Monday, February 24, 2014

"You want us to watch the children WHERE???" (Part II)

[Editorial note from Mary: When you last joined us for Malaysian Adventure Blog Part I, Dan and Kathy just returned from Cambodia to Malaysia on Wednesday afternoon and soon began preparing for Friday's trip to Phuket, Thailand...]

Dan, Guest Blogger: By preparing I really mean - "Another day, another mall." This particular one, Mid Valley Mega Mall, was the largest mall we visited during our stay and quite possibly the largest I've ever been to - period! As an aside I have to say that the Malaysian mall has taken the concept of the "food court" to a new level. They are everywhere! Every mall has food courts - on various levels, inside and out. They seem to sprout like weeds from the bowels of the lowest parking levels up to the highest floors of the mall. If a food court isn't your pleasure, you can choose from the myriad of restaurants interspersed among the stores and shops. To shop or to eat? That is the question.

The triple jump - Violet landed off the end
of the mat and had to re-jump to get a measurement.
Friday morning was a fun day for Violet and her Year 3 Garden International School classmates as her grade was having their annual Field Day. The children competed against boys/girls standard times/distances in six events. Violet's results: 60 meter dash (silver medal, missed the gold by one hundredth of a second), long jump (gold medal), 200 meter run (silver medal, pretty sure no golds awarded to girls), triple jump (gold medal), baseball throw - my favorite (gold medal), basketball throw (surprised with a gold medal). Violet was a super-star to say the least! On Friday afternoon, Mary picked up Violet and Tyler from school, hurried home and we all hopped into a taxi (spelled teksi) and headed for the airport. Since Brian works closer to the airport, he met us there. We boarded  a brand new Malaysian Airlines 737 for the short flight (65 minutes) to Phuket. Before we landed, I was treated to a chicken/rice dinner, two -- yes two -- glasses of white wine, and a diet Pepsi - all complimentary in ECONOMY class and all while watching our personal AV systems! Are you listening Delta, American, United????

Brian and I used an airport ATM machine to get some Thai currency (Baht) before we all took a short taxi ride to our hotel. Kathy and I had reserved a two bedroom villa at the Marriott Beach Club for the whole family. It was magnificent! The concierge gave us a tour of the room. It had a full kitchen, two large bedrooms and a living room area. When she opened the sliding doors of the master bedroom and revealed a private pool, Violet and Tyler gaped, immediately stripped and jumped in. (In this picture, Tyler still has on his school uniform, but just a few minutes later he found a new love -- skinny dipping!) Brian and I went to a section of the property called Turtle Village to buy some "essentials" to stock the refrigerator. We then all had a late dinner at an English pub on site. Unfortunately it was a Buddhist holiday and no alcoholic beverages were served (so we had to break into our stock of "essentials" upon arriving back at the room). The next morning we took advantage of the free breakfast included in the price of the room. The restaurant offered a buffet containing one of the largest assortments of breakfast items I've ever seen. [Editorial note from Mary: Including my favorite, a noodle soup bar. Yummm.]  

After breakfast, we walked a short distance to the beach and swam in the beautiful turquoises waters of the Andaman Sea. While waiting for our late lunch, Tyler and Violet went to the slide pool. A short while later, they returned holding hands. But something was wrong! Violet was crying and holding her chin. She had slipped on the slide, fallen, and split open her chin. Brian and the medical staff at the hotel agreed that she needed stitches. After a brief visit to Bangkok-Phuket Hospital, Violet returned, patched up and in great spirits. On Sunday, in an effort to keep Violet's stitches dry, Brian and Violet borrowed bikes from the resort and had a blast checking out the local area via bike. [Editorial note from Mary: Violet has never been able to bike ride. So this was a really big deal -- and has the makings of a pretty cool story. "Yeah, I learned to ride a bike in Phuket, an island in tropical Thailand."] We found plenty to keep us busy all Sunday. Monday, we had a 6:00 PM flight back to Malaysia, so we had breakfast, packed and headed for the pool. Brian and Mary convinced me and Kathy to join them on a bike ride to get lunch by the beach. We found a great little outdoor seafood restaurant where we selected our lunch from a live tank out front on the street. All of our choices were grilled to perfection. Even Kathy's chicken and fried rice was quite good. 

Ty loved the jump seat on the back on Mary's bike!


Our mini vacation in Phuket, Thailand was extremely relaxing. The weather was great and the Marriott was so accommodating. Kathy and I agreed that the beach here is now our third favorite after Aruba and St. Maarten. [Editorial note from Mary: Now this has totally become an international beach throw down challenge. I really wish we could have taken them to Pulau Redang but the whole monsoon season thing got in the way.] Once again, Malaysian Airlines - short flight - dinner, two glasses of wine - complimentary - amazing!! 
[Editorial note from Mary: Dan and I went out to get durain for Dan to try. After carrying
home two D24s, Brian's favorite type of durian, on his lap, Dan was so repulsed by
the smell he couldn't bring himself to try them. Zack, Brian, and I happily polished off his helping!]
Back in Malaysia - one week remaining!  Kathy promised Brian that she would prepare his favorite Italian foods before we went back home. We had already purchased frozen meat for meatballs (from our trip to Lucky Frozen Meats), stored the cans of tomatoes for the sauce (gravy for true Italians) and located and purchased the required cheeses for the lasagna beforehand. We made the sauce, meatballs and lasagna on Tuesday. On Wednesday we went to a traditional wet market and purchased the chicken breasts for the chicken cutlet parmigiana. The butcher hacked and pounded the chicken just the way we wanted. Brian and Mary's friends came through in a big way by allowing us to use their ovens and pots to put everything together. Mary reserved the common area of her complex along with tables and chairs to accommodate everyone. Friends brought delightful salads, bread, wine, tasty cocktails, and assorted goodies to round out the feast. I must say that Kathy's cooking and menu choices would translate well into any culture (my mom taught her well)! [Editorial note from Mary: The entire evening was sensational! I feel a bit bad that Dan and Kathy cooked for their own going away party. But not that bad because the food was sooooo amazing. THANK YOU!) 

Book week: Violet, not really sad, just in character
as Ping from The Empty Pot. Tyler, as the Man with
the Yellow Hat, won his class award for best costume!  
Our remaining few days were spent shopping for souvenirs, swimming, getting the kids ready for 'dress like your favorite book character day' and, of course, going to various eating venues. [Editorial note by Mary: Yep. Dan has figured out that Malaysia is really all about AMAZING FOOD!] The "Hawker Stalls" became my favorite, offering food choices from every culture represented in Malaysia, prepared in front of you and at very reasonable prices. 
Final KL dinner (for this visit). Tyler is DJing
and singing Dust in the Wind to us.

Kathy and I were, after a month's visit, ready to return to New York but not ready to once again miss Brian, Mary, Violet and Tyler. Skyping and messaging are great but not as good as "up close and personal". Hugs and kisses don't feel as well on a screen thousands of miles away but I guess they'll do until our next visit. And I'm sure there will be a next visit! Before we leave, Kathy and I want to thank Brian and Mary's friends and colleagues for welcoming us into their homes and sharing unforgettable memories with us. Our trip has shown us that this is indeed a small world, and who knows, we may cross paths with some of these wonderful people again. Finally a farewell to our family in Malaysia - Brian, Mary, Violet and Tyler. We love you guys and will miss you dearly. These past four weeks have been unbelievably fantastic. 

We leave you now with this promise - WE'LL BE BACK!!!!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"You want us to watch the children WHERE???"

[Editorial note from Mary: A huge THANK YOU to our guest blogger, Daniel "Grandpa" R. Garibaldi. We are thrilled to have you here with us in Malaysia.]

When Brian, Mary, Violet and Tyler left for Malaysia in mid July, Kathy and I had mixed feelings. We were excited for them because they were embarking on a life's journey that few other families would ever get to experience. But, of course, we were sad because we would now be separated from an important part of our lives by a few continents and thousands of miles. Brian suggested, half in jest I thought, that we could come and visit them in Malaysia whenever we chose. At the time, Kathy and I had been to many places in the states, including Hawaii and several islands in the Caribbean. We had never once considered traveling to Southeast Asia. Knowing that part of our family would be gone for two years and missing them so much already, we went on-line and made plane reservations for the end of January. Since we wanted to visit other places in that part of the world, we also booked a family vacation for all of us in Phuket, Thailand. Brian and Mary, meanwhile, as a Christmas present, booked us a side trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia, the sight of many historic temple ruins. More on that later. Two days before leaving New York for Malaysia there was a major snow storm. The following day, all major airports cancelled hundreds of flights. The dreaded "uh oh" feeling set in fast. But things got better very quickly and we took off for Malaysia without delay. I won't attempt to bore you with details of the flight. Suffice to say, it was LONG but we got to Hong Kong first, then Kuala Lumpur on time and in great spirits arriving to 80+ degree weather.

Dan and Kathy riding a tuk tuk. [Editorial note from Mary: !!!!]
Passing through immigration and customs in Malaysia was quick and painless. Brian, wearing a bright red shirt (as promised) and holding a "Garibaldi" placard, met us at the airport. In about 45 minutes we were at Brian and Mary's apartment. The first person we saw when exiting the elevator was our beautiful Violet. She ran to us, arms outstretched and jumped into Grandma's arms. I didn't feel neglected for long as she soon was jumping into my arms as well. Next we hugged and kissed Mary and walked to the apartment. There on the door was the cutest Violet/Tyler-made sign that read "Welcome to Malaysia, Grandma and Grandpa." After drying my eyes a bit, I asked for Tyler. It turns out he waited up as long as he could before passing out. Violet woke him up and he ran into his grandma's arms. When I gave him that "what about me?" look, he remembered our private little joke and said, "You're chopped meat!" After a good night's sleep, Grandma and Grandpa were ready to soak up the culture. [Editorial note from Mary: No jet lag at all.]

Kathy enriches Garden International School's 1S class as part of
their current integrated curriculum topic --Toys and Game
Malaysia, meaning Kuala Lumpur, was nothing like Kathy and I had imagined. Growing into adulthood in the sixties, Southeast Asia, to me, was synonymous with the war in Vietnam. But this city is huge, beautiful and so international - just like New York, including the traffic. So many cars!! And the malls - mall after mall, each one bigger than the next. What about the food, you ask? You can eat something different every day, from every culture imaginable, again just like New York! Thankfully, for Kathy, it seems that every restaurant in Kuala Lumpur serves chicken and rice!

The first few days were spent exploring the city, mostly malls and food courts. [Editorial note from Mary: We wanted to ease them in...] Tyler's teacher had invited the children's families to discuss games from the past. Great timing with out visit. Kathy went to Garden International School and taught "The Farmer in the Dell" to Tyler's class. You know what they say, "Once a teacher......" One night we had dinner at an outdoor restaurant named "Lillian's." The food choices were eclectic to say the least. My personal favorites were the sting ray and the "chicken" fish. 

Welcoming in the Chinese Year of the Horse with the God of Good Fortune

The new 7 seater car with Henry
After a few quick days of acclimation to KL, Brian and Mary then went on an adult only diving expedition to the Philippines for a few days. Kathy and I more than welcomed the chance to spend quality time with Violet and Tyler. Since the children had an extended vacation in honor of Chinese New Year, Mary planned an extensive itinerary for the four of us. Since I knew nothing about getting around by car in Kuala Lumpur and wasn't used to driving on the left side of the road, Brian and Mary arranged a driver for their car to take the four of us around the city and surrounding areas. Henry, our driver, was wonderful. He regaled us with local history and culture while carefully transporting us to our various destinations. Violet, Tyler, Kathy and I visited the Bird Park, the Elephant Sanctuary, the Petronas Twin Towers, the Discovery Center, the Aquarium and the Science Center. Our last stop was Kidzania, a virtual city, where children role play every aspect of city life - firefighters, policeman, bankers, postal workers, doctors, pilots, etc., etc., etc. What a brilliant concept! I'm surprised this idea has yet to reach the U.S.


Violet played newscaster and
Tyler worked the camera!


A few days after Brian and Mary returned from the Philippines, Kathy and I were off to Siem Reap, Cambodia. After a quick two hour flight, we were met at the airport by a car from our hotel. We checked in at 9:00 AM and our private bungalow was ready by 9:30. We had pre-booked a tour guide to show us around the city and surrounding areas, the main focus, of course, being the temple ruins. ChanSarak, our guide, met us at the hotel at 11:00 AM. He had prepared an itinerary for us to encompass our three-day stay in the area. We first took a boat ride on a large lake and viewed floating villages inhabited mostly by Vietnamese immigrants. What a difficult way of living! We even saw children in a floating schoolhouse that was in session. Remarkable! We ended the first day of touring visiting various locations in the city. The city was easy to navigate since Cambodia accepts U.S. currency everywhere. FYI - if you are planning a Siem Reap trip, skip the crocodile farm! It's hot, vile-smelling and very crocodile "UNfriendly." 


Our visits to the various temple ruins were breathtaking beyond description. Our particular favorites were the massive structure of Angkor Wat at sunrise, Angkor Thom and, Kathy's favorite, Banteay Srey, the "citadel of the women." Reading about them does not do justice to actually seeing them up close. The workmanship and labor involved in their construction is mind boggling to say the least. Each temple had its own history and uniqueness and our guide, Sarak, explained everything in minute detail. 

We decided to spend our final day in Siem Riep exploring the city on our own. After a sumptuous breakfast (included in the price of our bungalow), the hotel arranged for a "tuk tuk" (free of charge) to take us into town and remain with us for the duration. What is a tuk tuk, you ask? It is simply a type of rickshaw attached to a motor bike, the latter being the preferred mode of transportation in Cambodia. See our tuk tuk riding picture above. We returned to the hotel in the afternoon, relaxing by the pool with a few cocktails. Later that evening, we had reservations to a restaurant and show consisting of traditional Cambodian dances. The people we met during our visit here were very accommodating and extremely friendly. The hotel staff, in particular, went out of their way to ensure a pleasant stay for Kathy and me. I, myself, loved the swim up bar. [Editorial note from Mary: NY style tipping goes a long way in Southeast Asia.] My new favorite beverage is called a "Sojourn Sunset" named after the hotel - rum, tequila, triple sec, mango, et al!

We returned to Malaysia on Wednesday afternoon and soon began preparing for Friday's trip to Phuket, Thailand. [Editorial note from Mary: Stay turned for Grandpa Garibaldi's Malaysian Adventure Blog Part II.]

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Scuba and seafood in El Nido

Happy (Chinese/Lunar) New Year to everyone! To start the (Chinese/Lunar) New Year out in style, we left the kids in KL with Grandpa Dan and Grandpa Kathy (more on their adventures in another post) and went to El Nido, Philippines for a week of scuba and seafood! We were joined on this adventure by Toby, a PUGSOM faculty member from Seattle living near us in KL, and Alex, big bro of Toby visiting from the States.

The Philippines is a country made up of an archipelago of over 7,000 islands. Many of the islands are known for their countless white sand, palm fringed beaches and mountains of smoldering volcanoes. (Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't point to Brian's post on typhoon relief work in Ormoc and Nicole's Operation Smile work in Mindanao for other facets of Philippines life.) On the east side of the Philippines, bordered by the South China Sea, is the island of Palawan, known as the "last frontier" of the Philippines. El Nido (which is Spanish for "The Nido"), located on the northern tip of Palawan, is a small town with a unique combination of backpacker hostels on the beach and 5 star private island resorts. (The island resorts are a 5 to 40 minute boat ride from El Nido town.)

In recent years, a midlevel (i.e., affordable) new type of boutique hotel has sprung up on some of the beaches on the outskirts of the town. We stayed at an amazing little place, Cadlao Resort, about a 10 minute country lane walk from the town. After the overnight flight and a mad rush to change terminals in Manila, we arrived in El Nido mid-morning. Our first day, after checking into our hotel, we walked along the beach until we found a guy willing to hire us a small boat to island hop. We took our snorkel gear and went to 2 little islands and a lagoon. We spent hours snorkeling and then recouped from the overnight flight by falling asleep on a deserted beach in a lagoon of turquoise water. (By the way, major kudos to Alex for arriving from the US in KL around noon, hitting Mont Kiara by 2 pm, and then getting in a taxi back to the airport that night at 10 pm for the red eye to Manila!) When we returned to the main island we hopped a tricycle, the predominate form of transit in town--it's a motor bike with a passenger side car, to a remote beach to watch the sunset. I have not seen a sunset like that since our honeymoon in Costa Rica 10 years ago (for those who don't like mushy pictures, you may want to skip

The first day was great but our entire trip had been planned around day 2's main activity - SCUBA diving. All the dives during our stay were excellent. But by far our favorite dive was the night dive, so we will tell you all about that one. We had not been on a night dive since we were certified in Honduras 11 years ago. Mary was pretty tired and cold at the end of our diving day but decided to give the night dive a shot because our divemaster said we had a 99% chance of seeing multiple seahorses! When we got back to the dive shop to get ready for the dive, that prediction had dropped to 70% but we were already signed up to go. By the time we were on the boat it had dropped further to a strong "probably" but Mary was already back in her (still wet) wetsuit and there was no turning back. Without time to grab dinner, a little triple decker of white bread with mayonnaise provided by the divemaster boosted her spirits even further. Brian might reluctantly admit that he is not a super big fan of being submerged in absolute darkness but we were joined by a Finnish diver who looked like Thor so we figured we were probably safe. The dive was in a word - amazing.

Upon decent, Brian thinks he saw a giant sea turtle. At first he was really excited and tried tapping on his tank with his flashlight to get everyone's attention. No one turned around because he couldn't generate enough of a sound wave with the plastic handle. It was then that the potential downsides of night diving crept into his thoughts. What if that wasn't a sea turtle? Or worse yet, what if it was a sea turtle? An evil, hungry, man eating sea turtle?!?!  It would be minutes before anyone would notice that he was missing. Where was Thor? Would Thor's lightning even work underwater? Wouldn't we all just get electrocuted if he tried to use it to save Brian? The situation was getting out of hand fast! (Editorial note: As frequent readers of our blog surmised, Brian wrote that paragraph. During this episode, Mary was trying to equalize and descend with proper orientation to the reef. No concerns here about man eating sea turtles or Mjolnir. But our dive buddy really was Thor.)

Once Brian strategically placed himself with the reef on his left, and Mary on his right (towards the open ocean, and the turtle) he was able to continue his search for seahorses with only a few looks over his right shoulder. Our divemaster found at least 8 seahorses! The way they glide through the water is mesmerizing. We could have watched them all night. We also saw a large barracuda, a big jellyfish, and tons of cool coral and sea urchins. We also saw the coolest crab that was shaped like a piece of coral. Mary kept pointing at it but Brian couldn't figure out what she was so excited about. Great, another piece of coral. While he was distracted by the coral the turtle monster was probably getting closer and closer. And then the coral stood up and walked a few feet. Our dive master found one and gently flipped it over. It was incredible. Really made Brian wonder if that next big piece of cool looking coral might be a hungry, man-eating coral-crab monster!

On one of the days of our trip, we did find ourselves in a minor tropical storm. Fortunately (?), the storm hit about 9 am, which meant Mary, Brian, and Toby were already an hour into a two hour cliff hike when the rain came in. To turn around or go on in the rain? Either way, we would be soaked, so up we went. The hike/climb was excellent and we met a super cool Russian trio. Unfortunately, with the pouring rain, we missed out on what was said to be an incredible view of the region. But we got a great (?) pic of Brian and Toby against the grey sky. Unfortunately, the storm grounded all flights and Nicole ended up not being able to join us on day three as planned. :o(

We did find a time (and a place) to watch the not-so-super-Bowl. El Nido's higher end Art Cafe somehow pirated a Korean satellite signal and put the game on at 7:30 in the morning. It's been a long time since we started drinking that early. (Grandpa Bulldog, the Bloody Mary was terrible - we miss you and Laura and the muddler. We switched to beer around 8 am.) Kudos to Toby (from Seattle) and Joey Galloway who I had forgotten was a Seattle receiver back in the day. We were surprised at the number of Americans in El Nido. Of course, during the game we got to know everyone in the bar drinking shots for each touchdown at 8 am. Turns out most expats living in China and Hong Kong head out of the country for CNY and a fair number end up in the Philippines. Mary was highly disappointed that the US Superbowl commercials were replaced by random NFL highlight reels and ads for a Philippino speed skater who will be in the Sochi Olympic games.

Our last full day in El Nido was pretty cool. We decided to rent kayaks from our hotel and explore the surrounding islands. Toby, a pretty athletic mountaineering type, took the lead on navigation and did not disappoint. We paddled to Cadlao Island (which means smile and loosely describes the footprint of the island) and sat on a most beautiful beach to enjoy a picnic lunch. As we were finishing our picnic lunch of tuna salad and fresh mangos, we saw a dog approaching from the distance followed by a man with a machete. A more jaded traveler might have been slightly apprehensive but 1) the dog looked like Penny, and 2) you can't eat a fresh coconut without a machete and we were surrounded by fresh coconuts! Sure enough, the man--the "guardian of the island"--waved hello and offered to cut us some fresh coconuts to help us rest up for our big paddle ahead. Really, does it get any better? Delicious!

My pictures won't do it justice but the remainder of the afternoon took us through some of the most beautiful lagoons, rock formations and mangroves that we have ever seen. To top it off, Alex met us at the end of the paddle with margaritas (shaken, with salt) and fresh sashimi.

Brian doesn't want to bore you with recounting our final day where he slipped and fell on some coral while running on the beach and pretty much limped and bled his way back to Manila and then to KL.  (Yes, it was stupid to be running alone on coral, miles away from the hotel.) But it will be important to know about in humorous wheel chair photos to come...

Thanks, Toby, for taking these amazing shots!