This is the first of many semi-fictionalized short stories based on my two years abroad to be written and anthologized in a future book-length project by Wilder Voice Press. More details forthcoming soon!
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Monday, December 12, 2011
This is the first of many semi-fictionalized short stories based on my two years abroad to be written and anthologized in a future book-length project by Wilder Voice Press. More details forthcoming soon!
Monday, December 5, 2011
Countries the world over celebrate winter holidays. Although much of Christmas has been commercialized, there are still many holiday traditions that remain unique to different nationalities, giving the world a special diversity. Many of these traditions utilize natural resources making them green by design. Mixing some of these worldly customs into your own traditions, not only adds flavor to your holidays, but can turn the season a bit greener.
Instead of sending holiday cards, which are a great tradition but use a lot of paper, people in parts of the British Isles go from house to house caroling. A tradition that was brought over to America in its early days, but has since fallen out of popularity, caroling parties are making a bit of a come back. Greeting neighbors with songs of joy and love for a happy holiday season is much more personal than cards and it can be a fun family or group activity. We were invited to a caroling party last year. The hostess created little song books and handed them out to all the kids and parents. We were served hot chocolate and cider and off we went a caroling. Everyone had lots of fun, and neighbors even joined as we strolled along.
Delivering of Sweet Treats
In Nigeria, they use palm fronds to decorate the house. In fact, many cultures use greenery beyond the evergreen to decorate. In Sweden, they use apples. In the desert, we have the benefit of having green plants through most of the winter. Using some trimmings after pruning live plants outside is easy on the environment and can make for a festive house. Last year, I trimmed the citrus and sumac trees and placed them in vases around the house just before our holiday party. I have to admit, I am a sucker for tradition when it comes to the fresh cut pine tree at Christmas. But, in some parts of South America, instead of decorating a fresh evergreen tree, they decorate a large, or cluster of medium sized, dried branches. They string it with lights, paper flowers and other ornaments. It reminds me of one of my favorite Christmas trees growing up. We had decided to spend Christmas in a cabin in Telluride, CO but didn’t arrive until late Christmas Eve night. The stores were all closed and because of a large snow storm, getting off-road for a live tree was out of the question. We found a large bare branch of an aspen tree and with some help from the extra clippings from our neighbor’s pine tree, which we tied to our branch, we created a homemade Christmas tree. It wasn’t the Norman Rockwell version of a Christmas picture, but it was the one our family remembers most. The point is, Christmas trees can come in all shapes and sizes, it’s more about the love that goes into it, then the color of its leaves. We could learn a few things from our neighbors to the south…the bare branch makes for an interesting display and is much easier on the environment than a fresh cut tree or something synthetic. In the desert, many people take it a step further and go native…decorating a live cactus.
In many parts of the world, holiday gifts are handmade works of love. This tradition not only shows the gift recipient how much you care, putting in hard work and time, but it decreases the footprint of the gifts you give. If you think about store bought gifts, not only just the materials used, but the process to get the gift from raw form into its present form and the transportation to get the gift from the factory to you, and then multiply that by the number of gifts each person gives and the number of people giving gifts and you end up with a huge impact on the environment. While making your gifts won’t always be a good fit (I’m not saying no toys for the kids this year), it’s definitely something to think of when the children are giving gifts. Here are some ideas from other countries.
In Japan, they decorate with paper lanterns, which can easily be made using colorful tissue paper and small wooden rods. Painting on the tissue paper can make each gift unique.
For more information on holiday traditions from around the world, visit www.theholidayspot.com. For more information on our family travel television series, which immerses in cultures from around the world, visit TravelWithKids.tv or "LIKE" us on Facebook
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Many people are surprised when they see our kids snorkeling with sharks or flying through the forest canopy on a zipline. “Isn’t that dangerous? Weren’t you worried about their safety?” they ask. The answer is no. These activities take place in a fairly controlled environment with a history of safety records. Plus, I am there looking over their shoulder making sure everything is alright. The sharks that do worry me are the cyber sharks. The tough kid at school being mean; the stranger approaching them with candy…with the advent of technology, these villains now enter our home. And with technology changing so rapidly, it’s hard to keep up. How do I keep them safe from something I don’t even fully understand…texting, sexting, cyber bullying, cyber predators? It’s all kilobytes to me.
The first key to keeping them safe on-line is to talk to them about what is appropriate to share. Don’t share more than a first name. Don’t tell an on-line friend where you live or what school you attend. But as much as we tell them, does it ever really sink in? I was watching a YouTube video made by a child from my kids’ school. She was walking around her house, filming her room, her pet hamster, giving a constant narration about her life. It all seemed innocent enough until she held up her report card. Not a big deal right? Just a kid venting about grades and school, but the report card envelope had the school logo and the child’s address on it. When I paused the video, I could see where this kid lives. I’m sure it never even dawned on her that she was sharing information, but there it was as clear as day. Directions for any predator in cyber space to this girl’s house. As much as we tell them not share information, there are ways the information is released without them even realizing it. So what can we do as parents? According to the University of Oklahoma Police Department, who released a brochure called “Keeping Kids Safe On-Line”, parents should:
- Know their child’s email username and password
- Keep the computer in a family area where supervision is easy
- Talk to the child about what is discussed and what sites they are visiting
- Tell the child to log off and tell a parent immediately if they feel at all uncomfortable with something happening on-line
- Give feedback to sites and service providers about inappropriate content or advertisements
- Warn your child about how easy it is to pretend to be someone you are not on the Internet and the dangers that go with that.
- Tell your child to inform you if anyone ever asks them to meet in person.
- Invest in a program that provides parental controls for on-line use.
So, beyond talking about it, which is always good, how else can we protect them from technology? Travel With Kids recently partnered with a company called MouseMail.com that offers filtering programs for e-mail, texting and social media. Parents and kids can work together to create an approved list of contacts and parents have the ability to check on their child’s activity. The filtering system also scans all the incoming e-mails, texts and social media posts for inappropriate content. If the system detects bullying, sexting or other inappropriate scenarios, an alert is sent to parents. Inappropriate emails are actually diverted to parents before they even reach their children. I am really impressed by what this company is doing to help parents keep kids safe on-line. The program allows kids to take advantage of technology while offering parents the tools to protect them from the dangers that lurk in the cyber sea.
As my kids get older and enter the on-line world, it gives me peace of mind knowing that there is someone who can stay on top of the rapidly changing technology and help me protect my kids from the cyber shark, so I can focus on enjoying my time snorkeling with the real ones who are far less dangerous in my opinion. For more information on this program, visit MouseMail.com
Monday, October 17, 2011
Saturday, September 24, 2011
Thursday, September 22, 2011
Sunday, September 18, 2011
Sunday, September 4, 2011
Thursday, September 1, 2011
Saturday, August 27, 2011
Wide, open space. My living room/study at Shansi House.
Everything in its rightful place—coconut milk pencil holder, desk lamp, book on the Amazonian wilds.
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Sunday, August 14, 2011
- I learned that metal containers of all kinds are effectively banned at Yankees Stadium, presumably to prevent escalating a heated physical altercation between fans or with players. Unfortunately, this also included my expensive reusable water canteen. Thankfully, security in charge of such dealings isn't very stringent. Even after a nescient once over made me suspect, I sneaked it in nonetheless.
- The Asian food counter at the stadium had exactly four menu items: General Tso's Chicken, Chicken Noodle Bowl, Egg Roll, and Dumplings. And then, in something of a misstep, Rainbow Shaved Ice and Sno-Cones. It stands to reason that I would be upset. If this is your selection of Asian food, at least call it what it is: Bastardized Chinese.
- As if I needed any more of a reminder that I was no longer in China, there was this: no alcohol being sold on the street (illegal), no pushing and shoving in the lines, ramps and passageways with enough space to accommodate guests, and enough exits so that wait time was effectively neutralized. Efficiency is a beautiful thing.
- Product sponsorship is far from uncommon in our modern age. But sometimes corporations take it too far. Official sports drinks, cleats, and athletic-wear I can fully accept. But when you call yourself the “Official Pudding of the New York Yankees,” I think you're trying too hard. (It's Kozy Shack in case you're wondering).
- Overheard via stadium loudspeaker (liberally paraphrased): You too can own a piece of history! For a limited time, Yankees fans can now buy an original bleachers seat from "The House That Ruth Built!" All original chewing gum, mustard stains, beer resin, and dried blood perfectly intact! Display it in an abandoned parking lot or Industrial Sculpture Garden near you! Available now only from Steiner Collectibles.
- If I missed an interesting play on the field (exemplified by the crowd cheering or wincing in unison), I kept half-expecting the players to revert back to their original position as the play unfolded again after a 5-second delay. My generation grew up with instant replay and it's as much a part of our world as, it would seem, reality itself.
- When the grounds crew comes on to sweep the field, the effect is uncharacteristically serene. Four men, each evenly-spaced with a long rake in his hand making a perfect half-circle of the dirt around the perimeter of the baseball diamond. With the right attitude, they could be practitioners at a zen garden. Except, perhaps, when they dance and raise their arms to the Village People's “Y.M.C.A.” at the end of the sixth inning.
- Frank Sinatra's timeless “New York, New York” must have been for his generation what “Empire State of Mind” is for mine. I wonder if in twenty years we'll be hearing that to close out each game at Yankees Stadium.
- By the time the last out was recorded, the electric banner reading: “Party City celebrates another Yankees win!” began scrolling across the stadium's LED display. And as fans started making their way to the exits, Scott Grabel was officially christened as a Yankees fan. He wasn't the only one.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
We talked for a long time that night—about what, it's hard to remember. Stupid stuff. The kinds of things friends can pass hours talking about. Movies. Girls. Reminiscing. Hopes and dreams. How nothing had changed. Or everything. How we could come back from being abroad and feel like strangers to ourselves. And all the while wondering: did we trade in our innocence for a shot at the world? But the whole thing was effortless—like the four of us, all transplants to America, had always known each other like this. It was like going back and forth through time, taking from the past everything we needed to get to that moment.
I woke up in the morning with three words scribbled in my notebook: kaleidoscope so innocent. The memory was fuzzy but still intact. At one point, the visualizer on their projector made a shape like a kaleidoscope—colorful geometric stencils dancing in rhythmic patterns. A kaleidoscope is a child's toy. Children are innocent. Perhaps to a superlatively high degree. Therefore, the kaleidoscope netted innocence of its own. I thought about the last time I looked through an actual kaleidoscope and the whole cognitive process checked out. I was a child. I was innocent. Times had, quite evidently, changed since.
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
The Great Leap Forward...that's what they called it when Chairman Mao pushed the Chinese populace to export more food (to the point of which the general public was starving) and melt down steel for export (which had peasants thowing everything metal...including necessary items such as cooking pots and tools into the fires) so that China could import factory and military technology to modernize their country. The plan was a fiasco ending with countless dying of starvation and many of Mao's own camrades turning on him. Too much too fast at too large a sacrafice. However, when traveling through China today...high speed trains darting through city after city of high rises past world monuments in the shadows of modern marvels, you have to wonder if this is the China Mao had envisioned. And in the process of leaping, has China missed out on something along the way? We crossed China by train this summer to find out.
We started our trip in Shanghai - a thriving metropolis with sky scrapers in quirky shapes (one with a spire engulfed by a giant ball, The Pearl Tower and one with a giant open square in the middle, The Bottle Opener) lit up in every shade of neon imagineable. Kid-friendly activities range from an aquarium with "the world's largest underwater acrylic tunnel" to a massive science museum with Disney-esque displays on rainforests and robots. Expansive concrete squares and walkways were surrounded by designer shops with neon signs and upscale eateries, but there was something missing - Chinese history and culture. There are parts of Shanghai that nod to the past...the French Quarter, the Bund, the Yu Gardens area, but most are tourist attractions, not living history.
None-the-less the kids loved strolling down the paths and feeding coi fish in the Yu Gardens and bargaining for Mao merchandise (a watch with Mao's hand waving as the second hand or a general's hat from the Red Army) by the gates. The dumplings at the stalls nearby were outstanding (Nathan - our ten-year-old's new favorite food) but the line to get them was just as outstanding...they're very popular and there are A LOT of people in China! The people of Shanghai are very modern...in Western dress, with mobile phones, eating at Western fast food chains and moving at break-neck paces...unfortunately no one has schooled them on Western manners as lines are non-existent (people just tend to surge forward in a swarm-like fashion) and spitting is rampant (although signs are posted everywhere warning against the practice as it spreads germs), but it's all part of the fun of foreign travel, right? After Shanghai, we decided to head up the Yangtze River to the interior of China to see if this modernization had spread into the countryside. We purchased China train tickets through ACP Rail before we left and they delivered them to our accommodations in Shanghai.
On the overnight train from Shanghai to Chongqing, we got a bit more of the non-line formation as the crowd pushed forward on the train platform as if Justin Bieber had just walked by. We held back a little and found that we could board the train just as easily after the rush as over and we had assigned cabins anyway, so what was the point of pushing? The kids loved the train journey! Although not many people spoke English (only one or two people and very limited at that), Westerners were a bit of a novelty...more than one person during our weeks of overnight trains asked why we didn't fly. In addition to getting to see the countryside whiz by the window
and meeting locals, immersing in the culture, another benefit to overnight trains is that the price includes a night of accommodation....and the kids thought the bunk beds were pretty cool. Everytime the kids walked through a compartment the whole crowd would turn and stare and that's when the pictures started as well...about once or twice per compartment, someone would ask us to sit and take a picture with them. The kids thought it was great...just like being famous. They also liked the bunk beds in the train compartment (we traveled on soft sleepers which were private compartments with four beds and air conditioning). We didn't pack much to eat thinking we could eat on the train, but the options were very limited. We did hit the fruit cart for bananas a few times and had Ramen noodles.
In Chongqing, we boarded a ship for a three-night journey with Sanctuary Retreats down the Yangtze River through the infamous Three River Gorges. As many of you know, one of the world's largest dams, the Yangtze River Dam, was constructed in this past decade in an effort to control flooding at produce hydro-electricity, an effort which caused the relocation of millions of Chinese people and flooded over many historic buildings and sacred places. With the change of scenery and relocation of towns, we wanted to see how this leap forward had affected the countryside. In the first stop on our cruise, the cruise director had arranged for our group to visit both a traditional home and a new home for people who were relocated. The traditional home was obviously more rustic - dirt floors, simple furnishings, limited electricity - life as always. While the modern apartment into which families were relocated had air conditioning, glass windows and tile floors, but the inhabitant said the biggest draw back was that she was separated from her neighbors - a leap away from traditional community - and she missed that. At the end of the journey, a wide slab of concrete juts a mile and a half across the Yangtze with much controversy. The Yangtze River Dam is the largest construction project in China since the Great Wall (Mao would be proud as it was he who originally suggested a large dam here during the "Great Leap Forward").
The dam has been the source of much heated discussion due to its relocation of almost 2 million locals and the environmental impact of displacing that much water. Although the soaring limestone cliffs are less soaring now (the water was raised by almost a football field) they are still spectacular and a journey through the gorges is well worth doing.
Our ship docked in Yichang where we boarded an overnight train to the political heart of China, Beijing. The center of Beijing is the vast cement slab of Tiananmen Square which is guarded over by a massive portrait of Chairman Mao (hanging from the entrance to the Forbidden City - the last home of the emperors of China and one of the few ancient sites that was not plowed over during the Communist take-over).
Tiananmen Square was originally built for the people, but today, due to riot control, security is tight, there is no filming and it is closed at night. The square is surrounded on two sides by Communist/government buildings. The third side is lined with Western fast food chains (Mao is probably rolling over in his masolaeum, which is in the center of the square) and the fourth is the Forbidden City.
The soaring red doors, colorful murals and curled up corners of the buildings in the Forbidden City is quite a contrast to the gray cement rectangles of the Communist era buildings nearby...a leap right over any local architectural tradition. The kids enjoy wandering through the narrow alleys of the Forbidden City.
They meet kids snacking on chicken feet (a common snack food here in China)
and are asked to have their picture taken over and over again. They are starting to get the idea of why famous people become reclusive. But it's short-lived so they're happy to oblige. We learn about the emperors and empresses that live here and what life was like in the royal court.
If there is a feather in the hat of Chinese progress, it's their hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games. About 45 minutes out of the center of Beijing, we visit the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube - landmarks from the games. The kids are delighted to find the Water Cube, where Michael Phellps set so many records, has been repurposed into Asia's largest indoor water park. So they hop in, sliding down two story slides, hopping around the wave pool and joining the locals as they "splash attack" various other patrons.
The other highlight to our trip to Beijing is a visit to the other great construction project in China...the Great Wall. The wall runs over 5,000 miles from northeastern China following near the Mongolian border. We had been approached in Tiananmen Square by an English speaking driver to hire a private car for four of us, which turned out to be cheaper than taking an organized tour. Badaling is the closest wall access to Beijing, but it's very crowded, so we head to Mutianyu about 50 miles from town. After weaving through trinket sellers, where Seamus enjoyed tasting amazing dried fruits, we found a chairlift to the top of the wall. The chairlift looks like something from a 1950s film set in Switzerland with rickety chairs with narrow seats, but the views are incredible and the kids thought it was lots of fun. I'm glad we decided to take the chairlift too because once you are at the top there is plenty of hiking along the wall and the kids would have been too worn out by the intial hike to do too much exploring. The kids had lots of fun imagining they were Chinese soldiers and the huns were attacking as they ran up steps to the watchtowers that connect the walls, peering out narrow, stone windows through the forest where the wall bumped and dipped along the form of the mountain terrain winding off into the distance. After a couple hours appreciating the wall, it was time to head down, but instead of hiking we took the luge.
You read it right...they have a long metal slide with go karts that wind down the mountain side back to the base. Cheesey tourist attraction...yes, but not something you can pass up with two little boys. It ended up being a neat way to get down...gliding quietly through the forest.
If Beijing is the political capital of China then Shanghai is the capitalist and financial capital, but how does Hong Kong fit into this modern country? Our last stop in China showed us that not much has changed in this British enclave...at least on the surface. You still have to go through immigration to and from China, they still use different money...you get the idea. The one thing that I noticed was different from last time we were there, which was just around the time of the British hand over, is less British pubs. We stayed at Park Hotel Hong Kong in Tsimshatsui - an area lined with mostly Chinese restaurants and great shops selling everything from fashion clothes to Chinese trinkets. The kids enjoyed a surprise trip to Hong Kong Disneyland while we were there. The park is set up very similar to the original, although it is smaller with a few rides missing. But they enjoyed the Jungle Cruise ("It's even better than the original with fire and water geysers!" says Seamus) and of course, "it's a small world", where the no-lines culture hit a feverish pace as visitors pushed to board the little boats standing back to belly, filling in every bit of space. At night we enjoyed gelato at the top of Victoria Peak overlooking the city lights.
With the massive construction (cranes on almost every building it seems) and cities popping out of what used to be farmland, and two more dams in the works, even bigger than the Yangtze River Dam, it seems China is still taking a huge leap forward. Where it will end up, especially in this world's economy, is yet to be determined. But if you want to see ancient China with its winding hutongs and rice fields, and travel through a foreign country where few speak English and squid on a stick is a popular snack (even in Disneyland) then you best go fast as they may soon leap right beyond the cultural divide.