Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Dirty, Hungry Elephants

I knew I wanted to go to Thailand, and I knew I wanted to get up close and personal with elephants. Lately, I've read so many stories about the cruel animal training techniques used to teach these gentle giants how to do tricks for crowds of people or submit to giving ride after ride to paying customers.  On my trip, I longed to connect with the elephants in a more personal, humane manner. That's how I decided to visit the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai which is renowned for rescuing elephants and letting them live freely in their sanctuary.

Well hello there. Easy now.

If there's one word to describe Elephant Nature Park (ENP), I would say that it is "Love." Love is what pours out of every visitor and worker here. Not just, "I love being here," but also "These elephants need love" and "I would love to serve you." You... as in the elephants. ENP flips the typical meet-an-elephant tour model on its head and switches it around from elephants serving people to how the people can serve the elephants. Most of these elephants have spent their lives in servitude, and they have the scars to prove it. ENP does not condone elephant riding. Instead, visitors get to pet them, feed them, and as the highlight of the day, bathe them in the river. They interact with these animals without exploiting them. Volunteers who stay for a week do additional duties such as prepping elephant food and doing the hard labor that maintaining this sanctuary requires. They also get more elephant time.

My day begins when I'm picked up from my hotel in central Chiang Mai. The van is filled with the other people in my small group who I'll get to know better as the day progresses. Our guide, Bee, is also on board and gives us an introduction to the ENP. We watch a few videos about their elephant rescues, and the time it takes to reach the park, 60 kilometers away, passes quickly. As we round the corner and go down into the valley, I catch my first glimpse of the elephants wandering through a large field and am filled with wonder. It's actually happening! I'm reminded of that scene from Jurassic Park when the people in the jeep see the dinosaurs for the first time. (Of course, this will visit will not end with us running for our lives.)

I can barely contain my excitement. I am about to meet an elephant.

We disembark from the van, settle at our table and relax before our first job of the day. Feeding Time! The elephants amble up to the deck surrounding the building. We have giant bushel baskets filled with fruits and veggies cut up by the volunteers. There's pumpkins, watermelon, bunches of bananas and pineapples. I'm a little nervous at first, although I'm not quite sure why. We're behind a railing so there's no way that an over-eager elephant can get too close. I lean over, gingerly holding out my offering. She curls the end of her trunk around it and without ado, brings it to her mouth. Over and over, I repeat the process until the basket is empty.

I cannot believe it. I am feeding an elephant!

Next, Bee takes us on a stroll around ENP to introduce us to some of the 34 elephants living here and tell us a little more about their backstories. Unfortunately, most of the tales are quite sad and filled with mistreatment. Some were part of the Thai logging industry while others were street beggars or circus performers. The one in the top photo has a broken hip from being mounted by a bull elephant during a forced breeding program. Another gal, Jokia, was purposely blinded in both eyes with a slingshot by a former owner when she wouldn't obey his commands. Lucky is also blind, but her cause is years of working under bright, circus spotlights. Some have disfigured feet after stepping on landmines.

Lame from a land mine injury

Sadly, these poor creatures are just some of the very many being abused in Thailand. Wild elephants are protected, but the 2500 domesticated ones who formerly worked in the now illegal logging industry are considered mere beasts of burden. Cruel, physical punishment is the norm for keeping these large animals under control. At ENP, elephants still have mahouts (handlers), but there's not a single bullhook or prod in sight. Instead, they rely on positive reinforcement and kindness. ENP does not have the funds to rescue them all since most owners are unwilling to just give them away for free. The park can only take on the most dire and desperate cases. The sanctuary also accepts elderly elephants so that they may have a few last good months at the end of their lives.

It's not all doom and gloom at ENP, though. If anything, the overriding message is one of hope. There's even a little guy named "Hope" who was rescued as a orphaned baby near the brink of death but is now thriving. We got to meet adorable, 5-month-old Navann who was energetic and playful. He and his mother, Sri Prae, who also sustained land mine injuries spend their time inside a large pen to protect them from some of the bullying elephants in the herd. Surprisingly, teen girl dynamics with the Queen Bees and Wannabees social structure play out in the elephant world, too. On their own, the elephants have broken off into distinct cliques or families. They look out for their adoptive family members but are also choosy about who they'll let into their circle. Lucky has been trying to make her way into a group for three months, but the others just turn and walk away when she approaches.

Our guide introduces us to adorable, 5-month-old Navaan and his mahout (handler).

We wander around the park for a bit longer. Other animals are here, like over 400 dogs rescued from Bangkok during the 2011 floods. Water buffalo roam in the distance. Remembering my days as a kid walking through Texas cow pastures, I ask if we need to watch our step lest we encounter a big, smelly pile of elephant doo-doo. It turns out that some volunteers are actually on pooper scooper duty, and the park barters this excellent fertilizer in exchange for organic produce.

Mudbaths cool down the elephants and protect them from biting insects.

It's feeding time again, but this time for the humans. Considering how committed ENP is to championing animal protection, it's not surprising that the meals are vegetarian. The buffet spreads across a few long tables, and sodas are available for purchase. I pleasantly discover that it's all delicious and even go back for seconds. We have time to sit for a while and get to know the others in our small group better.

Come hungry

As we relax there, stuffed with food and feeling a little lazy in the heat, I think about how my close encounters with the elephants are not exactly as I expected. I thought their skin would be rough and tough like a cowboy boot, but when I stroke their trunks, I find that it's actually soft to the touch. You might think that animals that big would be quite noisy when they move around with their stomping feet making the ground tremble beneath them. In fact, they were so quiet, they actually snuck up on us a few times. One man had his back to the platform railing after lunch, and I had to tell him, "Don't be surprised, but there's an elephant right behind you."

The Elephant Whisperer (in my dreams)

Finally, the big moment arrives.

It's time to head down to the river to bathe the elephants.

The elephants and their mahouts make their way into the water first. This is clearly a part of the day that the elephants enjoy. Each group gathers around a few elephants with our buckets ready. Scoop and throw. Scoop and throw. The elephants get into the action, too, spraying water with their trunks. It's like an Elephant Songkran.  One pachyderm drops a few poop bombs into the river, and we yell, "Watch out for the floaters!" to the folks downstream. It's actually quite hard to dislodge the mud from the elephants back, but I figure that we're here more to help them cool off than to get clean. After all, they're just going to go and roll in the dirt again.

Splish Splash I was giving a bath.

The elephants climb back out of the river when they see the fruit treats that the mahouts brought them. It was fantastic to see how comfortable these men are with their animals, sitting peacefully as the big beasts crowded around them. Our group heads up to an elevated viewing platform to gaze at this valley that provides a safe haven for the elephants. It's tea time (yes, they feed you AGAIN), then time for a documentary movie.

One of the mahouts relaxes with the animals.

Most of the film focuses on Lek, the founder of the ENP, and all the good work that her sanctuary does. But my friends who had visited the park before me warned me about the last 10 minutes of the film. One specifically told me that kids and even sensitive adults should exit the room when this section starts. What happens? You find out about the phajaan,the crush.  Young elephants endure weeks of physical and mental abuse so that they have no will to disobey their keepers. This is what traditionally happens to domesticate these animals. Babies are immobilized in small crates, their feet are tied and their limbs stretched. People scream at them, beat them with metal spikes, jab them with heated rods and starve them. Bull hooks tug at their ears and slash the skin. This goes on for for weeks until the elephant's spirit is broken, and he is finally submissive.

I'll confess that I bolted from my seat as soon as I realized we'd reached this part of the movie. I can see it in my imagination, and didn't want to see it on the screen. That's the depressing part. Something that's too terrible for me to witness remotely is an act commonplace for most domesticated Thai elephants. Afterwards, the other people in my group were clearly stricken and distressed by what they'd seen.

Elephants in circuses, performing on the streets or giving rides have had to undergo the phajaan. Is this something that you want to support? Breaking the cycle is why Lek set up ENP. She wants to provide an alternative to this cruelty. Her mahouts use praise and positive reinforcement to control their animals. Visitors can get their up-close-and-personal experience with elephants without having to exploit them.

A safe haven at Elephant Nature Park

My group climbed back into the van at the end of the day. On the journey back to central Chiang Mai, all the amazing elephant encounters of the day floated through my head. It was everything I had hoped for.

If you visit Chiang Mai, do not miss the Elephant Nature Park.

  • I took the Learning Elephant Day Trip which costs 2500 Thai baht (US$77) and includes lunch and transportation from Chiang Mai.
  • This daytrip and other volunteer opportunities from an overnight stay to up to 14 days service can be booked online at the Elephant Nature Park website.
  • A visit to the park is completely suitable for children. Keep in mind that there are also rescued dogs freely roaming the premises and that you may want to leave the movie when the phajaan part starts.
  • You can bring a modest swimsuit (no bikinis, please) for bathing the elephants, but most people just wore street clothes in to the river. When I visited, the water was not deep or fast moving. There's a shower you can use afterwards, but I don't think anyone availed themselves to it.
  • Pick up souvenirs at the gift shop. I especially liked the wooden carvings mahouts had done of the elephants in their care.
  • Sodas and drinking water available for purchase.
  • Love dogs? These furry friends need help at ENP, too. You can become a Dog Volunteer.
  • Would you like to help elephants but cannot visit Thailand? Make a donation to the Serengeti Foundation (tax deductible for US taxpayers) to fund the endeavors of Elephant Nature Park so that more animals can be rescued. Or you can purchase items (lunch, acreage, medical kits, etc.) for the Save Elephant Foundation.

Related Posts:
Visiting the Long Neck Tribe
The Ruins of Chiang Mai's Chedi Luang Temple
Longing for a Chiang Mai Wet Market
Chiang Mai Sunday Market

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox, Pret-a-Vivre, and "Oh the Places I've Been" on The Tablescaper. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Laugh about Paris Signs

Paris is an exciting place full of bucket list sights to see. Just make sure you keep your eye on the road or else you may end up going in Seine. (Sorry for the pun. I couldn't help myself).

Look! It's the Eiffel Tower!... aaaaaahhhhh.... SPLASH

When you're busy checking Notre Dame off your list, you must absolutely, under no circumstances, wear a hat.

No hats. Seriously. Yes, that counts, too. Take that hat off!

I can't think of something witty to say for the doctored Not Enter/ Wrong Way sign below. It just makes me smile. (But I assure you, something incredibly funny will come to me in the middle of the night.)

Caption contest! Leave your submission in the comments.

This post is part of "Travel Photo Monday" on Travel Photo Discovery. Check it out for more armchair travels.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Remarkable Rocks and Admirals Arch of Kangaroo Island

Remarkable Rocks
"Famous Rocks of Australia"... Now, there's a tour you don't often hear about. The morning after we left Uluru (Ayers Rock) and flew to Kangaroo Island, the kids wanted to know what we had planned for the day. "We're visiting another rock," we told them. Tops on our list was Flinders Chase National Park on the western side of the island which is a good place to see wildlife and geological formations such as Remarkable Rocks.

"Oh boy! Geological formations! Tell us more! Take us there immediately!" the kids exclaimed... in my imagination. Their actual response was more like, "But we did something yesterday. How about we just lie around the cabin and annoy each other?" to paraphrase the conversation.  Despite their protests, we headed off for the park, and I'm going to have to say that it turned out to be an excellent (and relatively complaint-free) visit.

After stopping by the Visitors Centre for a quick overview of the area's natural history, we first started down the road to Admirals Arch. The Cape de Couedic lighthouse, 25 meters (75 feet) tall and first lit in 1909, looms over the waters. The lighthouse is not open to the public, but you can book a room at one of the three cottages originally built as lodging for the lighthouse keepers. For many of its early years, this lighthouse was inaccessible by land. Supplies were brought in by boat and hauled up the cliffside with a flying fox.

Cape de Couedic Lighthouse

As we hiked down the boardwalk leading from the parking lot, I had no idea that we were actually walking over the arch to the get to the viewing platform. The sound of the crashing waves and the clear turquoise waters beaten to a frothy white by the churning surf was the first thing that caught my senses. This area is home to a colony of New Zealand fur seals, and we were delighted to see them resting on the rocks and frolicking in the water. They held everyone's attention for longer than I expected.

Gazing down through the clear turquoise waters at the rocky bottom
How many New Zealand fur seals can you spot? 

There were 4 fur seals. Did you get all of them?

There must have been over 100 New Zealand fur seals in this area.

Circling down around the cliff face, we finally came to the famous Admirals Arch. Part of me wishes we had come at sunset when the rocks are bathed in a golden glow, but that would have meant a long drive back to our cabin dodging wild kangaroos in the dark.

Admirals Arch is carved out of volcanic rock and has stalactites across its ceiling.
More fur seals rest on the other side.

Vegetation adapted to the salty air holds tight to the rocky earth.

Back on the main road, it was 4 km east over rolling hills to reach Remarkable Rocks. At the crests, you could see them off in the distance.

Remarkable Rocks on the granite dome rising 75 meters up from the ocean.

Remarkable Rocks are granite boulders made up of bluish quartz, black mica and pinkish feldspar. Rainwater worked its way down through the rocks and carved them into pieces. From there, more rain and wind eroded bits and pieces as the years went by.

Remarkable Rocks - Doesn't it look like Modern Art?

As far as my kids were concerned, this was one giant playground perfect for climbing and a game of hide-and-seek. It seemed that lots of other children had the same idea. So, you can go right ahead and attribute the erosion to both the forces of nature as well as youngsters' feet.

Relaxing in a rock cave

We headed back up the boardwalk to the car and returned to the Visitors Centre for lunch at The Chase Cafe. I was expecting something akin to a mere snack bar, but they have an extensive menu and offer local wines. More importantly, they are one of the few dining options on this side of the island. A dinosaur fossil dig pit is next to the alfresco dining patio if you need to give your young ones a little time to unwind.

A tiny bird perched outside the Flinders Chase Visitors Centre

  • Flinders Chase National Park is open 24 hours, 7 days a week, but day visitors must leave at sunset.
  • The Visitors Centre is open 9AM-5PM daily. Closed on Christmas day.
  • For current entry prices, click here. Buy your pass at the Visitors Centre.
  • The Chase Cafe is open 9AM-3PM for breakfast and lunch. Coffee and cakes served until 5PM. Closed on Christmas Day.
  • Both Admirals Arch and Remarkable Rocks have parking lots with a wooden boardwalk leading to the main site. They are partially wheelchair accessible.
  • Toilets are available at the Visitors Centre and Remarkable Rocks. Admirals Arch does not have toilet facilities.
  • Remarkable Rocks and Admirals Arch are some of the most popular spots on Kangaroo Island, and many tours stop here. Go early or late in the day to avoid crowds.

Panoramic view of Remarkable Rocks

Related Posts:
Kangaroo Island Highlights (YouTube)
Kangaroo Island's Koala Walk
It's the Great Penguin, Charlie Brown
Major Fail: Sitting Together on the Airplane
The Allure of Uluru (Ayers Rock)

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox,"Oh, The Places I've Been!" on The Tablescaper and Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom? Check them out for more around the world travel inspiration.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Meow! On the hunt for Kitty Cat Street Art

Chinese cat procession at the Cheah Kongsi, on Beach Street across from China House

A new litter of cat-themed murals cropped up this summer as the latest addition to Penang's growing street art scene. This series of 12 pieces is collectively called 101 Lost Kittens and was painted by Artists for Stray Animals to raise public awareness about the numerous stray dogs and cats that roam the city. Other artists have been joining in the fun by adding the 102nd and 103rd lost kittens as well as one large rat hiding from Skippy, the orange tabby cat.

Some of the 101 Lost Kittens on Gat Lebuh Armenian and Lorong Soo Hong.

When we were down in George Town last weekend, my girl happened to be wearing her own Bon Jour! Cat Shirt. She decided that when a French cat comes to Penang, she'd want to see some cat murals. So off we went, on our own little hunt for felines around the heritage district.

Searching for street art in George Town has become a very popular tourist attraction. You'll see people on foot or on rented bikes making their way around with a map in hand looking for these lost kittens, the steel rod sculptures, or Ernest Zacharevic's very popular murals incorporating 3D objects.

As for me, I like to take it nice and slow, depending on kismet to lead the way. No map for me. I just stumble across these murals as I wander around the UNESCO World heritage zone.


Are you interested in helping out some of the stray animals in Penang and Langkawi? Perhaps you're an expat who had to leave your own furry babies in your home country during your expat assignment and crave a little petting time with four-footed friends. Check out these excellent organizations:
If you have your own little pup in Penang, be sure to visit the Dog Friendly Penang blog.

Related Post:
Kids on Bikes Street Art

This post is part of Travel Photo Mondays on Travel Photo Discovery. Be sure to visit it for more ways to discover the world via photography.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Crash Course in Batik Painting

There's a certain pleasure to be had from creating something with your own hands. Batik is a popular souvenir from Malaysia. Designs are created on cloth by first applying wax and then fabric dyes. It's pretty, versatile, easy to pack in your suitcase, and relatively cheap. If you're in Penang for an extended stay of a few weeks or more, take a break from all that touring of temples, noshing on street food and lying out on the beach to try crafting your own piece of batik art. It's also a fun group activity whether you're having a party or entertaining kids.

Learning the process at Rozana's Batik

My first experience with batik was a class set up by Spiral Synergy at Rozana's Refreshing Batik Fine Heart Gallery. Yes, that's "fine heart," not "fine art." Rozana can rightfully be declared an artist whose medium of choice is batik. She has a passion for passing on her knowledge to others, so she makes quite a delightful teacher.

Rozana demonstrates using a tjanting to apply wax over the design.

When my friend and I arrived, we were faced with a totally blank square of thin, white cotton cloth.  It took me a while to dither around looking at books to try to come up with a design. Meanwhile, my friend lightly sketched a butterfly onto the cloth. Rozana demonstrated how to dip the tjanting into the bowl of hot wax, filling the small reservoir, and then running it along the hand drawn lines so that the wax flowed out the small, hollow tube at the tip. She made it look so effortless, but it was harder than it appears. A slow, uneven pace delivers thick, blobby lines. If you go too quick, the wax has gaps where colors would bleed together in the wrong place. These wax lines block the fabric dyes from reaching the cloth so that once the wax is removed, the area beneath it is the original color (in this case, white).

Painting on the dyes and blending the colors.

Next, Rozana showed us how to paint the vibrant dyes onto the fabric. By applying one color such as dark red on one side and blue on the other, she coaxed the colors towards the middle to create a purplish blend of the two. The picture above show various stages of the process.

Then, she let us unleash our creative energies onto our own pieces. After a couple hours, I had my own personal batik masterpiece. Rozana slipped it into a clear plastic bag and gave us instructions on how to iron off the wax and set the dye.

Top Right: Original sketch on paper and then traced onto the cotton.
Top left: Trying my best to make it not look like the work of a small child.
Bottom: My finished floral piece with a geometric border.

A few of my friends have also taken their children to 2-hour classes at Rozana's. The kids are welcome to draw their own picture whether it be of a robot, airplane or other beloved subject which the teacher will then wax for them to paint. Otherwise, they can choose one of the pre-drawn and waxed designs. See Rozana's Facebook photos for some of her kid and adult customers' creations.

Rozana is a wonderful teacher, designer and artist.

Group party at Craft Batik

When it was time for another friend's baby shower, we decided that painting batik baby blankets would be the perfect way to commemorate her "Made in Malaysia" baby. I made arrangements beforehand at Craft Batik which has a good setup for large groups. We could each make our own 14x14 inch square or up to six people could work together on a large 1.5 meter rectangular piece. I decided upon the large pieces and then chose three seascape designs for Craft Batik to draw and wax before we arrived. Other themes available are butterflies or floral designs.

On the party day, the guests gathered and were first shown around the small factory. This is a popular stop on package tours around the island of Penang. Unlike other factory tours that I've been on, this is an actual, working factory, not one that's just in action when the tourists are around. Craft Batik does both hand drawn wax as well as block printing. When blocks are used, the design is an up to 9 inch square pattern that is repeated over and over across the fabric.

Blocks are dipped into the hot was and then stamped onto the fabric.

Painting the fabric dyes onto the block print design which is destined for elementary school uniforms.

Finally, it was our turn to start working. Outside on a covered veranda, three large pieces were stretched across wooden frames waiting for us to start painting. (Note: White linen pants are a poor choice of attire when working with fabric dyes.) As a personal touch, we each signed our names in pencil, and the employee helping us applied the wax for us. I will admit, that I enjoy painting far more than doing the wax, so I didn't mind letting her do this step.

Making batik blankets for a Texan "Made in Malaysia" baby.

Batik turned out to be a great party activity. We divided up with five ladies per piece and chatted away as we painted, oohing and aahing at each other's work. We were scheduled for just an hour but ended up taking more like 90 minutes to complete the project. Perhaps it was all that talking instead of focusing on painting?

Many hands make light work.

When we were finished, we left the fabric to dry and browsed around the showroom before heading over to Ferringhi Coffee Garden which is the perfect place for a ladies luncheon. The next week, I returned to Craft Batik to pick up the blankets. They had already removed the wax and set the dye for us so that no extra work was needed. Out of the three designs, the mama-to-be selected one which we sent to a seamstress to be made into a quilt.

The finished batik baby blanket

Craft Batik can also work with children. I think it's a fabulous kids birthday party idea or a good school group outing. Another friend enjoyed this shower so much that she brought a couple visitors here to paint individual squares when they were in Penang for a few weeks.

Have you ever tried making your own batik? If you don't have time or the inclination while you're in Penang to try it for yourself, I encourage you to drop by either place as they have a showroom and lovely handicrafts for purchase. Sam's Batik on Penang Road is another popular shop, too.

Painting is not a drop-in activity. Make sure you make prior arrangements.
Stop by and shop anytime without appointment.

Rozana's Batik
  • Contact Rozana (; telephone 6-014-247-5347) or Spiral Synergy (; mobile 6-016-457-0221)
  • If you want to draw your own design, have some ideas before you show up so that you can get right to work
  • Rozana can also do tie-dye with you or your children
  • Allot 2-3 hours for session
  • At the end of your session, you'll be able to take home your piece
  • Cost is RM50 for one large square
  • Gallery at 81B, 81C Lebuh Acheh, Georgetown open Monday-Saturday 10:30AM - 6PM.

Craft Batik
  • Website:
  • Contact Miss Fazilah at telephone 6-04-885-1284 or
  • Plan on one visit to select design and make arrangements, one visit for painting, and a return visit to pick up finished products
  • Cost is RM30 for one 14 x 14 inch square or RM150 for a 1.5 meter rectangular piece
  • Showroom next to Factory open daily 9AM - 5:30PM at 669, Mk. 2, Teluk Bahang 11050  Penang)
  • Another showroom (no factory) near the Botanical Garden open daily 9AM - 5:30PM

Sam's Batik House

This post is part of "Travel Photo Thursday" on Budget Travelers Sandbox, Pret-a-vivre,  and "Oh, the Places I've been!" on The Tablescaper. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Bye-bye Summer, Hello School

Today is the first day of the new school year, and with that, another summer draws to a close. I don't feel quite ready, yet, believe it or not. I started off June with good intentions of all that we were going to do these last few months, and there are still so many things left undone.

I clearly remember my first summer as a mother to three young children. As I picked up my boys from preschool, I burst into tears. Perhaps it was because my oldest one would start "big boy" school the next year, and I was saying goodbye to that phase of his life. Perhaps it was because I had given birth to my girl only five days earlier and the postpartum hormones were still running crazily through my body. Perhaps it was because I had no idea how I was going to occupy these kids and keep them out of mischief for three long months.

Now that they're older, my expectations go beyond merely surviving the summer with my insanity intact. I wanted to keep their skills up throughout the school break. I had notions of doing multiplication drills with flash cards. That happened all of twice. The school library summer reading program leaflet stares at me accusingly, devoid of any books listed or minutes logged. My kids are great readers; they're just bad record keepers. Oh, and I never quite got around to giving my 10-year-old "The Talk". You know... the one about the birds and the bees. He'll just have to enter 5th Grade (Year 6) ignorant of how exactly babies are made.

Then, I decide to stop focusing on the unchecked items on the To Do List. Sure, we didn't get everything done, but we accomplished a lot. For one thing, we hopped westward across three continents. We took a gigantic field trip encircling the world. The family explored Paris from the tippy top of the Eiffel Tower to the dank corridors of the subterranean catacombs. The miles ratcheted up on the van's odometer driving around Texas from big cities to small ones, from state parks to Galveston Bay. Touching back down in Penang, Malaysia, we remembered what it was like when we first arrived two years ago, and how much more we now know about this place we currently call home. Certainly, all this travel must count for something.

We saw paintings by Da Vinci, Seurat, Matisse, Picasso and Warhol up close in Paris. The kids clearly had more of an affinity for realistic paintings than modern art.

The kids attempt to pose like the figures in the Picasso.

My eldest boy learned how to build a shelter out of yaupon branches, rope and a tarp, then spent the night in it. The next night, he did away with a shelter altogether and slept under the Texas sky.

Who needs a tent when camping out by the shores of Lake Bastrop?

The kids got a first hand physics lesson in aerodynamics by experiencing the interaction of body position and airflow when they went indoor skydiving.

Held aloft by nothing but wind

We found a new museum to explore science and visited some old favorites. Hands-on is always more fun than reading it in a textbook.

Austin Children's Museum * Houston Health Museum
Cite des Enfants in Paris
Mayborn Museum in Waco, Texas * Children's Museum of Houston

My younger son had time to sit and build his LEGO Legends of Chima fighter. Then, he decided to modify it with LEGO Mindstorms to turn it into a controllable robot.

Building robots out of toys

The Fourth of July (America's Independence Day) was spent remembering their roots, reconnecting with cousins and watching fireworks. Boy, was I surprised when they spontaneously started singing The Star Spangled Banner, our national anthem.

The rockets red (or white) glare

We heard music with our ears and felt the rhythm down to our bones at a performance of Drum Corp International in Houston. I'm hoping it provided some inspiration for my budding percussionist.

The Boston Crusaders

So yeah, we didn't get every academic thing on my list done before school started. But I have to remind myself that it's not just the books and flashcards that count. Living life and taking in the world goes a long ways towards expanding young minds, too.

Bye bye summer. Hello school.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Early Days of American Roadtrips: Part 2

If you missed Part 1 of my dear mother-in-law, Rose Marie's, reminiscence about her childhood roadtrips starting in 1946, be sure to go back and read it HERE. Now, for the rest of her guest post...

Traveling with my Father

As with most journeys, the companions who share it contribute to all aspects, especially the pleasure; therefore, some background information follows.
My father, Edwin, was the epitome of a good man. Mother frequently would say, “Your daddy is the best man God ever made!” He was an alliteration of virtues – reliable, reasonable, responsible, respectful and reserved. He was also both smart and wise, very witty, a good storyteller and conversationalist. He took care of everything that was his – family, home, car, bayhouse, himself – everything. He had experienced the death of a beloved father at fourteen, lost a good job as a cotton classer in the Depression, settled for and was grateful for a dull job as a postal clerk and enriched his life with reading, gardening, painting and traveling.
My mother, Marie, was a gentlewoman, kind, good, patient, thoughtful, quiet and somewhat shy. She saw God in everyone, often saying that no one was responsible for the situation of their birth. She treated everyone with respect. Content in her world, she was a wife and a mother and was good at both. She tried to teach us modesty in behavior and dress, often reminding us, “Pretty is as pretty does.” Her great affection for her sisters was a role model for her daughters.
Norma, my sister, was nearly three years older than I and had been the first grandchild in both our parents’ families. Not only did we share parents and ancestors, we shared a bedroom, bed, clothes, toys, books, time – our lives. Mother said that we complemented each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Norma led the way in many of the stages of my life, supporting my every effort and applauding every success. Every day was better and more fun when she was there.

1951 - Visiting the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey
Grandma Josie, Rose Marie and Norma
Grandma Josie, Daddy’s mother, joined us after our initial trip. She was in her early 60’s, small, her once bright red hair faded and tinged with white. Widowed at 33 with three sons to support, she became a lunchroom cook at the school across the street from her home. She was very frugal and eventually owned three rent houses in her neighborhood. She was capable and very independent, but Daddy was always there when needed, making a short visit to her house every day. She was a pleasant lady with a good sense of humor. We loved hearing her stories.
(After Norma married, Aunts Agatha and Louise joined me in the car’s back seat for the remainder of my trips.)
Aunt Agatha was our everything aunt. She was beautiful, intelligent, classy, cheerful, energetic, generous and fiercely loyal to her family. She was a doer and a go-getter. I loved being with her. Never married, she worked as office manager for the Circulation Department of The Houston Post and was given tickets to plays, movies, horse shows, etc. Norma and I accompanied her whenever asked. She took us to her Nature Club outings and to the summer outdoor symphony concerts. She taught us etiquette and party planning for holiday dinners and social club gatherings. Mother tried to make us good, and Aunt Agatha tried to make us polished.
Aunt Louise was our cooking aunt. She had taken care of Grandmother Basilia and the old home place whose lovely, large yard connected to the backyard of our home. Norma and I welcomed an interruption in our playtime when Aunt Louise would offer treats of fruit preserves on buttered bread, cookies, candies, donuts, creampuffs, etc. Being an accomplished cook and baker, she made every holiday special. She also kept in touch with our extended family by calling and remembering everyone’s birthday with cards, letters or flowers.

The first trip [covered in Part 1] was such a success that Daddy immediately began planning a trip to Florida. New Orleans was the first stop; then we drove along the beautiful Gulf Coast reaching Florida with its white sand beaches, palm trees and pastel colored houses. We made all the tourist stops including a water skiing show in Silver Springs and the long drive to Key West. After Florida, we headed up the Atlantic coast with memorable stops in Savannah and Charleston with all their charming old houses.
Trip three was to Mexico, not just over the border, but to Monterrey, Mexico City, Xochimilco, Cuernavaca, Taxco, Puebla, Veracruz, Tampico, etc. Besides the natural beauty of the country, we saw the remarkable fresco paintings of Diego Rivera, Our Lady of the Guadalupe Cathedral where people were making the long aisle to the altar on their knees, the Chapultepec Castle and Park, a bull fight where we left early since it was too difficult for us to watch and the beautiful Floating Gardens and the Pyramid to the Sun where Daddy bought me a black jade and silver ring. Norma remembers being serenaded at our charming Spanish style motel.
The destination of trip four was Yellowstone National Park. We drove to Colorado and loved it. The air was cool. We drove to Pikes Peak where snowflakes fell on Daddy’s new camera; saw the state capitol in Denver; were charmed  by Central City, Leadville and Estes Park.
At last, wonderful Wyoming and the awesome Yellowstone National Park where it snowed on us on the the 4th of July. We loved staying in the park cabins, seeing all the natural wonders and the bears. We enjoyed the beautiful Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole.
1950 - Pile of antlers, Norma and Rose Marie
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
In Utah, we floated in the great Salt Lake where the salty water stung my windburned face; visited the Mormon Temple and Tabernacle in Salt Lake City; drove through more beautiful national parks, Zion and Bryce. We stopped at the marker where the four states of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado meet and drive through Mesa Verde National Park to see the cliff dwellings in Colorado on our way back home.
Our fifth trip was in Daddy’s new two-toned Chevrolet. Norma and I were exhilarated to be going to California and Hollywood in our stylish new car. We sewed ourselves a matching outfit of green blouse and striped skirts, adding a billed white cap to wear.
What a fascinating trip it was! There were so many interesting things to see and experience along the route: Carlsbad Caverns with a Park Ranger guide in New Mexico, a frightening dust storm outside of Albuquerque, Petrified Forest, Painted Desert and truly awesome Grand Canyon in Arizona; then on to beautiful California.
Traveling up the Pacific coast from San Diego, we took a wonderful boatride to Avalon on Catalina Island; visited the mission of San Juan Capistrano where doves surrounded us; Los Angeles and Hollywood seeing the movie stars’ homes and going to another radio show, “The Lux Theater Hour". We saw the Redwood forest, rode the trolley in San Francisco, visited Chinatown with its fascinating shops, visited two great national parks – Sequoia and Yosemite.

1950 - Rose Marie and Norma at Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California
[Ed. note: The bottom of the sign reads "C C Thomson" which is coincidentally the initials and surname of my oldest boy.]
Onto Nevada, we visited Las Vegas with its abundance of night lights and the massive Hoover Dam. Back into Arizona where Daddy wanted to see the sunrise on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. It was worth the effort!
Trip six was to the East. We drove through Memphis, Gatlinburg, and the Great Smokey Mountains National park seeing small black bears and beautiful rhododendrons in bloom. We saw the major attractions in Virginia – Monticello, which was copied for our neighborhood Carnegie Branch Library building; Mount Vernon, Williamsburg, etc.

We toured the impressive monuments in Washington, D.C. and spent hours in the Smithsonian Institute. New York City was overwhelming with so many people walking so fast and so much traffic on the streets. We went to an automat for lunch then tried to do all the things tourists do in that great city. On to Boston with its history and Cape Cod; Maine with so many trees, lakes and wonderful lobster rolls.

1950 - The General Grant, Sequoia National Park, California

Crossing into Canada, we went first to historical Quebec; then on to the Bay of Fundy since Daddy had read about the remarkable variance in the tides; Niagara Falls, both Canadian and U.S. views where Mother and Daddy had spent their honeymoon in 1928. This was our last trip with Norma and Grandma Josie.
Trips seven to eleven included Aunt Agatha and Louis. Since they and Mother had a brother living in Sheridan, Wyoming, two of our next trips went through that city and beyond. On trip seven after seeing a rodeo in Cody, we drove to Glacier National Park in Montana on the border between the U.S. and Canada. We crossed the Continental Divide that runs through the park’s center. Trip eight was to beautiful Lake Louis in Canada where we walked on a glacier; Vancouver and my first taste of gingerbeer; Victoria with all the lovely flowers in British Columbia; in Washington, we enjoyed Seattle and Mount Rainier National Park; we saw beautiful roses in Oregon; Sun Valley in Idaho.
Trip nine made a very important stop in Manhattan, Kansas to see new bride, Norma, and her husband, Don, who was serving his two years stint in the army following both of their college graduations. We chatted in the small kitchen of their apartment over coffee and warm cinnamon rolls. Then, we traveled to the beautiful Dells of Wisconsin.

1950 - Rose Marie, Norma and Grandma Josie with the famous swallows of Mission San Juan Capistrano, California 

Trip ten was planned when Daddy wanted to drive from Galveston to Winnipeg, Canada all on the same highway from its start to its finish. Trip eleven was a short one to our beautiful neighbor state of Arkansas to see Lake Catherine, Eureka Springs and Hot Springs. Returning home by way of a stop in one of Daddy’s favorite cities, New Orleans.
In May [1956], just before trip eleven, I had graduated from college and was ready to start working. By the next summer, I married and my trips with Mother and Daddy were over; but they and the aunts kept traveling for as long as Daddy could drive.

- Rose Marie

Rose Marie's beautiful handwritten story

Once again, many thanks to Rose Marie for sharing her story with her family, her grandchildren and with the readers of Malaysian Meanders. All photo credits go to Rose Marie's father, Edwin, who would develop the film in his own little darkroom.

Have you parents ever wondered what impact travel has on your children and will they remember it? Take heart that these trips took place over fifty years ago, and the memory of them still brings so much pleasure to Rose Marie and her sister, Norma, who road in the back seat of their Daddy's car.

Related Post:
Part 1 of The Early Days of American Roadtrips
International Air Travel in 1958

This post is part of "Travel Photo Thursday" on Budget Travelers Sandbox, "Oh the Places I've Been" on The Tablescaper and on the weekly linkup on Pret-a-Vivre. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

SAM's Groceria: Upscale food store in Penang's Gurney Paragon

Penang has a new place to shop for groceries, SAM's Groceria, in the basement of the recently opened Gurney Paragon Mall. Another one is planned for KL Sentral. Even though all my friends had told me how wonderful this place is, I was still bowled over in amazement the first time I walked in. Everything is so clean, the aisles are wide, the choices are plentiful, and lots of staff was on hand to help.

This 30,000 square foot store pits itself against expat-fave Cold Storage and positions itself as the upscale, high-end option in town. At a glance, I'd say SAM's prices are comparable to or a teeny bit higher than Cold Storage. Even though over 60% of its 19,000 items are imported from the United States, Australia, Japan, India, Taiwan and Thailand, this retailer pays homage to its local roots since SAM is an abbreviation of "Saya Anak Malaysia" (I am a child of Malaysia).

Fine chocolates, Fruits
Enclosed freezer cases and Cheeses

The most exciting part of shopping at SAM's is the easy-to-use Self Scan system for shoppers with one of their free Family Cards. Just scan each item's barcode as you place it in your cart, and the unit tracks your purchases and displays a running total. There's a handy spot to store it on your trolley handle. My kids had a blast taking turns with it. When you're ready to check out, all you need to do is give the scanner unit to the cashier and pay. There's no need to re-scan everything. Self-scanning is optional, and customers are welcome to wait until the end for the cashier to scan everything for you.

SAM's Groceria has the largest selection of Organic products in Penang I've seen outside of a specialty organic store. It's also the first grocery store I've seen with a Diabetic foods section.

This is just one side of the Organic aisle. More goods are opposite it.

There's plenty of treats, too. One entire aisle is dedicated to Chocolate in addition to the display case of fancy, individual chocolates (RM16.00 per 100 gm). Imported foods are identified by country with Japan taking up the biggest share. proud am I that Americans can claim Pop-Tarts as their culinary contribution to the world? Actually, I was rather excited to see that SAM's carries Sahale Snacks which I dearly miss from the USA.

Yay! Another store where I can deny my kids' request for Pop-Tarts

SAM's offers one-stop shopping with non-food items, too. They also carry healthcare and grooming items, household goods, cleaning products, office supplies, automotive care, some hardware as well as baby care items. Many of the sections are clearly displayed. Although, I bet some people wish that it wasn't quite so evident what exactly they are buying at the moment.

Adult Diapers: Confidence and peace of mind and a giant sign telling the world what you're buying.

I didn't have a chance to browse through SAM's Deli located adjacent to the Groceria. Friends tell me that it has a good bakery as well as already prepared Western and local foods for you to take away.

I am definitely shopping at SAM's again. My daughter was even telling her dad that she needed to bring him there to show him the Self Scan system. It was such an easy shopping trip, and being able to see my running total bill kept me from going crazy with impulse purchases. This new store didn't have every single item on my grocery list. However, their customer service is happy to track requests to see how they can improve their selection.  I'm so excited to have this addition to the Penang food scene.

SAM's Groceria
Basement level of Gurney Paragon Mall
Persiaran Gurney, Penang
Convenient parking Level B2 near section marked "Grocery Store" leads directly up to entrance
Operating Hours: 10AM to 10PM
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