Monday, July 21, 2014

San Francisco for Memorial Day

About a week before Memorial Day we planned a somewhat last minute trip to San Francisco.  It is one of our favorite cities and we hadn't been there in almost five years.  Charlie had some Hyatt points to use up, so we booked a hotel, called up the dog sitter, and headed on our way.

The drive was super quick and easy, despite it being a holiday weekend.  Charlie routed us around the LA traffic and by the time we hit the 5 it was smooth sailing.  Only one stop and we made it in about six and a half hours.  We stayed at a Hyatt in Emeryville right at the base of the Bay Bridge.  The boys' favorite feature of the room was the balcony overlooking the train tracks.  Um yeah, a little noisy, but hey it was free.

After checking in and getting settled a bit we headed out to explore the nearby peninsula and watch the sunset, before going to grab dinner at a local diner.

The next morning Charlie and I traded off going for runs along the coast line before grabbing breakfast.  By mid morning we were in downtown San Francisco meeting up with my friend Amy and her two girls (Paul was busy with home renovations).  We met at the cable car turn around on Powell and Market Streets.  In all my trips to San Francisco I had never ridden the cable car and we thought it would be fun for the boys too.  Well we should have done a little more research because this was the WRONG spot to get on!  We waited nearly two hours in line with whiny children (ours, not Amy's), when we could have easily walked one block up and jump right on.  We were quite exasperated once we realized this.

At least it was cool to watch as the cable cars reached the end of their route and were turned around on a giant turntable before loading up again with passengers to head back down to the wharf.  (I promise not every photo is of the back of my boys' heads.)

Charlie bought a few bags of chips from a nearby street vendor to rejuvenate the kids a bit.  I was trying to capture a cute shot of Luke and Clara with their orange faces and fingers, but instead ended up with this rather hilarious photo bomb from Isaac.

I think I always set too high of expectations for photo ops.  I imagined us all hanging off the side of the cable car while cruising down a quintessential San Francisco hill with the wind in our hair.  But alas we were all jammed inside of the car with barely enough elbow room to get any photos at all!  Once I got past my disappointment we all had enjoyable ride.  Except for sweet little Rose who wailed the entire time.  Her mother reports that the poor girl does the same thing every time she rides in the car.

Everyone (except for Isaac) agreed to humor my attempt at that imagined cable car photo before we got off.  Not quite the picturesque gem I was hoping for - but fun anyway.

We walked around the wharf for awhile and Amy got Rose settled while Charlie took the boys and Clara on a tour of the old Balclutha pirate ship that was docked at the pier.

We had lunch at the super crowded Boudin restaurant and then boarded an old fashion trolleybus to take us back into the city where we had parked.  Clara and Rose were both ready for naps and I'm pretty sure that ride felt like the longest one ever for Amy as she was trying to hush baby Rose while simultaneously attempting to keep Clara from falling over in sleepiness.

Thank you Amy for braving the city with your two little ones in order to see us!  It is always wonderful to catch up and spend a little time together.

After parting ways with Amy we did a little bit of shopping and then walked towards China Town.  When we told Isaac our intention of visiting China Town he nearly broke down with a sobbing wail "No!  Not China again!" (he is just a little dramatic).  Though he actually enjoyed many parts of our China trip and had a lot of fun experiences, there were also several things that he did not like about China and he is very quick to let you know about that.  Despite his protests, we strolled down a block or two of China Town before moving on.

I forgot our stroller for this trip.  I didn't give much thought to how much we would be walking and just completely forgot to load it in the car before leaving Irvine.  By about 2:00 that afternoon my arms were aching from carrying Luke who had zonked out in my arms.  It is rare for him to nap, but he was up late the night before and had been walking all morning.  We found a City Target and purchased a $14.99 umbrella stroller.  Best purchase ever!

On our way back to the car we passed a restaurant called Super Duper with a sign out front advertising chocolate dipped organic soft serve ice cream cones.  That sounded wonderful to me and it was.  I also wasn't sad when I had to eat Luke's ice cream cone too since we were unsuccessful in waking him from his deep slumber in the stroller.

Our last stop for the day was Lombard Street.  Once again, we waited in a too long line to get to the top of the street (when we could have cut in from a side street closer to the top).  We kept telling the boys how it was such a fun and crazy street to drive on, but once we finally began driving down it they were totally disappointed.  Mostly I think because we had to drive so slowly due to the traffic, and also because the tall rows of bushes make it hard to get a good view of the actual road.

As you can see, Isaac was totally unimpressed.

They were both much more excited about driving down the big straight hills that they could see all the way down.  Those were the "roller coaster" hills.

We drove the long way back to our hotel in order to go across the Golden Gate Bridge.  Luke was disappointed that it wasn't actually golden.  (He has adopted the favorite color "golden" from Isaac and labels everything yellow as such.)

That night we browsed around the local mall and then ended up at a dive Mexican restaurant for dinner.

The next morning brought us back to the city for more fun.  Our first adventure was a Bay cruise that went under the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz.  The weather was beautiful, but the wind did a number on everyone's hair.  And now for the photo overload.

I loved going under the Golden Gate Bridge.  It is really magnificent.  I've loved this bridge since I was a little girl - long before ever visiting it in person.  My family had a whole collection of jigsaw puzzles (I love puzzles) and my favorite was always the 1,000 piece puzzle of the bridge - despite about 800 of those pieces being all blue ocean and sky.  Little did 8 year old Carrie know that the Golden Gate Bridge would someday be the backdrop to her marriage proposal.  Really, how could it get any better than that?

Luke got tired, or bored, or both (he was not asleep).

We looked into doing a tour of Alcatraz, but the available times were no good and we figured the boys wouldn't have much patience for it.  However, Isaac was totally fascinated by The Rock and unloaded his typical question barrage as we sailed around it.

Once back on land, we walked over to see the Sea Lions at Pier 39.  This was possibly Luke's favorite part of the entire trip.  I think Luke could have watched those big slippery fellows waddling and splashing around for hours.  But we were hungry.

While heading towards food, we passed a street performer who was swallowing a metal clothing hanger that had been straightened into a long spear.  We were initially intrigued but then quickly encircled by a crowd and Isaac was captivated and then we were stuck.  So we ended up watching a 20 minute performance and dropping $5 into a hat.  I didn't really appreciate all of the innuendos, but the guy was at least fairly entertaining.

We grabbed a quick lunch of fried shrimp, fish, calamari, and french fries and ate outside on the busy sidewalk.

Next we hopped on another trolleybus to a cool neighborhood in the SOMA (South of Market) district. Charlie wanted to visit a store called Timbuk2 to get a new laptop bag.  Meanwhile I took the boys to play at a nearby park with this cool climbing structure.  It ended up being a lot of drama because Isaac really wanted to climb to the top but was too scared to do it and backed down at least a dozen times crying, while Luke had no fear - even though his short little legs kept slipping through the ropes - and he persisted in climbing higher than where I could reach him.  Totally exasperating.

After dragging them away from the play structure we trudged up a very steep hill to reach Alamo Square Park.  I kept having to encourage Isaac on the way up, reminding him that this climb was sooo much easier than the Great Wall of China.  He wasn't convinced but persevered anyway.  I had been bugging Charlie to go see the Painted Ladies, which are the famous row houses from the opening credits of the TV show Full House.  He humored me in going there, but upon arrival we were both taken by surprise with the grandeur of the place.

Alamo Square Park not only offers a phenomenal view of the city, but it's also a lovely park with huge shady trees, sprawling green lawns, charming play grounds, and surrounded by colorful row houses & beautiful architecture.  It easily jumped into my top few favorite spots in San Francisco.  The boys spent a long time playing on the playground and swings before we wrapped up our day.

We had dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Oakland and called it a night.  The next morning Charlie & I each got a run in before loading up the car and spending our Memorial Day on the road back home.  It was another quick drive and we even had time for a trip to the pool back at home.  Thanks to Charlie for planning such a fun and spontaneous little get away!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

China, Part 4 - Back to Shanghai

We were happy to arrive back in Shanghai.  The city is much cleaner and more modern, is much easier to get around and feels a little less foreign than Beijing, so in a small way it felt like coming back home after being away for a few days.

We used more of Charlie's Hilton points and stayed at another Doubletree here in Pudong.  It was spacious and clean and comfortable.  After checking in we realized that we hadn't tried out our paper masks yet that our friend Sunny sent before our trip.  I had been texting Mikael and she asked if we saw anyone wearing the gas masks.  No, only the paper ones.  But they did have the full masks available in every hotel that we stayed at.

After getting settled we headed downstairs to meet Sunny in the lobby.  Charlie used to travel to China with his previous company and Sunny was one of his contacts with the factories that he worked with.  She has kept in touch and followed our blog and has sent several packages of toys and treats for our boys over the past few years.  She lives in Taiwan but had to be in China that week for work and so she taveled to Shanghai for the weekend to meet up with us.

We visited in the lobby for awhile and then took a cab back to the Lujiazui area, where we had stayed earlier in the week, to have dinner.  Xiaolongbao, otherwise known as Shanghai soup dumplings, were the one thing that I had read about and wanted to try.  One of the most famous spots for these dumplings is Din Tai Fung, which is actually a Taiwanese chain but to most Westerners the cuisine is still considered to be Chinese.  Din Tai Fung has several international locations and I just read that they are opening a restaurant at South Coast Plaza (our local mall) this summer!  So much for being an adventurous eater.  Ha.  Anyway, the restaurant is quite famous and so there was a bit of a wait.

I spent some time looking over the menu while we waited for our table.  Even though there was an English menu, I was glad that we had Sunny along to help guide our choices a bit.  Hmm... should we get the sponge gourd or the shark fin?  The black fungus or the shredded jelly-fish?

We ordered a few vegetable dishes to start including spicy cucumbers, sauteed string beens, and some sauteed greens with garlic.  We also had shrimp fried rice (which Isaac loved) and some hot tea.

Next came the dumplings.  I don't remember which ones we ended up ordering but I think there was some combination of pork, chicken, and crab.  They are cooked in tall bamboo steamer baskets and each layer of the basket had a different type of dumpling.  The traditional way of eating these is to bite into the skin and drink the hot soup out first.  Then you can dip the remaining dumpling in vinegar and fresh ginger.

The dumplings were delicious.  We told Isaac they were just like the "slimy tacos" (that is what he calls potstickers) that he eats at home.  He tried a few of them and gave them one thumb up - which is actually pretty good for Mr. Picky eater Isaac.  I don't think Luke ate much of anything but he did drink his fair share of Perrier.  We had sweet taro dumplings for dessert which had a lightly sweet sort of thick pasty filling.

We were able to take the subway back towards our hotel and had just a little bit of a walk from the station. While walking we passed by this street cart selling an assortment of different meats and vegetables on skewers.  There was a large grill set up right next to the cart cooking up the food.  It actually looked somewhat appetizing, though I wouldn't want to guess what kind of meat they were selling, nor would I ever be brave enough to eat street food in China.

It turned out to be a bit of a late night for us and Luke was completely zonked out in the stroller.  I transferred him to the bed and half changed him to his pajamas, and he didn't even bat an eye.  Our boys are pretty light sleepers so this was almost funny to me to see Luke so sound asleep.

The next morning was Easter Sunday and we were so excited to be able to spend it with the Morgan family.  Their church meetings began at 8:30 so we had to hurry that morning to get out the door and begin our journey there.  We took the subway and then walked a few more blocks to the building where they meet.  Sunny was also able to join us, which was a neat opportunity to be able to share a bit of the gospel with her.  Sunny took a nice family Easter photo for us in front of the church building.

The Chinese government allows for the LDS church to hold services in China but only under certain conditions.  Church members are not allowed to proselyte in anyway or to distribute Church materials to Chinese citizens.  Church meetings are only open to those holding foreign passports, and a letter is read from the pulpit at the beginning of Sacrament meeting explaining these restrictions.  The letter is written by Church officials and quotes the portion of the Twelfth Article of Faith about "obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law."  There is a guard near the entrance of the building who ensures that no Chinese citizens enter the meetings.  It was all really fascinating.

The church rents a conference space in an office building for it's Sunday meetings.  There are two branches in Shanghai that meet here.  Coincidentally the office tower has a steeple on top and this was how Kirsten instructed us to find the building.

There is an escalator on the outside of the building (you can just barely see it in the bottom right corner of the above photo) that takes you up to the Conference Center doors.  The room where Sacrament meeting is held is spacious yet cozy and we really enjoyed being able to attend.  We sat with the Morgans and they introduced us to a few other branch members.  We knew our boys would have a hard time going to their respective classes in an unfamiliar ward, so we left after Sacrament meeting.

We went back to our hotel for a bit and stopped by the fake market again before heading over to the Morgan's home for lunch.  Their home is in a lovely and peaceful gated neighborhood.  The buildings are attached, but the homes are quite spacious inside.  They gave us a tour of their beautiful four story home.  There were so many interesting feature such as the heated marble floors, the concrete walls, the air purifiers, the extra kitchen for the servants to prepare the meals in, and the seven toilets!  Disney gave them an allowance for furnishing the home and Kirsten did a fantastic job choosing everything and decorating.  We were seriously impressed.

It was such a treat to have a traditional American Easter meal and it was some of the best food that we ate all week.  Kirsten special ordered a ham, and made cheese potatoes, asparagus (green and white - which is German because Kirsten grew up in Germany and white asparagus is an Easter tradition there), rolls with jam, and strawberry shortcake for dessert.

After lunch we sat and visited for a bit while the younger kids ran downstairs to play.  It was so interesting to hear Ben tell us all about the new Shanghai Disney park that he is helping to build.  He is a ride engineer and is part of a team that is building one of the roller coasters for the park.  Isaac was having a blast playing foosball with Kate and he also fell in love with her pet hamster Casey.  He and Luke both had sweaty heads from playing so hard down there.  Isaac is still talking about Casey and how he wants to have a pet hamster of his very own.

Charlie and Ben were assigned the task of hiding Easter eggs in the green space across the street.  Ian, the Morgan's eldest son, deemed himself too old to participate in the hunt but the other five kids were eager to set loose and fill their baskets.

Little Lucy and Luke took turns dragging Lucy's pink scooter around the hunting grounds.

Here is the attempted Easter photo of my boys with their sweaty hair.

While we were outside Kirsten pointed out the garbage collector coming down their street.  You may notice that their garbage can is ridiculously small by American standards, but I believe Kirsten said the trash is collected something like three times a day!  On a bike.  It baffles me how this city can be so enormous with such incredible architecture and infrastructure and yet they are still collecting garbage three times a day on a bike.

Back inside the kids were happily dumping out the contents of their eggs and gobbling down enough candy to feed a small army.  I was so grateful to Kirsten for hosting an egg hunt because it was the only fun Easter thing my kids did this year (I skipped doing baskets and luckily Isaac never even said a word about it).

I was a little sad to leave the comfort and peace of the Morgans' home to head back into the craziness of the city, but we had promised the boys a trip up to the top of the "Favorite Tower" and we couldn't skip out again a second time.

In hindsight we realized that Sunday afternoon was probably the absolute worst time to visit one of the top tourist attractions in the city.  It wasn't that the line was so long, it was that it didn't move.  We seriously stood in the same spot for what seemed like an eternity.  The bottleneck was the elevator to go up and apparently the tour groups were granted first priority to the elevators.  A bus would come and everyone would go right on up while our line remained at a stand still.  It was totally infuriating and we were getting super frustrated by the whole ordeal.

The family behind us had young children and they kept pushing past us in the line, and then the parents would push past us and just stay there - like totally cutting in line.  Yet at the same time they were snapping hundreds of photos of our boys and offering them soda and licks of their daughters' lollipop (which both Isaac and Luke were eager to take - GROSS - though luckily I was able to prevent that from happening).  They also had a baby girl with the splint pants who flashed us with way more than we needed to see.  Oh seriously, this line was just torture.  At first I insisted that Isaac and Luke stay off of the floor and then after an hour or so I just gave up.

By the time we made it up the elevator Luke had fallen asleep.  This was his "Favorite Tower," the thing he'd been begging to do all week, and here he was passed out in my arms.  We tried waking him but he was completely out of it.  We were also getting worried that the line to go back down might take just as long as the one going up, and we had tickets for a show that evening so we didn't want to get trapped in the tower.

We hurried along the observation deck and stopped to take in a bit of the view.  We opted to skip going all the way up to the very top because the line for the next elevator was just way too long, plus it was so cloudy that we figured there wouldn't be much of a view anyway.  It was super crowded and we were feeling a little claustrophobic and impatient.

The part that I was most eager to see was the glass bottom observation area.  I've never had any fear of heights and I thought this feature was awesome.  I was hoping to get a cool photo like one of these, but Charlie was in a hurry to get out of there so we wouldn't miss our show, and Luke was still sleeping in my arms so I couldn't maneuver my camera to get a good shot.  So I did what any loving mother would do and laid Luke down on the glass floor.  I thought it would be a great photo if he laid there sleeping, and if not then at least he would wake up and get to enjoy a bit of the tower before we had to head back down.  And then I actually felt terrible when he awoke startled and started screaming.  Mother of the year.  Isaac wanted nothing to do with the glass floor and wouldn't set one foot on it.

Surprisingly, there was no line at all to get down and we were back on the ground in no time.  We stopped to take some photos with the faux Wall before heading on our way.

It was dusk by the time we got outside and everything was beginning to be lit up.  The steps up to the tower had a really cool light show going on.  I regret not catching some of this on video because the boys were having so much fun playing here.  And I wish we could have stayed a bit longer, but we needed to get going.

Since we missed the acrobatic show in Beijing we decided to see one in Shanghai instead.  The theater was on Nanjing Road in the high end shopping area, and the street was all lit up at night with colorful lights.  We got to our seats in plenty of time and I did my best to keep the boys entertained until the show started.  I wasn't quite sure what to expect or whether they would last through the whole thing.

There were some really incredible acts, but I can't say that I was blown away.  I think the show in Beijing or the larger theater in Shanghai that is out by the airport maybe have the more extravagant acts.  The show we saw was kind of random and included acrobatics as well as a comedy routine, some magic tricks, and a few diabolo (kind of like a spinning top on a string) acts.  I was a rebel and snuck a few photos and video clips but they did not turn out great.  These two guys did a routine where they lifted and balanced each other in a myriad of crazy positions.  In the photo below, the bigger guy is balancing the smaller guy by his head in one raised hand.  Wow.  Then there was this lady who kept balancing stemmed glasses on her nose until she was eventually carrying a whole pyramid of them, and THEN she started climbing this see-saw ladder thingy.  I really couldn't believe it.

Isaac and Luke both loved the group of guys who did flying leaps and tumbling across the stage through different arrangements of hoops.  Luke kept shouting "Woah!" and "Wow!" and giggling in delight.  It was pretty fun to watch with him.

Luke gave Isaac another head massage on the subway ride back to the hotel.  Kind of a strange sort of affection but they both seemed to think it was pretty fun.  We said goodbye to Sunny, grabbed a very late dinner, and crashed into bed.

The next morning was our last day in China.  Our flight was scheduled to leave that evening at 9:30 pm, but during breakfast we got a message from the airline telling us that our flight had been cancelled and we were rebooked for the next day!  We loved our trip, but were not super keen on the idea of being stuck there for an extra day.  Charlie was able to call and get us on a different flight for that afternoon leaving around 3:00.  So unfortunately that cut our site seeing day short by a lot, but it seemed like the better alternative.

Kirsten and Driver Lu came to pick us up after breakfast and take us to a few cool spots.  Our first stop was the Pet Market.  What a crazy place!  There were all sorts of birds in cages, but they looked more like wild birds rather than the tropical sort that you normally see as pets in the US.  There were tiny turtles and frogs (rainbow frogs?  I think they were injected with dye - poor things), hamsters and chinchillas, and tons of different kinds of fish.  The most shocking to me were the cicadas and crickets.  I had heard of the Chinese fighting crickets before but was surprised at how real this sport is over there.  And the cicadas, I don't know, I think they keep them as pets for the sounds they make?  But they are so creepy looking to me.  Eew, just eew.

There were these huge buckets full of grub worms that are used to feed various animals.  Isaac had no problem walking right up and sticking his finger in.  So gross.

This bird said something that sounded like "What's up?" but I'd be surprised if he was actually speaking English.  And he also had an extremely loud squawk that Isaac said sounded like a fire alarm.

The crickets.  There were dozens of shops and tables dedicated to the sale of fighting crickets.  This is a legit thing over there.  They raise male crickets for fighting and they bet on the fights.  They also sell these elaborate little cages and "houses" to keep the crickets in.  It's pretty insane but also fascinating.  I have no idea how you determine which of these critters is a good fighter...

After the pet market we walked across the street to the Dongtai Road Antique Market.  The whole road was lined with shops selling various collections of "antiques" most of the stuff was not actually antique but just a lot of kitschy souvenirs made to look a little bit old.  It was still fun to wander around the stalls and see everything.  There were countless buddha and dragon statues, ceramics, toys, fans, foot binding shoes, Mao memorabilia, and pretty much everything else you could imagine.

The store with old fashioned suitcases was fun to browse through.  The boys loved the table full old painted metal vehicles.  I had been wanting to buy one of the beautifully painted vases that I'd seen all week and finally decided to get one here - though I'm pretty sure it's not actually an antique, but I don't really care whether it is or not.  Charlie picked out a set of colorfully painted little bowls.

Driver Lu came to pick us up again (so convenient, right?) and then took us over to Tianzifang, which is a kind of trendy neighborhood full of art galleries, cafes, and shops.  We walked around for a bit and peeked into some of the stores.  We were starting to run low on time and so we didn't stay long here before heading back to the hotel.  I was disappointed that we didn't get a chance to visit Fuxing Park where all of the older Chinese people hang out and do ballroom dancing, play games, and do tai chi.

It was really great to have Kirsten showing us around because we probably wouldn't have thought to visit such unique places if she hadn't taken us, and I loved getting her insider perspective on everything about Shanghai.  Thanks Kirsten for being such a great hostess and tour guide!

Back at the hotel we finished packing up and then grabbed a quick lunch at their restaurant before calling a cab to take us to the airport.

Nihao China, and zai jian.  It was such a fascinating experience.  I feel so fortunate to be able to travel as much as we do and to take our boys along on such great adventures.  We had a really fantastic trip.

The flight home felt long but not unbearable.  It was made longer by having to stop in Chicago before going on to LAX rather than flying direct as we had originally planned.  The boys did great though and everyone managed to get a little bit of sleep.

And then we were back home dealing with vacation aftermath.  I think Luke's bed head the next morning was a good indication of how we were all feeling after that long journey home and a whole lot of jet lag.  The time adjustment was much easier going there than coming back and I'd say it took at least ten days before we were all feeling rested and back to a normal routine.

Then there was the laundry.  As Isaac will quickly tell you, China stinks.  There is a certain smell that is just pervasive everywhere you go.  Everything we brought with us needed to be washed.  Nine days times four people = a whole lot of laundry.

Karl and Janelle were so gracious to offer to come and stay with Cracker while we were away.  We had a dog sitter for the first few nights, and then they came and enjoyed a week of vacation in sunny California.  Karl came and picked us up at the airport when we arrived.

And the "Favorite Tower" is still a favorite topic of conversation for Isaac and Luke.  Luke even insisted that I help him to build one with his Duplos.  I hope that they both have some great memories from this trip.  Though Luke will probably have to rely mostly on photos, I hope that Isaac will retain some of it.  And someday when he starts learning about things like The Great Wall of China in school, he can say that he's been there!  Now that is pretty cool.