Sunday, 10 February 2008

We arrived in the big city of Shanghai around 10pm, and checked into a great hotel. As we turned in our passports, I noticed a long table laden with cookies and crackers and platters of fruit. Hotel staff was setting red cushions on the floor, the hotel lobby was beginning to look at little like a temple. Red lanterns hung from the ceiling, and little red money envelopes hung from a tree. Our newest guide, Leanne, who had escorted us from the airport to our hotel, explained that at midnight that night the residents of Shanghai would set off fireworks in the hopes of having good “money luck” in the New Year. Apparently the fireworks on New Year’s Eve were not for money, but for general good luck. The one tonight is about financial luck. Shanghai is all about business and money, this firework show would be impressive.

Sure enough, about ten minutes before midnight the sky exploded. We counted eight different firework shows from our hotel window, and that was just from our side of the hotel. These were not namby-pamby noisemakers, they were fire in the sky, colors exploding everywhere. Each of these firework shows  would rival Steve Yachtman’s firework show, and if you live on Manana you know what I mean. It sounded like bacon frying in the pan, and by midnight there was so much smoke you could hardly see the building across the way. If the gods bestow money based on the size of your firework show, Shanghai will be a rich city this year. We finally pulled the curtains and fell asleep sometime after midnight, the sky still sizzling outside our window.


Monday, 11 February 2008

We began our day with a late start and a huge breakfast buffet, a winning combination. Clay’s toe is feeling better, thank goodness. I think all the digging he did is paying off, he got the big chunks of nail out of the skin back in Yangshuo and Guilin. Or perhaps it was that ancient Chinese remedy, a tea bath and a little reflexology. It’s a little red and infected, he’s been dousing it in hydrogen peroxide and Neosporin, but we think it will be fine. He is a kung fu toe master.

Leanne picked us up at 11am and we started at the Jade Buddha temple. All the people who had shot off fireworks the night before were at the temple when we arrived, the courtyard was just packed with people come to offer the gods something for good luck in the New Year. Incense sticks burned all around us, people were carrying big wads of them and waving them around, my hair almost got caught on fire. Ash from the giant incense burner in the middle of the courtyard blew across the air, little bits landing on people’s heads and clothes. We squeezed our way through the courtyard, ducking under a rain of coins people were attempting to throw into a giant incense burner for good luck. The coins clinked all around us, and I hoped I wouldn’t get beaned in the head with one.

The Buddha was impressive, once we got into the temple to see it, carved from a single piece of white jade and adorned with precious jewels.  The room that housed it was pretty, hundreds of small golden Buddha statues were nestled in niches around the ceiling, one for each major donor to the temple. We shuffled our way through with the rest of the crowds, then found ourselves back in that crowded courtyard. We came out on a platform, and women started handing our kids coins so they could throw them for good luck. They must have thrown at least twenty each.

We all breathed a little easier when we got out of the crowded temple, it was a fascinating experience to be among so many fervent worshippers, but a little overwhelming. Out of the frying pan, into the fire, our next stop was an area kind of like Chinatown in a US city, with skinny streets full of people and shops. Because of the holiday, this place was also packed. We hung on to each other as we tried to follow Leanne, I think all Benji saw of that place was a bunch of torsos as he was dragged along. We noticed some people holding plates with one large dumpling sitting on it, and a straw stuck in the middle of the dumpling. Leann explained that they were sipping soup from the middle of the dumpling. Oh, how Clay wanted to find and eat one of these soup dumplings. Alas, it was not to be.

We were finally spewed into a tiny garden that required an entrance fee, so it was less crowded. It was once the garden of a local man who built it to honor his parents. We were greeted at the entrance by two friendly lion statues. Leanne explained that in the imperial garden, the lions must look fierce, but in a private garden they often look more playful.

This garden covered only two hectares, a relatively small area, and yet it seemed enormous as we wound our way around the well tended spaces. Different pavilions were scattered throughout, and the rocks were placed so carefully, I think it was the first time I saw a full-blown rockery. I like that name, “rockery”. Bonsai trees were also placed carefully, everything was very well planned and thought out, each thing had a special place, a specific purpose for being exactly where it was. Doorways were cut in the shape of large vases, with the landscape beyond appearing to be decoration carved on the side of the vase. Small ponds could be found throughout. A few well-placed outdoor mirrors reflected the scenery, giving the illusion of more space. Leanne said the Chinese name for placing mirrors to give the allusion of space is called “borrowed scenery”. Even though not much was in bloom, it was a pretty, peaceful, restful place.

Outside the garden, we once more had to push our way through the crowds. We tried to tell Leanne we wanted one of those soup dumpling things, but lines were long and communication was not happening. We found a sit-down Japanese place, but decided to pass and just go back to the hotel. We starved until we could officially say it was dinnertime. At 4 I called mom and asked when dinner time could officially be declared. She said old people eat dinner at Luby’s at 4:30 all the time, so we all packed on our winter gear and headed out to find some grub.

After finding dinner, we headed to a Chinese acrobat show. This was more like a Chinese variety act, with roller-skating ballerinas and hula-hoopers that somehow managed to keep fifty or more hula hoops going at one time. They spread these spinning hoops from their heads to their knees, they looked like they were being enveloped by giant whirling slinkies, metal tornadoes. All this was a little strange, but there were some very impressive acts as well. A woman who could balance on just one hand for a really long time, while her body bent and twisted into very uncomfortable-looking positions. At one point, she balanced herself on eight chairs and a stool, so high when she stood on her hand, her feet almost disappeared into the stage lights.

Groups of boys did amazing tumbling tricks, diving through hoops or balancing on each other, juggling hats while balancing in a giant pyramid or leaping backwards from a swinging pole to a stationary pole. A man and woman did an amazing act where they swung from bits of silk that hung from the ceiling, way out over the crowd, to the dramatic tune of the Titanic theme song. The lady’s face cracked me up, her pretty smile became strained and then disappeared in a grimace as she hoisted herself up on these bits of silk, and then supported herself and the man, who hung from her wrists as she swung out over the crowd. The finale was called the Ball of Death, five motorcycles zipped around inside a giant metal cage ball, crossing each other’s paths and coming close to death over and over. It made me sick to my stomach.

The boys thought all this was pretty spectacular, their mouths hung open and Nate said “Good thing those motorcyclists were wearing helmets and they didn’t add another motorcycle, or it really would have been a ball of death!”  That night while we tried to calm everyone down and get them ready for bed, the boys practiced their tumbling moves on the hotel beds, leaping and flipping around. Nothing like a Chinese acrobat show late at night to get you in the mood for sleep . . .


Tuesday, 12 February 2008

This morning we had to say goodbye to my parents, who were starting their long journey back to San Antonio. Three weeks is the longest they’ve ever been gone for home, and I think they were ready. They accompanied us on some of the most arduous parts of our trip so far, from the squatty potties to the freezing temperatures, and they were good sports. I think they were so happy to see us and our kids, the other stuff didn’t matter quite as much. We loved seeing family again, we taught them our Emperor card game and laughed at the crazy food on the menus and screamed together on the frigid runway in Beijing. Lots of good memories.

We met Leanne after saying our goodbyes, she took us to a park where the kids propelled boats across a small pond. They were cool little boats, the kids pedaled with their hands, turning two paddlewheels to amble towards each other in a slow-motion version of bumper boats. They only got a little bit wet. Nate bounced his “super-pink” ball around the park, diving to retrieve it from under the feet of strangers. After piddling around a while, we headed to the home of a local Chinese family for lunch.

This was something arranged by the tour company, we first visited the local community center for the neighborhood. Each neighborhood has one of these, built by the government, to give the older, retired generation a place to go and hang out. They can take classes, play mahjong, sing, dance, do calligraphy, paint, all sorts of things. People around there retire at age 55, and there is quite a large population served by this center. Our lunch family was arranged through this community center, and it gave us a chance to see inside an everyday home of a normal family living in Shanghai.

We passed several people as we walked across the apartment courtyard and rode the elevator up 21 floors. Each time they chattered in Chinese and our guide talked to them, telling them “Yes, these three children all belong to them.” They would look at Clay and me and give us a thumbs up, a few said, “You are very lucky. Very fortunate.” I always knew I was lucky to have our three children, but the fact really hit home in a country where you are only allowed one child. I looked at these women and saw such a longing, such a potential to raise big, robust families with lots of kids running all over the place. It is a sad thing for them. We are lucky indeed.

Three generations lived in the apartment we visited, the middle generation and their child were on vacation, lunch was prepared by the grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Mai. And what a meal they prepared. By the end of it all we had been served fifteen courses, everything from fried rice to marinated cucumbers to pan-fried shrimp to searing beef to fried taro root balls with boiled quail eggs inside. It was all very good, and I marveled at how so many courses could be prepared in such a small kitchen. I would have gone bonkers trying to figure out when to put on the rice to get it ready the same time as the meat. The meal was served continuously, as soon as we snarfed up a dish they replaced the empty bowl with a new one, full of something different.

The Mai’s live with their son and his wife, and their grandson. Evidence of a child was everywhere, Benji was very intrigued by the dinosaur toys and wanted to know if their grandson liked dinosaurs. They said he did, and was a talented painter and calligrapher as well. Mr. Mai let everyone try their hand at calligraphy, leading us to a well-lit desk near a large window that looked out over the city. It wasn’t as easy as it looked, as the kids and Clay tried to reproduce Chinese characters with a thick brush that tapered at the end. We were shown the three bedrooms and two bathrooms, combined with the kitchen, living room and dining room this apartment was bigger than I had imagined most Chinese apartments to be.

With full stomachs, we bid our hosts goodbye, thanking them and wishing we had some sort of “Texas” thing to leave behind. Their refrigerator was decorated with magnets from all sorts of states. We did get their address, and plan on sending them something appropriate in exchange for a fifteen course dinner and extreme hospitality. We decided to head back to the hotel, the kids were eager to play on their own and Clay and I planned on working out. As we headed home, Benji fiddled with his ultra-loose tooth. Alayna suggested they play “dentist”, and two seconds later she said, “Uh-oh, I need a Kleenex.” Somehow she had hit Benji’s tooth and knocked it out, doing us all a favor. It was getting very snaggly and wobbly and made my stomach feel funny whenever I saw it poking out of his lips.

We noticed that he actually has a big tooth growing through the roof of his mouth, and another very snaggly tooth in front of it that has decided it really doesn’t have to get loose and fall out, since nothing is coming in to push it out. His new tooth reminded me of a shark’s mouth, where teeth grow in rows, one behind the other. We took a picture so we can email it to his dentist back home. Does this require immediate attention?

We said goodbye to our guide once we arrived at the hotel, realizing we were finally done with guides for a good long while. Although the guides have been good, we’ve learned so much and they’ve made our lives easier, we are ready to be on our own again like we were throughout Europe. The tooth fairy prepared to pay a visit that night, she’s had her eye on that loose tooth awhile.


Wednesday, 13 February 2008

This morning we woke up with a big, long day stretching out in front of us, a day free to do whatever we wanted. No sights to see, no guide to meet, no schedule. I called the kids’ room and Benji read me the note the tooth fairy left, and told me all about his little fake-Jade turtle and fish she had left. “She also left me some money, but I don’t know how much because it’s a different kind of money.”

The kids did a math lesson, we walked down the street to a mall for lunch, and after lunch we got haircuts for everyone but me. Alayna cut at least six inches from her hair, and looks so cute in her new, easy-to-comb ‘do. Clay and I hit the gym again, and we went back out that evening to see Shanghai by night. Benji bought a matchbox car with his tooth fairy money, and Clay and I sneaked a few gifts for the kids when they weren’t looking, since tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. After dinner, we found a Dairy Queen and got some blizzards and chocolate dipped cones. I was so surprised to see a Dairy Queen in China, I thought that was just a Texas thing. I was wondering what they might do to Texas toast and steak fingers, but this one only served desserts. Clay thought eating at Dairy Queen was a strange way to cap off our time in China. We agreed while we licked our cones. We didn’t care.

The only noteworthy items from our last day in Shanghai were tooth fairy gifts and Dairy Queen dipped cones, yet it was a day we all enjoyed. A day we all needed. A day all to ourselves with no agenda. We can’t wait to see Craig and Rhonda, McKenzie and Brant in Australia.


Thursday, 14 February 2008

Happy Valentine’s Day! We exchanged our little goodies this morning, jelly beans and candy hearts, a couple of match box cars and a little Chinese mirror for Alayna from the boys. Clay gave Alayna a stuffed panda Hello Kitty with a huge head, it’s pretty darn cute. We indulged in the enormous breakfast buffet one more time, Clay ate his last noodle soup for breakfast for quite a long while. Goodbye to steamed dumplings and fried rice on breakfast buffets, I think I might miss it a little.

We took a bullet train to the airport, it reached a top speed of 258 mph. and it took us only seven minutes to get to the airport, which is usually a 40 minute drive minimum. It’s a MagLev where the train is actually suspended on a magnetic cushion. It was awesome to be in that train as it sped up, the power lines started flying by in a long, wavy line, you could just feel the power. At one point we passed another train, going presumably the same speed, and our car pulled to the left in that brief moment when they passed, a shudder as these two bullets crossed.

Our day consists of travel, and lots of it. We had a two hour flight to Tokyo, then a four hour layover, then an overnight flight to Sydney. When we arrived in Tokyo, night had already fallen, even though it was only 5:30 at night. The other passengers didn’t push and shove us off the plane, as they did on each flight in China. The stewardess was kind enough to rip the seat cushion off my chair (it can also be used as a flotation device) so Benji could retrieve his lost lego piece. The airport is beautiful, clean and modern. It’s a pleasant place to sit and wait, the kids lost themselves in their DS games and I caught up on all the journal entries. Now China seems officially behind us, we eagerly await what lies on the horizon.