Friday, March 23, 2007

Thailand: elephants, fish and geckos, oh my!

We have hesitated to travel much for many reasons but mainly because our kids’ sleep patterns are pretty erratic. Finally, we decided just to go for it, figuring the sleep could not get much worse. And while we were very wrong on that front (it did get much worse but there were mitigating medical reasons), we had a great time on our first family Southeast Asia jaunt. We recently flew to Phuket, Thailand (southern and away from all the burning fires and national disaster haze in the north) for a long weekend of beach and more beach.

Phuket is a direct 3 hour flight away from Hong Kong, which is pretty do-able for a family of five. We went straight to our resort complex of a number of hotels, spas and restaurants, a gated and fairly secure arrangement with vehicle checks on par with what Phil gets at the Consulate. While wowed by the water park and the beach, we quickly honed in on the main attraction. The main attraction for the majority of our family was Anna, a resident five year old elephant. The kids ran up to her, petted her, feed her bananas, rode her and loved her. We figured out her schedule, or she figured out ours, and we saw her every day at breakfast and by the pool in the afternoon. While the kids (except Roycie who became scared of Anna through no fault of Anna’s) loved the whole experience, it did make me sad to see Anna grab the tip money we were passing to her handler with her trunk and then stuff it in his pocket.

Once we actually left the hotel, and that was a rare moment, we had the beach. We rented a small boat and spent one afternoon snorkeling. We were pretty far out from the beach (about 30 minutes of boat time) but near a small rocky island. Tori was the first one in and did not flinch when hundreds of tropical fish swam around her. Adam and Roycie, the more cautious adventurers, threw bits of banana into the water for the fish. With surprising precision, they threw the banana right on to myself and Tori so that the fish pretty much engulfed Tori in a fishy cloud. But she was fine with it and waved off my attempts to help. And while Roycie did swim around, she refused to put her face in the water and look at the fish. With Roycie ignoring the fish, Adam trying and Tori screaming with joy (" I am the luckiest girl alive to see brain coral!"), the verdict is still out on snorkeling as a family fun activity.

Being even more tropical (or just less urban) than Hong Kong, Thailand was greener and denser and more alive. We noticed nets about half way up the palm trees and were told the nets prevented squirrels, rats and snakes from climbing up there and damaging the tree. We also noticed many many geckos around the hotel, ranging in size from small and cute to largish and alarming. At night walking back from dinner, the geckos would be swarming around the lights in the hallway, all their little grippy toes silhouetted perfectly by the light for our inspection. We all thought it was lucky that Roycie was usually already in bed by nightfall so she could miss the nightly gecko show. We all loved Thailand but one little three year old thought the wildlife was just too wild.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

St. John's Cathedral: The 160th Anniversary

This past Sunday we all needed to be in Central (downtown Hong Kong) for a number of reasons, including Tori’s very exciting ballet rehearsal "on a real stage". We took advantage of being in Central to attend St. John’s Cathedral, which is affiliated with St. Stephan’s, our much smaller church on the south side of Hong Kong Island. Previously, we have only known St. John’s by its location which is very near to the US Consulate, on the same road and down a block. Sitting in the large cathedral space, which is shaped like a cross, had us all a little awe struck. Then we start recognizing people including someone who regularly gives sermons at St. Stephan’s and is actually the Dean of St. John’s. Someone Phil works with (and oddly enough someone we knew in Maryland through his wife, a children’s librarian) sings in the choir. We then settled down more comfortably to hear a fascinating history told in three part vignettes, 1851-1900, 1901-1950, and 1951-2007 in honor of St. John’s 160th anniversary.
I can’t say I remember much but roughly, St. John’s opened March 11, 1849. The Anglican Church was based in Macau (a nearby island) at the time. (with an Episcopalian church in Shanghai at the same time). Funds were raised and the church built in the Early English and Decorated Gothic style. The cathedral is now the second oldest building in Hong Kong and is situated on freehold land, unlike most of Hong Kong’s land which is leased. The cathedral first served the troops situated here and seating within the church based on military rank.
The middle period of the cathedral’s history followed the events of World War II. The Japanese invaded Hong Kong on December 8, 1941 and the British surrendered on Christmas Day 1941. Foreign nationals of Allied countries were imprisoned, including the Dean of St. John’s and his wife. During the war years, St. John’s was turned into a community hall for Japanese soldiers and much of the interior destroyed. Church services resumed on September 9, 1945, which was known then and now as Liberation Sunday.
The current period of church history involves many interesting roll-outs of its welfare work and increased integration with China. The Diocese of Hong Kong now goes by its Chinese name Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui and the first Chinese Dean was appointed at St. John’s in 2005. Services are held in English, Mandarin, Cantonese and maybe a few other languages as well.
Walking around on the grounds of the cathedral, it really is an oasis of space and peace. Immediately outside the gates are thousands of people walking on a very narrow sidewalk of a very busy street. We were actually trying to join the throng on the sidewalk when someone locked the gate. This would then force us, but namely the kids, to walk an extra 20 minutes or so in the rain around the block. Just then the Archbishop came out and opened the gate in order to drive out. I tried to thank him for the Sunday service. He clearly thought I meant the gate. I didn’t clarify. Both were good.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Peak: a walk with a view

While Hong Kong is definitely an urban scape, there is a surprising amount of greenery. Most of the south side of Hong Kong Island (where we live) for one. And the Peak for another. For the last couple Saturdays, we have made it en masse - and most recently with an old friend from home- up to the Peak for our allotment of run around outdoor with spectacular view time. The Peak is a neighborhood of Hong Kong in part but is actually Victoria Peak, some 550 meters above sea level. In the 19th century, the Peak served as a natural signpost for sailors and then as a privileged neighborhood for early residents. In fact from 1904-1947, only expatriates were allowed to reside on the Peak. While all this is far past, the Peak definitely retains a colonial feel.

While the walk and residential area retain a stately feel, there is a mall up on the Peak, which has no feel except the commerical. To its credit the mall does have a great playground, a Burger King with a view and now a Starbucks, which helps for all those nights when the kids don’t sleep well. There is also a historic Tram, opened way back in 1888, which takes passengers up to the Peak from Central, Hong Kong’s downtown. (Actually, the tram’s Central station is very near Phil’s office which makes mid-day Peak visits possible too). Prior to the tram, folks got up to the Peak on their own power or carried in sedan cars hoisted by laborers. There are a couple pictures of the old sedan chairs around up there and even Adam and Roycie, whose grasp of history is tenuous, thought that looked pretty "old-fashioned."

Once past all the new commercial venues, we usually start walking on Luggard Road, which is a road/walking path that takes you around the top of Victoria Peak, with great views and tons of lush vegetation. There are Chinese pine trees and flowering hibiscus up there but most stunning are the Indian rubber trees and one that spans the path in particular. The rubber trees were imported as shade trees and never used for commercial purposes here. The one on the path has long- 20 or 30 feet long- aerial roots that are so impressive that the term "aerial roots" is now a part of all our kids’ vocabularies.

The walk takes you past residential homes with views of Victoria Harbor (and to Kowloon, the New Territories and China if it is clear) on one side of the Peak and views out to of Lamma Island on the other side of the Peak. Since Tori’s kindergarten class is studying architecture and the Hong Kong skyline in particular, she can look down into Central and name the buildings for us. It is a sure sign that she is growing up and becoming accustomed to Hong Kong living now that she calls the buildings by their actual names. One building, actually Hong Kong’s tallest at 460 meters, has long been called the Biter Building, as it appears to have teeth on its very top, by our family. When Tori first called it properly the IFC (International Finance Center) Building, I have to admit that I did not know what she was talking about.