a three-year training program for women.  Women apply, take an entrance exam, provide references and interview for spaces at Akilah.  Those selected do a foundational year of math and English language as well as leadership training and then embark on a two-year program in one of three disciplines, entrepreneurship, information management or tourism.  Women receive career counseling, do internships, and continue with leadership training and practical skills development throughout their studies.  The first graduating class in 2012 had 100% job placement.    I had the honor of having lunch with four of their current students.  I was completely inspired and humbled by their poise, intelligence, determination and vision for their futures.  I can’t say enough good things about Akilah!  If you’re looking for a good place to invest in women’s education, this would be my top recommendation.

http://www.akilahinstitute.org

Above and beyond these formal gatherings, I was inspired to meet others who are consciously building businesses in Rwanda.  A friend of a friend has launched an organic coffee farm on his family’s heritage land after having fled Rwanda in 1959.  Upon returning, he was given back his family land and is now gently learning the coffee business, producing some of the world’s finest artisenal products.  I can’t wait to try some.

A dear friend of mine, Rachel Radcliffe, made the effort to fly all the way from Nairobi to visit me during my short stay in Rwanda.  I was so touched and happy to see her!  We worked together 20 years before at OFDA and have both led circuitous international lives since then.  Reconnecting with an old friend from those formative years was grounding and inspiring.  I feel so blessed.

Returning to Rwanda under much better circumstances was cathartic.  I know it isn’t perfect.  I’ve read the articles and heard the naysayers about Rwanda, but in this post I choose to see the country as it should be, celebrating those things that are working and truly inspired by earnest, innovative efforts on the parts of so many people to make things good in a place that hasn’t always been so.

Trip Report: Yunnan Province, China

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Our suitcases are barely unpacked, but I fear if I don’t write this update immediately I might forget a detail from our eye-opening trip to Yunnan Province in Southwestern China with the Shetty family this week.  Yunnan is home to half of China’s ethnic minorities and hosts the most diverse terrain imaginable, from green, fertile rice terraces in the south on the Myanmar and Laotian border to soaring peaks of the snow capped mountains bordering Tibet in the North.  Our trip traced the southern trade route where tea from the Kunming area was picked, taken to Dali to be made into cakes and then transported up to the higher elevations where Tibetans exchanged meat and jewels for the desired tea that they couldn’t grow at elevation.

I did my research before we left, but it did not prepare me for the stunning beauty of the region.  Bright blue skies, crisp autumn air, wide vistas and sparkly blue lakes, as well as a window into China’s rapid transformation has finally ignited an honest interest in China for me.

 

We began our trip in Kunming, the capital of the province, home of the Yi people, and the endpoint of the infamous Burma Road.  Larger than I anticipated (as all Chinese cities inevitably are), Kunming is a city of 7.2 million that is vying for “spring city” green capital status.  Last year alone the government planted 5 million trees and continues to plant more even as construction moves at an equally rapid pace. We arrived in Kunming late in the evening and immediately encountered two other HKIS families in the lobby of our hotel.  We headed out to find some dinner and ended up at a bar with some lame Halloween decorations on Green Lake where we wolfed down some surprisingly tasty “across the bridge noodles” while a Chinese man sang Mandarin pop in a smoky room.  Tobacco is a hugely profitable crop in Yunnan, and smoking is still epidemic in the area.  The kids were beat, so we headed quickly back to our Green Lake Hotel down the street.

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We were up early the next morning to meet our tour guide Mike and head to the Bamboo Temple about an hour’s drive from downtown.  This Tang Dynasty Buddhist temple perched on the side of a hill overlooking the city is peaceful and green.  It is known for the 500 arhats (statues) that were made of clay by famous sculptor Li who renovated the temple in the 19th C.  He went into the town and captured the expressions of local people, creating the life-sized statues that seem to stare as you walk by.    A bit eerie, but cool and the setting of the temple is great.

Back in the van we drove two hours to the Stone Forrest in Shilin.  We had a passable lunch at a tourist spot outside the park then went in on foot to explore this geological wonder.  Reminiscent of Stony Batter in New Zealand, huge rock outcroppings littered the horizon for as far as the eye could see.  These, however, used to be under the sea rather than volcanic as were those in NZ.  Our guide was skilled at leading us off the beaten path to explore the park without the throngs of Chinese tourists, but every once in awhile our paths met and we became the primary attraction.  Mr.E’s blond hair was like a magnet to the Chinese tourists and they aggressively sought photographs with him and the other children.  While the others were happy to oblige, Mr.E was not.  He thought they were laughing at him and would yell, “Tell them to shut up.”  He even rightly shoved one person who got too close in trying to cozy up to him for a shot.

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After the Stone Forest we headed back to town with a stop at a touristy shop where we were presented with demonstrations of both silk and tea.  Rod couldn’t resist the purported health benefits of a pillow made from the excrement of silkworms and bought one.  We also bought some pu’er tea that looks like a cow pie, and headed out as quickly as we could.  We found a great restaurant on Green Lake for dinner that night called 1923 and our guide and driver joined us for the meal, helping with the ordering.   Kunming is known for its delicious produce and specifically its mushrooms, so I feel a special affinity for the region being from the mushroom capital of the world.  We ate some truly exceptional mushrooms on this trip!

Our final event of the evening was a show called Dynamic Yunnan at a theatre in town.  Like most Chinese mega performances, it is perfectly choreographed and this one is particularly innovative.  It’s a fusion of traditional ethnic folk music and modern dance created by world famous performance artist Yang Liping.  It was a little long. Sidewalk, in particular, loved it.

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The next morning we were up early for our flight to Dali.  Our guide, Elena, met us at the airport and from that moment on we were in great hands.  We would be treated to Mandarin lessons, the best food in the most unlikely locations and an earnest and thoughtful tour of some of the world’s most beautiful territory, all while driven around in a comfortable Toyota van for our two families with a skilled driver whose family had been wealthy home owners in Lijiang, then lost everything in the Cultural Revolution.

We started our adventure in Dali at a really tasty restaurant (Shui Shang Ren Jia) near the Dali Prefecture Museum on the edge of Erhai Lake.  All the kids upped their vegetable consumption quotient on this trip in spades.  Next we went to Erhai Park.  We climbed 287 steps (how do you think we got the kids to the top?) to a beautifully manicured scenic park perched above the lake and surrounded by mountains.  From that vantage point, Dali New Town looked just like Queenstown.  The kids got their first Mandarin test as we looked at the gate and they had to name the animals and colors.  Elena had trained as a teacher before she changed professions to tour guide, so we hit the jackpot in finding her.

We descended the stairs and got back in the van to head to Dali Old Town for a walk about.  Dali Old Town is authentic and low key.  It feels “real” despite some tourist shops and, to me, has a Berkeley vibe.  Dali is predominantly home to the hard-working and sensible Bai people.  Elena referred to them as the “Jews of China.” Hmm?  I had forgotten my coat on the trip, so I picked one up there and the kids had fun running around the car-less cobblestone paths, crisscrossing the stone bridges over the many streams that ran through the center of town and trying fried yak cheese (not so good!).

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On our way from Dali to Xizhou where we would spend the night, we made a stop at the lake where we did our most touristy thing of the whole trip.  We didn’t really realize what we had signed up for and I think I would skip this if I go back, but it was beautiful to be out on the lake and certainly a memorable experience.  We were suited up with bright orange life jackets and sent out on a long skinny boat rowed by a graceful old man in a cone shaped hat.

The sun was just beginning to set and, while it was chilly, it was a gorgeous time of night to be out on the water.  As we rode along we looked back and behind us saw a boat with a woman rowing and a man standing up.  On the rails of the boat perched about a dozen huge black birds.  When we got out a bit further the man began to hit the side of the boat with a long bamboo stick and the birds jumped in the water.  Then he started to yell and a bird surfaced with an enormous fish in its mouth, which he scooped up in a net and held high in the air.  Another boat of Chinese tourists joined us and we all took photos as the man manhandled these birds quite aggressively.

The evening got weirder when the man came on our boat with the birds and proceeded to perch them on the head and arms of our children.  All we could think was how we would answer those questions about being in contact with birds and livestock when we got back to Hong Kong?!

Elena had promised us a wonderful meal in downtown Xizhou at a local place, but when we walked up my heart sank.  The restaurant was dark, dank and by western standards, grubby.  It didn’t have a restroom, so we ventured down the street to the public toilets.  This was the most disgusting bathroom experience I’ve had post-Africa.  Having lived in China for a few years I am adept at the ‘squatty potty’ and have taught my kids to use them too, but this one hit a new low.  I won’t bother to describe, but…wow.

Back in the restaurant (a lot of hand sanitizer later), I sat skeptically by as we all consulted the cabinet of fresh ingredients that would be prepared for us on the spot.  A few minutes later the dishes began to arrive and we were all blown away.  The food was so incredibly delicious.  The kids actually said it was the best meal of their lives and the adults agreed!  Perfectly spiced, fresh ingredients prepared simply but with great skill, we could not stop eating.  When the owner pulled out his guest book and we read comments from travelers around the world who had had the same experience, we were convinced that we had discovered a treasure.  The Golden Flower (Jin Hua) in Xizhou is a must do experience for those whojudge a book by its cover. And at about 250 yuan ($36) to feed nine of us and keep the parents in free flowing beer, it was the beginning evidence for us that price and food quality may be negatively correlated in China.

The only disappointing thing about eating dinner out that night was that we arrived at our hotel late that evening and realized that we had found another treasure that we were not going to be able to enjoy long enough.  Remember earlier I referenced that David Brooks article in the NY Times about the Hamish Line?  Well, this place was all Hamish.  The moment we arrived the owner of the hotel, Brian Linden, approached the kids and announced that we were just in time for his son’s 16th birthday party and did they want to see the cake?  He took them into the kitchen as we began to take in the exquisitely restored traditional Bai courtyard home, refurbished to be both a comfortable retreat center for guests from around the world and their home.

An American couple that spent a lot of their lives traveling in China, Brian and Jeanee Linden opted a few years ago to leave the US and to home school their two boys while operating a visionary place where visitors can experience authentic China.  I loved everything about it from the twenty- something ivy-league guys who made their ways there to work with the Lindens (providing inspiration to Dudah who now wants to apprentice there as soon as he’s old enough) to the place itself and to Brian and Jeanee, whose passion for China and people is infectious. Within ten minutes of our arrival we were singing happy birthday to Shane, eating cake and signing camp and Beatles songs as Vinny, their VP of Business Development and a Dartmouth grad, played guitar.  Our family will return to this place again, I am quite sure.

Reluctantly we left the Linden Centre the next morning to tour the Xizhou morning market (another thing on Sidewalk’s ongoing list of animal-related discomforts in China).  Dudah’s untied shoelaces dragged through animal blood and other muck, and my husband tried to prevent the start of a new global contagion by wiping them down later with hand sanitizer.

Afterwards we got in the van and settled in for a three-hour drive up into the mountains to the picturesque town of Lijiang.  The drive was bumpy, but by the time you go it will be smooth sailing.  Huge road construction projects are underway to have a state-of-the-art divided highway linking these cities in order to manage the throngs of Chinese tourists flocking to this paradise.  I fear, like Bali and other amazing spots that have been partially ruined by their beauty, Lijiang will suffer a similar fate, but for now it’s still lovely.

We arrived in Lijiang in time for a late lunch at yet another solid spot (Jin Sheng Li Shui), then out to tour the Old Town.  Lijiang, home to the Naxi people, is a backpacker paradise.  It’s a series of windy walkways along water streams filled with wifi cafes and strong coffee, bars and funky little restaurants, along with their fair share of tourist shops.  It teeters on the precipice of Disneyland, but isn’t quite there yet.  It’s stunning in the wood carved architecture and hillside construction.  We wandered and took it all in, but eventually began to feel the fatigue of nonstop touring and opted to head to the hotel for a quiet evening.

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We had decided to splurge a little bit and stay at the Banyan Tree on the outskirts of town.  I had not intended to splurge quite as much as we did, as traveling with 5 people often necessitates booking two rooms.  That I knew.   What I didn’t realize was that we had booked two “spa rooms” that created a ridiculously huge compound and had my kids in another building in an adjoining private courtyard with two Jacuzzis; disconcerting, but very nice.  They won’t forget that experience and all but Dudah may be ruined for the future backpacker youth hostel right of passage.

We all rested up and the next morning felt refreshed and ready to tour the Dongba Museum and Black Dragon Pool Park on the edge of town.  It was a perfect crisp clear morning with puffy clouds and turning leaves and we spent several hours circling the lake as Elena told us about the culture of her hometown of Lijiang.  We laughed at the English translation of the signs in the park like “Unrecycle” and “The Grass is Sleeping.  Please don’t disturb.”

We headed to Shuhe old town close to our hotel for lunch.  It’s a much smaller and quainter version of Lijiang, but still charming with waterways, cobblestones and bridges lined with shops and restaurants.  Elena knew of a dumpling place she recommended (Xi’an Xiao Chi) and we headed there to sit in the sunshine while a couple from Xi’an hand-made five plates of dumplings for our crew.  We devoured them along with a few beers and I must admit, they’re even better than Din Tai Fung’s!  Our entire bill came to 105 RMB, less than the cost of a scoop of ice cream at the fancy hotel where we stayed.

Next we headed further out of town to the banks of Lashi Lake where we mounted horses and were led up into the hills on a trail ride through spectacular countryside. None of the adults were keen to ride horses when we arrived, but by the end we were all pleased we had done so.  It was a highlight for the kids and riding to the shores of the lake was picturesque.  After the horses, we headed straight to dinner in Lijiang at a place that specialized in Across the Bridge Noodles (OK, but not my favorite meal).

The next morning we were on the road again, headed this time to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.  Heavily controlled by the “guns” as Elena called them, this area feels like Wyoming or Colorado.  Wide-open planes and soaring snow-capped mountains tower in the distance.  It’s spectacular and not what I expected.  We went to an extremely touristy show called Impression Lijiang that hubbie dubbed the “Propaganda Racial Harmony Show”, but was in fact visually stunning.  I think he was just cold because we had to sit outside!  It was OK, but not as good as the show we had seen in Kunming. Next we rode sanctioned buses through the Malibu Canyon-like terrain to the Blue Moon Valley where we spent the next few hours marveling at the turquoise waters of the pools.  Elena said the color came from the copper in the mountains.  It was picturesque and we had a picnic along the banks of the pools in a private little spot and enjoyed skipping stones and wandering around.

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On our way back to town we went to our first Lamasery, the Yufeng Temple, where Elena gave the kids a wonderful lesson in Buddhism.  I wish I had it video taped, as I think she wrapped a whole college course level into one lesson.  We explored the temple and the 600-year-old camillia tree that is a significant attraction there, but a kitten in the courtyard was the highlight here for Sidewalk and Mr.E.

Our final adventure for the day was apple picking.  Though intimidated by the very aggressive tied up dog on the property, we had a great time climbing into the trees and picking apples.  Lijiang has the tastiest apples I’ve ever had, so it really was fun to get them ourselves, and will be a family memory that our very first apple picking experience was in China.

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Dinner that night was our greatest challenge yet.  Elena had talked up a Muslim beef restaurant that sounded fantastic, but when we pulled up we were squeamish.  Hunks of meat hung from the ceiling and an entire wall was lined with drying cow intestines.  It was gross.  The place looked filthy, but we loved Elena so much we didn’t have the heart (or the guts) to decline, so we took a deep breath and sat down.  True to form, the dishes that appeared on the table minutes later were delicious and everyone but Sidewalk ate well.  You’d need Elena there to order for you and you have to be willing to suspend your idea of hygiene, but it’s worth it in the end.  The food is cheap and good, and I have to brag that no one on our trip got sick even once, while other HK families traveling in the same region but taken to more typical tourist restaurants all suffered intestinal blues.

Saturday we had to be up before sunrise in order to get on the road to Zhongdian.  If you look it up on a map it will probably say “Shangri-la” as this is the moniker the town has adopted for tourism purposes. Zhongdian is thought to possibly be that place, inspired by Joseph Rock’s National Geographic articles and popularized by a 1933 novel called Lost Horizon by James Hilton.

On the way up to 11,000 feet we had our first glimpse of the Yangtze River and then saw it’s power in the Tiger Leaping Gorge.  We climbed the 500 steps down to the viewing platform above the deep gorge and then back up again while a few Chinese tourists opted to be carried in chairs by two men.

As we drove along the windy road to Shangri-La the terrain got fiercer, drier and the architecture changed.  We were entering Tibetan territory.  The houses are enormous, made of mud and straw pounded into two-foot thick-sloped walls.  Traditionally the livestock live on the bottom floor and the families live above, but the Tibetans are generally a well-funded nation and those traditional houses are now outfitted with sun porches, glass roofs and parking lots.  I think the livestock – yak, cows, buffalo, goats, more and more, are being relegated to their own separate living quarters.

Arriving in Zhongdian is like arriving in a Colorado frontier town; a little rough around the edges, but with an appealing little downtown area.  We were hungry, so Elena took us to Red Heart Snacks, another one of her gems that you would never choose on your own, but is completely worth it.  The food here was different.  The Tibetan influence has added Yak butter tea, pizza crust-like bread and meat-stuffed buns.  Still, there were delicious fresh sautéed greens and eggplants with tomatoes and perfect potatoes.  They even had fire-roasted chili peppers, which made our travel companions very happy.  We walked around old town and bought a few souvenirs, wandering the cobblestone walkways adorned with Tibetan prayer flags and Internet cafes.  It was less charming than we anticipated, but still interesting.  A good collector could score some wonderful things here, but I am a terrible shopper, so came away with photographs and memories, and a few trinkets for other people.

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Just outside of town, perched on a hill is the very impressive Songzanlin Monastery, built to house two thousand monks.  Undergoing renovations at the moment, it is still a dramatic site to behold, modeled almost exactly on the Buddhist temple of the same yellow branch in Lhasa.  We climbed the stairs and entered the main hall.  Elena again explained the pictography and customs inside.  I chuckled to see a monk, seated cross-legged on a pillow counting the pile of money to his right as he talked on a cell phone and absent mindedly blessed tourists and handed them a wood prayer bracelet.  Is nothing pure anymore or was it ever?

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Still, it’s a lovely visual to see monks in burgundy robes walking around the grounds with their prayer beads.  The monks build their own houses on the grounds of the temple, and villagers come to assist with honor.  Across the pond below was a hillside that was pointed out to us, as it is the site for sky burials.  Now this sounds innocuous enough by the name, but in fact, in Tibetan culture a common way to dispose of the human body after death is to chop it into 108 pieces and then place them on the hillside for the vultures to consume.  We were also told that the same could be done and then placed in the stream to return most quickly to nature.  I must admit I made a mental note not to eat fish that night.

Our final wow moment came when we drove around behind the Lamasery to a place called the Songstam Retreat, which would be our accommodations for the night.  Set over 21 acres of land looking out on the monastery, this collection of 24 structures built of hand-cut dry stones and wood is spectacular.  One building houses a Tibetan restaurant and a lounge that felt like a ski lodge out West in the US.  We went for our welcome drink and met another family of dear friends from HK who were also there that night.  For dinner, we set the eight kids from our three families up in one room for their first Western meal of the trip while the six adults had a Tibetan meal in the adjoining room.

We were up again before sunrise, had a quick breakfast then headed to the airport, but not before we experienced a few snow flurries.  We flew back through Kunming and, though we had to kill four hours in the airport and suffer KFC for lunch, we survived and arrived home by dinnertime. The kids are off to school this morning and I can’t believe the trip has now come and gone.  In every way the trip was a grand success and I can not recommend it highly enough, particularly as the region is developing at a breakneck pace and will soon replace rugged charm with bland efficiency and some of the beauty may be lost.  Go right now!

And one final word; traveling with another family was a complete delight and has transformed my approach to family vacations.  Though their kids are not the exact ages of ours and they didn’t know each other well before the trip, the got along famously and reduced the amount of sibling fighting that would have gone on considerably.  Kids are happy when they have friends around, and so traveling with another family, particularly one as nice as theirs, was a complete delight for all of us.   I took 500 photos on the trip and wish I could attach them all as each one tells a part of the story.

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Trip Report: New Zealand, Part I

Even if I posted every one of the five hundred photos I took on our first trip to New Zealand, I wouldn’t be able to convey to you the expansiveness of the country and its impact on our flat sky choked family.  Everything in us expanded on this trip – our minds, lungs, hearts, comfort zones and waistlines – as we took a peek at a country we hope to explore again and again.  We had only ten days, but with mom’s perseverance and many recommendations from friends who had paved the way, we came up with a winning itinerary that included Waiheke Island near Auckland, Queenstown (with a little Arrowtown and Wanaka thrown in) and Nelson’s stunning Abel Tasman National Park.

Would you be as surprised as was I to learn that New Zealand is a ten-and-a-half-hour flight and five hour time difference from Hong Kong (which changed to four while we were there)? You can get there from Los Angeles in only one hour more.  Before looking into it, I thought NZ was a rounding error from HK.  This was the first of many discoveries about a country I knew only as having good inexpensive wine, the Haka, a winning Rugby team, a Lord of the Rings connection and a lot of sheep.

I had resisted the idea of a trip to NZ not because I didn’t want to go, but because I thought Mr.E was too young.  I’m so glad mom pushed and we went anyway because the amount of growth I saw in all the kids, but Mr.E in particular, was remarkable.

Despite stiff competition, we were all in agreement that our best day was spent on Waiheke Island.  That particular day, we kicked off the morning with a much-needed run.  I don’t know about you, but for us there’s nothing more fun than a run that includes getting completely lost in a new place, finding a sign that says “tramping trail,” climbing a stile through a cow pasture and ending up at the most beautiful vineyard where we easily secured reservations for dinner that night, then rounding out the run with a stop for the best-boysenberry-muffin-you-ever-tasted consumed on a stroll back along the sands of a nude beach.  Meanwhile mom wrestled the kids up and we headed out to Stony Batter on the East side of the island.  Without too many details, the fort is a combination of incongruous lava rocks scattered across green rolling hillsides left from a volcanic eruption, and a series of spooky tunnels carved in the hillsides to protect Auckland from enemy attacks during WWII (though completed several years after the war ended).

A scenic walk leads visitors to the tunnel entrance. A local mother and her two sons, volunteers for the Stony Batter Preservation Society, linger there with an equal number of tame sheep, one with a terrible cold.  After petting the sheep, paying a fee for flashlight rental and trying desperately to decipher the ominous instructions given about which way to turn and when to ascend the series of tunnels, we headed into the darkness.   We poked around the tunnels until we came to a steep staircase leading to a ladder to a gun emplacement about 100 yards from where we started. This place is wild.

With no time to spare, we made it back to the car and tore off across the island for an afternoon kayak.  After some hesitation on the part of the tour operator over Mr.E’s age, he agreed and set us up with double sea kayaks.  Dudah was on his own, Sidewalk was grumpy about it and Mr.E was raring to go with grand mom.  You should have seen him.  We handed him a paddle and he intuitively knew how to do it and proceeded to paddle like a pro the whole two hours!  He was completely awesome, but not to be outdone by his big brother who had learned a thing or two at Telluride Academy last summer and handled his own kayak masterfully.  Dudah even made a very impressive attempt to swallow an oyster our guide knocked off a rock, but ultimately it ended up back in the sea.  We definitely saw seals, fish, starfish, shags and a baby shark on our peregrination, and possibly though unconfirmed, a penguin and a shark twice the size of the kayaks (personally, I think this was tip fishing, but who am I to say?).

Heading home, we cleaned ourselves up and were off again to Mudbrick Vineyard for one of the greatest meals of recent memory.  Nestled on a hill surrounded by organic gardens, grapevines and lavender with a view of downtown Auckland in the distance, Mudbrick has the most beautiful location, excellent wine and great food.  The kids were terrific and even spent time waiting for dinner to arrive rolling down the hill behind the restaurant.  You can’t beat that for kid-friendly!

Waiheke Island sits in the Hauraki Gulf, a 40-minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland on the North island.  Originally settled and named “Te Motu-Arui-Roa” in 950, Captain Cook sailed by the island in 1769 and the first Europeans arrived in 1818.  I would describe it as half-hippy, half-wealthy second homeowner, it reminds me of so many places I’ve been and liked.  A little bit Bolinas/Stinson Beach, a little bit Telluride, Bainbridge Island, Swan’s Island, ME or Salt Spring Island, BC, it has that laid back artist-community island vibe where you can putter the day away at the beach or farmer’s market, but is also teeming with award-winning wineries & restaurants when you want a refined splurge.

We had surfed the Internet to find a house to rent while we were there and ended up with a lovely, quirky cottage with its own orchard and swing in the back and great views in every direction.  You never know what you’re going to get booking accommodations that way, but I was not disappointed with any of the three houses we ended up in this trip, and it’s more fun than a hotel!

Our other days on Waiheke were mostly spent on the beaches.  Onetangi Beach was covered in sea life that made for interesting exploration and play.  Zoë collected over 100 dead sand dollars and lined them up artistically while Ethan and I found a starfish and searched for trophy shells.  We ate meals at the local beachside places, Charlie Farley’s being the best, and wandered the farmer’s market too.

As with every place, our time there was too short, but off to Queenstown we went.  Queenstown is about as opposite from Waiheke as you can get.  Located on the southern end of the south island, Queenstown was in the throws of an unseasonably cold fall.  We built fires every day, wore every stitch of warm clothes we brought and wished we had more, but in exchange were treated to a bona fide fall, Vermont style!  Snow on the imposing surrounding mountain tops, gold and red flaming trees on the hillsides and dramatic skies over lake Wakatipu.  The house we rented matched the city.  It was new and sleek, dramatic, vulnerable to the elements and cool though somehow a little imposing.  I found myself wondering if anyone does anything but extreme sport tourism in Queenstown?  My Brother-in-law would be in his element here.  At any given moment you can see jet boaters, Para gliders jumping off mountain tops, helicopters and prop planes, bungee platforms, mountain bikes, luges and any other number of adrenaline-inducing events interacting simultaneously with the jagged mountains that ring the city perched on the banks of the icy lake. It feels like a “do” rather than “be” kind of place.

I loved sleepy Arrowtown.  This charming to the point of precious main street town ½ an hour from QT was lined with restaurants and quaint shops.  We spent a morning there then dropped Dudah and mom at the stables for frigid but great horseback riding while we went to Wanaka to explore another lakeside town that was equally dramatic, but with a Lake Havasu vibe.

Most of our time in QT was spent on bicycles, the gondola, the luge, and the trampoline at the house.  We enjoyed the unstructured time to be outside, kick the soccer ball around the huge yard and improve the bicycle skills of all the kids.  One morning we ventured to town to see the Kiwi Bird Park, an endangered animal sanctuary that is clever and informative.  We saw a real live Kiwi and were surprised by how big they are and that they have evolved to have neither wings nor feathers.  Even calling them birds is a bit of a misnomer.  Who knew?  They have a small Maori culture exhibit there as well.  We also enjoyed great meals in QT and Arrowtown at Saffron, Joe’s Garage (for breakfast) and Jack’s Point as well as the famous Fergburger.  Our best discovery was a dry Riesling from Amisfield Vineyards, which we sampled and then sent home a case to Hong Kong. It’s surprising and tasty if you’re a dry white wine drinker.

Our one adventure day in QT was unforgettably cool in my opinion.  At the recommendation of friends I booked a flight to Milford Sound on a prop plane and then a two-hour nature cruise on the fjord.  My entire party balked at the flight and was more scared than excited, but they all got on the plane and though white knuckled, they all made it.

I thought the views were tremendous and the cruise around the Sound was extremely chilly, but also glorious on a rare clear and sunny day.  It’s an extraordinary place to see and I stand by the flight as the best way to do it.  We saw the Milford Trail, the highest waterfall in NZ coming from a glacier lake we looked down upon, and so many other otherwise inaccessible sites on the way, but it was admittedly somewhat alarming to be flying straight at the mountain as the pilot often waited what seemed like too long to adjust our elevation to the seemingly quickly approaching cliff.  I hold firm that it’s much more dangerous, statistically, to put your kid in the car and drive to soccer practice, but fear is fear, rational or not.  You can’t reason people out of fear, and if you put me at the top of a Black Diamond on skis I’ll eat crow pretty fast.  Still, I think they ended up enjoying the day.

Our final destination was Nelson.  With only one full day to spend I took advice and booked an all-day charter boat on Abel Tasman National Park.  I’m so glad I did.  Though we had an unusually cloudy day and again were bundled as best we could, we still kayaked, waded in the water, hiked a small portion of the trail and enjoyed a nice fresh lunch on the deck of the boat.  Abel Tasman is known for it’s golden sand beaches, turquoise waters and prolific sea life and parkland.  Much of the territory is protected marine reserve and all a national park, so it’s teeming with sea life and kayakers who, like us, arrived to see it.  From our tour guide who grew up on the bay we learned so much about the area and even a few useful New Zealand phrases like “I’m wet as a shag” which means to be soaked to the bone (the shag being a cormorant) and “shagging around” which means to look like you’re not doing anything but you’re actually quite busy.

Our house in Nelson was a riot.  A turn of the century Victorian that mom suspects was jacked up a level to get a better view, it was one of those adorable charmers, but quirky beyond compare.  The attic room had a bathtub sunk in the middle of the wood floor, but the house was gracefully spacious and teeming with light through its gorgeous windows.  I could have sat on the porch all day.

Instead,  we again took advantage of rock star grand mom to hold down the fort while we ran the hilly town to get oriented and pick a dinner spot.  We ended up eating at a fantastic place located not two minutes from the house.  It was called the Boat Shed and the chef’s choice menu was out of this world.  We also had a solid breakfast at Lambretta’s right in town.  Nelson is much more industrial than I expected and seemed more like Berkeley or Santa Cruz than Laguna Beach (as a friend described it) to me. We definitely didn’t have enough time to explore here, but I’m glad we went and got a glimpse.

Summer arrived in Hong Kong while we were away.  By the time we got back the pool at the American Club has opened and the sun is shining.  We turned on the air conditioners and busted out the bathing suits again for the season.  While New Zealand really is the perfect antidote to Hong Kong, it’s everything that Hong Kong is not, still I was surprisingly happy to be in Hong Kong.  This life, while not always fulfilling, is a blessing to be enjoyed as long as it lasts.

Trip Report: Bali

One of the best things about living in Hong Kong is the close proximity to great travel destinations.  Every time we take a trip I try to capture the experience in a narrative sent home to family.  While a few are dated now, they might help you plan your next adventure.  I’ll try to post a few here for the record.

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I had been dreaming of visiting Bali since my friend KI told me about her adventures there more than a decade ago.  Knowing that the kids had a break in mid-October and that my mother-i-law JR was planning to be in Asia at the same time, I booked a family trip.  Friends in HK recommended renting a villa rather than staying in a hotel, so after a big search we settled on the Villa Dewi Sri just outside Canggu on the south west coast of the island.

With the threat of a super typhoon looming, most of the Jason Wordie walking tour of Central I’d arranged to do with JR I surreptitiously spent on the phone trying to move up our departure by a day to beat the storm.  The storm never materialized, but the hype about it gave us an extra day in Bali, so no complaints!  Bali is an easy four-hour flight from HK and, having decided to hire the expediter to handle the on-arrivals visa process, we were through customs and on our way in a flash.

My initial impression of Bali was formed by the relentless traffic.  Though beautiful, I was dismayed that our introduction to the island was a tedious traffic jam to get across the crowded Kuta to Semanyak corridor.  We eventually fought our way and ended up at this lovely villa tucked away in a rice paddy field.  The house had four big bedrooms, a swimming pool and was tricked out with all the latest electronics.  It was fancy.  The likely kid bedroom had a fishpond feature surrounding the tub, so we relinquished the master to keep the kids from falling in the drink in the middle of the night.   The villa itself was great, but we were disappointed to learn that we couldn’t really take a walk from there.  The infrastructure development of the island hasn’t kept pace with the population growth, so the introduction of many vehicles and motorcycles on the tiny, shoulder less roads means that pedestrians put their lives at risk just walking down the street.  At one point we saw a BMW that had fallen off the raised road trying to move over enough to pass a vehicle coming the other way.

Nonetheless we had a laundry list of recommended sites, activities and restaurants to check out and a driver, Wayan Dirya (Wayan meaning first born, so there are many Wayans around town), to show us around. We explored the beaches and the shops of Semanyak, but mostly found the crowds to be tedious and the beaches not so nice.  Dudah and I had fun taking a surf lesson from the Quicksilver surf school one morning on perfect learner waves, but ironically I contracted a rash from the moldy rash guard they provided!

If you ask the kids what they remember of Bali they will say “WATERBOM!” Waterbom is a tourist trap in downtown Kuta, but I have to say that my friends were spot on.  It really was fun.  It was clean, well-organized, had clever locker and payment systems and nice cabanas for shady repose when we weren’t hurtling down the enormous slides on rubber rafts.   True to character, Mr.E was the first to the top of the massive slide and couldn’t get enough, but the others were close behind and we all had a blast.

The greatest moment of the entire vacation was related to my awesome mother-in-law.  Despite the fact that she lives at the beach, in all the time I’ve known her I have never seen her don a bathing suit.  Yet she showed up in Bali decked with a stylish suit and looking better than ever and raced Mr.E to the top of the tower.  Watching JR hurtle down the macaroni slide backwards at Waterbom will forever be one of my very favorite memories of our carefree fun times!  She spent more time in the pool with the grand kids than you can imagine and they were totally thrilled.

Running was definitely not an option in Bali, but yoga was plentiful, so I availed myself of a local retreat center one afternoon.  I expected a good meditative hatha class, but instead found (after having been dropped off) that the class on offer was partner acro yoga, more akin to circus training than yoga in my book.  Within 15 minutes I had some woman’s heel in my hip socket and I was flying over her head.  Later, I’d put my life in the hands of a masseuse yogi as I turned completely upside down with my legs in lotus with his heels in my hips and my arms in reverse prayer behind my back. Are you picturing this?

Bali, an anomalous Hindu island in the otherwise predominantly Muslim country of Indonesia is rich with culture and ritual.  We tried our best to learn and experience what we could.  Everywhere we went in Bali we saw small offerings usually hand-made, open-topped boxes filled with flower petals and incense.  One rainy night we saw a beautiful young woman venture into the middle of an incredibly crowded traffic intersection and bend down to lay an offering right in the middle of the road.

There are many beautiful temples to see.  We chose to visit the 16th century Pura Tanah Lot, which sits on a rocky outcropping that becomes an island at high tide.  There are several picturesque views, but again, rather oppressive crowds. On the same day we went to a really creepy, but strangely enticing monkey park where a guide with a stick walked us around hundreds of monkeys and fruit bats, then facilitated photo opportunities for an extra fee holding the same.  You can even touch a deadly snake if you feel so moved.  Once finished touring around the park, visitors are encouraged to purchase souvenirs, including phallic wood-carvings.  We capped off that day with a sunset BBQ at local favorite surf spot, Echo Beach, with Mr. E’s “twin”  (a dear friend from HK) and his family, also vacationing there.

On the way to Ubud the next day we took in the traditional Barong and Keris dance performance in Denpasar.  It is a classic eternal fight between good and evil spirits, but in this story neither prevails in the end.  The drive to Ubud got prettier and cooler as we ascended the mountains.  These were the Bali shots I had seen in the movies and anticipated.  Ubud is a thriving town with unique shops, a charming art museum and its own Monkey forest.  JR and I spent a morning wandering the town wishing we’d had more time there.  If I ever go back to Bali, I think I’ll focus my adventure around Ubud.

A visionary artist/environmentalist, Canadian transplant named John Hardy enriched our Bali experience immeasurably, and we didn’t even meet him.  Hardy arrived in Bali in the 1970s and started a line of jewelry that eventually achieved great success.  JR and I spent a magical afternoon touring the jewelry factory where everything is hand-made by locals on a sustainable campus made predominantly of bamboo.  The company offers an organic lunch from the gardens to the whole factory staff every day.  We were fortunate to be able to join the designers and staff for an al fresco lunch where we learned a lot more about Hardy’s vision an PT Bamboo that helped create it and then we had some fun in the showroom!

JR and I were able to sneak away for our day in Ubud also thanks to Hardy.  Having sold the company to his top designer back in 2008, he put his energy and resources into his latest vision called The Green School.  I had heard that in addition to being an accredited private school, they offered daily “Green Camp,” so I signed my three kids up for a day of green fun.  It was a little hard to drop my kids in the jungle of Indonesia with complete strangers and leave, but I decided the potential benefits of the adventure outweighed the nonspecific anxiety I felt, so I did it.

They had a total, complete and utter blast.  They spent the day planting rice, climbing coconut trees, wrestling in the mud pit designed specifically for that purpose, eating organic lunch from the gardens on the property, solving a treasure hunt and, gulp, jumping from a swinging rope into a rushing river and getting pulled out downstream by the counselor.  Yes, Mr.E too.  Just four years old!  Did I say, gulp?   I retrieved them filthy and smiling, but Mr.E collapsed in my arms, proud of himself but also profoundly relieved to be reunited with mom I think.

Our final adventure in the Ubud environs involved riding elephants in the rain through a refuge safari park.  It was cliché thing to do, but the place was well maintained and the elephants seemed to be well cared for.  Mr.E fed the elephants sugarcane while Dudah and Sidewalk circumnavigated the park.

I have to say, overall, that the food in Bali wasn’t really what I expected either.  Though others rave, we had good but not fantastic meals.  La Lucciola, a beautiful beachside restaurant was fun, particularly in the midst of a torrential downpour that necessitated a glass of rose to see it out.   Metis, Chandi, the Four Seasons in Ubud and The Junction all had their merits which were mostly aesthetic, but produced largely forgettable meals.  Chef Will Meyrick’s innovative take on street food at ultra hip Sarong was probably the best of the meals we ate out. One of my favorite meals was at a place called Naughty Nuri’s that is all about ribs.  It’s a local institution where the whole island mingles for their straightforward tasty fare.

Next time we go to Bali we’ll check out the Bukit & Jimbaran Bay.  We’ll try to climb the volcano and have a meal at Ubud’s famous Mozaic.  Maybe we’ll even make it to infamous Ku de Ta…or maybe we’ll just sign up for a yoga retreat and never leave the yoga center.

Though I enjoyed Eat, Pray Love, I have to say that overall I didn’t see Gilbert’s (or KI’s) Bali. We had a magical time filled with treasured memories and wonderful once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but I do worry for Bali and islands like it that its popularity may be it’s eventual downfall as it’s beauty is ultimately consumed by those who seek it.