The Quarantined Canuck

We’ve been back in China for over a week now, and although our quarantine is now technically over, we are still spending most of our time at home. Most things are still closed, so we haven’t had much choice. I thought you may all be wondering what it’s like back in Suzhou at the moment, so a quick update is in order.

Just finished my 3rd novel since we got back. Nothing like a little perspective to remind me that this whole “virus thing” really isn’t that bad….

The Trip Back to China

Our flight back to China was fairly uneventful. We put on our masks, and tried to get a bit of sleep. We landed at around 9:30 at Pudong airport, and that’s when we started seeing the differences in this country we’ve made our home…

Waiting for our flight in Kuala Lumpur

Pudong was remarkably empty. Even at 9:30, it’s usually a very busy place. We made it through customs quickly and got our luggage in record time. The emptiness wasn’t the strangest thing though… The hazmat suits are what unnerved me.

Nothing like getting off a plane and being greeted by people in space suits

All over the airport, there were people taking temperatures, wearing heavy-duty masks and full on plastic suits ranging from ‘that kinda looks like a trash bag’ to ‘whoa, that guy’s wearing a hazmat suit’. It felt like a scene from the movies. Still, we moved through without issue.

My temperature was probably taken about 10 times throughout that Malaysia to China travel experience

Suzhou has a population of about 8 million people, but no airport, so our journey wasn’t over once we cleared customs. At the moment there are 3 options to get back to Suzhou from Pudong Airport….(I’ve been told now that there are more options, but these are the ones I knew about at time of writing)

Not all options are equal…

Option 1: Take the long distance bus from Pudong airport to central SIP. This option always leaves me extremely car sick, and it takes hours to get back home. It’s cheap, but time consuming. I hate this option the most.

The last time we took the bus, I had a full on breakdown at the bus terminal because someone had smeared poo all over the walls in the women’s bathroom. It’s not the most welcoming way to return to the country…I sat there and cried until the bus came (needed to pee…got very little sleep on the plane….so much poo……)

Option 2: Take a high speed train to Suzhou. This option SEEMS simple, but in reality, it can end up being more expensive than option #3, which I’ll get to in a minute. First, you need to go from Pudong airport, to the train station. There’s no direct way to do this without taking a very overpriced taxi (200rmb, just to get to the station…and that’s if you don’ t get ripped off). Then, you have to deal with the train station, which is smelly, smokey, crowded and dirty.

This is the “nice” railway station in Shanghai. The one we take has half as many seats, twice as many people and smells like la tiao (spicy tofu) It’s basically the worst smell in the world. Just a bad as poo…)

Option 3: Hire a driver. This option has been our go-to for the last 3 years now, and we won’t be switching back any time soon. It costs about 350rmb (about $70 Canadian), but is highly convenient, fast and actually often ends up being cheaper than Option #2 in the end. During this coronavirus period, there was no question…we hired the car.

They show up with your name on a paper. Dave’s Wechat name is “D’Rhymes”….

At this point, we usually walk past 100 illegal taxi drivers all trying to take us for a ride (literally and figuratively), and track down our guy… This year was easier though, because the illegal drivers were nowhere in sight! Still, I was nervous about the drive back to beautiful Suzhou…

Shanghai to Suzhou

Now, usually, getting back into Suzhou is simple. You stop at a few toll booths, but that’s it. Of course, this isn’t a typical year…

Nope. Not typical…

We’ve been following the news closely and I’ve been getting updates from various sources, including my school and friends who had already returned to Suzhou. It seemed like everyone gave us a different set of things we would need on that trip back, but we had no idea which ones were important and which ones weren’t. Here’s a list of some of the things we were told we would need:

  • Our rental contract & residency permits
  • An arrival form with the licence plate of the car we would be taking into the city (this was suppose to be done before we got back to China but our driver wouldn’t give us his licence plate number, making it impossible)
  • A health code (which we couldn’t get because the only two options you could choose were “I’ve been in Suzhou for two weeks” or “I’ve been in a different Chinese city for 2 weeks”… Neither of which were true..
  • A different code that we couldn’t get because we don’t have Chinese IDs cards
  • A signature or the presence of our landlord to get back into our compound.

Here’s a list of what we actually needed:

  • A bit of bare skin so that they could take our temperatures.
Whoever makes these little temperature guns is making a killing at the moment. I’ve had at least 2 of these things pointed at my head every day since we returned

Our First Week Back

We were thrilled to see our cats, and they were thrilled to see us. It was nice sleeping in our own bed once more. We were gone for 37 days total, and in a lot of ways, we were happy our travels were over.

My sweet Ollie is still stuck to me like glue

Life’s been a bit strange in Suzhou. We were technically supposed to be under quarantine for a week upon our return, but we were allowed to go out and get groceries or to pick up food, as long as we wore masks.

One of the entrances to our compound has been boarded up so that everyone goes through 1 gate.

Most restaurants are still closed for dining, and are only doing take out. The few restaurants that ARE open for dining still have to close by 7pm, and being the late eaters that we are, we’ve ended up missing our window a couple of times now.

We have had to resort to fast food more than once. Even there though, you can’t dine in. In fact, you can’t even walk in… They take your order at the door and you take it home to eat.

Cooking at home is just not really something we’ve done much in China, simply because the groceries we want are hard to find and really overpriced, so for the past 6 years, we’ve go out for lunch and dinner pretty much every day. Of course, the virus has changed all that, and our fridge is now actually stocked with more than just coffee creamer and a few bottles of hot sauce.

We were annoyed when we had to pay the equivalent of $15 Canadian for a 1 liter of cream… Dairy is expensive in this country!

Online purchases are making their way to us now, slowly but surely. Delivery drivers can’t actually drive into our compound though, so we need to walk out to the front to get anything that’s brought in (including jugs of water for our water dispenser).

They’ve put plastic wrap over all the buttons in the elevators. I have no idea what that is supposed to do because people have to touch it anyway. I’ve taken to hitting the button for our floor with my elbow to avoid it

You have to wear a mask if you go outside, which makes sense to me. I know they don’t really help prevent you from getting sick…but they DO help prevent people from spreading their germs in the first place. The way I see it: if I have to wear a mask, that means the sick people need to as well. It makes me feel safer.

It keeps my face warm!

We’re being very diligent about washing our hands, washing our phones, washing down tables we sit at, and just basically not touching anything. I walk around with both hands in my pockets and I don’t take off my gloves unless I need to.

We’re starting to see more people out and about now but everything is still closing down early. This was the shopping mall near our apartment earlier this week. It’s usually full of people.

As of this week, a few restaurants have opened back up for dine-in, but with strange restrictions like ‘there must be 1.5 meters between each customer’ and ‘only 1 person can sit at each table’. Dave and I went out for dumplings for lunch yesterday and were suppose to sit at two separate tables. Of course, foreigners can kinda get away with ignoring some of the rules, so we sat down at a double table and sat beside each other instead of across from each other, and nobody said anything.

Tables only have 1 chair at them in any restaurant that is open. In order to have more people than that at a table, restaurants need to be given special permission from the government. To get that permission, they need to follow a whole lot of rules, like properly cleaning things, and wearing gloves if you’re handling food… Basically, they just need to have proper standards of cleanliness
I’ve been smelling actual cleaners being used since we returned! It took me a second to realize why our apartment building smelled different the other day… Then I realized: they’re using more than just water to clean the floors!! Hallelujah!!!

Getting into a Routine

For now, we’re continuing to try and stay in a routine. I teach online Monday-Friday, and that keeps me busy. We’ve been cooking most of our meals at home (which has been really nice!), and doing a lot of reading in my free time. I’ve finished 3 novels now in the past 8 days, and I’ve been slowly working my way through our photos so that I can finish up my last few blog posts. Life has been slower, calmer and more relaxed, which honestly has been a really good thing.

Hugo likes to curl up on me while I read

Teachers across China are still waiting for schools to re-open. It seems ridiculous now that my boss thought we’d be back in classes by February 17th, when in reality, we’ll be happy to be back before the end of March. For my own students, online learning has been okay. SIPFLS has done a good job of keeping students accountable and giving us tools we can work with. I have friends who are working with awful systems and whose students aren’t doing any of the work, making teaching an even more difficult task.

I teach lessons using a program called Zoom. I can upload files for them to see, share my screen and we use video and audio for class discussions. Not quite the same as a conventional classroom, but not too bad either!

I have a few posts left for Langkawi, including one about the island’s wildlife, and also one for the eco-tourism offered on the island. Malaysia has become a very high contender for the next country where we will live. Our experiences there were great, and I can’t help but wish I were back there right now…

We haven’t seen blue skies since we got back. I miss Malaysia so much!!!

Waiting Out Coronovirus

At this point, I’m no longer on holiday. We’re still in Langkawi and I’m still not physically teaching classes, but I’m still back at work in a sense. The wonders of the internet have allowed me to teach remotely.

My poor students have had to put up with my awkward video lessons

This Strange Holiday

We were originally supposed to be back at work as of Feb 10th, but that was extended to Feb 17th in an effort to keep the virus from spreading further. The government also requested that people avoid flying into China unnecessarily, so we changed our flights to February 15. It wasn’t an issue. Most flight companies are kindly offering refunds on flights to China throughout the virus.

Many airlines have cancelled all flights to and from China until March at this point

Just last week though, the government decided that February 17th was still too early to reopen schools and has now declared that schools should not open before the end of February. This time, they didn’t give us an estimated return date.

We knew we wouldn’t be back in February. That’s all we knew

Shortly after the announcement was made, our February 15th flights were cancelled by Air Asia, and the company announced that they were suspending all flights back to China until March.

Schools React

This is where things have gotten a bit ugly for a lot of the teachers in China. Many foreigners have decided to move home due to the virus, breaking contracts and leaving their schools and students in the lurch. On the other hand, I’ve heard of many schools demanding that their employees come into the school to do “paperwork” until the schools reopen

I couldn’t find an appropriate meme, so I made one…

In some cases, schools have tried deducting wages or flat out telling their staff that they aren’t getting paid for February. Now, this might make sense if teachers aren’t doing online classes or producing online material for their students, but some schools have gone so far as to demand these materials but to also claim they won’t be paying their staff.

Once more…I put Pic Collage to good use…

Our Situation

I’ve been very lucky. My school administration has asked me to work during this shut down period but they’re making sure to track our work to guarantee that we will be paid for it. I think this is the best way to go about all this (for middle School and high school anyway) because at the end of the day, students still need to pass their final tests to get into good highschool’s and universities, and honestly… As crazy as all this has been… Life can’t just stop.

Those tests won’t write themselves!

Of course, life isn’t normal either. We are safer in Malaysia for the time being so this is where we’re staying. Suzhou has over 80 cases now, but the virus does seem to be slowing down. Every day we check the news to see what the new numbers of sick, dead and recovered patients.

We’re happy to be seeing much lower numbers these days. We live in SIP. It’s finally starting to disappear.

Dave and I have been incredibly fortunate in many ways. We’re in a safe and beautiful country (Malaysia) where money goes a long way and the internet is good. I work for a good school that is treating us well. We also have a cat sitter who is visiting our pets every day and an apartment complex that allows her to go in and out. We’ve been on the lucky side of things in a lot of different ways.

The world’s greatest cat sitter right here! This is how she dresses up daily to come visit our kitties

Facing Challenges

Still, it’s been hard. The most difficult part for me has been to remain positive for the sake of others. A lot of people are really scared. A lot of our friends are back in China, and some of them are immunocompromised, and less likely to survive should they catch coronavirus. We have friends from Wuhan, whose family members are sick, and who can’t go home. We have friends whose parents are doctors, working around the clock and putting themselves at risk. A lot of medical personal have caught the virus and have died from it. Scarier yet, a doctor passed away last week from sheer exhaustion. He was only 28, and he died of heart failure after working hour after hour, day after day, trying to save lives.

Doctors from all over China are being sent to Hubei province to help with the outbreak. Many of them have gotten sick and even died

I am a community leader in the suzhou expat circles, managing multiple Wechat groups, with up to 500 people in each. These forums are invaluable resources for people living in China, and they’re how we stay in touch with other Canadians, teachers and how we get advice on everything from where to eat to how to renew your passport if it expires while you’re abroad.

Some of the groups I run.

I run several communities regarding animal rescue, which has really been a big job through all of this. There have been so many rumours spread about the virus… Some people claim the virus was bio warfare. Others claim that it was a leaked virus from a lab. The one that has been personally quite difficult for me has been the idea that pets can transmit the disease and get their owners sick.

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about already…

The day that rumour began, pets all over China were killed. Their terrified and misinformed owners threw them off balconies and poisoned them. One woman came down with coronavirus and while she was in the hospital, someone broke into her home and killed her cat out of fear. People began to fear that their pets would be killed in all of this. To make matters worse, British tabloids tried saying that the government was telling people that if they didn’t kill their pets, the government would. It was all nonsense… But just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean it won’t be shared and that it won’t spread like wildfire.

You wouldn’t believe the amount of misinformation I’ve seen…

Life Back in China

People out west don’t seem to really know what’s all going on. They imagine people dying in the streets and a callous government who doesn’t care if its citizens die. None of it really captures life in China at the moment.

This is Wuhan right now. These streets are usually full. China is never this quiet…

In reality, people are going stir crazy in their apartments, quarantined for safety measures. It’s difficult to get supplies at the moment because delivery companies are shut down. Finding masks and hand sanitizer has been difficult. Items like pet food and food with long shelf life is harder to find. People fill shopping carts with cheap ramen and canned goods ‘just in case’. There is limited fresh food and it runs out daily.

In Suzhou it’s been better, but most grocery stores have empty produce shelves by the end of the day.

Most public venues are still shut down and many restaurants are doing take away orders only. Some restaurants have a strict 3 person limit at each table, in an attempt to reduce crowds from forming. Malls, vets and grocery stores all have reduced hours and many apartment complexes even have curfews. In other cities, people are only allowed leaving their apartments once every few days, so really, Suzhou doesn’t even have it that bad.

People are having their temperature scanned before they can get into their own appartment complexes

Teachers and students are both struggling with online classes in a country with very closed off internet access. Students still have exams to pass but are mentally checked out, which I completely understand. No one is sure when schools will reopen in Jiangsu province, where we live. Shanghai has announced that schools will be online only through March, but each province is coming up with their own rules.

It turns out teaching in your pajamas isn’t all fun and games… Especially when you’re dealing with the great firewall of China…

Wuhan and is still overwhelmed with the sick, and short on supplies and medical workers. People are still dying every day, but the number of new deaths is starting to go down, which is a good sign. The number of recovered patients is also on the rise. Soon, we hope the latter will be the bigger number in our daily updates.

Even with 2 new hospitals being built in under 2 weeks and several public buildings being turned into care centers, it’s simply not enough… People are still left untreated in Wuhan.

We’re set to go home on February 24th. I miss my cats so much, and Poe has been quite sick, with an interestinal infection, so I’ve been extra worried about her. I also miss my friends and the comfort of my own bed. I miss normalcy.

My sweet girl

Change is in the Air

I think things are going to change in China, after all this calms down. Ideally, wet markets will become a lot more strictly run to avoid outbreaks like this from beginning in the future. I hope that the government will start taking measures to teach the general population about unsanitary practices like spitting, and force companies to put soap in all bathrooms. I also think the Chinese people trust their government a little less after all this.

Wet markets are a bad idea all around. Having love animals, uncooked (and often unrefrigerated) meat lying around alongside produce… It’s a recipe for disaster

I’m not sure if anything will change, but I know that this whole experience has changed me. Being in Langkawi had reminded me how much I miss being around nature and how much I miss having work/life balance. In China, all we really do is work, but here, we spend our free time animal watching, cruising around on our motorbike or even just swimming in our guesthouse pool. I don’t think I’d ever have time for any of that working in a country with such an intense work culture.

Being surrounded by so much green has really made me miss having nature to enjoy

Coronavirus has forced me to slow down and it’s been a good change. I’m not sure what’s in store for us in the coming few years but I can say with certainty that although life in China has been amazing… This chapter in our life is coming to an end. Before long, we’ll be onto a new adventure. We aren’t sure what that will involve yet, but I’m sure it will be grand.

There is so much more of the world to see! We really do live on a beautiful planet!

So there you have it. This is our life at the moment. Hopefully we’ll be back home on the 24th, to cuddle up with our kitties and get back into our routines.

We’re pretty sure at this point that Hugo prefers the cat sitter.
At least Oliver still loves me!!!

I still have a few posts left to write about Langkawi! They’ll be up soon!

Sneak peak: one of my posts will be all about wildlife!

Day 14 – Same Same, but Different

One of the cool things about traveling is that you get to see all the different varieties and flavors each country has.  A good example of that is India’s Maharaja Mac.  They don’t eat beef in India so McDonalds had to come up with an alternative to the Big Mac.  This chicken burger was the solution.

Dave tried it and liked it a lot!  It was too spicy for me!
Subway in Singapore also had variations in their local menu!

South East Asia has all sorts of flavors that Canada doesn’t… And sometimes I don’t understand why we haven’t brought these flavors out west!  The cookies and cream dairy milk found in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines is one of many examples.

Sooo tasty!!!

In Singapore they also have salted caramel Magnum bars, which are to die for!!

My first treat in Singapore!

There are some strange variations too. Salted egg yolk is a really common flavour in this part of the world. You can get salted egg yolk calamari, crab and even potato chips!

I’ve heard they’re pretty good!  We tried the salted egg yolk calamari and that was REALLY good!

There are other strange flavors of chips too!

Also…chips made of chicken and fish skin
Chili crab is basically Singapore’s National dish. It doesn’t surprise me that they have these as chips!

Popcorn is also a lot more variable than you’d imagine. I’m a fan of good old fashioned butter and salt, but in Asia, they have all sorts of sweet popcorn.

This one actually sounds pretty good

Even quick meals are more diverse in Malaysia! Back home we have Mr. Noodles and Kraft Dinner but they go beyond that here:

This is brilliant!
They even come in a bowl, unlike the packaged food I’ve seen in North America (which were convenient for hiking and camping but not if you’re hungry and on the go)

Of course, I can’t forget about candy! We make a point of bringing back strange candies for our nieces and nephews every year. They seem to enjoy trying new stuff!

Dunno if I’ve ever seen anything like this in Canada!
Hazel nut and green tea kit cats…

Every once in a while I find “normal” stuff from back home too. China doesn’t have a lot of imported foods so when I find sour cream and onion chips, I get excited!!!

I’d settle for Lay’s if I had to but…..
They even have Ruffles!!!
I’ve never seen anything like this in China. They have their own version of jerky, which is also quite tasty…. It’s just different

Traveling is fun! Who knows what we’ll see next!

CNY 2020 – Day 12 – Airports & Coronovirus

Airports are a bit scary at the moment. They’re where you are most likely to run into someone with Coronovirus, and airplanes circulate the same air throughout the flight, and you notice everyone that is coughing, sneezing or sniffling as you get into the plane. You’re breathing their sniffles for the flight. Fun fact.

Fun with surgical masks!
Did he just sneeze???
Why didn’t he cover his mouth!!!!!????

We left the jungle early to make sure we’d make it to the airport in time, so I decided to do a bit of walking around to try and find some back up masks and extra hand sanitizer (we are meeting up with a friend in Lankowi who needs them too because she, like so many others, hasn’t been able to locate any). Unfortunately all I saw was this:

I saw this everywhere…..

Shelves were completely empty of anything that disinfects…

These were 4 different types of sanitizer. All gone.
Dettol wipes: sold out
Hand sanitizer: sold out
Everything else was in stock, but anything involving sanitization is gone

I did manage to find some vitamin C and some hand wipes in the end, but I think I basically bought the last hand wipes in the entire airport.

We have plenty of this stuff back in Suzhou too.

Back in China, the government has began fining anyone who is trying to overcharge for these basic essentials during this outbreak. One man in Beijing is being fined 3 million RMB for this crime.

The guy in Beijing isn’t the only one to try this either….

Once in Lankawi, we found a big bottle of hand sanitizer for both us and my friend. We also stocked up on arrival masks in a small town outside KL (where people aren’t as worried and the masks are easier to find).

500ml should last us a while.

Over all, even with The Who declaring a global state of emergency (several hours after saying it WASN’T a global emergency….) I’m still not in panic mode.

Statistics like this keep me calm

Still, things are still uncertain for us on this side of the world. When we left China, we had no idea that we might not be coming back as planned. We packed what we needed for our 19 days of travel, and we packed light. We have 3 cats at home who are being cared for, but it’s scary knowing that our cat sitter could be banned from entering the complex at any point. As it is, many apartment complexes won’t allow anyone in until they have been tested for fevers. That’s the lengths cities are going to to try and prevent this virus from spreading further.

This sign was posted outside a friend’s apartment complex. Basically if you don’t live in that complex, you’re not allowed in.

So, we’ll continue with the “wait and see” approach and hope that it’ll all turn out fine. At least we got ahold of some masks, sanitizer and vitamin C.

CNY 2020 – Day 7 – Coronovirus

I don’t think it’s possible for me to write about this holiday and not discuss what’s going on back “home” in China. The Coronovirus outbreak has been a very large part of our lives throughout this entire trip. When we aren’t reading up on news ourselves, we’re in contact with people back in Suzhou who didn’t go on holiday. It’s been kind of wild.

China is in the midst of building a hospital… In 6 days. There are actually 2 of these being built because most likely, a lot more people are going to be getting sick

The virus started in Wuhan, in a wet market. People there were selling exotic meats like bat and civet, and that’s how the virus began. We had been hearing about the pneumonia-causing illness in December already, but it wasn’t actually until we got to Malaysia that things got bad. First the market in Wuhan was closed, then the city shut down. Then, several others shut down too.

Ground 0 for the Wuhan Coronovirus

We live in Suzhou, which is about 300km from the city of Wuhan. There have been only 8 cases in Suzhou and no deaths, as of now. One of the infected Suzhou residents was even cured! Still, people are very nervous about it all.

I’ve never been to Hubei province, although it’s pretty close via high speed train

Watching this go down from so far away is kind of surreal. I keep seeing photos of empty grocery store shelves and I keep getting notices of all the venues and events that are shutting down because of the virus. Everyone has basically been told to stay home. People are going stir crazy.

It’s worse in Wuhan, where the city is in complete lock down. Roads have been physically closed to stop people from getting out. Unfortunately, 5 million people left Wuhan before officials realized that this virus is so contagious. This is why it’s spread so far throughout China.

We don’t really know when we’re going to be able to go back. Our three cats are being cared for by our usual pet sitter, and we’re ok to stay here in Malaysia for a while, but it’s still a strange feeling to know that we can’t go back home because it’s not really safe to yet.

Many flights have been cancelled already

The government has been really careful over the last week. Schools are being shut down for an extra week after the holiday and non-essential businesses are closed until February 8th. There’s even been a hotline set up where people can report businesses that are trying to get their workers back to work early. It hasn’t stopped several schools from trying to get teachers to come back early to sit in empty classrooms, in the name of “getting their dollar’s worth” out of us. They don’t want us feeling like we have extra holidays…

I’m fairly concerned about the emptying grocery stores. Fresh vegetables and fruit are in short supply.

All of this is leading to some panic, of course. There are a lot of rumours going around and quite a bit of misinformation. People are abandoning their pets and freaking out on other expats in the Wechat groups too. I’ve seen name calling and full on melt downs. People are scared and they want other people to be scared too so that they don’t feel so alone.

Of course, some people are creating memes in their spare time, which I think is a lot more productive than going over worst case scenarios in your head.

I’ve been trying very hard to stay calm. I’ve dealt with anxiety since I was a teenager and one of the best ways I know how to cope is to surround myself with positive people. I choose my friends carefully. But… I also feel like I have a role to play as an expat community leader in Suzhou. I am either the owner or administrator of multiple Wechat groups, and thousands of people use these groups to get information. I need to make sure that I’m there, providing good information and stopping bad information from spreading.

I’ve been trying to encourage people to stay calm, stay isolated and stay clean.

Still, I’m lucky. I’m facing this from the safety of a country that has been mostly unaffected by the virus. I have a reliable person taking care of my pets and the ability to stay abroad for a little while longer, although, to be honest I’d much rather be home, safe and sound with my furry family.

I just want to be home, curled up with Oliver

For now, I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing: staying up to date with facts, washing my hands frequently, using hand sanitizer when necessary, and staying out of crowds. It’s all I can do.

Good advice!

Here are a couple more coronavirus memes to brighten a rather gloomy post:

There are lots of these ones floating around including one of a guy who cut a hole in his mask so that he could smoke out of it
During Chinese New year, these red envelopess are given out with money in them. Of course this year, with masks being in short supply…. This is a great gift!
Probably my favorite meme so far. Chinese people love to tell others to drink hot water…. For everything. Cold water is bad for you…. Hot water will cure fevers, ear infections, pneumonia and probably Coronovirus too

My next post will be about traveling to the jungle! Stay tuned! (I’m almost caught up!?)

CNY 2020 – Day 1 – Bonus Holidays

I’ve never been much of a fan of Shanghai. It’s polluted, crowded, expensive and it takes forever to get anywhere. Unfortunately, there is no airport in Suzhou, which means that any time we travel, we have to go to Shanghai.

We’ve been to the Bund only once.

Things have become better in the past couple of years, since we discovered some great restaurants and Shanghai’s vibrant expat scene.

Turkish appies in Found 158. We also very much enjoy the Vietnamese restaurant down there called Cyclo

The Hop Project was a game changer for us. They serve gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches on sour dough bread. I’ve never seen this in Suzhou.

Now, we spend the night before our flights in this megacity, to enjoy food and atmospheres we don’t really get in Suzhou. It’s become a bit of a bonus vacation for us, something I never really thought was possible.

Spanish Tortilla. Love!!!

Meatballs

Chorizo soaked in red wine

Fantastic sangria

Last night we had an especially cool experience at our favorite Tapas bar in China, Tres Perros. From its music to its clientele, Tres Perros takes me back to Spain. The food and drinks are on point and the atmosphere of the bar is just like we experienced last year as we traveled around Europe.

Their Churros and flan are decadent

Even some of the Chinese staff speak Spanish and they all speak some English. Last night, while we were enjoying our dinner, one of the waiters came by and explained that he had a friend who had been in an accident and who had lost his leg. He asked if we could help him out at all. Before I knew it, everyone over at the table next to us was ordering him food, drinks and just having laughs with him. They were Spanish expats and it was a wonderful thing to see. They didn’t pity the disabled man. They just treated him like he belonged there and that he was welcomed there. It was a beautiful reminder that there are amazing people in the world.

They were a very fun crowd.

Shanghai has won me over. It took a while but I’m glad we’re friends now. After all… Who doesn’t want bonus vacation?

Day 10: Spas

There are probably about 100 spas in the small city of Danang. I spent quite a bit of time in them this trip, as I’ve tried sorting out the muscles in my leg, and I had an array of experiences from excellent to “what the heck just happened to me?”

These are just Danang’s most high end and fancy spas. Most spas are small, and just do the basics: foot massage, oil massage and hot stone massage.

Most of these spas are run by women who sleep during the afternoon while tourists are at the beach and work hard in the evenings, when tourists are walking around, looking for dinner and something to do.

One of the many small spas in Danang

The prices are astoundingly low. You can get a 1 hour foot and leg massage for about $10. A hot oil massage is usually around $15. The fancier places have larger packages with more options (facials, body scrubs, mud baths etc…), but even the high end places are reasonably priced when compared to Canada.

Dave and I got hot stone foot rubs here. The masseuses were lovely.

Of course, in Canada, you’re paying for a certified professional who went to school and learned about the body. In South East Asia, you’ll get some masseuses that know a thing or two but you’ll also get ones that don’t seem to understand that the human body isn’t just a large punching bag.

They forgot to advertise their UFC- Style massage…

We decided to go for Thai massages together on new year’s Eve at a little place called Kaly Spa. It was the worst massage of my life and anything but a Thai massage! They punched and slapped me, and dug their toes into my ribs. Multiple times I had to ask the woman to ease up. At one point it felt like she was trying to remove my shoulder blade. She dug her fingers under it and pulled and pulled until I actually got mad. And I’d like to say you get what you pay for, but this was the most expensive massage I went for the entire trip (it cost about $30).

Avoid this place …. It’s horrible!!

Of course, I also had some very good experiences. Thuy Nguyen Spa was fantastic. It was down a back street, a few doors down from our first Hotel. The women there were lovely, and they undercharged me every time I went. Vicky, the woman I saw there, was determined to help me, because she knew that I was in a lot of pain. She would work on me for 2 hours but only charge me for 1. Amazing and caring people.

I highly recommend this place!!

So if you’re heading down to Danang, be sure to stop into a spa or two! The hot stone massages are so nice, and there’s nothing like a nice foot rub after a day of travel (or leisure!)

Day 9: Winter in Danang

We knew before we booked that Danang wasn’t going to be a bit cooler than it had been in southern Vietnam. Still, it was an affordable holiday destination with great food and coffee!

Delicious Banh Mi!!

Our first few days here were actually lovely. We had Sun and relaxed on the beach. It was nice and warm, without being too hot to do things. Perfect weather.

Our first Hotel had a rooftop pool. It was a bit cool but perfectly comfortable in the sun

Then winter hit, the sun disappeared and we wished we’d packed more than 1 sweater each.

Our hotel in Hoi’an had a lovely pool but it was much too cold for us to swim in

Still, we aren’t ones to let weather dictate the quality of our holiday, so yesterday we head down to the hot springs near Danang to get some swimming in!

It was beautiful and up in the mountains, which was lovely!

On our drive there and then again on our drive back, we got drenched in little mini rain downpours, still it was worth the trip!

It was a beautiful drive either way!!

After drying off, we decided to do another bbq dinner at the night market. After we’d enjoyed yet another delicious meal there, we decided to do a bit if shopping, and had into the sales market. That’s when the skies REALLY decided to open!

They had to cover up all the merch and a lot of vendors started packing up after the rain hadn’t stopped 15 minutes later

The tarps covering each shop began collecting water quickly, as shop keepers pushed on the bulges to move the water in a direction away from their valuables! It was a bit like a game of wack’a’mole, trying to stop water from collecting in any particular area

Still, people kept shopping

We hung around until the weather cleared, and then walked a few streets down for the new year countdown. Why let a little rain ruin our fun??

We also got shirts made with our cats on them

My favorite picture of Oliver. This was the first time he climbed up on to of the cat scratch and he liked very pleased with himself!!

A perfectly comical depiction of Hugo

Poe either absorbs all the light in her photos, or she looks angry. There are no other photos of her haha!!!

Happy New Year to all my readers!!!!

Day 8: Markets!

There is nothing like a South East Asian market! They’re an endless collection of souvenirs, shoes, bags, clothing, with the odd live chicken to keep things interesting.

These are all barrels of snacks for purchase. In this particular market, coffee, mango candies and coconut crackers are the most common items for sale

It’s overwhelming being in these markets. Sometimes, shop keepers will try pulling you by the arm. Dave and I never purchase anything from anyone who does that. The market is crowded, noisy and full of strange smells. For some reason though, I love it. There’s such a buzz in these places and it’s almost like a game, trying to get a good price on things.

Open bags of food are the reason why it smells kinda weird in these markets. We only ever buy sealed stuff… Don’t worry!

This particular market had seamstresses making clothing for people right then d there. They take measurements, you choose a fabric you like, and then a style of dress or shirt… and they make it for you! I’m sure they get paid a far more reasonable wage for this than what they get paid if they work in an H&M or Walmart factory. It’s a pretty cool set up!

Speaking of name brands, you’ll find everything from knock off designer bags to ‘faulty’ H&M clothing. Shoes, purses and clothing, everywhere you look! Some of them actually have legit tags, which is why we figure they are either somehow faulty or an old model that didn’t sell. Other items, of course, are just blatant knock offs.

Pro Tip: try and get everything you need from just 1 or 2 sellers. The more you buy, the better of discounts you get! It can save you a lot in the long run.

I’ll be back soon!

Day 7: “Ecotourism”

I consider myself a strong supporter of ecotourism. When planning a trip anywhere the first thing I do is look for the best ecotourism destinations within the country we’ve decided to visit. Then I look for companies that provide eco-friendly and eco-conscious options. In Indonesia, we discovered Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking. In Thailand we discovered Elephant Nature Park.

As a strong supporter of Ecotourism, I am very opposed to the following activities:

  • Elephant riding (torture)
  • Tiger Parks (over-breeding & drugging animals as well as farming Tiger parts for TCM and other gross activities)
  • Any tour where wild animals are fed, touched or interacted with unnecessarily
  • Any experience that involves using animals as entertainment (unless you’re just watching them be animals…I find that quite entertaining, actually!)
  • Any tour that involves unnecessary damage to the environment
  • Any activity that promotes the destruction of natural habitats
  • Any activity that takes advantage of the poor, disabled or young
  • …..

Please don’t ride elephants! Chair or no chair… They were trained to do this through torture. It doesn’t matter if it’s fun or pretty or cool because it’s also cruel, and avoiding cruelty towards living things should be more important than “fun”. Have fun in a different way!

I typically do a lot of research before booking an eco tour with any company. I was in touch with the folks at Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking for weeks before I booked. I wanted to make sure that my presense in the jungle wasn’t going to be harmful to the animals and I wanted to make sure that I was working with an ethical company that pays its employees fair wages and gives back to the community.

Even after our tour was done, we got together with the owner of the company and 2 of our guides to share some laughs over jungle trivia. These guys were so great. Writing this post just made me want to go back to Indonesia again!!

Our trip to Vietnam this time around didn’t have much on the itinerary, to be honest. We just wanted a low key holiday to relax and enjoy some sunshine. Of course, a lot of our time here has been cloudy (and therefore a bit cold), so we’ve been finding non-beach related things to do as we go.

I’ve spent a lot of time with my feet sitting in tumeric and cinnamon. Both are good for bringing down swelling.

Our last morning in Hoi’an was spent doing something that was labeled an “eco tour”. Now, given the price of this tour I wasn’t expecting much. I figured we’d go out in a little coconut boat for a bit, paddle around, admire some coconut trees and that would be all. I was wrong (and I HATE being wrong!)

Warning: there was NOTHING ‘eco’ about this tour!

We’ve run into this before. Many companies like to use the word “eco” to attract people, but never give a thought as to what “eco” is supposed to mean. For example, on a good eco tour, your guide will speak softly, so that they don’t disturb the local wildlife. This is what we experienced during our Hong Tour in Phucket. It was lovely and we ended up seeing several wild animals because no one was shouting and scaring them away.

Here in Hoi’an, we were told to poke at crabs with a stick….

In Indonesia, our guides picked up any garbage they saw in the jungle. Sardi, my favourite of our guides, even kept his cigarette butts and didn’t leave them behind, even though he easily could have.

In Hoi’an, there was garbage everywhere. There was also a layer of oil and chemicals on top of the water. It was disgusting

In Bukit Lawang, Phuket and Chiang Mai, culture was celebrated. Staff were treated well and we were taught about traditions and customs. In Bukit Lawang we got to hear our guides tell stories about how they grew up in the jungle village. We learned about their families and we compared Indonesian culture with Canada’s and China’s. In Thailand we learned about the ancient custom of releasing lanterns into the water. Our guide taught us how to make them so that they are 100% biodegradable so that there is no pollution left behind.

In Hoi’an, we watched villagers humiliate themselves, singing loudly over a ktv track to Gangham Style… All to make a buck

The easiest way to tell if you are in a “mass tourism” situation or if you’re on a legit eco tour is this: Ecotours typically feel relaxing. You feel like you’re part of something good. You remember your guide’s names. You remember little details that made you smile. You have time to really experience things.

Our guide in Thailand made this with us. His name was Ole. He told us that he made one of these pretty Krathongs every year of his life, since he was a little child.

Mass tourism, on the other hand, feel rushed. You’re on an assembly line. No one tells you their names, or if they do, it’s a formality and they never call you by yours. You’re rushed from one point to the next, they ask you for money many different times for many different reasons, and then you’re on your way.

Straight up ahead, in the white shorts, you can see our driver. I’m walking with a pretty bad limp at the moment, and he never even noticed. He just sped on ahead, so that he could get rid of us a bit faster to get the next people through.

If you’re reading this and wondering about those Coconut Tours… Please don’t waste your time or your money. Spend a bit of time online and look for something that is more dignified, because I promise you’ll enjoy yourself more.

Pro Tip: if you’re online and confused about which companies are doing real eco tours and which are just using the words to lure people in, here are some good things to look for:

  • The definition of Ecotourism somewhere in there website
  • Mentions of conservation or wildlife protection
  • mentions of building up their community or community projects that the company is currently working on
  • Ethical employment
  • Slightly higher costs (because they’re looking at quality of experience… Not quantity of guests)

An animal’s job is to be an animal. Not to entertain you. I’m glad though, that this particular elephant allowed us a selfie. This was my first close up with them, and I almost cried I was so happy. There were nearly some tears shed on the coconut tour as well, but if a different variety

If I want to look at the bright side, at least I can say that this was a good reminder of why we don’t do stuff like this anymore!

I’ll try and catch up tomorrow!!!