Water Balloons and Frogs

100_5063IMG_0380When Coco and I finally arrived home we stayed at my friend’s house for the first two weeks. Her house as this huge, amazing, perfect-for-summer fun backyard crying out for kids to run around and play in. In fact all the houses on that street have amazing yards, yet no one was in them! If we lived there she would be in that yard for hours everyday, but alas we don’t.  Granted, it was about 100 degrees but that’s beside the point. Kids don’t care about that! 🙂

One day we did get out there with her boys and showed them how to fill up water balloons for a water balloon fight. They boys who are a bit older than she had fun but Coco immediately got distracted by all the insects and animals and amphibians in the yard. My friend’s house is in the suburbs next to a lake and surrounded by trees and at night you can hear all kinds of animal sounds! You hear croaking and chirping and hissing and all kinds of other things that I am totally unfamiliar with coming from two years in Manila. 🙂

While the boys were chasing each other with water balloons Coco, my in-house naturalist, was far more interested in some sounds she heard so she went to explore. So curious!100_5125100_5073 100_5071Man was she excited! Turns out there were tons of frogs–toads actually– in there and she had a ball holding them, stroking them, observing them and chasing the boys with them!100_5093 100_5096She’s fearless. I, however, wasn’t as thrilled when she put some on my lap! LOL100_5139(though I gotta admit they do look kind of cute snuggled up like that!)

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Setting Up House

Can I just tell you something? Setting up a new residence is not only time-consuming but it’s expensive! Man oh man is it time-consuming and expensive. In three weeks I have spent … I can’t even write the number it’s so high. But to give you an idea I put down a down payment down on my new (used) car and bought an iron, ironing board, blender, manual juicer, toiletries, cleaning products, etc! The list goes on..

I don’t even have time to be writing this blog post but I will do a big, juicy one soon. Oh yeah, no Internet at home yet.. that’s another hold up (and another expense). As much as I love being home I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t admit how much I miss the perks of expat life!

Chat soon!

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First Stop Los Angeles

IMG_0336Or should I say last stop since it was the last place we visited before arriving home? Sadly, I don’t have many pictures because we were extremely jet lagged and when we did have some energy the car my sister rented me didn’t have a GPS so I had no idea how to get anywhere!  That photo to the left was taken while we were in the car one day shortly after arriving. One minute she was drawing me a picture and the next minute she was out! We were sooo tired! In fact, the only proof that I have that we were even in LA is this blurry picture of Randy’s Donuts. LOL. We didn’t go there but we did eat well because my sister is a self-proclaimed foodie and she loves to prepare exotic meals and decadent desserts.IMG_0343Coco was happy to get to LA see my sister’s dog, Luna. In fact, that’s the only member of the household whose name she could remember! 🙂 Like last year they were inseparable.
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My sister had a birthday dinner for us. She and her husband had just returned from Belize and she was eager to try out some new recipes from her Belizean cookbook.  She made some delicious guacamole to start and then we feasted on chicken with coconut rice, plantain and salad. Yum!! I brought an ice cream cake for our birthday cake dessert. Coco had never had one and I thought she would like it. (And I wanted one too. I missed Baskin- Robbins! LOL) I also bought some candles that don’t blow out and Coco thought they were pretty amusing. Here are some pictures from our time together.
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Then and Now

I thought this would be fun.  Here is a picture I snapped of us before we took off when we were moving to Manila in 2011 and a picture of when we landed back in the US in 2013.IMG_0034 IMG_0331

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Tokyo

The HR department thought I was crazy.

“You want to fly from Manila to Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo to Los Angeles to Washington, DC?”
“Yep!”
“Do  you realize how long that is going to take?”
“Yes,  I do, thanks. This is the route I want.”

And it was great! We flew to KL just to change planes, spent 12 hours in Tokyo, 5 days in LA and then headed back to DC. It was perfect!

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We arrived in Tokyo around 8 o’clock in the morning. After changing some money we grabbed some food from Starbucks and headed to the train. The plan was to take the train to Asakusa and then to Ueno if we had time leftover before heading back to Narita. We went down to the basement in the airport and got the tickets for Asakusa and made our way to the platform. I even asked some men standing near me if the trains on that platform head towards Asakusa and they said yes. Problem was there were trains heading to other places. You see where this is going… The train was very nice and modern and we settled comfortably into our seats. I was sipping the most delicious latté I had ever had and enjoying looking out the window at the lush countryside when I decided to confirm with the woman sitting behind me that we were actually headed to Asakusa. In my non-existent Japanese and her minimal English she kindly told me that this was not the direct train to Asakusa but we could get out in Ueno. Problem was I had only purchased a ticket to cover the fair to Asakusa. Oops. I was hopeful it would work like it does in the States: just pay the difference when the conductor comes through and that proved to be the case. Phew!

We got out at Ueno and learned there was a big market going on in the area that morning and a large lake with ducks. Score! We could both be happy. We made our way to the market after stopping to buy an umbrella. It was pouring rain! We wandered around the market and it was fascinating but unfortunately I didn’t take any pictures because of the rain. There were crates of fishes and stores filled with sweaters and shoes. I did stop and get myself some polka dotted Wellies to keep my feet dry (couldn’t find any in Coco’s size plus she has a pair of boots in the shipment) and then I wandered into a shop with belts. The man who worked there cracked me up! He had on jeans and a thick leather belt studded with silver and cowboy boots and was playing country music. In Japan! I thought that was interesting! I looooved the belts! I have been looking for a thick brown leather belt for years– seriously, like for the past 5 years and have been unsuccessful. All the belts I ever see are thin or cheap or have a flimsy buckle but these were amazing. I tried on several and settled on one that I absolutely loved and it was only $12! I was so thrilled. The man even gave me a discount bringing it down to $11 (or was it $10? — can’t recall because to me $12 was an excellent deal). I left the store so happy until a few hours later when I realized I had made a classic mistake. I converted wrong! My cheap $12 belt was really an expensive $120 belt! I am not kidding. Oh well, I love it so (I guess) that’s all that matters. 🙂

IMG_0318We tried to find the ducks but it was pouring and I was anxious to get to Asakusa where we were told it was quaint and had pagodas and other uniquely Japanese things. Coco was really sad but we did give it a try. We heard the ducks quacking loudly but we couldn’t see any! I promised her I would take her to the zoo in the States to make it up to her and she reluctantly went back to the train station with me. We arrived 45 minutes earlier than the train departure time so we passed the time looking at some jewelry in the station and then got on the train to Asakusa.

Asakusa was such a cute city but it was still pouring so we looked around for somewhere to go to get some lunch. We stumbled upon an amazing sushi restaurant with the freshest, most delicious sushi I have ever tasted! I ordered a bunch. They had 5 kinds of tuna so I ordered some of each and Coco had some clam soup.

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When I paid the bill they handed her a lollipop. Look at it. How cute is that? Can you see what it is? IMG_0285
Yup! Sushi! How cute is that? After lunch we walked around and checked out the shops.  It was still pouring!IMG_0288
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IMG_0299 I bought a few souvenirs (I always buy a magnet whenever I am on vacation) and I told Coco  she could buy one thing. I think it’s so hard when you travel with kids and they are constantly asking for things. Coco does this when we travel and I realized the best way to handle this is to tell her she can have one thing (within a certain price range). When she’s older she can get a set sum to spend as she wishes but right now she has no concept of money so I settled on telling her she could buy one thing. She had her heart set on this paper horn thing which I knew was a bad choice because it was pouring rain. I knew it would fall apart but since I had already set the rule (You can buy one thing but let’s look around and see what there is before you buy this) there was no turning back. I tried in vain to get her to show some interest in a snow globe or a Vietnamese doll or something that would last but no, she wanted that horn so we went back and got it. She was so over the moon about that horn. And, yes, it fell apart the next day. Eh, what can you do?

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IMG_0322We were heading back to the train station when I realized I needed money from the ATM in order to purchase the tickets (they use machines). It was a challenge to communicate my needs to the folks there, many of whom don’t speak English but I was able to find some banking machines. Problem was they only took Cirrus cards and my ATM isn’t part of the Cirrus network. Tried another ATM and another. Things weren’t looking good and I started to get nervous. I had already been dragging Coco through the rain for twenty minutes and I was getting nervous. What would we do if I didn’t have enough money to get back to the airport? If we didn’t get back in time we would miss our flight home and then what? My mind starting creating all kinds of scenarios. Luckily, the fourth ATM machine I found worked like a charm and I was able to withdraw money and run through the rain to get to the train in time. Talk about stress!

I enjoyed getting to see a tiny slice of Japan. We spent the next couple of hours in Malaysia Airlines business class lounge and then boarded our flight to Los Angeles. All in all I think I saw a decent amount of Asia while living overseas. Here’s the final tally: the Philippines (Manila, Cebu, Bohol, Puerta Galera, Anilau, Boracay); Phuket, Thailand; Singapore, Singapore; Siem Reap, Cambodia; Tokyo, Japan; Vietnam (Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoi An and Saigon). Is that it? I think so. Not bad for two years. It’s been a good experience. Now home!

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Good-Bye Manila

Two years ago I packed up my house and my child and moved 8,000 miles away to Manila, Philippines. I had wanted to live abroad again as an adult but this move was also prompted for financial reasons. It was a difficult decision and challenged me in so many ways but I don’t regret it. I paid off all my consumer debt, made some great friends, grew personally and professionally and traveled all over Asia.

Because of this I thought I might be sad to go. But I gotta be honest, I wasn’t sad at all. Okay, I did shed a few tears saying good-bye to friends but Manila is a difficult place to live and for me two years was more than enough.

When we returned from Vietnam we stayed for two days at a friend’s house (her family was out of town) and did another mini birthday celebration for me. My friend V took us out to dinner at this hole in the wall restaurant with great food. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Ethiopian food on the menu. Injera?! On the day before I am to leave the country I find a restaurant that sells injera and doro wat? What?! Coco wanted some injera so I ordered some but I breathed a sigh of relief that it tasted nothing like injera. That would have been most unfortunate to find that on the last day. Lol  IMG_0255   IMG_0258

IMG_0260After dinner we had some cake and they sang Happy Birthday to me. It was sweet and simple and I appreciated it but trust, Coco and I both are going to have more birthday celebrations this summer. 🙂

I did some last shopping for souvenirs walking around in a daze thinking how my time in Manila was coming to an end.

It was time to return home. The next day I packed up the suitcases and we headed to the airport. I took a few last photos from the taxi. Coco stared out the window.IMG_0267IMG_0276 IMG_0273We arrived at the airport, took out our five suitcases and headed to Malaysia Airlines.IMG_0282 I don’t like to fly but I was happy that my job was flying us home business class. As the plane took off down the runway a giant smile spread across my face and I thought, It’s been real, it’s been fun, it’s been real fun but I gotsta go. (Okay I didn’t really say that, I just thought of that now as I am typing up this post. It’s 2am, I’m sleep deprived.)

Good-bye, Philippines. I’ll miss the 7,107 gorgeous islands of your archipelago; your beauty sustained me. Manila? Um, well, you just keep doing you. You are certainly unique.

Next stop: Tokyo!

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My Birthday in the Mekong Delta

Well this was certainly an unusual and fascinating place to spend my birthday! We arrived in the Mekong Delta around 10:30 and boarded our first boat and then switched to a smaller one after about a 30 minute ride. Coco was happy to see a coconut on board and thrilled when she was told she could drink the coconut water (her favorite).IMG_0112 IMG_0132 IMG_0140
The waterway started getting narrower as we made our way through the thick “water coconut trees” enveloping us on either side. I had never heard of water coconuts before.IMG_0155
After awhile we arrived at our first stop where there were some touristy things for us to purchase (I did end up buying some shirts) and where we could relax and have some fresh fruit and listen to some live, local music. Oh, yeah, and this. #crazy!!!
IMG_0175  IMG_0173 The fruit, cut into bite-sized portions, was served with tiny bowls of salt mixed with chili pepper. There were also cups of hot tea with lots of honey and calamanci. As the Vietnamese ladies sang folk songs to the strumming of a guitar and I sampled the spicy, salty fruit, Coco danced to the music.
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After listening to the music and having a bit of fruit we continued through to see some coconut candy being made. It was for sale as well as some extremely interesting elixirs!!
IMG_0217 IMG_0200 IMG_0204 IMG_0213 IMG_0214 IMG_0215 (The first one had a dead bird and a cobra in the bottle which you are supposed to swig to help your kidneys. The second one was actually some sort of alcoholic drink, a wine maybe, with a cobra and a scorpion in the bottle too!)

The next part of the tour had us walking through some fields to a horse-drawn wagon ride which would have been pretty enjoyable if it hadn’t started pouring rain. We tried to wait it out but it didn’t let up so we put on the flimsy raincoats our guide had brought and trudged through the mud. Coco and I got soaking wet. Seriously, by the time we did the 15 minute walk and the five-minute wagon ride we were completely drenched from our waists down where the raincoats were no match for the gusts of wind. Our guide felt bad but we just laughed about it. What else could we do? We weren’t cold, just wet, and besides I chalked it up to just part of the Mekong Delta experience. We were glad to find refuge on the boat and relieved when we finally made it to the restaurant later for lunch.
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Oh joy! More coconut water! And then dark clouds and more heavy rains.
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I think we were all relieved to finally make it to the restaurant set deep in this lush environment. We found a place to clean up and made our way to the table. We were greeted with a large fried fish propped up on the table and assortment of local dishes including fried rice, spring rolls, dumplings, chicken, prawns, greens, noodles and soup. The fish is called ‘elephant ear fish’ because it can grow as large as an elephant’s ear. It was so tasty!! All three of us were famished and ate nearly everything that had been prepared for us. Truly amazing, amazing food and Coco loved it too. The guide was extremely impressed that she found it just as delicious as we did. An awesome birthday meal!!IMG_0220 IMG_0221 IMG_0232 IMG_0233 IMG_0219 IMG_0222 IMG_0223 IMG_0225 IMG_0226 IMG_0238 IMG_0231 IMG_0235 IMG_0237 IMG_0236 IMG_0239 IMG_0247 IMG_0245 IMG_0248

Not too many pictures of me at this lunch (okay, none) but I was there – hahahaha. The food was sooo good and I absolutely loved the experience. I need to learn how to cook like this! After the meal we took two boats back and eventually made it back to the hotel. We were going to go out for ice cream later but we were too cozy in our beds to manage that so we ordered some room service and called it a night. I am so glad we went and I highly recommend doing this excursion if you are ever in Saigon. The next day we flew back home to Manila but our minds were broadened and etched with amazing memories of this fascinating country. We loved visiting Vietnam. There is so much to do and see but we were able to pack in quite a bit on our six-day trip. It was the perfect choice for our last Asian adventure.

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