Monday, April 24, 2017

Traveling Overseas with Junior Journeymen

My husband and I traveled and lived all over the world before having kids.  It’s in our souls, and has kept our marriage interesting, challenging and wanting more. So, we want to pass that wanderlust and appreciation for different places and cultures along to our boys. In fact, it’s natural that we’d want to journey around the globe with our kids.  Our first days as a family were spent overseas. Our older son is from a very remote part of Southern Vietnam and our younger son is from a mid-sized city in Southeast China.

Aside from some in-country travel with our boys before heading back to the U.S. after their adoptions, the only other travel we had done until recently has been in the U.S. (which, don’t get me wrong, has been great and there are thousands of phenomenal trips in the U.S., but we also love going overseas). But we hadn’t ventured overseas just yet because we wanted to wait until they were a little older (6- and 8-years old on our first big overseas adventure).

Turns out, they’re great ages to explore the world.

Yes, we just returned from an awesome trip to Britain and Iceland, but before we escaped to Europe, we had an Asian advenutre.

On a Sunday in February 2016, an incredible air fare to Japan popped up in my newsfeed (even cheaper than flying to Utah to visit my husband’s family). 

“Let’s go to Tokyo for Spring Break,” I suggested. My husband asked how many mimosas I’d had with brunch.

After a brief back-and-forth about cancelling our trip to Orlando and heading to the Far East instead, the next thing I knew I was on a popular travel website inputting my credit card number.

As soon as I booked the tickets, I started sweating literally and figuratively over the decision. Were they old to remember it? To fully appreciate it? To deal with the stress of overseas travel? Were my husband and I equipped to deal with the stress of overseas travel with two kids under eight and still make sure everyone had fun? It was one thing for the two of us to travel to a foreign country, how would we navigate with two littles in tow (and one who still liked to be carried when he was tired)?

My nervousness fought with the thrill of going back overseas and having my kids experience a wonderful culture and country. My heart beat out my head.

The kids navigated the complex subways like they had been doing it since birth, popping out their subway passes and sending them through the machines with masterful ease; they visited temples --learning to thank Buddha by lighting incense and giving offerings and purifying their hearts with water from the Chozuya fountains; tried on samurai armor and watched a sword demonstration; loved the thousands of vending machines that served everything from Aloe Juice to sodas to underwear and pizza; and tried authentic ramen, devoured Japanese pastries and turned their noses up at sushi (and discovered that McDonald’s and Coca-Cola does taste different in other countries). We oohed and ahhed over the gorgeous cherry blossoms and saw people get shoved into their trains bursting at the seams. And, and we did get to Disney, after all–Tokyo Disney.

We really had a great time (despite a few snags like a horrific hotel the second night and Alex hitting his head on concrete at Disney). My husband and I satiated our overseas travel bug (actually, I think we fed it and now it wants more) and our boys saw and experienced a wonderful land and culture that not many American kids their age have. And, I hope that the bug bit them just a bit as well.

When we first arrived, I kept pointing out how different everything was from the U.S. – the signage in Kanji characters and not English, not hearing English, driving on the opposite side of the road, etc. to which they seemed less than impressed. I recall being disheartened that they weren’t marveling at those differentiators as I still did (even as someone who had studied for a summer in Japan and vacationed there a few years ago). 

However, my now 9-year old will occasionally say something like, “Mom, remember in Japan?...” or “when we were in Tokyo…that was epic.” and I instantly remember why we took the leap to journey to the Land of the Rising Sun. Those memories will be with all of us for a lifetime and will fuel our desire to see more of this incredible world.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Do as I say, not as I do

I'm writing this one-handed, not the easiest task. So,please forgive any typos or misspellings. 

You see, I broke my wrist..on vacation...hiking around a volcanic Iceland.  

I had just completed a bucket list item of riding an Icelandic horse, the purest breed on earth with DNA dating back 1,100 years ago.  A horse lover and rider, I have always wanted to experience their gait that no other horse can produce.  We road along the foothills of mountains dotted with lava fields and i had a smile on my face the whole time, among the most amazing things, Ive done.

My sweet and patient husband kept my two young boys busy in the farm's waiting house.

ou main goal for the day was to drive the Golden Circle, a 180 km loop that hits some of southwest Iceland's most famous and beautiful sites. 

We were visiting a majestic site, Kerid, a crater formed from an extict volcano with a rainbow of colors  - a clear cerulean lake at the bottom, unusual red volcanic rock around the sides with varying shades of green moss from chartruese to forrest.  

It had been misty, so it was slick, but the trail around the crater didn't seem too bad.  Still, i was quick to continuaaly remind everyone to "be careful" and "slow down."

i had just taken a lovely photo of my three boys and we were continuing our walk around the circumference when I took a bad step on some very slippery mud and landed squarely on my left wrist.  i heard a sickening snap and knew it wasnt good.

Still, I put on my big girl panties, sucked it up and journeyed on our hike, besides, it was the only way back to the car.

We found a restaurant to get some ice, but by the next stop, Geysir, with incredible hot 
spring spouts, and where the term "geyser" originated, I knew i needed a doctor.

We used Google maps to find a health clinic, and there was one about 15 minutes away.  But they didn't have a x-ray machine, so we headed back to Reykjavik.  

Hospital #2 didn't have an x-ray machine either (and I later learned that it was a heart hospital), but they directed us to one that did.

Luckily, Icelanders speak impeccable English, so I had no problem getting treament or understanding what was going in.  I was examined, x-rayed and casted within about 2 hours and the hospital was just like getting treated in the U.S., except for the price tag -- a very reasonable US$590.

Here are a few things that I did learn:
1.  Always have access to your passport.I recommend securing your original passport in your hotel safe, but carry a copy or have a photo of it on your phone at all times.  Healthcare providers will have to have the information to give treatment.

2. Travel insurance is worth the cost.  i bought some very inexpensive coverage (i think around $20 per person) when I purchased our airline tickets, mostly to protect us in case luggage was lost or flights cancelled, but having my kids with me, also made me more cautious. if you have a chronic condition or have health challenges, you might consider purchasing a more comprehensive plan, but most are under $100 per person that include medical evacuations and coverage up to $15,000.

i have also filed the claim under my private insurer and am curious to see what they pay, if any, but the travel should cover the full amount,

3. Go ahead and seek treatment.  I fell on Thursday and we were scheduled to leave on Friday.  A couple of times, I considered toughing it out until we got home.  That would've been a really bad decision.  yes, it was a giant inconvenience, but hopefully it saved me from surgery or further injury by getting seen in-country.

It does make for a good story. i have been clumsy and accident-prone since childhood, so I could have just as easily broken my wrist my walking down the stairs in my house, but i now have a story souvenir.

i felt quite foolish falling, but i did feel better when the nurse handed me a brochure in English about breaking your wrist.  I guess I'm not the only English-speaking idiot to venture to incredible Iceland.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Using Basketball Skills in a Chinese Hospital

We were in Fuzhou, China, a small-by-Chinese-standards city of about 7 million people, on the Tawain Strait - the sliver of ocean between Taiwan and southeast China. And, our hands were full. My husband, Nick, and I were there adopting our then almost 3-year old son, Alex. I noticed that he had a low grade fever when we first brought him up to our hotel room the night we received custody, but I attributed it to stress and the fact that he had about four layers of clothes on, even though it was 70 degrees. He was eating fine, and was generally happy save the fact that he was getting used to the two strange faces who were now caring for and loving on him.

We were busy doing adoption paperwork, going to appointments, strolling him around the lovely lake and park that was outside our hotel, and visiting some of the sights of the Fujian province, known for their amazing Banyan trees and temples.

But then, he spiked a fever -- this time it was high – and started throwing up. I gave him some Tylenol, and it would bring down his temperature temporarily, but then it would spike back up (and wasn’t keeping anything down). Magically, there was a health clinic at our hotel, so we took him in. The doctor said he had a "cold" (via our Chinese guide/translator Penny) and to give him warm tea. She also admonished me for putting him in a lukewarm bath. After twelve hours, he was no better, so we took him back to the hotel doc. She told us she couldn’t dispense a prescription for him, and we still had no true diagnosis. Dissatisfied with her recommendations and nonchalance, we headed to the nearest hospital.

It just so happened that it was a critical day in our adoption process. We had to get some paperwork finalized and get his passport to make sure we’d stay on schedule to avoid a week-long delay due to Chinese New Year which was quickly approaching. And we had a flight to catch that afternoon to another Chinese city to finalize his U.S. visa and additional forms.

Nick had warned me about Chinese hospitals before. He went to a few of them when he worked in Shanghai and always said that if one of us got really sick, that we needed to get on a plane to Tokyo or Hong Kong as soon as possible. He’d see people smoking in the stairwells; once rode in an elevator with someone who was getting a blood transfusion; and saw that cash handed over via a handshake always meant you’d be seen first and get better service.

Still, we had a sick baby and no other viable options. We called a cab and headed for the nearest hospital.

We knew it would be challenging, but my fears were realized when, a block before the hospital, traffic was at a standstill - it was because all of the cars were trying (unsuccessfully) to get to the hospital. So, we hopped out of the car, I hoisted Alex on a hip and walked the rest of the way.

I don't think I ever quite understood the term "sea of humanity" until I saw the droves of people trying to get into the front doors. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people were crowding every inch of space, shoulder-to-shoulder. It was the Black Friday for healthcare -- with people jamming into doorways and hallways. And instead of duking it out over Cabbage Patch Dolls or iPads, it was getting in line to see a doctor or nurse. Whomever shoved and jostled his way to the front of the line (and held his ground), was seen. Being passive did you no favors and it might mean waiting for hours.

I felt like I was underwater – moving through the maze of hallways, a fuzzy soundtrack of Chinese yelling, moaning and various bells and alarms and an acrid, sweaty smell permeating the air.

People were laying on gurneys in the hallways with bloody gauze, sallow skin and lifeless eyes. Others were sleeping on the floor or falling out of wheelchairs. I get queasy seeing fake medical procedures on TV shows, so I kept my head down and trudged along, sidestepping a body here and there with Alex still stuck my hip and his face buried in my chest.

I took Alex down a "quieter" hallway to wait while Penny and Nick registered. Poor Alex was very unhappy because of the noise and all of the people, and because he didn’t feel well. I was on the edge of a panic attack, swallowing bile and gritting my teeth, pacing with him and swaying with him to calm both of us down.

Alex and I were standing outside of a "transfusion" room that looked like something out of a 1960's mental institution (i.e. One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest). There were poles with hooks that dropped down from the ceiling where bags of fluids were hung. People sat below staring into space while their treatments were being done. I'm not sure if these were blood transfusions, chemo or what, but I kept our distance.

About 10 minutes later Nick and Penny grabbed me and said we could go in the pediatric room to push our way through to the doctor.

Imagine the world’s worst game of Musical Chairs – that’s what we were facing. Everyone was crowded in and around an 8 foot by 10 foot room. There were about 20 people and their sick children huddled and focused on one small area – the doctor sitting at a desk with a computer and a single chair. She examined each child as everyone else hovered over her and waited their turns – kids whimpering and coughing, parents growing impatient and hunkering down in position to move forward as soon as the chair was empty.

I played basketball for seven years in elementary and high school so, I elbowed and hip checked my way through several “defenders” to get to the physician (meanwhile holding a 30-pound little boy and trying not to have either of us breathe in God- knows-what-germs. Everyone else had on surgical masks!). I was close to my goal and waited anxiously while the doctor was examining another child, an infant with gauze around her head.

The baby was so tiny and weak. It pained me to think about how sad it would be to think that this was the only way for your child to be seen by a doctor, even with what appeared to be a fairly serious condition.

A combination of mother bear and competitive basketball player came over me. I knew that we had to get in and out quickly (with our flight leaving in five hours including a 90-minute ride to the airport), I strategized that I needed to continue incorporating those former basketball skills once more as soon as the mother got up from the chair. I noticed a father and his child ready to pounce in the seat, so I took my nice, wide American birthing hips, blocked them out, hooked my foot around the leg of the chair, pulled it toward me -- legs spread apart and elbows out in defensive position - and sat down. 


The doctor was stunned, but not extraordinarily so, as I’m guessing other Chinese had employed this tactic before and started examining Alex and asking our translator questions. After about three minutes, she handed me some paperwork -- a prescription for Ceclor (a wonderful antibiotic that isn’t used in the U.S. anymore), vitamin B6, and Tylenol.

We ran out of there as fast as we could (while we were sitting there a mom and her toddler daughter came in and the poor little girl had an IV bag hooked up to her arm). Nick and Penny went to get the prescriptions filled while Alex and I maneuvered our way outside and away from most of the people.

We made it back to the hotel in time to pack our bags and meet the police officer who had Alex's passport. A few minutes before the police officer arrived, Alex threw up all over the two of us. We rushed into the bathroom, and Nick ran downstairs to find an extra change of clothes for me (I already had some with me for Alex).

I was able to clean him up pretty well with baby wipes and clean clothes. My cleanliness, on the other hand, was harder to achieve. Vomit leaked down into my bra and under my boobs. I wiped it off as best as I could and changed clothes, but my chest still smelled like sour milk and bananas through the long drive to the airport and flight. Luckily, my gag reflex is pretty weak.

The best part was that the Ceclor was a miracle worker, and Alex’s fever broke within two hours. And no more puked on boobs. We made our flight with time to spare, and we were all a lot happier.

Thanks to my first and best basketball coach, my dad, for teaching me some great moves on the court. I had no idea that I could use them off the court and in a Chinese hospital.

Monday, February 20, 2017

My Vietnamese Massage - A Not So Happy Ending

I was in the southernmost part of Vietnam; the Ca Mau peninsula, a remote area surrounded by the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand. The tropical landscape was rich with tamarind and mango trees and mangroves, rice paddies and fish and shrimp farming canals formed every bend. The air was heavy and hot. And, I was hysterical.

We were in a very challenging situation – the adoption of my son was stuck. And I had to do the unthinkable, something a mother should ever have to do, I had to leave my two-year old son in his orphanage, and I didn’t know when I’d be back to bring him home. 

Some other moms, whose children were in the same situation, and I decided to do what we could for our babies. We trekked to their remote village to bring fruit, yogurt, milk, and vitamins and embrace them with love and attention for a week. 

The day before we left Vietnam, one of the moms and I saw that the hotel that we were staying at offered massages and nail treatments. Although it was a far cry from a spa resort (mold in all creases of the room, lizards crawling on the draperies, sketchy stains on bed linens, and undrinkable water from the faucet – only use bottled H20, lest you get a serious stomach bug), we had hoped that indulging ourselves in some self-care after leaving our kids might ease the sting just a bit or for just a moment.

Faces red and puffy, eyes swollen, we scheduled our services – a massage, manicure and pedicure. Only one treatment could be done at a time because they only had one person who could do each, so my friend chose to get her nails done while I went for the massage. I took the stairs up to the third floor. No lights were on, and it looked more like a deserted men’s locker room from the 1970’s. But, there was light coming in through the windows, so I ventured to the room I was directed to anyway. 
The room was Spartan  - light gray with some chips of paint peeling off because of the constant high humidity, I guessed. There was only a table with padding, not a true massage table with the nice little padded headrest. It smelled more like mildew and cheap floor cleaner than citrus and lemongrass and there were no soothing ocean waves playing in the background, just the harsh sounds of the Vietnamese handymen outside building a brick wall.

I wouldn’t say that I was a massage connoisseur, but I had tested a few in foreign lands. The best one I ever had was in Quebec from a strapping, athletic masseuse. He practiced sports and deep tissue massage. Firm, but oh-so-relaxing, my body melted into the table. It was eleven years ago, but I still remember it and swoon at the thought of those magic hands. 

In Thailand, a tiny, but super strong woman did a combination of a more traditional deep tissue massage meanwhile bending my body in ways that I didn’t think it would go (and was pretty sure that I would end up paralyzed or with a shoulder out of socket a few times), but once she was finished, I felt great. 

In China, I had experienced good, tough, but soothing massages over a pair of pajamas. Foot massages were a different story. Tears streamed down my face in pain from the knuckles digging into my soles, but the afterglow was palpable.

In Venezuela, women trolled the beaches offering $5 massages while you laid in the sun.  It wasn’t bad for such a small price, but because of all the oil they used, I had to sit under an umbrella the rest of the day in fear that I would scorch my skin.

Eventually, a slight girl greeted me in Vietnamese and because of our limited knowledge of each other’s language, we pantomimed for communication. She put a couple of towels on the table and left.

I got undressed (all the way…I am I not modest) and hopped on the table.  I grabbed the towels to cover myself and noticed that they weren’t so much as towels as they were washcloths --  and they sure weren’t going to cover much. Plus the sunshine shone through the milky-filmed windows. Without a dimly lit room, I felt even more exposed. Surely she was bringing in a larger towel or sheet. So I laid face-down on the table and put one “towel” on each cheek of my backside, but they would’ve more easily covered the cheeks on my face! 

Except that the massage therapist didn’t bring in another towel. I sighed and thought, “when in Vietnam…” Besides, I didn’t have much energy after all the tears to protest or do anything about it. She started at my head and worked her way down to my toes. It wasn’t much of a massage, more of a harsh rubbing of my skin. I though perhaps scrubbing skin like a dirty pot with no oil or lotion and randomly standing on your back was the Vietnamese method. 

Wondering if I was going to have any epidermis left or just a body full of skin-on-skin burns, at this point, I was simply tolerating it. I lost any ability to care because I was so distraught and the thought of trying to explain and use hand gestures didn’t seem worth it.

And if you thought laying face-down with two washcloths covering my bum was embarrassing, it was nothing compared to having to flip over. Three washcloths wouldn’t have covered what I needed it to, but I only had two, so I strategically placed them over my nether region and left the “girls” sunnyside up and fending for themselves. Plus, the “therapist” (at this point, I feel safe putting therapist in quotes as nothing she did was therapeutic) stood right next to the table watching!
And, yet, for whatever reason, laziness, apathy, temporary insanity, I didn’t stop or get up.
I’m not sure if she sensed my discomfort and unease, but the front side went by more quickly (perhaps I had briefly blacked out from embarrassment). I could tell she was pretty much finished because she had rubbed every body part that needed it. 

Or so I thought. I was just starting to breathe a little easier again thinking the discomfort was over when she pinched both of my nipples hard, giggled, and left. 

Was this the normal way that Vietnamese massages ended – or just mine? As I probably outweighed her almost two to one, I wondered if perhaps she had never seen such big boobs and couldn’t resist copping a feel. Or, maybe she had never seen pink nipples before and wanted to see if they felt the same as hers – is that a pencil eraser or a nipple?

Dumbfounded and still wondering if I had just been a participant in unintentional foreplay, I grabbed my clothes and headed for the shower, shaking my head, aghast at what had just happened. Given the gravity of what the rest of my body and mind had gone through from having to leave my son, my horror changed pretty quickly to humor, and I decided to laugh about it instead. 

Luckily, I was able to race downstairs to warn my friend about my not-so-happy-ending before she went up and told her that she might want to keep some clothes on for her massage.

“At least I can enjoy a nice manicure and pedicure,” I thought as I sat down in the chair, my breathing calmer, my nipples less sore, my embarrassment waning. However, my pedicure was also a failure, but at least the technician didn’t pinch my toes. It’s so humid in southern Vietnam that the toenail polish never really dried. The sketchy-stained sheet stuck to them while I slept and fuzz from my socks adhered to my toenails.

We flew to Ho Chi Minh City the next day and had a 12-hour layover before traveling home. A friend of a friend lived there, so I stayed at her apartment during the day. She generously and graciously had already booked me a massage at her favorite spa (a legitimate one that not only looked like a spa you might frequent in the States, but it smelled like lavender, had candles burning and even sold beauty products)

I asked her if there was any difference in Vietnamese massages and the ones we’d get in the U.S., and she said that sometimes they walked on your back, but that was about it. 

“No nipple pinching?” 


“Oh, OK, just checking. Let’s just say that my massage in Ca Mau ended with a twist.”

On that note, I am happy to report that my second massage in Vietnam was much more like I had expected – relaxing and no boob touching, but I also kept my bra and underwear on just in case.

Your lesson: always make sure there is a sheet on the table before you get undressed for a massage, and hopefully it is stain-free.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Of Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom

I've neglected my blog for the last four years, but no more!  I've been writing, but not posting.  I penned this piece, Of Vietnamese Mangroves and a Loving Mom, for We Said Go Travel a few months ago.  And more are coming soon!
My sweet boy napping on my lap (Oct. 2009)

Smiling though fighting back tears as I was a day from leaving him (Oct. 2009)

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Some more pics

Might be the last post for now!  We fly to Hong Kong late tomorrow night and then home to Indy on Thursday!

  Riding the zoo train.

 Alex loves bathtime!
 Lighting incense to call to the Buddha who protects mothers and children at a temple in Guangzhou
 Two of my three boys along the Pearl River in Guangzhou
 Painted porcelain on the roof of an old building in Guangzhou that now houses their art museum
Happy boy!

Play Days

Alex is back to his happy self and we've had a few days in Guangzhou to sightsee while waiting for our visa appointment at the US Consulate, which is this morning (Tuesday). 

Since we've been in Gzhou, we've been with two other families from our adoption agency.  They are wonderful.  One couple is from southeast Michigan.  She teaches first grade and he is a state trooper.  They have a 5-year old son who is traveling with them and is a great kid.  They adopted a 14-month old little girl with a cleft lip and palate.  The other family is a woman traveling with her 5-year old daughter that she adopted from China two and a half years ago.  She adopted a 4 year old little girl this trip.  The sisters are precious and this woman is a rock star for traveling by herself for the last 2 weeks.  It's really nice to have their companionship.

On Sunday, we went to the Chimelong Safari Park.  Knowing how awful Chinese zoos treat their animals, we were a bit hesitant until we read some positive reviews.  So, off we went, and it was pretty incredible.

Alex was a bit unimpressed, but Nick and I loved it.  The first section was an open area with several animals (non-carnivorous ones) roaming freely.  Our train had to stop several times to allow an emu or water buffalo to cross our path.  They had an amazing tiger exhibit, including the largest group of white tigers anywhere. Nick was able to feed some white tigers by throwing them chicken pieces.  The tiger center was amazing.  They have a breeding facility and we saw several cubs playing together as well as babies so new that they were still in incubators.

My favorite part was the koalas.  I've never seen one in person.  We even got to pet one (photos to come, we ran out of space on the camera so one of the other families took pics for us).  They also had a great panda exhibit and lots of babies.  The other highlight was feeding giraffes leaves, even Alex did it.

Yesterday, we were on a guided tour of Gzhou to some traditional sights that our guide recommended - a temple, a beautiful old building that they've turned into an art museum and their pearl market (which was a huge bust).  We've also spent some time on Shaiman Island (which was where I was hoping we were staying).  It's part of old Canton where many of the Westerners first stayed when it opened to the West.  It's less China and more New Orleans, with quiet streets, a Starbucks and nice shops.  It's also where many adoptive families stay.  That area is only about 6 blocks from our hotel and is a welcome respite to the loud streets where we are staying.

I need to hop in the shower to get ready for our appoinment this morning, but will try to post photos later.

Two more days and we're headed home!