Vacation All Year: Part 3 and 4

Two more tips on keeping your life like a vacation, even after you move back to the real world.

2. Celebrate During the Week
When my husband and I house sat for my in-laws mid-week, we took full advantage of their beautiful deck overlooking the ocean. Although it was a Monday night, we turned dinner into an event and invited all of our friends over. Because it was a week night, we knew many of our invitees wouldn’t be able to make it, but by keeping the hours flexible – people dropped in any time between five to nine – giving plenty of notice so people could schedule us in, and turning it into an event complete with Google and Facebook invites, we had a hugely successful dinner party. We kept the preparation low maintenance, too: sangria tossed together on a Sunday, a barley and chickpea salad with herbs and balsamic vinegar, pasta and marinara sauce, make-your-own grilled veggie skewers, veggie dogs and burgers to toss on the grill, supplemented by dishes that the guests brought, left guests’ tummies satisfied and the hosts free to chat. The best part was on Tuesday, I felt as refreshed as if it were Monday morning – as if I had cheated time out of an extra weekend.

3. Meet New People
One of my most memorable experiences in Asia took place in less than a day. On the overnight train to Batou, in Inner Mongolia, home of the sand dunes, my friend, my husband, and I found ourselves in different cars. As I usually did in China, I found a Chinese person and asked in my very poor Chinese, “What is this stop called?” and waited until I heard the name of my stop. A middle aged Chinese man, finding me funny, struck up a conversation with me – he with no English at all, and me with my 200 word vocabulary, mostly composed of food, colors, taxi directions, numbers – the kind of stuff you learn in first semester high school French. He ended up driving us all the way out to the sand dunes and including us on a family vacation with his son and a friend. As we rode on camels, flew over the dunes in sand cruisers, and slid down the down on the sand slide, I was amazed at the ways in which people from completely different cultures, with no language, find ways to connect with each other.

Us with our Foster Family For A Day in Inner Mongolia

Us with our Foster Family For A Day in Inner Mongolia

Think of your first year of college. Though it seemed to fly by, it also seemed incredibly packed with miniature memories, so that when you thought back on it, it seemed to have been two years. Think of all the different people you met every day. Somehow, the excitement about coming to know new people, puzzling how to related to them, lengthens our lives.

Nowadays, it seems that meeting people, especially if you are a busy young professional, is about going to “socials” at pubs with cash bars and free fried food, organized by Alumni Association X or Professional Society Z. The awkwardness of meeting people is still present, and there is little common ground except an abstract idea of “networking” – ie, let’s see what we need from each other. A business card swapping party. Other organizations, however, are starting to organize events around doing something. In Boston, the Young Non-profit Professionals Network organizes volunteer events like bike path clearing, as well as hikes, so that participants are able to make safe conversation around the joint experience of service or physical work and may even in fact find out more about each other that just their position and place of work.
Matt on the YNPN Hike
There are other ways of meeting new people – taking a graduate class that involves lots of discussion, starting a new job. One solution that takes less commitment is to reconnect with old colleagues and friends by inviting them to events. My husband and I invited both of our friends to our dinner part on our in-laws deck, along with my colleagues from both my current job and past jobs. I like to think that I’m helping to slow down time for them as they’re given the opportunity to meet new people. An organization I used to belong to holds an annual “Invite Someone No One Else Knows Party” that is always a huge success.

Don’t be afraid to talk to strangers; friends lay around every corner. Include new people in the activities of your traditional group of friends – you’ll find more about them and help them slow down their lives as well.

Keep the Vacation Rolling: Part 2 of 4

1. Change Your Scenery.
One of the reasons why vacation days seem to last forever is because they are filled with new experiences. Think how slow time moved as a child as every experience was new – your first day of school lasted forever, the first time you went to a pool seemed so long, and a sleep over at a new friend’s house seemed to stretch until time had no meaning. You observe more when things are new, so your brain slows down – kind of why detailed dreams seem to last forever, though they are really a matter of minutes.

Some people are experts at watching for vacation deals and are lucky enough to hop on a plane to change their scenery; I’ve never had a schedule flexible enough to take advantage of these tempting offers (though I do love to window shop). Luckily, there’s a way that you can change your scenery without hopping on a plane – in fact, without spending a nickel of money or an hour of vacation time.

My husband and I, because of our well-known love for cats and dogs and his affinity for plants, are often called upon to be house sitters. Just sleeping in another bed, showering in a different bathroom, and taking a different route to work makes me feel as if I’m staying in a bed and breakfast. Even chores are more fun and interesting. Grocery shopping, for example, has a new purpose because we’re planning on what to cook for the week, rather than just stocking our culinary coffers.
House Sitting Yard
In the summer, house sitting gigs abound. If you let it know that you like house sitting because you like taking care of pets and animals, friends, family, and co-workers will seize the opportunity. If you’re without vacationing friends and family (which I find hard to believe), you can also post on Craigslist and other forums.

Another way to fix a change in scenery without spending a vacation day is to use your weekends for camping or visiting friends and family with a place for you to stay – preferably someone with a pool, near the beach, or near a fun city! Two days in the wilderness or exploring a new town can feel like three or four days. Keep the preparation to a minimum – you do not need four kerosene burners – and if you’re looking to invite others, let them know well in advanced; weekends fill up quickly.

Or, you could just move!
Our New Apartment!
Watch out for Tip 2 in a couple of days!

Keeping the Working Honeymoon After Glow: Part 1

Two weeks after my husband and I were married, we flew out of Boston into a two year working honeymoon adventure. With my husband just out of law school, we realized that the only time for a round the world adventure would be now – before children, before a house, before a career he couldn’t afford to take a year off from. To finance our adventure, we took teaching jobs in China, complete with eight weeks of paid vacation and salaries that both covered our student loans and allowed us to live the high life – eating out every night, drinks every weekend, international travel trips – thanks to the low cost of living in Asia.

From Tai Xing

Before arriving in Shanghai, we detoured to Washington State, where we crashed on the floor of one of my husband’s law school buddies and hiked the national forests, kayaked in the bay, and toured Seattle.

From Seattle

Our Asian vacations took us to the Phillipines, to Thailand – twice – and all across China, from the rice paddies of Szechuan to desert dunes of Inner Mongolia, from the cosmopolitan Beijing to ancient Luoyang’s mammoth stone carved Buddhas.

Even the workweek in our hometown of Nanjing felt like a vacation. New experiences filled every second: new friends, new food, new languages, and new challenges as we learned the languages, the city, and the culture. A year in Boston felt like six months; a week in China felt like four.

After two years, however, we began missing our families and the comforts of home. Our baby niece and nephew grew taller in every picture. We also knew my husband would have to launch his career as a lawyer in the US soon, before we ended up settling in Asia for good.

Our first week back in the US before I began my new job seemed like a vacation: a beautiful blue sky welcomed us back, the summer weather of New England beckoned us to revisit our favorite hiking trails, and welcome home parties filled our schedule. I knew before long, however, that routines would start to take over, to bring us back to a life where days slipped through our fingers like sand.
Beautiful Blue Skies in Boston
How do you keep that vacation glow? How do you slow down life so that every moment is meaningful? And our biggest question, how do you manage that on a budget? American vacations are expensive, and our priorities had switched to investing in my husband’s law firm and saving for a house.

As we move into our fourth month back in the Western World, and summer vacations all around the country end, I’m eager to share the tricks I’ve learned to keep feeling like you’re on vacation all year long. Stay tuned in this four-part series!

Guest Blogger!

I was a guest blogger on a travel website, but you had to scroll all the way down to view my article, so I’m just going to print the article here. (I’m still learning about how to size the pictures, as you can tell!)Here’s the link to the article, Cheap Airfare Enjoy!

China – a mammoth of a country, an enigma to Western eyes with its chaotic energy, ancient
history, and intricate language. China is one of the few countries where a Westerner can still
experience the same awe and wonder as at Magellan’s first sight.

Where do you start if you’re looking to explore this behemoth of a nation? Travel books are
stuffed full with itineraries, but how can you possibly prioritize? Here’s what when to throw out
the travel book advice

Don’t Worry About Tourist Traps
Many travelers to China are keen to see the “real China.” With such a diverse country, there really is no such thing, and it bears remembering that Chinese tourists vastly out number Westerners – any where you go is the real China. My husband and I went to the “touristy” section of the Great Wall and had a blast feeding sun bears carrots after our sufficiently grueling hike over the world wonder. Our hotel booked us tickets to a beautiful, exciting Kung Fu Show, part acrobats, part Broadway musical, and we understood the legend more deeply because of the English translation. I’ll never forget my Willy Wonka-esque experience taking the “Tourist Light Seeing Tunnel” under the Pudong River in Shanghai. Embrace your inner tourist.
Shanghai Bund Light Sight-Seeing Tunnel
Don’t Be Afraid of Scams Around Every Corner
Asia is filled with “free tour taxis” who will drag you to pearl markets and silk “museums.” Don’t let this discourage you from engaging with some of the locals. One off-season farmer took us on a bicycle tour through the karst mountains and water buffalo farms of Yangshuo. In Datong, a taxi driver took us on a tour that included side trips to old parts of the Great Wall, small farming villages, and into the cave-home of an old man who grew marijuana outside his front door. Because of the language barrier, these part-time entrepreneurs offered us access to so much more of China.
Cave House, Datong
Don’t Ask Chinese People Where You Should Go
In contrast, don’t listen to locals’ advice on where to go, either for traveling or for eating. Most Chinese will answer with what they think Westerners will like. In their infinite hospitality, they will guide you to sub-par Western restaurants rather than the local dumpling shop. Go to see China, not a Westernized version, and embrace her frustrating, dirty, crazy side along with all the excitement she has to offer.
Yangshuo Water Buffalo

Nanjing Cooking Club

We had the second meeting of the Nanjing Cooking Club this Sunday. Last meeting, we tackled dumplings. This meeting, we went for more Western Fair: pumpkin muffins and peanut butter chocolate chip cookies.

Both recipes have been (liberally) adapted from the Cooking Light website. Here’s the recipe for the peanut butter chocolate chip cookies. It’s actually a million recipes in one, depending upon how careful you are with the measurements: too little or too much flour can take the cookie from thick and cake like to thin and crunchy – but always yummy!

For those without ovens, these can also be made in a toaster oven or with the microwave on the grill (convection) setting, but they must be small, the size of a silver dollar; otherwise, the edges will burn while the middles are gooey.

Laura’s Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies
Very sensitive to the amount of flour, and how you measure it – the cookies vary from thin and chewy to thick and cake-like. But always yummy.

Do not half. Doubling is ok.

• ½ cup granulated sugar
• ½ cup packed brown sugar
• ¼ cup creamy peanut butter
• 2 Tablespoons water
• 2 Tablespoons canola oil
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 large egg
• 1 1/3 cup flour (6 oz by weight)
• ½ teaspoon baking powder
• ½ teaspoon baking soda
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 2 packages mini chocolate bars, chopped up into chips. About 2/3 cup.
1. Mix together sugars, peanut butter, water, oil, vanilla, and egg.
2. In separate bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt thoroughly.
3. Combine dry and wet ingredients. Stir just until combined.
4. Add chocolate chips.
5. Spoon 1 Tablespoon of batter for each cookie on tin foil or parchment paper. Bake at 350 degrees F/ 177 degrees Celsius for 10-12 minutes, or until golden. Remove from hot pan by lifting tin foil off the baking surface and placing on table.

For those without measuring cups, 1 cup is equal to 16 Tablespoons and 1 Tablespoon is 3 teaspoons. In metric units, 1 cup is about 237 ml, and a teaspoon is about 5 ml.

Hope yours are as yummy as ours!

Chinese Valentine’s Day Take 2

Our first day in Haikou

The capital of Hainan (Sea-South) Island is Haikou (Sea-Mouth) was quiet the first day of our vacation, which was the first day of the Chinese New Year. Everyone except for the employees at KFC and the firework vendor on the corner had gone back to their hometowns to celebrate the most important Chinese holiday with their families. Shops had pulled their corrugated doors over their stalls. Even the traffic was lighter, though the motorcycle tricycles were still cruising down the road in the opposite directions in the bikers’ lane.

One place I wanted to see before leaving Haikou for the beach was an extinct volcano 15 km away from the city with lava caves nearby. Since taxi drivers didn’t seem to understand where we wanted to go and wanted to charge us 100 RMB – more than double the quoted rate – we took the bus as directed by the hostel and got off where the bus driver told us. Next, we were supposed to take a minibus to the volcano. We waited a bit. A motorcyclist stopped and asked us where we were trying to go. Between his English, our Chinese, and a thoroughly inadequate map only written in English in our Lonely Planet (does anyone else ever suspect that the Hitcherhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is based on Lonely Planets?), we conveyed where we wanted to go. He said that there were no minibuses because of the holiday. We decided to hang out and see if any showed up, maybe take a stroll down the street to see if there was a bus station nearby, so he took off. He came back later and offered us a ride (three people on a little motorbike! Over bumpy, semi-paved roads!) for 40 RMB, what we would have paid the taxi.

From Hainan

We drove through a nothing Chinese town – which is different from cute Chinese villages – and our driver got a bit turned around, asking for directions along the way. The park around the volcano was pretty, with flowers and trails and trees and a small Chinese orchestra playing music. We hiked up the volcano along the pathway and had an over-priced, bland lunch of tofu, green leaf vegetable, and rice at the restaurant (where we were treated to singing and dancing performances, complete with costumes) before setting out for the lava caves.

Normally, the park has a car that takes guests to the lava caves, but as today was a holiday, there was no transportation, so we set out by foot, 3 km according to the tourist center. We walked through a tiny Chinese town, sleepy except for a couple of homes that were noisy with the sounds of a New Year’s Day party. We had to ask for directions at a few intersections. (One older man we asked had a complete gold grill – I mean an entire set of false gold teeth.) Outside one home, when I started to speak Chinese, one of the men said, “You can speak English,” and everyone pointed to a woman who spoke some English. We pointed to the caves on our brochure. She recruited a gang of boys to show us where to go. We thought they left us after a while, but whenever we took a wrong turn, one of the boys would appear out of the woodwork to send us in the right direction.

At the last turn, which looked like a long driveway, a man who seemed to have mental disabilities (he could not speak clearly, and his arms didn’t behave normally), came up to us and started talking, but we kept on walking. Finally, at what we assumed was the cave entrance, we were mobbed by old people, mostly ancient, hunched over women with protruding teeth and one short old man. I had read online that they would insist on a 5 RMB entry fee, even though the caves didn’t really belong to anyone, so we turned over our informal admissions fee. Then, they wanted 1 RMB for candle-sized torches (and I mean torches in the American sense, not the British sense). Suddenly, hands were everywhere, reaching for money. Matt meant to give the little boy a RMB, but it got turned over to the man with mental disabilities – finally we had to break away from the chaos and plunge in. One old woman and the old man followed us, our self-appointed tour guides.

From Hainan

The caves were really something amazing. They curve, the different paths that connect or end in chambers; it seems intentionally designed as a labyrinth. They were formed by lava; the top of the lava had cooled, creating the roof, but hot lava had continued to flow, a kind of river, burning out the hollow insides. The volcanic rock is black, just like the obsidian you play with in Earth Science class, but rough. It’s pitch dark – so dark that the woman gave Matt two more torches (on credit, we later learned) while the old man carried a flashlight. The black walls just seemed to suck in light. In some spots, there were holes in the roof overhead, letting in streams of sunlight on a tiny part of the cave, like a painting out of a Hudson River Valley School or a children’s illustrated Bible. The darkness was so thick that no plants could grow, despite the lush tropical vegetation in the woods outside each cave.

From Hainan

As we walk through the caves, the two old people chatter. I think they are talking to us, but it is difficult to tell. Either because of their teeth, or their age, or perhaps because of their dialect, it is difficult to understand their Chinese. We can understand “hao kan” (nice to look at) and “gay-woh-chian” (give me money, which is what the old man says when we ask him to take our picture). The effect is something like Alice in Wonderland, or being on the Ewok planet in Star Wars, or some other fantasy movie, where we are followed by dwarfs that utter a non-stop nonsense language that we imagine there is some meaning to. They encourage us to go into one little enclave with a small opening, which they don’t enter because of their unsteady old legs, but as I hear them uttering in the background, I get a nervous feeling that they’re going to close up the cave with stones, wait until we pass out from suffocation, then steal our kidneys. It’s that kind of eerie.

As we climb into a clearing, but before we are at the road, the old woman and the old man block our path. The only thing we can understand is “qian,” or money. The woman seems to be explaining about the two bonus “torches” she gave to Matt, which she has taken from his hands and blown out right away, to save fuel. Matt pays her, and then they are asking for 6 kuai, I imagine for a touring fee. We don’t have any small bills, so Matt gives her a 10. Then she points to the old man, as if to say we have to pay him, too. That’s enough for us to get irritated so Matt says “Mei yo. Zo ba.” (No more, let’s go) and they take the hint and lead us back to the street. As we leave, there’s a middle aged woman, able bodied, normal sized, who also has her hand out for money, too. We power walk out of that little town, through the humid air, to put distance between us and the creepy, surreal experience.