Wednesday, December 21, 2016

One Night (Or Day) in Bangkok - Syarra

You might have heard the song called “One Night in Bangkok” from Chess, well we just had one day leading into the night in Bankok, the capital city of Thailand. We started at 12:00 in the afternoon. Our plan was to go to Wat Triamat, the house of the Golden Buddha. The Golden Buddha is the largest gold Buddha in the world weighing 5.5 tons. We wore pants because it is required to visit a temple. And took a bus that stopped at the temple. Well we thought it did at least. It did not.

There we were at Siam Square, a forty minute walk from the temple so walked around. We were deciding if it were worth the effort to go that day, or if we should try again later. We agreed in the end that we should but that we were in no hurry. So we ate. After enjoying a lunch of delicious milk pork sticks we explored and did some shopping we needed to do. And then used public transportation to go to the temple. It was four when we got there. We walked up lots of stairs to reach our final destination, the Golden Buddha.

Spire on the stairs

Entrance to the temple.
The Golden Buddha
With the Golden Buddha!

The Golden Buddha has a long history of which I will tell now. The Golden Buddha dates back to the 13th to 14th century in the Sukothai dynasty. It can separate into seven parts. The parts of the statue are said to be built in India. During a war, the temple it was housed in decided that it should be protected. They plastered it and added color glass, so it would look pretty, but it would look worthless. It was moved when hundreds of years later the Thai king brought statues to the new Thai capital, Bangkok. One hundred years later it was dropped. Some plaster broke off and it was discovered to be gold. The plaster was removed and it has since been displayed at Wat Triamat.

After we finished enjoying the sight we took the trains back home. We eat at a food court on our way. Then we ended the eventful and amazing day.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Getting Testy – Erich

You would think one of the big reliefs of being overseas, when it comes to education, is that you are not subject to any standardized tests. Yes, that's true. And it is great!

Except, when you need such a test, it is a huge pain. Carver is applying for some programs that will begin in Fall 2017. And some of these require the SAT and others require the ACT.

Both the SAT and ACT require students to get an online account and register for the tests through this. You also get your score results through the online system. Sounds great, right? Well no. Because if you are under 13 (which Carver is) you are not allowed to have said online account due to U.S. educational privacy laws. So now you can't register for the tests online. You can't get your scores online. You can't do anything online.

To take the SAT, my parents ended up having to register Carver over the phone, paying an extra "registering over the phone" fee. But big thanks to them for doing it.

After he had taken it, we needed his scores for an application. But we couldn't get them. Our friend Kirsten called the College Board for us and ordered scores to be sent by express mail so that we could have them in time. Thank you Kirsten! (I owe you, monetarily and doing favorily.)

The College Board also runs the AP exams. So the inability to get an account made it harder for us in that instance as well. However, we got lucky. We were able to find the Hisar School in the Gokturk region of Istanbul that was offering the tests Carver was taking. And we were able to register for him to take them there. The international coordinator/AP coordinator for the school was very helpful.

For the ACT it's even crazier.

ACT rule 1: If you are under 13, you must register by mail because you cannot have an online account.

ACT rule 2: If you are taking the test internationally, you must register online, you cannot register by mail.

ACT international testing: Some test dates don't include international testing. Of those that do, most of these only include Canada as an additional nation. Basically to take it in any other country, you have to wait until June.

The end result, Carver is just not going to be able to take the ACT. At least not this year.

I doubt he is going to cry about not having to take a test.

Well, no more than Alrica and I cry trying to get him registered for them.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Tropical Smoothie – Erich

When you do a two year trip around the world, you have to remember sometimes that is not vacation. It's life. Often on vacation, you want to cram in this site and that site, and eat this food and then that food. You have to get it all in so you don't miss anything.

We can't live like that for long stretches. Yes, in short bursts, we can do it. We can go see the amazing things to see. We can run, run, run. But eventually your body and mind long for a slow lifestyle.

After enjoying a week of continual travel in Tasmania, and then seeing harbors and opera houses and botanical gardens in Sydney, and then a crazy but amazing one and a half days in Singapore, we were overdue for such a break. So we took one.

We stayed for about ten days in Kuala Lumpur. Sadly, we couldn't get just one place to live while there, so we did have to move in the middle. But for the most part it was a time for relaxation and just catching up on life.

Do you remember the video game "Gauntlet?" I enjoyed that game and I loved the phrases that it would say. "Welcome, Valkrie." "Wizard is about to die." "Eat your food, don't shoot it."

That voice might have had something to say to us when we arrived in KL. "Family needs haircuts, badly."

So we got haircuts. All of us at once. We went to this family owned barber in a shopping center in KL. The girls sat on one side of the room, the boys on the other. Male barbers cut the hair of males and female barbers (or perhaps stylists) cut (and styled) the hair of the females. Meanwhile the music playing included such classics as "Rainy Days and Mondays Always Get Me Down." (This was neither a rainy day, nor a Monday.)
Alrica got a new style
Carver did not get a new style. He kept his classic style.
Syarra got a new style too. With a braid.
A very cool thing happened while we were there. Carver and I had finished our haircuts and we were waiting for Alrica and Syarra. A Muslim girl came in to get her haircut. She wore a headscarf. So the stylist sat her in a chair where there is a curtain that closes the area off, much like the curtain that can be pulled around a hospital bed. We realized it was so that no males would see her hair. Then she could remove her headscarf in privacy with only her stylist able to see. I'd never thought about how Muslim women got haircuts before. Now I know.

In the shopping center, there were carolers. They sang "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" and "Silent Night" in English, though they certainly had accents. This was surprising in a Muslim country, but welcome. After that they sang a song in another language, presumably Malay, and I have no idea if it had anything to do with Christianity or even Christmas. But it was lovely.

We also got ice cream cones and I got yam flavored ice cream. It was purple, so I would guess it was either taro or Japanese sweet potato, which are both related to but different from yams at home.

The first half of our time in KL we stayed right in the center of the city. Our apartment was beautifully situated between the KL Tower on one side and the Petronas Twin Towers on the other. At night, the KL Tower would be all lit up in white lights. Then, about once ever half hour, it would do a show. All the lights would change colors and make patterns. It was like a silent fireworks display for five minutes over and over each night.

Actually we could see all kinds of lights on the buildings near our place. Then at midnight, everything would turn off.

The second half of our time there we stayed out in Mont Kiara. We stayed in much of the time, but we did walk out to the local restaurants and enjoy amazing foods.

We also took the opportunity of being in Malaysia to see two movies. The movies are presented in English with subtitles. Actually, what is cool is that they are subtitled in two languages. The top line of subtitles is Malay. The bottom line is probably Chinese, though I don't recognize the characters so well that I could swear to that. It was certainly not Thai.

Alrica and Syarra went to a crafting center and took a lesson in making batik. They will have to tell you more about it. But each of them made a t-shirt. Alrica gave the one she made to me and now I have a sea turtle batik shirt. Syarra's shirt shows the Petronas Twin Towers at an angle. She gave it Carver.

And lest you fear that I was lollygagging while the girls were batiking (which I'm not sure is a verb), let me allay such thoughts. I got pictures of fire hydrants. So all is cool with the world.
Surrounded by leafy greens
Like it has on shoulder pads
Besides, the whole point was to lollygag. Because even in the tropics, sometimes you have to chill.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

State of the City-State – Erich

We spent two nights and one and a half days in the incredible city-state of Singapore. Do you know the song from Oklahoma! that tells us "Everything's up to date in Kansas City?" I can tell you Will Parker would have been blown away by the Lion City, Singapore.

Singapore is an unexpected mix of cultures. So, let's look at the history. Malaysia was a British colony. Essentially it was a lot of sultanates stuck together by the British. And after WWII when independence was all the rage, it was in Malaysia as well. They celebrate Merdeka, which is their Independence Day, when they became a separate nation with a federal government located in Kuala Lumpur. At this time, Singapore was a part of Malaysia. But they wanted to be separate from that new nation.

Singapore is a large island and several small islands, not actually connected by land to Malaysia. The main island is only separated by a narrow strait called the Straits of Johor. So Singapore separated again from Malaysia, forming its own nation. It is one of the world's few remaining city-states, basically being one large city that is an entire country.

At this time, there was more or less nothing there. The Lion City had no major industry. And within 50 years they became a major capitalist center. It is a huge shipping port. It has major banks and banking industry today. There are shopping areas. It could practically be a European city if you didn't know you were in the tropics in Asia.

But the people are not Europeans. About a third of the population is Chinese, about a third is Malaysian, and about a third is Indian. Perhaps thirty percent of Singaporeans are Muslim, but there are also large Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian segments of the population.
There are a lot of gods and heroes on that roof
They light the cross so you can find them even at night
When the city-state formed, they created some pretty strict laws, or at least they seem so by our society's mores. For example, while there is freedom of speech, there are many limits on that. You are not allowed to make racist comments or to speak out against people of any religion. The founders of Singapore were determined that the people here were going to get along.

Punishments are also harsh. Pretty much any conviction has a caning as part of its punishment, in addition to any fees and/or jail time. They only have one prison and it is not nice. So whether you commit white color crime or violent crime, you are in the same place. And some crimes, such as dealing drugs, have a mandatory death penalty.

It's a bit big brother too. There are cameras watching you all over the city. This allows Singapore to have a very small police force while still maintaining a very safe city. If you commit a crime, you can pretty much count on being seen doing it and therefore getting caught. And since the punishments are so harsh, it's so not worth it.

So if you can get past that, you get an incredible city. There's no litter anywhere. The streets are safe. The subways are bright, clean, with easy to understand maps. The official language is English, but even if you didn't know English, all the stations and lines are labeled with numbers to make it easy to find the train you want and the station you need.

There is plenty of public art to behold.
Talk about some big shoes to fill
There is spectacular architecture.
It's a science museum, but it looks like a broken egg
It must have been some huge flood to get a boat that large on top of buildings that tall
And of course, the Lion City has the Merlion.
We named him Haba
Plus, it has fire hydrants. I mean, who can resist those?
Sometimes horizontal stripes are still slimming
Singapore is pricey, though you can find cheap food in the Hawker Markets. Even some of the restaurants are pretty reasonable. We enjoyed Italian food, Indian food, and perhaps best of all, a very uniquely Singaporean breakfast: the prata. (The prata is a roti, and probably not unique to Singapore, but probably isn't done in quite the same way anywhere else.)

While we didn't spend too long in Singapore...
They grow people big in Singapore has everything you might need all in one convenient little package.
Just pop out the pieces, instant life goods!
'Cause everything's up to date, and perhaps even ahead of its time, in the Lion City.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

That's the Way the Cookie Shatters – Erich

It's been a hard week. Don't misunderstand, the week has had its highlights. And we will certainly want to blog about the amazing qualities of Singapore as an example. But it has been a couple of low points that have really colored our perception of recent days.

We had planned a short excursion into China. China offers a transit visa exemption. Basically the rules are these: If you are landing in certain airports (Beijing is one of them) and you are staying less than 72 hours in China before flying out to another international destination, then U.S. citizens (and many other nations) can come in without a visa. You cannot leave the Beijing province, but that Beijing province is large. We had reserved a hotel and were planning to fly from Sydney, Australia, land in Beijing, and see the Forbidden City, Tiananman Square, and the Great Wall. Then we would leave just over 48 hours later and fly to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

But the airline wouldn't let us do it. Of course, we didn't know this until we were checking into the flight. The airline clerks check some database that tells them visa requirements. And their database says nothing about this visa exemption. So they refused to let us check in to the flight. If we had a letter from a Chinese consulate, they would have considered that. But even bringing up the Chinese Embassy's website that lists the rules, it was a no go.

So we were stuck in Sydney. I'm not dissing Australia. It's a lovely country. But we had plans to be back in Asia. We had to get to Malaysia at some point, right?

So it wasn't our best day. We (and by we, I naturally mean Alrica) found a flight for the next day to Singapore, found a place to stay that night in Sydney, and arranged a place to stay for two nights in Singapore.

Good news: The hotel in Beijing, a Hilton, gave us a refund for everything. They were most understanding. The unknown news: We are still in process of asking for a refund from the airline that wouldn't let us go to Beijing. (We had also scheduled our flight out of China on that same airline, so we are hoping to get refunds on both.) The bad news: It all costs money. A new flight. A place to stay in Sydney. A place to stay in Singapore. It is all money we hadn't expected to spend.

Singapore is a lovely city. Actually an amazing city. And I or another member of my family really needs to blog about it. But this blog post is a rant, so we need to ignore the wonders of Singapore.

Now if the whole transit to (or not to) China was frustrating, heading from Singapore to KL was infuriating.

We decided to take the bus. Now the bus itself was very nice. Huge seats, like sitting in your own personal recliner. The ride is about 5 hours, maybe a bit more. Though the time at immigration leaving Singapore and entering Malaysia adds another hour at least.

The bus would be fine, even great, if only someone were willing to be helpful. By this I mean the driver.

See, we were the only Westerners on the bus. Everyone else must be used to this trip. They all knew what to do at immigration in Singapore. We did not. But we followed the crowd, got in huge lines, presented our passports, and returned to the bus.

Everyone but us knew what to do at immigration and customs in Malaysia (which you arrive at only minutes after leaving immigration in Singapore.) We did not. Our following the crowd didn't go quite as well. See we discovered that the luggage under the bus must be brought out to be scanned. If someone would have just told us what was expected, it would have gone more smoothly. Instead it didn't. We had left some things on the bus, not knowing we needed our belongings until after we left the bus. Syarra, without telling any of the rest of us, ran back onto the bus to get them. But the driver was not paying any attention to that. So he drove the bus forward toward where he would pick us up, before realizing halfway there that he still had a stowaway.

Even that wasn't a huge problem. We got through immigration and customs with no other incidents. The big frustration was our arrival in KL.

When we left Singapore, a man from the bus company came on-board the bus and announced that there would be two stops in KL. The second stop would be ours. But when we arrived at KL, apparently the driver hit the stop we wanted first. Though he didn't bother to announce that we had switched the order. He didn't bother to announce where we were. And then he was annoyed with us later when we asked why we were driving out of the center of the city. Like we had messed up. How were we to know?

So we ended up (after about another 45 minutes on the bus) at some big bus terminal with madhouse craziness. Okay, no problem. We took a taxi from there. But the taxi driver must have decided to make a few extra ringgits on us. So he took us on a "shortcut" to avoid bad traffic. But said "shortcut" must have doubled the distance. And since the meter is based on the distance, I ended up having to pay more for the trip than I should have. (This was still only about eight U.S. dollars, so it didn't break me.) But it also added time.

So we ended up at the hotel a good two hours later than intended. And we were all in foul moods. It was all I could do to keep from snapping at the kids for most anything they did, even breathing badly. (Don't ask me how one assesses the quality of breathing, I was just in that sort of frame of mind.)

Now, we were staying in a Doubletree Suites and they gave us each a chocolate chip cookie as we checked in. The check in took longer than we would have liked, and we weren't really hungry for our cookies. So when we were finally checked in, we wanted to go to our rooms and go to sleep.

But they were going to have the bellboy bring up our luggage. Oh no! We weren't waiting for a bellboy. We were taking our luggage with us.

Then we couldn't find the elevators (or the lifts as they would say.) But we did. And on the way there, Carver dropped his chocolate chip cookie. (In his defense, he was carrying a big stack of stuff.) And it shattered like glass, spewing all over the floor. And Carver felt that this was a perfect metaphor for our recent travel experiences.

Even then, before sleep could be had, venting was required. Both Syarra and I were regaled by our respective counterparts with their fury at the events of the evening before we could settle in for some much needed slumber. (Maybe I should ask to share a bed with Syarra instead, you know, when you're really frustrated but actually want to sleep.)

Today, having slept, we are all in a much better state. We are taking a more philosophical view of the whole situation. After all, that's the way the cookie shatters.