31 January 2015

Mail, Immigrants, street party, Mong kok madness

At the metro station we purchased our tickets to central MTR, where sped alone swift escalators, herded through the masses of 5 1/2 foot talk adults, and pushed through public transportation turn styles.  On the train a few people tried to catch my eye to smile at me, a few whispered to friends and looked at the boys in wonder, and every now and then a stranger's hand would reach over to sneak a touch of the boys heads, unable to resist the urge to touch relentlessly tightly curled hair.

When we got above ground something was vastly different than the day before.  Today, we were surrounded by women, in all directions there were women, they seemed to be Filipinos, definitely not Chinese.  There were darker, stockier, and all seemed delighted.  As we walked toward the post office the trail of Filipinos didn't end there were thousands at the very least, sidewalks many st on blankets playing cards, eating lunch and chatting, outside the post office they haggled and traded clothes.  Inside the post office they folded and neatly placed clothes in boxes prepared for mass shipping to... the Philippines?  Did I hear the word Bali?  One thing that I always like to find out in my travels extend beyond who are the people in the new land I am visiting? I also like to learn who are their immigrants?  In the US we have our Mexicans and other Latinos.  The Germans have the Polish, South Africa has the Zimbabweans, Europe has the North Africans, apparently Hong Kong has the Filipinos and the Balians.  It was delicious splash of diversity in a homogeneous city.

After waiting in line a bit, I sent of my postcards and joined the AlphaPoppa and the kids who were comfortable sitting in the mist 25 women happily and rapidly packing their boxes to be shipped off.
My guys were mesmerized by their iPhone games and probably didn't notice, or didn't care, that they had been enveloped by people.

 Post office

postcard of Hong Kong skyline

Post cards

Once again finding ourselves on the street AlphaPoppa wanted to look for a helicopter school located one top of one of the many sky scrapers.  While following GPS street directions we passed many more Filipinos and then found ourselves in the middle of some sort of street party.  I swear Dude WILLS himself jumpy houses and other fun kids stuff when we travel.  It was all free so we let Dude, jump and race a little car around a track for the next hour.  

I love traveling with the kids, and I love even more when they have fun on their level, making each place memorable for themselves.  Unfortunately the school was closed and we couldn't go up to the rooftop helipad.   We decided to sit in the sunshine for a while and chill while we figure out the smartest direction to move in.  While seated I asked the Filipino woman sitting next to me how to arrive at the Mong Kok station and area.  From what I'd read this was allegedly the most populated place on earth, the center and heart beat of Hong Kong.  The lady was very helpful pointing us in the right directions to the train station and letting us know how many stops to expect.  One nice thing about the metro system in Hong Kong is that you see you location in a map and simply must touch the MTR destination that you plan on going to.  You are given your price and can easily play.  The metro cards pops out, the turn-styles sucks in the card and spits it out as you enter. then finally takes the card from you as you exit at your destination's turn-styles.  

Mong Kok was a mad house, crowded was an understatement and people were everywhere. 


The walk on the way to the train station didn't disappoint.  Numerous corner stores had barrels and industrial sized bags full of dried seafood, fruits, and vegetables.  So many foods being sold but I recognized so few... huge, black mushroomw, dried octopus, star fish, dried snail-ish thingies, dried shrimp... This was definitely not the chinese food Im accustomed to in the US.  Hmmmm, no general tsao chicken, no braised wings, no chicken fried anything.  Authenic China is on a whole'nother level.

Dried street food video

 While all these thoughts float through my head overwhelming all my senses, and my brain trying to label each mystery item, I feel a tug on my arm, it's dude.

"Mommy?", he whispers.
"Yes, dude?" I lean in to hear him a little better.
"Why are they selling doo-doo?"
"Yes over there."  He points.

See, look...the "sophisticated traveler" in me wants to have a talk with him about cultural sensitivity and how its always inappropriate to call someones food doo-doo, the curious confused foreigner in me wants to bust out laughing because he's pretty much right.  Whatever that is, does indeed look like doo-doo.  I chose to take a middle ground in approaching the question he has now repeated, thankfully whispering, 2 more times.  He was genuine, he needed to know.

"Dude, that's not doo-doo."
"Yes, it is.  I know what doo-doo looks like... and that's doo-doo!" he was sure and he wasn't taking 'no it's not' for an answer.  He needed a better explanation.
"Dude.  I'm pretty sure its dried cucumber and larvae."
*blank stare* for dude, but no reply.

He gave me that look that only dude can give. He was not convinced, but he was going to leave the topic alone... for now.  I know how to take small blessings (like his silence) with grace, so I kept us moving toward our metro station.

Powerless, herbal playgrounds, and a noodle killer

I somehow fell asleep after hearing the bad news.  In the morning I woke up ready to go.  The kids had been up a while playing on their iPads and snacking on the sandwich and chips we'd stocked up on the night before.  There was no way I was going to let us wake up hungry again!  when I fully awaked I could feel something was definitely strange in the room.  After a few minutes I figured it out, a power outage. We were powerless!  The small refrigerator light was off, none of our phones were charging and last but not least the lights wouldn't turn on .  I sent a text to the apartment owner, who suggested a few tricks to get us back up and running but none of them worked.  Finally she sent one of her property managers to help, she would arrive in 40 minutes.  Her young cute Phillipino employee arrived sooner than promised and she and I started trying to figure out which breaker in the 3rd floors hall closet belonged to room 317.  After 15 minutes of turning the power on and off in god-knows-who's apartments we figured it out.  she asked me a few questioned curious about where we were from, and she went outside to the building steps to greet a new guest for another apartment they had for rent in the same building.  

In our room plugged back up the most important things and resumed  getting dressed and ready for our second full day in this King Kong of a city.  AlphaPoppa was still kind of tired, but I wanted out of the apartment sooner than later so I took the kids outside for some fresh air and to give AlphaPoppa some extra rest time.  Outside right next to the building was a tiny park and playground.  Dude bolted straight for the monkey bars and I was quickly pulled in by a big meditation statue and a wall of pictures and writing set up around the outer edge of the park.  It took me a while to realize that I was in the middle of not just a park but a Chinese medicinal herbal garden.  From what I could deduct from the pictures each herb benefits a different part of the body and it was all maps out there for all to see and use.  The concept was fabulous!  Zane didn't stick around long he asked to return to the room with his father and reassured me he could do it alone.  I always let the kids lead the way for situations just like this.  

Chinese park/ medicinal herb garden

Outside our apartment building

On the corner of our block

After a good 15 minutes AlphaPoppa and Zane joined us in the park and we were off to the diner for a real breakfast.  The diner we sooooo like any diner in the US, not very fancy, but good enough to get the job done.  The only catch was that everyone was Chinese, the food was Chinese (not american Chinese but REAL Chinese), and the menu was in Chinese.  We were quickly seated, the proper way not like the night before and quickly our waiter was there with his pad impatiently waiting.  Dude wanted beef noodle,  The rest of us had scrambled egg, toast, and sausage, which ended up being more like mini hot dogs.  

Our food was served up in less than 10 minutes and Dude dove in doing a little dance to accompany the beef noodle song he was free styling.  The boy was killing his breakfast like never before, he had us cracking up.  Im sure all of us that at some point thought, "Geez maybe I shoulda chosen beef noodle..."  I cant remember when, if ever, we taught him how to use chopsticks but he handled them effortlessly and goobled every noodle in sight.  Dont believe me, check the video of Dude the noodle killer 

Breakfast noodles video

Zane had to beg for a couple of noodles

After breakfast the game plan was to walk, not ride, back to the same train station we got off of last night; then we would spend the day going back to Central MTR to mail the post cards I'd bought at the Giant Buddha, from there to Mong Kok, a nearby temple, then avenue of the stars.  Inicially we were going to take the Big Red Bus tour but that was prices at $50 or so a person and that was not the budget friendly kinda deal we must have.  So no tour guide for us, we could handle this, even with it all in Cantonese.  

27 January 2015

Tragedy within Nomad*ness Travel Tribe

As predicted I woke up in the middle of the night at about 4am.  Not in that groggy state closer to sleep than awake, but FULLY AWAKE.  This ladies and gentlemen is what it means to really be jet-lagged.  The room all of a sudden felt stifling and for the first time I felt affected by the rooms lack of windows.  This is the closest I'd ever felt to claustrophobia and it was awful.  Like the walls had me trapped into a larger than normal coffin.  The A/C had shut off at some point in the night and the warmer air did not help the situation.  It was 4 am so really my options of leaving the apartment all together were limit.  I decided to get on FB to see what my friends and family in the US were up to, they were all awake due to the time difference and hopefully it would take my attention away from the trapped feeling.  First I saw messages from people in my travel group who were living in Hong Kong offering assistance if needed, even inviting me to a comedy show.  They were also open to meeting up with me and the family.  Next I saw anothe rpost by a well known member sying that she was devastated about a tragic event that had occurred in the group.  Although I was instantly confused I felt compassion for her loss, she has always been welcoming to me as a newer member and she is the one who put me in contact with the members in Hong Kong.  Although she's originally and NY girl she'd also lived in Hong Kong, having returned to the US less than a year ago.

Shortly after reading her comment I got a what'sapp message from "la morena de andalucia" (please refer to my post from las fallas in Spain and Rome, Italy as to who this dear friend is).  La morena quickly began explaining things to me via text.

La Morena- Did you see what happened in Panama?
Me- No, what's going on?  I just read something about a tragedy within the group
La Morena- Well.... you know there was a group meet-up in Panama.  It seems that there was a bus accident and 2 of the members died
Me- WHAT?!
La Morena- Yea, it was pretty bad and there were a lot of injuries. People have started making donations to help.
Me- I had no idea, I saw something had happened but couldn't figure out what. Awh man!

La Morena continued to tell me that she was very close to joining that trip at the last minute but the only thing that had stopped her was the $1,000 airfare price.  My first reaction was:

Me- If you were on the trip I would have come for you. I would have been in Panama kicking asses!
La Morena- I know, I thought, if I would have made it to Panama Echo would join my parents to interpret and make sure I was OK.
Me- Ya damn right I would!

Before ending our what's app conversation I asked her to text my mom to let her know that we were safe and happy in Hong Kong.  My mom's new phone was having a viber issue and I was unable to contact her like I had everyone else.  La morena agreed and I decided to try my best to get back to sleep before the rest of the family woke up.

I laid there for a while just thinking about the tragedy.  I have only been a part of the Nomad*ness Travel Tribe for about 4 months.  I have never been a "group person".  Despite offers, I never joined a sorority, I never hung out with a large group of friends for social or even political reasons.  I'm not part of a church or even a religion.  I always kinda just did my own thing and didn't know many other people like me.  That was until La Morena added me in this crazy, fun, one of a kind FaceBook travel group.  She had recently been added by a black american friend she worked with in Spain and she thought I too would also enjoy it.  Enjoying it is an understatement.  This group of self- proclaimed "black-packers"  (black back-packers) was 8,000 people strong and ALL. OVER. THE. WORLD!!!!!  Some had been to 80+ countries, a few over a hundred and more than a few having traveled to all 7 continents, yes... including Antarctica.  They are a vast majority black, but also included Latinos Asians, and White Americas.   The group is described as a meeting place for the underrepresented travel demographic of urban millennial (and older).  They are all amazing.  They offer the best tips and travel advice.  They know the feeling of taking to a new country and being the only black person on a train in Tokyo, how to enter and exit Cuba illegally, the best hostels in Africa, and the best flight deals to anywhere in the world.  I was instant love.  We received a warm welcome into the group and I'd even gone to 2 Atlanta meet-ups in the four months after joining.  I'd never felt like part of any group until now but it was amazing because, I'd finally found my people.  With them there was no need to explain WHY you would want to take your kids to Hong Kong, or the middle east, or Africa.  There weren't afraid of "those people" or unsure of where a certain place is located in the world.  As a matter of fact of the 8,000 members only one country hadn't been conquered and that was Comoros.  I even met people who were on their way to Bhutan, one of my dream destinations.

Nomadness Travel Tribe logo with Family insignia

Even though many of us had different back grounds we all shared an addiction to travel,, not tourism, not vacationing but authentic travel.  We all share the same adventurous spirit that entices us to step of the beaten path and to go see the world for ourselves.  We are different but all cut from the same clothe.  So to hear about the tragedy hit home, HARD.  The two members who had lost there lives in the accident were active at posting and commenting.  They were vets in the tribe and positive happy leaders in a sea of world wide new unfamiliar friends.  I was torn between the sorrow and fear of dying while traveling, while at the same time happy for them that they ended their journeys that we call life, living life to the fullest.  I have had experiences that cause me to strongly believe that before we come to this earth, while still in spirit form, we choose our allotted amount time to be here on earth.  Our departure time from our bodies and life on earth is set, it is up to us to learn what we are supposed to learn and experience what we are supposed to experience before that time is up. Although I've never met the two deceased members I like to feel that they had done just that, and even though I mourn the loss of beautiful spirit here on earth and I can imagine the pain of loss their families must feel, a part of me recognizes a job well done and gratitude for having crossed their path, even is only through social media.

Before drifting back to sleep I meditated on their gratitude for their lives, comfort for the crash survivors, and strength for their families and Tribe founders who had just arrived in Panama to help the situation on the ground there.  Even in their deaths and at the survivors toughest moments they inspire us to live fully and the importance of family, even when that family is 8,000 strong reaching out to you via the internet.  May they rest in peace and may the survivors recover fully and completely, physically and emotionally. Ase!

After the Buddha

After our pleasant excusion to The Giant Buddha.  We made a stop at the mall near the pier and the Central MTR Station.   As soon as we entered we figured it was a good time for a bathroom break for the kids.  Of course they were in and out of the bathroom in about 5 minutes will I didnt even attempt the ladies room line that extended out of the bathroom, down a hallway, and out into the main mall area.  Are women all over the world waiting in line just to pee?!?!?!  Its so ridiculous, there has to be a better way for us poor women (insert sad face here).

We walked around the overwhelming large and expensive mall for about a half hour.  By then it was 6pm Hong Kong time and 5 am Atlanta time, jet lag was coming after us all, so we figured it was best to quickly grab food and head back to our apartment for rest.   After walking a few blocks we found a noodle shop and decided that it was the place for us.  It was sooo confusing figuring out how to order.   Here's what we did:  enter the restaurant, seat ourselves, look at the menu, and wait.  After about a half hour of no service and confusing instructions we figured out what we REALLY should have done; enter restaurant, stop at hostess, order and pay for our food at her booth, take our ticket to the kitchen window, take a seat, retrieve our food from the kitchen window when our number was calles (in cantonese).  Finally we all ordered, sat, and started eating our respective bowls of noodles; beef noodles, spicy noodles. and god knows what else noodles.  Although the meu provided translations they were vague and we basically pointed at what looked good in the pictures. Dude and Zane killed their bowls of noodle and were very very happy travelers.  I thoroughly enjoyed whatever meat/ noodle combo I was eating, but poor AlphaPoppa just picked through his dinner unenthusiastic about more noodles for the day.   Zane has always been a master at using chock stills and Dude did great using them too,  his sense of determination when trying to master something is admirable.  He is not new to chopsticks but they aren't a daily practice for his five year old hands.  Every now and then I helped shover a few noodles in his mouth or helped pile his soup spoon with them in an attempt to help out.  After our dinner it was about 7:30 pm, dark and chilly, the next goal was to get home and get in bed.  

Our train ride was seamless and the walk home from the metro station guided by AlphaPoppa's GPS and out AirBnB hosts' texted directions got us home in no time.  We decided to pile up on snacks, water, and juice in case anyone woke up in the middle of the night hungry.  AlphaPoppa bought a foot-long subway sandwich, since he didnt eat much for dinner and all the chinese resaurants weren't take-out.   When you travel, especiallly with kids you have to stay 3 steps ahead.

As soon as we arrived home the kids collapsed asleep and AlphaPoppa and I drifted off shortly after.

26 January 2015

Forgotten converters and the Giant Buddha

I'll be the first to admit that even as a seasoned traveler I always forget important travel items or make huge mistakes.  Last year in Nicaragua I forgot pajamas, in Guatemala I forgot socks, this time I brought the wrong electric socket converter.  My alleged universal converter didn't include the enormous continent of Asia.  So before the hard-core exploration began I had to figure out how to get converters to keep our phones charged.  Our phones hold all our important flight info, connect us to home, allow us to take photo and video to share our experiences, and guide us in new lands, they are vital.

When we woke up Saturday morning we were all hungry and excited.  While Alpha Poppa got the boys together I excitedly hit the streets alone to get a quick breakfast to stop the hunger pangs and to hopefully luck up on a converter.  As soon as I stepped out of our apartment I giggled at all the Chinese street signs and the double take glances I got as a non-asian dread lock clad girl in the streets of the far east.  The double-decker trolley cars stole my heart at first sight.  Watching them whip around corners on their tracks was a sight to behold.

After walking in one direction I quickly realized that there were no restaurants in that direction and had to turn around.  On the corner of Bonham Strand West at the Ibis hotel there was a Starbucks attached o an Ibis hotel.  In my lifetime of living in the US and abroad I've only eaten at Starbucks once, I was going to do everything in my power to make sure my second time was not while in China.  I walked past the Starbucks in the hunt for chinese authenticity.  Half a block away I saw a diner, on the same block I saw a 7-eleven and a few grocery stores.  I dipped into the grocery store but quickly realized that I would not be able to buy or prepare anything they offered.  It was almost all dried foods sold in bulk.  Dried snails, starfish. octopus, larvae, cucumbers, and quite a few other things I couldn't identify.  I am willing to try it all but I don't even know where to begin as far as preparing and eating dried food.  Do you stew it?  Or do you snack on them like chips?  I would definitely need help with food in China.  Off to 7-Eleven, I went but there I could only find snacks like chips and pocky and drinks, nothing that would kill the hunger long enough for us to get to real food.  So regretfully Starbucks became my best bet.  I dipped in bought myself a spinach/ broccoli breakfast pie and got my 3 guys cinnamon rolls.   By the time I got to the room the boys were half dressed and playing on their iPads.  After we devoured our food we were ready to hit the streets.  

The weather we great at about 67 degrees.  We dressed in layers and I threw hats in my shoulder bag in case the temperature dropped through out the day.  I could see the excitement on everyone's faces as soon as they stepped out on to the sidewalk from our apartment building steps.  I imagine I looked the same way a mere hour earlier.  Since we were no longer starving we decided to hunt for electric converters before finding our real breakfast.  The attendant at a nearby store recommended we try 7-eleven and 7-eleven, pointed us in the direction of the main street and told us to look for a store named "Japan house".  Languages have always been my gift and I had no problem understanding facial expression and hand gestures they used to point me in the right direction.  The kids and I have studied Mandarin for years but had no base in Cantonese, the official language of Hong Kong.  Luckily as a former British colony and major international city most people were familiar with basic important English words, definitely enough to give directions to tourist.  On our search for japan house we passed an ATM and I withdrew $1,000 Hong Kong dollars which amounts to approximately $130 USD with and exchange rate of $1USD- $7.7 HKD.  When traveling i prefer to use ATM, it takes the hassle out of finding banks to exchange money for you.  With cash on hand and a halfway full belly we walked blocks in search of Japan House.  The sounds of Hong Kong were just like the sounds of New York City.  Construction on buildings were supported by bamboo sticks, vendors sold their dried foods by the bulk and little shops were stuffed with decorations and trinkets for the upcoming Chinese new year.  

Finally we found Japan house and I was able to buy a series of converters to connect into each other in order to use my multi-plug charger it cost me less than $3 USD.  The next stop had to be food once again!  We crossed the street to a restaurant we'd passed 2 blocks away.  We were quickly seated and served.  Alpha Poppa and Zane chose beef noodle, Dude had a ham sandwich and I had an egg and cheese sandwich.  We ll had tea.

Our waitress was very helpful in pointing us in the direction of the main metro station and telling us how to get to the Giant Buddha.  What we mostly understood was that the station was back toward our apartment and that we'd need to take a boat to the Giant Buddha statue on a neighboring island.  Hong Kong is also a group of neighboring islands similar to NYC.  As soon as we left the restaurant we jumped on a recommended bus #7 or #4 and road around a while.  Before we knew it we missed our stop at the closest train station and decided to enjoy the scenery before we hopped off at the next available train station.  We were supposed to get off at Sheung Wan station, but ended up a couple of stops away at Hong Kong University station.  Once again asking for directions we were told to go to Central station, get off and head for the ferries to Lan Tau island. 

The subway tracks were blocked by glass sliding doors that open as the train doors opened behind them.  It was impossible to throw trash, fall, or push someone onto the tracks.  With so many people in the city I think it was a good way to avoid subway accidents.  The ride to Central station MTR. was nice and quick.  The station was bustling with tons of people moving swiftly in unison to their chosen destinations.  We moved from under ground to above ground into the warm sunshine.  We went up fast escalators and crossed walking bridges that passed over busy streets.  The main post office, a mall equipped with a packed Apple store and every designer store known to the world was in this area.

while we approached the pier we took pictures of the impressive sky line and a huge ferris wheel.  As soon as we reached the pier  that departs for Lan Tau island the boat was ready to leave.  The sway of the boat bouncing along the ocean nearly put me and to sleep.  Once we reached far enough into the ocean we were able to see just how long and massive the city was.  It took about a good half hour to sail to the island of the Giant Buddha. We passed hydro gliding ships, oil vessels, cargo ships, other ferries, and ancient looking chinese ships.  

Our arrival to Lan Tau began with a zillion bike welcome party parked at the dock.  directly next to all the bike were 4 buses in their stations, one of which was bus #2, the Bus that would take us to the Giant Buddha.  Intially we were put off the bus for not having exact change. We had to step off and quickly get our new currency act together.  The hardest part in any new country is figuring out the money, which coin is which, what shape and size coin belong to which amount and which colored paper belongs to which bill quantity.  If you ever want to feel stupid try to pay a bill quickly in a new country, you wont be able to do it.  It's impossible and you will realize just how awkward it is to be an immigrant or visitor in a new land.   

The bus ride was about another half hour on a much less crowded island.  During our ride I struck up a great conversation with an Australian tourist who sat next to me.  We had a great conversation about traveling with our children and he gave me great tips on must sees and must do's in Sydney.  Good conversation always makes time fly and  not too long after we were at the plaza near the Giant Buddha, saying our farewells and meeting up with our respective families.  The plaza leading up to the statue was lined with smaller statues of the Buddha's divine generals.  Since we were higher in the mountains a cool wind whizzed past us, encouraging us to zip up our jackets and put on hats.  Just about everyone there had a selfie stick, including us, and we all enjoyed putting them to use!

Video of first morning in Hong Kong on the way to the giant buddha http://youtu.be/q1ltGk-l2cc

The giant Buddha 

The Giant Buddha dominated the mountain top and  many people stood at the center of the circular prayer flag structure below the hill, each person with hands together in prayer.  After climbing many levels of stairs we arrived to the main landing below the Buddha.  There we found people seated in mediation and chanting.  On that level below the Buddha were about 12 statues beautifully posed each with a offering in hand help up toward the Buddha.   We were able to climb one level higher to be directly beneath the massive statue.

Being at the Buddha was a great experience for the boys they have already had hands-on exposure to other religions so to add contact to Buddhist philosophy in China definitely gives them a more insight to many belief systems around the world.  Although I consider myself deeply spiritual I am not at all religious but enjoy watching other in worship around the world.  After a couple of hours we decided to head back to the bus station, first taking a bathroom break.  If you know me at all or if you have been following the blog you know that I'm obsessed with squat toilets.  I was tickled pink to see and use one of the many available.  I even shot a video to help explain them to my friends at home and to the western hemisphere where squat toilets do not exist.  

Squat toilet video:

On the ride back to the ferry, dude fell asleep while I looked at the window, soaking in the rolling mountain views, and while Alpha Poppa and Zane played games on their iPhones.  This time we sat on the top deck of the ferry passing may barges carrying enormous loads of  cargo, oil vessles, and hydro-planing ferries.  Normally I dont get seasick but the bouncing of the waves layered on top of increasing jetlag was not a good feeling at all.  I was happy to step off the ferry in the crowd of moving people, also known as Hong Kong island.  On the walk back to Center station on the metro we passed a fabulous street artist, and as always we stopped and made a donation to shared beauty through music.   This slight touch of traditional chinese music sent shivers up my spine.  It was sensory overload. We are in CHINA!.

Please listen and enjoy the sounds of China:

Street artist