Friday, October 30, 2015

Animatronic Dinosaurs and Other Creatures

Dave's conference is over. It was a success by all accounts, and the ending is bitter sweet; he's already missing the camaraderie and the rush of excitement that went into organizing and running the show. For the next week he is, disconcertingly enough, on vacation. We're flying to Tokyo this afternoon.

After the end of the conference, he and his teammates went through the exercise of naming their favorite parts of the event--no duplicate responses allowed. For me, the highlight of this week was seeing Bowie's reaction to a masked dance, a traditional Chinese performance we watched at a local restaurant. The outing was a part of Dave's conference--an event for all of the employees of his company, to which Bowie and I tagged along. To make it to the show, I had to wake Bowie from his nap, and in his drowsy, jet-lagged state, he was cranky with me. His mood started to change as we entered the restaurant, in response to all the people who were smiling and cooing at him. And then he saw a performer walk by, and in front of his eyes, the performer's masked face changed colors! Bowie's jaw literally dropped. He laughed of joy for the next twenty minutes as the masks danced and played with fans, and then transformed into acrobats and performed feats of strength and balance. Taking Bowie to this show, we had no idea that he'd be able to appreciate it--if anything, we expected him to get cranky and to nurse through another boring dinner. But now that I think about it, the bright lights, the music, the people, the funny walks are all his favorite things. How could he not love the show?

Mesmerized by a masked dancer

And if I were to speak for Bowie and name another highlight of this week in Beijing, it would be yesterday's excursion to the Museum of Natural History, aka animatronic dinosaur heaven. Thank you, travel blog: I don't think I would've dared to take Bowie across the city for it, if not for the way blogging creates pressure to get out of my comfort zone, to have something new to write about. This museum was recommended by Laura, the interpreter at Dave's conference, who advised this instead of going to the zoo (the animal there are kept in sad conditions). As soon as we arrived, we knew we came to the right place because of how many babies of Bowie's age we encountered. For the price of $1 per adult (might be cheaper for locals), many new moms seem to bring their crawlers and early walkers here. What's not to love, especially if allowed onto hands and knees? Broad granite hallways occasionally give way to rock and glass and linoleum flooring. Ramps and staircases lead to different habitats, from the cave-like dinosaur room to a bamboo forest made of real bamboo with bamboo sticks strewn around the floor for the taking. Bowie wants to touch it all and feel it all, and most of the time he can. A roar comes from above--as animatronic dinosaur lifts his head. So what? Here comes the next staircase, and the next one after that. What's this? A rose garden under glass? Thank you, museum designers, for taking such thoughtful care of your roses. Bowie gets it: look, but don't touch. He looks and then moves on to the next staircase. Oh, wait, a new friendly baby. Let's say hi and pose for another set of photos.

Heading into the museum
Bowie vs. the dinosaurs

FYI, nursing nursing in public seems totally fine in China. I've nursed Bowie in a park and at a bus stop, in a yard of a residential building and at this museum. At the museum, around closing time, there were several of us parked on the benches at the exit with the nursing babies. Most of the time people didn't pay us any attention, and when they did, they smiled and walked on--unless accompanied by toddlers, who wanted to know what we were doing and came over to say hi to the baby.

To conclude this part of the trip, here's a list of discoveries we've made in the past week:

-- Trashcans make excellent hiding places for toys
-- Purple dragon fruit leaves purple marks on rug. So do blueberries
-- Yogurt leaves whiting marks on rug
-- Potted plants are tastier than bacon
-- Happy smiling babies are welcome anywhere. Cranky cry-babies will get their business lounge privileges revoked
-- Telephones have chords! Doorbells ring like bells! Elevators have buttons!
-- Trashcans can roll
-- Baby can figure out not only a TV set but also an alarm clock. It rings at five am at leaves a terribly annoying song stuck in your head all day
-- An unplugged ethernet cable will entertain a baby for solid fifteen minutes. So will a shoe-shining box
-- Apples are good for juggling
-- Trashcans make excellent drums
-- No, Bowie, potted plants are NOT food
-- Crawling on rug will give you a rug burn 
-- Looking for that ethernet cable and an apple? Check the upside down trashcan before leaving the room
It's Bowie in a box!

Packing up things

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Exploring Beijing

Little by little, in between our strenuous nap and meal schedule, Bowie and I are exploring Beijing. Our business class hotel is located, appropriately enough, in Chaoyang, Beijing's business district, and within it, an area particularly reserved for office towers, high end malls (think Prada, Versace, Chanel, Gucci), posh hotels and residential blocks, peppered with foreign embassies, high end restaurants and bars. Typically, sans baby, I'd hop on the subway and seek out urban adventures--as Dave and I did on our previous trip here in 2010. With Bowie, we've been keeping close to the hotel, in part, because we're still transitioning our sleeping schedule and Bowie gets cranky after short awake intervals, and, in part, because Dave's here, and in the last few days, he's been able to take breaks and spend them with us. Half an hour of play with daddy beats all of the hutongs in Beijing--for now.

We don't need to venture far from the hotel to experience the city. This part of Beijing is developed in Las Vegas-style long blocks, and crossing the broad avenues dividing these blocks is, in itself, something to write home about, especially with a stroller. Pedestrians, taxis, scooter, mopeds and motorbikes, bicyclists, small delivery vehicles, all descend onto the crosswalk at the same time, going in different directions. There are street lights that some people do try to obey. On our very first excursion outside, we saw a deliveryman on the ground, head in a makeshift brace, one leg at an awkward angle. Accidents will happen; I don't know whether in Beijing they happen more often or are more severe than anywhere else (Though few motorcyclists here wear helmets; this man didn't)--witnessing this one early in the trip has put me on guard. The man, I hope will be Okay--he was talking to the people gathered round--though it took the length of our walk, at least twenty minutes, for the ambulance to arrive.

In between the large public avenues, there are malls, office buildings, and residential blocks connected by hutongs--small alleys, spaces that feel a lot more private. The ground floors of many office and residential buildings have shops and restaurants; there are also street vendors. Security is tight; most yards at least in this part of town are fenced off and the entrance is monitored by guards. This doesn't mean they are closed to the public; some are, many aren't. Bowie and I went inside one of them to explore one fine-looking playground, and deemed it acceptable for a warmer day. In another yard, we found a 7-11, where we restocked our supplies of yogurt and teething biscuits. The next day we did better by finding a local supermarket. I imagine it was state-owned and subleasing space to private vendors: There were stores inside the store. We bought sweets from one vendor and a notebook and stickers from another.
The minimum security yard
The maximum security yard

I'm not ready to tackle the crowded subway with Bowie's stroller, but today we tried a taxi. I asked to be taken to Temple of Sun park, that on a map appeared reasonably close to our hotel--a forty-five minute walk. I figured, we'd go there by cab and walk back. Twenty minutes into the cab ride, I started to suspect we were heading elsewhere. Fine, I thought, I didn't really have an agenda. The day was sunny and warm, Bowie was enjoying the cab ride, alternating between flirting with the driver, gazing out of the windows, and trying to dismantle the roof of the cab. My biggest problem was not being sure of the way back. I had no idea what part of the city we were being taken to; my cell phone in China only worked for texting, not data, and the only person I could text (Dave) was in the midst of running his company's annual conference; I did have a bilingual map with me, but spending the time to figure it out would sorely test Bowie's patience (he tolerates the stroller when it's moving; standing still is no good). Taking a taxi to get back would be my only reasonable option. I'd never stopped a cab in China before--getting one from the hotel was easy enough, but do cabs stop on the street? Would they stop for me and Bowie? Would I be able to find a proper taxi stand? What was Mandarin for "taxi"? I'd taken from the hotel a card with the hotel's name and address written down: Something to show the driver. Having this card in my pocket felt reassuring; I relaxed into the ride and distracted Bowie from reaching for the gear stick.

Entrance to the Temple of Earth park
The driver dropped us off in front of what soon turned out to be Temple of Earth (instead of Temple of Sun) park--inside, I found an English-language description. I wonder if the driver purposely decided to upgrade our experience. The doorman had been surprised at our desire to go to Temple of Sun park--it's just a neighborhood attraction, nothing to see there, he said--and, writing this up, I looked up Temple of Earth to find that it's the second largest temple park in Beijing, after the famed Temple of Heaven. This park was similar to Temple of Heaven (I remember it well from my first trip to Beijing) as a gathering place for the people. Bowie and I strolled by a group of retirees singing into a portable karaoke machine and dancing, people playing miniature golf, several booths displaying and selling products and foods from a particular town in Yunnan province (There were ample tasting opportunities. I tried rose-flavored cakes and sesame and peanut cookies and some kind of marinated mushroom and a chewy mint- and anise-flavored fruit. Bowie stuck to his teething biscuits).

To Bowie's delight, we promptly found a playground. Here were opportunities for play and exercise for all ages. Toddlers used the swings and climbing structures while moms, dads, and grandparents swung from monkey bars and used stationary bicycles. Bowie became fascinated by fallen leaves. In San Francisco, demarcation between seasons is mild--he's missing the experience not only of snow, but of rain, thunderstorms, changing leaves, mud. He wanted to clear all of the fallen leaves off the playground, and succeeded in tidying only a little corner before I got worried about all of the scattered cigarette butts and dragged him off. We spent about fifteen minutes waiting for a baby swing to open up (children were taking turns), when to my surprise, the guardians of the last child took the swing off with the baby--apparently, the swing was not a part of the playground set up, but had been supplied by the family and strapped on to the exercise rods. Ingenious. Bowie didn't mind. Another friendly child shared her balloon with him, and so he proceeded to bang it against the ground and tried jumping on top of it. Luckily, the balloon escaped unscathed.
A little guy riding his private swing

Contemplating foliage
Park for all ages

The return trip turned out easier than I feared. After we exited the park, we walked around the residential neighborhood for a bit, giving me time to observe the traffic and taxi patterns--and get an ice cream. Taxis did drive in the quieter outer lanes of the busy avenues. Just as Bowie started to fuss, I was able to flag one down. The driver helped me with the stroller; we were on our way to the hotel.

No car seat!
And, yes, I do feel uneasy about riding with Bowie unstrapped in the back seat of the car. Accidents will happen. I keep thinking about that man we saw lying on the street, waiting for the ambulance. We have one more full day in Beijing left. Shall I take Bowie to what I heard is an awesome dinosaur museum or stay close to the hotel? Bowie has developed rug burn on his knees from crawling around the hotel's hallways. He found and nearly ate shattered pieces of floor tile in an indoor playground at the nearby mall. The risk and reward calculation is far from obvious. I'm making plans one day at a time. Since there's weather here, let the weather decide.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Bonding on vacation

Writers don't take vacations. Neither do mothers. And yet, Bowie and I are undoubtedly on vacation, as opposed to Dave, who's working every day, including weekends, on this part of the trip. Vacation, for us, has meant not something we go away from, but the sense of departure itself, the journey, the change of pace. We feel strongly the absence of nanny Marina, Bowie's tireless guide in his exploration of the world, and whose companionship and love, experience, and steady character we've all come to depend on in the last few months. I admit to weighing Bowie a couple of times on the hotel bathroom scale, wishing to have some tangible report of progress to send Marina. His weight gain has definitely slowed in the last couple of months, which wouldn't be a cause for a second thought if he hadn't been a baby champion in his early months. No dice; the scale's barely holding steady. What's growing is his second set of canines--the bulges are about to pop through--to the total of sixteen teeth; so, there.

In Marina's absence and Dave's occasional presence, Bowie and I have been bonding. Each morning, we accompany Dave down to breakfast, where we share a table with a rotating crew of his co-workers. They are on various deadlines; we're on a mission of discovery, and watch them come and go as we stay for a two hour long ritual of taking up foods, throwing some on the ground, placing others into mommy's mouth, taking out the remains, placing into own mouth, chewing--taking a break to flirt with the neighboring tables--occasionally swallowing, usually spitting out. Baby's favorite food this week? Bacon. Unlikely second winner? Papadum, Indian crisp bread--thank you, pan-Asian buffet. I keep expecting Bowie to develop a sudden interest in congee and fruit (aren't babies supposed to like mushes and sweet things?), and so I keep piling those on our plate, too. So far, he prefers things crispy and crunchy, something to sink his teeth into, with the occasional exception for yogurt (in China, we've tried several varieties; even the "plain" ones seem sweetened). In the time it takes baby to chew a single piece of bacon, mommy ends up having three breakfasts. Hey, it's all my favorite foods.

After breakfast, Bowie exhibits signs of extreme tiredness. There's the eye rubbing, the tugging on mommy's shirt, the jumpiness when somebody makes a loud noise. We return to the room for a nap; nurse; the baby's wide awake. He rolls off the boob, begs to be lowered down to the floor, crawl-runs for the nearest electric plug or a shoe, tugs, chews, gracefully allows to distract himself with a book or a ball. Preparing for the trip in San Francisco, nanny Marina has helped us pack a few of Bowie's favorite toys and books. This kit is a huge success. To it, we add magazines from the hotel room, bottles of water, pieces of food squirreled away from breakfast, and, argh, as of yesterday, TV remote control. Dave and I don't really watch TV at home or on the road, but guess what? The remote control comes with the big red button that tells a baby, able to comprehend cause and effect toys, "press here." It's all trial and error. Nobody showed him how to use the remote. He pushes the button, and occasionally it works. He pushes some more. Next thing I know, he's switching the channels. Quite purposefully.

The amazed mommy, simultaneously thrilled at the baby genius and eager to get baby unhooked from the shiny picture, picks up the balls from the toy kit. Up goes a ball in the air. The baby half turns, curious to see what's happening, then returns full attention to the screen. Up goes the second ball. Now I've got the baby's attention. Eeee, he says, which I figure to mean, do it again. So I do. Again. And Again. Faster. With clapping. With funny sounds when I lose both balls and requests to Bowie: Will you get me that ball? And that other one? Bowie does. This baby, who merely a few weeks ago barely reacted when you said his name, can now follow through a command; tries to repeat the word for ball--мячик, I say, ма-ма-ма, says Bowie. Ma-ma-ma, which could mean mommy or ball, and probably still means neither, but there it comes, the next step is clear. Мячик, I'll say, мя-мя-мя, will repeat Bowie, going for the ball and tossing it back to me (or hiding it from me, as his sense of humor develops). But we're not there yet. We're on the rug and mommy's learning to juggle.

When this juggling routine gets old, we take more laps in the hallway, then return to the room. Blinds closed, lights off, we try to summon sleep once more, and with some luck, and punching, and kicking, sleep sets in. Bowie goes into his crib, mommy makes coffee.

Berry compote in the making

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Living it up in Beijing

My friends Anna and Eric recently journeyed by train from San Francisco to Portland and back. Their friend, a frequent train traveler, had amassed enough points on Amtrak to be able to treat them to bunks in a private cabin. On their return to San Francisco, Anna wrote an essay that she shared at the San Francisco Writers Workshop about a man they met at dinner on the train, who was curiously well-informed about all the rail, air, and highway networks in the country. Anna, who is completing an international spy thriller, suspected the man of being associated with the firm. She and Eric clearly felt like spies themselves, infiltrating the world of the eccentric first class train travelers and observing not only the landscape in the window of their cabin and the constellations in the nighttime sky but also their fellow humans and themselves in an unfamiliar setting.

Travel, by way it pegs us to assigned seats, highlights the disparities of wealth and privilege. It also allows us the occasional opportunity to cross over, to intrude and take note of the lives of others. I remember talking to an American woman once who'd been dreaming of making a pilgrimage to Israel, to walk the way of Christ. She could picture the route exactly and had her entire itinerary planned out, down to the places to stop for lunch. The thing that was holding her up? If she were to take a cross-Atlantic flight, she wanted to be comfortable, she said. She wanted to do it in style. She was saving up for a first class ticket.

Here in Beijing, Bowie and I are trespassing as business travelers. We're sharing Dave's room in a comfortable--very comfortable--business class hotel. Clean filtered air, a crib for Bowie, mini fridge, a coffee maker and an electric tea kettle, TVs in the room and in the bathroom over the tub (TV is supposed to be relaxing?), a desk with lots of electric plugs, accommodating various standards, for all of our computers and phones. There's a leg massage machine. The room is on the 23rd floor and when we open the automated blinds, we're entertained by the view of the endless stream of traffic down below and new construction projects.

Beijing construction in the smog

In the forty-eight hours since our arrival, we've had little opportunity and need to leave the hotel. Bowie's got a case of jet lag, which means short drowsy days and then complete alertness at two am. At that hour, we've been picnicking in the bathroom and taking long crawls down the hallways. Then, back to bed until breakfast. The breakfast buffet, a smorgasbord of Asian, American, and European dishes (think: kimchi and baked beans) is just the thing for a little man who's experimenting with solids. There's cucumber and bacon and noodles and buns and watermelon to munch on, or, well, to throw around, yogurt to dip your fists into.

Picnic at 2 am

Sometime after breakfast and before dinner, we did make it to an indoor playground at a shopping center across the street from the hotel. The playground is perfect for crawlers and beginning walkers: a large enclosed padded space with miniature houses and slides and little rocking dragons (why rock on a horse if you could rock on a dragon?). Bowie took to this playground right away--and instantly became the center of attention. The half-dozed moms, nannies, and grandmas (and one grandpa) instantly wanted their babies to say hi to the foreigner. They did, and Bowie did; hands met hands and faces and noses and mouths; there was a little laughter and a little crying and a little hair pulling. Then followed the photo shoot, where we all had to document this cultural exchange. Bowie climbed the slide, rocked on a dragon, hid behind a miniature house, and then, as soon as seemed appropriate without causing an international scandal, we said пока-пока, bye-bye to our new friends and took off. I have to admit to being more scared of friendly babies than of airports and airplanes and cold and traffic jams and bad air. Their mutual curiosity and inability to cover their faces when they cough makes them perfect conduits for germs. In his eleven months, Bowie's had what feels like more than his fair share of colds, and though the docs keep telling me I won't be able to protect him from having another, I do wish I could. I trample on his social life; we return to the hotel.

Friends forever

Friday, October 23, 2015

Taking Bowie on the Road

Between professional travelers and the people who prefer to stay close to home, Dave and I, passionate as we are about experiencing new places and cultures, have not built our work life to accommodate more than a couple of trips a year, and so each departure feels fresh, an adventure, some of them more scary and daring than others.

Baby traveler
Once, on a Greek island of Naxos, we met a French couple with a three-week old baby. The two of them worked for Doctors Without Borders, and never got a chance to spend enough time together. After their baby was born, instead of staying in their hometown, surrounded by well-meaning family and friends, they decided to take the baby to a quiet relaxing place where the three of them would have a chance to bond. These professional travelers thought nothing, nay, found it relaxing, to take their newborn to a small island, accessible by ferry only in calm seas (the ferry we arrived on was able to dock at the port on the third attempt, just barely) and by a small aircraft, equally dependent on weather. At that time, Dave and I were only thinking about thinking about having a baby, and we put this story away as something both thrilling and worth aspiring to.

Sleeping like a rock star
I'm writing this from Beijing, where the nearly eleven-month Bowie and I landed yesterday, to rejoin Dave. Dave's been traveling to China for work; this time, he's helping to organize the company's annual conference happening next week. He's been here for a few days already to see things through (here are his photos from the past week). Bowie and I couldn't miss this chance to watch him do his job magic and to assist by breaking his sleep into bite-size chunks (tastier this way?). We also have our sights set on the following week, when Dave will take a vacation and we head to Tokyo.

So far, we've done little more than arrive, take a brief survey of the hotel and the nearby malls, fall asleep at dinner (Bowie), take a two o'clock in the morning snack of the dinner leftovers (Bowie), have breakfast and take a midday nap (Bowie). I'm hanging out now waiting for an appropriate time to wake Bowie from the nap (jet lag baby!) so that we could try out the perfect indoor playground area Dave had scouted out for us.

Here's the thing I love the most about traveling with Bowie so far: the baby knows how to make friends. In the airport and during the flight, he worked the system better than a priority status. We got seated early and, since the aircraft wasn't completely full, the flight attendants moved the man seated next to us, allowing Bowie extra room to crawl and play. A tireless neighbor behind us spent at least an hour playing peekaboo with Bowie; another neighbor used her fingers to teach him Chinese numbers. Bowie then counted individual grains of rice served to us for dinner--a few did end up in his mouth.

And hey, those baby changing stations on the Boeings? Quite functional with plenty of counter space with entertainment for the busy crawler. From the paper cups and paper towels to the faucet and the mirror, it's all a curiosity to him. Speaking of entertainment, while waiting on that clean diaper, peeing all over that changing station seems just the thing to do!

Overlooking Beijing traffic