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!

CNY – Day 13 – Settling In

The last leg of this trip is being spent in Langkawi; an island in North Western peninsular Malaysia. We chose this island because the rainy season isn’t as bad here as it is on the east coast.

We’ve visited 4 destinations in this trip. Langkawi (top left) is our final stop

When we planned out this holiday, we were going to be staying in Langkawi from January 30th to February 6th. Of course, all of that has changed with the virus. Schools are now closed until the 17th (originally we went back to work on the 10th) and we don’t want to go back to China until we need to, for obvious reasons. So, we decided to stick around Langkawi until around the 14th instead.

Our setting during this stressful time…

All jokes aside, we have no idea how long we’re going to be here. A lot of different factors are at play. On one hand, our cats are being looked after and we can get pretty much everything we need here in Langkawi. The virus is still spreading in China, and doesn’t look like it’s going to relent very soon. Solid reasons to stay away.

And I mean… This is our back yard at the moment…

On the other hand, I don’t want to leave our cats for too long (I miss them so much!!!). My teaching responsibilities are resuming on time, although the school is staying closed until the 17th. I’ll be teaching online, which is a bit of a problem because my laptop is back in Suzhou.

Oliver misses me almost as much as I miss him!!

At this point, we’re just playing it all by ear. I think 5 weeks is the maximum I want to be away from the cats (that’s the longest we’ve ever been away from them), plus, life sort of needs to go on. Suzhou is quite safe and the virus hasn’t caused any deaths there. There are 54 cases total, and the virus hasn’t spread as quickly in Suzhou as in other places. We’ll be ok when we go back… The question is simply: “when?”

Suzhou is still a ghost town. Normally, you would see cars on the streets and people walking around. Right now though, people are staying indoors. (My friend Li took this photo. She’s still in Suzhou, waiting out the virus)

So, until Feb 15th at least, we are staying put. We can do laundry here and the guesthouse where we’re staying is owned by some really nice people. We have a pool and we rented a motorbike so we can get around easily enough. Food in the area is cheap and Malaysia hasn’t been hit hard by the virus. Malaysia has only actually had 8 cases so far, and all of them were Chinese nationals. We’ve chosen a very good place to ride this out.

Dave doing laundry in a very old machine. Still, it’s free and we can do our own laundry, which is nice. Plus, the Malaysian Sun dries our clothes in about 2 hours!

As far as relaxing here goes… We’re about as chill as we can be. Dave is still working and studying, and I’m getting ready to start making the video lessons that my students will watch from the safety of their homes. There are lots of beautiful birds in Langkawi and we’ve seen plenty of lizards too. We even saved one from drowning in the pool the other day!!

Poor little guy was startled when we came out of our room and ran straight into the pool! He couldn’t swim very well and couldn’t grab onto the side to get out so Dave basically splashed him out with a big handful of water. He just sat there in the sun for a few minutes, catching his breath. Poor little dude!

Between work, school and keeping up with the news, we’re making the most of our time here! I’ve got plenty more to write about so check back soon!

Dave, busy at work

CNY 2020 – Day 9 – The Batek People

We had 3 full days to enjoy in the jungle, and we did our best to spend them well. Of course, the heat was certainly a factor for how much we could do every day, so river and evening activities were always our preference.

Who doesn’t love being out on a river?!

We decided to begin our stay in the jungle with a “rapid shooting” activity. Basically, we got into a boat and moved through some tiny rapids and got a little wet. Then our tour guide rocked the boat back and forth to make sure we got REALLY wet. That was the end of that part of the tour.

Don’t worry. The sun has us dry in no time!

The second part of our trip was to visit an Orang Asli (Aboriginal) village. I didn’t have high hopes, because these types of activities are often very kitsch, but I was pleasantly surprised with the way the tour was done.

They still live in traditional huts that they built themselves. These huts can last several years.

Unlike many tours, where you just awkwardly walk through the town and look at people… In this tour, we actually learned about the tribe. Most of them didn’t speak English, but they all speak Batek and Malay, so our guide acted as a translator.

Our guide, showing us the tools that are used by Batek people, and explaining where they get these tools from

I learned a lot about the Batek people here. We watched how they traditionally started fires. No one tried telling us that it’s still how they do it, because now the tribe uses matches, but it was cool to see that they learned to use the best material the jungle had to get their fires lit. In under a minute, the villager had a flame growing. It was impressive.

Handmade rope and a very light and dry type of wood
There was smoke in about 30 seconds

We also learned how they still hunt. Blow pipes are still used today and are quite accurate and a reasonably good means to catch prey up in the trees. They taught us how they make the tranquilizer darts as well as how to use the blow pipe.

Every piece of the dart and the pipe comes from the jungle. Even the paralyzing poison they use comes from a tree
They use a special leaf from the jungle as sand paper. It’s very rough and helps make the blow dart balancers more smooth
He carefully made a dart for us, showing the process from beginning to end

Some tourists even gave it a try! I bowed out because I’m feeling a little paranoid about putting my mouth on something other people have put their mouths on at the moment…

A local using the pipe with expertise
Dave is pretty good! He said that the pipe is very easy to use

What I found most educational about this visit was the way that these tribes have been allowed to continue living traditionally in Malaysia. In Canada, aboriginals had their identities stolen from them through residential schools and even now, they are given useless land and people don’t understand why that’s a problem. They lost their way of living and have never been given the chance to get it back.

They were taken from their homes, put in European clothing, forced to take on the Christian religion, and quite often, were victims of abuse and sexual assaults. It’s no wonder things are the way they are in Canada even now. None of this happened very long ago after all…

In Malaysia, the tribes have been given much more freedom. They are allowed to live and hunt in large designated areas, and they’re allowed to live traditionally. We saw plenty of young kids going into town for school, but usually at about 11 years old, they start to learn how to live off the land. They are learning to read and write but they also know how to make traditional weapons and how to rely on the rainforest

This tribe has been living in this location for about a year now but they are nomadic. They can leave at any time, and eventually will. Our guide explained that tourism dollars is a very small part of their income. They are much more dependant on the rain forest than they are tourists.

The Batek people use the rainforest to make an income. They search for sandle wood and other rare jungle items that they can sell to the villagers. This particular tribe wore “regular” clothing and shoes they they could buy with the money they earn from the rainforest and tourism. They also use the rainforest for medicine, but if an illness is serious, they know to go to a nearby hospital. They are a part of Malaysia, but are still allowed their traditional way of life. It was really beautiful to see.

They make little souvenirs for tourists to buy, and they make a bit off the tours, but overall they do just fine without our money.

It got me considering my own country, as traveling often does. It made me sad that we can’t have this in Canada. Any chance for this was lost when the government took kids away from their families and never let them learn the traditional ways of their tribes. Too much was lost during that time and it’s not something that can easily be brought back.

Imagine for a moment if your kids were taken away by the government and you were told that you don’t have the right to raise them or to live the way you have always lived your life.

Of course, things aren’t perfect for the Batek people. An outbreak of measles killed 15 Batek people last year. With a population of only around 1500 people to begin with, this perfectly preventable disease did a number on the tribe it affected. A simple vaccination would have saved a lot of lives. As much as it’s wonderful to live off the land and stick to natural remedies when possible… It’s still foolish to avoid modern medicine when it’s available to you.

People forget just how horrible the measles are because vaccines have more or less erased this disease from North America. The disease is highly contagious and can quickly result in death if left untreated. There is a reason why there is such a push for vaccines in Canada.

Our last day in the jungle we heard that some tourists from the Netherlands would be bringing the Batek village some medicine for a Gibbon who had fallen out of a tree and had been abandoned by its mother. The poor thing has a broken arm and an infection as a result (as best as I could understand). The village wants to protect this baby Gibbon, but because gibbons are endangered, they are reluctant to send it away unless they know it will be well cared for. The tourists are doing a great thing by bringing the medicine to the village.

He ended up pooping all over me but I didn’t care. The poor thing was so nervous, and everyone was holding him like he might attack. He just wanted to be cuddled close and feel safe.

I have 2 more posts planned for the jungle. One will be about all the wildlife we saw there! Check back soon!!

CNY 2020 – Day 4 – KL to Singapore

I’ve grown spoiled with China’s high speed trains, and I figured our trip to Singapore would be a quick one, given its proximity to Kuala Lumpur. I was wrong…

China’s high speed trains are incredible. They’re fast, cheap and can take you just about anywhere on the East coast!

A few years back, Singapore cancelled the train coming directly from Malaysia’s capital, leaving only two options: bus or plane.

After our experiences in Laos (where they sell motion sickness pills at every pit stop), I was a bit nervous about the bus…

For this trip, I tried very hard to minimize the number of flights we booked. Flying is not great for the environment, but we aren’t left with many other options during our holidays in this part of the world. South East Asia doesn’t always have the best roads, so flying is often our best (and safest) option.

With poor infrastructure and winding mountain roads to worry about, driving can be hazardous in South East Asia

We ended up looking into both options and saw that although flights are generally very cheap going from KL to Singapore, they quadrupled over Chinese New Year. The buses were more expensive too but still cheaper overall, so we decided to take the longer (and more environmentally friendly) option for this trip.

The plus side of driving is that you get to see more of the country. I’ll never forget the drive from Vang Vieng up to Luang Prabang. Breathtaking!

We arrived a half hour before our scheduled departure, as recommended by the booking website (we used http://www.easybook.com). We were a little annoyed when we tried to board the bus with our full cups of coffee, only to be told they weren’t allowed. We drank as much as we could and left our half-full coffees behind, much to our chagrin.

The bus was clean and about half empty. With buses going to Singapore nearly every hour, I imagine they don’t often fill all the way up.

These are all the companies making the trip daily. Each company makes various trips throughout the day.

There are a lot of different bus companies making this trip, but we decided to go with The One Tours. They rated well online, while some of the other companies had awful reviews. Some bus drivers refused to even take passengers all the way into Singapore, leaving them stranded at the border. Aside from our wasted coffees, we were very happy with our experience and I’d recommend The One Tours without hesitation.

This is what our bus looked like. Lots of space and comfy seats

Because there is a border crossing, this trip into Singapore has a few stops (in addition to regular rest stops). The first stop is to leave Malaysia. You’re stamped out and sent on your way. The process doesn’t take long as long as you don’t have anything to declare. We had to put our bags through an x-ray machine but it wasn’t nearly as much of a hassle as at the airport.

Singapore is a very small island. The bus drives over a bridge to get there. No ferries!

After “leaving” Malaysia, you actually need to get back on the bus for a few more minutes until you reach customs on Singapore’s side. Here, you’ll get stamped in, asked a few questions and then be on your way!

It’s all very simple if you’re lucky enough to be Canadian. I’m sure it isn’t as easy with other passports. You’ll want to check your government website ahead of time, just in case you need to apply for a Visa before you arrive

I should note that each bus company does pick ups and drop offs at different locations. We were dropped off near a hotel in Singapore, where we were able to get onto WiFi to order a Grab (like Didi or Uber). It turns out that we could have gotten cheap roaming on our Malaysia Sim cards if we had done it before leaving, but once we were in Singapore it was too late, so of course, we had to get a Singaporean sim card too.

Each of these companies has different pick up and drop off points so make sure to double check once you’ve booked!

If you’re planning to take the bus out to Singapore, I can reassure you that it’s nothing like Laos or The Philippines . There will be no live (or dead) farm animals on your bus and the seats are comfy. Best of all, it’s a safe and reliable way to get around.

No one was sitting in either of the seats next to me. A very relaxing journey!

My next few posts are going to be long ones! I’ll be writing them on the bus ride back to Kuala Lumpur! Check back soon!

CNY 2020 – Day 3 – Bukit Bintang

One of the best things about living in Asia is undoubtedly the food. Food markets are one of the first things we look for in any new city, and that’s how we ended up in Bukit Bintang last night.

Our first stop: BBQ lamb!

Some of the best food markets we’ve seen have been in Taipei, Taiwan. We’ve also enjoyed some great meals at night markets in Bangkok (Thailand), Luang Prabang (Laos), Danang (Vietnam) and of course plenty in China too. Kuala Lumpur is special though because of the diversity you find in their food markets.

They sure love their Durian in Malaysia!

Malaysia is one of the most diverse places we’ve had the fortune of visiting. There are strong Hindu, Muslim and Chinese influences here, and each culture provides its own dining sensations! Plus, of course, Malaysia has its own ethnic foods as well.

Malaysian Milk Tea and Nasi Lemak: Malaysia’s national food (rice cooked in coconut cream)

We did as we often do, and followed our noses though the Bukit Bintang market. If something looked good, we stopped and tried it. Plenty looked good!!!

There was dim sum to enjoy. You could choose from a variety of different dumplings. I especially liked the mushroom and pork and the curry dumplings.
Our selection
There were also several bbq places. Dave especially enjoyed this one.

Eventually you run out of room and it becomes very hard to choose what you’ll eat.

This little girl looks about as stressed as I did when I realized I didn’t have room to try it all!

There’s often live entertainment in these markets as well. Several bands were set up just outside Bukit Bintang metro station, playing live music. Crowds formed and enjoyed the show.

They were quite good!!!

The next part of our journey takes us to Singapore!! Stay tuned!

Vietnam Round 2: Day 1

As I’ve said many times in the last 6 years, I hate flying (but I love traveling!). Today was a travel day and by the end of it, I felt tired, sweaty, smelly and somewhat concerned I caught a cold while in the confines of those stuffy airplanes filled with sneezing children and adults who don’t cover their mouths.

What I picture on every flight…

How’s that for the start of my first post in wayyyy too long!?!?

I’ve been busy trying to find animals like Biscuit a home. Biscuit’s name is now Nacho and he has a forever family!

Life has been crazy in Suzhou. My writing has been put to good use in the last few months. I’ve published an article in a local magazine about the animal shelter where I volunteer, and have published several food reviews as well. Unfortunately, that hasn’t meant much time for blogging. But here I am, committed to posting daily throughout this new adventure.

Page 1 of my article

Finally, I get a break. Now, some of you may be wondering why we didn’t go back to Canada for Christmas. Although we would have loved to, it’s a very expensive trip and we would have only had about 10 days there. We can also really only afford to go home once per year, and I don’t want that to to be only a week and a half long. So…we decided to head on over to Vietnam for some much needed beach time!!

Spring Rolls also played a part in our decision

We chose Vietnam for a few reasons. It is a very cost affective country for one, and we adore the food here for another. We’ve been all over South East Asia at this point, but we never made it to Danang or Ho’ian, so it was a perfect choice for our Christmas trip.

The hearts are some of the cities we’ve already visited in South East Asia. The stars are the cities we are visiting this time around.

Vietnam is just as we left it 3 years ago: beautiful, warm and delicious! Our first meal didn’t disappoint and an order mix up allowed us to try a dish we’d never had before: Hoa Chuoi Tron Tom Thit. It was a delicious stirfry of light veggies and meat with fish oil and a hint of banana. Absolutely amazing!

We were a little annoyed that they charged us for this dish when we hadn’t ordered it, but in fairness… It was delish!

My handsome hubby with the streets of Danang as his backdrop

Tomorrow, the real adventure starts! Check back soon!!

Volunteering in China

We’ve been back from Europe now for over 2 months. We’ve been keeping busy, as always, but the last few months have seen some new activities and events added to our lives.

Warning: this post has a lot of cute animals in it! Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev.

I had a weird little lightbulb moment near the beginning of March, when I realized I might be able to combine 2 very important aspects of my life to create something good.

That’s how my weightloss challenge was born.

I pitched the idea to a few friends who quickly jumped on board. I expected maybe 20 people to get involved

In the end, we had 136 contestants in about 15 different cities

Businesses started contacting me as well to sponsor the event. I was able to collect nearly 400 prizes ranging from vouchers to wine to free meals!!

The idea was simple. Contestants paid 100rmb ($20 Canadian) to enter the challenge. I would spend two months leading a positive and encouraging group. We’d donate any money raised to a couple of animal shelters.

The idea quickly grew with the addition of all the extra prizes. I realized I could motivate people throughout the month by setting up mini challenges to keep contestants active.

Of course, all of this ended up being a whole lot of work for me. Every day, I get between 25 and 50 challenges to enter into my giant Excel sheet. On Tuesdays, contestants weigh in, so we can stay accountable to our goals, and then on Wednesdays, I draw names for mini prizes based on whatever goals I set for the week.

Some of my own challenge logs. I participated too!!

I’ve been excelling in the steps challenge. I find going to the gym to be much harder to fit into my schedule, but I’ve been trying to walk everywhere

When I am at the gym, I’ve been obsessed with the stair machine. It’s difficult and I’ve been getting stronger and stronger as I climb flight after flight

We also held a “Dogathon” to raise money forvthe shelters. There were 2 main cities involved in the Charity Challenge, so contestants in each city planned a giant walk for dogs and their owners. Similar to the Charity challenge itself, participants paid a small fee to join in, and all proceeds went to the animals.

Glory Goh, a teacher here in Suzhou, did most of the planning for the dogathon. She did an incredible job.

I got several of my students to come down and help with raffles and games

We had more than 100 people join in and we’ll definitely be doing it again next year!!

Some of the dogs who joined in. Sheila, the sheep dog, is one of my favorite dogs in Suzhou! She was adopted by Glory; the main planner of the dogathon

With the success of the challenge and the dogathon, I decided to take things one step further, and to begin organizing volunteer trips to the SAPA shelter, which is home to more than 1000 dogs and cats.

The flyer I made to get people involved in the trip. In total we had 16 people come with us that day, including 4 students.

The trip was incredible. The SAPA is a noisy, smelly and magical place. The animals there are quite well cared for and mostly very friendly. You get the feeling while you’re there, that you are the best thing that has happened to those dogs all week. And that’s a nice feeling.

The cats were quite pleased too!

We had a very talented photographer join us on that first trip, and he did such an incredible job of capturing the beauty and sadness of that shelter.

This beautiful mastiff easily weighs 40kgs (80+ pounds). She’s enormous and will never find a home in China because she’s an illegal breed. Her home will be the shelter until someone can adopt her from abroad. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev.

Most of the dogs are mixed breeds. They are mostly friendly but some are quite shy. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev.

1000 dogs is not something I can really explain. It’s something you have to see, hear and smell to properly understand. Photo Courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev

Most of the dogs are in large cages with 20 or so other dogs. Some of them are kept separate though, due to surgeries or aggression. Some dogs were badly abused or used for fighting. Those dogs crush my heart with sadness. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev

There are very few puppies at the shelter, surprisingly enough. They’re clearly doing something right. My guess is that they have a vet doing spaying a neutering. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev

Everyone there left a part of their hearts behind. There were 2 animals that really stood out to me. One was a small male dog with a scar around his snout. He likely had his mouth wired shut by an abuser. He is the sweetest little dog but SO afraid of people. It took me 20 minutes of sitting there with him before he finally had the bravery to come over to me. He melted into my lap as soon as I touched him. It was like he had been waiting forever for a bit of affection.

Some dogs never really come around. They just stare at you sadly while you clean their cage. I make sure to talk to them nicely while I mop, but they run away as soon as I get too close

I dubbed my little black sweetheart “Wiggle Bum” because of the way he wiggled back and forth for 20 minutes trying to decide whether or not to come see me. You can see him in the video below. It’s not the best video, but it gives you an idea of what the shelter is like. He was also much less scared when I was there the second time. I wonder if he remembered me and remembered that I was kind to him.

The other animal that I really fell for was a beautiful, blind ginger cat. He was SO affectionate and so darn sweet. My friend Kim spent most of her time at SAPA cuddled up with him. I made sure to get lots of pictures of him and later that night, I made a flyer to try and find him an adopter, or at least to raise funds to get him healthy.

I called him Oliver, after Oliver & Company (the Disney movie)

No one was able to foster him, but a lot of people donated, so Dave and I had him moved from the shelter to our vet, where he was quarantined for a week and treated for mites, fleas, ear fungus, a sinus infection and a few other little problems.

Oliver at the vet. He looked pretty happy to be on vacation from the noisy shelter

Now, he’s staying with us and learning how to be a good house cat. He’s sweet as ever and becoming so incredibly confident!

We found out later than he was born at SAPA. His mother arrived there very malnourished and pregnant. She and Oliver’s brother both died within a year at SAPA. Oliver survived for 2.5 years!!

One of his eyes had to be removed a while back. His remaining eye doesn’t have an outer eyelid. He will need ointment for the rest of his life but is mostly fine

I spend a lot of time with him … Just watching him navigate around. He’s such an adventurous little spirit and he never seems to run out of affection to give. He’s absolutely wonderful

Since my first trip to the shelter, I’ve organized a group that people can join if they want to volunteer but don’t really know what to do or where to go. I organize buses to and from the SAPA and bring up to 25 people at a time. I’m going tomorrow again and I can’t wait!!

The group of volunteers that came down to SAPA with me on Thursday this week. It’s a holiday here in Suzhou, so I decided to make good use of the time!

Next week, the Charity challenge ends. In total, we’ve raised more than 40,000rmb ($8000 Canadian) and lost more than 225kgs (about 500 pounds) in weight!!! I’d call that a success!!!!

The challenge is nearly over, but the mission will continue!!!

If you’re reading this and wondering how you can help, drop me a line in the comments section!

Evgeny Bakhchev, our talented photographer, also put together a beautiful video about our visit, with the help of his lovely wife, Daria. Enjoy!!

Day 16: Graffiti

As I mentioned in another post, we saw graffiti all over Spain, Andorra and France. On our way down to La Rambla last night (a popular tourist area in Barcelona), I decided to get some pictures.

Some are of it’s good… Some of it is ….. Well….

Some of the graffiti we saw was a collection of work from various “artists”

The colours really pop on the black door…

We noticed that a lot of the graffiti we were seeing was painted onto metal doors, not on the actual buildings.

I’m not sure of the reasons…

Some of what we saw could very well have been commissioned by known Street artists, from the look of it.

A lot of the best artwork is done on shop gates. When the stores close for the day, suddenly, there’s art!

This one was massive and stretched the entire length of a wall

We saw a few Vans like this. The art was obviously commissioned.

Once I made a point of photographing the graffiti I saw, I took more notice of the different styles and locations of the graffiti and even started to appreciate it.

Or, at the very least, I began to recognize the difference between street art and vandalism

There was graffiti on every pillar going down the boardwalk. Hundreds of scribbles.

So, through all this, I started to actually appreciate and learn about grafitti. When we walked to the post office this morning, before leaving Barcelona, we saw some of the best work yet.

This piece is a point of interest in Pokemon Go. The grafitti looked newer in the game, so I’m guessing this piece is a few years old now

Still….I’m left conflicted when I see things like this:

A mixture of “old/traditional” art with “new/abstract” art???

We’re in Poland now, and I’m officially caught up with blogging! I wonder what day 17 will bring!!!

Day 13: Yellow Vests

Yesterday started out as a bummer of a day. We had missed our tour to the vineyards, and we didn’t really have anything else planned, so we headed to an aquarium instead.

I missed out on wine…. But I got to see Penguins!

Just outside the aquarium, there is a huge shopping complex, so Dave and I head in to find some laundry soap and other supplies we needed. Just before we got to the grocery store, I spotted some sweaters I liked, so I sent Dave in to get the groceries and I popped into the shop.

Once more, Geant Casino to the rescue!

It turned out the clothes were all very overpriced, so I went to join Dave. That’s when they started shutting the gates. I was trapped in the mall, and Dave was trapped in a store…. In a country where he doesn’t speak the language.

I was in the hallway between the big grocery store and the rest of the mall. Dave was on the other side of those gates

At first, I figured a child might be missing, but when I asked, I was told that the Gilets Jaunes protesters were going to be coming through. We were all being asked to get out of the store through a back door.

Gilets Jaunes or Yellow Vests

The protests have been going on for months. You can read more about it here, but the short version is that people in France are angry with their government for quite a few reasons. Mostly, the government has been lowering taxes for the rich, and bringing them up for the poor. A recipe for discontent.

Taxes on gas are what ‘fueled’ the protests.

It turned out the protestors organized a march in Montpellier on the very day we were in the city. Dave and I found ourselves separated and without any mode of communication (our Spanish sims didn’t work in France).

Then hundreds of these guys started pouring into the square….

I explained to the staff at Geant that my anglophone husband was in the store, so they let me stay there and wait for him to come out. People were allowed leaving the store … Just not allowed going in.

They weren’t armed, but they looked determined…

It turns out Dave didn’t even know anything happening because all the announcements had been in French. He came up to the cash registers to pay, laundry detergent and a bag of ice in hand, with no idea that I’d been waiting anxiously for him for 10 minutes while protesters marched by!

Seen here: Me, in a rare moment of non-worry. Dave: In an average moment.

Things luckily didn’t escalate at this particular protest, but many others have ended in riots. At the shopping center, a few people set off some fireworks, which definitely scared me, but were completely harmless. In other areas of the countries, fires were set, businesses were vandalized and tear gas was unleashed on rioters. It’s no wonder the mall closed up and everyone moved behind the safety of gates.

The police showed up just as we got to the car.

So that was our experience with the Gilets Jaunes. Long story short: basically nothing happened, but I worried anyway. In fairness, this could have escalated in a big way. You can watch a compilation of a protest that did not end so peacefully in Montpellier just 2 weeks ago here.

The square where the worst of that protest happened. We now understand all the broken windows and closed off ATMs that we saw while we searched for an open bank earlier that morning