Our summer wanderings took us to the northeastern U.S., together with our long time travel companions, the Sheffields. We visited Boston and enjoyed spending a few days exploring the city.
To most, a trip to Boston would not be complete without watching the Boston Red Sox play at the venerable Fenway Park. Admittedly, I don’t consider myself a member of the baseball fan subset, but alas, all of my travel companions are, so I tagged along. During our visit, the Sox happened to be playing their arch rival, the New York Yankees and we were fortunate enough to score tickets.
Since we have some high schoolers in the group, we took the opportunity to visit a few of the many colleges in the area….
…and took in the many historical sites.
We ventured out of the city and explored Newport, Rhode Island. We toured several of the Gilded Age mansions there.
These were the summer “cottages” of the late 19th century American aristocracy, families which included the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts and the Astors. For you Downton Abbey fans, the American heiress, Cora Crawley, likely came from the likes of this crew.
The Marble House had an exhibition of the artwork by Nicholas Party, a renowned Swiss contemporary artist. I found the artwork terribly distracting to the grandeur of the estates, but I’ve never really been a fan of modern art.
Our next stop, was a bucket list item, Plymouth Rock.
Yes folks, there it is, Plymouth Rock. It’s a rock, and not a very large one at that. I suppose it’s a historical relic, albeit a truly over-rated one.
Our final destination was Martha’s Vineyard.
We took a bike tour around the island. One of our stops was the bridge made famous in the movie Jaws. Here’s a pic I found of the character Michael Brody running down the bridge as an unsuspecting boater gets munched by the menacing shark.
Aaron and Benjamin did the infamous “Jaws Bridge” jump, a must-do on the list of attractions at Martha’s Vineyard.
Family [fam-uh-lee, fam-lee] noun - any group of persons closely related by blood, as parents, children, uncles, aunts and cousins.
This summer was an interesting time for me to explore the definition of family and what it means to me. During the first part of the summer, we enjoyed a lot of time with family, both Benjy’s side and mine, but for me, there was a notable augmentation.
I learned about a year ago that I have a half brother. It’s a bit of a long story that I don’t really want to get into on this post, but the joyous, yet unexpected result of taking an Ancestry.com DNA test was that my half brother, Mike, found me.
This is Mike. He’s my big brother.
After about a year of connecting through email and texts, I decided it was time to meet Mike in person. So, Benjy and I booked a flight up to Syracuse, New York for our first face-to-face introduction.
Leading up to our meeting, I certainly had some moments of hesitation and uncertainty. I’ve had my own share of familial dysfunction and disappointment, so I wasn’t really searching for any more of that in my life. After much consideration and prayer (and some prodding by Benjy), I figured I really had nothing to lose. There are times in life that requires a leap of faith and this was one of those times.
As it turns out, all my hesitation was silly, really. Mike and his wife, Nancy, are such sweet, sweet people.
Their children (my 2 nieces and nephew!) are equally as kind, beautiful/handsome, brilliant, athletic and talented!
So, from this experience, I have come away with 2 important life lessons:
#1) There’s always room for more love if you remain open to it.
#2) Don’t miss out on blessings by over-thinking things.
It would have been easy for me to let my own emotional baggage get in the way of walking through this open door. But if I had, then I would have truly missed out on having these dear people in my life. I can’t wait for us to get to know each other better!
While we were in Upstate New York, Benjy and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Niagara Falls, so Mike was kind enough to drive us the 2 hours there and back so that we could spend some more time together and mark another item off of our bucket list.
My first look at Niagara Falls was from the U.S. side of the border and I have to admit that I was a bit underwhelmed. I was expecting the falls to be much grander. We then crossed over to the Canadian side, and the view there was spectacular.
It’s difficult to get a perspective of how tremendous the falls are from a photo. The amount of water constantly crashing down is enormous; more than 6 million cubic feet of water goes over the crest every minute! It’s a wonderous sight!
Benjy and I took a boat tour that cruised right to the foot of the falls. Here’s a view of one of the tour boats from above.
We got pretty drenched just from the mist coming off of the falls.
The roar of the water was deafening.
The Lord’s creation is magnificent!
After our time in New York, we spent a week at the beach with my mom, 2 of her siblings and most of the progeny therefrom.
It’s quite an impressive assembly and this is only a small portion of the Malonzo clan since my mom has a total of 6 siblings. It makes my heart happy looking at this picture. The 2 white guys in the back (Benjy and my cousin, Maya’s husband, Chris) are a bit out of place amongst the Asian invasion and I can’t help but chuckle at the sight of it.
The family fun wasn’t limited to just the Malonzo side; we had a brief get together with the all the Abangan girls as well.
There seems to be a lot of drama and intrepidation the weeks leading up to gatherings such as this. I don’t know why; I guess it’s just a function of being part of a large family. I was guilty of my own share of hand-wringing and belly-aching, but when we all actually came together, it was really, really so nice to be with family.
That’s how our most recent destination was described to us by the owner (who also happens to be a Fedex pilot) of the Pacifico Resort in the Philippines. It’s an apt description, but a few others come to my mind as well.
It’s also known to many surfers as the best place to surf in Asia.
The “resort” itself and the area where it was located was rustic and quite remote.
There was no wifi, no a/c and no hot showers…but we managed.
The boys spent one day fishing. Their trip wasn’t as fruitful as the last one here, but Aaron still managed to snag a 15 pound barracuda.
While the boys fished, the girls chilled on the beach.
We spent a day puttering around the islands on a bangkak, a Filipino fishing boat, and had lunch on the beach of fresh-caught tuna grilled over a charcoal fire. We did some snorkeling, too.
There aren’t many cars on the island, so we rented a couple of mopeds and cruised around. Out here, farmers still work with caribou to cultivate the land.
And the dogs use coconuts for toys.
Even though I have never lived in the Philippines, it feels oddly familiar and comfortable being in the homeland.
As a Christmas/birthday/Valentines Day/any other possible present I might be eligible for in 2019, Benjy took me to the Seychelles. Yeah, I didn’t know where it was either when he first presented me with the trip. The Seychelles is an archipelago in the Indian Ocean just east of Africa.
For our jaunt to the Seychelles, Benjy cashed in the points and scored us seats on Qatar Airlines. Those Arabs know how to travel in style.
We had a layover in Doha, Qatar. We didn’t get to see anything other than the airport, but that alone was impressive. The airport is apparently known for these gigantic bears.
The perks that Benjy accumulates through his job, like airline miles and frequent guest points, enables us to travel 85-90% of the time quite comfortably, oftentimes inexpensively and, occasionally, downright splendidly. The other 10-15% of the time…well…let’s just say that part usually adds to the adventure of it all. It’s during this portion of our trip that I typically find myself (as I did here) in the middle of nowhere, lugging all my personal belongings like a pack mule, stumbling onto a bus packed to the gills with locals, having only a vague idea of where we were going and when we should get off. It was another Romancing the Stone experience.
It’s in situations like this that the disposition and character of the local people are typically revealed. So here I was looking like Quasimoto with my back pack on, standing in the aisle since there were no empty seats, sweating like a pig and holding on for dear life because the bus driver was driving like he’s racing in the Daytona 500, when this lady with a sunny face looked up at me and sweetly patted her lap offering to hold one of my bags for me. And such are the Seychellois (as the Seychelle people are called). They are so very kind and helpful. Just a few minutes later, the bus driver without prompting pulled over right where we needed to go. I think everyone was probably just as happy for us to get off that bus as we were.
The Seychelles is made up of 115 tiny islands, many of them uninhabited. To fully appreciate this island nation, Benjy determined that we should travel by boat. Now, I have never been a cruise ship kind of girl. The idea of cramming thousands of people onto a ship just doesn’t appeal to me…but this was no ship.
We sailed on a 52-foot catamaran. This would be our home for the next 7 days.
There were 10 other passengers and 2 crew, a captain and a chef.
With the exception of Benjy and me, the rest of the passengers were all European. There were Germans, French, Czech, Hungarians and Italians. Some did not speak English (at least not very well) and the language most in common was German. Since we didn’t speak German, or sadly any other language, Benjy and I spent a lot of time by ourselves.
Nonetheless, we had plenty to see and do and the 360 degree views were magnificent.
On the boat we enjoyed fish caught right off the back of our boat…
…and fruit grown on the islands.
Our crew were 2 native Seychellois guys.
Since the Seychelles was formerly a French and British colony, the Seychellois are an interesting mix of European and African culture not unlike the Creole people who live in Louisiana in the U.S. In fact, the Seychelles is one of only 2 countries in the world with the official language of Creole, the other country being Haiti. Creole is spoken at home and in everyday life, but formal French and English are taught in the schools. As a result, Seychellois speak 3 languages fluently, a fact I find remarkable considering that most Americans (including myself) can only speak one language.
Growing up in the Florida panhandle, not far from Louisiana, Benjy and are quite familiar with and love Louisiana Creole and Cajun food. It’s probably what we miss most living in Hong Kong because you definitely can’t get that kind of food here. The Creole food in the Seychelles was not what we were used to, however.
Unlike our Louisiana favorites like seafood gumbo and crawfish etouffee, Seychellois Creole food is more like Indian food. The plate of food above is a typical Seychellois Creole meal with fish curry, pureed lentils, cabbage (that was much like cole slaw) and rice. It’s spicy and it’s so, so good!
So the main reason why Benjy decided to take me to the Seychelles is because he knows that I am an animal lover and that I really enjoy snorkeling. The fauna that the Seychelles is most known for are their giant tortoises. Don’t call them turtles (as I made the mistake of doing several times); they have those too. Tortoises are the giant, terrestrial reptiles with the big shells.
These guys just wander around the islands and they can live as long as 250 years.
These two were hanging out in the middle of the street when Benjy and I pedaled by on our bikes. People just drove their cars around them.
We spent much of our time exploring uninhabited islands and snorkeling.
I didn’t have an underwater camera, so unfortunately, I can’t show you any pictures of all the sea life we encountered beneath the surface. We came upon sharks, cuttlefish, rays and all kinds of colorful fish. The absolute highlight of the trip was witnessing this…
We were enjoying a barbeque lunch on the beach when one of the Italians started yelling “tartaruga! tartaruga!” We all looked up and saw dozens of these little guys crawling out of the mangroves toward the water.
As they made their way to the ocean, many of us took on the role as guardians of the galaxy by chasing away the attacking hermit crabs, birds, and eels. To them this was an all-you-can-eat buffet right before their eyes!
As far as we know, most all of the hatchlings made it safely to the water.
What happened to them from here is anyone’s guess.
The Seychelles is also home of the world’s largest nut, the coco de mer.
I know what you’re thinking. Yes, the shape of the nut is a bit salacious. Before the Seychelles was discovered by western explorers, nuts were carried by ocean currents and washed ashore on beaches sometimes as faraway as Malaysia. Legend had it that the nuts fell from trees growing in an underwater forest in the Indian Ocean.
The coco de mer tree is a rare species of palm tree endemic to the Seychelles. The tree is enormous. It’s difficult to get perspective in a picture, but this one with Benjy in it gives you an idea of how big the tree is. One palm branch is almost twice Benjy’s height.
The Seychelles was a long journey even from Hong Kong, but it was definitely worth the trip.
For New Years, we decided to visit Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates. For me and the kids, this was our first trip to an Arab country. The contrast in demographics from Asia to the Middle East is quite dramatic. One boards a plane surrounded by petite, black-haired, fair-skinned Asians and then emerges amidst tall, dark, bearded Arabs, Indians and Africans.
Dubai is a newly built city with most of its skyscrapers and structures constructed just within the last 10 years.
For this reason, most of the cultural appeal of this place to me wasn’t so much the city, but the people. I’m just not used to seeing men in Arab garb and women in burqas.
An interesting thing that I quickly learned about the culture is that men and women are segregated as much as possible. The last 2 cars of each metro train are for women only.
Initially, I was a little put off by the fact that I was relegated to another car, but then I realized that the women’s cars are much less crowded and, more importantly, less odiferous than the cars where men are permitted. So, I embraced the cultural difference and enjoyed my seat and the fresh-smelling air.
Arabs love the over-the-top and ostentatious; hence Dubai is the home of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. It towers at 2,722 feet.
We took a tour of the building and got some pics of the stunning views.
Dubai is also the home of one of the most luxurious hotels in the world, the Burj Al Arab.
No we didn’t stay there. Since the average cost of a room is $2,000 per night, this was as close as we got to the place.
We then toured the Spice and Gold Souqs, a market for spices, gold and other knick-knacks.
To be honest, the souqs to me felt very contrived, a big tourist trap with no real-life relevance. We didn’t see any local people shopping there, just a bunch of tourists like us snapping pictures and buying very little.
We then went outside of the city into the desert…
to ride ATV’s in the thick sand…
and lumber along slowly on the back of a camel.
Webley and I got some henna tattoos.
I’m glad we traveled to Dubai just to see the place, but I don’t feel the need to go back. The buildings are impressive, but after you see a tall, fancy building, you don’t really need to see it again. I was sort of disappointed at the lack of culture of the place. It seemed really artificial to me and intentionally so, almost like going to Disney World. Maybe if we had stayed longer we’d be able to find a more authentic experience, but I also think the culture of a place and its people shouldn’t be made so difficult to uncover.
Speaking of ridiculous and over-the-top, I just had to share this Dog of the Day photo:
Yes, that is a dog in a stroller being pulled by a battery-operated, pink jeep. Webley and I saw this scene as we were strolling on the waterfront in our village. 🙄🤦♀️
Benjy and I celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary in Bangkok again. Normally, when we travel, food is the thing we spend the least on. We enjoy eating street food; it’s cheap, tasty and if you don’t get too hung up on hygiene standards, it adds another layer to the cultural experience.
This time, Benjy arranged for us to have a celebratory dinner at a fancy sushi place called Sushi Masato. Now, Benjy is not a sushi fan, but because he loves me so much and he knows it’s one of my favorite foods, he so generously appeased my culinary preferences. And this place was not your typical sushi bar.
Chef Masato Shimizu opened his restaurant after having spent 4 years in New York City as the head chef at Jewel Bako. While there he was honored with a Michelin star and was the youngest chef to receive such an award in New York City. While there, I’m told that Jay-Z and Beyoncé hired him to cater some of their parties.
Normally, it takes 6 months to get a reservation for one of the 2 dinner seatings at Sushi Masato, but a friend of a fellow Fedex pilot happens to be the manager of the restaurant. She got us in on 2 weeks notice.
Masato is a traditional sushi bar served only omakase which means that there is no menu. The chef selects the items upon which guests will dine. So, you just sit back and eagerly wait to see what will appear in front of you. But dining at Masato is not just about the top grade sushi; it’s also about the impeccable service.
Once the seating was underway, 3 servers positioned themselves behind the 10 guests at our seating. Their job for the next 3 hours was to remove used dishes, position appropriate cutlery and ensure that our chokos were bottomless and always filled with sake (a gratuity I later regretted, sadly).
Our gastronomic adventure started out somewhat cautiously with uni, which is sea urchin…
then quickly crescendoed with Chef Masato’s more innovative dishes.
Our experience climaxed (no pun intended), with this dish…
If you care to know what it is, google it. I’ll wait.
Let’s just say neither of us was clamoring for a second helping of this.
From there, we comfortably glided into the more familiar.
We finished off with a bit of dessert.
Without being too dramatic, it was a pleasure to witness such a true master at his craft.
They were even kind enough to let us take a picture. Too much sake for me! Benjy had to hold me up.
And now I’ll end with a recent pic of Mei Mei. I know I’m biased but I think she is so cute. I love the light-toned stripe on her nose.
After Krakow, we ended our World War II tour in Nuremberg and Berlin.
It was fitting to follow our tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps with a visit to the place where the Nuremberg trials took place. The Nuremberg trials were a series of military tribunals held after the war by the Allied forces to prosecute prominent leaders of Nazi Germany.
We went to the Nuremberg Palace of Justice and saw the notorious Courtroom 600 where the actual trials took place.
After Nuremberg, we went to Berlin. We were in the city a total of maybe 3 hours when Benjy started to pass a kidney stone. We ended up spending most of our time in Berlin either in the emergency room or holed up in our hotel room. Other than watching a World Cup game between Germany and Mexico at a German bar (before the pain literally brought him to his knees), we saw little of the city itself. There are no pictures to show. Oh well.
After surgery and massive doses of pain killers, Benjy limped back to Hong Kong. The kids and I traveled on by ourselves to Prague to finish off our European tour.
We only spent a couple of nights in Prague, but we visited the Old Town and…
…enjoyed the views from the iconic Charles Bridge.
Our study of the European Theater of World War II would not have been complete without visiting some of the sites of the most terrifying displays of human depravity, the Nazi concentration camps. We stopped in Krakow, Poland to see one of the most notorious of those camps, the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.
Before venturing outside of Krakow for that tour, we took some time to enjoy the city first. Dating as far back as the 7th century, Krakow is one of Poland’s oldest cities. Our Airbnb apartment was in a quaint area not far from Old Town.
So, we wandered around the neighborhood and enjoyed the medieval architecture.
We also enjoyed some Polish street food.
Roasted polish sausage…
…from what looks like the original food truck.
Pierogis, polish dumplings
Borscht, which is a soup made from beets and cabbage.
It’s difficult for me to put into words, the rest of our stay in Krakow which included a tour of Schindler’s factory (made famous in the Steven Spielberg movie, Schindler’s List), the Auschwitz labor camp and Birkenau death camp. The solemnity of the place hung heavy in the air like a thick sorrowful shroud.
This was the gate of Auschwitz.
The metal sign reads, “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Work sets you free. Most of those who were imprisoned at Auschwitz were worked to death.
We viewed a room that held items confiscated from prisoners as they arrived at the camp. There were piles of prayer shawls, shoes, brushes, clothes, suitcases…
In one room, there was a display of human hair that had been cut from the heads of prisoners. You could see full braids in the mountain of hair that towered to the ceiling. We were not permitted to take pictures in this room. The sight was hideous and I sensed a feeling of dread in my heart as I walked through. It seemed like something terrible had taken up residence in that place and lingered there. Our guide told us that because natural resources had become scarce in Germany, the Nazis repurposed and reused items seized from prisoners. They used human hair to produce winter clothing like hats, coats and blankets. A bolt of felt was on display that was produced from human hair. You could see hair protruding from the edges of the fabric.
Nearby was the Birkenau death camp. The distinctive German efficiency was evident here as the railroad tracks run directly to the gas chambers. People were transported here on cattle cars and literally led to slaughter by the thousands.
I cannot comprehend how the average person could rationalize and justify the crimes committed against humanity here. It’s easy to condemn those who affirmatively participated, but what about those who stood idly by? I told Benjy that if I lived during that time, I would rather die than have on my conscience the reality of standing by and doing nothing as millions were brutally slaughtered. But that’s easy for me to say now. To a large extent, it’s likely that I am willfully blind to the injustice and suffering currently going on around me.
Lord, open my eyes, soften my heart and show me what I can do to ease others’ suffering. Forgive me when I fail to help those around me. Give me the courage to speak up and act in the face of injustice.
Whoa! Sorry for falling off the grid for awhile! My mom had major surgery (she’s recovering quite nicely) and I had some minor health issues as well (I’m doing much better now). What better way to start a new year than to recommit myself to (more) regular blog posts?
So while I was a way, this happened…
Yes, this feline-loving person adopted a D-O-G. Benjy said we’d had enough cats in our life, so much to my dismay, he decided that it was high time for a canine. We rescued her from the SPCA. She’s a Sharpei mix mongrel of some sort. She’s so cute, and so, so sweet! We named her Mei Mei, which means “Little Sister” in Mandarin. We thought it fitting to give her a Chinese name, well, because she’s Chinese and she was born in China, right?
I did some research on the Sharpeis. Interestingly, the breed originated in the Guangdong province of mainland China, not far from Hong Kong. Sharpei dogs were owned by mostly the wealthy who used them for dog-fighting. Their rollie-pollie skin made them less vulnerable to vicious bites. When the communists took over mainland China in the 1950’s they all but eradicated the dogs because of their association with affluence. A breeder smuggled a few puppies into Hong Kong and he saved the breed from extinction. He then brought some dogs to the U.S. where they gained popularity during the 1980’s.
My DOD photos might now be replaced with pics of Mei Mei. We are now in the tribe of shameless dog owners. This is a pic of Mei Mei after a bath. She’s cold.
Well, it’s good to be back at it. I’ll finish up our European vacation trip from last summer and then start on our adventures during the fall.
Our next stop in Russia was St. Petersburg, formerly known as Leningrad.
St. Petersburg is also a beautiful city, although I thought it was less so than Moscow. We took a break from history and slipped in some more culture with our visit to the State Hermitage Museum.
The Hermitage is the second largest art museum in the world just behind the Louvre. It was founded by Catherine the Great in 1764. For this excursion, Team Woods did not ante up for a tour guide, so I had to do some of my own research to figure out what we should see. We had limited time and aimlessly roaming the halls of this vast gallery was not going to work for this art averse crew.
I figured it was a no-brainer to start with the most well-known artists like…
“The Prodigal Son”
“David and Uriah”
“Woman with a Fruit”
We also saw “must-see’s” like the Peacock Clock
The Main Staircase
The Malachite Room
…and Webley’s and my favorite, Fabregé eggs
After our art tour, we ventured outside of the city to see the Grand Palace at Peterhof. Our destination was about an hour drive, so along the way our guide, Sergey, gave us some interesting information about the history of St. Petersburg and of Russia in general. He told us about the city’s siege by Nazi Germany, also known as the 900-day siege, which began in September of 1941 and ended in January 1944. When Germany attacked, every able-bodied person was mobilized to defend the city. Despite the citizens’ valiant efforts, they quickly became encircled by the Germans. The ensuing blockade claimed the lives of 650,000 Leningraders in 1942 alone due to starvation, exposure, disease and shelling from the German artillery.
Sergey also told us what it was like living under the communist regime. All real property was state owned, so everyone was assigned an apartment in which to live. Some families had to cohabitate with other families and no one really had a choice as to where to live. Sergey explained that everyone accepted this reality and didn’t really question it.
After the fall of communism, families were given ownership of an apartment. Most of the time, but not always, it was the apartment in which they were already living. In addition, each citizen was given ownership interests in businesses previously owned by the state. Equity stock in enterprises like oil and gas, manufacturing and timber were distributed to private citizens. At the time, people greatly distrusted retaining their ownership of such interests, so many sold them as quickly as possible. Those who saw a business opportunity, scooped up the interests for pennies on the dollar. Their foresight paid off as several of the current-day Russian oligarchs amassed their immense fortunes in such a manner.
So, we arrived at the Grand Palace at Peterhof.
It was built for Peter the Great and was intended to be the “Russian Versailles.” The gardens and fountains are the main attraction of this destination. Constructed in the 1700’s, the greatest technological achievement of Peterhof is that all of the fountains operate without the use of pumps. Natural springs in the area supply the water which is collected in reservoirs. The differences in elevation on the property creates the pressure that drives most of the fountains.
And Peter was obsessed with fountains…
Closer into town, we visited the Peter and Paul Fortress on Hare Island.
…and visited the Peter and Paul Cathedral
We also stopped by the iconic Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood.
And with that, our time in Russia came to a close.