Category Archives: holiday

Tis what season?

The commercial holiday season of course.  Not long ago the season started after the US Thanksgiving holiday through to Christmas, Dec 25th.  Now, clever big box outlets are stretching the season to milk the holidays for everything they are worth, and more.

Starbucks Zhangjiagang, Nov 20th

Starbucks Zhangjiagang, Nov 20th

In New York last week, during the marching by those voicing their displeasure that those with opposing views elected a president they don’t support, it was hard not to recognize the familiar streetside bell ringing by the Salvation Army volunteers soliciting annual holiday donations.  This army makes its apearance every Christmas holiday season.  But it was only Nov 13.

That day and the next day I searched for a few supplies to cart back to China which took me into a few large retail chains.  Each one had loud, obnoxious Christmas songs pumping through their music systems.  In one store I overheard a sales employee, practicing most excellent customer service, ask a nearby customer, “can I help you with anything?” to which the response was, “yes, can you please have the music changed?”  The blaring commercial music, with melodies of sleigh-bells ringing and dreaming of a white Christmas ,was truly annoying, even though it provided good internal practice for being content in the moment.

post writing november in a china starbucks

post writing November in a china Starbucks

As I write this post I’m sitting in a Starbucks in Jiangsu Province, drinking coffee from a festively decorated red reindeer cup listening to Christmas music.  Not many people celebrate Christmas here, but it is, after all, Starbucks.

  • Tis the season when most retailers are counting on us being jolly, and buying stuff, lots of stuff.
  • Tis the season when sales volumes must satisfy investor hunger for positive year-end results.
  • Tis the season, whether we like it or not.

Oh so Koh Samui

On Thailand’s west coast, with its beautiful white beaches on the Andaman Sea, Phuket and the surrounding islands may be considered the country’s most popular resort area.  But almost directly across the relatively thin sliver of land forming Thailand’s tail is a cluster of islands off the east coast that rival as getaway treasures.  One of those gems, Koh Samui, the largest and most developed, sits about 1.5 hours by high-speed ferry in the Sea of Thailand.

Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as they call it, arrived early this year.  It’s a two-week holiday season that closes down most of the country.  For a foreigner, it’s a good time to flee because almost nothing is open.  Everyone travels to their home village, closing down restaurants, stores, and most businesses.  Where I live in China has been below freezing.  I considered going back to New York, but winter was delivering record snow.  A warm destination was begging so I booked a flight to Bangkok with plans to return to the island that had mostly faded from memory.

the 2nd class overnight car

the 2nd class overnight car

A confluence of events aligned to take me back to Koh Samui after 30 years, this time with a nephew.  Sam, (one of) sister M’s son, had been backpacking through Thailand and SE Asia for a couple of months during the tail end of last year.  After returning home to Philadelphia the last week of 2015, he decided on a new home, one he could carry on his back, so he quit his job, purged many of his belongings, stored the rest, re-packed his hiking backpack and set out to pick up where he left off — time indefinite.

After landing in Bangkok on Feb 1, I received a text from Sam saying “hey Freddie, by sheer coincidence you wouldn’t happen to be in Bangkok would you?  I arrive there in a few days.”  ‘Wow, what are the chances?’  I thought, as I texted back, “I am, but I’m planning on booking an overnight train ticket for Surat Thani and a ferry to Koh Samui for the 4th evening/5th morning.”  “Great,” he responds, “I’m landing on 4th morning. Can you snag an extra ticket?”  All of a sudden I had a traveling partner for a few days.  So did he.  An added ‘unknown’ to the already unknown.

Sam as we de-trained after the overnight trip

Sam as we de-trained after the overnight trip

Most of the trains were full due to Chinese New Year as a segment of Chinese flood to Thailand for their holidays.  The following two days were already sold out.  Fortunately, when I returned to the train station the next day I found one seat left on the same train, same car, and the same section (I had bottom bunk, he had the top).  “Crazy coincidence’ I kept thinking.  His connecting flight from New York through Moscow to Bangkok was on-time, so we had lunch in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok after he arrived, beat around the city a bit before we made our way in metro to the central Hua Lampong railway station for our 12-hour train ride south to Surat Thani.

Sam had taken this voyage a couple of months ago on his way to Phuket, so he recommended a place near the train station where we bought dinner packed to-go for the journey (so much better than train food).   The train took off on time at 7:30 pm, we had dinner in our laps knee-to-knee, then settled in as the staff set up the sleeping bunks for the slow rocking trip south.  We hit Surat Thani the next morning at 7 am, caught a one-hour bus to the ferry terminal, the ferry to Koh Samui, and another van ride to our beach.

an oh-so pleasant ferry trip

an oh-so pleasant ferry trip

A lot has changed since my last visit to KS.  Gone are the rustic, sporadically placed bungalows where I stayed on the northern, most popular beach, eaten up by a hungry and well-fed tourism industry.  Fortunately,  other beaches on the island have sprouted enough authentic commercial activity to keep the island a stellar destination.  We decided on Lamai Beach on the east side, from a recommendation for its balance of sufficient activity with a healthy dose of tranquility.  We weren’t disappointed.  The spur-of-the-moment accommodation we rented could not have been better situated, nor closer to the surf, which, during high-tide, washed over the two steps of our one-room bungalow porch.

IMG_7269It’s been years since I’ve seen Sam, had never spent any significant time with him, and the gap between our ages significantly exceeds his age, so I was more than a little curious how a joint trip would pan out.  As it happened, I was targeting three days in Koh Samui, but we had such an enjoyable time, that we hung out for a full week, any differences in our generational gap(s) was more than made up by his maturity, good nature, and our ability to be in the moment.  We talked a lot about a lot, we walked a lot, hiked across the island, motorbiked the island both clock and counter clock wise, swam a lot, and, uh, ok, drank (not) a lot, and just hung out at our surf-side bungalow.  It was, in short, at least for me, a super-gratifying experience.IMG_7257

After a week in the tropical sun, it’s time for me to make my way back north, and then back to China to work.  After dropping me off at the airport on his rented motorbike (the return trains were booked solid), Sam plans to camp a couple more days in the KS palm-tree laden hills before meeting a female friend in Surat Thani where he will continue south into Malaysia, and points beyond, or where ever his nose takes him.

I’m hoping that the stars align again to bring me back to Oh So Koh Samui before another 30 years passes.  And, sending good wishes to Sam’s time-indefinite trip, that it turns out to be fulfilling, wherever it takes him.

blog building

blog building

breakfast by the beach

breakfast by the beach

IJ, aka Sam on the rocks

IJ, aka Sam on the rocks

on our hike in the middle of no accessible roads

on our hike in the middle of no accessible roads

 

caught from behind

caught from behind

caught from behind 2

caught from behind 2

on the hike across KS

on the hike across KS

on the rocks contemplation, about nothing

on the rocks contemplation, about nothing

 

 

 

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zoned out just right

 

Papaya Crab Salad

Papaya Crab Salad

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almost walked into this guy

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on his way up

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on the way to Koh Samui

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the restaurant at our bungalow

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somewhere in the mountains

a coffee break before the flight, in front of the banyon tree

a coffee break before the flight, in front of the banyon tree

our last morning at the bungalow, with sun too bright

our last morning at the bungalow, with sun too bright

Harkness Memorial Park

With a slight yen for non-city seaside air, GV and I took a day out of a long holiday weekend and made our way to a beach in Waterford, CT (near brother-in-law’s home). The day would have been most excellent had it involved time in the water, but even though it’s the salty Atlantic Ocean, because it boarders the Long Island Sound, body-surfing waves are scarce, hence a drop of disappointment which quickly evaporated with several miles and hours of tranquil sandy beach foot-massage walking.

Donated by Mary Harkness to the people of Connecticut for their health and general benefit, the land was a 230 acre seaside farm/summer home (mansion), now a state park run mostly by volunteers.  Ms. Harkness and her husband purchased the land with the fortune her husband’s father made as a silent partner of (the famous) John D. Rockefeller.  Extensive beachfront should not be privately held, anywhere, so it sure was heady gesture of Harkness to bequeath the land back to the people.

Beside the sand and surf, the park provides lots of lawn, complete with plenty of large trees covering tables with delicious views of the sea.  Being by the sea was a welcome antidote to city rat-race, even, or especially during the 239th birthday of the USA.

looking into morning sunrise

looking into morning sunrise

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C snapped beaches for as far as you can walk

C shaped beaches as far as you can walk

abundant lawn for those looking for seaside grass

abundant lawn for those looking for seaside grass

a backside inlet perfect for wading among the sealife

a backside inlet perfect for wading among the sealife

connecting flight

When there is a delay with a non-stop, direct flight with no onward connections, the delay becomes a relatively known calculable. But a delay with connecting flights, especially through an airport you’ve never been, can quickly become an unknown.

I decided to fly a couple of days before the mass exodus of Chinese New Year. My China visa was up for renewal anyhow, so doing this in Thailand saved an overseas trip to the USA. I booked the trip online like I’ve done dozens of times. The flight was a connection in Shenzhen from Shanghai to Bangkok, but that was ok, I thought, it is on Shenzhen Airlines, they must own the airport where I was connecting. Even though there was a transfer from domestic to international, the two-hour layover was a valid connection with plenty of time.

Strangely, even though the airline offers web check-in, you can’t check-in online for flights out of China. Only at the airport. Since the first leg was domestic connecting to an international one, I could not check into either flight beforehand. So like a good traveler, I arrived at Pudong airport 2.5 hours early.

At the airport, the airlines would only give me a boarding pass from Shanghai to Shenzhen, not for the onward flight. The “systems are different” they said. For the second flight I needed to check-in again in Shenzhen. If there was checked luggage, it had to be claimed and re-checked. This was a new wrinkle, I thought. Fortunately, I had just carryon luggage for the two-week plus trip.

To my delight, they upgraded me to first class (maybe because I requested a seat up front). I had a comfortable flight to look forward to and I’d be off the plane first. In addition, after I waited in a queue to pass through domestic immigration, I used a pass they gave me for the airport golf cart shuttle to take me to the first class lounge, which was quite a hike.

It was the first time I had flown out of this particular terminal of Shanghai’s airport. As we were cruising to the lounge, (I was riding shotgun in the full, extra long cart), I understood why some would like this service of sitting rather than huffing the half-mile hike. I would have enjoyed the walk, but the terminal floor is carpet, good for noise but not ideal for rolling luggage. The lounge was at the end of the T shaped terminal and was right next to the gate I was leaving from.  Beautiful.  I walked into the lounge and thought “what a way to start a vacation, traveling first class with two hours until my flight and I had time for dinner in a quiet and cozy lounge.”

As I checked in, the lounge receptionist casually told me my flight was “a little delayed.” How much is “a little,” I asked her. Well, she said, the plane has not yet left Shenzhen, so at least two hours. Two hours!! “I’ll miss my connection,” I tell her. She calls her supervisor. I explain the connection predicament to him and he does 10 minutes of phone, meanwhile I’m staring longingly at the food buffet as it was 5pm and I hadn’t eaten all day. Then he says they found me another flight that leaves earlier and because I have no checked luggage, we can change. Great, I say, let’s do it, thinking I could relax and eat while they make the change. No. He says we must run because not only is the terminal a mile long, but we’ve got to go back to the checkin counter outside security and domestic immigration to re-book another flight.

Little did I know, as he was arranging this, that we were switching airlines. The new airlines, China Eastern, stuck me in seat 56J, a middle seat in the back. This flight was scheduled to leave nearly one hour earlier than my original flight. Great. All of a sudden I had to hightail it to the gate, which this time, was at the opposite end of the T, and without the shuttle.

But I like walking fast so reaching the gate in time was no problem. I arrived only to find out that my new flight was delayed a half hour. And, after that half hour, the gate had changed, back toward the original gate. I went from gate 78, to 42, to 201. More steps for the iPhone health app.

There were no weather problems in China, regardless, my new flight ended up being two hours late. Instead of dinner in the first class lounge, I was at a barren gate with thirst and hunger pangs, with a plane load of other antsy passengers.

Finally we boarded, but not at a normal gate like 95% of the flights, but by the dreaded bus-to-tarmac loading. Before I settled into the back of the plane, I asked a flight attendant if there was any chance of sitting further toward the front. “I had a tight connection,” I told her, “and needed to deplane quickly.” After everyone was seated on our full flight, she was nice enough to escort me to the only empty seat which happened to be bulkhead of economy. Her much appreciated gesture made me feel a whole lot better about my chances of making the connecting flight.

We circled Shenzhen for longer than we should have. After landing, we taxied forever. When we finally stopped I understood why. We were not de-planing at a gate, but again, by the dreaded bus routine. The satisfaction I felt about being moved to the first row of economy quickly dissipated. But I’d still be on the first bus.

Every other time over the many times around the world that I’ve deplaned on the tarmac, when there are buses and the first bus fills, it proceeds to the terminal. Not this time. There were three buses. I was in the first. It filled. To my disbelief we didn’t leave when we were full and passengers started boarding the bus behind us. We waited until every last person and flight crew was off the plane and the cleaning crew boarded before all three buses headed to the terminal in a convoy. We could not have been farther away from the terminal. My window of opportunity was quickly evaporating.

During the bus trip, a Chinese guy, sensing my obvious angst after I banged on the bus driver’s window motioning him to move out, told me that Shenzhen was the largest airport in China. He doubted I’d make my connecting flight. Thanks for that, I thought.

We finally get to the terminal and at long last I’m under my own power again. I make my way to the international ticket counter, which was surprisingly easier than I had imagined it to be and it was empty, except for one person.  I thanked my lucky stars, until I showed her my e-ticket. She looked at the time and declared that I was 10 minutes late and the flight is closed. I should have arrived a few minutes earlier, she says. I would have, I explained, had 1) we not parked on the outer edge of the tarmac, or 2) the first bus taken off on when it was full, or 3) if the flight I was just on was not a total of 2.5 hours delayed. “And look,” I say, as I show her my boarding passes, “your airline in Shanghai changed my flight so that I could make this one.”

“Sorry,” she said stubbornly, “next flight is tomorrow.” I swallowed and put on my  pleading, sympathy face and said, “would you please call the gate and try to make an exception. The flight I was scheduled on, your employer Shenzhen Airlines, was two hours late and they put me on another airlines so that I could make this connection. I am fast. I can easily make it to the gate. In fact, I can make it to the gate and back, twice.” She made a half-dozen calls, half of them kept dropping, and finally told me I was out of luck. The gate was closed. There were no more flights tonight. It was now almost 11 pm and I was beginning to resolve in my head that I’d stay the night in Shenzhen.

“Ok,” I say, “what time is the flight tomorrow?” She tells me around noon. I plead again. “Look, I’ve got to be at the Chinese embassy tomorrow before noon to renew my visa before they close for Chinese Near Year. Are there any earlier flights tomorrow? Can’t you put me on another airlines like your colleagues in Shanghai did?” She looks at my other two boarding passes again and makes several more calls. Then, after about 30 minutes, she says I might be able to make the flight tonight. Wow, I thought, great. Another ten minutes and another ten calls and she says she was mistaken. Moreover, the next flight tomorrow was now not until the evening. Things just went from bad to good to worse.

As I’m about to inform her that what she was telling me was not acceptable, a call comes through. She casually tells me there may be another flight tonight. After 10 more concurrent calls, she prints and hands me a boarding pass for tonight’s flight, and in first class. But I’ve got to run. Ok, no problem.

She calls immigration and security to make sure they are waiting for me. I run. I’m the only one in this part of the terminal and I arrive to immigration where there is one officer amid all the empty booths who checks me out of the country for the last time on my current visa. I get to security and there is a crew of 10 waiting for me, no one else there. It was the fastest, almost, I’ve gone through airport security. As soon as my bags zoom through the x-ray, they closed the door and were done for the night.

Except,…after I went through the X-ray, the female agent in charge of wanding decided to do an extra thorough job. I’ve been wanded before, as everyone who travels has. The other nine security agents stood watching, and waiting for me to be processed by Ms. Wander agent.

Most airport wand’ers hold the wand slightly off the body. She however, pressed the wand against my body, with pressure, and slowly moved the wand over what seemed to be every inch. She slid and pressed the wand slowly down all sides of each leg, and took her time around the rest of the mid section. It was indeed a strange experience. She even took my passport and slowly wanded that. She gave me a wand job like no other wand job I’ve ever had. I might have considered it somewhat sensual, had I not been thinking that I needed to run to the gate. After she was satisfied, (I think), she let me go.

And I ran. And ran. Until I was out of breath. Of course my gate was the furthest one. There was no one in the terminal. Not until I was in sight of the gate number could I see a plane load of people. I slowed to a fast walk. To my nonsurprise, when I arrived to the gate I found that the flight was an hour delayed.  What else was new?

When we boarded the flight I was content. I was in first class and would be able to keep my plans for visa application the next day (actually, later that day as it was after midnight). The flight pulled back and then sat for another 1.5 hours. It didn’t matter, I thought, I hadn’t missed a nights sleep in a while. We landed in Bangkok at 5am, only 4 hours later than scheduled, but a whole lot sooner than the alternative.

It all ended ok.  After all, it wasn’t a dramatic event, just a package of goofy (rich) experiences.  I applied for and received my visa as I had planned. But it wasn’t without some active nudging and two changed flights. Next time, I think I’ll take the direct non-stop.

new year’s eve eve

Most big celebrated events have a lead-up period.  We’ve been sporadically doling out Happy New Years greetings for several days now.  These greetings crescendo between 10pm — 2am tomorrow evening, peaking at midnight wherever you are, signifying that the last calendar year is officially history (until the tax filing deadline).  The greetings will have tapered off dramatically by Jan 2.  The start of the greeting excitement though, happens today, NYEE.

Tomorrow, NYE, is a holiday for most businesses.  NYEE is when we bid farewell to many co-workers for the rest of the year.  It’s also the last day to get our acts together for NYE.

Don’t let the eve of the big eve get the better of you.  Before NYEE slips through your fingers, make sure next year’s calendar is open and ready for flexibility and change, with a heavy hand primed for newness.

From this blog post to your subconsciousness:  May you have a HAPPY and PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR, and a productive New Year’s Eve Eve.

christmas

It sure is nice living in a part of the world that celebrates Christmas.  The spirit of the holiday does something to, well, the spirit.  We’re reminded to be festive, to do things for others we would not normally do, give gifts and be nice(r).  In a way, it begs the question as to why we need a holiday for an excuse to be more festive.  But life moves in cycles, in waves, it ebbs and flows, so it seems natural also that we periodically take breaks to contemplate the softer side of our humanity.

Yesterday in the gym, I heard one of the trainers complaining that more people were not in the same joyful holiday spirit that he was.  The fact that more people didn’t wish him merry christmas rankled his joyfulness.  I overheard him complaining with his trainee as I was working through an exercise.  I pulled out my earphones, looked over to him and said, “merry f**$%## christmas.”  From his surprised face, it wasn’t the precise greeting he was after, but his trainee got a laugh.

He was after people being in more than the routine spirit, even in a place where people go through routines.  He believed we should have been extra jovial grunting through exercises, so it did pass through my frontal cortex, for a few seconds, why we aren’t more jovial more often.

No doubt there is a special feeling that comes over most during Christmas, were we greet strangers when we wouldn’t normally, or we are more receptive and smiling.

So MFC.  Merry Festive Christmas.  If it’s the season to be nice, them maybe we should stretch the holidays as long as possible.

politically correct, not socially inept

Yeah.  It’s the holiday season.  The main holiday of the year.  The most important commercial holiday.  Perhaps even an important religious holiday.  But the holiday that is all about giving something, even if it’s a wish.

And the wish, in this country, has evolved.  It’s become more politically correct.  Possibly even socially correct.  Happy holiday is the greeting more common now than a couple of decades ago.

In my early 30’s while living in California, there were a few years where I had the wild hair of sending Christmas cards to family and close friends.  I thought it was cool to send a wish to those I didn’t get to see regularly.  It was a little work sending individual greetings along with the card, but well worth the small investment of time.  Or so I thought.

My wild hair tamed after three years so my tradition quickly petered out.  I can’t remember why.  I do remember the cards I sent were Christmas cards.  It seemed natural.  Even the Jewish friends I had celebrated the spirit of Christmas.

The other day I received a card from niece e who lives in Washington DC.  For some reason I knew it would be politically correct (coming from the capital).  It was.  The card was a wish for a Happy New Year, and a happy holiday season, along with a personal written note inside.  It was darn nice receiving the card and it’s still posted on my refrigerator.

The other card was from daughter j and is the annual family photo wishing Merry Christmas.  Given I haven’t sent any cards for years, I’m lucky to still be in the plus column:  sent 0, received 2.

I’m not counting the various Christmas and Holiday e-cards.  Using printer ink to get those onto the refrigerator would run counter to the digital reason they were sent.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking I should grow the wild hair again and get back in the tradition of sending cards.  A little too late for this year, but if I get this on a to do list in next year’s agenda I’ll have a fighting chance.

When next year does come around, I think I’ll follow niece e’s example and make it a holiday card.  It’s more efficient.  Makes more sense.  Not that I have anything against Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.  Just that Happy Holiday is more encompassing, while not loosing anything in translation — which is what we try to do when being politically correct.

We don’t call fat people fat, or yellow folks yellow, so it’s not just about being politically correct.  It’s about doing what makes sense without the offense.

I don’t know if what I’ll send next year will make sense.  Whatever it is, I’ll work hard at making sure it’s not socially inept.  I think I can do that if I strive to stay politically correct.

For now though, I’ve found a wish on the internet I’d like to extend to you, the reader, in the hopes that I’m well outside the borders of the socially inept.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, HappyWinter Solstice, and a Generally Happy Seasonal Greeting

Best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral, winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most joyous traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, but with respect for the religious persuasion of others who choose to practice their own religion as well as those who choose not to practice a religion at all.

Additionally, best wishes for a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling, and medically uncomplicated new year, recognizing the generally accepted calendar year 2013, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions have helped make our society, (and the world) what it is, without regard to the race, creed, color, religious, or sexual preferences of the wisher, wishes, or wishee’s.

(Disclaimer: This greeting is subject to clarification or withdrawal. It implies no promise by the wisher to actually implement any of the wishes for himself or others and no responsibility for any unintended emotional stress these greetings may bring to those not caught up in the seasonal spirit.)