Sunday, February 23, 2014

Coffee Beans & Friendship: Indonesia Days 1-2

Although I am a bit better at finding a country in SE Asia on a map now, I still don’t always have a great grasp on how it translates into to time zones crossed or the number of airports it takes to get somewhere.  So, we were planning our Singapore trip this past fall I started looking at maps to see exactly how far it was between Singapore and Indonesia.  Singapore is farther south than Suzhou, which surely means that it would be closer to Indonesia, right?!

The reason I was so interested in Indonesia is because we have friends, Jonathan & Amanda, from central Illinois (our home area in the United States) that live and work in Indonesia.  After looking at the map, I decided that we may never be any closer to their home as Singapore, so we might as well take just one more flight and visit them.  

The saying “walk a mile in their shoes” is true for a lot of things including living abroad.  A few pictures on Facebook or a phone call can’t compare to a visit.  I learn so much walking a mile (or a few more) in someone else’s shoes.  To talk about things about your home overseas, things that matter the most like school, your favorite restaurant, the places you pass by on a daily basis, and not have anyone in your home country be able to directly relate can be really, really hard and lonely.  That is one of the reasons I desperately wanted to make the trek to see our friends.   It’s hard to push a place that you’ve visited to the back of your mind when you’ve stood where you’re friends have stood.

That said, we made our visit to Indonesia a priority…which makes the whole passport debacle (see previous post) even more emotional.  In the end, everything was arranged and we took a short 2 hour flight to Central Java.  I learn by “doing”, which is going to make learning about geography a very expensive lesson.  Now that we’ve been to Indonesia I can find it on a map and can show you Central Java as opposed to the other parts of Indonesia.  (Baby steps.)

Waiting to purchase some snacks at the airport.
As we were planning for our trip my friend Amanda asked us how much luggage we had.  The reason?  They have one car and if we could fit, Amanda would pick us up at the airport.  Otherwise, she’d rent a van.  I was at a crossroads…should I be honest about the amount of luggage we had?!  We have never been accused of packing light, ever.  We are a family of 5 with 4 females…need I say more?  We also had swim suits, swim floaties, diapers, snacks, gifts and clothes for a 2-week vacation.  Our family had a bit more than a backpack for each member.  I decided I had to be honest.  How embarrassing would it be to show up with additional luggage and not be able to fit in the car?  I told Amanda how much we had and she decided we, and all our luggage, could fit.  

When we arrived Amanda said the kindest thing ever.  “That’s not that much.  I really expected more.”  That is a sweet friend!

We loaded the car, started munching on some sweet Indonesian bread, and made our way through rush hour traffic to our friend’s house.  We watched the motorcycles whiz by and as I sat amazed by Amanda’s driving skills, we peppered her with questions about Central Java (or maybe it was more of an assault?)  We referenced everything to our life in China and covered every topic we could think of.  Schools, family units, household help, travel, infrastructure, language, and on and on.  
Will it all fit?!
We're all smiles, the luggage and people fit in the car!
Mmm, yummy!
Safely at their home, we asked three basic questions.  Can we flush the toilet paper? Can we drink the water? Can we use the water to brush out teeth?  The answers were “no, no, and you probably shouldn’t.”   (read more about toilet paper here)

It was so good to be in their home, see their space, and see where life was lived.  As we got ready for bed Jonathan gave us the heads up on the call to worship.  This was our first time in a predominantly Muslim country, so we had not experienced the call to worship that occurs several times a day.  The first call to worship would be around 4 am and Jonathan said with young children, in a new place, it can be very scary to wake up in the dark to the prayers being chanted over the loudspeaker.  Because of their location on the globe, windows were wide open during the night and every sound filtered into the room.  Jonathan was right, it was a eerie to wake up to the chanting.  He was also right that about the time call to worship was over, the roosters started crowing.  

We spent our first full day in Indonesia touring a coffee plantation.  Did you know that most of Indonesian’s coffee is exported first and then brought back into the country again to be sold to consumers?  I didn’t either.  We bumped along the path and looked at rubber trees and coffee beans.  Our tour guide made all of the girls their own leaf crowns.  

Coffee plantation
Ready for our tour
Rubber trees
Coffee plant
Coffee beans
Our very friendly guide!
One coffee princess!
Finally another adult was with us on a family
vacation that could take our picture!

Four coffee princesses!

Not a shabby view!
After lunch I decided that I had fallen in love with Indonesian food.  Peanut sauce, sweet & fruity drinks and chicken (no mystery meat here) are some of my favorite things.  Jamie and I both laughed that it did feel strange not to eat our rice with chopsticks.

Oh yum!
That afternoon we walked from Jonathan & Amanda’s home to pick up their son from school.  I love walking through town whether it be in the US, China or Indonesia.  You see so much more when you can take it at your own pace.  I enjoyed seeing an international school in another country and my girls liked to play on the playground.

International school

Walking home from school
A neighborhood mosque
Are these birds to blame for the early morning noise we heard?

Chasing chickens in the yard.
Jonathan teaches at a local university and asked Jamie to give a presentation to one of his classes.  Jamie spoke to the students about the company he works for and discussed his personal management philosophy.  Jamie really enjoyed speaking to the students and he was impressed with the questions the students asked.  We ended the evening at dinner with some of Jonathan’s co-workers and had more of my favorite things…chicken and fun & fruity drinks.
Jamie in traditional batik and on his way
to speak to some university students.

Following our friend Jonathan to the university.
(He's the one with the backpack.)

Dining after Jamie's presentation.

I'll share the rest of our Indonesian adventure in a few days!

Monday, February 17, 2014

China's Golden Week: The first leg (Singapore)

The first week of October brings "Golden Week" also known as National Holiday in China.  The last two years we have spent the holiday in-country, but this year we decided to venture to new lands, but we almost didn't make it, and as it always seems to be the case, it was the mom's fault.  Oops.

We made plans for our October holiday trip many months ago in June.  Flights booked, hotel reservations made and promises of fun given to the girls.  Ten days before we supposed to fly out, and during Mid-Autumn festival (another Chinese holiday when everything is shut down) I started printing out our reservations and information.  I had everything organized and on a whim I googled "visa requirements for Singapore".  I thought we didn't need visas, but it's always good to check, right?!  Well, I didn't realize that for most SE Asia countries, it is necessary to have 6 months validity remaining on a passport.  Jamie-fine, the girls-fine, me-not-so-fine.  I had 5 1/2 months left on my passport.  Adult U.S. passports are good for 10 years, so the issue doesn't come up very often, but it became a real problem for me.  I spent the next 4 days fretting and literally sick to my stomach because we would might have to cancel the trip all together, loose a good chunk of money and miss what is possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see friends. 

I made an appointment for the US Consulate in Shanghai (which does not have an expedited passport service like you can get in the US) to plead my case.  When I left that Monday, EBean told me not to cry like a baby (sheesh even my 5 year-old knows my M.O.).  I didn't cry like a baby, but I did get teary and after speaking with 3 different people and asking for mercy and a whole lot of grace, I had a new passport with 7 months validity.  Once I knew I could re-enter China with my Chinese Visa in my "old passport" and travel with the "new passport", I started to relax and get really excited about our Golden Week vacation.

LBean is the one that insisted that we go to Singapore.  She has a classmate from Singapore and has been interested in the island since kindergarten.  As we started researching the country and exactly where it was located on a map, we realized that it was "close" to our friends in Indonesia, well at least closer than we had ever been to their home before.  After a few Facebook messages with them, we decided we really wanted to see them and their home and our trip to Singapore grew into a 2-week holiday with a side trip to Central Java.

Now, I feel that I must offer and apology to a girl that I met in college.  When I was in university, I signed up to help an international student learn more about the US and give her a chance to practice her English.  I cannot remember her name, but I do remember that she was from Singapore.  At the time I know that I couldn't have located her home country on a map if my life depended on it and for that I am sorry.  Wherever you are, please know that I did my best to boost your local economy, I now can point it out on a map and I am so sorry that taking you to Steak 'N Shake was the best I could come up with.

The week before we flew out, Jamie was in Beijing for a week-long training.  He returned Saturday night at 1 am, took a brief nap, and we were up at 4:30 am to head to the airport.  So sorry about that, Jamie.  The girls measure the initial success of a trip based on the amount of jet-lag, so they were very excited to know that Singapore and China are on the same time-zone (all of China is on one time zone).  Jamie and I were excited because the flight is "only" 5 hours long.  It's all about perspective my friend.  It takes 12-14 hours to fly from Shanghai to Chicago, so this trip was a piece of cake.  The first time we took LBean to Florida it was a three hour flight and I was freaking out.  How would I keep a baby entertained for the whole flight?  Now we have three and we travel four times as long.  If we can do it, you can too!

The flight went well and we arrived safely at our first hotel, the Marina Bay Sands.  This hotel is a feat of engineering?  A feat of magnitude?  A feat of something anyway.  Our initial interest in this hotel was sparked during our first year in China when we watched a documentary on its construction.  The hotel has three towers that are connected at the top with what looks like a boat.  The top level holds the club lounge, the infinity pool, and some restaurants.  There is also a casino, subway stop, shopping mall and museum attached to it.  We were most excited about the pool and the view.

With 5 people in our family, we are getting harder to cram into a hotel room, especially in Asia.  Why oh why do my girls insist on growing and therefor take up more room?  We opted for a slightly larger room.  After looking around the room, Jamie and I agreed that it was indeed larger than our first home.  I'm not sure if that means our first house was really small (yes, yes it was) or that the room was just that big (yes to that too).  The views were fantastic.

Checking into the hotel, all smiles! 
A view from the top. 
Looking out of the hotel.
One night I spent some time walking around the mall
and I decided to get a foot massage.  I couldn't resist putting
my feet in the fish spa.

Our first full day in Singapore LBean was very keen to visit the museum.  Her grade is studying Egypt right now and their was an entire exhibit on mummies.  I'm hoping this will help make up for the fact that she'll be missing a week of school (wink, wink).  The museum did a really great job and for three different age levels they had activity bags with 4 different stops in the exhibit.  It really helped our girls stop and look at the exhibit and spend more time absorbing the information.  EBean's activities focused on the animals the Egyptians worshipped and that are found in hieroglyphics.  LBean's activities spent time explaining the different gods.  There were puzzles, memory games, guessing games and other things to engage the girls.

It wasn't all smiles for us.
Dressed up like Egyptian Falcons.
Just hanging out in the infinity pool.  A little intimidating
at first, but very fun.
That afternoon we spent more time at the pool before heading out to dinner with a work colleague of Jamie's.  Maureen is from Singapore, but now lives in Shanghai.  She took us to one of her favorite spots along the coast and treated us to some great seafood.

I think these were bamboo clams.
EBean loved this meal!  She was a very adventurous eater.
LBean said "thumbs down" to the bamboo clams. 
LBean said the chicken was "so-so".
We had just enough time the next morning to check out the indoor gardens across the street from our hotel before flying out to Indonesia. 

On our way to the indoor gardens. 

Admiring the waterfall in the first garden dome.

Pretty girl, pretty flower.
The sky walk through the gardens.
Looking out at our hotel.

Beautiful flowers.

Stay tuned for part two of our Golden Week adventure!