vacation

Moogfest

This is either a story of poorly-managed expectations, or of me being an idiot, depending on how generous you’re feeling.

Eight months ago, when I heard that Moogfest was coming to Durham, I jumped on the chance to get tickets. I like electronic music, and I’ve always been fascinated by sound and signals and even signal processing mathematics. At the time, I was taking an online course in Digital Signal Processing for Music Applications. I recruited a wingman; my friend Jeremy is also into making noise using open source software.

moogfest2016

The festival would take place over a four-day weekend in May, so I signed up for two vacation days and I cleared the calendar for four days of music and tech geekery. Since I am not much of a night-owl, I wanted to get my fill of the festival in the daytime and then return home at night… one benefit of being local to Durham.

Pretty soon, the emails started coming in… about one a week, usually about some band or another playing in Durham, with one or two being way off base, about some music-related parties on the west coast. So I started filing these emails in a folder called “moogfest”. Buried in the middle of that pile would be one email that was important… although I had purchased a ticket, I’d need to register for workshops that had limited attendance.

Unfortunately, I didn’t do any homework in advance of Moogfest. You know, life happens. After all, I’d have four days to deal with the festival. So Jeremy and I showed up at the American Tobacco campus on Thursday with a clean slate… dumb and dumber.

Thursday

Moog shop keyboards

Thursday started with drizzly rain to set the mood.

I’m not super familiar with Durham, but I know my way around the American Tobacco campus, so that’s where we started. We got our wristbands, visited the Modular Marketplace (a very small and crowded vendor area where they showed off modular synthesizer blocks) and the Moog Pop-up Factory (one part factory assembly area, and one part Guitar Center store).  Thankfully, both of these areas made heavy use of headphones to keep the cacophony down.

From there, we ventured north, outside of my familiarity. The provided map was too small to really make any sense of — mainly because they tried to show the main festival area and the outlying concert area on the same map. So we spent a lot of time wandering, trying to figure out what we were supposed to see. We got lost and stopped for a milkshake and a map-reading. Finally, we found the 21c hotel and museum. There were three classrooms inside the building that housed workshops and talks, but that was not very clearly indicated anywhere. At every turn, it felt like we were in the “wrong place“.

girl in Moog shop

We finally found a talk on “IBM Watson: Cognitive Tech for Developers“. This was one of the workshops that required pre-registration, but there seemed to be room left over from no-shows, so they let us in. This ended up being a marketing pitch for IBM’s research projects — nothing to do with music synthesis or really even with IBM’s core business.

Being unfamiliar with Durham, and since several points on the map seemed to land in a large construction area, we wandered back to the American Tobacco campus for a talk. We arrived just after the talk started, so the doors were closed. So we looked for lunch. There were a few sit-down restaurants, but not much in terms of quick meals (on Friday, I discovered the food trucks).

Finally, we declared Thursday to be a bust, and we headed home.

We’d basically just spent $200 and a vacation day to attend three advertising sessions.  I seriously considered just going back to work on Friday.

With hopes of salvaging Friday, I spent three hours that night poring over the schedule to figure out how it’s supposed to be done.

  • I looked up all of the venues, noting that several were much farther north than we had wandered.
  • I registered (wait-listed) for workshops that might be interesting.
  • I tried to visualize the entire day on a single grid, gave up on that, and found I could filter the list.
  • I read the descriptions of every event and put a ranking on my schedule.
  • I learned – much to my disappointment – that the schedule was clearly divided at supper time, with talks and workshops in the daytime and music at night.
  • I made a specific plan for Friday, which included sleeping in later and staying later in the night to hear some music.

Friday

I flew solo on Friday, starting off with some static displays and exploring the venues along West Morgan Street (the northern area).  Then I attended a talk on “Techno-Shamanism“, a topic that looked interesting because it was so far out of my experience.  The speaker was impressively expressive, but it was hard to tell whether he was sharing deep philosophical secrets or just babbling eloquently… I am still undecided.

I rushed off to the Carolina Theater for a live recording of the podcast “Song Exploder“.  However, the theater filled just as I arrived — I mean literally, the people in front of me were seated — and the rest of the line was sent away.  Severe bummer.

I spent a lot of time at a static display called the Wifi Whisperer, something that looked pretty dull from the description in the schedule, but that was actually pretty intriguing.  It showed how our phones volunteer information about previous wifi spots we have attached to.  My question – why would my phone share with the Moogfest network the name of the wifi from the beach house we stayed at last summer?  Sure enough, it was there on the board!

Polyrhythmic Loops

Determined to not miss any more events, I rushed back to ATC for a talk on Polyrhythmic Loops, where the speaker demonstrated how modular synth clocks can be used to construct complex rhythms by sending sequences of triggers to sampler playback modules.  I kind of wish we could’ve seen some of the wire-connecting madness involved, but instead he did a pretty good job of describing what he was doing and then he played the results.  It was interesting, but unnecessarily loud.

The daytime talks were winding down, and my last one was about Kickstarter-funded music projects.

To fill the gap until the music started, I went to “Tech Jobs Under the Big Top“, a job fair that is held periodically in RTP.  As if to underscore the craziness of “having a ticket but still needing another registration” that plagued Moogfest, the Big Top folks required two different types of registration that kept me occupied for much longer than the time I actually spent inside their tent.  Note: the Big Top event was not part of Moogfest, but they were clearly capitalizing on the location, and they were even listed in the Moogfest schedule.

Up until this point, I had still not heard any MUSIC.

Sonic Pi

My wingman returned and we popped into our first music act, Sam Aaron played a “Live Coding” set on his Sonic Pi.  This performance finally brought Moogfest back into the black, justifying the ticket price and the hassles of the earlier schedule.  His set was unbelievable, dropping beats from the command line like a Linux geek.

Grimes

To wrap up the night, we hiked a half mile to the MotorCo stage to see Grimes, one of the headline attractions of Moogfest.  Admittedly, I am not part of the target audience for this show, since I had never actually heard of Grimes, and I am about 20 years older than many of the attendees.  But I had been briefly introduced to her sound at one of the static displays, so I was stoked for a good show.  However, the performance itself was really more of a military theatrical production than a concert.

Sure, there was a performer somewhere on that tiny stage in the distance, but any potential talent there was hidden behind explosions of LEDs and lasers, backed by a few kilotons of speaker blasts.

When the bombs stopped for a moment, the small amount of interstitial audience engagement reminded me of a middle school pep rally, both in tone and in body language. The words were mostly indiscernible, but the message was clear.  Strap in, because this rocket is about to blast off!  We left after a few songs.

Saturday

Feeling that I had overstayed my leave from home, I planned a light docket for Saturday. There were only two talks that I wanted to see, both in the afternoon. I could be persuaded to see some more evening shows, but at that point, I could take them or leave them.

Some folks from Virginia Tech gave a workshop on the “Linux Laptop Orchestra” (titled “Designing Synthesizers with Pd-L2Ork“). From my brief pre-study, it looked like a mathematical tool used to design filters and create synthesizers. Instead, it turned out to be an automation tool similar to PLC ladder logic that could be used to trigger the playback of samples in specific patterns. This seemed like the laptop equivalent to the earlier talk on Polyrhythmic Loops done with synth modules. The talk was more focused on the wide array of toys (raspi, wii remotes) that could be connected to this ecosystem, and less about music. Overall, it looked like a very cool system, but not enough to justify a whole lot of tinkering to get it to run on my laptop (for some reason, my Ubuntu 15.10 and 16.04 systems both rejected the .deb packages because of package dependencies — perhaps this would be a good candidate for a docker container).

The final session of Moogfest (for me, at least) was the workshop behind Sam Aaron’s Friday night performance. Titled “Synthesize Sounds with Live Code in Sonic Pi“, he explained in 90 minutes how to write Ruby code in Sonic Pi, how to sequence samples and synth sounds, occasionally diving deep into computer science topics like the benefits of pseudo-randomness and concurrency in programs. Sam is a smart fellow and a natural teacher, and he has developed a system that is both approachable by school kids and sophisticated enough for post-graduate adults.

Wrap Up

I skipped Sunday… I’d had enough.

My wife asked me if I would attend again next year, and I’m undecided (they DID announce 2017 dates today).  I am thrilled that Moogfest has decided to give Durham a try. But for me personally, the experience was an impedance mismatch. I think a few adjustments, both on my part and on the part of the organizers, would make the festival lot more attractive.  Here is a list of suggestions that could help.

  • Clearly, I should’ve done my homework.  I should have read through each and every one of the 58 emails I received from them, possibly as I received them, rather than stockpiling them up for later.  I should have tuned in more closely a few weeks in advance of the date for some advanced planning as the schedule materialized.
  • Moogfest could have been less prolific with their emails, and clearly labeled the ones that required some action on my part.
  • The organizers could schedule music events throughout the day instead of just during the night shift… I compare this festival with the IBMA Wide Open Bluegrass festival in Raleigh, which has music throughout the day and into the nights.  Is there a particular reason why electronic music has to be played at night?
  • I would enjoy a wider variety of smaller, more intimate performances, rather than megawatt-sized blockbuster performances.  At least one performance at the Armory was loud enough to send me out of the venue, even though I had earplugs.  It was awful.
  • The festival could be held in a tighter geographic area.  The American Tobacco Campus ended up being an outlier, with most of the action being between West Morgan Street and West Main Street (I felt like ATC was only included so Durham could showcase it for visitors).  Having the events nearer to one another would mean less walking to-and-from events (I walked 14½ miles over the three days I attended).  Shuttle buses could be provided for the severely outlying venues like MotorCo.
  • The printed schedule could give a short description of the sessions, because the titles alone did not mean much.  Static displays (red) should not be listed on the schedule as if they are timed events.
  • The web site did a pretty good job of slicing and dicing the schedule, but I would like to be able to vote items up and down, then filter by my votes (don’t show me anything I have already thumbs-downed).  I would also like to be able to turn on and off entire categories – for example, do not show me the (red) static events, but show all (orange) talks and (grey) workshops.
  • The register-for-workshops process was clearly broken.  As a late-registerer, my name was not on anyone’s printed list.  But there was often room anyway, because there’s no reason for anyone to ever un-register for a workshop they later decided to skip.
  • The time slots did not offer any time to get to and from venues.  Maybe they should be staggered (northern-most events start on the hour, southern-most start on the half-hour) to give time for walking between them.

All in all, I had a good time.  But I feel like I burned two vacation days (and some family karma/capital) to attend a couple of good workshops and several commercial displays.  I think I would have been equally as happy to attend just on Saturday and Sunday, if the music and talks were intermixed throughout the day, and did not require me to stick around until 2am.

Beijing

In August, I went on a business trip to Beijing.  Our company has a group over there that is adapting our product for the Chinese market, and they were running a trial at one of the mobile phone carriers’ lab.  We decided that we should send a couple of engineers over to help out, since they would be accessing data from the system that was designed here in the US.

GETTING THERE – The Visa Adventure

The original plan was for me to leave immediately and stay for two weeks.  However, China requires a visa, and my last visa had expired six months ago.  So I delayed my trip by a week and shortened it to a single week, while I collected all of the paperwork from my company and sent it off to a company that specializes in getting visas.  Less than 48 hours before my flight was supposed to leave, I still had not heard back from the visa company, so I called them to check on it… you know, get a FedEx tracking number, etc.  Nope!  It turns out that the visa company still had not submitted my paperwork to the Chinese embassy!  They said I had two choices: submit it then and wait two days (which would mean missing the lab trial entirely) or go to Washington DC and walk it through myself.

This was Thursday night, and I was expecting to leave home at a “civilized” time of 10am on Saturday.  I was not fully packed. My kids were planning to spend Thursday night and Friday night playing with me at the pool, and then they could send me off on Saturday.  Instead, I changed my flight plan to leave on the very next flight to Washington, 6am Friday morning.  Suddenly, I had to pack, try to sleep a little, and then sneak out of the house at 4:30am.  I’d miss my last day and a half with my kids, and they were not pleased.

I made it to Washington, and I went to the passport company to retrieve my passport.  They actually charged me a cancellation fee, but instead of ripping them a new one, I decided to use that precious time to get my visa.

The Chinese embassy visa office

When I got to the Chinese embassy, I waited in line only for the lady at the counter to tell me “sorry, no same-day service!”.  I was furious.  Not only did the visa company NOT do their job, but they fed me bad information about how I could remedy the situation!

I decided to get back in line, hope for a different counter clerk, and practice my story.  When it was my turn, I slowly explained that I had sent my paperwork in more than a week ago, and through no fault of my own, it never made it to their office.  She explained their policy of no-same-day service, but this time, I was ready for it.  I asked if I could “appeal to the consulate to consider my story” (remember that phrase, it’s a good one).  So the lady took my papers to the back office and I waited.  She came back and said that they did not believe my story.  I was shocked at her choice of words.  But I stayed cool.  Fortunately, I had made copies of EVERYTHING, and so I pulled out a copy of my FedEx waybill and the receipt from when I had dropped the package off at the FedEx office at RDU airport.  It showed TO and FROM and a date.  She went back in the back and came back to tell me to return in three hours to pick up my passport and visa.

With my passport in my pocket, I was free to explore Washington DC for the afternoon.  I stayed in DC overnight and got on my original scheduled flight the next day.

IN BEIJING – A Dog’s Life

HostessThe trip to Beijing was uneventful, and we arrived at the very nice Crowne Plaza hotel.  Every morning, we were greeted by the beautiful Chinese hostess, and then treated to a buffet that was a confluence of breakfast foods from every continent.

Our hotel was on a popular pedestrian street called WangFuJing (王府井).  This was not the place to see how the locals live.  This place was a magnet for tourists from all over China and beyond.  The streets were lined with a combination of tourist shops selling souvenirs and stereotypical Chinese stuff, as well as big-name stores like Swarovski and Rolex.  The Apple Store is on that strip, too.  The pulse of WangFuJing reminded me of the NC State Fair, with crowds of visitors and shops selling crazy foods that no one would eat if they were at home.

IMG_2486AEach day, we’d take a taxi to the customer’s office, and we’d go through this routine of signing in, getting a pass, walking to the lab, giving our pass to the guard, going upstairs, exchanging our work ID badge for a guest badge with a locker key, telling the receptionist our laptop serial number, and locking everything except our laptops in a locker.

Inside the lab, our company’s workers and the contractors were busy making changes to their Chinese adaptation of our product.  But I could not help the for three reasons: (1) it ran in Internet Explorer only, and I had a Mac (2) it was written in Java, a language that I am not familiar with (3) the entire user interface was in Chinese.  So we fell into a pattern where they would work in Chinese until they reached a problem with our product, then they would switch to English to ask me a question.

So I spent most of my day the way a dog would.  I sat there, watching them talk, but not understanding a word.  Sometimes I would hear a single word that I understood, and it would catch my attention.  Sometimes, they would get up suddenly and say they’re heading out for lunch, and I would leap up and follow them out the door. A dog’s life.

SENSORY DEPRIVATION AND OVERLOAD

So during the daytime, I experienced a sort of sensory deprivation in the lab.  I did not know what anyone was talking about, and so I did not have a good idea of how the trial was going (fortunately, my colleague spoke Chinese natively, and he produced a daily summary report for our bosses back home).  Rather than totally “plugging in” to their project, I simply answered technical questions as they came up.

Sensory deprivation.

IMG_2817AAt lunch time, we’d walk somewhere nearby for lunch.  And in the evenings, we would wander the city in search of supper and finally head back to the hotel.  On the city streets is where I experienced sensory overload.  Beijing is lively, with bright lights and unfamiliar sounds, smells, and tastes.  There’s 18 million people bustling to and fro, on foot, on bicycles and in cars.  It’s a lot to soak in, especially if you’re trying not to get hit by a bus.

I’d be remiss if I did not mention here that the Asian ladies, dressed in their smart city styles, are especially interesting to watch.

Total sensory overload.

If you’ve ever seen the movie “Lost in Translation”, my week in China felt a little bit like that movie.  Sofia Coppola does a great job of capturing that intoxication that comes from a mixture of jet lag, not understanding the surrounding spoken language, and bedazzlement from the strange and alluring scenery surrounding the traveller.

Overall, my trip to Beijing was a blast.  And I hear that our lab trial went very well!

 

Summer Vacation in Canada

The girls are out of school for their summer break, and so we spent a week in Canada.

Normally, the thought of driving 800 miles (12-16 hours) does not appeal to me, so we decided to break up the drive into shorter sprints.  On the way up, stopped overnight in Pittsburgh, and on the way down, Hershey.

The drive up was nice.  We passed by Pilot Mountain, and later by the Boy Scout Jamboree near Beckley WV, then the New River Gorge Bridge, and we finally stopped in Pittsburgh.  We took the funicular (inclined) train to the overlook at Mount Washington.

The next morning, we headed north to Erie PA.  At first, we looked across the water and mistook the Presque Isle State Park peninsula for Canada… but that can’t be… Lake Erie had to be bigger than that.  So we drove out onto the peninsula and determined that no, you can not see Canada from Erie.  It’s 24 miles from Presque Isle to Long Point (Ontario), and you can typically only see about 3 miles from the shore.  You’d have to be about 120 above the water level to see 24 miles across the lake.  (If you’re interested, here is a good article explaining why).  Finally, we headed northeast to Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

The two shores of Niagara Falls are very different from each other.  Most of the New York side is a beautiful state park.  But once you venture off of park land, the neighboring property is low-rent commercial.  So we hopped back in the car and went across “Rainbow Bridge” to Canada.

Here, we discovered two things.  First, our car GPS does not know about Canadian roads.  Second, our AT&T mobile data service does not work in Canada (it WILL still work within sight of New York).

We spent two days in Niagara Falls.  We bought a ticket package the include the Maid of the Mist boat tour, a behind-the-falls tour, the butterfly house and a cable car ride across the whirlpool.

One thing that is very interesting, but that we did not see, is the power generation on both sides of the river.  I learned from the Ontario Power Generation web site (and from Wikipedia) that there are a bunch of massive tunnels that divert up to two thirds of the water away from the falls and into power generating stations.  All of this water diversion is done in a way that maintains the beauty of the falls for visitors, while also reducing erosion and generating very cheap electricity.  This is worth a deep dive on the web, if you’re interested.

From Niagara, we headed north into “no cellular data coverage area” and on to Toronto. Without maps on our GPS or our phones, we had to navigate “old school”.  (By the way, we found that Foong’s Virgin Mobile phone continued to work deep into Canada, and only stopped when she closed the navigation app and restarted it, so I am guessing that it only does “authentication” when that particular data session starts).  We drove up to Toronto and met our niece, who just graduated from the University of Toronto.  She showed us around the UT campus.

Since we had good luck with the Niagara Falls multi-pass, we did the same thing in Toronto with their City Pass.  This gave us admission to Casa Loma, the Ontario Science Centre, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), the Toronto Zoo and the CN tower.

Casa Loma was interesting, sort of Toronto’s version of the Biltmore House, I suppose. To me, the most fascinating part was learning about the rise and fall of Sir Henry Pellatt, who got very rich by having the right idea at the right time, but who then mismanaged his fortune until his unfinished estate was broke.

The Ontario Science Centre was fantastic, and totally impossible to fully absorb in a single day. The exhibits had enough depth that they needed some study to appreciate. We spent a good deal of time in the display of video game history; I enjoyed showing the girls all of the games that I grew up with, from the (1972) Magnavox Odyssey to the Atari 2600 and console games that I played at the local Putt Putt arcade.  Later, we explored exhibits on everything from friction to resonance, along with stations for craft-building and some really cool interactive kinetic art. Note to self — next time, allocate AT LEAST a complete day for the Ontario Science Centre. There was so much great stuff to see, we left with a curious mixture of excitement and disappointment.

The CN Tower was about what you’d expect… a nice view. But we discovered that there’s not much to eat in that area, outside of the CN Tower café.

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) contained miles and miles of historical artifacts, seemingly arranged in random order.  If I could have, I would have exchanged my time at the ROM for more time at the Science Centre.

We completed our stay in Toronto with a visit to the zoo, a sprawling park filled with all types of animals. This was definitely a first class zoo. The highlight, of course, was the panda exhibit. Between the ROM and the zoo, I think I wore through an entire pair of sneakers.

There were other side trips along the way that left impressions on us. One of them was dinner at the Gourmet Malaysia, a meal intended to please momma. The service was lousy (they forgot my order entirely), and Pad Thai was probably the worst I’ve had, but the real redeeming quality was the host, Yummy Tan, and his karaoke show. The girls each performed a song (“Skyscraper” and “Fireflies”) in front of a mostly disinterested audience of old Asian folks. It was thrilling.

Our trip home was broken up just like the trip up, with a stop about halfway, this time in Hershey PA. We took the so-called “factory tour”. But this was no factory… there is no factory here… sugar costs too much in the US to produce candy here. The candy is made in Mexico. But Hershey still has a presence in that town, and their animatronics ride and expansive gift shop made a good enough excuse to stop there for the night. Just don’t go expecting to see a factory.

We also stopped at Skyline Caverns in Front Royal VA. It was pretty typical of caverns, which is to say, it’s pretty cool to see.

We thoroughly enjoyed our week-long vacation in Canada, including the trips up and back.

 

We’re going to Hogwarts!

Our family just returned from a trip to Florida.

My wife and I had been planning to take a family vacation in October during our kids’ “track out”, the three-week break between the first and second quarters of school. Since the kids (and their dad) have been reading the Harry Potter books, we thought it would be fun to visit the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” at Universal Studios. But we did not want to tell the kids about it until we had made firm plans.

We picked our week to go, and I arranged for time off at work. And then, a week before our vacation, we got news that we would need to attend a funeral in Georgia. Rather than make that long drive twice, once for the funeral and then again the next week for our vacation, we hastily moved our vacation up a week. Since the kids still did not know about our vacation plans yet, we decided to keep it a secret. We told them to pack for the funeral, and we quietly packed an extra suitcase for them.

They were so good… stuck at a boring funeral with a bunch of boring old grownups, and yet they behaved so well.

After the funeral, a bunch of extended family went out to a restaurant. While we were there, we presented them with a mysterious letter.

It read:

Dear Misses Audrey and Sydney Porter,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Orlando campus.

This special Autumn Session will take place during the week of October the 8th through the 12th. There is no need to send an Owl as we already know that you are planning to attend. All necessary materials will be provided for you.

Yours Sincerely
Minerva McGonnagall
Deputy Headmistress

So we left the restaurant and headed south for Orlando!

Although the theme of the trip was Harry Potter and Hogwarts, it was really only a small portion of our week. We spent two days at Universal Studios (one day at the Islands of Adventure and one day at the studio park), one day at Sea World, and two days at Disney World (one day at the Magic Kingdom and one day at EPCOT).

We’re going to Hogwarts!

We had a blast at all of the parks. But since the motivation behind going was to see the Harry Potter park, I want to go into a little detail about that one section of Universal Studios “Islands of Adventure” park.

I was surprised at how little of the Harry Potter theme’s potential was actually developed by Universal. For example, they have a Hogwarts Express train engine, but only as a photo backdrop. I had somehow imagined more exploration of the castle, but I suppose the parks (other than EPCOT) are not really into exploration as much as they are into moving people in a controlled manner through queues and rides. That being said, we still thoroughly enjoyed the Wizarding World experience.

The “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” ride was excellent, an “experience ride” where your family-sized cart shakes and wobbles from screen to screen in a 4½ minute ride around Hogwarts. We also enjoyed the smaller roller coaster, the “Flight of the Hippogriff“, which was perfect for the average HP-reading kid (the ride was a mere 60 seconds, beginning-to-end). We chose to pass on the “Dragon Challenge“, a pretty serious-looking double roller coaster. We ate lunch at the Three Broomsticks pub and bought Butterbeer and Pumpkin Juice from a street vendor.

We also shopped at the three shops:

  • Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods
  • Honeydukes / Zonko’s
  • Ollivanders / Owl Post / Dervish and Banges

I was a little disappointed in the souvenir selections. I was kind of hoping to find a Hogwarts coffee mug… you know… all of the other dads at work have NC State and UNC mugs. But the selection was pretty lousy, so I passed. The shirts were all pretty much very expensive and tacky-looking T-shirts, nothing that I would ever wear — how about a nice golf shirt with a Hogwarts crest on it, for muggle dads? I did buy an over-priced deck of cards, but when I got home, I was disappointed to find that it contained only 14 characters from the movies, not 54. That is, the same Dumbledore picture is on all four aces, same Harry on all four kings, and so on (Fred and George are the jokers).

There were lots of Gryffindor and Slytherin items, but very few Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff items, just some crest patches, pins and lanyards. You see, lots of fans choose a favorite house to root for. It was important for us to find some Hufflepuff stuff, since at my daughter’s school, the four core teachers each lead a house, and they actually hold a sorting ceremony to assign the students to houses. But there was not much for us to choose from. (As I write this, I see that there are more items on Universal’s online store than we saw in the on-site shops, and there is more balance among the four houses).

So, we were not so tempted to part with our galleons and sickles at the shops.

The other 4½ days

The rest of Universal’s Islands of Adventure was pretty nice. The kids liked the Spider Man experience ride and the Dr Seuss area. At Universal Studios, we focused on the experience rides like The Simpsons, Men in Black and Despicable Me, and skipped the live shows (we should’ve skipped ET, considering the long wait). Sea World had some great shows, with lots of trained animals of every kind. The Disney Magic Kingdom was like visiting an old friend (October is a strange month to visit though, because at night the park transitions to a lively Halloween party, and day guests have to leave). EPCOT, as always, struck a nice balance between “rides” and “exploring”.

We had a great week in Florida, and we thoroughly enjoyed each of the parks. But both girls agree that the Universal Islands of Adventure was their favorite… because of Harry Potter, of course. Their mother preferred Sea World, and I am split between the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT.

Vacation in Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia & China

We try to visit our relatives in Malaysia about every two years. We were due a visit, and so we picked our December/January “track out” (school holiday) to make the trip.

We left right after Christmas, which presents its own challenges. But once we settled into our seats for the 16-hour flight from Detroit to Hong Kong, we left our holiday thoughts at home, and prepared for a whistle-stop tour across Asia.

Hong Kong

Our first stop was Hong Kong, where Foong’s sister Kim lives. Once again, we were impressed with their living quarters, a 700 sq ft 3-bedroom apartment on the 35th floor. Each time I visit, I wonder how I would go about “thinning out” enough to live in a place like that. Foong and I slept on the floor of their office/study/guestroom, with my feet touching one wall and my arm touching the opposite wall over my head. It was a tight squeeze for the two of us. The girls slept in their cousin’s bunk bed.

On Thursday morning, we had breakfast with a friend, Benjamin, who we knew from NC State University. We learned that Benjamin would be book-ending our trip, since he had just gotten a new job in Shanghai, and we would see him again in three weeks. Weird!

We spent most of Thursday touring a small island in Hong Kong called Cheung Chau. Getting there was half of the fun, since we had to go into downtown, and then take a ferry from Victoria Harbor to Cheung Chau. Once on the island, we rented bicycles and explored the beaches, the waterfront shops, and a rocky peninsula that even features a cave tunnel!

Macau

Our visit to Hong Kong was terribly short. On Friday, we boarded a “Turbo Jet” hydrofoil boat that took us to Macao. This weekend get-away was a convergence of three sisters and their families: our family from America, Kim’s family from Hong Kong, and Kit’s family from Shanghai. We spent most of Friday afternoon exploring the old area of town, the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and a museum of Macau history. That night, we went to the new casino area to see a show called “The House of Dancing Water” (which was remeniscent of shows like Cirque du Soliel). Then we walked around the Venetian Casino, which looks exactly like the one in Las Vegas.

Saturday was New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately, Sydney felt sick, and so she and I stayed in the hotel — she rested and I posted photos to our online photo gallery. Everyone else went to the Macau Tower, a sky-needle-like observation tower. The three kids, Audrey and Emily and John, walked on the “Skywalk”, a platform with no handrail, 764 feet over the city! (They were wearing harnesses). Then they visited a Panda zoo. We met again in the evening, where Foong took over the nurse duty with Sydney, and the rest of us went to downtown Macau for dinner and to see the New Year’s Eve celebration. We returned to the hotel in time to celebrate 2012 together.

Malaysia

On Sunday, said goodbye to Macao and boarded a plane for Malaysia. Thankfully, Sydney was feeling better for the trip. When we arrived, we had some time to relax at our in-laws’ house. In what seems to be the custom whenever I visit, I helped them install a new wireless router (the power lines there are noisy, and they have frequent thunderstorms, and so their electronics devices tend to get zapped fairly often). I set up their new router, and I took a lot of notes, sensing that I might be doing it again on our next visit.

On Monday, we just hung around their home town, Seremban. We had breakfast at their local neighborhood food court, and we visited Foong’s brother’s furniture store. We visited a few stores, but we really didn’t have any shopping to do. We were just soaking the place in.

Tuesday was also a nice quiet day around the house. The girls and I took advantage of the quiet time to read. We did get out a little, to see Foong’s old high school and some stuff downtown. We tried to get the girls to visualize what the town was like when their mother was a young girl.

Tioman Island

On Wednesday, we drove to the eastern shore of Malaysia to catch a ferry to Tioman Island. Tioman is a popular SCUBA destination for Singaporeans — at certain times of year — in December and January, they have strong ocean currents that stir up the water, making it too murky for diving. So this was definitely the off-season, and there were very few visitors. We finally arrived at the Berjaya Resort. The kids were excited because they got their own hotel room (long story).

On Thursday, we hired a driver to take us around the island in his 4WD truck. He drove up a steep and curvy road through the jungle and over the mountain, stopping to show us the sights like some dense jungle and a waterfall. We visited a sea turtle conservatory, and we fed their resident turtle, Jo. On the way back, the girls and I rode in the back of the truck (and I think the driver added a few more MPH to his driving). It was exhilarating. The last stop on our tour was a pier where you could look down on the tropical fish. We wrapped up the day with a swim at the hotel pool and dinner at the open-air restaurant, under the watchful eye of the resident monkeys.

On Friday, we explored the resort a little, and then packed up for the ferry ride back. We drove back to Seremban along some of the most sparsely-populated palm tree plantation land I have seen in Malaysia. In a moment of pure geek pride, I managed to help navigate from the back seat, using my Kindle on the local 3G network and Google Maps.

More Malaysia

Saturday was another stay-at-home day. The kids and I read books and I tinkered on the laptop, while Foong hung around with her sister and brothers. We celebrated Chinese New Year by stirring the traditional “Yusheng” salad, or “prosperity toss”.

On Sunday, we took our teen-aged nieces and nephews to Sunway Lagoon, a water park in Kuala Lumpur. We spent the entire day riding water slides and swimming in wave pools. After the park closed, the teenagers took a train back home, and we visited with several of Foong’s high school classmates who now live in Kuala Lumpur. We spent the night at one friend’s house.

On Monday, we met our niece Josephine, at her office. She works for L’oreal in Kuala Lumpur. It was nice for the girls to see the professional life of their cousin.

Tuesday was our last day in Malaysia, and we basically rested at home… and packed up suitcases… ugh.

Hangzhou

Wednesday started early at the airport. The flight was uneventful, but it took us some time to get oriented after we arrived. To get to town, you can take a bus or a taxi. But there are lots of guys hanging around the airport, offering to drive you around… I chose not to experiment with those guys. We eventually found our hotel near the West Lake of Hangzhou, and we had some time to explore the neighborhood on foot and to find some local food. I also challenged myself to find an electrical converter plug for my laptop — their plugs look like three prongs in a chicken foot pattern. \’/

It was kind of funny… that night and the next morning, the hotel room was very hot. I later learned that the thermostat did not really control anything, but that I could open a window to cool off (it was not obvious that the windows could open).

On Thursday, we walked around the lake area. I quickly decided that I needed to buy some gloves and maybe a hat. I bought gloves, and within 2 minutes of leaving the store, one thumb had started unweaving… Chinese quality! We found a place that rented bikes, and we rode around the lake. It was so cold, we decided to go into a museum to warm up a bit… nope, many public buildings in China are left unheated. It was as cold inside as it was out! That evening, we met two of Foong’s cousins, who are both living in Hangzhou. We saw one cousin’s apartment, and then we went to a very nice shopping mall for dinner.

Shanghai

On Friday, once again, it was time to move on. This time, we went to the train station, one of the busiest places we saw in China. Everyone was going somewhere for Chinese New Year. Fortunately, we found that the crowds thinned out considerably if you paid a little extra for a first class ticket. I suppose you’re paying extra for breathing room. Our train to Shanghai was fast, 300km/h (186mph)! Foong’s sister Kit has a driver who picked us up and brought us back to their palatial western-style home in Pu Dong. We picked up John at his school, a very posh British school. Then we took the kids to an indoor play-place, with slides and climbing areas… a nice way to get re-acquainted and burn off some energy. We had supper at their house.

On Saturday, we went to the 2010 World Expo center, where a couple of the countries’ exhibits remain open. The weather was cold and rainy, so it was hard to get into the proper mood for the Saudi roof-top “oasis” exhibit. From there, we went to a modern mall to warm up and browse and shop a little. I bought some nice sweaters (did you know that Chinese zippers are on the left side?). Dinner was “steamboat”, where each diner has a hot pot of broth, and they pick raw items to boil in their own soup mix.

Sunday’s surprise treat was a visit to the World Chocolate Wonderland, a museum devoted to chocolate. I was struck by the catchy jingle that played continuously in the exhibit hall, like an Asian answer to “It’s a Small World”… it’s still in my head! No trip to China would be complete without some shopping in the flea market stalls of Yuyuan, where you can find a wide assortment of cheap trinkets. It’s like DealExtreme.com, in person — you want a Hello Kitty USB flash drive? We finished off with dinner at a western-style restaurant that specializes in elaborate salads.

Monday was our last full day in China, and we spent the morning getting new eyeglasses. The mall had an entire floor devoted to optical shops, probably a hundred shops! What a bizarre bazaar! After lunch, we accepted the fact that our time in China winding down. We wandered another Chinese mall-of-bargains, wondering if we had any more room left in our suitcases. We bought some trinkets for our friends at home who had been looking after our fish and crab, and Foong found a nifty hard-shell iPad cover with a built-in bluetooth keyboard.

Remember Benjamin, who ate breakfast with us on our first day in Hong Kong? By this time, he had moved to Shanghai to start his new job, and so we invited him over for dinner on our last night in China.

Tuesday was a 36-hour day. Our flight left early, but we headed east while the sun headed west, and we met again in Detroit 13 hours later, but somehow still Tuesday morning. Weird.

All in all, it was a fun trip.

This one was different than previous Malaysia visits, because we spent just a couple of days in each place before moving on to the next. It might just be a trick of perspective, but I felt like the more interesting places were the ones that we had the least amount of time in. My favorite place, which I would always like to explore further, was Hong Kong.

The other thing that stands out about this vacation was the three distinct types of weather we encountered. Hong Kong was sunny and cool, Malaysia was just plain hot, and China was cold and wet. That combination made it hard to pack suitcases (and it also explains why Sydney and I have been coughing a lot since we got back). I might’ve enjoyed China more in a warmer season.

Now comes the hard part… returning to the daily grind after a month off. Someone remind me what I was doing before we left!

Vacation in Hawaii

In April, our family went on a vacation in Hawaii.  My parents went with us, and we spent a week on Oahu, the “main island”.  We stayed in Waikiki Beach, which is just southwest of Honolulu.

Wednesday 2011-04-13

Wednesday was a long travel day.  We woke up at 3am to get ready for our early flight out, hopping across the country, finally to arrive in Honolulu at 6pm (plus six hours time zone difference).  By the time we got to the hotel and had supper, it had been a 24-hour travel day.

Thursday 2011-04-14

Thursday started at 2am, when Foong’s ipod alarm clock (still on Eastern time) went off.  She woke us up, claiming that it was 8am and that we needed to get ready for our “orientation breakfast”.  After our long day before and a half-night’s rest, no one wanted to get up.  It would be several hours before some of us were alert enough to figure out what had happened.

At the real 8am, we were ready to get up, and so we went to an “orientation breakfast”.  That’s a free welcome breakfast, sponsored by the hotel and many local businesses, where they tell you all about Hawaii and give suggestions on what to do.  We got suckered into taking a shuttle bus “to our hotel” by way of a museum and jewelry store, where they show you how coral is collected and polished into jewelry.  I spent most of my effort convincing Sydney that she would not get to open an oyster and discover (purchase) a pearl.  This game would last all week.

When we finally caught the shuttle back to our hotel, we decided tp declare our independence from our breakfast-feeding captors.  So we took our van and drove through Waikiki beach and to Diamond Head crater.  The trail to the top was closed for repairs, but we got to watch a helicopter taking supplies up to the top of the trail.  We found a geocache, and then headed out to explore some more.

One place we explored was Safeway.  We wanted to pick up breakfast stuff for the hotel, and some snacks and drinks for when we’re out.  They had a full lunch buffet, so we ate there and we watched the locals shop… an adventure in itself.

We spent the afternoon at our hotel, on the beach and at the pool.

Friday 2011-04-15

On Friday, we visited Pearl Harbor.  We saw the submarine USS Bowfin, the Arizona memorial, and the USS Missouri battleship.  It wasn’t a day that will live in infamy, but it was a sobering, educational trip.

Saturday 2011-04-16

We spent Saturday at the Polynesian Cultural Centure, which is on the Northeast side of Oahu.  This is a Polynesian-themed park that is run by the nearby Brigham Young University – Hawaii.  Like most of the park’s employees, our tour guides, Liam from New Zealand and Kotona from Japan, were BYU-H students.  We visited villages from Hawaii, Samoa, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Fiji, Tahiti and Tonga.  Each village had activities which showcase some aspect of Polynesian life.  We had dinner at a Luau, and later saw their eveng show, “H?: Breath of Life”.

The trip to the Polynesian Cultural Centure was definitely a highlight of our visit to Hawaii.

Sunday 2011-04-17

On Sunday, we drove to the North Shore to visit the Dole Plantation.  We took a ride on their mini-train, where they showed all of the different types of tropical crops that are grown in the area.  The most surprising part of our visit was learning that pineapples grow as blooms on the top of small bushes (I had always imagined them hanging from trees, like bananas or coconuts).  While we were on the train, it started raining.  Unfortunately, this was a long tropical mountain rain that did not let up, and so the rest of our visit was spent inside the gift shop.

We left the plantation and drove on to the North Shore.  Although the drive was only 8 miles, the landscape and weather changed dramatically along the way.  It was sunny and warm in Haleiwa, and so we got out and walked on the beach.  We also spent some time just up the road at Waimea Bay Beach Park.  The sand on the North Shore is a beautiful mix of shell fragments and volcanic pieces (especially compared to the sand at our hotel in Waikiki, which is trucked in from somewhere else, because of years of erosion).

Monday 2011-04-18

On Monday, we went snorkeling in Hanauma Bay, a bay that formed in an old volcano crater.  The floor of the bay is covered in coral, and you can easily see tropical fish and other wildlife.  This was an excellent place for a family to try snorkeling for the first time, because there are few waves and currents, the water is not very deep, and it’s easy to go from the snorkeling area back to the beach.  We saw all sorts of fish, and we even saw an octopus — and on the shore, there were chickens!

In the afternoon, we walked over to the Hilton to see their “Hawaiian Village”, which I thought was supposed to be some sort of display of native Hawaiian culture.  Instead, what we found was a collection of fancy shops that surrounds the Hilton’s pool pavilion.  It was nice, but not what I had expected.  The real shocker was seeing their display of African Black-Footed Penguins… in Hawaii??

We spent the rest of the day hanging around the pool and the outdoor restaurant at our hotel.

Tuesday 2011-04-19

We did some rough calculations, and we decided that it would be a good idea to do at least one load of laundry before we had to start “recycling”.  So we consulted the internet and made an elaborate plan to have our breakfast in Waikiki, just down the street from a laundromat.  This would also give us a chance to explore downtown Waikiki.  So we got the van, found a place to park, started a load, had breakfast, found a geocache, moved the clothes to the dryer, explored Waikiki some, and picked up our clothes.  We were so proud of how clever we were.  (Later, we discovered that our own hotel had a coin laundry in the basement, but it never occurred to us to check that close to home base!!!)

From there, we headed into downtown Honolulu to explore the ‘Iolani Palace, which was the official residence of King Kal?kaua and Queen Lili’uokalani.  Inside the palace, we learned about how the many tribes of Hawaii were united by King Kamehameha, and later how the queen complied under protest to the forceful annexation by the United States.

From there, we visited the Aloha Tower, which overlooks Honolulu Harbor, and is surrounded by shops.

I had made up my mind that it was time to experience an authentic Hawaiian meal, so we went to a place called “Kaka’ako Kitchen”.  It’s not much in terms of atmosphere, but it’s supposed to be good food.  I had Loco Moco and Nalo Greens… which I discovered was really just country chopped steak with gravy and a green salad.  So much for culture.

Wednesday 2011-04-20

We woke up Wednesday morning and headed back over to the Hilton’s “lagoon”, where the girls rented a paddleboard, which is like a large surfboard that they stand on and paddle with a long oar.

We had already seen the beaches, volcanoes, the city, and Pearl Harbor, but we still had not seen the tropical rainforest.  So after lunch, we decided to take a hike on the Manoa Falls trail.  According to the guide book that we read, this was supposed to be an “easy” trail, perfect for families.  In reality, although it was less than a mile long (one way), it was steep and muddy, and slippery in many parts.  The scenery along the path was amazing, with a thick forest at the base, then twisted viney trees, large clusters of bamboo, and finally an opening at the foot of a 100-foot waterfall.

After our hike, we had a little bit of afternoon daylight left, so we drove up to punchbowl crater, which is a large dormant volcano surrounded by a residential neighborhood in Honolulu.  Inside the crater is the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

Thursday 2011-04-21

Our flight back home was at 9pm, so we had most of Thursday free to explore.  We packed up and checked out of the hotel, and then Audrey and I bought one last souvenir, a ukulele.

Our final tourist attraction was Bishop Museum, which has exhibits on everything from early Polynesian culture to lava and volcanoes.

Wednesday 2011-04-13Wednesday was a long travel day.  We woke up at 3am to get ready for our early flight out, hopping across the country, finally to arrive in Honolulu at 6pm (plus six hours time zone difference).  By the time we got to the hotel and had supper, it had been a 24-hour travel day.

Thursday 2011-04-14

Thursday started at 2am, when Foong’s ipod alarm clock (still on Eastern time) went off.  She woke us up, claiming that it was 8am and that we needed to get ready for our “orientation breakfast”.  After our long day before and a half-night’s rest, no one wanted to get up.  It would be several hours before some of us were alert enough to figure out what had happened.

At the real 8am, we were ready to get up, and so we went to an “orientation breakfast”.  That’s a free welcome breakfast, sponsored by the hotel and many local businesses, where they tell you all about Hawaii and give suggestions on what to do.  We got suckered into taking a shuttle bus “to our hotel” by way of a museum and jewelry store, where they show you how coral is collected and polished into jewelry.  I spent most of my effort convincing Sydney that she would not get to open an oyster and discover (purchase) a pearl.  This game would last all week.

When we finally caught the shuttle back to our hotel, we decided tp declare our independence from our breakfast-feeding captors.  So we took our van and drove through Waikiki beach and to Diamond Head crater.  The trail to the top was closed for repairs, but we got to watch a helicopter taking supplies up to the top of the trail.  We found a geocache, and then headed out to explore some more.

One place we explored was Safeway.  We wanted to pick up breakfast stuff for the hotel, and some snacks and drinks for when we’re out.  They had a full lunch buffet, so we ate there and we watched the locals shop… an adventure in itself.

We spent the afternoon at our hotel, on the beach and at the pool.

Friday 2011-04-15

On Friday, we visited Pearl Harbor.  We saw the submarine USS Bowfin, the Arizona memorial, and the USS Missouri battleship.  It wasn’t a day that will live in infamy, but it was a sobering, educational trip.

Saturday 2011-04-16

We spent Saturday at the Polynesian Cultural Centure, which is on the Northeast side of Oahu.  This is a Polynesian-themed park that is run by the nearby Brigham Young University – Hawaii.  Like most of the park’s employees, our tour guides, Liam from New Zealand and Kotona from Japan, were BYU-H students.  We visited villages from Hawaii, Samoa, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Fiji, Tahiti and Tonga.  Each village had activities which showcase some aspect of Polynesian life.  We had dinner at a Luau, and later saw their eveng show, “H?: Breath of Life”.

The trip to the Polynesian Cultural Centure was definitely a highlight of our visit to Hawaii.

Sunday 2011-04-17

On Sunday, we drove to the North Shore to visit the Dole Plantation.  We took a ride on their mini-train, where they showed all of the different types of tropical crops that are grown in the area.  The most surprising part of our visit was learning that pineapples grow as blooms on the top of small bushes (I had always imagined them hanging from trees, like bananas or coconuts).  While we were on the train, it started raining.  Unfortunately, this was a long tropical mountain rain that did not let up, and so the rest of our visit was spent inside the gift shop.

We left the plantation and drove on to the North Shore.  Although the drive was only 8 miles, the landscape and weather changed dramatically along the way.  It was sunny and warm in Haleiwa, and so we got out and walked on the beach.  We also spent some time just up the road at Waimea Bay Beach Park.  The sand on the North Shore is a beautiful mix of shell fragments and volcanic pieces (especially compared to the sand at our hotel in Waikiki, which is trucked in from somewhere else, because of years of erosion).

Monday 2011-04-18

On Monday, we went snorkeling in Hanauma Bay, a bay that formed in an old volcano crater.  The floor of the bay is covered in coral, and you can easily see tropical fish and other wildlife.  This was an excellent place for a family to try snorkeling for the first time, because there are few waves and currents, the water is not very deep, and it’s easy to go from the snorkeling area back to the beach.  We saw all sorts of fish, and we even saw an octopus — and on the shore, there were chickens!

In the afternoon, we walked over to the Hilton to see their “Hawaiian Village”, which I thought was supposed to be some sort of display of native Hawaiian culture.  Instead, what we found was a collection of fancy shops that surrounds the Hilton’s pool pavilion.  It was nice, but not what I had expected.  The real shocker was seeing their display of African Black-Footed Penguins… in Hawaii??

We spent the rest of the day hanging around the pool and the outdoor restaurant at our hotel.

Tuesday 2011-04-19

We did some rough calculations, and we decided that it would be a good idea to do at least one load of laundry before we had to start “recycling”.  So we consulted the internet and made an elaborate plan to have our breakfast in Waikiki, just down the street from a laundromat.  This would also give us a chance to explore downtown Waikiki.  So we got the van, found a place to park, started a load, had breakfast, found a geocache, moved the clothes to the dryer, explored Waikiki some, and picked up our clothes.  We were so proud of how clever we were.  (Later, we discovered that our own hotel had a coin laundy in the basement, but it never occured to us to check that close to home base!!!)

From there, we headed into downtown Honolulu to explore the ‘Iolani Palace, which was the official residence of King Kal?kaua and Queen Lili’uokalani.  Inside the palace, we learned about how the many tribes of Hawaii were united by King Kamehameha, and later how the queen complied under protest to the forceful annexation by the United States.

From there, we visited the Aloha Tower, which overlooks Honolulu Harbor, and is surrounded by shops.

I had made up my mind that it was time to experience an authentic Hawaiian meal, so we went to a place called “Kaka’ako Kitchen”.  It’s not much in terms of atmosphere, but it’s supposed to be good food.  I had Loco Moco and Nalo Greens… which I discovered was really just country chopped steak with gravy and a green salad.  So much for culture.

Wednesday 2011-04-20

We woke up Wednesday morning and headed back over to the Hilton’s “lagoon”, where the girls rented a paddleboard, which is like a large surfboard that they stand on and paddle with a long oar.

We had already seen the beaches, volcanos, the city, and Pearl Harbor, but we still had not seen the tropical rainforest.  So after lunch, we decided to take a hike on the Manoa Falls trail.  According to the guide book that we read, this was supposed to be an “easy” trail, perfect for families.  In reality, although it was less than a mile long (one way), it was steep and muddy, and slippery in many parts.  The scenery along the path was amazing, with a thick forest at the base, then twisted viney trees, large clusters of bamboo, and finally an opening at the foot of a 100-foot waterfall.

After our hike, we had a little bit of afternoon daylight left, so we drove up to punchbowl crater, which is a large dormant volcano surrounded by a residential neighborhood in Honolulu.  Inside the crater is the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

Thursday 2011-04-21

Our flight back home was at 9pm, so we had most of Thursday free to explore.  We packed up and checked out of the hotel, and then Audrey and I bought one last souvenir, a ukulele.

Our final tourist attraction was Bishop Museum, which has exhibits on everything from early Polynesian culture to lava and volcanos.

House Guests

This summer, my sister-in-law, Kim, and her six-year-old daughter, Emily, came to visit us from Hong Kong. Emily’s school is out for the entire summer, and our girls are tracked out for all of July, so they spent three weeks with us!

Their stay here ended up being divided into three week-long chapters: life at home in Cary, the NC mountains, and the NC beach.

AT HOME IN CARY

During the first week, Kim and Emily tagged along with our girls to their normal events: swim meets, a sailing class, visits to our local museums and downtown, and more.  I went to work in the daytime, leaving them to their activities.

THE NC MOUNTAINS

The second week, we spent in the NC Mountains.  We rented a cabin in the town of Bat Cave, and we ventured out into the surrounding area.  My parents joined us for a couple of days.

On Sunday, we drove to Bat Cave, which is really not much more than a post office and a sign post, with signs saying “Bat Cave, NC” on both sides of the post. We took our time in getting there, arriving the late afternoon.  We drove into the town of Chimney Rock to get our bearings (to pee), and we were surprised to find that the entire town was without electricity. So we snaked our way up the mountain to the cabin, which was a good 1000 feet higher in elevation than the town.  Eventually, the power came back on, and my parents showed up, too.  We settled in, which for some, means unpacking.  For me, it means I set up my Linksys wifi router and started scanning for neighboring networks.  I had high hopes, because although there was only one other home that could be seen from our cabin, it was another rental unit, and they had advertised internet. Contrast that to our rustic accommodations, with satellite TV and a hot tub, but no internet.

On Monday, we drove a little bit father down the valley into Lake Lure.  We took a boat tour of the lake, whose highlights included the site where Dirty Dancing was filmed in 1987, and some nice summer homes (note to self, buy more lottery tickets). We ate a picnic lunch on the shore.  A bit further downstream, we found the Broad River Gems & Mining Co., a curious little operation whose proprietors inadvertently taught us as much about the dangers of smoking as it did about geology. For a hefty $25/bucket, city-slickers like us can rinse away the NC mud to reveal stones that have been imported from around the globe (the mine we visited last year had cheaper buckets with fewer stones, and so it felt a little more like mining, whereas this one seemed more like a muddy piñata than anything else). On the way back to the cabin, we stopped by the side of the road to wade in the cool water of the Broad River.

On Tuesday, Mimi and Pops left, and we headed to Chimney Rock State Park. It was hot and humid, but we were not deterred — we made the brief hike up the outcroppings trail to the Chimney Rock, where we caught our breath and took pictures of the valley.  We cooled off and had lunch at the Sky Lounge Deli, waited out a small rain storm in the Sky Lounge Gift Shop, and then rode the elevator back down into the cool rocky tunnel.  With the rain, the humidity was now well into the 90% range, and we sweated as we hiked along the Hickory Nut Falls trail, which rewards the persistent hiker with a cool 404-foot waterfall.

Wednesday was another steamy day with scattered showers, which we spent at the Biltmore House and Gardens in Asheville.  The house tour is bigger than I remember it (or my memory is smaller than the tour), and we even chatted our way into a ride on the old elevator.  But in the end, I still have to take solace in the fact that my modest house has many more amenities than old George Vanderbilt’s did, and it costs much less to maintain.

On Thursday, we managed to drag our four-hour drive home into some sort of eight-hour marathon, with frequent bathroom breaks, in-flight movies, snack breaks, and a poorly-timed stop at the NC Transportation Museum in Spencer NC (we arrived there ten minutes before closing time, 5:00pm).  I can promise that we’ll return to the NC Transportation Museum some day… that place could easily fill a Saturday!

We spent Friday and Saturday at home, doing laundry and generally recovering from our trip to the mountains.

THE NC BEACH

On Sunday, we packed up and headed out to Atlantic Beach. The drive down was uneventful, and we enjoyed watching videos in the van (I jury-rigged a portable DVD player onto a make-shift shelf in between the front seats).  We got to the beach just in time to see the orange moon rising into the dark blue evening sky in the east… awesome.

On previous trips to the beach, we had usually gone out to the ocean in mid-morning, and then worked our way back to the pool by around lunch time… a recipe for sunburn.  So this week, we tried a new tactic, staying indoors during the peak hours of 10am – 3pm.  So on Monday morning, we woke up and went for a quick walk on the beach in the morning, where we spotted a loggerhead turtle’s nest!  That afternoon, we went to Fort Macon — we were completely stunned to find that it now has a brand new visitors center.  One of the volunteers was wearing a turtle shirt, so we asked him about the nest, and he said that it should hatch any day now!  We left the fort and headed to the Beaufort waterfront, where we ate at Finz and then toured the NC Maritime Museum. Our last stop of the day was at Beaufort’s Michael J. Smith Airport, my attempt at showing Emily that real people can fly small planes in America (there were no planes to see that day… bummer). We returned to the condo for a swim in ocean and then in the pool.  Later that night, I went out to check on the turtle nest… there was a small crowd gathered around, hoping to see them hatch.

On Tuesday, we repeated our successful sun-aversion formula, with a walk on the beach in the morning and mid-day at the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. We explored the marsh area, saw crabs and snakes and sharks, and then attacked the gift shop. On the way out, we found a quick geocache nearby, and then headed off to Professor Hacker’s Lost Treasure Golf and Raceway (we did both, golf and racing).  We finally topped it off with dinner at the Crab Shack, and a walk on the Pine Knoll Shores beach, where we found two more (less mature) turtle nests.  Once again, after we got home, I checked on our turtles.

Wednesday was unusual for a beach day… we did NOTHING until mid-afternoon.  The girls played games, and the adults read books and we all talked.  Then we finally returned to Fort Macon beach to walk along shore at the easternmost tip of the island.  We found hermit crabs and olive snails in the large tide pools, we climbed on the rock jetty, we collected smooth stones on the sand, and we watched an old fisherman catch and release a stingray.  We came home and swam in the pool again.  And again, we checked on our turtles at bedtime.

On Thursday, we woke up and packed to go home. It was starting to rain anyway, so we did not feel so bad about leaving the beach. We took the Cherry Branch / Minnesott Beach ferry across the Neuse River, and drive on up to Aurora to see the Fossil Museum. We spent just a little time inside before the kids were about to bust, so we went out to the dirt pile to dig for a while. As luck would have it, the rain finally caught up with us, so we filled a 5 gallon bucket with that prehistoric dirt and we loaded up the van to head back home.

GOODBYE

What a trip. Three weeks in North Carolina, and we did the mountains and beach and all points in between.  We learned about gems, turtles, fossils, trains, sharks, the Civil War, rip currents, airplanes, and 19th century aristocracy.  And we also ate at Waffle House!  I’d call that an educational summer!

The Final Flight of Atlantis

When I was a kid, our family visited the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida. It must have been about 1977. When we were there, we learned about the soon-to-be-built Space Shuttle. I remember buying a deck of playing cards at the souvenir shop — they had an artist’s drawing of what the Space Shuttle was going to look like after it was complete. It seemed like science fiction.

The Space Shuttle program has been active now for three decades. And later this year, the fleet will be retired. With only three more scheduled missions remaining, our family decided to go see the final launch of Atlantis, mission STS-132.

Tickets were sold on the internet, but they always sell out very quickly. I was lucky enough to get SIX tickets to the Visitor Center. I was thrilled… except my friends were expecting me to get NINE tickets! We spent the next two weeks trying to make plans that fit within our new constraint. We decided that our family would use four tickets, and the other two would go to my friend David and his son, Chase.

THURSDAY

We took the girls out of school for two days (with the blessing of their principal), and we made the long ten-hour journey south. Scooby Doo kept us company in the van, and we occasionally checked for launch status updates and photos on Twitter — I was following a group called the “NASA Tweetup”, Twitter users who had been selected to go on an in-depth tour of KSC (it’s like the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory story, golden tickets for the super-special tour, but this one was for space geeks instead of sugar addicts).

We arrived in Titusville with a little bit of daylight left, which we used to scout out the area before finding our hotel way down in Melbourne. We had two full days at the Kennedy Space Center. The launch was on Friday afternoon, and Saturday was free to explore the exhibits.

FRIDAY

Traffic was heavy on the way in, but we finally got in and met up with David and his son. Along the way, our party had grown. David’s college room-mates had found tickets, so we now totaled nine.

We got off to a slow beginning, wandering around the Rocket Garden with no clue what to do first. But we finally decided to split into two groups. Our crowd wanted lunch, and that’s where we found the best bargain of the weekend: a plastic shuttle-shaped drink bottle with free refills. They cost $7 each, but they were worth every penny. It’s a super tacky souvenir that also keeps you hydrated in the Florida heat!

Lunch time was quickly turning into Launch time. At one point, I heard a loudspeaker announce “T minus ten minutes” and I panicked (before I realized that they do this awkward stopping and starting ritual). So we decided to survey the different viewing areas. The Visitor Center is close (7.4 miles), but it does not have a clear view of the launch pad, so they set up large TV screens in two different areas: one by the Explorer space shuttle mock-up, and one in an open field near the Rocket Garden. The TV’s give you a close-up view of the first few seconds after liftoff, and then you get a live view after the shuttle clears the tree line. Both of those areas were very crowded, and there were lots of trees that block the north-eastern sky.

We chose to forego the TV’s for a spot on the walkway behind the IMAX building. We were against the rail overlooking the pond, and that meant we had a clear view of the sky. I listened to my scanner to know what was going on. Audrey held binoculars, and I had a video camera. Foong and Sydney wandered to a shady spot that still had an open view.

Launch time came quickly… without the TV’s, it was easy for the time to sneak up. The next thing we knew, it was T minus 1 minute. I heard the countdown on the scanner reach zero, and then we waited for what seemed like 20 seconds before we saw a searing light shining through the trees. Atlantis finally popped up over the tree line, trailing behind it what looked like molten gold. The light was so bright, it was as if we were watching a movie of the blue sky, and someone had ripped a small hole in the screen, letting in the outside sunlight. It was very surreal.

As the spacecraft climbed, a helicopter circled over KSC, briefly crossing our view of the shuttle. Then came the sound, a low rumble that sounded like rolling thunder. Atlantis passed behind a small cloud, and continued up, building its pillar of smoke beneath it. Watching the smoke shoot out of the rockets and then hang in the air reminded me of the way you drip wet sand on a sand castle to make spires. It flows and then solidifies in place.

Within a couple minutes, Atlantis arched away from us, out over the Atlantic Ocean. Since we were at the bottom of that arc, we could not see the shuttle through the smoky trail. The solid rocket boosters were released, and so the smoke trail ended. When we saw the shuttle reappear, it was a tiny bright dot against the blue sky. It appeared to be heading downward as it curved its way over the ocean. Its straight downward path cut behind the twisted smoke trail that was beginning to be blown into a zig zag shape.

The scanner reported that Atlantis’s progress. It crossed the point of no return, where it could no longer return to Kennedy if needed. Then it was high enough to make its way into orbit even if one engine failed. Then it was high enough if TWO engines failed. Soon it reached 12,000 miles per hour. In just a couple of minutes, it had traveled 600 miles downrange… the same distance that we had spent all of Thursday driving.

Our attention slowly moved back to the ground. Wow. Those six astronauts were on their way into space. And we had been there to send them off.

We spent the rest of the day touring the Kennedy Space Center. We rode the shuttle simulator (which I would describe more as “cute” than “wild”). We saw an IMAX film about “Walking on the Moon”. And we spent a lot of time (and money) at the gift shop.

SATURDAY

As soon as we got back to KSC on Saturday, we went straight bus tour (well, OK, we did stop by the Orbit Cafe to fill those shuttle-shaped drink bottles). The bus tour made three stops.

The first stop was at an observation platform where you could see the Vehicle Assembly Building and the launch pad. This was a great photo spot, and we got to see a movie about how they assemble the “stack” (shuttle + tank + rockets) in preparation for launch.

The second stop was the Saturn V building, where we saw the actual Apollo launch control room, the humongous Saturn V rocket, and a movie about landing on the moon. We had lunch, did some exploring, and we touched a real moon rock.

The final stop on the bus tour was the International Space Station processing building. This place lacks the polish that the rest of the KSC has — it’s tucked away in the back of a drab federal government building, surrounded by chain link fence, and has a distinct “after-thought” feel to it. There are exhibits showing a history of orbiting labs, from Mir and Skylab to the modern ISS. But the main attraction was the mezzanine that overlooks the clean room where the ISS modules are assembled (during weekdays, I imagine).

We got back to the Visitor Center in time to catch one more IMAX movie, “Hubble 3D” (breathtaking). And then it was time to pry ourselves away and start driving north.

We drove as far as St Augustine and then found a hotel.

SUNDAY

Audrey had set a goal to dip her toes in the ocean while we were still in Florida, so we stopped by the St Augustine beach for a quick walk on the shore.

And after that, it was no nonsense for the next 600 miles. The girls did some homework in the car. Scooby Doo was noticeably absent.

To quote my friend Tanner, who saw the previous launch in April: “20 hours of driving. 8 minutes of excitement! TOTALLY worth it!!!” I’ll agree, but I have to add… the rest of the two days at KSC certainly helped tip the scales to the “totally worth it” side.


THE GOOD

  • Endless refills on the tacky shuttle-shaped drink bottles.
  • My favorite part of the tour, shuttle astronaut and NASA administrator, Charlie Bolden’s narration of the Shuttle Launch Experience.
  • The hospitality of the KSC staff.
  • The local ham club, who retransmits NASA launch info on their repeater.
  • The kind strangers on Twitter (@Redshift42 & @ageekmom) who hooked us up with one last ticket.

THE BAD

  • The two viewing places with the TV screens did not have a good view of the sky.
  • The non-standard headphone jack on my Yaesu radio meant I had to hold the scanner up to my ear… plugging in the ipod earbuds caused it to transmit continuously!

THE UGLY

  • That ISS Building could really use a make-over.

New York City

Since the girls were tracked out for all of April, we decided to take a short trip somewhere, but we were not sure where we wanted to go. Audrey said that she had always wanted to go to New York City, so we pointed the van north and made our way to the Big Apple.

We made reservations at the “Holland Motor Lodge” in Jersey City… it was every bit of classy as it sounds. We could open our window and see the traffic going into the Holland Tunnel.

As we pulled into the hotel, we stopped at the gas station next door to fill up, and a bright yellow Lamborghini pulled up next to our junky old minivan. Look, kids, you don’t see that at home!

Wednesday

We arrived on Wednesday afternoon, so we went on into the city for a first glimpse.  This was our chance to figure out the mass transit system to and from the hotel. Somehow, I managed to get talked into eating at the worst Pizza Hut I have ever been to… blasphemy, in the city with world-famous pizza. As it was getting dark, we made our way to Times Square and inside the huge Toys R Us store.

Thursday

Thursday was an absolutely beautiful sunny day.

We planned to start Thursday off at the Statue of Liberty, and that’s where we discovered the “City Pass” ticket books, the best deal of our trip: admission to six major attractions for one decent price.  Our tickets included going inside the Statue of Liberty monument, that big block that she stands on (you can forget the crown — that’s a several month long waiting list). The view from the pedestal was great, and it was just enough stairs to be rewarding, and not so much that you felt it later.

Next, we took a subway to the World Trade Center site. To be honest, it was a disappointment. There is not much to see there, and there is no organized guide (maps on street corners, etc) to tell you where you are or what is being built.  For now, it’s just a big construction site. Sad that after nine years, there is still no proper memorial.

We spent the rest of Thursday riding a bus up to Central Park, and then exploring that for a while. The girls enjoyed climbing on the rocks, and I found a geocache.

Friday

Friday was significantly cooler than the day before.

First on our agenda was the Empire State Building. Our City Pass got us right past the ticket sales area and up to the observation deck. It was CHILLY up there, but the view was worth it. We spent a long time up there, sometimes coming inside to warm up, and later going back out to look at the city from 1000 feet up.

We had lunch at a nice little deli across from the ESB, and then we headed off to the Museum of Modern Art. I was happy that Audrey recognized a few paintings and artists (most notably, “A Starry Night” and Picasso).

We did not have tickets to get in to the special exhibit of Tim Burton’s work, but the lady at the entrance thought the girls might enjoy it, so she let us in. How nice! But her niceness was complemented by the mean woman who later started yelling at no one in particular (me) about not standing (or letting your kids stand) in the middle of the hallway… duh, then why did they put TV’s showing cartoons on the hallway walls?

My cousin Allison lives and works in Manhattan, and she agreed to meet us and show us around. First up was her office, an advertising firm on 7th Avenue. From there, we took a subway ride and short walk to her apartment on the East side. And last, she took us to John’s Pizzeria in Greenwich Village for a proper NY pizza.

After dinner, we had to part ways. We had tickets to see the Blue Man Group. The show was crazy, and the girls just loved it. You know how, at any show, there’s always some person in the audience with a loud and infections laugh? That person was Sydney. She had a bad case of the giggles that night, and the BMG kept her giggling all night.

Getting home was more of an adventure than it should have been. The show got out at midnight, and we SHOULD have just taken a cab. But we tried our luck with the subway and then the PATH to Jersey City. But the schedules change on the weekends, and it can be difficult to find where to make the transfers, and it looked like we were in for a long wait, and everyone was tired. So I flagged down a cab and $51 later, we were in the luxurious comfort of the Holland Motor Lodge.

Saturday

We still had a few tickets in our City Pass books, so we knew exactly where to go. First stop was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This one was larger and had a wider focus than MoMA, so we were a little overwhelmed. After wandering a bit through a maze of European art, we found the cafeteria. I ordered a crappy cheeseburger and fries, and only then noticed that they had the most wonderful salad bar — so I got one of those, too. Acting on a suggestion from one of the museum volunteers (and because some of us can be somewhat obsessive), we spent the better part of our afternoon trying to find Hatshepsut, the Egyptian Queen. She did not disappoint.

Since the Met is on the east side of Central Park, and our next stop was on the west side, we decided to take a meandering walk through the middle of the park. Once again, the girls enjoyed climbing on the rocks. In fact, it was difficult to pull them away.

Finally, we made it to the Museum of Natural History. Unfortunately, the MoNH closes at 5pm (the Met closes at 9pm — we did that backwards). So we did not have much time to see anything. The charismatic man at the ticket booth spent half of our available time telling me his life story, and then he suggested that we spend the rest of our time at the planetarium show. We did, and it was awesome. Whoopi Goldberg told us all about stars and the sun.

We made our way south, through more of Central Park (and over more and more rocks). We found a little Jewish deli on 7th Avenue where we ordered some supper, but then were told by our very snotty waiter that we ordered all of the wrong things. We made amends by ordering cheesecake. If that guy ever visits NC, I hope he gets the royal Yankee treatment!

By that time, it was dark, and that meant it was time to use our last City Pass ticket at the Top of the Rockefeller Center. Apparently, they were filming Saturday Night Live as we passed by to take the elevator up. The view of the city at night was pretty cool (although I think I like Friday’s daytime view better).

As we were coming down from our high of being in the city for three fun-filled days, the sudden reality hit Sydney that our time was up, and that she was not going to be able to visit the candy store that my cousin had recommended. However, armed with his iphone, Daddy came to the rescue, looking up the store hours, flagging a cab and giving directions to Dylan’s Candy Bar, just 30 minutes before it closed.

The trip home was uneventful. And seeing our own driveway was second only to the warm welcome we had received at the luxurious Holland Motor Lodge.

Three weeks in Malaysia

I had been stockpiling vacation days for the last year, partly at the request of my company’s management, since we were working on a very big project for a Tier 1 phone carrier. But as that project neared completion, I started making plans for time off. As it turns out, the only time that the girls would be out of school for any length of time was during their October “track out”, a three week break between quarters (their year-round schedule is basically nine weeks on, three weeks off, four times a year). So we decided to take the entire three weeks and visit our family in Malaysia.

Most folks don’t get to take a three week vacation all at once, and so what follows is an account of what we did, just to give an idea of what it was like. As you’ll see, there were a few bursts of activity, but for the most part, we did a lot of “just hanging around”.

All in all, we had a good time. But it seemed like a strange vacation, because we did not really “do much”.

GETTING THERE

We started off the trip at 4am (ugh). It was very dark, and before we had even left our own doorstep, Foong fell on the steps and hurt her ankle. The journey of 10,000+ miles almost began with a side trip to the emergency room. But she was OK. Her ankle swelled a little, but it was OK in a couple of days.

The plane trips were long, but we kept ourselves entertained. We flew American from Raleigh to New York and then Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur. That long leg from JFK to HKG was 15 hours, and I managed to watch five movies during the flight (Get Smart, The Bucket List, Angels and Demons, Night at the Museum 2, Star Trek XI).

We arrived in Kuala Lumpur at dusk. Foong’s sister drove us home (a little less than an hour), and we greeted everyone and then tried to wind down for bed.

I noticed that my iPhone did not work as a phone. It just said “No Access”.

Day 1 – Tuesday 9/29

Our first official meal in Malaysia was at the food court in my in-laws’ neighborhood. It’s a large open-air eating area with a dozen or more little stands along the edge, each selling something different: noodles, soup, drinks, fruit, stuffed buns. This layout is very common in Malaysia, whether it is in an open-air neighborhood setting, or inside of a shopping mall.

We stayed close to home that first day, exploring the shops in the neighborhood, picking up some essentials like milk, diet soft drinks (no luck), not-so-sugary cereal (no luck). The local stores looked a little more bare than the last time I saw them (in 2004).

I tinkered with their internet connection, an ADSL modem and a wireless router. It was set up in a most unusual way, the DSL modem acting as a bridge, the router acting as a switch, and the client PC doing the PPPoE authentication. Apparently, the local phone company recommended this set-up, and my brother-in-law was led to believe that it was “secure”. I proved that theory wrong by getting on the web using my iphone, and then later by sniffing his network traffic, and showing him how his virus-infected laptop was sending out spam while we watched it.

Now might be a good time to mention that I was planning on attending a hacker’s conference in Kuala Lumpur in a few days.

Foong got a hair cut. Short hair feels good in the hot, humid weather.

Day 2 – Wednesday 9/30

Still adjusting to the time zones, I woke up at 4am. I found that the girls were also up. So we walk around the neighborhood, where we saw old ladies doing Tai Chi in an open lot.

I decided to reconfigure their ADSL modem and router. I set the router up to do the PPPoE, because no one should ever have to set that up on their PC (or iPhone). Then I set a wireless password. And then THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP… I wrote down how it was all set up, and I taped that paper to the router. Most people forget that step.

We had breakfast at a local cafe, typical of Malaysia, a shop with an open front, tile floors, plastic lawn-style tables and chairs, and a kitchen in the back. Then we went shopping at the local fresh market, a large two-story building with an open area where they sell fresh meats and fish (“fresh” means you can pick out a live chicken). There is also an area of small shops selling trinkets, handbags, watches, accessories, flowers, and toys. And finally, there is a food court, which is just like the one in our neighborhood. Same plastic lawn chairs, same assortment of food.

For lack of anything specific to do, we went shopping at Jaya Jusco, a shopping mall in “Seremban 2”, the new side of their town. This mall has a Starbucks… the first place outside of our house where I found an open wifi connection. At the large supermarket in that mall, we finally found some Diet Pepsi.

I was surprised to see a store devoted to selling “Instant-Dict” electronic dictionaries. I have a 1992 model Instant-Dict Chinese-English dictionary which I do not ever use, but I happen to keep my iPhone in the leather sleeve that it came in. It still has the logo on it. I showed it to the girl who was working in the shop — she was just slightly older than that leather sleeve — but she was underwhelmed. Malaysians are not known for small talk.

We walked to a hair salon near our house so the girls could get short hair cuts. US$5 each! (I already started the trip off with short hair, so now we were all prepared for the weather).

Day 3 – Thursday 10/1

Foong’s brother lives in the small town of Mentakab, a couple hours drive away, in the state of Pahang. There’s not much in Mentakab — it’s in the middle of nowhere. We decided to visit his family, even though he was currently on a business trip in China. Foong’s dad (the girls call him “Gong Gong”) drove. He drives fast. The plan was to stay one night.

On the way to Mentakab, we were pulled over in a police speed trap. In Malaysia, the police are not interested in giving you a speeding ticket… they’re looking for small bribes. It’s really sad. However, it seems that having a white boy in your back seat with a big camera hanging around his neck is a “get out of jail free” card.

When we got to Mentakab, we took a tour of my brother-in-law’s furniture factory.

Day 4 – Friday 10/2

I know I said that Mentakab was in the middle of nowhere, but if you drive another half hour further out into the middle of nowhere, you will find the Kuala Gandah National Elephant Conservation Centre and a petting zoo called “Deer Land”. What fun! So we piled the kids into the car and drove to the elephant preserve, only to find that it was not open in the morning. So we went to Deer Land, only to find that it is closed on Fridays. So we drove back to Mentakab, slightly bummed. On the way home, a mother monkey with a baby hanging on around her neck darted across the road, right in front of our car! That brief encounter was the only wildlife we’d see that day.

We went to downtown Mentakab: lunch at McDonald’s and then shopping at a chain store called — get this — “The Store”. It’s like K-mart.

Although we were supposed to go home on Friday, my sister-in-law invited us to stick around for a Moon Cake Festival party that she was hosting for her Lion’s Club chapter. It was a lively party, with traditional candle lanterns, a DJ, games, a lots of food. It was a little surreal to be surrounded by a hundred slightly drunk Chinese-speaking party-goers.

Day 5 – Saturday 10/3

We got up the next morning and drove back to Seremban.

AT&T sent us an email, saying that our phones did not work in Malaysia because they did not activate international roaming on our accounts, because we were “new” customers (we only had 80-some days of service — it takes 90 days to be considered “established”). They wanted us to FAX a copy of our drivers license and a recent utility bill to them so they could establish our long term creditworthiness. Let me get this straight — I am in MALAYSIA, and my phone does not work, and you want me to *fax* you a copy of my *gas bill*??? Against all odds, I happened to have my most recent gas bill in my pocket (thanks to online banking, PDF bills, and my encrypted 4 GB thumb drive). Dang, I felt like MacGyver! So we sent off the fax and waited.

Meanwhile, Foong’s sister and her son arrived from Shanghai.

Foong spent the rest of the night catching up with her sister, while the kids and I burned stuff in the yard. It started off innocently, lighting Mooncake Festival lanterns, but it does not take long to turn pretty lanterns into pyromania. Eventually, we put out the yard fires and played badminton instead.

Day 6 – Sunday 10/4

We met two of Foong’s high school classmates at McDonald’s for a McReunion breakfast. While we were out, we bought a prepaid SIM card to use for local calls (but not on the SIM-locked iPhone – we used a cheap hand-me-down GSM phone instead).

That afternoon, we crammed into the car and drove to Singapore, a three-hour trip. I spent my time reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Once we got to Singapore, we split up. Foong’s sister stayed in her old neighborhood, Bukit Batok. We stayed with some Malaysian friends who used to live in Apex NC, but who now live in Bedok, a very nice neighborhood in Singapore. We stay up until 1am, catching up with our hosts. They miss Bojangles.

Day 7 – Monday 10/5

The plan was to spend Monday at Sentosa, Singapore’s island resort.

It took half the day to get there, because of ticketing delays, the cable car being renovated, and being suckered into a complimentary lunch at an out-of-the-way restaurant. That free lunch cost us $30 — it turns out that the drinks were not free. Suckers.

While we waited for transportation, Audrey and I found a geocache hidden on a historic train car.  With a “smiley” on the map, we could now say that we had really been to Singapore.

At Sentosa, we went to the aquarium (+), a “simulator” ride (–), a dolphin show (–), a chair lift (S$21!), and an observation tower (S$28!). Sure, it was activity-filled, but a wasted day that could have spent exploring the city.

We met some old friends and a distant relative at Tiong Bahru for dinner — for me, it was just Chinese food in a mall.

Day 8 – Tuesday 10/6

Foong slept until 11:30. We were supposed to meet her sister at the “HDB flats” (government-owned high-rise apartments) for lunch. We panicked for being late, quickly packed up and left by 1pm. We had a late lunch in a typical HDB flat food court, very similar to all of the other food courts, with the same plastic lawn furnture.

Since we had practically blown our entire time in Singapore at Sentosa, we drove by our old house at Watten View so the kids could see it. And then we went by Thomson Medical Centre, where Audrey was born. Her delivery doctor was still there, but she was busy, so we could not say “Hi”.

We made the three-hour drive back to Seremban. The only eventful part of the trip was seeing wild monkeys at the highway rest area.

Day 9 – Wednesday 10/7

I had to wake up early to catch a commuter train into Kuala Lumpur for the “Hack In The Box” security conference.

The conference lasted two days, and I will cover it in a different post. It was basically a day in a super-refrigerated hotel. The speakers were very entertaining. But at the same time, it was lonely.

After the conference, I took the commuter train back to Seremban, and grabbed some supper at Kenny Rogers Restaurant, which is across the Frogger-like road from the train station.

Day 10 – Thursday 10/8

On the second day of Hack In The Box, I was a seasoned pro, as far as public transport goes. So rather than taking the train back to Seremban at the end of the day, we tried a more tricky maneuver. Momma and the kids spent the day at Sunway Lagoon, a mall with a water park. I took a train and a taxi to meet them at the mall, just in time to have dinner with some old high school friends.

We spent the night with one of Foong’s HS buddies in Subang Jaya, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

Day 11 – Friday 10/9

We woke up and had a dim sum breakfast with more HS friends. Then we went shopping in the KL Mall “Utama”. The two memorable things about Utama were: the huge ball pit playground, and the fact that the Burger King guys were wearing silly cowboy hats. Believe me, any Malaysian wearing a cowboy hat is going to look a little out of place.

We took a train back to Seremban.

That night, miracle of miracles, I watched the folks at NASA crash the LCROSS spacecraft into the surface of the moon (in an attempt to see if there was water in the impact and debris plume). What makes this so extraordinary is the fact that I watched it on NASA TV… over the internet… from Malaysia.

Day 12 – Saturday 10/10

We spent Saturday in Seremban. We went shopping at Giant, which is Malaysia’s answer to Target. Foong bought a lot of food to bring back to the US.

Day 13 – Sunday 10/11

On Sunday, we drove to KL to see our nephew Hong Bing at his boarding school. We were curious to see what it was like to live at a boarding school. I think he was happy to escape for an afternoon.

We took him to KLCC (the mall at the base of the Petronas Towers), where we ate at Pizza Hut. We could not tour the Petronas Towers that day… you have to make reservations in advance. So we went to the very large (and hot) park behind the building and found a geocache. [I remember taking my parents to the same park in 2001, and my most vivid memory from that trip is also about how hot it was.]

We returned Hong Bing to his school, and then went to the KL Tower (a space needle observation tower). We got our money’s worth at the KL Tower — Audrey could not make up her mind about which souvenir to buy, and so we waited, and waited. She ended up getting a necklace with a small pendant with her name written on a grain of rice.

At the bottom of the KL Tower, they had a lot of add-on attractions: pony rides, a small indoor animal exhibit, and a F1 simulator (well, a video game where you sit in a low seat that looks like a race car).

Day 14 – Monday 10/12

On Monday, we had to pick up Foong’s brother at the airport and take him back to his home town (which you may remember, is in the middle of nowhere). So we decided to kill some time until his plane arrived by driving through “Putrajaya” and “Cyberjaya”.

Putrajaya is Malaysia’s answer to the Washington DC Mall… it was built way outside of Kuala Lumpur to house the government offices, and each building is competing to look more grand than the rest, while retaining some hint of Muslim architecture.  The whole place had a Disneyland-like artificiality to it.

Cyberjaya is Malaysia’s answer to Silicon Valley… or really, it’s more like Research Triangle Park in NC. It’s a concentrated area of high-tech offices, with nearby apartments and some shopping. Once again, a bit contrived, but it looked like a nice office park.

We picked up Chee Kin at “LCCT”, the Low-Cost Carrier Terminal, which is much more… basic… than the main international terminal KLIA. We drove to Mentakab and spent the evening at Chee Kin’s house.

Day 15 – Tuesday 10/13

Since we had missed the elephants and other animals two weeks ago, we gave it another try.

The Kuala Gandah National Elephant Conservation Centre did not disappoint. We petted the elephants, watched them bathe in the river, we helped feed them, and then we took a quick bareback ride! Just down the road was “Deer Land”, which was a fully-immersive petting zoo, with deer, ferrets, snakes, hedgehogs, birds, and a large bear!

We drove back to Seremban, and went shopping at Jaya Jusco in Seremban 2. I bought some glasses. As the shopping center was closing, due to some faulty pay-to-park equipment (and some bad advice from the attendants), we got stuck in the parking lot! So we snuck out the back exit.

Day 16 – Wednesday 10/14

Wednesday was a do-nothing day. We spent most of it packing to go home.

Day 17 – Thursday 10/15

It was time to leave Malaysia, and Foong’s family saw us off with a hearty dim sum breakfast. We had a little bit of time to kill, so Audrey and I walked through the neighborhood. We stumbled upon a newly-built Buddhist temple.

The rest of the day was spent in transit: driving to KLIA, flying to Hong Kong, taxi to Po Lam. On the plane, Sydney lost a tooth! That earned her 10 HKD from the Tooth Fairy.

We were excited to see Foong’s sister, and the girls were happy to see their cousin, Emily.  We stayed in their three-bedroom, 700 sq ft apartment.

Day 18 – Friday 10/16

We spent Friday exploring downtown Hong Kong. There is so much to see. We went to the Central-Mid-Levels escalators, a half-mile of escalators that take you up the steep slopes of that area of the city. We took a ferry to Kowloon, and explored the tiny shops. The girls found one shop that had nothing but gumball-style vending machines! We wrapped it up at Temple street, which is a tacky tourist market. I was enjoying the show, but reality set in… we needed to take the long bus ride back to Po Lam, and then try to get some sleep before our early flight back home in the morning.

Day 19 – Saturday 10/17

Our long trip began very early in the morning. Just like on the way over, I watched five movies on the plane (Hancock, Eagle Eye, The Soloist, State of Play, Ice Age 2: Dawn of Dinosaurs).

Our transfer in NYC was uneventful, and from there, it was a short hop back home.

We had Sunday to recover. And then it was back to school and work.

And that is how I wasted three weeks in Malaysia.

Summer vacation in the moutains

We took a week off while the girls were “tracked out” of school, and we went to the mountains.

Saturday 2009-07-18

We eased into our vacation by driving half-way to the mountains, stopping in Winston-Salem to visit my parents. We spent some time with my two grandmothers. And then we came went for a walk around the neighborhood, pointing at all of the houses where my childhood friends used to live, and we caught up on what we had heard from everyone.

Sunday 2009-07-19

We packed up the Family Truckster and headed to the mountains by way of Hiddenite, NC. This town is famous for the minerals found there, and was named after an associate of Thomas Edison, who was sent there to find a particular type of mineral. Instead, he found a completely unknown type of stone, which ended up bearing his name. The town later changed its name as well.

The gem mine in Hiddenite is a lot of fun for smaller kids. But older and more cynical kids might wonder why such large stones can be found in such soft and freshly ground up dirt. One older and more cynical friend took his kids to see a geologist at NC State University, who told them that the rocks they had brought back from the Hiddenite mine were not native to North America. Hmm.

From the mine, we headed up through Lenoir and into Blowing Rock, which would be our home for the next week.

Monday 2009-07-20

Our plan for the day was to head over to Grandfather Mountain, but we were in no hurry to get started. So instead, we explored the local park in Blowing Rock, and we found a couple of geocaches. It had been a long time since we had done that as a family, and the two we found did not disappoint (one “virtual” and one multi-stage cache).

We finally headed out to Grandfather Mountain, where low cloud occasionally obscured the peaks. The swinging bridge seemed even higher than it is because of the visible cloud moisture blowing up one side of the mountain and through the gap between the peaks. Sydney showed no restraint as she ran on the rocks, while the rest of us imagined the impending disaster. We took plenty of pictures, and finally made our way down to the museum, where we saw such attractions as: lunch, bears, a bald eagle, and fudge.

While we were there, we ran into a guy from my office… hey, isn’t that against the rules?

Tuesday 2009-07-21

On Tuesday, we went into Boone to see Mystery Hill, which can best be described as a tacky little tourist trap that aspires to be something bigger than it is. The main attraction is the room that is built at a 45-degree angle, which is a much more compelling optical illusion that you might expect. The rest of it was like a very small science museum, with some funny mirror tricks and a large hula-hoop bubble station. Next door is a museum that houses items from the first half of the 20th century… a good chance to explain things like a record player to my two digital-age children.

The main attraction of the day was Tweetsie Railroad. They had a lot of little shows and shops and carnival-style rides and even a petting zoo. But at center stage was the steam locomotive, which takes a short trip around the park, with a cowboys-and-indians adventure thrown in.

We wrapped up the day with a couple of geocaches, a good way to discover some of the local parks.

Wednesday 2009-07-22

On Wednesday, we decided to get out of town and into the woods, with a day hike at Linville Falls. Our trip the Blue Ridge Parkway was slow because of very thick fog. And when we reached the Linn Cove Viaduct, it seemed like the road just ended at a cliff.

There is a very nice National Park at the Falls, with very wide and comfortable trails that take you to several vantage points to see the falls. This was the perfect setting for a family hike… a fairly high climb, but an easy grade and lots of rewards along the way. We took a lot of pictures at the peak, and then returned back for a picnic lunch.

On the trail back out, I noticed that there was a geocache hidden near one of the overlooks (I did not expect this, since geocaches are usually not allowed on National Park land). So I had to find it. I was rewarded with a geocoin whose last stop had been in the United Arab Emirates.

We had our picnic lunch, and then headed down into the valley to Linville Caverns (Foong asked me when we stopped what that smell was, and then we realized that it was our burning brake pads). The cavern was cool, in more ways than one.

And as we left, it started raining. Good timing. We took an extremely scenic route back to Blowing Rock. Part of that was due to our GPS being stuck in “shortest distance” mode — it did not seem to matter that part of that route was really some hillbilly’s driveway.

Thursday 2009-07-23

On our last full day in the mountains, we decided not to do any one big thing, but instead to see a bunch of smaller things. So we drove to the small town of Valle Crucis. The big attraction there is an old general store with an entire room devoted to candy (our girls each got one handful of whatever they wanted).

We drove to Fosco, NC, where we found an “Earth cache” — a geocache that is educational, and somehow related to some natural earth formation. This one required us to take a picture of a mountain that looked like it had a face on it.

We went back to Blowing Rock, where we explored the old manor house at Moses H. Cone Memorial Park. Finally, we saw The Blowing Rock, which is a rock outcropping on the windy side of the mountain. This was the last of many, many gift shops that we visited during the week.

Friday 2009-07-24

We woke up on Friday and packed up to leave. We headed back a different way than we came, a route that seemed to be one long ramp that goes straight down the mountain. On the way back, we stopped in Wilkesboro at Moravian Falls, a slide-type waterfall with a small campground next door (and, of course, a geocache).

When we got back to Winston-Salem, we were reunited with our dog, Maggie, and we got to spend another night with Mimi and Pops.

Saturday 2009-07-25

Saturday was “tech support” day, helping Mimi and Pops with digital photos, backups, and how to post to Craigslist. Eventually, we tore ourselves away from the fun and returned home.

When we got home, we gave the girls a rock tumbler, which we used to polish the stones that we had found in the Hiddenite mine.

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