Monday, July 30, 2012

A Lost Tooth, Black Eggs & Japan's Hakone National Park

After a morning at Mount Fuji, it was time to explore Hakone, Japan's most visited national park. Thank goodness for the clear skies. Seeing for miles and miles really made a difference! Strong winds altered Sunrise Tours' original itinerary, but we still came away with a memorable experience.

What's the most scenic place your child has lost a tooth? I think my younger boy has set a family record that may be hard to beat. He'd been wiggling it back and forth for days. All of us were gazing around while suspended high in the air on the Hakone Ropeway. Suddenly, out popped the tooth.

Here's the view out one side of the gondola.

Mount Fuji from the Hakone Ropeway

Here's the view from the other side.

Owakudani Great Boiling Valley — Volcanic activity resulting in sulfur vents
Can you spot the little, yellow hut at the bottom right?

Great views and the promise of a tooth fairy visit. How cool is that? I put away the tooth for safekeeping and then hopped out at Owakudani station to take a look around.

Hakone Ropeway gondolas continuing across the valley

The winds were quite gusty and cold up at Owakudani (elevation 3,132 feet), and the kids decided that the gift shop was a much better option than braving the elements. Leaving hubby with them, I took off to get a closer look at the sulfurous fumes. Who got the better deal?

Some inventive Japanese person figured out that the best way to make use of all that volcanic activity was to.... drumroll, please.... boil eggs! You won't find that recipe in the Betty Crocker Cookbook. I could see cages of eggs traveling along a cable between the steam vents and a little yellow hut, ready for hungry tourists to purchase.

Smelly black eggs cooked in a sulfur vent, anyone? Anyone?

When I got my eggs, they were still warm from their close encounter with Mother Nature. They were stinky, too. But once peeled, it tasted and smelled like a regular, hard-boiled egg. Eating one egg supposedly adds seven years to your life. By breakfast the next morning, I had eaten five whites but tossed the yolks, so I'm not quite sure where I am on the Longetivity Scale.

Then, it was back on the toasty tour bus for a ride back down the mountain to Lake Ashi, an old volcanic crater filled with water. There were numerous options for crossing, but we got a rather run-of-the-mill ferry boat.

Waiting on the pier at Lake Ashi

The mate was a mighty sailing man,
The skipper brave and sure

Ahoy there mates! Me spy pirates ahead!

Sailing across the lake was smooth and even, without a sign of the winds that buffeted us higher up the mountain. On the other side, it was back on the bus once again for the journey to Odawara Station on the Shinkansen bullet train line. Most of the tour took the speedy train back to Tokyo, but we returned to Hakone to spend the night and enjoy the hot springs.

Picturesque mountain tram at Myanoshita Station

After spending the day on a tour bus, ropeway gondola and boat, this charming train was the perfect ending to the day. All the tourists were long gone from this part of the park, and we practically had the train to ourselves. It made its way uphill through forests and switchbacks. Spring blossoms were just beginning to bud, and the landscape still had a touch of winter starkness. Finally, we reached the town of Myanoshita where we spent the night at the historic Fujiya Hotel.

Related Post
In Awe of Mount Fuji

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursdays on Budget Travellers Sandbox and Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom? Check out these sites for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

In Awe of Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji is Japan's most iconic natural landmark. On a clear day, you can see it from Tokyo, 62 miles away. On a bad day, you can't see its perfectly symmetrical top even if you're right at the base of the mountain. We visited Mount Fuji the day after experiencing exceptionally bad weather at Tokyo DisneySea, and I wasn't really sure what kind of day was in store.

In a departure from our usual practice of independent travel, we booked a tour to take us to Mount Fuji and then on to beautiful Hakone National Park. I ended up feeling that I really benefited from all the information the tour guide told us, and not having to worry about directions and logistics made the trip extra relaxing. (If we had driven, I'm sure the conversation would have gone something along the lines of "What did that sign say?" "How would I know? I don't read Japanese!") Sunrise Tours was a model of Japanese efficiency. One bus picked up  several people from our hotel plus other nearby hotels and brought us to Hamamatsucho Bus Terminal. From there, folks split up into whatever tour they selected.

The two hour drive out to Mount Fuji sped by quickly. After spending days in the crowded, concrete jungle that is Tokyo, I really enjoyed looking out the window as the city melted away and became views of a gorgeous spring countryside. The kids kept busy playing their Nintendo DS games. After all, when in Japan, do as the Japanese do. This one time, I decided that their Nintendos could count as cultural immersion.

Our first stop was the Fuji Visitor Center. But what I found really interesting was the amusement park located just before it. Who knew? I didn't realize you could ride a roller coaster in the shadow of Mount Fuji. They even have a Thomas the Tank Engine Land. Alas, this park was not part of the tour, so we drove right by it.

This sign at a Tokyo subway station should have been a clue.

We ended up having about 20 minutes at the Fuji Visitor Center. Hubby pointed out that if we were doing this ourselves, we could have spent over an hour perusing the exhibits. As it was, we had just enough time to snap a few photos, find our kids who had wandered off, and get back on the bus.

The official tour itinerary had us driving up to the Mount Fuji 5th Station (6,900 foot elevation) where climbers usually start their trek up the mountain. Alas, the typhoon-like winds that had hit while we were at DisneySea also blew down a few trees that blocked the road up. The 1st Station (3,873 foot elevation) was the highest were were able to go. At least we were blessed with clear blue skies and an amazing view of Mount Fuji's summit. I could tell that the wind gusts at the top were quite strong, causing the snow to billow away and obscure the peak. Meanwhile, the kids were fascinated by the 3x3 foot patch of snow by the parking lot. After months on a tropical island, I can't really blame them.

How do you say "Snowball Fight!" in Japanese?

We continued on with our tour, going to a traditional Japanese lunch on the shores of charming Lake Kawaguchiko followed by more fun in Hakone.

Related Post
A Lost Tooth, Black Eggs & Japan's Hakone National Park

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travellers Sandbox, Photo Friday on Delicious Baby, and Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom?  Check out these websites for more around-the-world travel inspiration. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Bad Manners at the Airport

A picture of  me is probably on someone's list of "People We Hate At Airports." Why? Because I was that heinous person repacking my suitcases at the check-in counter. Yes, I did that. My apologies to everyone behind me. Mea culpa. Luckily, American Airlines doesn't seem to be all that popular at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport, so the number of people I inconvenienced is in the single digits.

How did I reach this low point in my travel etiquette? I took advantage of our visit to America and stocked up on items hard-to-find in Malaysia. 

More Suitcases than Kids

In all, we had 8 checked luggages — 2 small, 1 medium, and 5 large. I struggled to close the 2 small ones. They were bursting at the seams. The rest were at the 50-pound limit set by the airlines. Well, except for the last one I packed. I had to sit on it to zip it up, and I paid no heed to how much it weighed. No way was I leaving behind any purchases.

At check-in, the counter rep informed me that the last luggage weighed in at 59 pounds — 6 pounds over the 53-pound limit. Wait a minute?! The website stated 50 pounds max, but I guess they grant you an extra 3 pounds. If only I had known that at home. Not wanting to be that person (you know, the idiot at check-in), I asked about the fee for excess weight. $100. Ouch. Looking like an idiot seemed a better option.

So, that's how I ended up with 3 suitcases open on the airport floor redistributing the weight — pulling 6 pounds out of one bag and splitting it between the other two. I briefly considered wearing multiple layers of clothing but figured my parental authority wasn't strong enough to convince my kids to do it, too. Don't you think I earned these lovely HEAVY luggage tags?

What  was so important that I couldn't leave it behind? Here's a small sample:

  • Texas Chili Spice Kit - Now, all I need to find is a good source for ground chuck beef.
  • Godiva Hot Chocolate mix - For my special ice cream recipe; I've found this in Kuala Lumpur but never in Penang
  • Marshmallow Fluff - I have missed you, marshmallow fluff.
  • Benadryl  - You're welcome, Heather. I brought some back for me, too.
  • Claritin Melt-in-Your Mouth RediTabs - Much better than cutting in half the teeny, tiny adult tablets the Malaysian pediatrician gave me for my daughter, grinding the half up, and mixing it in water so she can swallow it.
  • American Girl Doll clothes, magazines and books - Not surprisingly, these are hard to find overseas.
  • Boy Scouts of America Merit Badges - Stocking up for the troop
  • 30 Cub Scout Pinewood Derby kits - Enough for the whole pack
  • 6-person tent and ground tarp - Because the scouts' current tents leak, and it inevitably rains during every camping trip
  • 2 sizes of close-toed water sandals for each child - One pair of KEEN sandals for now, and one to grow into. 

It's amazing that I don't mind looking like a fool just to take the stuff my family can't live without.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Boom-Boom White Water Rafting in Perak

White Water Rafting on the Kampar River

"Any questions about Boom-Boom?" asked the white water rafting guide. Because Boom-Boom is the the #1 thing to remember when maneuvering through the 9 rapids of Perak's Kampar River with Riverbug Asia leading the way. When your guide yells, "Boom-Boom!" that's your signal to drop down into the raft and GRAB HOLD OF EVERYTHING FOR DEAR LIFE BECAUSE THERE'S A HUGE DROP AHEAD!

Last February, hubby and my oldest son joined some friends for a day of rafting and tubing. The minimum age is 10 years, so I stayed home with the younger two kids. Plus, I'm a huge chicken and rafting anything harder than Grade I rapids isn't my style. They got an early start to drive to the meeting point, a North-South Expressway Toll Plaza halfway between Penang and Kuala Lumpur. When I asked my boy about his day, the first thing he mentioned was (in his own words)...

There was this car before we began that looked like it was burnt up by the side of the road near the Toll Plaza. The tires were gone. And the hood was dented. The only thing that worked were the door hinges. The only thing left from the back seat was the frame. There was a radio and a cassette player that didn't work,obviously. All 3 kids would have carried it home if the adults hadn't stopped them. There was a pool of water on the top of the car that had collected since there was a dent. The water was colored orange and silver-white. And it was in the middle of a field.

After the other groups showed up, the motorcycle-riding guide led the car caravan on dirt roads through the jungle to the Ulu River Lodge, owned and operated by Riverbug. People wanting more than just a daytrip can stay at these newly built accomodations.

Dine and sleep at the Ulu River Lodge

After yet another van ride, everyone was finally at the river put-in point, Ulu Gerentum. This is when the finer points of paddling, safety and Boom-Boom were covered. It turns out that the life jackets and helmets came in very handy further down the river when Boom-Boom does you absolutely no good.

It sounds like everyone had tons of fun and excitement traversing the Grade I-III rapids along the 7 kilometers of river.

Woo Hoo! This ain't so bad. They totally have this white water thing down.


Just keep hanging on until you get the all clear.

The raft with all our friends wasn't so lucky. They got stuck sideways, another raft hit them, and FLIP! Over went the raft. Kids and adults went flying into the water. Someone hit a rock. Someone lost a shoe. One oar got bent. The life jackets served their purpose. The excellent guides at Riverbug righted the raft and pulled everyone from the water. It was a little more action than they bargained for, but it makes for a great story.

After a few more rapids, it was time for a break.  Tree jumping followed by more rafting, then lunch. Riverbug served up a delicious, hot, homemade Malay meal accompanied by cold drinks. Just what you need after a morning paddling for your life.

My boy learned the hard way that belly flopping from 6 meters up really hurts.

Next came an afternoon of tubing. My son made sure to tell me, "There was a safety warning on the inner tubes that said they were for amusement parks only and for easy flowing water. I thought, 'We're about to go on white water rapids. Uh oh.' " 

River Tubing in Perak

The guides once again earned their pay, with one dude assigned to keeping track of all the kids. Eventually, he just lashed all their tubes together so he wouldn't have to keep chasing them down and bringing them back on course. After 2 kilometers of soaking their bums in the river, it was time to get out at Kampung Jahang for transport back to Ulu River Lodge. Everyone washed up, put on fresh clothes, and started the long drive home.

Riverbug Asia offers many other adventures in Perak — caving, jungle trekking, and waterfall abseiling. I loved that everyone received a CD of professional pictures at the end of the excursion. Don't forget your leach-proof socks!

This post is part of "Travel Photo Thursday" at Budget Travelers Sandbox, "Friday Daydreamin" at R We There Yet Mom and "Photo Friday" at Delicious Baby. Check them out for more around the world travel inspiration. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Strange Visitor in Austin, Texas

While I was home in Texas, I was browsing through my digital photo albums and came across a set from 2002 of the strangest visitor we've ever had. Morgan was a regular girl living in Malibu, California until the day a surfboard fell on her and made her 100% completely flat. Most kids would be quite upset about their new 2-dimensional status, but Morgan decided that this was an excellent opportunity to travel cheaply. So, her mom placed her in an envelope, put on a postage stamp, and sent her on her merry way. That's how I ended up opening my mailbox one day to find a new guest, Flat Morgan. We took her around town, showing her all the sights and taking plenty of pictures for her to show her mom.

The Broken Spoke - a True Texas Dance Hall

Flat Morgan was missing cowboy boots that day.

When people think of Texas, they think cowboys and country music. Here's Flat Morgan at The Broken Spoke, the self-proclaimed "Last of the True Texas Dance Halls" that plays the best honky-tonk music in the Lone Star State.

Stevie Ray Vaughan statue with Austin downtown skyline

Austin considers itself the Live Music Capital of the World. Blues rock guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan (SRV) got his start in Austin in the late 1970s and tragically died in a helicopter crash in 1990. Austin erected this popular statue to commemorate this legendary musician. Whenever it starts to storm in Malaysia, I can't help but think of the song Texas Flood by SRV and the band Double Trouble. Looking at this photo, I'm also struck by how much the downtown Austin skyline has changed in the last decade.

Congress Avenue Bridge - home to the world's largest urban bat colony

Next, we headed to the Congress Avenue Bridge. From March to November, 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats call this bridge their home. This is the largest urban bat colony in the world. Every night at dusk, waves of bats fly out to start hunting insects. Watching the bat emergence is on of Austin's most popular summertime tourist attractions.

Texas State Capitol
Austin is also the home of the State Capitol. Because everything is bigger in Texas, this capitol has more square footage than any other state capitol in the U.S.A., and it's also taller than the U.S. Capitol by 23 feet. When it was built in 1888, it was the 2nd tallest building in the world.

Texas Governor's Mansion

The Texas Governor's Mansion is conveniently located close to the State Capitol. Unfortunately, it was extensively damaged by an arson fire in 2008. Here it is with Flat Morgan in its former glory. The restoration will supposedly finish up this summer, and the mansion will reopen to public tours.

University of Texas Tower

Austin is also home to the University of Texas, and its UT Tower is the main landmark. I hear there's quite a view from the top. Whenever UT wins a game, you can see the tower lit up in orange. An NCAA national championship illuminates the entire tower in orange with the window lights turned on to make the number 1. (We didn't mention the 1966 sniper attack to Flat Morgan. She is just a kid, after all.)

Old Whole Foods headquarters

Two well-known companies got their start in Austin — Whole Foods Market and Dell Computers. Whole Foods is now in a bigger, fancier building across the street from this one. You can spend hours and hundreds of dollars there. It has yummy food stations scattered throughout the store. Take a look around before you start noshing.

Texas Hill Country with Downtown way in the back

Most people think of Texas as flat and dry. But Austin is part of the Texas Hill Country. It's in the middle of a drought right now, but when this picture was taken, it was still kind of lush. Here's Flat Morgan at the Capital of Texas Highway lookout with downtown Austin in the background.

Prickly Pear Cactus

We ended our tour of Austin with a stereotypical shot of Flat Morgan with the official state plant, the Prickly Pear Cactus. After a good night's rest, we mailed her back to Malibu with these pictures as a memento of her visit. A few days after she returned home, her brother inventively realized he could restore her back to her natural 3D form with the help of a bicycle pump. Morgan is flat no more and about to start university on a softball scholarship. A decade has passed since this trip, but it's one we still fondly remember.

Pssst... if you have a kid in early elementary school, you may enjoy reading the book Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown which was the inspiration for this school project.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Pursuit of Happiness

I just wanted to wish the good ole United States a big Happy Birthday! I've spent much of the last year focusing on that certain unalienable right listed in the Declaration of Independence as the Pursuit of Happiness. During our home visit in Texas, many people have asked me how I like living in Malaysia. It's been one great big vacation for me. (My kids still have school, and hubby goes to work, so they will probably not make the same claim as me.) I explore the streets of a historic city, learn about a different culture, and try out new food every week.

It's been a wonderful, stimulating year, and I'm so glad we decided to accept this expat assignment. Last July, I wasn't 100% sure it was a good idea, but I went ahead anyway. I often tell my kids that sometimes they can't control a situation, but what they can control is their reaction. I guess this past year I decided to be happy. That is the reaction I chose. Over the course of my life, I've had my low points, and I know that choosing happiness sometimes isn't necessarily easy or even possible. But this isn't one of those times.

There are supposedly four stages of culture shock according to my reputable friends at Wikipedia.
  • Honeymoon phase - (0-3 months) Life abroad feels like an extended vacation
  • Negotiation phase - (3-6 months) Excitement gives way to anxiety, frustration and homesickness
  • Adjustment phase - (6-12 months) Life begins to feel "normal" as you become accustomed to the new country and negative feelings decrease
  • Mastery phase - (12+ months) You participate fully and feel comfortable in the host country while keeping many traits of your original culture

I figure that I am either still in the Honeymoon phase or that I perhaps skipped entirely over the Negotiation phase and went straight to the Adjustment phase. To be honest, I wasn't very supportive when my husband told me about the expat offer. I worked my way through all the anxiety and frustration before we even left Texas. I'm not quite sure when things changed, but I know I boarded the international flight to Malaysia feeling slightly apprehensive but mostly excited.

That's when I decided to pursue happiness. I knew that embracing my new country and culture is what would make this expat stay the most meaningful for me. I decided to find joy instead of frustration in the differences. I intentionally cut back on volunteering as much as I did in the U.S.A. so that I could free myself up for discovery. I committed myself to traveling on long weekends so that we could take advantage of our new location. I surrounded myself with like-minded, positive people while also trying to remain sensitive to the feelings of those who are less in love with expat life.

I also decided to pick up an old childhood hobby which had fallen by the wayside due to the demands of work and motherhood. I started writing this blog to share my adventures with the world. Thanks for reading this. You have made me so happy.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Online Resources for Expats Moving to Penang

Before I moved overseas, so many questions raced through my head. Where do I buy food? How do I find a doctor? Would I ever make friends? How do we handle banking? What will I do with myself all day? Luckily, I found online resources that helped answer these questions. Now, I send the following links to anyone who asks for advice on moving to Penang.

How to Handle Daily Life
Penang Momma is an excellent resource for daily expat life in Penang. It covers a wide variety of concerns, for example:
  •   Hospitals and pediatricians
  •   Finding a preschool
  •   Organic grocery stores
  •   Hiring  maids
  •   Ordering food at a hawker center 
If you have a young child, the Penang Mommas discussion group is a great place to ask other expat mothers your questions.

Living in Penang is another website with practical advice for foreigners.

Retiring in Penang
Both Pick of Penang and Retired in Malaysia are written by guys who have settled in Penang under the Malaysia My 2nd Home (MM2H) visa program. Visit their blogs for insight on the cost of living, getting an automobile, housing,  banking, and other aspects to consider when committing to the long-term move. They also seem to get out after dark (unlike me) and have numerous recommendations for nightlife.

Fun Activities
Spiral Synergy hosts a variety of events every month. There's everything from Photo Workshops on the streets of historic Georgetown to the Furniture Confidential tour showing you where boutique hotels acquire their fabulous decor. If you're crafty, try Basket Making, Wooden Signboard Carving or Batik. The Stylish Shopping events are quite popular, and a Welcome to Penang Expo is on the calendar for September 8, 2012.

Meeting People
Personally, hanging out poolside at my condo and around my kids' school has been the best way for me to meet people. This year, I also plan to join the International Women's Association. Bowling, book clubs, wine dinners, and choir are just a few of their activities. If you're a foodie, Food Friends explores various epicurean delights around Penang.

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