Red Russia: Moscow

Because of Benjy’s job as a pilot, in both the U.S. Navy and with Fedex, there are few places in the world to which he has never traveled.  Prior to our European vacation, Russia had remained on his “not visited” list.  Our first stop in Russia was Moscow.  Of all the places we traveled to on this trip, Moscow was my most favorite.  It’s a gorgeous city, rich with history and culture.

We happened to be there one week before The FIFA World Cup, so preparations for the tournament were well underway and the town was in tip top shape.  Our number one destination in Moscow was, of course, the Kremlin.

The Kremlin is a walled complex in the heart of Moscow.  Within the walls lies Russia’s most iconic structures and destinations, namely…

St. Basil’s Cathedral.

The Tsar Bell, which is the largest bell in the world (although it never was, nor is it currently, functional)

…and Red Square

In Russian, the square is called “Krasnaya Ploschad,” which literally means “Red Square.” Many wrongly believe that the name is a reference to Russia’s communist ideology or to the color of the buildings around the square. We learned from our tour guide, however, that “krasnaya” is an old Russian word for “beautiful,” so Krasnaya Ploschad really means “beautiful square.” And it truly is beautiful!

The Senate Building is the residence of the Russian President.  When the flag is up, Putin is in the house.

Cathedral of the Annunciation

Our tour guide, Svetlana, told us that the paint on the towers is real gold and chips of it are blown off whenever Putin’s helicopter flies into the Kremlin.

Next to Red Square is Russia’s most famous shopping mall, the State Department Store, GUM.  It’s a gorgeous shopping complex filled with luxury retailers, like Hermes, Gucci and Burberry, shops much too pricey for Team Woods’ wallet.

What was fascinating about this place is hearing from Svetlana what it was like when she was a girl. She said in the early 1990’s, right before the fall of Communism in Russia, each shopfront sold the basic necessities. One place would sell shoes; the next sold vegetables; another sold bread, but only government issued items were available and selection was minimal.

The wait time for each store could be hours long. Svetlana remembers her mother waiting in line for 3 hours to purchase sandals for her. When it was finally her mother’s turn, the sandals in her size were all gone. Svetlana said that waiting in long lines for basic goods was a way of life for them. The communist regime kept the Russian people so isolated from the rest of the world that they did not know anything different and they never questioned the insanity of it.

Today, the only line you see at GUM is at the ice cream shop.

We sat down with Svetlana at a restaurant in GUM and enjoyed some interesting conversation about World War II.  I often forget that the Russians were part of the Allied Forces during the war and I wasn’t aware how intensely Hitler hated the Russians.  To be sure, Hitler’s imperialistic campaign all started with Sudentenland, which was part of the Russian state of Czechoslovakia. I was ashamed to admit my ignorance that 17 million Russians died during World War II!!

I told Svetlana about the D Day tour we took in Normandy and how our tour guide explained why the French surrendered to the Germans without a fight.  She immediately stopped the conversation, put down her fork and said, “I want to hear what he said.”  So, I told her that our guide said that when Germany invaded France, the French army had already been decimated protecting the Maginot Line.  He reasoned that the average French citizen was not a soldier and therefore could not fight. So, they just put their heads down and tried to live their lives without conflict with the occupying Germans.  I explained to Svetlana that we thought that Americans would have behaved quite differently.

Svetlana had a look of amazement on her face.  She told us a story of how her grandmother shot artillery during World War II because all of the men had been killed fighting the Germans.  She said that Russians would have fought with pitchforks and shovels to protect “Mother Russia.”

Indeed, part of the reason the D Day Invasion was so successful is because Germany’s best soldiers were fighting on the Russian front.  The Russians fought fiercely and stubbornly and it took Germany’s ablest soldiers to hold the eastern front. The German soldiers in France were either old, very young and inexperienced or conscripted non-Germans whose allegiance to the Wehrmacht was questionable.

Russians are fiercely patriotic, quite similar to Americans, I believe, and they have suffered greatly as a people, not just during World War II, but also under the subsequent Communist regime.

Not surprisingly, much glorification of the Proletariat (the working class) remains in Moscow.  You still see it in the subway stations…

and in the public spaces.

An interesting observation that Svetlana pointed out to us was the various iterations of the Russian flag.  This was the Russian flag used by Tsar Nicholas prior to World War I.

For 300 years, the 2-headed eagle had always been associated with the Russian monarchy.  After the communist revolution, the U.S.S.R. changed it’s flag and removed the eagles in favor of the hammer and sickle representing the workers of the world.

Currently, the flag of the Russian Federation is this.

However, recently, under Putin’s leadership, you begin to see the 2-headed eagle creep back onto the scene.  Here you can see that the imperial crest was restored on Moscow’s famous Bolshoi Theater.

Some argue that the restoration of the crest is proper and simply returning the structure to its historical state.  But, Svetlana hinted that there seems to be more at stake than historical restoration.  Certainly, Putin seems intelligent enough to consider the implications of approving such renovations.  What does this suggest about his governance?  Does he consider himself to be a monarch?

I asked Svetlana what she thought of Putin.  She told me that she likes him.  Yes, she was aware of the implications of corruption and self enrichment, but from her perspective Russia is stable under Putin’s administration.  She remembers the food shortages and the instability of the time leading up to and immediately proceeding the fall of communism in Russia and she did not look fondly upon those years.  Now, the Russian people are finally prospering and able to control their own destiny.  She was OK with Putin and the oligarchs maintaining control as long as life continued in its current state with the middle class prospering and peace in their country.

I have to say that I can totally understand her point of view.

European Vacation: Bastogne

From Normandy, we hopped onto another train and headed to our next stop, Bastogne, Belgium.  Bastogne is located near the border of Luxembourg, so we couldn’t resist getting this picture of the kids standing in the two different countries at the same time.

We traveled to Bastogne to learn about the Ardennes Offensive and its most famous battle, the Battle of the Bulge.  The Ardennes Offensive was launched by the Germans towards the end of World War II.  The attack was essentially Hitler’s last ditch effort to defeat the Allied Forces. The seven main roads of the Ardennes all converged at the tiny town of Bastogne.  The 101st Airborne was sent there to prevent the Germans from seizing control of such vital infrastructure.  It was here that the Battle of the Bulge was fiercely fought.

On December 21, 1944, the Germans succeeded in surrounding Bastogne, completely cutting off the 101st Airborne.  These American soldiers were outnumbered 5-1 and lacked cold-weather gear, ammunition, food and much of its senior leadership.

We visited the site in the Ardennes forest where the 101st Airborne valiantly fought the Germans despite their lack of resources.  You can still see some of the foxholes.

On December 22, the German commander sent a messenger to Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe with the following demand to surrender:

“To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne. The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units…There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honourable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note. If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term. All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.”

General McAuliffe’s famous response to this ultimatum was, “NUTS!” The messenger translated the terse response to the German commander as “Go to h*ll!”

That night the Germans pummeled the Americans, but the Americans stubbornly maintained their position.  You can still see bullet pocks on the buildings from the fierce battle.

With the help of General Patton’s tanks, the 101st Airborne succeeded in repulsing the German assaults.  On December 27, U.S. forces broke the encirclement of Bastogne.

 Many believe General Patton and his tanks came to the rescue of the American forces at the Battle of the Bulge.  The members of the 101st Airborne, however, vehemently deny that assertion and passionately maintain that they didn’t need any rescuing.

European Vacation 2018: Normandy

We bid a fond adieu to Paris and boarded a train.  Our next stop was Bayeaux to tour the beaches of Normandy.  Team Woods, we are a history-loving family, and World War II history is specifically intriguing to Webley and Aaron, especially the war fought in the European Theater.  Our tour of Europe was thusly focused and much time was allocated to learning about the D-Day Invasion.  We’ve all read numerous books on the subject and watched many old movies.  It’s a definite benefit of homeschooling to be able to focus time learning in depth the topics in which the kids are interested.

But before we fully plunged ourselves into all things D-Day, we made a quick stop to Mont St. Michel.

Mont St. Michel is an island topped with a medieval monastery.  It was one of the most important Christian pilgrimage sites from the 8th to the 18th century.

There’s not much more to say about it other than it was beautiful and interesting to visit.

And with that our D-Day immersion commenced.

“You are about to embark on the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.  The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”

-Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force

We took a guided tour of the Normandy American Cemetery….

….and Utah Beach and Omaha Beach

It is hallowed ground, this place.

When you read about D-Day and the year-long preparation and training that went into it, you can’t help but be amazed at the audacity of the operation.  With 156,000 allied troops (nearly 100,000 American), it was the largest seaborne invasion in history.  I can’t comprehend the burden General Eisenhower felt as he debated the timing of the attack.  Sure he relied on the wise counsel of his advisors, but ultimately it was his call alone; it wasn’t President Roosevelt’s, nor Churchill’s, nor General Montgomery’s decision.  It was Eisenhower’s and it’s been written how prayerful and contemplative he was in making his verdict.  That kind of courageous leadership is astounding to me.

And when you consider how truly the stars aligned perfectly for the invasion: the horrible weather and then the brief reprieve; the absence on the day of the attack of General Rommel and all the German superior officers;  the lack of German Panzer tanks on and around the beaches; the delay of Hitler’s staff to notify him of the invasion; the loss of German air power over the English Channel, the list goes on, it’s clear that God’s sovereignty pervaded that moment in time.

It also struck me that over 60% of the troops landing on Normandy that day were American.  This was not their country; this was not their war.  It reminded me of a time a couple of years back when I was at a dinner party here in Hong Kong and was introduced to a French guy.  When he discovered I was American, he chided me that the Americans failed to help France during the French Revolution after France had so generously aided America in its fight against the British in the American Revolution.  I was taken aback that someone would hold me (whose ancestors were clearly not American at the time of the American Revolution) accountable for the failures of say Benjamin Franklin or John Adams.  I quickly (and hopefully tactfully) shot back that perhaps the Americans made up for it during World War II and…y’know…that whole D Day thing.  He instantly changed the subject.

The next day we focused our attention on the 101st Airborne Division.  We are big fans of the HBO series “Band of Brothers” as well as the Steven Ambrose book likewise titled upon which the show is based.  We took a guided tour called “The Band of Brothers Tour.”

Other than the 4 of us, there was one person in our group who was also American. Our tour guide was a youngish French guy probably in his early to mid 30’s.  We were driving along in our tour van and without any prompting or questioning from any of the Americans, our guide launches into this explanation as to why the French surrendered so quickly to the Germans and succumbed to occupation for nearly 5 years until the D Day invasion.  This guy seemed compelled to provide to us Americans a justification for their capitulation.

His explanation started with the fact that many French soldiers were killed trying to protect the Maginot Line, so when the Germans invaded, France essentially was defenseless because most of their army had already been decimated.  From there he rationalized that the average French civilian was just trying to live his or her life without conflicts.  Sure they were not pleased with the idea that Germans had invaded and were occupying their country, put their people under martial law and terrorized them for five years.  But, they weren’t soldiers so what were they going to do about it?  They kept their heads down and just lived their lives.

Not wanting to get into an argument, Benjy and I just shrugged our shoulders and said, “hmmmm.  m’kay.”  We were both thinking that the French response to Germany’s invasion would be much different in the U.S.  From our perspective, we believe that the average American, especially now, and probably even back then, would not idly stand by and watch his country be invaded and occupied without a bitter fight to the end.  Granted the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans provide the U.S with significant obstacles for any invading force to overcome.  But my guess would be that if a foreign country tried to invade the U.S. now, even as intensely divided as its people currently are, you’d see most everyone including the gangstas in the ‘hood pulling out their 45’s, or whatever they had, in her defense.  So, we didn’t buy the whole “we just wanted to get along” logic.  Anyway, we’ve had enough tour guides to know to take what they say with a grain of salt.

Getting back to our tour….we stopped at the location depicted in the second episode of Season 1 of Band of Brothers where Easy Company takes out German artillery to enable the D Day invasion forces to land on the Normandy beaches.

The artillery guns are long gone and so are the trenches, but the centuries-old, menacing hedgerows are still there.  You can see them on the right side of the photo.

We visited the church in Sainte Mère Église made famous by the movie, “The Longest Day.”

For the benefit of the tourists, a mannequin is kept hanging from the church steeple in remembrance of the paratrooper, John Steele, whose parachute got caught during the D Day invasion.  Steele hung there while pretending to be dead as the clanging church bells shuddered through his body for hours.  He was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division and not the 101st Airborne.

We visited little chapels that paid homage to the liberating paratroopers.

We also stopped to visit a D Day Museum in Sainte Mère Église.  And here is where it got a bit interesting.  Our visit to Normandy took place a week before the annual D Day celebrations.  While we were at this museum, we happened to be there at the same time as a German paratrooper platoon.  We knew they were German because they were all fully dressed in their uniforms and they were speaking German.

The museum had an interactive simulation of an American paratrooper platoon jumping on D Day.  Somehow, we found ourselves placed in the same group as this German platoon.  So, here we were in this simulation surrounded by German soldiers and we first listened to the “Win One for the Gipper” speech given by an American commander.  He gave a rousing speech rallying the troops to fight for freedom against the “evil fascist German Warmacht.”  If that wasn’t awkward enough, then we climbed inside the belly of a mock C-47 airplane to replicate the actual jump.  I snapped a photo of us during this experience.

Yep, here we were among the Krauts during our D Day experience.  I have to say that it sort of put a damper on things and I personally felt uncomfortable.  I wonder if they felt awkward, too?  I don’t know how we got ourselves into this situation, but I suppose it made the day all the more memorable.

 

European Vacation 2018: Paris

This summer Team Woods ventured outside of Asia and traveled Europe.  The launching pad for our European vacation was Paris, La Ville des Lumières, the City of Lights.  I have to admit that initially both Benjy and I were quite lukewarm about the idea of stopping in Paris.  I had visited the city in high school and Benjy travels there often for work.  Although we love cheese, baguettes and croissants just as much as the next guy, for some reason we both found the city unremarkable.  Additionally, the place is stunningly expensive, which if we’re honest, is probably the primary reason for our ambivalence.

But Paris is one of those places that seems to be a “must-do” when it comes to traveling in Europe.  Benjy and I felt we’d be remiss not taking the kids there.  It didn’t hurt that direct flights to Paris from Hong Kong are plentiful and cheap.  We had to start our European journey somewhere.

We took a redeye flight out of Hong Kong and landed just at daybreak.  We immediately boarded the subway which dropped us off under the heart of the city.  As we emerged from the substation both kids exclaimed, “Woooooah!!!!”  It was their first glimpse of Europe and they were instantly captivated by its Old World architecture and ambiance. Their initial reaction was visceral and it’s one of my most favorite memories of our trip.

Now our current home, Hong Kong, is a beautiful city in its own way, filled with sleek skyscrapers and colorful neon lights.  It’s ultramodern; it’s glitzy; it’s exciting, but it can also be over-stimulating and sometimes feels harsh or impersonal.

In contrast, Paris seemed…Je ne sais pas (I don’t know)…warm, sophisticated, charming, dare I say…romantic (Cue the Parisian accordion music).  Our Airbnb flat was located in the Latin Quarter a short walk from Notre Dame.

 

We didn’t really have too much planned other than exploring the city on our own, so we hit the usually sites.

This one needs no introduction.

Obligatory smooch in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower

Arc de Triomphe

Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

For those of you who were in my high school French Class with Mrs. Richey, yes I did sing that annoyingly corny song we learned, “Au Champs-Élysées” as I moseyed down the avenue.

“Au soleil, sous la pluie, à midi ou á minuit
Il ya tout ce que vous voulez aux Champs-Élysées.”

Sacré-Coeur

Despite our reservations about slogging through the Louvre we decided to take a guided tour of the high lights of the museum.

The tour was for 2 hours and it did seem absurd to think we could properly see such a revered gallery in that short amount of time.  But, again, we really weren’t into art and it was more of a check-the-box kind of thing.  Yeah, I know it’s very Chevy Chase-esque.  “Look kids! It’s the Mona Lisa!”

We did see the usual suspects…

Venus de Milo

And of course the Mona Lisa

It turned out that our tour guide was absolutely brilliant.  She was so knowledgeable and really made learning about the artwork interesting.  She told us all the background history of the Mona Lisa and some clues as to the identity of the woman in the painting.  And since we pretty much left it up to her to give us the highlights, she then turned to the painting directly opposite the Mona Lisa.

The Wedding Feast at Cana is in the unenviable position of being the only other painting displayed in the same room as the Mona Lisa. Talk about always a bridesmaid, never the bride. It sits all but ignored as throngs of people vie to get a look at and take a selfie in front of the world’s most famous (and in my opinion, somewhat over-rated) painting.

The Wedding Feast at Cana depicts Jesus’ first miracle of turning water to wine.  Our tour guide spent a lot of time describing the painting’s details and providing historical context of why the scene was portrayed the way it was.  It was so fascinating.  Webley said that this tour was one of her most favorites of our trip.  We all left with a new appreciation of art and art history.

Our stay in Paris wouldn’t have been complete without enjoying the food, so here are the highlights:

Enormous meringue cookies

Éclairs

Fruit tartlets

And of course chocolate

And here’s a DOD, but instead of a “Dog of the Day” pic, it’s a “Duck of the Day.”

This guy was sunning himself on the river right outside Notre Dame. I couldn’t resist getting a shot of him.

So we all fell in love with Paris this summer.  C’est magnifique!

Addendum – Memory Maker III: Asian Invasion – Beijing

So the peanut gallery has commented on my last blog post and deemed it incomplete.  I had intentionally left this part out even though in most of our minds, it’s probably the best memory we have of the trip, if not the most humorous (at least to some of us).  It concerns this guy who is usually quite mild-mannered and laid back.

Team Sheffields and Team Woods have vacationed as a family together for at least the past 4 years, if not longer.  As some of you have read in my blog posts, traveling does not always go as planned and at times patience with each other wears thin.  All in all, however, we manage to have a blast on our adventures with our friendship securely intact.  The bumps in the road seem to make our friendship stronger and then we end up with a good story to recall ad nauseum.

Team Solether is a new addition to the vacay train.  So, I decided that maybe the “bus incident” (to which it will hereinafter be referred) is better left out since, well, let’s just say, it wasn’t a shining moment for one particular member of Team Solether, even though it was quite comical to observe for the members of the other teams.

Anyhoo, as I mentioned in my last post, it was EXTREMELY crowded in Beijing when we were there because it was a public holiday.

Crowded China GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

We had to take a public bus and it was packed to the max.  Beijing is a city of 20 million people and it felt like all of them were on the bus we just boarded.  At one of the stops, poor little Kyle got shoved to the side of the door and when the door opened, his head was smooshed behind the door.  Jared watched in horror, but was helpless to do anything because it was so packed.  I guess what is so amazing and a little disappointing is that none of the Chinese on the bus even seemed bothered by Kyle’s cries and just pushed themselves off the bus.

Call it claustrophobia or papa bear syndrome, but Jared (understandably)

LOST. IT.

He turned bright red and does this number to get some breathing room around him.

He then starts grabbing folks literally by the collar and chunks them off the bus.  As the scene unfolded, we the observers experienced a range of emotions, which included shock, awe and yes…utter amusement.  Stacey was completely mortified and didn’t really appreciate that the rest of us found the situation comical. Angry white guy in Asia is quite the spectacle.

So, of course this episode will go down in the annals of Memory Maker vacays.

Kyle was OK and we STILL get a good laugh whenever any of us sees or even thinks of a bus.

 

Memory Maker III: Asian Invasion – Beijing

A tour of Asia would not be complete without a stop in Beijing.  The temperature was much cooler than Chaing Mai; we could see snow on the ground in some places.  Of course we made the obligatory stop at Tiananmen Square.

Our timing wasn’t the best because it happened to be a public holiday.  The place was packed.

We asked our tour guide, Daphne, about the student protests that occurred in 1989 and where in the square this iconic picture was taken.

She declined to respond saying that she liked her job too much to tell us anything about that.  So much for freedom of speech.

Since we had already visited the Forbidden City, Team Woods opted out of a second tour.  We left Teams Sheffield and Solether to brave the crowds.

Instead we chose to wait in a nearby park where we had a nice view of the Forbidden City from above.

We experienced Peking Duck.  It’s not cheap, but it certainly is delicious.

And we stopped to see the Bird Nest Stadium where the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games were held.

Then it was time for the pinnacle of the Asian Invasion tour: hiking the Great Wall.

Our guide picked us up early.  He introduced himself as “Cheney.”  Shane, without missing a beat, says “I’m Shane, but some call me ‘Shaney.’  Cheney just stared at him stone-faced and then there was an awkward silence.  Benjy remarked, “oooo, out of the box early, Shane.”  The rest of us just groaned.  American humor sometimes gets lost in Asia.

Here was our ride to the wall.  Looking back to our cool wheels last summer, which we affectionately called “Sheldon.”  This bad boy, in comparison, was Sheldon 4.0.  Aw yeah!

We loaded up and drove for about 2 hours outside of Beijing.

We had an hour hike up to the Great Wall.  Our plan was to hike the wall for 2 days with one night spent at a small hotel in a village nearby.  The trail was muddy, steep and very slippery.  We passed patches of snow on the way up.

Finally, we made it.

It was breathtaking.

Our timing to hike the Great Wall (unlike the timing of our visit to Tiananmen Square) was pretty much spot on.  The crowds had dissipated and the cherry blossoms were in bloom.

We hiked for about 4 hours on the first day.

Jen and I paid homage to Chi Omega, the sorority which we both pledged so many years ago at the University of Florida.

It’s amazing to see how the wall twists and snakes far into the horizon.

At the end of the first day, we all saved ourselves the hike and rode toboggans down.

The next morning we were up and at ’em early for another full day of hiking on the wall.

And then we made it to the end!

Going through all of our pictures to write this blog made me, once again, so grateful for the friendships with which the Lord has blessed us!  To be able to travel to foreign places and experience the things we did together is such a gift.  I will always treasure these memories and love these people!

“Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?” -C.S. Lewis

Memory Maker III – Asian Invasion: Chaing Mai, Thailand

In Chaing Mai, Thailand, we hooked up with another family from Jacksonville, the Solethers, who are currently living in Japan.  It had been quite some time since the Solethers had last seen the Sheffields, so the reunion was joyful.

We didn’t waste any time sightseeing and stopped to tour one of the Buddhist temples.

Most of the ladies in our group were not dressed modestly enough to be admitted to the temple, so we had to rent some sarongs they had available at the entrance.

We had all developed a good appetite seeing the sights, so we headed over to the night market for some yummy Thai street food.

This was the Sheffields first experience with Asian street food and they were big fans.  They particularly liked the rotis stuffed with bananas and topped with sweetened condensed milk and chocolate sauce.

Benny had no problems choking that stuff down.  The kids especially enjoyed the fresh fruit smoothies and at less than 1 USD a pop, it was all you can drink.

Once we were sufficiently stuffed, the girls headed to the night market to do some shopping while the boys enjoyed a group foot massage.

The ladies at the massage place just loved Kyle and Aaron.

The next morning we woke up early for a full day of riding elephants.

We got changed into our elephant riding outfits…

…then we headed out to feed the pachyderms some snacks.  No snacks, no riding.

Benjy tried to feed his elephant one banana at a time…

…but the elephant would have none of that and ripped the entire bunch right out of his arms.

I got to ride Wan, the elephant I had ridden the past three visits.  I don’t know if she remembered me, but I like to think that she did.

We all climbed on and headed out.

Here are some of my favorite pix of the day.

I thought the pictures of the boys covered in mud looked like a scene out of “Lord of the Flies.”

 

The elephant clearly enjoyed the mud bath too!

Now, this sequence of shots of Jen and Shane exchanging smooches on the elephant trunks cracks me up.

Shane…always the smooth operator.

We also went on a bike tour of the countryside.  It’s quite a sight to see 16 people biking down the backroads of Chaing Mai.

We saw rice fields…

and visited more temples.

We managed to make it through with only a couple of crashes, nothing too serious.

And then we made visit to the tigers.  Controversial, I know…

Final stop of the Asian Invasion: Beijing!

 

Memory Maker III – The Asian Invasion: Hong Kong

So after spending the past 2 summers vacationing together, Team Sheffield and Team Woods decided to take the show international.  It was surreal having the Sheffields on our side of the planet.

We had a whirlwind trip through Asia planned for them which included stops in Thailand and mainland China.  We pressed the pedal to the metal the entire way.  Kudos to the Sheffields who hung in there like champs despite the jetlag, culture shock and packed itinerary.

First stop of the Asian Invasion was our own stomping grounds, Hong Kong.  It’s tough to see Hong Kong in the 3 days we had allotted, but we hit the highlights.

We began with a breakfast of dim sum, which was surprisingly well received to all, even the Sheffield children who have (shall we say) very selective palates.

Next we showed them the wilder side of Hong Kong, a side of the city most fail to think of when envisioning it their minds.  We took a hike through the country park near our home where the beaches and views are quite spectacular.

Along the way, Shane spotted what he believed to be a cobra.

From then on, he suddenly developed a keen interest in the ophiology of Asia.

The next day, we hit the typical Hong Kong tourist attractions…

We visited the Peak.

We road the Star Ferry and the world’s longest escalator, did a bit of shopping and enjoyed adult beverages while soaking up the view of the Hong Kong skyline at night.

It was a good warm-up for the rest of the trip to come.

Next stop: Chaing Mai, Thailand.

Laos – In the Jungle

Benjy was reading an article on treehouses around the world.  He learned that the world’s highest treehouse is located in southeast Asia, in Laos, and is part of a conservation project called “The Gibbon Experience.” Since we had never been to Laos, we decided that this would be the perfect destination for our next adventure.

The Gibbon Experience is a tourism-based conservation project located in Nam Kam National Park.  It’s located deep in the heart of a jungle.  What makes the experience an even greater adventure is that the treehouses are accessible solely by zip lines.

But we had to get to Nam Kam National Park first, which was a 2-hour drive from the city of Huay Xia.  We started out on a paved road and, after about an hour, we stopped for a brief potty break.  We then drove off the pavement across a flowing river onto a muddy dirt road.  For the rest of the trip, we maneuvered up and down steep hills, twists and turns as we made our way into the rain forest.

The road trip ended at a small village.  We then hiked for another hour and finally arrived at base camp.

There were about 25 people in our group.  Benjy and I were probably old enough to be mom and dad to everyone else.  The Asia backpack contingency was a motley crew who didn’t mind taking their vagabond party lifestyle to the jungle.

They brought with them 4 bottles of whiskey, 9 cans of beer, blaring  music and foul language.  What could possibly go wrong with booze, zip lines and houses suspended hundreds of feet above the ground?  If there was any chance of an unfortunate event, it seems the odds were stacked against this crowd.  Luckily, the backpackers were an insular group and wanted their own party treehouse.  We were happy to oblige and opted for the more family friendly version.

We were fitted with our harnesses.

After a tutorial of how to hook ourselves to the zip lines, off we went.

And this was our home for 3 days, Treehouse #4.  It happened to be the newest treehouse.  I couldn’t really tell how far up we were, but it seemed pretty high since I couldn’t see the ground.

This was the “bathroom,” which was on a floor lower than the main living space.  I was actually quite pleased with it, squatty potty notwithstanding.  There was a shower that you can’t see in the picture, but no hot water.

Here is the view from the toilet.  Being hundreds of feet off the ground alleviates the need for privacy curtains.

We shared our abode with a really sweet couple, Sara and Tyge, who live in Shanghai.  They didn’t want to be in the party treehouse either.

The place didn’t have separate rooms, but we did have separate mosquito nets that served a dual purpose of keeping the tree rats from crawling on us as we slept. Eek!

Our first night, a fierce rainstorm started blowing around midnight.  The rain poured and there was thunder and lightening.  Benjy said he could feel the tree swaying in the wind.  Throughout the storm, we stayed dry and comfortable.  I wasn’t the least bit afraid.

The next morning, we woke up in the clouds.  We could hear the gibbon monkeys singing, but unfortunately we couldn’t see them through the mist.

Breakfast (along with all of our other meals) was zip-lined to us.

Meals were simple but filling and always came with steamed rice cooked and delivered in a nifty bamboo steamer.

We hiked and zip-lined all day.  The longest zip line was 500m (1,600 ft.).

We visited the other treehouses.

We had 2 really sweet guides, Pormua and Nengpo.  They took great care of us during our visit.

During one of our breaks, Aaron helped Nengpo practice his English.

He also fashioned some silly hats out of leaves and a twig.

What a unique and thrilling adventure!!

Lamentations of a Mom

We interrupt our regular broadcast for this special public announcement.

It’s that time of the school year, call it spring fever, winter blahs, I don’t know.  I think all moms, whether you’re homeschooling or not, hit a brick wall right about now where you are just grasping for the dim hope of spring break as it mocks you far on the horizon.

I am in the process of registering one of my children for online classes for school next year.  In order to protect the identity of the innocent I will call this child “Child.”  As a prerequisite to Child’s admission to next year’s writing class, Child must take a grammar placement test.

I have taught Child English grammar ever since I started homeschooling Child 5 years ago.  Child has studied grammar Every. Live. Long. School Day.  Nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives conjunctions, prepositions, predicate nominatives, predicate adjectives…I have taught them all to Child.  We have diagrammed; we have underlined verbs twice, subjects once; we’ve drawn arrows from adjectives to the nouns they modify; we have done likewise from adverbs to adjectives, verbs and other adverbs.  I have all but beat Child with a wet noodle to know and identify the parts of speech.

Yet when Child is faced with a @#$% grammar placement test, I am on the verge of coming unhinged.  Because Child, depending on which day you catch Child, can tell me without blinking an eye and with all sincerity, that “the” is a noun or “cat” is a verb.  AAAAAARGH!

And I know this.  I know this all too well about Child.  And I’m wondering as I look at Child.  I’m wondering and thinking…”what kind of day are you having today, Child???  Are you having one of those “cat” is a verb days?  Because if you flunk this grammar placement test then your potential teacher will think that I have done NOTHING, nothing to teach you grammar, which could not be further from the truth!!!! And I will deserve her contempt and that banner across my chest of “Bad Mom Who Never Taught Child Grammar.”

So I plunk the placement test nonchalantly in front of Child and say through gritted teeth, “you know all of this; just read the questions carefully and do your best.” <Smile>

As I watch Child begin the test, the thought occurs to me…

“At what point is this not my fault?” 

As Child’s homeschool teacher, there isn’t anyone around to blame but me if Child doesn’t learn to read; write; add; subtract; multiply; divide; know that Nebraska is a state in the U.S. and not a foreign country (don’t laugh, it’s been a point needing clarification with said Child.  Needless to say we are currently slogging our way through World Geography).

I know some of you are saying, “does it really matter?”  Well, no, it isn’t a matter of life or death.  I know this!  But, when I look at the TIME and EFFORT I have spent with Child on this subject matter, I’m like, at what point is it YOUR fault and not mine that you don’t know this?”

I think moms in general are hardwired to feel condemnation for the failures of our children.  But at what point do I get to say, “I did my part, but you didn’t do yours?”  Where does “I could still do more” end and “I did everything short of cutting Child’s head open and dumping the information in” begin?  When do I get to say, “my work is done here?”  Is a mom’s work ever “done” as long as we have breath?  Maybe not.

I have no answers.  Just lamentations.

Oh and by the way, Child did pass the grammar placement test.

So there’s that.