Montana de Oro State Park

Wild flowers poppin’ Feb 11 ’23.

The waves were happening.

Diablo Canyon in the myst


Where to stay in Pismo Beach, CA

When friends come to visit they ask for ideas for lodging, so here’s my punch list of places to stay in Pismo Beach and neighboring Avila Beach, San Luis Obispo, and Arroyo Grande. If you are looking for that modern “boutique” small hotel vibe with luxury ambience, you will have to go to San Luis Obispo. But the coastal zone of Pismo and Avila towns are really worth the views and beach-vibe. We live right in town (Pismo), all of these hotels are 15 minutes or less by car from us and from the San Luis Obispo Airport.

Here are our picks:

Our top pick is the Inn at Avila Beach. Avila Beach is a small village with its own beach and cute pedestrian promenade. We recommend the Inn’s 8 suites that are right on the street above the lobby with great ocean views and private balconies for sunsets. If those suites aren’t available, consider other options in Pismo for ocean view rooms. As a bonus they have a happy hour with free pie every evening! Nearby 30 yards away is excellent Kraken Coffee

Pismo Beach itself has dozens of ocean front properties of widely varying quality. Pismo is all about the beach and being on the cliffs above the waves.

Vespera is one of the bigger main hotels right in town of Pismo Beach, 1 block to shopping (think San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf–tourist shops selling t-shirts, fast food, sweets, etc. — funky but charming in an old-timey family-friendly way). The large, lovely beach is right there, stretching for miles in both directions and very swim and surf friendly (the ocean is cold though). Many of our friends love being right at the beach and have enjoyed this property, with its pool, restaurant amenities. It’s new construction too.

About 1 mile north of the center of town there are several options, such as Inn at the Cove, a bit jammed in between the 101 freeway and the coast, but has a really nice protected cove view and a path down to the water. It is walking distance to Dinosaur Park (5 minutes) and to the shops in Shell Beach (coffee, some restaurants) and worth a visit. Lots of restaurants , and coffee/breakfast at Steaming Bean is about 15 minute walk. Kon Tiki Inn is a 3-star hotel, includes free visits to the nearby athletic club and ocean front rooms with fire pits on the cliff over the sea (and beach access). The rooms look basic but nice. Sea Crest is another option. Similar to Kon Tiki–a little older and similar amenities.

For more of a “resort” vibe (eg: more rooms, more private property, a bigger restaurant and pool, a semi-private stair-access to a rocky tide-pool beach area) is The Cliffs.

For the classy boutique small hotel experience there are 2 good options in downtown San Luis Obispo (called “slo” by locals) which is 15 minutes by freeway to Pismo. The Hotel San Luis Obispo was opened in 2020 so on the newer side: about a block from the center walking/shopping district of town, spacious modern rooms, a restaurant and bar and pool on site.

Granada Hotel is smaller and cozier, tucked-in on a small side street, also just a block from the main pedestrian areas of SLO.


Palm Springs Outings

We just kicked off our “year of living in airbnbs” with a lovely stay in Palm Springs. The warm temps and blue sky were absolutely lovely.

Cristina’s mobility just so-so but plenty of hikes!



Back to Mountain Biking

When i lived in california in the 90s i was a huge mountain bike enthusiast—Mt Tam in Marin County was at my backdoor, and I loved the arduous climb and accelerating descent it afforded just minutes from my home in Mill Valley. Somewhere along the way to Washington, Chile, and Beijing i lost track of riding… but on a recent visit to California the idea of off-road biking was reawakened and I’m excited to hit the trails again. The Trailforks app on iOS is an awesome resource to find terrain to explore, and it turns out there is a ton here in Washington state within easy drive of Seattle.

So, after plunking some real money into new bikes for myself and a +1 friend (my son this summer, imagining visiting friends in the future), i thought I’d post the serial numbers and bike descriptions here for safety. I also registered the bikes with the and 529 Project websites, great community indexes of bikes to help cut down on theft and return of bikes.

For myself, a Specialized Epic Hardtail model that is oh-my-god-so-light. The teal color will hopefully keep me visible to drivers on city roads! Large frame, serial number WSBC614123071N. I have been riding around the city and it really does feel like it “pulls you up the hills” it is so darn slick/light and boy do 25+ years (since my last bike purchase) make a difference in tech!

My son/friend bike is a Specialized Stumpjumper mountain bike, black frame in M, with serial number WSBC604317566P. Red highlights, front and rear shocks, drop post seat, 29” wheels. I look forward to riding both of these, the smaller M frame a slightly better fit for downhill posture and clearance from the frame… as a 5”10 height (down from 5”11 a decade ago?) I’m right on the edge between these M/L frame sizes.


Shoreditch Street Art

I had a lovely art-walk experience this week in Shoreditch neighborhood of London led by David Stuart of and wanted to make note for others. I had of course seen Exit Through the Gift Shop, superb film on the street art scene and the artist Banksy in particular, so it was with wondrous glee that i set out with David to see some of the many rich art-installations dotted in the streets of this neighborhood.


Beijing and Pingyao Visit 2019

We just had a wonderful trip to Beijing and for the first time had a chance to do some side trips to Pingyao.  Was fun to take the bullet-train in china for the first time, it’s about 3.5 hrs to Pingyao from Beijing West Train Station.  The little town is beyond charming and surrounded by a centuries old wall and towers.  We saw no western tourists at all (winter season likely had something to do with it) and stayed in a delightful boutique hotel called Jing’s Residence.  The hotel is right in the midst of the old town, with delightful set meals and comfy beds.  A bit on the pricey side for the town, but *well* worth it.  Highly recommend Pingyao as a Beijing side-trip, as others had recommended to me!

By the way, we hired a private car and driver in Beijing and absolutely loved this service. Eric runs a very good operation, our driver was super awesome, punctual, drove very safe, was in easy contact over WeChat to find and organize drops/pick-ups.  Will be recommending to all my friends that visit Beijing.

Here’s some shots from Pingyao:

Ok this is the discovery of the trip, a local specialty called Kau Lao Lao, a oat-based pasta arranged in a honeycomb pattern, with toppings of various kinds (pictured with lamb and a tomato broth of sorts, which tasted of lamb-raggu but didn’t look like it).  This was the best new food i’ve had in maybe a decade!  Where have you been all my life, Kau Lao Lao?

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Standing on the west-gate above the bustling streets below:

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Walking around the perimeter of the wall, probably a good 3+ mile circumference although some construction kept us from looping the entire city.

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Near the center of town amongst the bustle.

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My Japan Recommends

Just putting a quick note on some of my top recommends from Japan as i get a lot of requests and have been having to cobble together for friends.  Here’s a starter list:

Pro-tips in general:

  • Use this amazing site that has great english pages: to book restaurant reservations with many michelin-star and otherwise foody and hard to get reservation locations in Japan.  Most japanese restaurants don’t have good english websites and don’t take english phone calls.
  • Buy a japan-rail pass before flying to japan, activate it at Narita or other JR Rail station.  Huge savings over buying tickets individually or locally in japan after arrival, 7 or 14 day passes, you can make reservations for multiple trips at any JR Rail station and have nice comfy chairs, reserved seats, and tons of fun.  Riding the bullet trains never gets old, great fun and way to get around the entire country.  lots of google ads take you to vendors who sell the passes, all are licensed, but i used this one.


  • Amazing Tsukiji market tour and private cooking class, this was insanely good.  We did this before the move of the market out of central tokyo to god-knows-where.  But this company was top shelf, and the experience insanely good.  Best sushi meal of the trip, and fun for family with 2 teenagers not easily impressed:


  • Really reasonable great location boutique hotel.  Cheap/great-value, and good location.  I’ve stayed in 5+ hotels in Kyoto that were all more $$ and lesser locations.  Very, very small rooms, but comfy.   Kyoto Granbell Hotel.
  • Phenomenal 6-person, michelin-star sushi restaurant, best i’ve had in Kyoto, well worth the $150 fixed price experience for 3hrs of entertainment and close-magic-cooking. Sushi Gion Matsudaya.
  • Great Kyoto cooking class in a private home with a woman-chef who has pro-kitchen experience overseas.  Great english, great tour of the market before or after to buy directly from vendors (in the big central Kyoto market), great location, really neat small private home with good kitchen.  We spent 3-4 hours with her, were entertained, and great meal.  Very price reasonable.  Contact Midori Nukumizu at her email:
  • My teenage boy loved this ninja dojo where they had a several hour private ninja training class, they *loved*.  Good for teens boys and girls.
  • Insanely good coffee, several locations, be prepared to wait in line for 15-30 minutes… worth it and fun to wait in line in expectation of great coffee!
  • Do a day trip out and back to Nara, amazing walks from train station to dozens of temples including insanely old/awesome/etc.


  • If you have the JR Pass, consider taking a morning side-trip from Kyoto on the bullet train to the city of Himeji, to check out the Himeji castle.  OMG, insanely awesome… apparently the best/oldest/original castle in the country.  So. Cool.  Better day/morning trip than others from Kyoto IMHO.
  • Before or after the castle go to the rope-way and up to a hiking area for a 2-3 hr trek around some old temples that were used in several films including the tom cruise japan film about samurai. Shoshazan Engyo-ji Temple, via the rope-way called Mount Shosha Ropeway

Onomichi – coming soon

Fukuoka – coming soon

Miyajima Island – coming soon

Kanazawa – coming Soon (Kiragawa Go, Takayama day trips)

Hiroshima – coming soon

Nagasaki – coming soon


Zapallar in VR Project – Start

We just got back from a lovely spring break in Zapallar Chile visiting family.  We took a Omni VR Camera Rig with us and spent a day shooting the areas along the Zapallar-to-Cachagua coastal area and upon my return and review of the footage i’m really excited by how it looks.  I’ve got my 15 year old cineast son working on building a ~5m piece for VR which we’ll master at 8k+ using Pixvana’s software.

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For now i wanted to post a few photos and production stills:

Just getting going with the equarectangular 4k elements… really exciting project.

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Here’s a rough play-out of all shots:

And here’s an extremely rough, early version of the footage.  Carlos will be doing a proper edit, sound design, effects, titles, giving it narrative cohesion, etc.  Then we’ll master at full 8k and publish with Pixvana’s SPIN Studio.  But here’s a preview of work in progress:


Grand Canyon River Expedition with Hatch as Outfiter

River Rafting the Grand Canyon

My Family and I just completed a marvelous 9 day expedition on the Colorado River from Lees Landing launch, down through the marvelous Grand Canyon National Park.  We used Hatch as our expedition outfitter/organizer and we were absolutely thrilled with them, our crew, their end-to-end service, and of course, the amazing experience and majesty of the canyon/river.  I wanted to post a few thoughts here for the benefit of others considering the trip, and, Hatch as an outfitter for your adventure on the Colorado/Grand Canyon. Hatch was FANTASTIC.

Here’s what we did:

  • From Las Vegas, we took a regional small plane flight from the city of Boulder to Marble Canyon (not really a town per se, more like a landing strip for the plane and next to a bridge that crosses the Grand Canyon in the “Marble Canyon” area of the park). The flight was arranged with the help of Hatch expedition folks but was a cost separate from the expedition itself.  Here at the upper North-East of the Grand Canyon National Park we met our group which totaled 16 family members, some of whom took their own cars to park at this location, or, who took shuttles from Las Vegas by land.  We all stayed the night before departure at the Cliff Dweller’s Lodge, a very nice little motel on the side of the road with clean updated rooms, with a nice little restaurant and supplies shop for food/water/snacks.
  • We awoke early and met the Hatch Expeditions team at our hotel, loaded up in a van, and 15 minutes later we were at Lee’s Ferry, the departure point for the trip (where we met our boat, boat captain, and “swamper” who would assist the boat captain–thus making our total boat party 18 folks).
  • We then boarded out boat and started our journey down-stream which comprised of 9 days 8 nights.  The trip can be configured to be 7 days or as long as 15–in our case we were in a motorized boat (small outboard engine powered the vessel through rapids and long stretches that would require some real paddling effort), we saw other groups that were in mixed use paddle/cayak configurations… i can imagine any and all configurations to be great fun, but the motorized option was definitely optimal for our group that included children ages 10, 12, and 14, as well as several 60-70 year olds in various states of good conditioning (but not strong enough to be paddling a boat for 4-6 hours a day every day).
  • Each day consisted of a routine of (a) rise with the sun, (b) breakfast and break camp usually before 7:30am and on the river (c) a mixture of river rapid ridding, short stops for short walks, and longer stops for side-canyon hikes that lasted upwards of 3 hrs round trip, (d) lunch break mid day usually in a shaded river-edge spot, (e) more rapids and or hikes in the afternoon, (f) make camp landing by 4pm, set up camp, relax a bit before (g) dinner and then lights out with sunset.
  • All camping is on rivers edge on sandy beaches that have mix of rocks/bushes–very very comfortable camps on cots/tents as needed, but we slept outdoors with no cover all nights and enjoyed the stars.  Warm temperatures in July averaged 80+ at night and 100 during the day.  No mosquitoes, very pleasant lack of nuisance bugs of all kinds, with exception of red-ants that re everywhere but only bit 1 in our party 1 time…
  • Fantastic meals and snacks entirely organized and prepared by our captain and swamper.  Our responsibilities as passengers included helping unload/load the boat, and setting up our own camp and sleeping equipment.  We participated as a group in helping with cleaning post-meals, but largely were taken care of by the crew (i don’t know how they did all that cooking–but they did).  Meals were *VERY* good and complete with mixed preparation, sauces, sides, etc…. we were NOT wanting of food comforts, ever!
  • End of trip involved being picked up in a helicopter and flown out in groups of 6 to Bar10 Ranch, from where we had our first showers in 10 days, before boarding a small plane and being returned to Las Vegas area (this flight is included in the expedition fees from Hatch).

In summary–absolutely great experience for all in our group, it truly is a once in a lifetime, one place in the world kind of experience.  Where else can you travel 180+ miles through a national park, take in the absolute majesty of millions of years of natural geology, and never see any cars/villages/cell-phones, etc.?  I now understand why this trip is on so many people’s lifetime “bucket lists”… surprisingly, it wasn’t on my list before taking the trip, but upon returning, i would highly recommend to anyone who enjoys nature.  Hatch was a wonderful outfitter and I will strongly recommend to my friends who consider the same trip–their attention to customers, professionalism, great equipment, and real meaningful multi-generational commitment to the park and river guiding (grandpa Hatch started the company in the 1950s) is evident in the excellent service they deliver.

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Recommendations for visit to Madrid, Spain

I  lived in Spain during a study abroad year in college back in early 1990s, and have returned several times since for business and pleasure.  I’ve found myself writing up some of my recommendations for “what should i do if I visit Madrid” for many friends, and after completing this recent email (below) i figured i’d throw it on my blog as I’ve noticed that my “Things to do if you visit Chile” blog post has gotten quite a few visitors in the last year and has been nominally useful to others.  So in that spirit, here are my recommendations for things not to miss in Madrid and immediate vicinity (eg: within 90 minute train ride).  Note that this was written for a friend of mine from China, so i was stressing cultural elements that she would find particularly interesting!

These are the “towns near madrid to get out of the city to see some smaller towns:

  • Toledo: small cute town with lots of nice walking things to see, museums, churches, and need small streets on a hill.  Town with lots of history.  it is 40 minute train ride SOUTH of Madrid.  Plan a day trip there and back with a nice lunch.  You may want to join a tour with a chinese speaking guide?  it is easy to just go on your own, but, you might enjoy a guide as there is a lot of history?
  • Salamanca and Segovia.  Salamanca is a bigger small city about 90 minutes North-West from Madrid which is really great and has a lot to see, it is also a nice drive to get there.  on the way there right on the freeway is Segovia, lovely small town.  Both are worth seeing, you can do them together in 1 long day eg: start early, drive in car or train, to Salamanca–walk salamanca and see the Plaza (central square), the Catedral (church), and the university campus (very old university, where Chrisopher Columbus did some planning to go to america).  Then, go back to madrid via Segovia, have a lunch in Segovia (lunch inSpain is between 2pm and 4pm, so you could have lunch at 3pm at a nice restaurant) then walk Segovia–Roman ruins from an Aqueduct that is 2000 years old, and great little small town with lovely streets).  This is a BIG day, but it can be done.  Other option is to break this up into 2 trips.  Both are worth seeing.  If you only have time to do 1 of these, Segovia is closer and thus easier so do that.  Salamanca is really neet, but maybe too far.  I did in car and really liked the drive, but you may find that stressful?  I don’t know?  Trains are very good in spain so that’s always a easier way!

In Madrid be sure to see:

  • Go to a Flamenco Show.  Usually they start at 12am or even 1am (very late).  There is a great place called Cafe Chinitas that i have always liked.  you buy tickets/reservation, then go and have drinks and watch dancing and singing.  MUST DO, super cool, very very unique/different style of music.  All of these are good places:
  • If there are any Bull Fights in season i would go, very interesting and old fashioned–sad to see bulls killed, but i recommend.  I don’t think they have them in January, however, here is the bull ring website just in case:
  • If you can, go see a professional soccer match for Real Madrid or Atletico Madridspanish LOVE soccer, amazing experience.  You can find tickets always, might be expensive, but seeing Real Madrid play (one of best teams in the world) is a real experience!

Then there are the traditional tourist sights:

  • Plaza Mayor &  Puerta del Sol walking area (public squares)
  • Jardin del Buen Retiro (big park, go in daytime, at night not so safe, daytime no problem)
  • El Prado (huge museum full of amazing OLD art collections, get a guide of some sort or recording in chinese, without a guide it is pointless as there is too much to see!)
  • The Palace (king and queens) where there is a lot of stuff to see
  • dozens of other museums…
  • and dozens of fun neighborhoods to just walk around in and look at people and windows of stores etc.  your hotel can help you with that…

Food (lunch is 2-4pm, dinner is 10-12pm–they really really really do eat at that time, you won’t find the best restaurants open before then!  make reservations for the popular places!)

  • Must try = Botin.  A bit touristy, but really good and REALLY old, in continuous service since 1700s.  eat the suckling pig and the lamb, both are incredible!  It is near the Plaza Mayor so nice walking area.
  • Go to dinner one night on Calle Huertas (that means “Huertas Street”), it is a street filled with neat restaurants and bars that you can walk up and down in about 40 minutes round trip.  Lots of people out and about walking in this area at night, fun to people watch.  Plaza Santa Ana is a nice square surrounded by restaurants right by this street, so maybe walk the street, then eat at the restaurants on the Plaza.
  • Tapas” is a style of food where you stand at a bar (usually, although you can also have them at a table) and order small plates of different types that they will give you while you have a small beer.  you can go to a bar, have a small beer and a “tapas”, then go to another bar and do the same, and in this way walk between many bars/restaurants eating “tapas” along the way.  it is a style of “moving restaurant experience”.  very fun.  You can go to many neighborhoods where there are lots of “tapas” bars near each other.  There are also some new “markets” that have nice organic produce and lots of little stands for tapas”–one such market is this one: Mercado de San Miguel Pza. San Miguel, S/N 28013 Madrid, Spain Be sure to try: Tortilla Espanola (eggs and potato pie), Jamon Serrano (spanish cured ham), Queso Manchego (spanish cheese that is amazing), Gambas al Ajilo (shrimp in garlic), and anything else you see that looks tasty!

Recommendations for Travel in Chile

I get a lot of requests from friends about travel to Chile (for leisure/vacation, usually with family including kids), so i figured it was time to put my thoughts into a blog entry that I can repurpose, so here you go.

First some context: I lived in Chile from the age of 6-11 in the lovely Pinochet military dictatorship era (late 70s-early 80s, several years in Zapallar on the coast, and the others in Santiago the capital), the again after college for a year in 1994 (in Santiago, working as a film editor for commercial television), and most recently in 2010 for a year while i was planning my new business and my family and I divided time between the “small-north” region near La Serena, and yet more time in the smoggy confines of the capital.  In addition to these stints homesteading, i’ve also backpacked and otherwise visited the country another half-dozen times… so from a toursim and/or expat perspective, i feel like i have the place dialed in and can make some strong recommendations.

Some of my family enjoying a after lunch stroll in Valparaiso.

So, with a focus on tourism (not expat relocation, which will be another blog post if I have enough people asking me about living in chile, schools, immigration process, taxes, banking, etc.), here’s my top 3 guidelines:

  1. Skip Santiago.  My friends in Santiago will be upset with me for saying this, but i’m sorry–the truth is that Santiago has *absolutely* nothing going on from a tourism perspective.  You’ll be flying in and out of Santiago for your international flights, but otherwise SKIP IT.  The city is not distinct enough in any way that would warrant precious days that you could spend in the much more interesting other parts of the country.  Someone will tell you “oh, it is worth at least x days”, where x is exactly x days too many.  Seriously–SKIP IT.
  2. Plan 2-3 “segments” connected by flights.  The country is MASSIVELY long and the north/south orientation means that the areas to visit are hugely distinct from a natural flor and fauna perspective, so avoid your intention to “rent a car and drive” as the north-south drive would eat up 4 days of your trip!  There are 5 distinct areas of tourism attraction (see below)–pick 2-3 and spend quality time in these with regional driving in each, but don’t try to connect the dots by land.  If you buy your domestic segments along with your international ticket, on LAN (soon to be renamed LATAM) airlines (the Chilean carrier) the cost of the segments is very reasonable.

    Typical Pacific meeting the central coast of Chile.
  3. Focus your goals around “natural wonders” as opposed to “culture and civic/city life”–Chile kicks ass as a low population density, magical geography that is accessible, safe, and fun.  It underperforms tragically vrs. its peer group of Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil in terms of local food, indigenous culture, indigenous architecture, food, music, and “exoticism” for a typical well traveled american or european visitor.  And Argentina is a much better exemplar of “europe in southern hemisphere”.  My friends from Asia will find it fascinating, as it is very “european” and that will seem fresh and interesting.  But it will absolutely disappoint any “westerner” looking for something exciting “south of the border”… for that, go to Peru (my favorite country in South America, with the best food, home to the Inca civilization and its myriad of incredible ruins/art/etc., magical music, and incredibly colonial area cities, not to mention glorious mountains, coastline, and the birthplace of the Amazon.  Not to mention Brazil, which is marvelous for entirely different reasons.

Ok.  So now let me characterize the “regions” to choose from, i’ll outline them from North to South:

  1. The Atacama desert and Altiplano (high altitude plain).  This area can refer to a massive 1k+ mile region north of La Serena reaching to Peru border, but from a tourism development perspective, it really means flying into the city of Calama and then planting yourself in the area around San Pedro de Atacama as a home base and exploring the high plain.  Volcanoes dot the landscape, you are at 8-14k feet above sea-level the entire time, the star-gazing in the evenings are best in the world (no precipitation, low light contamination from urban areas, no smog, etc.).  I visited this area on the Bolivian side of the border on a $10 a day budget in 1993, today San Pedro is bustling (i’m told, have never been) and hotels can run up to $1k per night for a room at a luxury resort that includes meals and tours, but a wide gamut of options are available.  buuteeq’s first customer in the town is considered among the best in the country, lovely luxury resort Tierra Atacama.   The city of Calama also has tours of the Chuquicamata mine, the largest open pit on the planet, worth checking out on day in/out of Calama, but otherwise spend the time up in San Pedro.  This is what any guidebook would tell you to do, so to qualify this and make it a bit more local–let me add that ANY of the cities in the northern part of Chile will give you a feel for this desert vibe–super low population density (there are hours upon hours of driving where you won’t see anyone!).  I lived in the Pisco Elqui region near La Serena, much less developed for international premium tourists, and plenty exciting and interesting including the added benefit of having some wineries and distilleries for Pisco (a brandy, national drink).  If you want to fly in/out of La Serena and do a few days in La Serena (beach town, lovely coast) there is a hub of neat activities including a marine sanctuary where you can see all kinds of awesome penguins, sea-lions, dolphins, etc. about 90 minutes north of La Serena, observatories for sky-gazing, and the cool-as-shit little down of Pisco Elqui as a home base with funky/hippy vibe.  We lived here for 4 months at this little hotel, El Elquimista.  La Serena can be reached in 5-6 hours by great 4 lane highway, so this is also a doable road trip from Santiago, if going all the way to the true North is too much, but I don’t think anyone would argue that La Serena is a full replacement for the San Pedro de Atacama gig.

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    Pisco Elqui in the Valley del Elqui, about 90 minutes from La Serena.
  2. The Central Coast area around Santiago.  This is where you go in a rental car from the capital.  Roads are totally safe, well signaled in Spanish (easy to follow along with a GPS phone or ipad), and distances reasonable (eg: 2-3 hours max between points).  Just south of Santiago are various wineries that offer tours and some homesteading (eg: have cabins or other guest quarters).  The city of Valparaiso is a UNESCO world-heritage city for good reason, reminiscent of San Francisco but way dingier/run down yet totally captivating (in a raw way).  One night in town at this affordable and family friendly designer hotel (owner is a accomplished painter and mixed media artist) which is in the best neighborhood for exploring by foot, is all that is needed to get the vibe and traverse the hills on foot.  Lots of great restaurants.  Anthony Bourdain loved this place and wrote up several restaurants and bars on his TV show (google it!).  Vina del Mar is 15 minutes north of Valparaiso and is a altogether ritzier and cleaner/safer place, overrun with tourists in January and February but still fun, and a joy in December before the 25th when the locals from Santiago and the Argentines start showing up in droves.  Good beach hotel options and beaches.  Note that the water is FRICKING cold in chile, don’t expect Mexcian riviera type beach experience–the sand is lovely, but the waters are freeze-your-balls cold and thus it is much more about eating a fresh seafood meal on the beach and sun-bathing than “swimming”.  The town I grew up in is 60 minutes north of Vina, called Zapallar.  I highly recommend renting a house or staying at one of the (few) hotels in the area near Zapallar and doing 2-3 nights of walking the beaches and coastlines and visiting the neighboring town of Cachagua and Papudo, maybe even hit La Ligua for the local market (daily) to buy some fresh produce, and the fisherman’s market in Maitencillo.  I have a bunch of family and friends in Chile, so if you do make this particular trip, talk to me and I’ll see about helping find you a local friend to show you around, host you for a meal, and maybe provide a tip on a rental for your stay in town.  Zapallar has a lovely small boutique hotel which does NOT have ocean views but otherwise is a great base and good value.  My recommendation in general for this region is to get a house in Zapallar for 3-5 nights, and make Zapallar the base from which to travel to Valparaiso, Vina, La Ligua, etc. as day trips in your rental car.  Zapallar is 2hrs from the capital, you can arrive at airport and drive STRAIGHT to zapallar for your first day in the country.  You’ll thank me for it!  The walking paths along the coast, beaches, and understated tourism sector (few hotels, mostly locals) will give you a great “local” experience for this region of the country.  I also have relatives that rent their houses depending on the season…

    The beach in Zapallar Chile, about 1hr drive north from the must visit Valparaiso.
  3. The Pre-Patagonia area around Puerto Montt (the small south).  This is some combination of Pucon on lake Villarica and volcanoe region surrounding, the adorable city of Frutillar, the coastal city of Valdivia, Puerto Montt, and the island of Chiloe.  These are all reachable via car by using Pueto Montt or Valdivia as central arrival/departure ports.  Lots of great german influenced towns, lakes abound, cute fishing villages… great to walk and drive around.  If you aren’t into driving aimlessly around the region there are organized tours, but it is a very accessible region and well touristed in the December-Feb corridor (when the weather is great), not so much fun any other time of year (rains perpetually, like Seattle where I live now).  This is relatively populated part of “patagonia”, not to be confused with the insanely not-populated true “south” which starts after Puerto Montt and extends through fjords and icebergs and wild forests all the way down to Tierra del Fuego and the southern tip of the continent.
  4. Patagonia region(s).  There are two hubs here that are too far away to be linked.  One is the area from Puerto Montt to the town of Chile Chico, which has a road that connects the region (only passable in summer) called the Carretera Austral.  Renting a good 4×4 and driving parts of this itinerary is probably akin to northern British Colombia or parts of Alaska.  Lots of undeveloped forest, great lake fly-fishing and hiking, but not robust tourism infrastructure except for in pockets, mostly along the coast.  Likely best to look for a tour of this region than to wing it.  Town of Coyhaique is surprisingly bustling, flying in-0ut of hear and arranging tours might be good option (when I did it i was on $10 a day budget in 1994, so likely has changed quite a bit except for the remaining amazing natural wonders which can’t have been spoiled quite yet).  Much much farther south, only accessible by road if you drive into Argentina and then come back into Chile down at the tip, is the popular and “must see” area around the national park called Torres del Paine.  This is the classic photo of towering awesome mountains near a glacier emptying into a virgin lake, etc.  I’ve never been.  Everyone that goes raves about it.  Basically a “bucket list” kind of destination.  I think the itinerary is to fly in to the region for 4-5 days including time in the national park.  If money is no object, stay at this place in the park itself, luxury beyond compare.  And fly in and out of Natales, this  place is supposedly fantastico for accommodations.
  5. And then there is Easter Island, which might as well NOT be Chile because it is basically a Polynesian island WAY the frick out in the pacific.  Never been, can’t say one way or the other, but it is one of the top 3 draws to Chile for tourism so I would look like a fool for not at least mentioning it here.  Other than big stone statues staring out into the pacific, i’m not sure why anyone would go all the way out here.  If you want to visit islands in the pacific, there are better ones… i would skip as it is FAR to fly for small payoff, and you’ll get more for your “chile” vacation from the main north-south attractions i’ve covered above.

Ok, i’ve probably been too simplistic in this summary, but that’s my quick top 3 don’ts, and my top 4 (skip Easter Island) regions for “dos”.

Overall, as of June of 2013 when I’m first writing this, Chile is very accessible by rental car (by segment) so I recommend that strongly–don’t be beholden to public transport or a car and driver.  Roads are very safe.  Don’t leave valuables in-sight at tourist parking lots, just like anywhere in the world.  There is very little violent crime outside of the capital, expect pick-pockets to be the worst thing you’ll find in the country.  Not a lot of scams/hustling going on either, really a lovely place to visit and extremely friendly for kids.  Focus on the NATURAL wonders, food will be fine but nothing amazing, wine is good and cheap, and the people will be friendly and not speak english (so brush up on your basics in spanish).

I’ll add more comments to this post as I get a sense of the follow on questions from the folks that have asked me to write this up (you know who you are if you are reading this).

I’ll someday write up the equivalent for Peru and Brazil, which I would favor for more ambitious/exciting tourism… but Chile is a great, safe, lovely place to visit with family and I hope you enjoy your trip!

Me and my clan, on recent visit in April 2017.  We visited Zapallar, Pisco Elqui, and Valparaiso.


Spain, 20 years later

20 years ago I lived in Madrid for my junior year in college.  It was a lovely time of life.  I was very fortunate to make several new great friends while living in Spain, but i also brought with me several close friends from Palo Alto High School which coincidentally also ended up in Spain that same year (none attended UCLA with me, or had any coordination in planning their own year abroad to coincide with my choice of Spain/Madrid).  At one point a motley crew of us ended up attending a bull-fight (under the auspices of one of our parents who was visiting and hosted both the bull outing and a epic memorable meal at Casa del Botin (one of the oldest restaurants in Spain / the world).

As my year in Madrid was winding down in the summer of 1992, Tobin and I went backpacking together in the southern Cordillera Nevada region which is in Andalusia near Granada.  A magical string of small “white villages” dot the steep slopes of the mountain and are connected by small wandering foot-paths and a precarious mountain road with infrequent bus service.  During a 3 day hike/camping excursion (and by “camping”, i mean we slept on the dirt ground by the side of the road) we had a bunch of laughs and celebrated Tobin’s 21st birthday.

Tobin and I trekking in the Alpujarras, Andalusia Spain 1992

At some point on the last day of our camping one of us proposed that we “should return 20 years from now and re-trace our trek” which stuck in both of our minds and was a looming 2012 date with destiny which I am happy to say we executed to great success last week.  We started by meeting in Madrid where we were joined by 3 friends who are married to europeans and have taken up home on the old-world.  Matt, Mike, and Clark joined us in Madrid for 48hrs of intensive and seemingly perpetual tapas hoping (with beverages of course).  While my liver suffered a bit it was my gut that really hurt (from so much laughing)–amazing how so many things can change yet be the same… the ridiculous antics and reminiscing were together an amazing time travel potion which I drank with great thirst (but let’s be honest, 48hrs was about the right amount of it!)

Matt, Mike, Forest, Clark, and Tobin
20 years later, in front of the classic Madrid bar, Beguim de Beguet

As the europeans made their ways back to their families, Tobin and I headed south to Andalusia and through bullet train and rental car transport (neither of which existed (train) or where available to us (as 20 year olds) last time we were here), found ourselves back in our old stomping ground in the Alpujarras.  We couldn’t quite find the same brick wall to sit on and take our “20 years later” photo, but we were definitely in the hunt and amongst the same villages and fields.  Everything seemed the same yet different–lots of internet cafes, more tourism, better roads… and of course, things just seemed smaller and less foreign in general (instead of quaint villagers, we were surrounded by german tourists).  But hey, we did it–we made good on our “let’s do this in 20 years” pledge, and the 3 hour late lunch capped with yet another cafe-con-leche sealed the deal.

Tobin and Forest back in the Alpujarras, Andalusia Spain 2012

As a bonus we hit Granada for some tapas and photo-taking, as well as Ronda which finally gave us some good weather and some ridiculously blue skies.  We also had a chance to visit two of buuteeq’s customers in the region, the Hacienda de San Rafael (farmhouse turned luxury retreat, about 45 minutes from Seville) and Corral del Rey (boutique luxury in the center of the Santa Cruz old city center of Seville, walking distance from everything).

So, what did I learn 20 years later (if anything)?  There were some really great and accessible insights that both Tobin and I rallied around in realtime, as well as some parting thoughts that came together on the long-haul flight back to Seattle:

  • 20 years old is a great age!  Before the trip i often spoke of Spain and my time in Spain 20 years ago as equal parts of a wonderful recipe.  Without taking anything away from Spain, i would now say with great clarity that being 20 is a great age and a great time of life and the fact that we were in Spain was a very big secondary dynamic.  The “right of passage” concept played out elegantly for us 20 years ago, in europe and having access to so many inspirations (the art, food, architecture, and distinct culture of spain)–but really, the magic was inside us directly, and it hadn’t have been Spain our muse may have come in many forms.  I am glad that I was “overseas” at that time, it was perfect for me and what I needed to really thrive and grow at that moment in my life… and I will recommend to my own kids when they reach the age.
  • Some things don’t change.  Early in the week amongst the larger group dynamic of the 5 of us in Madrid, I shared with the boys how excruciatingly embarrassing i often found their public behavior when we were in highschool.  Matt and Clark and Mike together often involved a public theater of improvisation and one-upmanship in which the three tried to perform in the most outrageous and obnoxious ways, the better to prove themselves the greatest fool of the group.  Upon hearing some of my anecdotal examples of this behavior (such as mock-chasing down and beating each other in public to the horror of casual bystanders) Clark pointed out, emphatically, that “we were in high school!” as if that behavior was (a) excusable and (b) far, far behind us.  Within 15 minutes the same dynamic kicked in, as if prophetically, and the boys did their best to up-the-ante throughout the weekend… fortunately nobody landed in prison, and my gentle reminder to them that (sarcastically) “we we’re in high school!” was great fodder for laughter to us all (albeit I genuinely was horrified by a few of the antics and kept my distance and made sure to not photograph some of the offending stuff so that there would be no public record!)
  • Looking -20/+20.  Over a round of monster caipirinhas at the Beguim de Beguet (a favorite bar from 20 years ago, still operating, in dilapidated but charming disrepair) we did the group show and tell exercise of “where did you think you would be in 20 years, 20 years ago… and where do you think you’ll be 20 years from now” and for myself i feel very accomplished and connected on behalf of my 20 year old self–i’ve traveled broadly, experienced great happiness in my marriage and family, and accomplished more than i could have hoped for professionally (in terms of satisfaction), albeit not in the field that at the time I wanted to pursue (film industry).  Looking forward 20 years, i had very little ambition in my answer–basically i just want to see the things that are already in motion play out (my kids, my marriage, healthy and happy, not as much travel, etc.)… and in this regard I really felt like i was looking into a mirror at my younger and older self, over a 40 year narrative arc, and giving a thumbs-up back at the mirror… i loved all three images I saw (20 year old, today, and 60 year old) versions of me.
  • Travel is like getting into a teleportation machine.  I’m so happy to be working in the travel industry (buuteeq, hotel marketing services company).  Getting on a plane from Seattle and getting off in Madrid a day later was like rising into the sky and having the planet rotate beneath our boeing jet… when I got off in madrid I was surrounded by life-long-friends, transported back in time to 20 years ago where we retraced steps and experiences.  Just a few days later to get back on the plane and just as quickly to find myself back in Seattle with my current day joys of family and work–it was a lovely trip.

Chile Earthquake Madness Feb 27, 2010

We were awoken last night by the 8.8 earthquake that hit chile. We ran to our children’s rooms after we realized it was not the usual 10 sec shaker which is so common here given the subduction zone of the pacific and continental plate here which among other things produces the Andean mountain range with dozens of sub 20,000 ft peeks. We huddled under the doorways with a kid each in hand. Thankfully our house survived structually, although we could hear shattering glass throughout the house. It seemed to go on forever, reports say 90 secs but if you told me it was 5 minutes I would believe you.

Afterwards we gathered outside in the yard with Tata Emilio who is with us. We managed to get back to sleep eventually and rode out the aftershocks which were impressive unto themselves and super frequent, just had a biggish one again a good 9 hours later.

Our house suffered some damage including lots of blown out shelves, smashed tv, some shattered windows, 18 inches of the pool water level tossed out, etc etc but nothing important, we are thrilled to be safe and to learn that all of our immediate family is as well. However we got news of an immediate horrifying tragedy in our extended family involving loss of life of young children, a visceral reminder of the seriousness of the situation and i’m sure of similar news that will be affecting many folks here and where tsunami lands.

Thankyou to all ofour friends and family that have written with concern and well wishes, we will update more when can, for now we have no phoneor electric or water and cell phone battery is almost dead. Prayers to all those affected. Much love, forest and Cristina and the boys.

Chilequake Day 3

We’ve been without water and electricity the last few days.  As there is no electricity in our general part of the city (the north) there is also no gas at the stations (no pumps), so we’ve been mostly home bound.  At the house we have the swimming pool water to use for flushing the toilets and for washing dishes, so we’ve been relatively well off.  We bbqed the defrosting meet from the freezer so it wouldn’t go bad, and we have plenty of fruits and vegetables.  We were down to our last bottle of drinkable water, but on a excursion to the ‘hood we found a store open and were able to re-supply with plenty of water.  We’ do have gas for the stove, so we’ve been able to eat well.  We have candles for the evening but basically have been going to bed with the sun.  The moon has been full these last few days, which has made the nights calming.

The aftershocks are very frequent, surely we must have had 50 or more by now… they come with such frequency that sometimes we don’t even bother to mention them.  They are thankfully all smaller and decreasing further in intensity each time they appear.  Sunday morning there was a aftershock that was pretty long, and we jocked that “in a normal climate, that would have been a big one”… we later heard that it was a 6.0 and was nearby in Valparaiso, indeed, a big one by normal standards but for us that is now a baby-quake!

Our immediate family and friends all seem to be fine—we don’t have good phone access as our cell phones are dead.  Today i’m at a relative’s in Santiago so that I can call family in a few hours (when pacific coast wakes up), and reports are that by and large folks are ok, even our cousin and her 6 children from Curico, which is very very close to the epicenter.  Their town (Curico) got pretty flattened, but their house and the houses of their friends and colleagues from the farm were thankfully all ok.

Unfortunately some of our extended family were touched by this tragedy in the worst way possible–a cousin lost two young children to a tsunami wave, they were very close to the epicenter vacationing.  We will try to go to the mass this weekend with other family members.  Our thoughts and prayers are with the parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles.

Thank you to everyone that has emailed us with concern and well wishes—it has been very comforting to receive your notes.  Chile is generally well prepared for earthquakes because they are so common here, but even with great construction codes the devastation is palpable, even though I have seen almost nothing on the television or web (as we have been without electricity), so at this point you all know more than we do.

Forest, Cristina, the boys, and Tata Emilio who is with us.

5 Days, Still no Electricity

So i wanted to start with something positive, so here is a nice picture taken earlier this (southern hemisphere) summer by our friend Jeannie Duisenberg who visited us for a lovely week together with her partner Rich Hlava.  We had so much fun with them, we were sad to see them go!  One of our two kittens is pictured here with us, her name is Bilz.

Bilz is sister of the other cat, Pap.  Bilz y Pap is a duo of “fantasy drinks” (aka sugar water with carbonation and lots of synthetic coloring) that are homegrown Chilean brands, just like Inka Cola in Peru (which has a coloring additive that is banned in the united kingdom from studies that show that it makes young kids *crazy*).  Here’s a picture of Bilz & Pap cartoon characters, that proudly rep the sugar water to young children and parents everywhere in Chile.  We liked them so much, and the kids the sugar water, that we named the kittens accordingly.


Ok, with that positive story off my chest (so that this blogroll doesn’t become all doom and gloom), i’ll update you that we are in the minority of Santiago residents that still don’t have electricity, ending day 5 and soon to be going on day 6 since the earthquake.  Thank god for our pool, which is providing lots of water for washing dishes and for the toilets, as well as a natural bath of sorts, albeit highly chlorinated.  We’ve burned through our candles, so I’m off to get some more for this evening.  The kids have been going to bed early with the sun, which is a plus as we get ready for the school year which starts monday (Was supposed to start today, but was moved out because of the quake, since our school, like many, was out of electricity for a while).  Otherwise, we continue to be safe and thankful!

Electricity, Electricity!

Electricity is a great thing, especially when it powers the pump that draws water from the well deep in the earth beneath your home owners group’s shared property.  The swimming pool showers, toilet refills, and dish washing was getting really old. A world without electricity is now much easier for us to imagine—it is one devoid of light in the evenings, of iphone charging during the day, of VOIP telephony to talk to business colleagues in China and the USA, and without the joy of LED powered LCD monitors full of lovely images to watch. 

Carlos had done a unit of inquiry at his 2nd grade class in Beijing last year, and they talked about electricity in other ways—but somehow i think the Chilean Earthquake lesson on electricity was much more compelling?  I know he and his brother will remember the earthquake more for it’s lack of electricity than for its overpowering rattling forces and shattering windows.

Kids are now in school (day 2) and dealing with the crash course of being surrounded by spanish speakers all day long; not loving it so far but who could.  I do think they will adapt quickly, and we should be enjoying spanish only chit-chat in 6-8 weeks time.

Here’s some photos of our house and neighborhood with earthquake destruction (which I hadn’t been able to upload easily without, electricity…)

Here’s the living room window blown out by a collapsing bar.  This and our smashing TV set were the loudest of the glass breaking events in the house proper:


Many of the walls surrounding farms in our neighborhood were knocked over in long stretches, sometimes for several hundred yards at a time, like this one just down the street.  Good thing it didn’t fall into the street, as that would have cut off our access to get food/water!


And here’s the toxic cloud of muck created by a explosion at a nearby chemical plant.  The gray cloud is dark dark dark black in a properly exposed photo, and the clear white sky on the horizon was the otherwise clear sky that day.  i’ve been itching my skin ever since, wondering if we have real chemical/toxic exposure!


When “making the connection” is a bad idea

Cristina and I have been a fan of “making the connection” ever since I first learned of the concept whilst reading a Tom Cahill travel story about “spelunking”, the sport of cave exploration.  In caves, the challenge is to find a way out of the cave that is different than your way in, so that you have “making the connection” through the cave—usually this follows the current/past path of water through which formed the cave structure.  We learned to apply the spirit of “making the connection” to any kind to many sorts of adventurous—car trips, walking and hiking outings, multi-country or city vacations, etc.  The goal is to always return via a different route, the better to see new places/things along the way, and not return via known path.  This has never gone wrong on us, although a few times we did find ourselves on difficult roads, longer than desired outings, and a few times, completely lost and near despair—but nothing serious that wasn’t outweighed by the excitement of exploration and adventure.

However, last weekend things went horribly wrong.

My friend from China Li has been visiting me in seattle, and was desirous of some outdoors time and we agreed on the Olympic Peninsula.  A friend recommended the Storm Ridge Trail at Crescent Lake, about 3 hrs drive from Seattle proper via Puget Sound Ferry crossing.  We left the house at 5:45 am and arrived at trailhead just ahead of 9am.  The ranger at the trail head was not yet open for business, but we caught a few words with him as he was raising the flag on the flagpost, and learned that the trail was “straight up ahead”, that it was “very strenuous/challenging”, and that it should take no more than “3 hours” roundtrip.  A “3 hour tour”, as Gilligan’s Island theme song says…

Given the relatively short time horizon, we took with us16 ounces of water each, a sandwich, some dried apricots, and were lightly clothed (i in shorts and sandals + tshirt.  This was mistake number 1… new motto in life will forever be “always take 3x the water you think you need”.

We started hiking and were instantly in a happy place—gorgeous day, tall verdant trees and lush ferns all around us, a happy little stream/creek running through the valley that we started to slowly ascend.  Eventually the trail started to get steeper, then VERY steep, and we spent what seemed like hours hiking straight up a never ending series of switchback turns.  After what seemed like 3 hours i was beginning to worry that we might be on the wrong trail… lo and behold, it had indeed been 3 hours!  and we WERE on the wrong trail!  We finally crested the climb and found ourselves at an intersection of our trail with another well signed/indicated park trail.  At this point we looked on the map we had picked up at trailhead (note to self—look at map before starting, not only once realizing you are lost) and found that we had hiked 7.5 miles already (making our current hike a 6 hour project even if we turned back right now), this as we finished the last drops of water we had with us.

So we had a decision to make… turn around immediately and return to the car by trail we just climbed, or… “make the connection”—a path to our left clearly indicated by trailhead signs indicated it was 5 miles down the trail, where another trail would meet and from there 2 miles to the road.  in other words—7 miles back to the road (where we could hitchhike to the car) by a NEW path, with likely better views of the valley and lake than our hike to date had offered, or a retreat in defeat by our first route.  Neither Allan nor I hesitated for a second—we wanted to make the connection, and we headed off on the Aurora Ridge Trail for what would be a fun, if thirsty, second half of our day.  Even now thinking back on that decision, i don’t think we were making a mistake given the information we had available to us.  In the future, the lack of water will be something that would sway me more, but at that time, i felt that i was going to be thirsty one way or another, so might as well see some new sights along the way!

So… 2 hours later (along a beautiful trail i might add), we enter into a meadow and the trail starts to fade out into bushes and tall grass.  This had sort of happened a few times earlier, so we weren’t immediately alarmed, but as the minutes past and we searched high and low, including going forward on promising leads and then retreating to last known part of the trail several times, we increasingly had a feeling of “holy cow, this trail doesn’t continue”.  We were now 12 miles from our car, with a good uphill climb at our backs in order to get to the original trail, extremely tired (cramping in legs was very intense, especially during any increase of elevation/slope), and did i mention—had no water?  What to do?

Frankly, for the next 2 hours I didn’t think once of going back—it was simply to far to try 12 mile hike, when we were only 2.5 miles from the road and safety—if we could just find the trail!  So this is when we made our first real mistake—we went off the trail (NEVER LEAVE THE TRAIL) and started hiking along the ridge and through the forest, whilst visually trying to decipher the topology around us and mapping it back to our extremely low resolution/not topo-map map.  Thank god neither of us broke a leg or otherwise got into trouble at this point, we were stomping around on very steep slopes, over and under big fallen trees, and fortunately did not come across rattlesnakes or bears/etc.  However, now it is nearing 4pm, we are really lost, and the prospect of spending the night in the woods is starting to loom (with no water!)

So we make our way back to the trail, in the middle of a meadow, in the middle of a lovely forest… just 2.5 miles from the road, perhaps just 500 meters from the trail to that road, and have to settle on turning back (not making the connection!) and retracing our steps back up and then down what will total 12.5 miles.

Despite the pain in our legs, the sense of impending doom, and thirst!!!!!! Allan and I both had a remarkably serene outlook…  we were having fun the entire time.  I pushed my body farther on this hike than I did during the marathon in tokyo earlier this year, and there was the prospect of possible injury or worse, but i never lost sight off the beauty of nature, the spiritual stillness surrounding us.  This was a fun day.

That said—in the meadow, looking up and down the ridge, off the trail where we shouldn’t have been, i couldn’t help but ask myself “are you frickin kidding me… how is this happening to us?”  It was “Touching the Void”, “Into Thin Air”, and “Man vrs Wild” all wrapped up in one crazy brain rush.  My wife and kids are in Chile, so far away… and I’m just 2 miles from the road—but i’m LOST without water, in real danger.

Oh shit.

Anyways, while there are many more details that are curious and fun to narrate in person, for the blog i’ll share the big finale—we made it to the ridge by 6pm, giving us 2 hrs to return down a 3hr section (before certain nightfall/darkness).  We drank some running water we found (giardia and other diarrhea producing diseases likely found in the water source, be damned!) and tromped down the path to the creek in the valley, where we were hosted to total and utter darkness, the kind where you can’t see ANYTHING in front of you, let alone the path which runs along the ravine, full of precipitous rocks and other obstacles
that would be painful to experience after a fall.

This is where the iPhone came in—my phone had been without a signal all day, and useless as a phone, GPS/map, email, or anything else… but as a flashlight, however dim the screen would otherwise be considered, it was a godsend.  Allan held on to my backpack and i guided us forward like two blind/lost bozos, for what was at least 2 miles.  When we finally saw the headlights of cars on the road ahead we knew we were going to get home that night.

We were on the trail for 12 hrs.  25 miles.  5,000 + feet up (and then down).  Wow.

To repeat, lessons learned:

(1) take more water than you could ever drink

(2) for good measure, always take water purifying tablets (along with a canteen or plastic bottle that could be used for that purpose)

(3) don’t always trust the forest/park service signs… we were on marked paths that turned out to be not very well maintained—we put too much faith in the park service

(4) making the connection, need not always be, the #1 priority!


Expat Living Experience Chile 2010

New Chapters in countries that start with “CH” sound

So we are on to our next adventure, in our quest to live in all the countries in the world that start with the “CH” sound, we have packed our things up in China, passed through Seattle, and are on our way to Chile.  In a few years we plan to move to Chad, completing the trifecta.

Specifics of what we are doing there, how, and where exactly in the country… i will save for when I’m actually there and can write from a sofa wih the laptop in front of me and a cold Pisco Sour in hand.  Suffice to say the primary driver was this—after 5.5 years with Microsoft and working on the same core business (Silverlight & Expression product lines), I was ready for a change in latitude at work… and for the family, it was going to be now or never if we wanted the kids to be indoctrinated in the black arts of the spanish language with a native accent.  As most of my friends and many of my colleagues know, i lived in Chile at a young age and it has markedly defined my personal life perspective, goals, and temperament… i’ve always wanted to replicate some aspect of that experience for my own children, and low-and-behold, we opted to do a flashback and replicate it exactly! 

Cristina and the kids are on the beach in Zapallar as i type, already enjoying Machas Parmesanas, Locos con Mayonesa, Lucuma flavored ice-cream, Chirimoya fruit, and our favorite—Maraqueta bread, fresh twice daily, still warm from the oven when you put the butter on it and a inch of Palta (avocado) with some salt.  It is the 18th of September there tomorrow, the independence day of the country, so she is enjoying celebrating with family and is off to a rip roaring start.

I am finishing up at work tomorrow and turning in my badge (literally), then taking a week to wrap up things with the house and some friends and family, and then voila, off to rendezvous and begin the next chapter.  I’m officially changing the blog sub-heading today to “Chilean Keys”, as Beijing is now so yesterday…

Much more to come, now that Cristina and I can access the blog freely, from an unregulated internet market (no Chinese firewall to get in the way!

We are here — Chile 2009

Which is where? Pisco Elqui, of the Valle del Elqui, about 6-7 hours north of Santiago, due east of La Serena, close to the Andean border with Argentina.  Beautiful, dry and warm climate.  A throwback to the 70s with Chilean hippies, lots of crochet, and a very non-commercial yet tourist friendly ambiance.  Tiny.  It is 1% the size of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, with the same blend of colonial/rural/mestizo look and feel with a reverence for nature and new age spirituality. No gringo owned art galleries, no outrageously gorgeous jewelry stores, but a handful of tiny shops with local artisanal products, some really cute restaurants, cabins for rent, horses and lots of vineyards.  This is the center for Pisco; two brands that come from the region are Capel and Mistral, the latter taking its name from the famous poet Gabriela who hailed from the region. Not far from here is an organic winery. The valley also houses a couple state-of-the-art observatories with the some biggest telescopes in the world. Can’t wait to check them out, but for the time being, looking at the stars with the naked eye is pretty phenomenal–even with a moon, you can see shooting stars and globs of constellations, 300 days a year.

We live in a funky house that was probably built 100 years ago, but renovated with Balinese flair by Justin, son of Ximena, friend of Jane and Emilio. Justin and his wife Cony lived in India and Bali pre-babies. They’ve been here around 6 years. Very creative folks with cute kids and lots of interests. With others in their community, they helped start up a Waldorf school, part of a branch of alternative schools based on German philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s alternative beliefs about children’s development and education. One of our reasons for coming to Elqui (sight unseen for both of us) was our belief that this nurturing school environment would be the most stress-free way to get the kids immersed in Spanish.  So far, both kids come home jubilant and go to school excited to see what will unfold. It’s only a 10 minute walk and a big part of my day has been getting them both there and back (their days start and end at different times).

That says a lot about the pace of our lives.  There’s not a lot to do or anywhere to go, which is just fine by us.  Forest has been productive in a little office he set up here at the house. When the boys come home we all have lunch at 2, Chilean style.

October has always been my favorite month and Fall always felt like renewal to me, but on the flip side of the seasons, starting Spring on the flip side of life after Beijing, in our own topsy turvy way it all feels right.

Road Trip to Copiapo

Oct 26, 2010

This weekend we decided to hit the road, departing from Pisco Elqui (where we have been living in Chile, in case that is news to you!):

(view from our home’s porch, up the valley):

The valley behind leads down from our town towards the sea and the “city” of La Serena…

… (which is in the IV Region of Chile) to head north towards Copiapo, capital of the III Region.  A gorgeous drive on the new “coast highway” in the III Region, about 200 miles of “dirt” road that drives like a dream–we could make 60mph+ for long stretches at a time.  We saw 3 cars all day on Saturday, and literally 100s of miles of gorgeous beaches with few to no people on them.  Here’s the road… sometimes straight as an arrow for 20-30 miles at a time.

The view out the window was captivating, and although we saw many “vicuna xsing” signs, we didn’t see any (vicunas are like llamas… wild in this part of the country)

Did I mention, the beaches were EMPTY?  Here’s our car parked at the national park parking lot… gorgeous dunes, not a soul in sight!

At our northernmost point, we hit “Bahia Inglesa”, a lovely beach resort with 150 full time inhabitants.  There were about 50-60 beach goers there on the saturday, presumably from the nearby Copiapo and Caldera cities (towns of 50,000 or less, 90  minutes drive from this isolated beach):

We stayed in the hamlet of Huasco one night, caught the local children’s halloween costume parade, apparently becoming very popular down here in the southern hemisphere.

we hit a local market for fresh produce on our way back home; Cristina’s keen sense of haggling, developed in Beijing and in Chinese, has transitioned marvelously to the Chile/Spanish…

and then arrived home sweet home.  All the best from the entire family, from Pisco Elqui Chile (sorry, couldn’t get a picture of all four of us yet–we’ll keep working on that!)

Pisco Elqui Gorgeous Views

Nov 23, 2009

So our little house in Pisco Elqui is part of a vacation rental complex run by our neighbor/landlord called Cabanas Elquimista, and amongst the little cabins/houses dotting the side of the valley wall is his house itself, which he built and which has a super groovy hippie good-times vibe going on.  My favorite feature of his house is his porch, which has a completely open/infinity-horizon thing going on because it actually has no railing/safety perimeter, rather, it just extends to an edge and then drops about 12 feet down the ravine… a perilous environment or late night drunken accidents to occur (remember, this is the home of Pisco production in Chile, a brandy like booze of 100+ proof, usually drunk with sugary mixes which makes it go down faster and hit you harder than usually prudent).  Take a look at the porch:

I tell you, it is positively exhilarating to be on a structure that has both a great view, and a palpable sense of imminent chaos of human bodies flying off the edge into the abyss!

The entire property has that feeling to some extent, in that the houses are all built along the break in the valley, giving great panoramic views from most places on the property, including the pool and the terraced cactus gardens (we are in a desert, remember!)  Here are a few more shots of the environs:

Mistral Pisco Distillery Tour

Nov 23, 2009

Per the namesake of our little town, yes, there is actually some Pisco distillery action in the ‘hood at the Pisco Mistral production plant.  Pisco is a Chilean and Peruvian liquor that runs between 40 and 55 % alchohol levels (80 to 110 proof), and to my untrained palette taste pretty much like a brandy.  In it’s basest form, the stuff is usually mixed with Coca Cola to make a “piscola” drink which gets you drunk in a hurry and at a super low cost.  A bottle of generic Pisco runs as little as $5 USD at the market.  The industry apparently has some hopes of upping the profile of the drink, perhaps because they are loosing out on the “get drunk quick and cheap” market segment to Rum, which is even cheaper still, and comes in from export countries that have a ton of sugar crops which i presume are higher yielding/volume than growing Pisco from wine grapes.  So, towards the end of improving the drink’s reputation and charging more per bottle, the local Mistral distillery has been putting the product into oak barrels to age for a few years, giving it a decidedly woody taste and a yellower color. The tour of the plant is most impressive, particularly in admiring the swanky new “bodega” they have put in place to make the whole thing seem more regal.  Check out the inside:

The old copper boiling kilns were pretty cool as well, where the grape juic/wine is boiled to extract the alchohol so that it can be condensed and then distilled and later put into the oak barrels.

And, this awesome looking old school truck for transporting the grapes from the harvest in the fields:

But by far, better than the product/pisco that we sampled, was the “disneylandesque” garden and restaurant, which have been built to convey “better than your average piscola” heritage to those visiting:

Halloween in Chile 2009

Nov 23, 2009

When i was a kid living in Chile in the 1970s, the lack of a Halloween celebration was one of my biggest beefs with the country (the other two were lack of Root Beer, and no saturday morning cartoons).  So it is with surprise and amusement that we now find that Halloween is a serious event here, even in our own little town in the mountains.  I have mixed feelings—on the one hand, it is obvious that kids love the fun and the candy, so it is a great thing for children everywhere to partake in.  On the other, the shameless consumerism of made-for-industry holidays like this one (something like 20% of all candy for the entire year is sold for the event, in the USA) is abhorrent and a bummer to see it so far away from its consumer roots in the USA, infiltrating little villages in the Andes!

Check out the little dirt roads in our town, with scary kids in pursuit of mischief and candy + artificial colors.

Desert Drive to Coast

Nov 23, 2009

Emilio and I did an amazing overland trip from Pisco Elqui.  When you look at a map of chile on Google Maps, you get a very false impression that all roads are created equally.  In our part of Chile, maybe 10% of the roads are paved, so a good local map not only distinguishes between paved/not but also between degrees of “not paved”, which range from packed gravel, to packed dirt, to loose dirt, and then the lowest form of them all, loose dirt SINGLE TRACK, roads that are so gnarly that you not only need a 4×4 vehicle, but also to drive with trepidation because at any moment you could find yourself facing down another vehicle, on the middle of a steep hill with no guardrails.  The first leg of our weekend outing was on such a road, south from Vicuna into the Rio Hurtado valley.

The first hour we probably were making 40km per hour progress, but then the road got really hard core and we were down to 20km/p/h for long stretches.  It took us over 3 hrs to go less than 40 miles.  But it was the most fun i’ve ever had with a 4×4 vehicle, and the vistas were just incredible… the air is so dry, you can literally see mountains in the distance that are 100s of miles away.

Once we got to Hurtado the road opened up and eventually became paved, as we made our way into Ovalle for a yummy lunch at the local “Social Club”.  Afterwards we continued along a paved road down to Combarbala, through river valleys and past mile after mile of grapes, avocadoes, and other fruits being squeezed from the desert by modern irrigation marvels (we saw several large irrigation damns).

The cacti were fantastic, some flowering with bizarre fruits.  Late in the afternoon we hit the coast at Huentelauquen and made our way down to Los Vilos, a windy place to say the least, but still charming.  We found a funky little hotel with a great deck view of the bay:

and then we walked out to the point of town to catch the sunset, followed by a feast of abalones and wine before snuggling up in our beds (i had forgotten how humid the coast is, i much prefer the dry as bone desert air in our village)

The next morning we did some exploration of the coast between Pichidangui and Los Vilos for possible property investment, the highlight of which was this piece of land, complete with amazing cliff and ocean inlets—a bit pricey at $130,000 USD for 1.5 acres. 

On the plus side, it does include water and electricity… unlike other properties we saw that were 1/10th the price, but playfully offered as “eco-lots” because you are on your own to produce solar/etc. for your water and power needs.

Here we are at Pichidangui beach, which tata of course wanted to immediately ravage with a quick swim (i held him off till later in the day, in Totoralillo closer to Serena).

Punta Choros and Isla Damas

Nov 23, 2009

This weekend we picked the kids up after school and headed down to the coast to explore the Isla Damas national park area, famous for fauna lining the islands just off the coast.  The Humboldt current runs along the coast of most of southern Chile, with icy cold waters that come up in a subduction zone that brings rich nutrients from the depths up to the surface where fish can gorge themselves, and then a sequence of predators can gorge on them and each other in a fantasmagorific orgy of consumption.  Bottle nose dolphins, orcas and other whales, dozens of migratory birds, sea lions and otters, etc. line the coast feasting on each other.

The drive on yet another dirt road was fun as always, the thrill has far from eluded me (to date), and led to a windswept peninsula/point with the little town of Punta Choros.  I had found some cute cabins on the web earlier in the day, and they were even better in person.

We were undeterred by the wind and set off for several great hikes along the coast, with mostly clear skies over the weekend and warm temperatures if you could lay down low enough to get out of the wind!

Sunsets were fantastic as usual, and a local fisherman sold us a dozen LARGE abalone for about $1.50 USD per… it was yet another abalone orgy, as we prepared them with mayonaise, stir fried with pasta, and ate them on little toasted breads.

The evenings were fun, we didn’ t have internet connection or tv, but we did have our portable electronics and plenty of electricity to power them…

The highlight was the “3 hour tour” (we explained the meaning of that phrase to the kids, who thought that it sounded hilarious (Gilligan’s Island) to the islands.  As luck would have it, my camera ran out of battery power very early on the outing, so i missed dozens of great wildlife shots of dolphins and sea lions, which were a thrill to see in such high density in their wild environments.  The dolphins were everywhere, jumping high into the air at several points, and following our boats around playfully as usual (we see quite a bit of them in Santa Barbara shores in California).  Here’s a poor stand’in photo wise:

Just 30 minutes into our drive back home sunday morning, both the boy asked “when can we come back”, so this clearly ranked as a top 10 destination for them—they really like being in beach cabins i guess?

Rural Roads in Chile

Dec 3, 2009

Only one road goes in and out of this town.  No one goes to work in an office. Kids don’t play organized sports of any kind, and although there is a big open dirt field to play futbol, hardly anyone does. There are three nice bars and 2 divey ones. Everyone hates the foggy coastal city La Serena. I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t do some kind of art, craft or music. You can get Pisco Sour flavored ice cream. When we need to buy one or two things for a meal, we go to the local almacen that has stuff behind a counter. When we want to stock up on meat and produce, we drive 45 minutes to Vicuna, a bigger town that has one store for veggies, one store for meat and dairy, and one for dry goods like beans and rice.  The kids get a comic book  and use their pocket money to buy “Gogos,” the latest craze in small, collectible plastic playthings, or maybe we’ll indulge them with a Bilz, the Chilean “Bebida de Fantasia,” a bright red soda that tastes like heaven.  We are always happy to come back to the warm embrace of the dry hills that envelope our valley cabana.

In the Greek classic the Odyssey, and in Tennyson’s poem “the Lotos Eaters,” Odysseus and his men get mired in a land of languid air and intoxicating flowers which the sailors want never to abandon. Why go back to a land of toil, they ask, when one can spend days looking at the view? From their awesome terrace? Drinking wine and eating cheap avocados every day?? To hell with the crappy internet connection. Oh, wait, what was I talking about? The Land of Lotus Eaters or Pisco Elqui?

We settled in here 2 months ago, and have been loving it.  However, when the boys break for Summer vacation in mid-December, we will take off.  We spent the last month diligently researching areas to live for the next couple of years, and it was a hard decision to rule out Pisco Elqui, on the grounds that Forest’s business will be very hard to manage out here with the internet infrastructure being sub-optimal, adding time to international travel (it’s another 1-hour connecting flight up here from Santiago and only one a day).

Staying with the “Ch” theme, we will move to Chicureo in January:  20 minutes outside the capital, semi-country, semi-urban, great Montessori school, lovely house with big yard.

I’m sad.

I feel like Robert Plant when he sang “Baby, you know I’m gonna leave you. I’m a leave you in the summertime. Leave you when the summer comes along.”

People have asked how we are able to do this. Move around. We have our methods. But it isn’t so so so easy.  My feelings get all stirred up. I cry. We talk. And then we ramble on.

Santa @ The Beach in Zapallar

Dec 25, 2009

In what is clearly the most damning evidence that Santa Claus and Christianity in general are ill suited to southern hemisphere culture, we are enjoying the pagan winter equinox festival which coincides with the coldest and darkest season in europe, summer equinox style at the beach in Zapallar with family.  Balmy days, sun setting at 9:30pm, and santa arriving at the beach do deliver colorful balloons at sunset while the kids scream and go crazy—good times!

Road Trip to Mendoza

April 5th, 2010

So it was easter week here in lovely christianized south america, and Cristina was itching to get out of dodge so we opted for what we thought initially would be a proverbial “3 hour tour” to cross the Andes mountains over to the Argentinian side of the border, and the fabled city of Mendoza which is famous for wine and great steaks.  Looking at the map it looked like 3 hours of driving, but we added a safe 2 hours to handle the vertical since we would be going from about 3,000 ft to about 10,000 ft at the pass, plus dealing with the border crossing itself.

Before we left, we set out getting the paperwork in order for our party—both passports for the people and documentation for the car.  This led to a goose chase to track down about 5 different documents that we needed to procure for the car, including a sworn affidavit so we could leave the country with the car since the car is in my uncle’s name (we couldn’t buy the car when we arrived because we needed a RUT #, another wonderful paperchase unto itself); we also needed a international insurance policy (which we bought at a department store akin to Macys), and we needed to find the equivalent of the car’s pink slip (which had been mailed to us in a non-descript envelope that luckily we kept out of uncertainty, about 4 months earlier), and as luck would have it, it was also the time of year to renew the car’s circulation papers.  On the passport front Emilio had to leave the country and come back as he has been here for 180 days without exiting, and we had to dig up and find our “residence permit in transit” papers to show that we are ok to be here for more than 180 days which it has been since we arrived.  Alas, we found everyting, a miracle unto itself, and promised to set off FIRST THING in the morning on Friday so that we could avoid the expected crushing traffic at the border from other weekend trippers heading over in search of great steaks!

A lazy morning and late departure later at 9:30am (as opposed to the goal of 7am) and we had a lovely drive up the valley which is really amazing in how quickly it rises, getting narrower and crazy steep very quickly and culminating in a series of switchbacks that traverse the last 1000 meters of vertical rise in a mere few miles, culminating in a tunnel that goes through the border and into argentina.   The Chilean side topography and flora are completely different than the argentinian side, so it is very dramatic to emerge from one side of the mountain on the other—most notably, the slow and undulating slope down from the mountain on the argentinian side hints of the less violent nature of the mountain formation on that side of the tectonic action.

Then our “3 hour tour” illusion was burst, as we pulled into the joint border processing center, about 5 miles past the border, where we pulled into a nicely compacted line of cars that turned out to be a 2.5hr snail crawl into a large building where no less than 5 different government functionaries stamped and reviewed our various documents—the car getting the worst of it (are there a lot of cross border car thefts?)  The kids were remarkably fine with the long drive in the car, kept busy by Little Lulu books and their Nintendo DSs + some Simpsons episodes on the iPod. 

The remaining drive down the valley and into Mendoza was lovely, along really pretty river terrain but with worsening traffic as we connected with the Mendozino day trippers who had escaped to the mountains for some hiking and river rafting.  We arrived at our hotel after 6pm, a solid 10 hr drive (including a break for lunch).  Yikes!!!  Much more than bargained for.


Of Mendoza, i’d say: beautiful, large european style promenades, gorgeous old homes throughout town, great outdoor restaurants and ice-cream shops, bustling nightlife (of course!), and delectable Steaks and Pasta!  Really surprised us how nice the city was, significantly more interesting and entertaining than a similarly sized chilean city would be.  The wine culture there has developed a nice tourism halo around it, with lots of wine tours and foodie activities (we were with kids so didn’t fully appreciate).  We had a great saturday walking around town, must have done a good 10km of walking total—kids were troupers although their feet hurt at the end of the day.

And for the ride back—in terror of facing a long border crossing and Chilean car traffic returning from the long weekend, i forced the family to get up and be in the car by 6am, which turned out to be fantastic as we had NO traffic, no wait at the border, and made the return trip in 5 hrs door to door!  I wouldn’t do the drive again on a holiday weekend, ever, as we heard that the border can take 5 hrs to get through just in immigration/paperwork and i think that would have really driven me over the edge of sanity.  Definitely would return to Mendoza, our visit was too short.


The ice-cream shop had 6 different variations of Dulce de Leche—just like Eskimos have lots of words for snow, Argentinians like their Dulce de Leche ice cream!


China Family Expat Experience 2009

Malaysia Spring Break (Chinese New Year)

Forest says:

Well, it has been so long since either of us posted to our blog, i feel obliged to say something about our recent trip to Malaysia for Chinese New Year.  Kuala Lumpur was a trip: small city, very green and lush, no mosquitoes issues (YES!), and the malls were amazing. Yes, sad but true, we spent both days in KL just going from mall to mall, shopping, checking out children’s museums, and eating yummy spicy gravy saucey goupey food… oh, and the Petronas Towers were really surprisingly gorgeous and pretty, not just tall.

KL bookended our trip to the island of Langkawi, about 45 minutes flight up the coast, basically on the Thailand border.  The island itself was lovely, with lots of jungle and wilderness, and surprisingly little development, despite being the #1 tourist destination in the country.  Our first hotel was a bust however, a older property, on a crummy backpacker haven beach called Pelangi.  We made the most of it, but it felt a lot like being in Tijuana or some other border town… Cristina and I had dinner one night out in the town, and had the pleasure of walking the length of the main strip, dodging open sewer holes every 25ft or so… literally.  When we found a restaurant to sit down at, we couldn’t stop laughing at the surrounding crowd of mostly white, young, unshowered backpackers—reminded me of myself 20 years ago; what I couldn’t figure out is how they could afford to be in this town, which despite being pretty darn low-end, was still pretty pricy when it came to food… i fondly remember having $1 meals back when I travelled with my buddy Adam Dawes through South East Asia in 1993, but at these restaurants the cheapest in and out was going to be $10 or so.
After 2 nights in Pelangi we were inspired and moved to another property, called the Andaman, on the opposite side of the island, 30 minutes from the nearest town.  This place was cheaper actually than our first hotel, but absolutely fantastic/gorgeous, with a private beach, a great swimming pool, and a family friendly room set up with 2 trunk beds in the room (family of 2+2 expected in every room i guess).  The weather all week was absolutely perfect, not too humid, in the mid 80s, with blue skies and a few puffy white cumulus clouds.  We snuck in a Mangrove boat tour, swam on some little offshore islands, and generally had a totally chill time.  Fun watching the kids spend 10 hours in one day in the pool, going up and down the slide in the pool over and over and over and over and over again.  Wonder if they will remember this vacation, or only the photos of themselves with gleeful smiles on their faces.
We saw a bunch of monkeys in the wilderness, that was cool too…


And Cristina adds:

Malaysia is a Muslim country, and while we didn’t do anything cultural in KL, like visit the Islamic Arts museum, just going to the big, rich, trendy malls actually gave us a very full cultural experience.  KL has a lot of wealth from oil (the PETRO in Petronas), so there seems an endless amount of malls.  So logically we spent a lot of time in them. The food court a smorgasbord of regional cuisine, the kid’s dinosaur museum very modern and interactive, the people an endless parade of Malaysian social and religious profiles.  Young couples on holiday fasinated me: women in black veil and shroud, with delicate henna tattoos covering their hands and feet, peeking out of designer shoes, or dressed in very smart fashionable clothes with muslim twist: caps on men, women with elaborately trimmed shawls. I liked seeing teenage girls with blingy head scarves and tight jeans. Most of the Malay women had head scarves elegantly wrapped just so, with some jeweled pin to secure it.  It always matched and accented the rest of their clothes. Occasionally, a little hair would peak out.  Sometimes women had an pre-wrapped scarf with a little visor on their head.
Forest and I debated whether or not the veil was any more oppressive then wearing a bra or shaving for men in the West. I thought that when the men or women were traveling without the opposite sex, their manner seemed extremely modest and serious. Except for the wacky Malay teenage boys with their crazy trendy urban dress and silly behavior.  But when women were with men, they definitely seemed more animated, happy, comfortable and proud.
We also though it interesting to see so many “she-males.” I guess in a culture with very strict mores about gender roles, it’s easier to get away with just switching to the other side completely rather than be a swishy guy. The she-males often worked in women’s retail stores in all their glamorous glory.
Oh, yeah, one more thing compelling us to stay in the Malaysian Mall:  the best bookstore in the world: Kinokuniya, a Japanese “Borders”, in KL caters to Chinese, Malay and English speaking customers.  I didn’t get nearly enough time in there, but it had the best selection of graphic novels and comics, which I’ve happily gotten the boys hooked on. I highly recommend Lulu.

My Mandarin Rocks!!!

Feb 4, 2009 – Cristina

I don’t look at our blog that much, since many blogs are blocked here in China, including ours. I can only access it at Forest’s office. But reviewing it recently, it occurred to me that I haven’t blogged in a long time about our language skills. Since so many family members have marvelled at our astounding fluency, I felt no compelling need to boast about it in writing. But today I do feel like bragging.

My Mandarin ROCKS!!!!

Allow me to qualify. It rocks to anyone who doesn’t speak a word of Chinese, it rocks to anyone who needs help bargaining prices, it rocks to the Chinese who only expect foreigners to be able to say “ni hao” (hello). Hell, my “ni hao” accent is so good that Chinese compliment my Mandarin prowess based on that alone. Which often invites trouble, because when locals start jabbering in Chinese after giving me props on my basic proficiency, I feel like such a turd following up with a lame “shenme???” (what, or, huhhh?).

I’ve studied twice a week for 2 hours a session privately with a Beijinger since I moved here 17 months ago. Only conversation, not writing or reading. I can navigate typical situations quite well: Taxis, shopping, shooting the shit, housekeepers, restaurants, etc. My comprehension suffers due to lack of non-English speaking Chinese buddies to practice with. Outside of the classroom, I do have excellent conversations while getting foot massages with Forest or some friends: I get a captive audience of 2 or more young Chinese with lots of questions about me, happy to share general info about their own lives, where they come from, what they think of Beijing. Chinese people don’t take offense to personal questions, so it makes for interesting exchanges. Sometimes the miscommunication leads to hearty laughs on both sides.

Chinese folks don’t expect foreigners to speak much Chinese, but they don’t hold back their amusement when you mangle words. And when the wrong tones obscure your meaning a little, even if the context seems perfectly clear, people will often stare like you landed from Mars. I still have a hard time with the word for English, which sounds a lot like the word for sing, so I guess I don’t blame someone for being befuddled when a perfect stranger approaches them asking “Do you say sing?” But given that I am clearly a Westerner, would it be such a stretch to guess what I’m asking? Maybe they think I’m auditioning them for American Idol.

Forest befriended an Argentinian fluent in English and Chinese. He offered extremely valuable wisdom: if you speak quickly enough, people will gather your meaning even if your tones are wrong. Which has been a really useful tactic since my Chinese is basically toneless. Luckily, I have managed to memorize a decent amount of vocabulary. But another weird thing happens sometimes–people expect me to speak in English, so they don’t listen for familiar Chinese words–they try to comprehend my funky Mandarin as if it was English, racking their brain to place such strange vocabulary. It happens to me the other way too. But so many Chinese people speak good English that it happens less.

Considering that we may not be in China for more then a half year, the returns on my time invested in learning Chinese are diminishing. If we stay for more then another year, logically I would progress into reading and writing to gain basic literacy. That way, I could become bold enough to go to a really local restaurant without pictures on the menu, and could maybe read the propaganda banners around town. I am always on the verge of quitting classes. And then I learn one new word or form of grammar that sheds a light on one interaction or another, and it becomes worthwhile.

Carlos gets an hour a day in school, and he can write and read some. This also means he gets to appreciate the depth, poetry and ancient beauty in Mandarin that is lost to me. He understands a lot of what our housekeepers say to him, although he seems to get the Anhui accent more then the Shandong accent…don’t know how he would do with Beijingers. But Carlos being Carlos, we hear nary a word from him, unless we are in the next room with our ear to a glass at the wall. We often wonder if we should have put him in a more rigorous program, but I figure that if he really wants to speak Chinese someday, he’ll have a little key in the back of his brain that will help him unlock it. He’ll know it’s possible. Caetano only speaks a bizarre pidgin style Mandarin-English hybrid, but learns little kindergarten level words and songs. And a couple of good insults. Not really what I envisioned, but we all get what we need.

Feathering the Nest

Mar 9, 2009 – Cristina

In the past, the term “developing country” just seemed to me a p.c. euphemism for “third world.” It indicated in an abstract way that the country’s economy was in flux but inching its way up to whatever.

But being in a developing country is cool, because you literally see everything developing with your own eyes. Before the olympics, construction crews clocked endless hours and the city underwent extreme makeover.  Then everyone went home and the magnificent stadiums sit dormant until someone makes a plan for them. Then the world economy crashed and everyone pulled up on their reigns.  A bunch of  “luxury malls” that went up last year are sadly under-occupied.

The bubble may have burst, but there’s still water in the tub. Beijingers seem to still have faith in their own local economies—helped, I’m sure–by the national government’s commitment to a bazillion dollar stimulus package similar to Obama’s.  A bike ride around my neighborhood reveals many projects literally in the works. The little dusty hutong neighborhoods haven’t ceased building, renovating, reinforcing structures, especially in our neck of the woods where the neighborhoods have room to grow. I wonder what these villages will become in 5 more years.  New subway lines are slated, ground being cleared, old business fronts refurbished, shop signs becoming more permanent. And the next “lifestyle center” i.e. mall is pressing forward, albeit at a much slower speed then before.

I’m looking on a micro-level of course.  Big company friends operate in a state of encroaching crisis. But personal economics work very differently here in China. Individuals are not as invested in the stock market.  People do not consume using credit.  If you want an expensive car, camera or coat, you pay cash. If you don’t have the cash, you don’t have those things. The people that are sweating it are the poor folks that work in factories making stuff that Westerners realize they don’t need anymore.

This weekend, the convention center held an expo on interior design and decorative finishes. The area was packed with cars. 

Building your nest, whether it is an Olympic stadium, a 2 story house, or a place for kids to play in your community seems to be an important part of life and emotional balance. We’re all developing that way.

Loaded Weapon

Mar 21, 2009

I’m sitting here in my 22nd floor room at the Hyatt Regency Tokyo, looking out on the horizon where I see looming rain clouds approaching the city, a view that otherwise would reveal lovely Mount Fuji in the distance.  I’ve been up since 6, but awake since 4am or so when my dreams became too vivid and i passed between the sleeping world into the present one.  Today is Tokyo Marathon day.

The thought I’ve had all week while in tokyo is that “i’m a loaded weapon”—in so far that as i’ve done small 5km runs to stay loose throughout the week, i’ve felt each and every time like i was holding back on pulling the trigger.  Months of training have gotten me very accustomed to 60 to 90 minute runs as the norm (10-17km or so), so doing just 5km has felt like taking a bite of a yummy piece of pie, but not being able to fully enjoy.  It sounds overly self-confident to say it, but I really do feel like a race horse that is being held back from sprinting into a gallop.

Yesterday my friend and colleague in Tokyo, together with his wife and lovely baby daughter, took me out to the horse racetrack for the day; it is the first time i’ve ever been to the race track.  The horses were so fast, i was amazed; it made me think of being a foot soldier in battle in the Andes, perhaps as a Inca, being chased down by those horses carrying men with spears and guns on their backs.  The ferocity of those animals, all ripped and sculpted for the express purpose of running fast….

So while I don’t think of myself as a race stallion per say, i do feel like my training has gotten me as prepared physically as I am ever going to get at this point; and mentally, i feel very at peace and ready for the adventure of the day.  As I listen to Bjork on my headphones here in my room, and peer down onto the street, i can see some of the other 35,000 souls who will be pounding the concrete with me this morning. 

Winding Down our China Time

July 17, 2009

Our time here is winding down. We have moved out of our big American style house in the burbs. All of our stuff is being shipped to Seattle. Now we are staying in a super cool apartment/hotel downtown. When we moved to Beijing two years ago, we stayed here, so it feels like coming full circle.  My nephew Lucas is with us, and the boys have been enjoying camps, swimming and cartoons. I love waking up and seeing my favorite park in the city, Tuanjiehu, ringed with high-rise apartments and construction cranes fading into the distance. At night before bed, I look down from the 25th story, spying on locals down below: groups of folks sit together on low stools, fanning themselves and swapping stories, workers laying concrete and operating backhoes into the late night, young adults going to or fro the bright lights of the businesses around the corner.
Walking through this neighborhood takes us past Chinese fast food vendors doing brisk business selling deep fried hotdogs or fresh peaches. Around the corner, a lively side street features an elegant Muslim chain restaurant serving cumin lamb and veal salad. Next door, kebabs to-go grill outdoors. Small eateries  bust out plastic tables and chairs so locals can feast al fresco on peanuts, Tsingtao, kebabs or salty pork ribs.  Small dogs get their stroll about.  Meandering further on, we find ourselves in ever popular Sanlitun bar street, and the newest hippest shopping center: glitzy modern architecture and Western shops–Starbucks, Apple, Adidas—incandescent with commerce and colored glass. There’s room for local families to watch their kids play in the fountains, catch some big screen video art installation, sculpture and people watch. Migrant workers amble through, hardhats in hand, past Chinese yuppies, shopping bags in tow. Party people from all corners of the world parade along in too-sexy looks.
A different scene we find in the park across the street from our place.    We cross a pedestrian bridge over about 13 lanes of traffic to quite a relatively pastoral world: a lake, park benches, rock gardens, bamboo forests and tree covered hills. There’s always a few people playing instruments. Yesterday a guy played lovely traditional melodies on his trumpet. An old man hooked up his harmonica to an amp. Often we hear classical wind or string instrument hauntingly drifting across the water. Towards one of the gates, the ubiquitous calligraphy artist scribes ephemeral poems with a huge brush using only water onto the concrete.  Sometimes community leaders come out and lead people in song or dance. Lately it’s been pretty hot, so when we go out late afternoon or early evening, I find other families out with their little boys running around.
Our friends, the Javal family from Paris, have just arrived and we are really excited to be going on vacation for three weeks with them. Chengdu, Lhasa, Guilin and Hong Kong. Then, back to Beijing for one last goodbye.
Two years….not exactly a fling. This is tough.

Back in Seattle

Aug 22, 2009

Well, after almost exactly 2 years of wonder and adventure, we are back in the USA and I (forest) am back in Seattle, full circle in many regards, but completely heading in a different direction with a different perspective in most.  The experience in China and Asia at large was absolutely fantastic and life changing for all of our family members, both my immediate family, and are many friends and relatives who took advantage of the opportunity and traveled to the region to visit us and share some travel. 

For me, this last week has been physically painful, as I have tackled the unpacking of the 100+ boxes that arrived from storage and from shipping containers from China.  There is *so* much stuff to deal with, and a nearly 30% or greater surplus volume that is generated by the packing materials themselves.  Really overwhelming, but I’m committed to getting through most of it before Cristina and the kids arrive (they are in soCal visiting family for a few more weeks). 

A general feeling of lightness/lack of focus tends to overcome me in the late afternoons and early evenings—perhaps a legacy of jetlag, perhaps a (reasonable to expect) sense of cultural dislocation and general disconnectedness from the routines of life, of which i have almost none right now… no constant at work, no constant at home.  It is a wonderous time, the time before the storm and beginning of a new adventure for our family.

As a side comment: i’m pretty sure the word “ginormous” (as in giant-enormous) has passed the requisite popular culture vernacular threshold, and should be include din the oxford english dictionary/etc.; i hear people using it everywhere, several times this week alone, and it is a favorite of both of my children!


China Family Expat Experience 2008

Cold but dry – Chinese New Year looms

Feb 5, 2008 – Cristina

There have been some atrocious storms in the middle of the country, but here in Beijing we are dry and comfy, if not freezing when we go outside to walk the kids to school just 10 minutes.  The air temperature hovers around -5 most days, colder being about -10 (all temperatures quoted in Celcius, of course). 

Tomorrow we are traveling to Tokyo Japan for a 10 day visit, we’ll get to experience the craziness of the airport on the even of Chinese New Year.  Turns out that more than 100m folks travel by train, bus, air in the week of Chinese NY, when everyone is under traditional obligation to travel “home” to visit parents.  Since many city dwellers are transplants, lots of folks attempt to get home.  Our Ayi (maid) and laoshi (chinese teacher) have both gotten on trains already, and a coworker just im’d me to tell me he had arrived home after a 36 hour train ride–standing, since there were not seats to buy.  The congestion in the public transport must be insane, with that many folks travelling–and the massive storms in central China have made things worse given that train tracks are clogged with several feet of snow, and electricity is out in many places.

More from Tokyo in a few days, where we will have un-fettered access to the blog (which is blocked in China by the Chinese Firewall on the internet, making it harder to post entries).

Disneyland Japan Style

Feb 7, 2008 – Cristina

The boyos had no expectations about Disneyland.  The 6 kiddie rides at the Seattle Center = ultimate fun destination for Caetano, and at LegoLand last year Carlos had a meltdown (albeit he was jonesing to go home and work on his fresh Lego purchase). Forest and I grew up making regular pilgrimages to the Magic Kingdom; we wanted the boys’ first time to be great.

Disney Tokyo turned out to be an interesting choice rather than the California or Hong Kong venues.  Interesting because Tokyo itself is one big Toontown.  The crowd, all Japanese, 80% single young adults, 20% families (making the ratio of adults to children 95:5) came to Disneyland dressed in full amusement park regalia.  This means black patent leather spike heel boots and gold sequined mouse ears; school uniform jackets and baggy pants pulled down to there and Jack Sparrow mouse ears; short shorts with suede fur lined boots and a Stitch costume hood; Minnie Mouse ears and matching cape (on a 20-something guy).  Who needs Disney characters running around when you’ve got this on display?

I felt a little resentment at this crowd when they lined up for rides like the kiddie roller coaster and Pooh’s Honey Pot Hunt because the lines were 40-60 minutes minimum.  When I was a teenager, I would not deign to line up for Peter Pan or Pinnochio rides. But this crowd thought it was all cool. And I hear they come again and again.  It’s a place to hang out.

It was pretty great.  Caetano kept saying “I love this place.” Classics like It’s a Small World and Pirates are fresher then ever, especially seeing them through our kiddies eyes. Rides that are new to us (who haven’t been to Disney in over 10 years) like Buzz Lightyear and Winnie the Pooh were awesome.  Forest kept marveling at the technology of the 100-Acre Wood, which had cars that moved without rails, and maneuvered in complex patterns throughout a very interactive and “21st century” exhibit.

Can’t wait to go again.

Spring Festival 2008

Feb 21, 2008 – Cristina

The Spring Festival has finally drawn to a close. Traditionally the celebration lasts 4 weeks. Chinese school kids get all month off and go to school the rest of the year. In the professional world, people take at least a week off. In the States I have enjoyed many a New Year’s Parade, but had no idea how much this holiday means to Chinese. Think of it as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year all rolled into one. It is a family holiday, and there are many migrant workers that see their families at only this time all year. People travel far and wide to reunite with parents (or in-laws if you are a woman). The traditions involve eating lots of dumplings, visiting fairs at temples, and lighting lots of firecrackers. Lots and lots of fireworks and firecrackers. Kids receive money in red envelopes and on the official new year day, they are not allowed to cry! Chinese people have lots of superstitions, and what happens on new year day sets the tone for the whole year. So you can’t let kids cry, you can’t fight with anyone, everything has to be just so.

Leading up to the holiday, people scurry about, getting ready for trips or celebrations. Lots of businesses close, including banks, and everything shuts down for awhile. In the States, you can rely on finding a Chinese restaurant open on holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving, and on the Chinese NY in Beijing, you get your fast food fix from the European restaurants!

We missed out on some of the fun, since we went to Japan. But I was amused to see Chinese families in Tokyo on holidays as well. I took the boys to Disney Sea, and we ended up by happenstance eating at the Chinese restaurant. That’s where I ran into other “Zhonguoren” taking a break from the weird Japanese food offerings with familiar items like spicy tofu, dim sum and fried chicken with sweet sauce.

Celebrating the mid-seasons this way is very interesting. I think it makes more sense to view the winter and summer solstices not as the beginning of the season but the middle of the season and the mid seasons as the beginning. The darkest day of the year certainly never feels like the “beginning” of winter. And now that it is mid February, doesn’t it feel a bit like Spring’s around the bend? Well, it does here. The weather is warmer and our cats seemed like they wanted to mate, so we got the boy (Marbles) fixed. Over the course of the Spring festival he went from being a shy, skittish little thing to a big, sleek, panther-like predator. Maybe it was all the dumplings he ate….

More on Japan

Feb 21, 2008 – Cristina

Q: Why did we go to Tokyo, Japan for the Spring Festival?
A: Forest had a business trip there since Japan doesn’t celebrate the lunar new year. Tina and the boys needed some adventure so we turned it into a big vacation.
Q: Did Forest work the whole time?
A: No, Forest goofed off with us for the first 4 days and then worked his butt off doing a deal for the rest of the week.
Q: How did the boys like the food?
A: LOVED it. Great Sushi, Shabu Shabu (Cook your thin slice beef in a big pot of liquid), Katsu (fried pork cutlets with yummy sauce), Ramen noodles, Dumplings, Italian Food, El Torito. Mmmm, El Torito.
Q: What did you do with the boys in Tokyo?
A: Went to amazing toy stores, played with the crazy Japanese toys in the hotel, played hide and seek in Yogogi park, visited the Ghibli Museum (home of Totoro) went to Disneyland and Disney Sea, kept our shoes away from people and seats in the subways.
Q: How was Disneyland?
A: See our previous post
Q: What is Disney Sea?
A: It is the OTHER Disney Park with an aquatic theme that was awesome, beautiful, and fun. The rides were for bigger kids mostly, so we were denied entry onto the Raiders fo the Lost Ark ride and Journey to the Center of the Earth, but we loved 20 leagues under the Sea (Caetano calls it 19 steps into the Sea), Tower of Terror, climbing around a pirate ship and not waiting in long lines for anything.
Q: What did you do without the boys?
A: Spent a lot of money and time at the famous Harajuku crazy trendoid shopping area, went to see a Beatles tribute band at a club called the Cavern, where we freaked out on the Young John Lennon look alike and sound alike and laughed when the band stopped playing to tell jokes and stories in Japanese. Oh yes, we saw THE POLICE!!!! A truly lucky circumstance and really fun time. The band looked and sounded great (except for a few songs which they changed around and messed with too much). The crowd was the Japanese version of what would turn out to see the Police in the States. Old fogeys that either showed up in their work clothes or came in their tastefully non-conformist attire, drank beer, went wild reliving their youth. No drunken Karaoke, but we did have a drink at the bar from Lost In Translation where ScarJo’s character meets Bill Murray. That’s the hotel where we stayed, and it was swanky. Free gourmet chocolate every few days. Views of Mt. Fuji. Tokyo rocks.
Q: Were you glad to come back to Beijing?
A: Yeah. China is so different then Japan. So relaxed and free-wheeling. So dirty. But the food portions are big. It’s so much easier to communicate. Milk doesn’t cost $12 a glass anywhere. China has it’s faults, but for now it is home. But I do wish we had a toilet with heat, sprinklers, dryers and music. I do miss that.

Lots of Odds and Ends

Mar 16, 2008 – Cristina

The cruel Beijing Winter behind us, we look forward to a cruel Beijing Summer.  This Spring we look forward to lots of visitors: The Cristina’s sister and dear nephew, the kids’ Tata Emilio with Forest’s Chilean Aunt & Uncle, the whole Andy Casanueva clan from Santa Barbara, Forest’s buds Mark Sampson and Tobin D.  Who will be next on the list???? Who will be next to book their tickets and make it official???
One of the things we love most about Beijing is the kids school,  Western Academy of Beijing.  It could possibly keep us in Beijing longer than planned,  except we have to weigh its benefits against the life-shortening pollution situation.  After decades of living through Southern California’s smoggiest years on record, and a bronchitis filled year in Santiago Chile, my lungs had recovered in the clean San Francisco and Seattle environs.  Life in Beijing brings our lungs two shades black.   Truth be told, none of us have been really sick and even Carlos’ usual winter hack-fest was pretty tame this year.  However, returning to Beijing after being gone for a week was a little like going into a smoky bingo hall in the middle of a Spring afternoon.  You just smell the havoc.  After reading that the worst exposure to pollutants occurs while in traffic, at least I can rest assured that we are minimizing damage by walking to and from school every day, even more joyfully now that the weather is warm.
Forest and I spent a whole day at “WAB” this week for a Student Led Conference.  Carlos took us around to his favorite classes, and we spent time in his homeroom checking out all the cool stuff he does.  We even got to eat in the cafeteria!  Unfortunately, they didn’t serve the usual grub,  so we didn’t get to sample the vast array of starchy food that Carlos puts on his tray day to day.
Carlos is cranking away on reading.  He gets taken out twice a week to catch up with the other kids on writing and spelling. He enjoys the small group dynamic, the teacher makes him laugh and his confidence in writing stories is going up.  He loves performing arts and P.E., and has really clicked with his classmates. He has a really cute little posse of mates and they play imaginary adventure games at recess. His mind is quite mathematical and his Lego creations are fantastic. 
Caetano’s preschool program is remarkable too.  They have lots of freedom and a great little group dynamic of 12 4-year olds. They spend lots of time on practical concepts: light, nature, numbers, seasons, cooking. Their art is fantastic and they swim once a week, and do lots of creative projects.
Last month I had a meeting with 5 of Caetano’s teachers and a school counselor.  Bad news: it was about his naughtiness.  Not intimidating at all!! Good news:  it has gotten better.  The amazing thing:  feeling this real helpful community spirit among my 4 year old’s educators.  Even better: being able to talk to him about all this, seeing his changes, his effort, his pride in getting  “good notes” from teacher instead of who he hit or what he said, etc. etc.
The two of them crack me up all the time.  When Forest was gone for 16 days, my saving grace was having these two little team mates cooperating so well with me and making each day fun.
Part of the fun has been doing some interesting new things myself and having extra help around the house.  I am taking a jewelry making and drawing/painting class, both of which I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I can’t wait to buy beads at the big jewelry market now that I finally have tools and techniques to start with.  As much as I loved drawing and painting in high school, I am not inclined to sit and sketch or paint anymore.  I don’t feel like recreating anything I see in this way, or mixing paints to match the chroma or contrast.  I like making 3 dimensional things, like Carlos’ dinosaur robot model or papier mache pinatas. In my class, there was a woman there who kept making excuses for how bad she was and how un artistic she is and how hard this was for her and blah blah, and I kept wanting to ask her, “why are you taking this class if you know it isn’t for you?”  She knew she wasn’t going to discover anything new about herself.  She already decided she was bad at it.  Why do people do such things?
The kids have a new “ayi”, a Chinese woman who  picks them up from school and provides Mandarin commentary for every single thing they do.  I am hoping that her voice is becoming part of Caetano’s unconscious. Carlos can’t stand her and tunes her out completely. Caetano is becoming buddies with her.  We’ll see in a few weeks if he can start communicating with her two-way.  At Carlos’ school conference, we got to see how much work he does in Chinese class. His notebook was crammed with characters, names of animals, clothes, seasons, greetings.  He was able to read songs and poems in Pinyin (romanized phonetic version of Chinese words).  But he didn’t understand a thing.  One hour a day of Chinese he gets.  And none of it has sunk in. I get 4 hours a week and am able to communicate roughly with people who speak simply and slowly.  All Carlos can say is “hi” and “thank you.” 
Is he like the woman in the art class? Has he already decided he has no use for Mandarin? Or is his mind already being filled so many things that he would rather learn?  Is he past the magical age when your mind absorbs language like a sponge? Or is he perhaps retaining very much that we don’t know that at some later date will gestate and start to flower when he is ready?

Beijing in Party Dress

Jul 30, 2008 – Cristina

This blog has been woefully neglected!  No updates in months due to many wonderful visits from family and friends, some trips around China, including Xi’an, Yunnan province, Shangri-La and remote parts of the Great Wall.  We went home to the States—San Francisco and Seattle—for 2 weeks and saw loved ones there. 
After one year in China, I experienced only mild culture shock in the US.  The cities felt so static compared to  Beijing’s constant state of transformation.  I’m used to all the building, erecting, planning, planting, hedging, blooming, booming. 
Now the capital has her party dress on with breath bated for 8-8-08.  Beijing doesn’t have Olympic Fever, but Olympic dreams, and they’ve covered the land like a soft blanket of giddy hope.  A slumber party to last the rest of Summer.  Fresh paint, banners and garden beds Ornament every boulevard and highway and all the parks’ landscapes are buffed, guilded and meticulously landscaped. There’s bustle in the hedgerow.  Bricks and dust have been replaced by glass and modernism with the launch of splashy new buildings.  A rainbow of Olympic signs proclaiming world unity and victory for all cover yesterday’s humdrum billboards hawking condos malls and luxury lifestyles (for few).
The city is not frenetic but serene, like in an Olympic trance.  Maybe it’s just the delicious dry heat of summer that has everyone ambling along.  Nobody knows what Beijing will be like when the party is over, but for now we groove to the rhythm of cicadas clacking, dragonfly wings flapping and of waiting.

Summer has Ended

Sep 16, 2008 – Cristina

Summer officially ended in Beijing last weekend with the Moon Festival, or the Mooncake Festival as Carlos called it. We celebrated Fall’s arrival, the full moon, a drastic change in weather, and unique semi-bland/semi-sweet/sticky/ornately packaged pastries.

The Paralympics will end soon. Many of us don’t pay attention to the games for physically challeged folks, but it’s pretty big deal and very engaging. Stadiums filled up and tickets were hard to get. We caught wheelchair basketball and seated volleyball on TV. Quite a few friends went to games, and wheelchair rugby or “murderball” as it’s known is a favorite. Very impressive athelticism and spirit.

Nothing compares to the world Olympics of course. I think a billion people in China watched the spectaculater opening ceremony on TV. I hope you saw it. The closing ceremony was boring. Too many speeches. And the segment introducing London 2012 Olympics reminded me of Waiting for Guffman. Bad. A great way to make Westerners look like decadent fools.

Beijing stood still for a little while during the games. Half the cars were taken off the road every day, construction ceased, a lot of locals and expat residents got out of town, and the Casanueva family took over the city!

Andy, Laura, Emilio Chico, Will and Camila stayed with us for most of the month and we toured of Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Longshen, Guilin and Beijing’s own Ya Show market.

We took off a few days after the opening, so we hit some big sites in town just before the tourists poured in. We joined crowds on Wanjing pedestrian shopping street, watching and cheering the Chinese soccer team, playing on huge jumbotron TVs. Our visit to the Great Wall was “enhanced” by a group of Brazians carrying around a boombox full of samba, waving a big flag and wearing silly outfits.

Walking from the Great Wall to a restaurant down the road, a small group of Chinese boys waved Will and Emilio over for a game of B-ball on their funky little neighborhood court. All of them were thrilled and E was a great ambassador of the sport, giving good tips and letting one little guy take lots of shots. I’m sure it sounds corny, but it was the olympic spirit in action: cross cultural sharing, caring and commuicating through athletics.

On our trip we saw games on TV, and were dismayed that most coverage included China, so the early USA basketball games were missed, but we saw a lot of Michael Phelps, the gymnasts, the Russian pole-vaulter, and gee, I’ve never been so interested in weight-lifting, but I just love those Chinese women medalists!

The party was in full swing when we came back to the city, and we crossed paths with many many athletes in the clothes markets. Andy went to a tattoo parlor and had to get in line behind players from around the world getting inked with olympic rings.

we had a hard time getting tickets to events and refused to pay ridiculous scalpers’ prices, but we did get to the Bird’s Nest (the brand new National Olympic Stadium) for track and field.

We got 6 tickets, not together, and left the little kids at home. After our long vacation, I knew they couldn’t hang. All they wanted was to be home with Camila and play. Camila told her mom that she didn’t want to go because “I’m young and I’ll probably get another chance to go to the olympics, and you won’t, so you should go mama.” They turned on TV and looked for us in the stands!

What I tell folks considering moving to China

Sep 23, 2008

I get a lot of friend’s of friends emailing me re: “we are thinking of moving to china, what can you tell me” and I thought I would publish some of those thoughts to our blog so that in future I can just point people to this entry!

  • Cristina and I arrived not speaking a word of Chinese. It is difficult to get around in taxis and restaurants without Chinese, but you can stick to English speaking/western friendly places the first few months while you take some language classes. My wife and I now both speak passable conversation Chinese, and certainly enough for ordering food, getting around taxis, haggling at markets, etc. the language is a blast to learn, and not impossible at all (we didn’t learn to read mind you, just speak). We both did 3 hrs a week with a private tutor for several months, fyi, but there are group classes as well.  Learning chinese has easily been one of the highlights of my adult life, great fun, great intellectual challenge, great window to gaze through into this amazing culture.
  • Beijing city has two major expat areas as far as living: Chaoyang district, downtown skyscraper condos, or Shunyi, which are “villas” (houses) in compounds. We live in Shunyi because of our kids school, as do most families with kids that are here attending one of the two major international schools that Americans flock to: WAB and ISB (our boys at WAB, both school are fantastic). Living in Shunyi is fine, but it is pretty much the sticks, with very few restaurants and activities outside of the school and the housing compounds—about 15 minutes by car to the city which isn’t bad. Chaoyang would be a blast, and if we didn’t have young kids we would have gone for that immediately, great place to live, in the middle of a great big cosmopolitan city.
  • There are a ton of public parks here that are lovely and full of nice walks, boating, and rides/carnival games for kids, so a lot of our weekends consist of “brunch in the city and outing to some park or other”. We also have lots of kid social things like baseball, swimming classes, etc., so a lot of our lives revolve around the kid rhythm. I have some friends here who are single/swingers and they are expats, happy to hook you up with them for more feedback on that scene if that is more your thing… word is that the club scene is great, lots of students in town, and plenty of upscale swinging type sophisticate childless adults to cavort with.
  • Restaurants are awesome… this is a food lovers dream. So many restaurants, all kinds of food. A lot of our outings in the evenings without kids revolve around trying new food joints.
  • Cost of domestic help is very very low, so you’ll likely have a fulltime maid to help with house and or kids, not necessarily live-in unless you want that (we don’t). we also have a driver for our car. Ballpark for these fulltime staff is about $200-300 USD each… so factor that in to your experience, it is a big change from the USA to have domestic support like that (and it can be really great!). My wife and I go out at least 1 night a week, sometimes 3 times, leaving the kids at home.
  • There is great arts scene, theater, live music, lots of galleries and lots of modern art. When you are here, go to visit the “798 Art Community”, a section of town where old factories have been turned into about 100+ private small art galleries… great scene, great stuff going on—there is a real palpable vitality to the place/city.
  • We have internet and broadband at home, as does everyone (biggest internet community in the world, here in china) and therefore a lot of our “media” comes from the web. We have TV and cable at home but don’t watch (we aren’t tv people). Movies in theaters is not a big thing here, in the USA we would see on average 5 movies in theaters a month, here we have seen 2 in 1 year. However, DVDs are $1 each and plentiful, so we get DVDs of recent films we can’t see in theaters, and get TV shows that way as well (just watched the Mad Men series this week, enjoyed). We sometimes read the ChinaDaily, the communist party propaganda paper, it is fascinating (in english) and challenges all of our assumptions about “freedom of speech” which is billed to us in the US (hint: we are far leaning leftists politically and socially, and can’t stand our current administration).
  • Shopping for food: there is a series of grocery stores that cater to expats with products that only foreigners want (eg: peanut butter, tortillas, pace picante sauce, corn flakes, etc.)—one is called Jenny Lu’s, we shop there near our house (3 min walk) and the other obvious one is french conglomerate Carrefour, which is a mad house but has everything.
  • Health: there are western doctors at various western focused clinics, we go to Beijing United, good stuff; dentist here has better equipment and more modern training than our dentists in the US. If we had emergency of any kind and had to go to hospital in beijing we would have no concern, all the doctors are American or Canadian expats. If we were in countryside, however, that’s another story…
  • Shanghai sucks (relative to beijing)—it is a big bright shining exciting city, but it has no soul. We almost moved there instead of beijing, we are SOOO glad we came to beijing. This place is FULL of amazing history and art, and surrounded by thousands of years of historical towns/etc. Shanghai is a 100 year old port city with a strong western influence—nice place to visit, and certainly a viable option, but I’m a big beijing promoter J
  • Rest of China rocks: we do periodic tours/outings with the kids and without to various parts of china; we have been here a year and have seen Xian, Guilin, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, Lijiang, Shangrila, and various beijing suburbs. We are just scratching the surface. The country is great to travel across, good accommodations, cheap! A good 3 star hotel in a town might run $40-50 a night; a 4-5 star hotel in a 2nd tier city will be $100 USD. Food in smaller cities is cheap, great food is everywhere.
  • Negatives: the air pollution is really really bad. Traffic at rush hour can be nasty. That’s the only two negatives. I stay off roads at rush hour, and we have swiss made air purifiers in our home throughout the house and we keep them on 24hrs a day (as do many expats) to address the air pollution. I lived in Santiago Chile for many years and got very ill from the air there several times, have not had trouble of that kind here. But I wouldn’t want to live in this city for more than 3-4 years just on the air quality concerns.

Summary: People are super friendly. The country is alive, pulsating. Anything is possible, the future is exciting, change is everywhere… This is the center of the social and economic changes that society and the planet are facing in the next 50 years, both in good and bad sense. Being here, living here, you will immediately get it and be wiser about the world as a result. It is an amazing experience, I can’t recommend highly enough.

Going Home… to China

Nov 7, 2008

I’ve been traveling like a mad man these last couple of weeks, and hobbling through my ongoing foot injury/problem, not to mention nurturing a nasty “beijing lung” (a cough that spews green phlegm, that i just can’t shake).

In the past 5 weeks I’ve been in Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore, San Francisco, Redmond, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt.  I’m so sick of traveling, i don’t think i want to get on a plane again, at least not till next year!

So it is with great pleasure that i now contemplate, from the Frankfurt airport, that i get to go “home” to Beijing.

Chinese Wedding

Dec 15, 2008 – Cristina

Forest and I had the honor of attending a Microsoft colleague’s wedding! It was a great cultural mashup, starting with the email invitation arriving one week before the date and casual dresscode.  We were told only the bride and groom needed to dress up.  I didn’t believe it, such absurdity went against all my Latina instincts; I wore a skirt and heels and felt ridiculous.  I should have heeded our Chinese friend’s advice and not my mother’s wisdom about erring on overdressing versus underdressing. No big deal, worse faux pas have been committed at weddings, including by me, at my own wedding.

Anyway, the wedding was in the ballroom of a big Yunnanese hotel. The floral centerpieces were beautiful and the table settings included a bottle of wine, a jug of Chinese liquor (beijiu, strong rice wine) and a plate of cigarettes. We gave a wedding party member our red envelope stuffed with 888 kuai (lucky number). We sat with Forest’s buddy and his family.  After the guests settled in, the bride and groom entered to much fanfare and camera flash. I think there were like 3 videographers and 2 photographers. Jijia, the groom wore a suit, she a beautiful white dress, Western style.  He had prepared an outstanding multimedia presentation chronicling their childhood and then courtship.  The two spent a long time in long-distance relationships as they both worked overseas after college.  Much of the history was lost on us as we only got a bit of translation. But it was fun to see the pictures. Also, Jijia created an incredible design using parts of their names and a symbol that looked like a bird in flight. This was incorporated into much of the day’s decoration, signage and party favors.

Ceremony was simple and secular.  An old family friend delivered a speech and some homilies.  Mother of the bride wrote a beautiful poem, recited by the father.  The young couple borrowed a Western tradition of jointly cutting a huge frilly multi-tiered cake and posing for a picture with knife in hand. Our friends’ little boy was excited about that part, but after later investigation, he reported that the cake was fake! The last part of the ceremony was my favorite.  The two sets of parents served tea to the couple, and the bride and groom drank tea with their new in-laws and officially started calling them “mother” and “father.” I thought it was a nice ritual of bringing new relatives together.

Our Chinese friends told us that modern weddings are mostly made up from scratch, borrowing from Western and Chinese traditions.  Weddings of this fashion are pretty new in China. Before Mao, weddings were arranged by families and brides whisked off to become the groom’s family property, so I’ve read in American fiction! But since the revolution, until the recent economic boom, marital unions have by necessity been a modest and pragmatic affair. I identify with the urge to embrace cultural traditions while trying to express ourselves in a modern way. Is cutting a fake cake any more or less hollow then a wedding ceremony conducted in “Cat in the Hat” cadence, or having dad “give away” a financially and socially independent woman?

After the guests started feasting on such delicious courses (really!) as fermented tofu, sea cucumber soup, goose liver, chicken feet, beef and garlic fried rice, roasted meats and other goodies, the bride changed into a traditional red Chinese dress, and the couple went around with their parents toasting the guests at each table.   Most of the family is in the North of China, and a ceremony was already performed there.  This reception was mostly to include one of the parents military buddies, party comrades, and the couple’s local Beijing college classmates and work colleagues. Like any wedding the world over, it was fun, full of hope and promise, and a few of dad’s drunk buddies.


China Family Expat Experience 2007

Ok, this needs some description as many of our friends and relatives don’t even know that we are living in china, much less WHY we are in China and how!?!

Arrival to China

Our family had been planning to move overseas to Spain this year, that having been our family goal for many years now, with the intention of our boys being exposed to spanish and experiencing a foreign culture at a young age–in some ways replicating the formative years that I had myself back in Zapallar/Chile at the age of 6-11.  I had surfaced the idea of working in Spain with my managers at Microsoft, and while they were generally supportive, it was clear that moving to spain was a bit “random” for my career and for the business and team that i’ve been a part of my 3+ years at Microsoft.

I visited China in Feb 2007 for the first time, and on the trip I was just blown away/amazed by the country, the people, and the excitement in the business community around my product area (rich user experiences in software, both for Windows and the web).  About April of this year I started thinking–“what if we moved to China instead of Spain”?  I floated the idea by Cristina more as a joke than anything else, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when her eyes lit up and she said “YEAH!” site unseen (she had not yet been to china or anywhere in asia a that point!)

Over the summer I started vetting the idea at work and figuring out what role/opportunity there was for me to drive for the company in the region–the idea being that whilst we live in Beijing, i’m really over here to work on the market for my products in Japan/Korea as well as China.  Living in China makes sense because of the size of the market here (there are more internet users here than anywhere else in the world!) and as a family experience we really want the kids to learn Mandarin and be a part of this amazing country and people at this amazing time in its history.

So, starting in August Cristina and the kids moved out of the house in Seattle, i spent the month packing up the house (most stuff into storage, some things flying or boating their way over here to China, house is on the market (see the real estate listing and photos here)) while the crew went to California for some vacation time with grandparents.  We then met up in San Francisco and boarded our flight to Beijing, and have been over here since September 8th.  We will be here for at least 2 years (on contract with msft) and don’t really know or need to know what happens beyond that!

So…. that’s the brief version of why and how…


It’s funny, this blog started off with my visit to China earlier this year, and here I am making my first update in a belated long summer, back in China, but this time, as a resident alien!  My family and I just moved here, we are living in “the most important city in the world” (as some are calling it)–Beijing.  I’m joining the team over here to help out with the Microsoft UX business.  I’ll be living in China but working with Korea, Japan, India, Australia, and other geographies in the region–there is so much vibrancy to the cultures, the business community, and of course, for the internet and web business.

This summer summarized in 1 paragraph = shipping Silverlight 1.0 was a blast, and the momentum in the market is awesome… we’ve got amazing partners lining up worldwide, and i’m really psyched to be over here in Asia where 40%+ of broadband connections exist and the growth and excitement in the market is second to none.  Going to be fun! 

Here’s a picture of me and the kids eating our first of many dim sum meals in town–my 6 year old said “this dim sum is like 10x better than Seattle’s”, and he is of course underplaying the divide!  Oh-my-god, the “chinese” food back home is indeed a different beast completely from what we’ve enjoyed here in just our first week.  I’m taking pictures of all the food we eat, plan on making a Silverlight widget of “food forest has eaten in china” for one of my killer demos some day!

PS: Using Windows Live Writer new beta–at last, red squiggly lines for misspelled words–ahh, technology is wonderful! 

First Week Update

WHEW…what a long week! it feels like we have been here for 3 weeks, we have gotten so much accomplished. After looking for a house and finding our way around and picking up some phrases in Mandarin and getting the boys situated in school, I feel a bit pooped already!

But it’s all good.

The boys love school. It is a beautiful place full of new discoveries every day. They are so excited when I drop them off and happy when I pick them up. What a relief. Carlos has Mandarin class every day and was proud of himself when he wrote numbers in Chinese characters. He gets to pick his own food in the cafeteria which makes him feel so grown up. Caetano has explored the various playgrounds on campus and today showed Carlos and me his favorite

spot– a little garden labyrinth with a giant chessboard in the middle. He’s doing art and learning lots of fun little things every day about the natural world.

Roberto and I have explored the neighborhood a bit more. Our relocation specialist included him on a BIG night on the town Saturday with a huge group of people, starting with dinner and moving on to drinks and then dancing at a huge club. He was out til 4:30 and it sounded like a great time!

I finally learned the ropes at the supermarket and have learned to elbow my way to the front of the line with the toughest of Chinese ladies to get the produce person to weigh my fruits and veggies.

Once I had to actually cut in front of an out of town Chinese guy (I’m guessing he was from a small town or something since he was as clueless as I was). I felt so bad, but if I had waited for him I never would have gotten out of there.

Shopping for food is a little scary because apart from produce, you really don’t know exactly what you are getting since you can’t read the ingredients! Not to mention it is hard to trust Chinese food makers given the track record lately. We cook a lot of noodle and rice dishes with veggies. But when we go out to eat, MAN is it good!!!! We had another amazing round of dim sum the other day, and we then we went to a funky food place on the way home from the Great Wall. It was a pretty country road full of pick-your-own-fruit farms and nut vendors. Talk about trust…I used my Chinese phrasebook and our driver to help us order a few things and we had a typical “Beijing” meal, including fresh tomatoes and also big fat noodles cooked with tomatoes and eggs, pan fried tortilla type things, chicken neck and other random parts. It was great.

Every few days it pours rain and today it is quite clear. You can actually see beyond a few blocks today.

Last night Forest and I did some haggling at a high-tech merchandise bazaar.

Hope you all are doing well!!!! Please write back and stay in touch.

Cristina and the guys

Got cell phones working!

My IT travails continue in China.  First I spent over a week messing around with the cell phones in order to get Cristina and my cells to both work and read/write email.  Then I spent the last week goofing with this blog software to get it working adequately.  The good news is we are now set up and we should be able to start actually communicating with everyone–i know folks back home are wondering what the heck we are up to… stay tuned for more regular updates!

Eating Chicken Heads

One of the things cristina and I are enjoying tremendously is being observers as the boys seamlessly adjust to being kids in China.  The best example of this to date was how they both dived in and devoured bizarre (but surely tasty) bits of chicken (including feet, neck, head, etc.) when we sat down for lunch during our countryside outings to the great wall last weekend.  It was delightful and horrifying all at once to see them fighting over the chicken head.

  • Carlos: “caetano, don’t eat it all, save some for me”
  • Caetano: “uhmm, chicken head is yummy”
  • Carlos: “noooooo, save some for me”
  • Caetano: “one more bite then i’ll give some to you!”
  • Carlos: “noooo!!!”

While for cristina and I the experience of new food, new language, non-verbal and verbal communication, etc. all around us is sometimes shocking and new, for the boys it all must seem just “new”, in the same way that trying so many things back home was also new each and every day in the life of a 4/6 year old.  That said, the new food experience for the adults is pretty off-the-charts amazing as well… in the last week we’ve had duck intestine, duck tongues, jellyfish, various spicy noodle dishes with flavors we’ve never tasted before, new fruits and vegetables… and that’s just the stuff we could identify–there are many dishes that we simply must characterize as “Chinese mystery dish”

Food feast

This weekend we took the boys to the Chaoyang park (biggest park in Asia) where we rode various amusement park type rides, and the next day went to the flea-market which was a hoot because we got to see all kinds of cool trinkets we’ll want to shop for when we move into our house and need to decorate with the local flare (click here for the photos).  We also got the boys their first local haircuts, was really funny to see all the attention they got from the staff at the salon, which had probably not cut little american boys’ hair before.  We got a cute picture of the boys with their barbers.

Change of Seasons

I hope everyone is enjoying the change in season.

This week is the Full Moon festival, celebrating the fall harvest.

The main way of celebrating is to eat “moon cakes” which are big thick sweets in the shape of the full moon. They come in a big fancy set of 8 or 9 and Forest received a couple of boxes as gifts. Next week is “Golden Week” and everyone gets vacation.

The weather is nice and warm without being sticky and hot. Last week we enjoyed beautiful clear blue skies after some rain. Now the smog is back, but we are still loving the weather and all the fun this city has to offer and doing lots of exploring.

Our temporary apartment that we have lived in for 2 weeks is right in the city, and there’s lots to do within walking distance. There’s a fun bar and restaurant street near the embassy district where Forest and I celebrated our 9th wedding anniversary. At the end of that block is “the” expat bookstore/cafe hangout.

Across the big busy street is a super cool park with a lake. The boys caught some goldfish there and they are still alive after one week!

The fish, that is. This weekend we took a boat ride and a stroll

On Sunday we started the day off with a friend from SF, Ann Williams, who was finishing business in China before taking a year off to be a FT mommy. She took us to an open air market that was amazing. It had everything: old cameras, brass buddhas, turquoise and coral in bulk, antique tibetan textiles, traditional blue and white china tableware. I got to bargain for some Russian nesting dolls painted like pandas that Carlos fell in love with. It’s awful hard to wheel and deal with a kid around, whose heart starts breaking when you pretend to walk away from the toy he has his heart set on, all so you can get a better deal. But she knocked the price from 150 RMB to 50, which was probably still too much but good enough for me.

Everywhere we go people are so charmed by Carlos and Caetano. They try to goose their little arms. Men and women both have such friendly smiles for them. They get the Chinese word for “pretty” a lot. “Pretty” wild if you ask me.

Tina Furniture Shopping

Went to look at furniture the other day. Thought it might be fun to invest in a pretty table that we could take back to the States. Saw some amazing hand-crafted pieces, very creatively designed and beautifully rendered. The saleslady mentioned that one I was admiring used wood made from Russia. Rather than seeing it as a selling point, I immediately became cognizant that anything I bought in the store might have some political implication, an environmental impact or infringement on human rights.

I asked about the table that I liked the most. Where did that wood come from?


I became familiar with Myanmar last year when I did a play that featured a biographical sketch on Aun Sung Suu Kyi, the courageous, self-sacrificing pro-democracy activist and nobel prize winner that has been under house arrest and intense personal suppression for her powerful yet peaceful opposition to the brutal military junta. The government did not recognize her victory in elections and murdered thousands of her unarmed supporters.

Then, right after my furniture shopping, news came out of Myanmar about the monks that were demonstrating against the government, triggered by a sudden 500% price hike on fuel. The story figures prominently in the news here, and it has gripped me as the number of protesters has swelled to tens of thousands. The monks hold rice bowls upside-down over their heads, symbolizing excommunication of the would-be benefactors in a government that reveres but represses them. The riot police are coming out, and observers are marveling that brutal action hasn’t been taken yet.

The news people now say that China must be exerting its influence on the country with no other “friends” in the world. China’s no beacon of democracy, but the Olympics are driving this country to put their best face before the world. We’ll see in the next couple of days what will happen.

Meanwhile, I’ll pray for the monks. I’ll not buy any of those tables. I’ll think about where my furniture comes from. While this may cause delay, inconvenience and extra expense, I have to heed Aung San’s example. She said “To live the full live, one must have the courage to bear the responsibility of the needs of others. One must want to bear this responsibility.”

Where am I going to buy a table? I’m in China, for God’s sake. But it’s not like I’m putting my life on the line marching for freedom.

(Ads forest) Cristina and I spent all day yesterday shopping for furniture.  Our land-lady didn’t want to furnish the house herself, so she gave us allowance to do the shopping.  We’re on the lookout for 3 couches (one for basement entertainment room where we will build our projector based media center, one for the living room, and another for the children’s room-level play area).  Couches are nice, and about 30% of what they would cost in the US.  I personally fell in love with this dinning room set, german style design, has lots of space under it as it has no posts at the corners… it will go very nice in our wide open main level floor plan.


So i’m over in tokyo for a quick visit and had a blast looking at toys in this toy store that absolutely blows away anything in the US.  the density of toys, in a 6 floor structure, was astounding.  They had an entire section on Ultraman, which the kids are really into even though they have yet to see an episode.  Ultraman is a 30 year old tv show from japan with guys in rubber suits fighting monsters (godzilla style).  The show is rigorously formulaic (each episode follows a rigid strucutre of acts 1-3 with a very consistent ending: ultraman fitghts monster, ultraman starts to loose and his light flashes on his chest, ultraman whips out his power energy move and kills monster…).  It’s just like when the kids started loving spiderman, months ahead of ever seeing spiderman images… something about these toys/concepts is certainly very deep in our consciousness… in the same way that Cristina, Roberto, and myself are all hooked on Heroes tv show–the superhero fantasy is powerful.

At the airport coming home I took some time to play with some of my technology from work–put this video up directly on my blog using “silverlight” technology… to see it you’ll need to install Silverlight on your computer first (click here) but once installed it will work forever and I’ll be putting up more videos periodically.  You can of course also just see the videos on our phanfare site.

In other news today… we have lease worked out and should be moving into our new place next Saturday the 8th of oct.

Meals Meals Meals

We had a series of delightful meals, starting with the LAN Club with just the adults on friday night, where we feasted on exotic/elegantly prepared food amidst the bizarre decorations of this huge, and largely empty restaurant designed by famed french hipster Phillip Starck.  We ordered a australian lobster that was brought to our table live for inspection before preparation… i misread the menu so what I thought was a $!00 lobster turned out to be a $100 per 500g, or $300 when all said and done.  Fortunately it was indeed delicious, along with the other excellent food.  On Saturday we hit the korean bbq in the Lido neighborhood that cristina and I had visited back in June on our first visit to Beijing.  The kids (caetano in particular) were in no mood for a 90 minute sit down, even with the awesome decor and incredible visuals of over 50 different plates of yummy food placed in front of us.  The korean bbq is done on hot wooden coals, brought to your table, and various pork and beef cuts were prepared for us along with delicious pickled side dishes and salads.  Both restaurants must visits for any friends/family that come to visit… we are sure that Tio Joaco in particular will love both and we look forward to taking him. 

Roberto Haircut!

Roberto got his hair cut this week, it looks very good!

Wo Xiexi Han Yu

Learning Mandarin. Our main motive for moving here.

In the Americas, you often hear Chinese immigrants speaking Cantonese.  China has several languages, but Mandarin is the official language, and spoken by over 800 million people. It’s the language with the most speakers! If you have seen art films from China, you have probably heard it. It has a lot of sh and rr sounds.

It’s hard, but I am really making an effort to learn. Once I got here, I started listening to lessons on my ipod, and now have a private teacher a few times a week.

Of course, the secret to learning a language is to go out there, practice, and make a fool of yourself as much as possible. I’m accomplishing this mission with zeal. Most Chinese don’t speak any English at all, but the younger generations all learn it in high school, and some take it really seriously. As part of the Olympic push, people gamely make an effort. This helps a lot, since I can speak only a few phrases and then I’m lost. Someone always seems to swoop in and save me.

My attempts at Mandarin are typically received with embarrassed chuckles, and more often profound confusion. Unlike other languages, you have to really nail the pronunciation to be understood. In Mandarin, I can finally get across “Do you speak English?” and by the time I warble out “I don’t speak Chinese” they usually get it. But I can ask for a coffee, water or beer. Forest can say “diet coke.” “Hello” and “thank you” are the phrases that all foreigners can say. “My name is…” comes out pretty easily for me now, and “where are you from” is one I’m working on. I liked learning the names of countries, and it helped when we were furniture shopping, when I asked where a table was from that we were looking at. The women understood, and when they answered Germany, I got it! (De Guo; America is Mei Guo).

I have been practicing a bit with our driver, and can politely ask to be taken somewhere, although my driver would rather I just get to the point. Forest finally got the words for left, right and straight under his belt. If you are not careful with how you say “driver” you will say something really obscene.

I can say he/we/ I like it or don’t like something. “I don’t know” is fun to say — “Wo bu ji dao,” but it sounds a lot like “you’re welcome” “—“bu ke gi” and excuse me — “dui bu qi.”

We had trouble ordering our sofa today. Seemingly basic vocabulary can be a real problem, such as asking “how many pillows are included.” It took awhile to first establish that Forest was talking about pillows (after one of the salesgirls made a joke about her flab). Then we found out where they were made, what they were made out of, how much they were in multiple fabrics, when they would be delivered, everything but how many came with the couch!

Luckily, we have a couple of people we can turn to for translation–mainly Forest’s co-workers, and the relocation agents. This week is China’s national holiday, and all those people will be on vacation. We’ll be doing lots of pantomime!


Strangers in a Strange Land

We just got our first taste of being strangers in Beijing, as we went to Tianamen Square on “National Day”, which is the beginning of “Golden Week” holiday (all week off for most).  Beijing is flooded with out of towners, many of whom who have apparently not seen much of foreigners before.  The boys were very popular, as we had a dozen or so requests for taking their pictures with the locals.  Here in this picture you can see a very happy chinese guy holding carlos up for his friends to take a picture of them together.  The boys got a little sick of it after a while, but cristina and I thought it was really cute.  There was massive number of people out, probably close several hundred thousand in the square if i had to guess.

Moved into House!

We moved into our house!  Hooray.  It’s going to be so great, the space and layout is fab, it is SOOOO close to the school we could literally throw a frisbe and hit the entrance.  We just need more furniture, i’m regretting that we didn’t send more stuff over from the US. The landlord provided us with a budget to buy core furniture as part of our lease, but it is taking a lot of time to find stuff and we have to get her approval before we buy as she has good taste and doesn’t want us just buying anything, thus we have to shop, take pictures, send to her for approval, then go back, haggle/negotiate, fill out paperwork for delivery, then await.  They are quick, however, so new couches only take 10-15 days as opposed to months in the US.  Cheap too, some really nice stuff for 1/2 to 1/3rd of US price.  We’ll be looking for some antique/wood style stuff to bring home with us someday… we get our Air shipment from the US wed this week, so we’ll have more clothes and some of our electronics stuff, the kids are psyched for xbox, they are video game fiends these days which is cute, but only allowed on weekends so as to not overdue it.  I think I blew the packing and didn’t put any of our winter clothes into the air shipment, so we are going to have some cold days soon and will need to get some emergency supplies–jackets, etc.  The winters here are cold and dry, you can already feel the swift change from fall into early winter, nighttime much cooler than just a few weeks ago when we arrived which still felt decidedly like summer.  They say that “fall is shorter now with global warming”, funny have everything gets blamed on global warming, who knows.

Said goodbye to little bro (didi in mandarin) Roberto, who goes off to thailand Tuesday.  It’s been amazing having him here to help out and share the experience, i think he had a good time and will remember fondly, at the very least he has a huge appreciation for our experience, as both parents with the kids, and as expats in asia!  Will be interesting to hear how he draws on that in his future… thailand will certainly be a blast for him, the beaches/warm sand will be waiting for him.

First visit Hong Kong

On plane just taken off from Hong Kong.  What a truly fabulous city.  The contrast of the ocean, the forested hills, and the dense but efficient vertical buildings, it really is one of the wonderous cities of the world, as it has always been billed to me by friends who have visited.  Driving around the city in taxis i kept looking out the window and marveling at what a strong imprint the city has a unique entity, it felt as though you could have dropped me out of a teleporter and asked me “what city do you think you are in: and within just a few moments of looking around it would be clear to me, even without ever being there before, “this is hong kong”.  Something about its representation in films perhaps, or maybe some images from long ago memories that are now intermixed with noise in my brain, but it definitely has a unique signature that is palpable on just a glimpse of the streets.  I can’t wait to explore more, was only here 1 day, now off to Taipei for the day (Taiwan, will get to see the National Museum where many chinese imperial artifacts are stored, as they were swept away to Taiwan when Chang Kai Shek and his buddies the Nationalists were fleeing mainland), then back to Hong Kong this evening, but then tomorrow off to Beijing.  We’ll be coming here for New Years this year for 6 days, together with Jane and the kids/etc., so we’ll have ample time to explore and see disneyland with the boys, etc.  should be blast, can’t wait to walk the streets at night and just get lost!

Managed to score an iPod touch in the airport, been looking for one for a month now in asia, was pleasantly surprised to find one staring back at me at the counter right by our boarding gate.  Been watching videos on my flights around asia using the smaller ipod, will be nice to have the bigger screen.

Taipei and National Museum

Had a great day in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital.  Arrived to a lovely lunch looking out from the restaurant in a famous landmark hotel that was built and managed by Mrs. Chang Kai Shek herself (the founder of the modern republic’s wife, who led the Nationalist party in China that fled to Formosa to form Taiwan when they lost the civil war to the communists/Mao in China).  The hotel itself was a trip, had an awesome bright red exterior and interior, with traditional chinese looking architecture and decorations.  Very picturesque.  From the restaurant we could see the entire city, which is marked by the Taipei 101 skyscrapper, the tallest building in the world–the weird thing is that it is like 7 times taller than the next tallest building anywhere near it, so you look out over this vast city and see relatively level buildings, and then there is this *m*a*s*s*i*v*e* tower that looks like a big shoot of bamboo shooting up into the stratosphere.  Not what I expected.  Pretty cool, didn’t have time to scale it yet, but next visit will be sure to do. 

We then went over to the National Museum, which is where the national treasures of China are located, since the Nationalists took them with them as they fled Beijing with the communists on their heels.  The treasures were amazing, and we got to see all manner of porcelain (china), jewels, jade, paintings, scrolls, etc.  We got a tour by one of the directors of the museum, with whom we met to discuss some business.  Really neat little excursion, left me wanting for more time here to get to know my colleagues and the city better.  Didn’t have my camera on me so got neigh a shot!

Madrid Side Trip

So I’m in madrid for a few days for a work meeting/summit with colleagues from all around the world.  It is interesting being here and comparing/contrasting to our experience so far in China–as you know, we were planning on moving here and opted for china kind of out of the blue, so in some ways madrid is where we were supposed to be right now… and being here is thus all the more strange!

The food is so bland here compared to china–yes it is delicious, but it is really really really bland!  Also, the place just feels old and crusty and so 15th century… whereas Beijing feels like a 21st century city in the making, with the vestiges of a 2000 year old history/tradition (forbidden city, imperial gardens, and great wall…)  The city feels generally like a small town, compared to the size and scale of Beijing.

As I look around I can’t help but think “this place is dead”… it has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, folks are really into their great quality of life and clean air and pretty buildings, but there just isn’t any vibrancy, any sense of urgency, of what’s coming next… it seems more about holding on to what it was and what it likes to be, but aimless.

This sounds like a huge indictment of spain, i don’t mean it that way–went for a walk in the Retiro park today and it was absolutely lovely, with “maxfield parish clouds” gleaming orange/blue and pretty manicured gardens, then a visit to the Prado for some amazing Goya and Velazquez (and my favorite el Bosco painting)… really marvelous!

But Beijing is SOOO much more… alive?

City Living

Oct 22, 2007

City living with kids has been great: San Francisco and Seattle offered ample stimulation, cultural activity, access to organic food and local products. But we realized that mostly everything worthwhile is made in China. To really shop locally meant that we needed to move to a Beijing suburb.

Kidding, of course, but that is how it has turned out. This month, we moved into our “permanent” digs in a gated “villa” compound. Here in China, villa living means American-style tract housing. When we signed up to live in Beijing, we weren’t really sure what to expect.

I picked an international school located fairly close to Microsoft, and we determined that our house should be within easy access to both. This was accomplished using terribly incomplete maps and unreliable websites. Luckily, it has worked out really well! We walk along tree lined paths and cross the street to get to the kids school. Forest has room for a home office and a reasonable driving distance to get to MS.

I have resisted suburbs for a long time, fearing mental freeze and cultural death, boredom, or Stepford-type hardwiring under my floppy summer hat. Especially in China, we thought we might be robbing ourselves of some of the “real life” experiences we were enjoying living downtown: walking to fun places, buying homegrown eggs from the lady in the alley, watching tens of thousands of Beijingers start their day on bikes.

Knowing the kids would be on a bus for an hour or more each day tipped the scales, and we definitely made the right choice. I go to the city for my Mandarin classes, and we pop over to the big parks, hyper-markets and yummy restaurants on the weekend or whenever we feel like it. The kids have an easy lifestyle. The environment in this compound is very peaceful. There is a blend of Chinese and European families. Kids are in the street, riding their bikes or scooters. I can walk to a little expat-friendly store that sells organic produce and some imported food that we must have from time to time, like smoked salmon or a $10 box of Crispix cereal. I’m still pretending that cheese doesn’t exist in this country because it is working for my diet, but it’s there. In fact, just about anything you could want is available in this city if you are willing to search and/or pay a premium for it…EXCEPT for a copy of the XBOX Star Wars Lego video game that is compatible with a European or Chinese version of the XBOX console. Long story. Don’t ask Forest about that.

We have a full-time housekeeper who speaks great English so she has helped me tremendously with getting settled here. Every day for the last two weeks has featured a different delivery man, maintenance person, repair worker, landlord or building management person, sometimes on the same day. In addition to translating, our young “ayi” (auntie) does all of our cleaning and laundry. But our house is still a Key Family Mess. She’s not a magician after all.

Besides, every night after dinner the boys recreate epic battles of Ultra Man and get the sofa cushions all over, so there’s that.

Well, there’s a rambling account of what is going down here on the home front.

When an Xbox is not an Xbox

Oct 29, 2007

I’m writing this particular blog entry because i”ve been meaning to for a while as this is a great way to share the particular joys we face daily in china, but also because I’m appealing to a friend back home who sent me a rebuff when I asked him if he would please “mule” my xbox back to me on his Asia visit next week (“mule” as in “to carry like a mule, aka, carry as a pack animal”); hopefully upon reading this he will take pity on me and the kids and bring the replacement box with him!

So our boys have not been allowed to play video games until quite recently, sometime in the last 6 months we fell hard off the wagon and have been permitting a mix of games (for their considerable reading and math instructional value) and more recently, Star Wars Lego on Xbox (for its fun factor, coupled with Carlos’ two favorite things in the world = legos and star wars!).  Before packing to China the kids expressed grave concern that there wouldn’t be Star Wars Lego Xbox in China!! to which I reassured them that certainly there would be, and i would take care of all technical matters to ensure a happy gaming experience on weekends when they listened to their mama and were good  boys.

So, the first month in China we didn’t have our videogames of course as they were on the air shipment, but once they arrived at the house on a wed, i promised Carlos that when I picked him up at school that friday we could come home and play Star Wars Lego into the wee hours of the early evening before his bedtime.  This was the friday before I was to go to Spain for a week, so it was the extra sweetener to set him up for a good week with Papa away on business. 

About 10am that morning I started to plug-in the cables, and was remiss in not checking to see the power supply for the xbox; almost all of the computer and electronic devices i had plugged in up until that moment (and mind you, i have 20+ of these things) had supported 110-240v inputs, so i didn’t think twice before slamming the plug into the wall and promptly frying the power source for the Xbox, which I now know only supports 110v with the factory provided power brick.  There was an immediate electrical fire of sorts, which brought me immediately back in time to our years in Chile, when I as a 6 year old had similar fried numerous devices.  Funny how powerful smells are–i kid you not, it was the closest thing I’ve experienced to time travel in a long time!

So, i figured i’d run out to the store and get a new power source / transformer and all would be well.  I had a business meeting with a customer that AM, so afterwards I had a colleague join me at the Haidian area electronics shopping supercenter–a multi-square-block city mall of nothing but electronics and computer parts–kind of makes Frys look small and quaint by comparison, really marvelous!  A mere four hours later I had (a) a repaired version of my power source, (b) the knowledge that procuring a 240v native converter would be $400rmb, but they didn’t have in stock, and (c) for just a few hundred bucks, they would be happy to provide me with a new Xbox, with the added benefit of being able to play ALL xbox games for free–what is known as a “cracked” box–a really bad idea as far as I’m concerned since however tempting on the one hand, it completely undermines the very idea of software as a business and that is a key perception we are trying to overcome here at work/microsoft within the chinese culture/market.  Interesting nonetheless…

So, back at home with my new power adapter, a mere 6 hours after i first attempted to get everything working, I plug-in and find out that my xbox unit has suffered the “red-lights-of-death” failure–that is, the box is broken completely and needs factory repair, a apparently common hardware glitch that microsoft has acknowledged and has extensively procedures in palce to rapidlly remedy… if you are in a market where xbox is legally sold.  In China, xbox is all grey market, that is, the product is not an authorized and supported product, nor are any video game systems, as the Chinese government is not yet granting licenses for such.  They are readily available, but they all come from legal markets such as Taiwan or Hong Kong… and thus are not supported in country by microsoft.  You can get local shops to fix them, it turns out, quick and cheap–but I didn’t know that at the time… so, i packed up my dead xbox and took it with me the next morning to Spain for my business trip, where I handed it over to my colleague and asked him to take to the US for life-support-service and planned to make arrangements to get it back to me at some future date.  Meanwhile, Carlos was heartbroken after the big build up, and i promised him I would return from Spain triumphant with a working game system, intending on buying a new system in Spain.

While in Spain, however, my research led me to understand that Microsoft has “game regions” that tie the hardware and software together so that you can’t use a US game in a European xbox, or a Asian xbox with a european game… that is, my US copy of Star Wars Lego would not work with the Spanish xbox… i’d have to buy the game again at the hefty $60 Euros price ($90! when in the US it had cost me $19.95!), and none of my other games (10 or so) would work.  Furthermore, any new games I bought would have to be european versions, which of course would be hard to find anywhere but… Europe!  Hard choice ahead: one thought was to buy the frickin thing (a bird in hand…) and then see if the chinese “machine doctors” could “fix” my euro xbox so that it could play my (legal) US games?  Yes, a side benefit would be that it would also play “other games”, but my only real gaming interests are Star Wars Lego and Halo 3 which i can get from work… i stared at the box at the Cote Ingles store for a good 20 minutes doing the triage in my head… what to do?  In the end, I took the advise of a chinese friend, who said, “better wait, just buy in china, there they can assure that all works well together”  So I boarded the fateful plane back to Beijing (through holland, where I again was tempted by an Xbox at the airport, with the promise of a credit for the 20% IVA imposed on retail in Euroland).

So, back in the US friday AM when the kids are already at school, Cristina and I go to microsoft office to pick up an xbox loaner system, which my colleague said I could use for the weekend to ensure a high CPE for my family (customer satisfaction index we use at work = CPE); i bring a test game with me from home, not Star Wars Lego itself (that would have been *way* too smart of me), rather a different game that the kids don’t play called Gears of War.  At the office, we set up the xbox (an Asian box from japan) and test the game, which works great. We do some grocery shopping at Carefour, then head home.  I plug the box in, not chemical fire, all seems well, and then jet off to pick up the kids at school.  They are very excited to see me, and really excited when I confirm their worst fear was for not, and “YES, the xbox is working and YES we can play star wars lego”.  We walk home, have a snack, and I go to fire up the box when I learn to my dismay that the asian xbox doesn’t play the US game in question, it just happened to play Gears of War because that game is a “regionless” game, where as Star Wars Lego is a North America specific title, and the game+box combo is dead on arrival!  Oh-my-god, i couldn’t believe I had gotten this wrong and built up the kids’ expectations.  What a let down.  I reassured them that I would run out and be “right back”, and that I would just solve by buying one of the local xbox’s, cracked
r not, and return in time to play the game this evening.  This at about 3:30pm.

So, 8pm that night I’m finally home, empty handed, with yet more understanding of the situation.  Turns out, while the xbox’s sold locally are indeed cracked and can play any game, when they say “any” they mean “any Asia region game”.  As sophisticated as the hackers are, they haven’t bothered to find ways around my particular problem, playing a legal game on a legal xbox that isn’t from the same region.  I’m sure microsoft has reasons for this type of region-specific-security, i guess to prevent 6 year old boys from playing games when they move to new countries and their xbox’s break?  So while I could buy a cracked xbox, it would only be an asian cracked xbox, since nobody in china wants a North America cracked hardware since those don’t play the cracked videogames.  Oh, and funny thing, there is no cracked version of Star Wars Lego because the game is NOT AVAILABLE IN ASIA (Can you believe it) in any form… for some reason it was not published for Asia region at all?)  Basically i had walked into a perfect market that could serve everyone’s illegal whims in china, but not my legal aspirations to pay for the intellectual property!  This is a recurring theme with movies, software, and xbox & psp games–when you want to buy something here you find it is much easier to just buy cracked/hacked/illegal versions–the real versions are not supported by the economic model and the legal market.  It is very daunting for me personally with my star wars lego travails, and looms as a large issue for companies like Microsoft and the US Film Industry/etc.

So, the happy ending to this story, if any, is that Carlos called me in tears at about 7pm when I was still in the throws of my research at a illegal xbox store which was littered with literally 3-dozen xboxes in various stages of repair/disrepair all over the floor… and says to me “i don’t care about the stupid xbox, just come home and play with me”.  Since then he hasn’t asked for the thing, and i’ve made no promises of when and how it will be available again… maybe its a good riddance… but maybe my friend in seattle will read this and feel a ounce of pity for us Beijingers and thus act as a happy mule and bring our now repaired US xbox back to us!  I did purchase a new power source, so barring other acts of god, we should be in business for Star Wars Lego!

Scorpions on a Stick

Oct 30,2007

No need for words on this one.  And yes, he did eat them 🙂

Halloween in Beijing, 2007

Yes, we celebrated Halloween.  I kicked off the true pagan holiday season by shopping at a toy flea market with my friend, Pei, who happens to be a good haggler.  Her secret weapon to getting low prices is being Chinese and a native speaker of Mandarin.  She has a guy whose gives good prices on costumes, and he invited us to go into his storeroom of spooky fun goodies. I got two ghost costumes, two pairs of scary hand gloves, some rubber bats, neat paper calavera streamers, a big spider web and some miscellany cheap toys all for about $17!! If I had gone by myself, it would have cost a lot more or taken a lot longer to get a better deal.

This is how Halloween works here in Beijing:  anyone who lives in an apartment complex or villa compound with a least a couple of North Americans enthusiastically embraces the spirit of spookiness and decorates their doorsteps, dons a disguise and goes crazy for candy.

At the mega-market where I shop on occasion there was a mad rush by Chinese on the pre-packaged bags of candy.  I don’t know if they were all shopping for trick or treaters. Maybe so?

On Saturday we went to a party at Pei & Doug’s apartment complex to celebrate with her family, including Tyler (6) and Kaidan (4), Carlos and Caetano’s Asian counterparts in kiddie chaos.  Tyler and Carlos used to eat in the same San Francisco sandboxes when they were babies, and Pei brought me homemade chicken soup right after Caetano was born, so those guys go waaay back. The boys played blindman’s bluff in the hallways and had a blast.

Wednesday night, C & C got spooky again as spidey and a scary ghost and we went to the Lane Bridge Villa clubhouse for another party.  There were pinatas and food (which I had to elbow old chinese people out of the way for). Then big groups of kids went house to house on the quest for sugar. 

I ran home to give out treats.  In the past few years, I have been stuck with at least one bag of mini-snickers all to myself but not this halloween!  I gave away SO MUCH candy.  Everyone who lives here has a family, because why would you live in the boondocks for anything other than schools and space to ride bikes?  The funny thing is, probably EVERY kid regardless of home country or cultural background came to my house for candy.  Didn’t even matter if they had no costume or didn’t speak enough English to say “trick or treat.”  French, German, Indian, Chinese, Dutch.  All kids love costumes and candy.

I asked this cool Chinese woman whose kids are in the school if they had gone trick or treating.  She said no, they are Christians.  I would have respected her more if she said “we are lazy and couldn’t get it together” or even “we hate American Imperialism and see Halloween as another evil capitalist ploy: candy is the opiate of the young people.”

Oh, in case you are wondering, there was very little American candy.  Lots of hilarious gummy things like fake teeth, trolls, mini-burgers and trippy Chinese hard candy in flavors like corn, milk and pomegranate!

In Case You Didn’t Know

What do people here think of George Bush? Nobody cares. They are not following the election either. China’s got their own stuff going on.

There are a LOT of barber shops in Beijing, but some people go to the guy who’s got a chair set up in the public park.

Taro ice cream is DELICIOUS.

A head and shoulder massage at a spa may include ear wax removal using candles, and it’s very soothing.

Many many blog sites are blocked in China, including Wikipedia. I can’t even see our own blog unless we use Forest’s MS corporate laptop which gets through firewalls.

The olympics are a VERY VERY VERY big deal here.

We pay for our utilities using a pre-paid debit card that goes into the meter.

Some public bathrooms have squat toilets, with the hole in the ground. Some of those have automatic flush, so it’s not like it’s an old fashioned thing.

Chinese people are totally sassy, and when they tell each other off, I love them even more.

The Difference Between Boys and Girls

Nov 4, 2007

I picked up Caetano the other day from school and while I was waiting for his class to come out i was perusing the pictures and stories on the wall.  There was a recent project where the kids had made these cute clay drawings that they they painted, and they each told a short story about their creation that the teachers wrote up and placed next to the work with a picture.  The contrast between the boy and girl stories was striking.  See if you can guess which of these stories was written by girls (2 of them) and which was Caetano’s.

Story #1

My picture is a Pegasus pony playing in the grass.  It is eating grass.  She is paying with her friends.  Her mummy says she needs to eat dinner and she ate all her dinner and then she had a sleep-over.  She had lunch there and dinner there and breakfast there and she payer with her friend.  They played hide and seek outside.

Story #2

This is me sitting in my chair outside having a rest.  And I saw two suns and I saw three flowers.  And I saw a pink flower and an orange flower and a red flower and a blue sky and also green grass with my name.

Story #3

It is going to steal the treasure from Treasure Island.  But there is an octopus in the water comes and grabs the ship.  He cuts off his arm and then they steal the treasure.  Then a shark and alligator comes back and then they chop off the alligator’s mouth.  Then they come and kill the shark and then on the way back a flying saucer comes and then it drops a bomb.  And then it moves out of the way and explodes another shark.  Then they go to the island and they look around for an angler fish.  Then the angler fish comes out of the water and suddenly and then they panic.  They go back to the shore.

Great Wall Rocks

Nov 12, 2007

I think I could go to the great wall 100 times and not be bored with the experience.  This last visit was back to Mutianyu locale,

where we went with brother Roberto last month, this time with friend Adam Brownstein in tow who was visiting on a business trip.  Adam and Caetano and I went for the long uphill treck this time, while cristina and carlos hung out in the golden fall sunshine on a clear day.  Caetano is a real trooper, was game for the physical exertion–until we got to the 80 degree vertical 250+ steps that led up to the end of the restored section.  I carried him on my back  like a compact rumpsack, was a great workout for my calves/legs, and when we reached the top we had glorious views of the valley below.  It’s just a crazy thing to see, as if someone had built a massive wall up to the top of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, and then kept building it all the way to New York!  It isn’t all restored of course, and parts of it are a mere shambles/trace in the ground, but seeing the sections near beijing in all of their crazy glory is a real treat, and a great nature outing from the capital.  Cristina and I joked when we moved to Beijing (as opposed to Shanghai) that we’d always have the benefit of the great wall to show our guests when they come to visit–we look forward to sharing it with many more of you as you make your planned and unplanned visits to us in the coming years!

We are the Weirdos

This week at the kids’ school, a woman appeared to promote her book and give a talk about “Raising Global Nomads,” that is, the challenge of raising kids outside of their own or their parents’ culture.  Robin Pascoe gave a funny and energetic talk highlighting common themes in the life of an expat. She said anyone who claims they have never had culture shock after moving overseas is in denial.

2.5 months into our stay in Beijing, and I haven’t felt “culture shock.”  Expert advice indicates that family members may go through it at different times.  Nobody in our family has seemed to have much trouble adjusting. 

And then today I burst into tears during my Chinese class. 

I went shopping at a mall to eliminate the stress of haggling at the local market place.  Then the sales girl confused the hell out of me, explaining something about the prices in Chinese, taking me (all sweaty in my winter coat) through the whole store again to pick more things out. Further review of the receipt indicates that I came out okay, but it was a little crazy.

Before picking up Carlos, I get an email from his teacher saying he had been crying at every little thing.  When I saw him I just held him, knowing how he felt.  I knew that nobody “kicked him in the stomach” as he claimed.  He just gets sick of all the extroverts he is surrounded by day in and out

Caetano won’t eat anything.  He won’t do eggs, rice, noodles, sandwiches, cereal, salad, quesadillas, tofu.  All the things he used to love he doesn’t want.  But tonight after I picked out the good stuff from my Kung Pao Chicken leftovers, he gobbled up all the cashews, mushrooms and green onions in spicy sauce.  Okay, I get it. He likes MSG.

What salvaged the day was a visit to the fabulous house of a fabulous woman with adorable kids that Caetano played with after school.  She brewed me up some cappuccino and we laughed and all was right in the world.

Basically we all have good and bad days, and we all need friends and good food to get us through the rough spots, not matter what country we are in.  It takes time to find those people you can trust to open up to.  The boys and I have each other, and we are doing fine.  They are just little things, really. 

What’s the word in Mandarin for “weirdo”?

Thanksgiving in China 2007

Lots of people have asked me about Thanksgiving in China.  It is not like Christmas or Halloween, where the spirit of American consumerism is so infectious it spreads everywhere.  China already has its own harvest festival in early October, when everyone gorges on special goodies (in their case, moon cakes) and gets out of town. 

Thanksgiving is a hard holiday to get into as an expat because it is about getting together with family and/or close friends and sharing a feast of traditional dishes usually prepared throughout the day with communal support, and also watching either football, the Twilight Zone Marathon, or newly released Hollywood Blockbusters. 

Here in China, I can’t do any of those things.  Turkeys are hard to come by. So are Americans.  I saw two that were huge and very expensive.  The turkeys that is.  I don’t think they would even fit in my little Chinese fridge.  I thought about skipping the turkey and doing stuffing like my mom makes, but the thought of cooking alone in the kitchen while everyone was at work or school depressed me. 

Forest scheduled a business trip to MS HQ and planned it so he could enjoy a REAL Thanksgiving with Grandma Bess and family.  This had me seething with jealousy for a good week.  Nonetheless, I wanted to create a sense of the holiday for our little family and have a special meal before Papa went away.  I thought a duck dinner at a famous Beijing restaurant, Da Dong, would be a neat substitute–but to no avail.  The kids turned out to be fried and a little sick.  Traffic was horrible and we all had to be up the next morning. 

The Forest and Cristina Key philosophy behind celebrating holidays is Going With the Flow and Not Forcing Anything, so I moved on to plan…what was it by then, plan D?  We ordered in Chinese food.  And the feast included duck, a nice pumpkin dish (the Chinese word translates into “Southern Melon”), great Kung Pao chicken, Chinese BBQ pork and Szechuan green beans. Each of us shared our own words of thanks, prayed for our loved ones, and enjoyed being together.

I hope everyone in the States has a great Thanksgiving too!

How’s our Mandarin?

Dec 4, 2007 – Cristina

I have completed level 1 in Mandarin!  Yay!

What this means:  I can bargain in Chinese and while not getting bargains that locals would, I can hold my own price and get it.  I can say “how much is this?” “I live in Beijing” “That’s waaaay too expensive” “lower it a little more” “that’s not that cheap” and other handy phrases.  I get cultural literacy points for having a smile on my face, not getting mad, not taking it personally and hence not taking the fun out of it. 

Today I went to a traditional pharmacy and bought some cough syrup for Caetano, in Chinese.

I eavesdropped on my driver making plans to meet his wife (presumably) at a bar after work.

I went to a local food-court-type table, ordered noodles without meat and found out where to pay.  I ended up sharing a table with 3 local girls who for the first half of their meal together only talked about the food before moving on to topics that I couldn’t understand.

I’m still too shy to have a real conversation with someone because my vocabulary is still very basic and understanding is hard.  But I’ll get there someday.  I try a lot of stuff out on my driver who corrects me.

I watch kids shows in Chinese and understand 20%, but it’s stuff like “never” “so” “but” “excuse me” “thank you” and such.  Lots of gaps in meaning!

Caetano can say “I want milk” “hello” and “goodbye.”  He learned a really cute little song in Mandarin about friends, and he says the words great but doesn’t understand what any of them mean.

Carlos, between his hour a day at school and two hours with a private tutor one night a week, is picking up some phrases and getting the confidence to try them out on the few non-English Chinese he encounters, such as the cafeteria ladies.  He felt pretty empowered to say he wanted rice the other day (“Wo yao mifan”).  His accent is totally cute and his pronounciation is great.  His tutor is impressed with him, but he has almost no opportunity to practice!

While having an English speaking housekeeper has made life easy for me, it has eliminated one of the few chances the kids have to learn Chinese.   I’ve asked her to speak to them in Chinese, but she is a little shy and the boys hate it since they know she is “teaching” them I guess.  There are kids here whose parents work, and spending 3 hours a day with “Ayi” has them understanding and speaking quite a bit.

I thought about having a local teenager play with them in Chinese, but someone informed me that after age 10 all Chinese kids are studying their butts off.

Carlos and Caetano will go to a little camp over Christmas break that has Chinese teachers.  We’ll see how that goes. 

Meanwhile, we’ll just keep talking to each other about our food in Mandarin!

Happy Roman New Year 2008

Jan 5, 2008 – Cristina

Happy New Year everybody! Want to know how our Christmas in China was? It was the best of Christmas in the US, without the stress and commercialism and (cough cough) religious meaning. It was great!

First, let me clarify that Christmas is NOT a holiday in China. This is an officially atheist country, and Chinese cannot go to church without a Western passport. All businesses are open, and nobody takes the day off. Chinese people do not put trees in their homes, decorate, or personally celebrate in any way. However, in Beijing, Hong Kong and I’m sure Shanghai, the spirit of Christmas is in the air. The holiday is called “Shen-dian-jie” which means, saint’s birthday festival. But guess which saint they think Christmas celebrates? Santa Claus! Yes, they have it nailed. Santa’s image is in all restaurants and shops, and many restaurant and bar staff don floppy jaunty santa caps. It is a secular celebration of light during the dark days, warm feelings in the dead of winter, and non-stop Christmas soundtracks from Bing Crosby to Bruce Springsteen, just as our Northern Hemisphere pagan forebears intended it to be even before the birth of Santa.

I have an American buddy who was lamenting that Christmas isn’t the same, that decorations are half baked, etc. But she is pregnant on bed rest and doesn’t get out much, I’m afraid, because it was plenty festive for me. I went to the big flower market and found a bunch of Christmas deco stalls catering strictly to Westerners. I bought a bunch of ornaments, probably full of lead but so cute. Pine trees don’t smell here, but I got a little live tree for $25 and it really brightened up the house. The boys and I had a little party with some of their friends. My intention was to recreate our Seattle ritual of decorating “gingerbread” houses made of graham crackers with frosting and candy–something we did at their school right before the break.

Stupid me underestimated the degree of technical difficulty in the construction of these houses (it brought back memories of a remodeling disaster in San Francisco). We ended up with one-dimensional graham cracker houses, plenty of frosting and candy, and happy boys.

Christmas Eve was a festive affair, celebrated at Garth and Molly Forte’s house (the preggers one), Beth and Will Knight (also a Microsoft family), “wo de poa poa” Jane (Forest’s mom) and all the kids. Highlights (for me) were: Molly’s yummy tortilla soup, which made me think of my family eating pozole on xmas eve this year, a clothes maker fitting Forest with his surprise cashmere hoody, catching Carlos with his ear glued to the speaker blaring Jackson 5’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, trying on Beth’s floor length mink coat and thinking of the I Love Lucy quotes Joanna, Gloria and Juanita would be throwing down if they were there. Lowlights included bursting into tears trying to assemble the play kitchen at 11:30 at night.

Christmas day was a blast, very casual and lazy, and that night we bundled up and trundled out to a Mongolian Barbecue extravaganza, complete with camel rides, ritualistic goat carving, Tuvan throat singing to a disco beat, Chinese wine and dinner in a yurt with about

5 other families. See our pics online!

After sightseeing with Jane a few days after Christmas, we all went to glamorous Hong Kong to meet up with Adam and Megumu Brownstein (in Tokyo for holidays), Adam and Jess Dawes (in Malaysia for December) and swooned over the fashionable people, trendy and swanky stores, gorgeous skyline, and rang in the New Year at the Inter-Continental overlooking fireworks reflecting in Victoria Harbor. Inter- Continental indeed.

Some of us are looking forward to getting back to our little routines. The boys actually miss school, anxious to see friends. I’m happy to get back to my Mandarin lessons. Unfortunately for Forest, his routine involves lots of travel, and he booked a last minute flight to the US to do some work at MS HQ. He’ll be off to Japan and Tokyo after that. Then we’ll start getting ready for the next big

holiday– Goodbye pig, hello rat! No, not the US Presidential Elections. Chinese New Year!