Friday, December 30, 2016

Yala National Park safari

We took a van from Ella to Yala. It was an easy drive with a short detour to Buduruvagala, a giant Buddhist rock sculpture more than 1000 years old. We settled into our new hotel, hung out at the pool and went to bed early.

The next morning, we were out the door at 5am. There are 3 types of safaris options: early morning, afternoon or full day. The all day trip wasn't too much more than the others, so we went with that option. The schedule was loosely that we would look for animals early morning, then eat, rest and swim mid day followed by more looking.

Our tour included a driver and an animal tracker from the National Park Service. These two were a pretty amazing team. The animal tracker could spot things from the truck that I couldn't see when the truck was parked and he was giving me explicit instructions on where to look. Animals are so sneaky with their camouflage. In the morning we saw a lot of animals, water buffaloes, crocodiles, elephants, various birds (including an eagle and lots of peacocks), mongooses (or is it mongeese? mongi?) and iguanas.

We stopped for the morning break by the beach. We ate our snacks and got back out. We passed another safari group who had seen a leopard. By lunch, we had seen many more of the same animals, and they continued to be amazing, but some people in our family really wanted to see a leopard (it was Jim). Going in to this it is understood that this is not a zoo, and that there is no guarantee that you will see a leopard in the wild.  No one was allowed out of the jeeps, the jeeps stayed on the roads, no one is riding or feeding or interacting with the animals at all. (We have done all of those things with elephants over the past few years and each time left feeling a little ethically compromised.) This setting was more natural, which is good, but it also means the animals have lots of room to hide if they want to.

For lunch we stopped by the beach and we ate at a place that looked like it used to be a house. All that was left was the tile floor. I pointed out that you could see where the toilet, shower and sink had been. The guide told me that it used to be a bungalow but that it was destroyed by the 2004 tsunami. Just off to the side of it was a memorial that the people of Japan had built for them (you can see it in the video).

Instead of resting and swimming after lunch, the guide and the driver were anxious to see a leopard, so they got us back in the jeep. We drove around for hours. At some point each of us fell asleep. We saw fewer animals, mid day is the time when all the animals are resting in the shade. We were wondering why we'd booked the full day at all. Then there was a large line of jeeps and using binoculars we did see a leopard up in a tree a few hundred meters away.  This is how it goes: one jeep sees a leopard and radios to their friends and everyone races to the location to see it. We were one of the last ones to get there. So technically we saw one, but it was not entirely satisfying.

August had to go to the bathroom by then and we were almost out of time,  just 90 minutes left and we said we should probably just head to the exit. The tracker, though said that we were near a watering hole and that a leopard might be coming out soon. So we kept driving around slowly. AND THEN! They spotted one, and we were driving by ourselves, the first ones to see it. He was around 100 feet off the road. At first we could just see his silhouette, and then his tail sticking out of the grass. Still, it was incredibly exciting.

As the leopard kept moving our driver raced about a quarter mile down the road to a clearing.  We waited there as a few other jeeps arrived. We spoke with some of the other people there and then quickly we turned around and drove back toward where we had originally seen him. The jeep was turned off and we waited silently. Five minutes passed as we were staring into the brush desperately looking for any movement, then ten minutes, and we knew there was a chance he had gone in a different direction. Afraid to blink we just kept scanning back and forth. Then we saw him again, less than twenty feet from the jeep, walking parallel to the road, and then he turned and crossed the road directly in front of us. We have seen animals like this in the zoo, bigger animals, lions and tigers, but it was not at all the same, absolutely extraordinary, after a long day it was all worth it for this one minute.  From there the leopard went back into the bushes and then came out climbing up steep rocks to a ridge line where we saw his silhouette again as the sun was going down.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Farleys FARTHEST away-Sri Lanka! (Part 1)

Sri Lanka part one: Colombo-Kandy-Amba Estate

For the past several years we have spent Christmas in Thailand but at the start of the school year Irish and I decided it was time to make a change.  New school, new country, new Christmas destination. We had thought about Sri Lanka before, just about the farthest place on earth from Denver, and we had heard good things from friends who had gone, so when we found a reasonable flight we booked it.

We flew from Beijing to Chengdu in Sichuan province and from there 6 hours to Colombo.  In all of our traveling we have become spoiled by seat back entertainment and Air China really let us down on both legs of the flight. Whole cabin shared movies in Chinese are not good enough to entertain our children.
getting on the plane using the stairs always feels more adventurous

In Colombo we were met by Amal, a driver recommended by friends, who took us to the first place we rented.  We planned an itinerary based on things we had read and recommendations, it turns out a lot of people follow roughly the same route. On our first day we would drive to the city of Kandy, the next day take the train from Kandy south toward the town of Ella where we would spend a few days at a tea plantation. From there further south to Yala National Park where would go on a safari, and then finally to the beach in Tangalle. 

The ride from Colombo to Kandy was slow, a lot of traffic going through a series of towns before opening up into prettier scenery.  We were probably disproportionately excited to see monkeys running around on power lines and on guard rails. We stopped at a spice garden along the way, a tourist trap but still fun. The guide demonstrated the hair removing properties of some herb by rubbing it on my leg, it worked and there is still a big bald patch on my shin. They rubbed our heads and Irish bought some of their products before we moved on.

When we got to Kandy we went to the Temple of the Tooth where one of the Buddha’s teeth is kept as a relic.  It’s a pretty place, peaceful in the middle of a loud city. We bought some flowers and placed them on different altars while I kept reminding the kids that they were still Catholic, there is no getting out of that.

After checking into our rooms we went out to another tourist trap, a dancing performance that also turned out to be fun. At the start of it some of the dancers seemed to be winging it, bumping into each other and laughing, I was a little worried it was going to be a disaster, but then they successfully did some hand springs and spun some dishes and things got better. It ended with fire eating and them walking on hot coals which made a big impression on August.

The next morning on our way to the train station we stopped at the Royal Botanical Gardens which had been highly recommended. This was the first of several places that exceeded our expectations.  Parts of it were sculptured hedges and flowers, and then as we walked further in there towering trees, more monkeys, and then hundreds and hundreds of huge bats. The bats were amazing, at first we could not figure out what we were seeing in the trees, then they started flying in big circles. 

bats flying in the day, surprisingly not creepy just awe inspiring.

From the Gardens we went to a small train station south of Kandy where we had booked tickets in advance. I had heard a lot about this train ride, somewhere it was called one of the prettiest train routes in the world- which seems like a lot to live up to.  The train car we were in had an open outdoor area on either end and we spent a large part of the 6 hour trip out there watching the scenery. The ride absolutely lived up to the high expectations, the views were overwhelming at times, I found myself standing by myself smiling like an idiot just stunned by how beautiful it all was.  Often we were looking at terraced tea fields, then wide open valleys with water falls. As we passed through small farming villages children would smile and wave. 

As we got close to our destination near Ella it had gotten dark and started to rain. We were staying at a tea plantation called Amba Estates and we had made arrangements with them to send a driver to the small local train station. The train only stopped for a minute and we were the only ones to get off, but the driver was there and he quickly got us to his van. The drive was a little unnerving, we drove quickly through the rain up into the hills on a small one lane road, then turned onto an even smaller road, and then eventually turned onto something that seemed more like a trail than a road.

the driver laughed at me when I tried to get the broken seatbelt to work

Finally we pulled up to the farmhouse we had rented and it was fantastic. Getting out of the van we were met by several people who worked there. We were shown to our rooms, the kids would have the upstairs to themselves and Irish and I had a big room downstairs. In the kitchen dinner was waiting for us. We all went to bed comfortable and well fed.

I don’t think I can overstate how happy we were with our stay at Amba Estates. In the morning we woke up to a stunning view from our balcony across a valley with tea bushes and cows walking through. The cook and her helper were back and breakfast was extraordinary. Every morning we had a fresh loaf of bread, jams and raw honey that had been made there, coffee and tea that had been grown there, and then a variety of other things. We ate until it hurt. For the next several days every meal was an absolute pleasure. Curries and soups and vegetables, all grown there. By the third day Irish mentioned that it had been almost entirely vegetarian, just one dish with fish, but I had not noticed. Each meal felt like Thanksgiving.

Between great meals we kept moderately busy, hiking up a nearby hill, swimming at the river at the bottom of the valley. We went on a short trip by tuk tuk to a popular set of waterfalls and went swimming there. On the way back an overloaded dump truck full of bricks got stuck completely blocking the road in front of us. We waited until a group came in a smaller pickup and unloaded a lot of the bricks allowing the big truck to move again. The whole thing seemed like a bad plan, and  a bit risky, like there was a reasonable chance the truck comes barreling down the hill , but in the end they got it sorted out and moved the truck without killing anyone.

On our last day there we took a tour of the plantation, learned a lot about tea, very interesting for Irish and I, less so for the kids. While we walked through the fields there were mounds that looked like the things termites build. One of the workers had said they were snake holes, but I thought maybe it was a misunderstanding. I asked the tour guide about them, he said I was right, that they were termite mounds, and then after a pause said “but snakes like to live in them”.  He told us the difference between cobra bites and viper bites. If you are lucky a cobra might just bite but not release its venom. If it does release the venom though you are in a lot of danger. With a viper bite if you can stay calm then you might have time to get to a hospital, but with a cobra it affects your nervous system and it hurts a lot more so it is much harder to stay calm and then you are more likely to die. What we took from it was that we should avoid getting bit by snakes at all costs because there is no chance we would remain calm.

Finally after three great nights it was time to go. Sad to leave Amba Estate, but excited for the other things still to come.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Surprise! Irish goes to San Francisco for the weekend

video first! Story second!

 As someone who lives far away from almost everyone I love, whenever there's a long weekend or scheduled holiday, I'm always checking prices of flights. Each time I do this, I have a number in my head and if I find a ticket for under that price I will seriously consider going. For our winter holiday, we have 3 weeks off. We are scheduled to travel to Sri Lanka right in the middle of the break, which gave me a few days at the very beginning. Coincidentally, my friend Bonny had emailed me about throwing a baby shower for Katie. Also coincidentally, when I contacted one of Katie's friends in San Francisco, Naomi, she mentioned that she wanted to do a baby shower this weekend.

Initially I was going to skype in for the baby shower but then I found a flight under that number in my head. It landed at 10:00am Saturday and left at noon Monday. First I checked with Jim. He's the real hero of this story. If it were just me to consider, I'd be in the USA all the time, but I had to clear it with the one who will be in charge of the children.

Jim was onboard from the start! Hooray for Jim!

My flight was scheduled to leave Beijing on Saturday at 7:15am so I took the train up Friday night and stayed at a hotel with an extreme mosquito infestation. After telling the front desk staff at 1:00am, they sent an old woman to my room to spray the bugs. I showed her my bites and she came back a few minutes later with some medicine and put it on my bites as I laid in bed. She basically tucked me in. I slept with the sheets pulled all the way up and a pillow over my head until the wake up call at 3:30. In the morning I had a quick flight to Qingdau followed by the long flight to San Francisco. The flight was somewhat empty and I was able to move to two empty seats together and I slept 5 hours! When I landed (an hour early!) at 9:00am Saturday in California, I put on my makeup, took a sink shower, put on clean clothes and I was fresh as a daisy! It was a Christmas miracle!

My good friend from Seoul, Chrisitan, recently moved back to San Jose and he picked me up at the airport. It was a delightful reunion. We drove straight to Muttville where Katie was leading orientation for volunteers. Surprise! It was perfect. She was completely surprised! What fun. Katie finished leading orientation, Christian and I mingled with the dogs and then we were off to just hang out for the rest of the day before getting her to her surprise baby shower. We had lunch, took her dog to the park, chatted, got quick bang trims and walked to Naomi's apartment.

Naomi was a key player in the surprise. She set up the video messages for Katie and the hangouts call. There were friends from all over the world on the call. (How can we set that up where we can do that while watching the Bachelor? Let's work on that). Not to overshadow the baby shower, but after that we went to Target!

On Sunday, after taking Katie's dog to the park, we went to the ONE place that has my favorite Chinese breakfast, jianbing guo zi. They really nailed it. We paid $10 for one! (Here the going rate is about 75 cents. But let's not talk about the exchange rate right now, ok?) They also had some gourmet varieties and we had the pulled pork with red cabbage. It was very good.

When we finished we drove to Palo Alto for shopping and pizza with Christian. After dinner, we said goodbye to Christian and headed back to the city to wrap the Christmas gifts I bought at Target and pack for the flight the next day. I flew out of SFO at noon Monday. The flight was very long and my connection was delayed but I had arranged for Mr. Lee to pick me up from the Beijing airport. I arrived home around 3:30am. I was very, very tired but very very happy.

You know how when you plan things and you plan it with a best case scenario in mind? That's exactly how this weekend went. I can't believe it was completely perfect, but it was.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016

It's American Thanksgiving! It was always a very big deal at KIS but at IST there aren't that many Americans. There are a handful, but not enough to justify a day off to celebrate, so we had a small gathering on Saturday. We opened the potluck to anyone interested and for a few of those who came, it was their very first thanksgiving. And unlike some people's first Thanksgiving, no one at our party left with smallpox (too soon?).

I didn't think it could come close to being as fun as the Thanksgiving parties we'd had in Korea, but it did! We opted out of getting a turkey because for a 12lb bird, it would have cost $85. That's too much risk considering we have a small oven that we've only used a handful of times. Instead we had plenty of rotisserie chicken from Sam's Club. The food was outstanding-well done for some who had never even been to thanksgiving before. We had amazing mashed potatoes, sweet potato fries, StoveTop stuffing, green bean casserole, lamb dumplings, pumpkin pie, apple pie, cheesecake. It felt just like being in America.

Then Jim set two alarms for the middle of the night so he could watch the world's greatest sports rivalry: THE OHIO STATE vs. *ichigan. I woke up and checked the score at 4am and caught a glimpse of Jim watching the game wearing his Ohio State jersey. All by himself.

You may know this, but the game went into double overtime and by the time they won, we were all up.

This picture is blurry because he was running all around cheering. I'm sure the neighbors understood.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Da Hutong

Who needs Beijing? Saturday the kids and I went to Da Hutong in Tianjin. Da Hutong translates to "big neighborhood" but everyone knows exactly what you mean when you say it. When I said it to the taxi driver he said, "Da Hotung? Mai dongxi?" and I understood him! Yes! I am going to Da Hutong to buy things!

We went primarily because we heard we could get Christmas decorations there. From what I can tell, you can get anything there. Fortunately for us, the taxi driver happened to drop us off right in front of the Christmas section.

The Xmas entrance!

We were delighted to see the Christmas decorations, but didn't go crazy-but it's good to know that the option to go crazy is there, in case we decide we need an 9 foot tall singing and dancing santa.

We wandered around for a couple of more hours. Honestly, I think it would take weeks to see the whole thing. Here are some pictures of just a fraction of Da Hutong:

thread and fabric:

Tons and tons of food stalls set up outside.

a cart of dried fruits

 heated juices
We went into a few buildings. There are signs on the outside labeling what you'll find inside:

Back outside. Here are some pictures, just to illustrate my point about how huge this place is.

I agree, my children are so beautiful you
should want to take your picture with them.

Da Hutong is fascinating, and you can get anything, but it takes some work and a lot of time. We'll definitely go back the next time any of us needs shoes, or coats, or a swimdress, or a cedar bathtub, or wedding supplies, or fuzzy toilet seat covers, and so on.