25 February 2015

Chinese New Year - Sarawak Style

Here in Sarawak we celebrate almost every festival you can think of – with a mixed population it could be no other way and one of the lovely things about being here is seeing how much populations embrace and enjoy festivals that are not theirs. 

Malls sell all sorts of decorations for the New Year

Including some amazing balloon creations
Of all the festivals we celebrate over the year, however, Chinese New Year is one of the biggest.  Decorations have been in the shops since before Christmas and the malls have been hosting Lion Dances and fairs selling special treats and clothes. People have been looking forward to the long break (two days’ public holiday tagged onto a weekend).

Lion Dance Competition (nibbling the greens)
at a local mall 
The colour red is everywhere.  As the date has got closer more and more houses and shops have been sporting red lanterns and replacing their door-mats with red ones.  The children asked us if they could decorate our house like their friends, we did not want to go all out but we did buy some plants (we love greenery in the house anyway), some lights and blossom sticks.

House are decorated for the New Year

The supermarkets have had special New Year promotions and many  of these include free gifts – a mug with your chocolates, free angpows (red packets) with spends over a certain value.  Tangerines are a traditional gift (their name in Chinese sounds like the word for luck) and many houses buy miniature orange trees (the word orange sounds like the word for wealth) to display outside the front door.  
Decorated plants for sale
Plants are everywhere – lucky bamboo, blossom, orchids, ginseng, pineapple plants and so on, many tied with red ribbon for luck.  The garden centres have been full of mini trees for weeks but, rather disappointingly, the fruit is inedible as the growth has been forced with high dose fertilizer to coincide with the New Year.  Children are given gifts to bring in the new year, usually a present of money in Angpow packets and one friend gave each of my children a toy goat to celebrate the year of the goat. 

Toy goats - for the year of the goat...
Before New Year it is traditional to ‘clean the corners of the house’ and then on New Year’s Eve families traditionally gather for a meal.  One of the traditions with the meal is to use chopsticks to throw the ingredients high into the air, the higher they go the more luck the family will have. We went to spend the evening with friends and, driving back the streets were completely deserted.  Family members exchange gifts and it is traditional to wear new clothes in bright colours (often red).

Fireworks at the stroke of midnight - our quiet suburb
erupted in a blaze of sound and noise

On the stroke of midnight the city erupted in a blaze of fireworks and the bangs of firecrackers.  The firecrackers are usually strung on a string which is then hung up from a pole.  As they explode they shower the pavements with red paper/confetti so the entries to the houses are covered in a sea of red.  The displays lasted for at least an hour and the sound was phenomenal (they are designed to be loud to scare away evil spirits for the New Year).  The firecrackers are meant to be banned but are smuggled in over the New Year.  Local Facebook groups have been advertising them for sale for weeks but this can cause problems as the police monitor the groups to catch the sellers, still people do not seem to have any problem finding enough to set off and create an amazing display.  Our older children slept through (we were tempted to wake them but they were sleeping so peacefully) but the baby cooed with delight and the dogs cowered in the bathroom thinking Armageddon was nigh.

The result of all the fireworks - the pavements are awash in red confetti!

On the first day of Chinese New Year many who are religious will visit the temples.  They are decorated with a lot of red and burn  huge sticks of incense, some long and tall with faces on the front and some in the shape of pineapples.   

Incense sticks outside a temple

The first two days are spent visiting friends.  Open house is a tradition amongst all groups in Sarawak where you invite others to come and spend time with you to celebrate your special festivals.  In the lead up to the New Year we received many invitations to visit with our friends.  All had buffets of delicious food and treats prepared to feed the guests and angpow packets for the children.  Some had even arranged for lion dancers to provide entertainment and to drive away bad spirits. 

A roving group of lion dancers touting for custom
The lion dances themselves are absolutely spectacular.  they are performed by local martial art groups and some of the acrobatics have to be seen to be believed.  I understand that there are 6 different lion 'personalities' that can be used in the dances, the differences are shown by the different colour fur and different decorations on the lion costume,  I have not yet been able to work out what they are! It is quite funny to see a truck will pull up, the gongs and drums start up and a lion will pop out to do a spectacular dance and entertain the crowd before jumping back in and moving on to the next engagement. The very best troupes are booked a long time in advance and the dance itself will be done by masters.  Some less accomplished lion dancers will form roving troupes and go street to street to find custom.  

Gong Xi Fa Choi and best wishes for the year of the Goat.

NB apologies for the photographs, my telephone camera is not too good!

Click on the picture for more posts on life in Borneo.

Ersatz Expat

12 February 2015

Travel Hacks for Road Trips with Small Kids

I was contacted by one of the lovely people at RelayRides (a peer-to-peer car rental service with an expanding US airport rentals arm) asking about my favourite travel hacks.  As expats with kids we travel, a lot, usually by plane.  Our favourite way to travel, however, is to pile the family into our car and drive; and of course we like to make it as easy as possible. 

We have been very lucky on two fronts, firstly all our children  (now 8, 6 and 5 months) love the car and secondly we have always lived in places where we can drive to some amazing sights- by age 9 months we had already taken our son to 11 different countries in the car. Now we are based on Borneo we are looking forward to driving around Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei.

Jump in a car and you can take your own little comforts everywhere.

Using our own car is, for us, an easy fix to travelling with young children.  We don’t need to worry about lugging child seats everywhere for use in taxis and we don’t need to over limit what we can bring with us and, in some circumstances, our dogs can come too, even better we can charge our electronics while we drive.  So here are our top tips for road trip travel hacks.

Cars allow all the family to come...

Tent and camping equipment
We don’t typically plan our routes in any great detail or book rooms in advance.  We like to point the car in a direction and drive, picking up a room when we get there.  This usually works well as, if you turn up to a hotel with vacancies at 9pm it is usually possible to negotiate a reduction on the standard ‘walk in ‘ rates as they want to fill the rooms.  We like to keep a tent with us though in case we can’t find a room and have to camp wild (much more comfortable than sleeping in the car) or sometimes alternating camping and hotels to save money but still have access to good, private, showers.  Babies love camping – they seem to view the tent as a giant play pen, a place where everyone is on the same level.

Babies love camping - this makes road trips easy!

Pop Up Cot
I hate travel cot/port-a-cribs they are usually anything but portable and pack down to be heavier and bulkier than my suitcase for a three week trip.  If we are away with a small baby for a day or two we let them room in our bed but any longer and it is handy to have their own sleeping space.  A pop up cot typically weighs about 2kg, packs down smaller than a dinner plate and can be used in a room, in a tent and as a shady play pen on the beach. 

Cold Water Sterilizer and bottles
Not all destinations will have access to an electric mains or microwave so a cold water sterilizer is the perfect way to make sure any bottles are safe to use.  We have a ‘lock n lock’ box that is completely water-tight, we leave it on the floor of the car to swap bottles in and out of throughout the day, it fits two so one can be in use/washed clean and the other kept sterile.  The sterilizing solution is good to use for 24 hours before it needs to be refreshed.  When our older two children were babies we had access to single cartons of pre-prepared formula milk which were sterile until opened and decanted into a bottle so we used those.  For trips in Borneo with the new baby we will take a kettle that plugs into the car to make fresh formula.

Kids can be comfortable and safe in their own car seat...

Audio Books and Music
We refuse to let the kids watch videos in the car – we have always used trips as a chance to chat and enjoy the scenery.  Sometimes a little boredom can be a good thing - it makes them come up with all sorts of games to pass the time.  An audio book is, however, a great way to help pass the time on a long motorway journeys  and can help a driver keep going through a night time journey if everyone else is asleep. Our kids love the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling and all the Harry Potter books.  Now our older kids are starting to enjoy different types of songs and music we get them to help us put together a playlist before we go anywhere – then we can all wind the windows down and belt out our favourite road tunes!

Water Filter
We usually rely on bottled water when we are out and about but we carry a powerful hand held filter (it claims to make raw sewage safe) in case we run out in the middle of the night. 

Cars take you everywhere - from a Kazakh resort...

I can always snap something on my ‘phone but our outdated iPhone 4’s do not have good cameras.  I try to keep a point and click in my handbag.  Having the car means that I can drag along my heavy but good quality DSLR, I keep it in the smugglers compartment so it is out of sight and take it out as and when I need it.

...to the palace in Budapest

A good atlas/ GPS/ travel APP
We have, so far, avoided getting a GPS – we try to pick up good maps for the countries we are going to and, if we need a specific address, we use the maps function on our ‘phones to search it out.  This can sometimes go wrong.  No good atlas is going to show you where you can park your over height car in Budapest (we spent three hours driving around looking for a hotel that had above ground parking) and a European Atlas is not going to have a road plan of a third tier regional Italian city showing how to not go the wrong way down a one way system.  A few weeks ago I took some visitors to the capital of Brunei only, on getting to the outskirts, to remember the map was in the other car and we had no idea how to get from the ring road to the centre.  Things like this always work out in the end, however, and are usually something to laugh about afterwards.

Small Buggy and a carrier
We like to make the kids walk as early as possible. When they are babies it can be helpful to have a small fold buggy that fits in foot well.  We also keep a carrier (we like Baby Bjorns) in the car for trekking up mountains, through caves or into the jungle.  When the kids get a bit older we use a back pack style carrier.  This is really handy because there is space under the seat to put a cool-bag full of sandwiches.  We try to dispense with a  buggy as soon as possible – by the time our middle daughter was 18 months we spend five weeks driving round Europe without one.  We used the carrier to help her out when she got tired but she walked a lot of the time all by herself – good training for her!

A carrier helps when little feet get tired

A holiday is not a holiday without some good books to read. In years gone by we would have to devote a lot of space and weight to enough books to see us through a trip but these days we have kindles and iPads.  I keep guidebooks on my kindle (and have them on the kindle app on my ‘phone to check when out and about).  There are often some good free information apps with details about destinations and some of the museums in Europe have excellent free apps with information or audio guides on the exhibits (the Museum Cluny in Paris is a good example). 

The kids are usually allowed to pack a few books, some colouring pencils and a diary (so they can keep a history of our trip).  If we have an evening in a hotel we might let them watch a video on the iPad but they are usually too tired or, now they are older, want to read up about where they are going or have been.  We talk about what we are planning to see or where we are planning to go and they are allowed (within reason) to add their requests into the mix.  A few years ago when we were in Slovenia our son asked to try horse-riding so we found a stables that would let him have a go.  When we were in Turkey our middle daughter asked to see ‘anywhere with carvings’.  This helps the kids really enjoy their holidays and feel that they are getting as much out of them as we are. 

Having a car gives you the flexibility to let everyone do what they want.

Of course we pack prescription medicines but if we are traveling somewhere we might not be able to get child friendly medicines I will also pack some sachets of children’s paracetamol.  Forgetting this can make for some interesting and frustrating experiences.  Last year our daughter came down with tonsillitis in Bishkek and, of course, only spiked a fever late at night.  When we went to get some calpol we realised that we had forgotten to pack it.  The 24hr pharmacy had no children’s syrup available so we had to work out the correct dosage of paracetamol per kg.  After that we had to split the adult tablets, grind them on a spoon and mix them with some juice.  Luckily we were able to buy some kids syrup the next day. 

Plug in Cool Box/ Picnic Basket
Each morning we will stop off at a convenience store and buy some bread rolls, cheese, ham etc and make up sandwiches for lunch, that way we don’t have to worry about tracking down somewhere to eat.  We have a cool box that plugs into the car – this means that we can keep drinks and snacks like chocolate and fruit nice and cold for when we get back to the car after exploring something interesting.  Post six months the babies have always just chewed on some of the bread or eaten a piece of soft-fruit or vegetable so we don’t need to worry about heavy jars of processed baby food, I usually wash the fruit then stick it in the sterilizing solution for a few minutes so we know it is safe to eat.

Picnics are a perfect time to stretch legs...

Numbers for Emergency Services
While most countries in Europe/Eurasia will allow the emergency services to be accessed by 112 it does not work everywhere and some countries have different numbers for different services such as ambulance, fire, police etc.   It is worth knowing the numbers for each country you are going to be in.  10 Years ago we were driving in Sweden when we witnessed a particularly nasty RTA between a car and an ambulance.  Being first on the scene meant that we had not only to give assistance to the victims but also alert the emergency services. 

Roll on the Borneo Road Trips...

We have a holiday for Chinese New Year next week so we might drive somewhere to get away from Miri for a few days.  We probably won’t take the tent but will have just about everything else with us.

Posted as part of the My Expat Family monthly blog link up.  Visit the site to read more exciting expat blogs.  
Seychelles Mama

Click  on the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat life.

Ersatz Expat