Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Looking Back at 2015

Pulled over on a country Texas road to snap this photo after dropping off my teen for weekend camping

2015 was a year for rediscovering the USA. I barely used my passport. The one time I whipped it out returning to Florida from our Bahamas cruise, I didn't even technically need it as a driver's license would have sufficed. Still, with a nation as vast and varied as America, we learned that you don't necessarily have to go abroad to find adventure.

I didn't plan it on purpose, but we seemed to visit the typical places on a "Where to Take Your Kids in the USA Before They Grow Up" list. Perhaps it's because we've been focusing on other parts of the world for so long, and I'm beginning to feel a sense of urgency to squeeze it all in now that my eldest child turned 16 years old.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Totally Random Photos

My father-in-law has been asking for my business cards so that he can hand them out to his friends. I didn't actually have any cards and had to get some printed. Taking inspiration from my photographer cousin whose business cards are a mini portfolio of his work, I ordered cards from MOO with an assortment of 50 different images from my blog.  That got me "flipping" through my old photos and doing a lot of reminiscing over the fun worldwide travels and slow exploration of Penang, Malaysia that I've enjoyed over the last few years.

For this post, I must give credit for the idea to Nancy over at Budget Travelers Sandbox. Her post this week for her Travel Photo Thursday linkup is to randomly open four of her Flickr travel photo albums and share the seventh photo from each album. I'm being a total copycat and doing the same with my Malaysia albums so that I don't overwhelm you with all 50 of the photos from my stack of business cards.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Christmas Ornaments from Around the World

A star from Bethlehem

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas at my house. When my kids were younger, they often had the school assignment of telling the class about a holiday tradition from their heritage. While I forget what their reports covered, I clearly remember one classmate's presentation on Tio Nadal, the pooping log or cagatió, from Catalan, Spain. At first, I thought the kid was completely making it up, but an internet search confirmed his info. The hollow log is decorated with a face, traditional Catalonian hat and a blanket. In the days leading up to Christmas, the kids give Tio Nadal food offerings like fruit and nuts which he mysteriously eats when no one is looking. According to Donquijote.org,

"On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, according to traditions of each family, the children will approach the cagatió while singing: 
'Poop log, poop turron, if you don't poop well, I'll hit you with a stick' 
There are many variations to the song depending on each family and their traditions. After each song, the kids hit the cagatió with a stick to make it poop. After their parents quickly distract the children, a small present, normally candies, turron (Spanish nougat) or wafers (called neules en Catalonia), appears underneath the blanket. Nowadays, more and more often, different presents are being incorporated into the cagatió pooping log tradition. 
The process is repeated until the log “poops” a head of garlic, an onion, an egg, or any other symbolic item that represents the end of the fun until next year."

It's so fascinating how different places celebrate the same holiday. For the record, Krampus can stay far, far away from me. My family doesn't have an Elf on a Shelf, but I kind of want Tio Nadal.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Saks Fifth Avenue's Enchanting Holiday Windows

So much of my Christmas shopping is done sitting at my computer and clicking away. What's the point in going to the store and fighting the crowds? As I strolled down New York City's Fifth Avenue during last year's holiday season, I was struck by how the store windows enchanted me, calling me to pause and take a look. Accustomed to suburban mall shops like The Gap displaying the standard photo of ridiculously photogenic people wearing the brand, these New York department stores seemed like an entirely different league to me. Clever tableaux, striking visuals and 3D projections extending up the entire height of the building transformed the windows into an artform, not just an advertisement for the store.

Saks Fifth Avenue Holiday Window Display
Snow White drawn to the apple carts and bright lights of Broadway.

Last year, Saks Fifth Avenue went back to its roots and paid homage to the Roaring Twenties, the decade the store got its start, and to the city where it all began. Fairy tales were given an Art Deco in the Big Apple twist. I'm not sure if anything in the windows were actually sold inside the store, but the images were enough to keep me from walking blithely past without a glance. That must certainly be the first step in attracting customers.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Castle in Central Park

New York's iconic Central Park. For some people, it's an oasis of verdant open space in the midst of a concrete jungle. For others, it's a cesspool rife with muggings, rapes and murders. When I first visited New York City as a teenager, my parents leaned towards the cesspool side of the opinion spectrum. In their defense, an internet search of "Central Park murders" does come up with a variety of hits. So with my face pressed to the window, we drove through Central Park but never emerged from the safety of our car. Years later, I returned to New York, and finally, I seized the opportunity to explore the park on my own terms.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Even before we moved back to the USA from Malaysia, I realized that one thing I would really miss about expat life was the abundance of travel. So, I decided to be proactive and mentally started planning a trip long before we packed our bags. What better way to reintroduce the kids to American life than to take them to New York City? It's a crossroads of American ethnic groups with a skyline of iconic, internationally recognized landmarks.

Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade
Snoopy and Woodstock have had the honor of floating in 38 Macy's Thanksgiving Day parades — 
more than any other balloon

I thought the week-long Thankgiving school break would be the perfect time, but the kids were adamant that after three years of missing the extended family for the big Thanksgiving meal, they weren't going to skip it again, no matter how fantastic the trip. "Besides," my teen asked, "how will we watch the Macy's Parade?" Then, his eyes lit up as he realized that we'd be in the very city where the parade takes place.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Someday, I will visit Budapest

Parliament as seen from across the Danube
(Photo by my hubby)

I scrolled through the photos on my phone trying to find something for a little Weekend Travel Inspiration. Nothing. Nada. Naught. Instead, my life and my photo feed has been filled with elaborate, homemade Halloween costumes, school theatre and musical performances, and Girl Scout ceremonies. It's a good life. It's a full life. But I no longer regularly fly off to foreign countries as I did when I was an expat. So, I turned to hubby's phone.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Disney's Haunted Mansions Around the World

Tomorrow night is Halloween when streets all across the United States will be haunted by costumed kids seeking candy from strangers. It never seemed like an odd tradition to me until we moved overseas and tried explaining it to our international friends. Kids thought it sounded fantastic, and adults thought it was irresponsible. We tried once in Malaysia to organize a friendly, American trick-or-treat excursion with limited success. This is our second year back in Texas, and my children are excited to be back out there going house to house in search of treats. Let's hope that the flash flood and tornado watch we're under right at this moment ends before then. At the rate the rain is coming down, it's going to feel like Venice here soon, and we'll have to trick-or-treat via canoes.

Even though we couldn't always celebrate a traditional American Halloween, we could always rely on getting a little spooked at Disney's Haunted Mansion ride.  Variations appear in Disney parks around the world. I'm not a gal who likes her haunted houses scary, so the Disney version strikes just the right balance between goofy and less-than-terrifying for me.The rest of the park may be cheery and happy, but the mood and cast members are a somber lot at the Haunted Mansion.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Cruising on the Disney Dream: Youth Activities Clubs

I'll admit that I was a tad apprehensive about the how much fun my kids would have at the Kids Clubs when we went cruising on the Disney Dream. With my youngest one being 9 years old, everyone was far past the stage of being fascinated by princesses, Cars, or Toy Story. I had long ago stopped leaving them in the free childcare at the gym because they were completely bored. As it turns out, I had no reason to worry. Trying to compare a gym's childcare to one on a Disney cruise ship is like trying to compare a tilt-a-whirl ride at the county fair to Walt Disney World's Splash Mountain. When it comes to entertaining kids, Disney truly excels.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Road Goes On Forever

I had a different post planned for this past weekend. It's only half-written at this point, and with a little luck, I'll have it done by next weekend. Ever since we moved back to Texas from Malaysia, I've felt sooooo busy. I'm convinced it's because I now spend all my time in my car driving around. It's something that my friend who repatriated at the same time I did also commented on when we first returned. At least we have great music on the radio!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Cruising on the Disney Dream: Inside Stateroom versus Oceanview

Sailing on the Disney Dream

When we decided to take our kids on their first cruise, we chose Disney and ended up setting the bar so high that any future non-Disney cruise will pale in comparison. Since our family has already visited Disney parks in Florida, California, Hong Kong, Japan and Paris, we were eager to explore how Disney handles the high seas.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Dreaming of an Indian Summer

False store fronts hid the 5-foot-way of Armenian Street when it was transformed into the town of Simla, India.

Dreams are a weird thing. They can be familiar but with details thrown in that keep them from seeming completely real. Friends rub elbows with characters from movies. Scenes plucked from your memory are altered until they no longer seem like something belonging to you. And when you wake up, you find yourself grasping at the remnants as it drifts away and trying to decipher what in the world it means. As strange as it may sound, I fell into a kind of dream state watching television last night even though I was wide awake.

Indian Summers recently premiered in America on PBS Masterpiece. Originally broadcast on BBC Channel 4, it's been deemed the heir to the "period costume drama" crown currently held by Downton Abbey. Set in Simla, an Indian town in the foothills of the Himalayas, in 1932 as the British Raj is beginning to unwillingly loosen its hold there, the on-location filming is visually rich and enticing. Except, it was not filmed in India. Indian Summer was filmed in Penang, Malaysia. Simla had an overabundance of modern structures and a monsoon season that would wreak havoc with the production. So, the producers cast their sights further afield and decided on Penang instead. Sharing the same British colonial history, both cities have similar architectural influences. There's also a sizeable Indian population in Malaysia and plenty of white expats to serve as extras.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Camping Jitters and Outdoor Cooking

Into the fire

I'm about to embark on my biggest adventure yet in a few weeks, and frankly, I'm kind of nervous. What is it? Climbing Mount Everest? Free diving to the deepest depths of ocean? Wrestling crocodiles? No, I'm going camping... for the first time in 17 years... with a bunch of 10-year-olds.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Art Alley: Rapid City's Hidden Treasure

Protect the Sacred

Rapid City, you surprised me. I expected something small-town and folksy with plenty of nods to your gold mining, Old West history. I didn't know I'd stumble upon a hip, urban graffiti scene nestled in a city that's a gateway to the Black Hills of South Dakota, Mount Rushmore and the Badlands.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Wonderfully Wacky Wall Drug

South Dakota's #1 Roadside Attraction

Wall Drug Store starts announcing its presence miles and miles before you get there. All along Interstate 90, billboards proclaim things like "291 miles to Wall Drug," "Refreshing! Free Water, Wall Drug," or "#1 Roadside Attraction, Wall Drug." I had been planning on visiting, but I will admit that seeing the "Homemade Donuts, Wall Drug" sign got me particularly excited.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Great Day in the Badlands

South Dakota
Overlooking the Badlands National Park, South Dakota

I first read about the Badlands long ago, although I can't remember where. It seemed like the stuff of legends. A bleak and desolate place. A wasteland that surprised pioneers as they made their way west over the prairies filled with waving grass that suddenly dropped down into a strange landscape. A place where fugitives hide from the long arm of the law. Badlands. Even the name sounds forboding.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Badlands Door Trail: Short Hike with a Big View

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Finding our way on the Door Trail, Badlands National Park

A few days ago, the National Geographic Intelligent Travel blog published readers recommendations for "The World's Best Hiking Trails." Guess who was the first person they quoted? Me!! Other people suggested the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu or long ones such as the Trans Canada Trail and Australia's Bibbulmun Track. North American hikes like the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail have been the setting and practically a character in popular memoirs and their resultant "based on the best-selling book" movies, Wild and A Walk in the Woods, respectively.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Wildlife Spotting on Kangaroo Island

Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia is a treasure trove of wildlife. Separated from the rest of the continent for about 10,000 years, its natural wildlife has thrived without humans or other pests and predators that have struck on the mainland. Over the centuries, some animals have evolved into distinct sub-species, earning this place the nickname "The Galapagos of Australia." More than a third of the island is protected parkland, ensuring that it will remain a haven for the native plants and animals.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award

“Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award recognizes the unique voices of women bloggers around the world.”

Five years ago, I would have never imagined that I'd be nominated for a Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award. I didn't know that travel blogs existed. I wasn't a world traveler. And...this is the big one... I didn't have some deep, unfulfilled dream of traveling around the world. International travel just kind of landed in my lap when we became expats, lucky me. At some point, I realized that there were planning resources beyond printed guide books, and that the best of  them were the travel blogs. Since that time, I've knitted together a network of blogger friends. A sisterhood, if you will. I know more than just where they've been. I know if they're buying a house, if they are changing jobs, or if health has caused them to rearrange their plans. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Sorrento, Italy: Where Life Gives You Lemons

Sorrento Clock Tower

I arrived back home from our two week Great Big Western USA Roadtrip to find a package waiting for me. It was the goody box I'd won from the "Where in the World was Ms. Toody?" giveaway hosted by the charming Ms. Toody Goo Shoes blog. I love surprises, and I had no idea what was inside. The contest involved figuring out where she had traveled based on her picture clues. I took one look at her photos and was immediately transported back to the Amalfi Coast which we had visited last summer. My kids wanted to visit Pompeii, and I decided that scenic Sorrento was a much, much better place to stay than the more convenient Naples.

Watching a suave man and a woman dressed in white climb into their Ferrari and zoom away. La Dolce Vita!

Sorrento is named after the mythical Greek creatures called sirens whose enchanting songs lured men to crash their ships. In Homer's The Odyssey, Ulysses heard the sirens' song and survived, causing the sirens to throw themselves into the ocean near here. In some ways, it was still a dangerous city. I was afraid I'd emerge with a much lighter wallet.

Warning sign on train to Pompeii

No, I wasn't scared of pickpockets. I was leery of how much I loved and adored everything I saw in the stores. Our hotel was located in the old city. The front of it faced the main street, Corso Italia, filled with higher end chain stores like Max Mara and Swatch. The back of the hotel overlooked Via S. Cesareo, a narrow pedestrian street with one irresistible store after another that beckoned me to enter and buy something.. or everything. By day, it was filled with tour groups from the nearby cruise terminal. I preferred exploring it at night and in the early morning before it got too busy. It was so different from the Asian Night Markets that I'd grown accustomed to.

Looking down on the pedestrian street from my hotel room balcony.

I had recently decided to give up my practice of buying handbags as souvenirs when I traveled. Then, I came to my senses and realized that I should implement the change after I had left Italy which is renowned for its leather goods. I couldn't take my eyes off all the painted pottery. The popular blue, white and yellow color scheme would fit in perfectly with the decor in my Texas home. My daughter acquired a taste for aged balsamic vinegar, as sweet and thick as honey. How could I leave without buying a bottle? The only thing that saved my wallet was the fact that our luggage was stuffed to almost overflowing. We were in the midst of moving back to the USA from Malaysia, and our suitcases held everything we would need before our sea shipment arrived a month later.

If Life Gives You Lemons

As I walked around Sorrento, I quickly realized that what it must be most famous for is its lemons. My daughter wanted to return to the store "next to the place that sold lemon stuff," and I informed her that didn't exactly narrow it down in this town. The soil here is ideal for cultivating the large and sweet Sorrento lemons. I stared in disbelief at how big they were. I watched a storekeeper weigh one, and I couldn't believe that the needle on the scale pointed to almost 2 kilos. 

Lemon Grove Garden (Giardini di Cataldo) near the train station

Lemons are everywhere. Painted on dishes, made into soaps, and turned into one delicacy after another, of course. In the granitas and the gelato...

Getting scoops at Gelataria Davide (while listening to Arianna Grande blasting over the speakers). 

In the cakes...
Delizia - Sponge cake soaked in lemon sugar syrup and covered with lemon custard

But the most prevalent delight is the Limoncello.

Limoncello - a sweet and lemony alcoholic digestif

Every store seems to have its own recipe handed down from one generation to the next. Most are happy to give you a sample to taste. You could really make an afternoon of trying to find the best limoncello in Sorrento. They even had limoncello at the toy and candy store.

Candy, toys and limoncello. How to keep the both kids and happy.

Have I mentioned that I love lemons? Lucky me. Life was giving them to me by the bushel.

And other miscellaneous quirky things

Sorrento wasn't 100% lemons though. There was the water and beach which we somehow never made it down to. There was the pizza. We try to get the kids to try local food when we travel, and we received much less resistance than usual when we suggested pizza.


Pizzeria da Franco had delicious pizzas and hot sandwiches. The odd thing was the fire escape map at every single booth, like the kind you typically find on the back of a hotel room door. Our booth was only a few feet away from the door, but the map clearly showed us the best escape route via a dotted line.

Teeny, tiny Tic-Tacs

At the train station, I found the teeniest, tiniest box of Tic-Tacs that I've ever seen. I think there were all of 6 regular size pieces in here. 

Sorrento Train Station
Foosball/Table Soccer anyone? 

I also found a small foosball/table soccer game at the train station. Three little plastic players per team. In contrast to that, I walked past an imposingly tall and big man dressed in a caftan. I whispered to my husband, "I think I just saw André Leon Talley." 

"Who's that?" he replied.

"The former editor-at-large of American Vogue."

At this point, my husband looks at me like I'm a little loony and asks, "You think you saw the editor of Vogue at the Sorrento train station?" Well, when he put it that way, it did sound a little unlikely. He'd probably zip off in a luxe car like those La Dolce Vita people I'd seen earlier at the Hotel de la Syrene. 

My last surprise from Sorrento came as we boarded the train to Pompeii. Music was pouring out of one of the train cars, the exact car that Hubby decided to get on. As we leapt on board, I came face to face with two men serenading the passengers with their merry Italian songs.

A little live music

My sadness at having to leave Sorrento the day after touring Pompeii was only appeased by the prospect that our next stop was Venice. I came away with a leather handbag and a small bottle of 10 year aged balsamic vinegar. The storekeeper tried to sell me a bigger bottle, but I explained that my suitcases were full and a few additional milliliters were more than I could manage.

The Goody Bag

So, it was with excitement that I opened the package from Ms. Toody Goo Shoes earlier this week. What goodies had she sent me? 

Goodies from Ms. Toody Goo Shoes 

A year after I'd last seen Sorrento, a part of it arrived at my door. Thanks, Ms. Toody!

What's your favorite souvenir that you've brought home from a trip?

It’s Your Turn, Link Up Your Newest Travel Inspiration!

I've joined up as one of the co-hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration.
  1. Link one of your inspirational travel photos or stories to this post by adding your info.
  2. Copy and paste our badge and a link to this page.
  3. Visit some of the other wonderful travel bloggers, read their posts, and leave a comment.  It would be great if you could comment on 2-3 posts.
  4. Tweet it and include this hashtag. #wkendtravelinspiration .
  5. Follow all the hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration who are working hard to spread the word on what wonderful work travel bloggers are doing.
  6. Don’t forget to check out my amazing co-hosts and their pages: Reflections EnrouteThe Crowded PlanetContentedTravellerAlbom AdventuresSafari 254, and FamiliesGo.

I've also joined with the following linkups. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Our Great Big Western USA Roadtrip

On the road with a bug splattered windshield

After years of planning, it's done. Our great big roadtrip to see the scenic wonders of the Western USA. The seed was planted ages ago in 2006 when we came up with our 10 year plan of summer vacations, and Yellowstone National Park made the list of places to take our kids before they grew up. The first attempt to visit in 2010 was thwarted when I discovered that the Old Faithful hotels book up a full year ahead of time for the peak summer season. In 2011, I had to cancel our reservations for lodging when we moved to Malaysia, an event which opened us up traveling all over the world, not just the USA. 2015 was the year when we finally succeeded.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Gardens by the Vineyards

"Short days ago/ We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow/ Loved and were loved..." from In Flanders Fields

Like a bee drawn to a flower, I can't resist a gorgeous garden. While I admire the grand expansiveness of Versailles' chateau grounds on the outskirts of Paris or the futuristic wonder that is Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, it's the simple vegetable garden that most captures my imagination. I can close my eyes and pretend that it's mine. That it's attainable.

Driving through the countryside of Dry Creek Valley in Northern California, what I mostly see when I look around is this...

Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma
Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery

Vineyards stretching hither and yon, as far as the eye can see. I am in the birthplace of California wine making.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Non-Alcoholic Tour of Dry Creek Valley Vineyards

Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma
Dry Creek Valley's most famous crop

A day touring vineyards and wineries in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley may seem like a strange outing for someone who has no intention of actually sipping any wine. After all, the main reason why most people visit is to drink wine, duh. Just outside of the town of Healdsburg, California, this official American Viticultural Area is only 16 miles long and 2 miles wide. Families first began growing wine grapes here in the late 1880's, and it now has more than 70 wineries.

The wonderful thing about these vineyards is that many are more than just a tasting room and wine shop. They are surrounded by acres of lush gardens as if you had stumbled upon some modern day Eden. Walking through the gardens is typically free of charge and can end up being a relaxing and cheap way to spend the day. It's a great outing for kids and adults who don't drink but still love nature and the outdoors. If you want to add extra adventure to your day, Wine Country Bikes has cycling tours of the area as well as bike rentals including tandem bikes and child trailers.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Castello di Amorosa: Medieval Castle in Napa Valley

Castello di Amorosa
Am I in Italy, or am I in California?

I wasn't planning on seeing a medieval castle when I awoke that summer morning. On a rare vacation without the rest of my family, I spent a few days in the heart of California wine country visiting my friend, Julia. She and I are similar in that we both love food, are especially fascinated by chocolate, and can't hold our liquor due to a bad case of Asian glow. The day's itinerary included a trip to the Farmers Market and then heading to the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone for a casual lunch and a little browsing. As we sped down the St. Helena Highway, Julia's daughter exclaimed, "The castle gates are open!" All we could see from the road was the sign for Castello di Amorosa and a long driveway leading through the gates and up to who knows where. In a snap, we changed our plans and turned in. As we made our way up the driveway, it suddenly came into view. A 12th-13th century Tuscan castle surrounded by vineyards rose up spectacularly before us. This was definitely worth delaying our lunch.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Postcards from Intramuros, a Spanish walled city in the Philippines

Intramuros, Manila
Main gate of Fort Santiago
(My son obviously did not get his height from my side of the gene pool.)

Someone once told me that they can tell if a person is from the Philippines if they look Asian but have a Hispanic name. Indeed, the Philippines is an independent, island nation in Southeast Asia which was under Spanish rule for over 300 years, promptly followed by a few decades as an American colony. My parents were born and married in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, before moving to the USA. Visiting my extended family there was one last thing I wanted to do before leaving Asia. We spent most of our time feasting at restaurants, hitting the many malls, and just hanging out with my aunts and cousins, getting to know each other better. My kids say it's one of their favorite vacations because they went bowling and played Minecraft with their 2nd cousins instead of spending the whole day sightseeing. Indeed, a morning excursion to Intramuros was the extent of our touristy activities there. So, instead of showing you snapshots of our bowling scores, here's a few postcards from Intramuros.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Natural Wonder of Hamilton Pool

Hamilton Pool
Behind the waterfall

I stood behind the waterfall enjoying the cooling mist and thinking about the year that's passed since we left Malaysia to return back to Texas. One of my biggest worries about repatriating was that life would become humdrum and routine. That returning to the city that I've called home for the last 20 years couldn't possibly be as exciting as exploring an exotic, foreign country. So, I reminded myself that I had perhaps taken Austin, Texas for granted.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Farewell to FAO Schwarz

I was a little sad when I heard the news. FAO Schwarz's flagship store in Manhattan will close its doors on July 15. When we visited New York City last November, stopping by this famous toy store was high on our list of child-friendly activities in the Big Apple. It wasn't hard to convince the family. "Hey kids, lets go to a TOY STORE." They probably thought some alien took over their mom since I usually drag them to see Buddhas or cathedrals on our vacations.

Browsing around FAO Schwarz, said to be America's oldest toy store, is an Experience with a capital "E." It's a curious combination of super expensive items that only people with lots and lots of disposable income would consider actually buying (e.g. 60-inch Patrick the Pup plush stuffed animal for $300) mixed with regular toys that are readily available at your neighborhood Wal-Mart or Toys'R'Us.

That Thanksgiving week, the store was packed just after opening time. Two door men dressed as toy soldiers greeted us as we ran up, shaking the freezing rain off our umbrellas. Eager to escape the wet cold, we didn't pause to take the customary photo with them.  A constant stream of people made its way in the door and up the escalator, swiveling their heads back and forth to take in the abundance of toys surrounding us. Lack of traffic through the store is clearly not a problem.

Dancing around and making music on The Big Piano

Ever since I saw the Tom Hanks movie Big, I've always wanted to play "Heart and Soul" on The Big Piano. After realizing that the movie has some PG-13 scenes, I settled for showing my kids a YouTube video of the famous piano sequence. With their interest piqued, that was the first place my family headed, figuring that the queue would get longer as the day went on. It turns out that you don't get the piano all to yourself. They let about five or six people on it at a time. The resulting sound is sheer cacaphony. Imagine a bunch of toddlers banging on a regular piano, and you'll get the general idea.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Jump Street Penang: Active, Affordable Fun for All Ages!

Always on the lookout for fun things to do around the island, I was excited when I heard that Jump Street Trampoline Park was opening a branch in Penang! My kids were anxious to jump around and get their energy out, but I couldn't let them have all the fun. It was exciting to test out my own skills too, and Jump Street welcomes jumpers of all ages (3 years and above)!

Since its opening in May 2014, I have already visited three times, selecting it as the venue for my daughter's birthday party, and again recently for my son's goodbye party. Each time I used the online booking feature to ensure space availability and handle payment. After two hours of jumping fun, everyone left feeling happy and tired!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Searching the World for Tomorrowland

Hong Kong Disneyland
My girl has the weight of the world's future on her.
Tommorowland, Hong Kong Disneyland

"There's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
Shining at the end of everyday
There's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
And tomorrow's just a dream away"
- Song from the Carousel of Progress Ride

Disney's new movie Tomorrowland opens this week to much anticipation. I. Cannot. Wait.

Disney is more than just a cartoon mouse and theme parks. It's a place where nothing is impossible. There's a part of it, courtesy of the vision of founder Walt Disney, that beckons people to become dreamers and explorers. To embrace global unity because "it's a small world after all" and to aim for a tomorrow that's bright, shiny and new. It challenges the imagination and immerses guests into alternate realities of the past and future. It celebrates those who have inspired us to think big and change the path of what might be.

My family has traveled around the globe, and woven in among our world travels are visits to Disney parks in 5 cities spread across three continents. We've sailed with them on the high seas, too. Even with all the sights a foreign land has to offer, we're drawn to Disney. Not because it's familiar, but because of that feeling of optimism and hope that seems to well up inside whenever we're surrounded by the fantasy Disney has created. It just plain makes us happy.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Springtime Blooms at Wildseed Farms

Wildseed Farms
Meadow filled with red corn poppies

One of the things I really missed while living in the tropics was the change of seasons. In Malaysia, we marked the passage of time by whatever festival brought droves of tourists to town rather than through dropping temperatures, shorter days, and changing foliage. Spring is my favorite time of the year, when the earth awakens and the days get longer. I'm delighted to experience it for the first time in four years.

A busy April kept me away from doing the countryside wildflower drives that are de rigueur in the Texas Hill Country. No squatting in a field of bluebonnets for my kids this year. A blank half-day on the calendar at the end of the month gave me just enough time to make the trip from Austin out to Fredericksburg with my parents in tow. With just a few hours to spend, I headed straight for the place guaranteed to have a gorgeous display of blooms, Wildseed Farms which is the largest working wildflower farm in the nation. After these flowers bloom, the tiny seeds are collected, packaged, and sold the the general public, landscape contractors and highway maintenance departments.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Slowpoke's Guide to the runDisney Castaway Cay 5K

No, I didn't steal that 5K Medal. I (unbelievably) ran a race.

Ah, Spring Break — that heady time of year when you can cast off your normal persona and try on a different one while you are away from home. It's the only explanation I can think of why I, a person who loathes running, would voluntarily do the runDisney Castaway Cay 5K while I was on vacation. Long ago during my business trip days, I would hit the hotel gym before attending a day of sitting at conferences or conventions. Now that my travel is for pleasure and with my kids, I like to save my energy for marathon sightseeing rather than actual marathon running.

When our January 2014 stay at Walt Disney World happened to fall during Marathon Weekend, I was a little envious of all the people proudly wearing their race medals. Just walking around the parks all day was exhausting enough. How in the world did people do it after a race? Anyways... I kind of wanted a runDisney medal of my own.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Exploring the EPCOT International Flower and Garden Festival

EPCOT, monorail, DisneyWorld, Disney
The decorative berm on the slope surrounding the waterway is covered with 76,000 individual plants for the festival.
225 garden islands of colorful impatiens float in the waterway.

How excited was I about the EPCOT International Flower and Garden Festival? To infinity and beyond. Beyond excited. I've always wanted to attend, and coincidentally, our Spring Break visit was during its multi-week run that ends May 17. Sure, Disney does a fantastic job of keeping its parks pretty throughout the year, but they really step it up a few notches at EPCOT during the festival with the addition of over 200,000 new plants. Flowered berms replace grassy hillsides and large topiaries stand proudly in flower beds. As an extra perk, additional food booths pop up around the World Showcase, and a few playgrounds are added in Future World. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Create Your Own Treats at Goofy's Candy Company

Look closely. This sign is made out of jelly beans.

I kind of feel like I need to make up for showing you all those dead and about-to-be-dead chickens last week. In a 180 degree turnaround, I'm focusing this post on the sweet treats of Goofy's Candy Company in Downtown Disney Marketplace.

When we first decided to visit DisneyWorld in Florida last year, what do you think was one of the first things my daughter put on the To Do list? Pictures with Anna and Elsa from Frozen? Nope. Thank goodness because the line for that character greeting was 3 hours long. A princess makeover at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique nestled in Cinderella's Castle? Nope. My girl has never been the "princessy" type unless it's Princess Peach from Mario Brothers. Instead, she is one, giant walking sweet tooth. She takes after both her parents. So, when she said she wanted to visit Goofy's Candy Company, there wasn't much arm twisting to convince the rest of the family to go along.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Wet Market Chicken Stall

"Visit a local market" is an oft heard piece of advice when traveling internationally. It's a great way to take a peek into the daily life a local. For many visitors to Penang's Pulau Tikus Wet Market, also known as "The Rich Wives Market," the tour starts off pleasantly enough. The din of hundreds of customers and vendors echoes through the air, and there are plenty of exotic fruits and vegetables to ooh and ahh over. The fragrant, vividly hued blooms at the flower stall just beg to be photographed. Everyone is having a jolly good time.

Then....they come upon the chicken stall.

A chicken is weighed before being slaughtered.

For anyone who does all their shopping at a grocery store, the chicken stall is an eye-opener. If you're used to getting your chicken out of a refrigerated case on a styrofoam tray neatly wrapped in plastic film, the wet market chicken stall hits you over the head with the reality of how chickens end up on the plate in Penang. This realization left one visitor I was with standing there stunned with her mouth hanging wide open and a look of abject horror in her eyes. (Don't worry. No bloody photos ahead.)

There was something extra tragic about a living, breathing bird being weighed on a scale surrounded by members of his flock who had only recently been bled out and plucked. Did she fathom that she was about to share their fate?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ghee Hiang Biscuits, a Penang Food Souvenir

Gong Xi Fa Cai! Happy New Year!

An assortment of biscuits from Ghee Hiang

Chinese New Year is once again upon us. It's time for visiting family back in the home town, nightly fireworks, celebrating with friends, and giving lots and lots of gifts. While a hong bao (red envelope) filled with money is always welcome, food gifts are a nice touch, especially if it's the local specialty. Paris has its macarons. Belgium has its chocolates. Penang has Ghee Hiang pastry biscuits. I always bring these back to Texas with me. If I don't, my mom is sure to give me a hard time about it. (Hi mom!) She says they remind her of the Chinese pastries she enjoyed growing up in the Philippines.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Finding Hope in the Streets of Cambodia

Growing up, I never thought I'd visit Cambodia which was called "Kampuchea" back in the days when I still had to take Geography quizzes. Reports of horrible genocide dotted the news, and the award winning movie, The Killing Fields, loomed large in my formative years. Even after the Khmer Rouge's rule ended, they left the legacy of a decimated population and a maze of landmines throughout the country. It was the furthest place from a vacation spot that I could imagine.

438 anti-personnel mines and 809 unexploded ornances (UXOs) cleared from around Beng Mealea temple
The work is still ongoing.
Dogs are trained to detect them... and stop before triggering an explosion. 

Gradually though, the country has begun to heal itself. Instead of death and destruction, people come expecting to experience the wonders of the ancient Angkor temples. The Kingdom of Cambodia, as it's now officially called, has seen tourism grow by roughly 20% each year. I definitely feel that if I go back, visiting the temples will be a different, more crowded, experience. Comparing my trip to photos I saw in other blogs' posts, the temples are in the process of being superficially altered to handle bigger crowds — like adding boardwalk paths to keep visitors out of the mud and also control where they wander. It's getting harder to feel like Indiana Jones.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Cambodian Snack Food: Bamboo Sticky Rice

It's Girl Scout Cookie time where I live in Texas. When we moved back this summer from Malaysia, I was so grateful that an existing Girl Scout troop was able to squeeze in my daughter that I uttered the words, "I will do anything to help." That, in short, is how I ended up being the Cookie Mom, the person who coordinates this fundraiser for our troop. If you're not familiar with Girl Scout cookies, they are only available in an area for 4-6 weeks, and they are HUGELY popular, especially Thin Mints. Girls sell them at booths outside stores on the weekends, and some parents sell them at work. American expats in Malaysia will hopefully ask that friends send a few boxes over. Even hardcore foodies who have sworn off all processed foods make an exception for Girl Scout Cookies.

To get my mind off of American cookies, I am turning my thoughts to Cambodian snacks.

You've heard of street food. What about highway food? The highway between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh is lined with stands selling Krolan (Bamboo Sticky Rice).  It's very similar to a dish I've seen in Thailand and Malaysia. The smoke rising up from the charcoal brazier is what first caught my eye, and then I noticed what initially looked like scrolls of parchment paper in baskets on tables. No one seemed to have a very big operation, but the stands were plentiful.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

I Couldn't Believe They Carried That on a Motorcycle

One thing that always amazed me about Asia was what people carried on the back of a motorcycle.

Some things don't give me much pause. A passenger on back? People in Texas do that all the time. Although, a Buddhist monk as the passenger is something I've never seen in the USA.

A Buddhist monk (Cambodia)

I sometimes see whole families including kids and even babies all sharing one bike. Coming from Texas where kids are required by law to sit in a car booster seat until they are 8-years-old, this type of sight was hard for me to get accustomed to. I get it, though. Cars are expensive, and for a lot of families in Asia, one motorcycle is the only way to get the whole family around town.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Have you tried Fresh Nutmeg?

I used to think of nutmeg as just an aromatic, brown, powdered spice that I added to my Christmas cookies and desserts. The smell of it brings to mind the image of festive holiday decorations, presents under the tree, and sipping eggnog by a roaring fire. Tasting it is like jumping headfirst into a Currier and Ives print.

Then, I moved to Malaysia and discovered fresh nutmeg. It tastes fruity and light — nothing like the spice. I love nutmeg juice which is a refreshing antidote to heat and humidity. It's a treat you should make sure you try if you visit Penang island. While it's not native to Malaysia, nutmeg trees were cultivated in Penang in the late 18th century by the British East India company as a way to expand their lucrative spice trade.

Nutmeg fruit

Today's guest post is written by 13-year-old Sean K. and photographed by 11-year-old Isaac K., two of the wonderful Malaysian kids I met while living in Penang. Their family and some friends toured the small, family-run Ghee Hup Nutmeg Farm and factory, and I asked them to share their visit with you.
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