Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Singapore and more

Singapore is often talked about out here as the family friendly South East Asian city. It is said that one starts out single in Tokyo, is married with a baby in Hong Kong and has a full blown family in Singapore. While I never really believed anywhere in the region could earn a reputation as “family friendly”, I was recently proven wrong. Returning from a fabulous weekend there, we all now are big fans. Singapore’s other toted quality, clean air, was much appreciated too. A little blue sky does wonders for everyone’s mood.

Singapore has a much different feel than Hong Kong. Wider highways, many more plants and trees everywhere. Our kids were enthralled by a little grass on the side of car park. People were friendly. Taxi drivers spoke to us. People offered to take pictures of all five of us with our own camera rather than just surreptiously taking pictures of us with their own cameras. Singapore prides itself on its blended ethnicity and it appeared to be working. The population, a mix of Chinese, Malay and Indian folks, has an international feel much different from Hong Kong with its disparity between very high and very low income earners. Generally, life seems pretty good in Singapore and the people there know it.

We hit Singapore’s two well known family destinations, the night safari and the dolphin lagoon, and loved them both. The night safari runs trams through an open zoo at night. We were all awe struck as we slowly drove by animals roaming around. At one point, we got off the tram and even walked among the animals. We went into a bat enclosure that literally had hundreds of huge bats flying around. I panicked a little as Tori went right up to a very large upside down bat. She calmly told us that this bat, about one-quarter the size of her, ate only fruit. Royce and Adam immediately believed her and moved in closer. I hung back, doubting the research time put in by my first grader.

Dolphin Lagoon on Singapore’s Sentosa Island, advertised as a place where dolphins and humans meet, was next up for us. Anyone over six years old (checked very officiously via passports of participant and parents) can swim with the pink dolphins for about an hour. Tori got out there, learned some hand signals dolphin trainers use, stayed in the water while the dolphins jumped around and then rode on the dolphins a couple times across the lagoon. Royce and Adam had chances to pet dolphins as well.

During a dolphin show following Tori's dolphin riding, Adam was even chosen as the audience member to get in the water with Jumbo the Dolphin. Adam did a good job standing in the water while the dolphin kissed him and splashed him. The real highlight for us was actually on-land. The dolphin show director asked Adam where he was from. Adam looked over at us with panicky wide eyes but turned back and answered "USA."

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Long Lamma

I have long wanted to try a different approach to Lamma Island, one of our favorite outlying islands and the one closest to us on the south side of Hong Kong Island. Typically, we approach Lamma via the Aberdeen ferry boat (or a sampan ride, a ride on a small private boat) and then do a short hike into Sok Kwu Wan, a main village. Most people go a different route into and across Lamma. We have called it “Long Lamma” and this name, though accurate, has not excited the kids. With Grandma in town, we had a reason to try it.

On our Long Lamma day trip, we took a taxi into Central and caught one of the main ferries departing for Yung Shue Wan, a town on northern Lamma. On the jam packed ferry boat, I talked to a few other day trippers. All were planning to eat at seafood restaurants. None were planning to hike across the island. One of Lamma’s most famous residents is the actor Chow Yun-Fat, whose family still operates a popular seafood/pigeon restaurant in Yung Shue Wan. While we did not eat there, we were pleasantly surprised to find ice cream shops in town and definitely devoured a few mint chocolate chip ice cream cones.

Lamma Island is the third largest of Hong Kong’s outlying island, covering about 14 square kilometers, roughly in the letter “y” shape. Lamma has a population of 6,000, including a significant number of Westerners. As the island has no roads, no cars and no buildings over 3 stories tall, the population has a bit of a liberal reputation for denying themselves these things. It was surprising to see all sorts of little shops, clothing boutiques, and restaurants in Yung Shue Wan. The ATM was the most shocking, though its purpose was somewhat diluted. All the ferries now run only on local debit cards, not cash.

From Yung Shue Wan, we started out on our hike across the island to Sok Kwu Wan. The path was narrow and crowded, though a number of fellow walkers stopped off at the first beach we came upon. We kept going, upwards, straight up Mount Stenhouse. The hike was hot, all sun and no shade. The kids quickly stripped off their shirts and trudged slowly upward. Near the top, Tori said in all seriousness, “I have always wondered what it would be like to hike up a mountain on a sweltering hot day.” Everyone seemed to take heart in the fact that they were experiencing something akin to Egypt, one of their favorite places to read about.

Somehow, we reached the top and managed to get down the backside, which had some shade. Sok Kwu Wan came into view and pulled us forward. This village is known for its seafood restaurants and is the largest fish farm in Hong Kong. The allure for us is the beloved Fisher Folk Museum, where a small boat takes us out to the museum, which is a number of floating rafts tied together. There the kids look at and pet fish, wander around a family fishing boat and wonder how anyone can possibly eat a fish.

Once on our return ferry to the Aberdeen marina, the day tripping adults could start to relax. A day trip to Lamma is fun but life on Lamma seems hard, almost impossible. But if getting three little kids across long Lamma is possible, maybe Lamma is just deceptively hard. It looks hard to keep all of us away from their quiet very un-Hong Kong lifestyle.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Our flu break

This year we all had an extended flu break in lieu of a spring break. In fact, Tori’s school was set to have a four day weekend this year instead of a longer spring break. Then the Government of Hong Kong stepped in and cancelled all primary school classes to contain a flu outbreak. Classes everywhere were cancelled from March 12 until April 1.

As we were just out of the hospital with Royce and wary of all infection, the forced closing of schools really didn’t bother us at all. I was happy to let the kids sleep in, play at home and hit our own curriculum without fear of outside contamination. But it was still a little frightening to see people walking around with masks over their mouths and to see the occasional (probably not flu related) ambulance pull up to our building. In the three weeks we were out, we were all healthy and so were all of our friends. In our social set, there is usually some kid sick at all times but this was not the case during the flu break. We could see the reduction in common colds and can only hope a similar reduction was at play on flu illnesses as well.

We spent the break at home, and then feeling braver at the pool. Faced with us all going stir crazy in our smallish apartment, I did decide that the pool was a safe bet, figuring the chlorine might kill something harmful. I am not sure that is sound reasoning but the time out of the apartment did save my sanity.

The flu that concerned the authorities here was a known flu virus, not the avian flu or the SARS virus. There were a number of deaths this year at the start of the flu season and people did start to panic. Some felt that there was an overreaction to the threat. Others who lived in Hong Kong during SARS tended to feel that caution was a good thing. Regardless, we all survived our home stay, remained healthy and the kids are now back at school.

The only reminder of the flu break is that the kids are having a hard time waking up early on the school schedule again. And there is some additional paperwork. From now until the threat is deemed gone, Tori must submit a form stating her temperature is normal before entering the school grounds every day. All the kids were initially upset by the new routine. The kids have now accepted the morning temperature routine. Adam actually loves it and now takes and records his temperature multiple times throughout the day. A little neurotic but probably not the worst of childhood habits.