Cape Town Welcome!

We are having a great tour of Cape Town today! William did a nice walking tour downtown where we began our learning about apartheid. We enjoyed a stroll through Victoria Garden and are relaxing at the waterfront as I write this. In a while we will have our multi-course welcome meal at Gold. All is well!

Safe & Sound

Everyone arrived safely in Cape Town, and we have settled into our accommodations (home stays in Rondebosch for the students & a “flatlet” in Observatory or “Obs” for me). Today we have our orientation at VACorps with Oliver, and then it’s time for some site-seeing with William. I hope to post some good photos of the group tonight, but here’s one of me (and Audrey) ready for the day!


Heading back to Cape Town

Just a quick picture before I fly out to Cape Town. Having lunch at PDX with Abbie and Reed. Jackson is taking his last AP test of his Junior year. Bon voyage!


Abbie and I departed Hefei early this morning, and Michael sent us off well prepared for our full day of three flights. We were again greeted by wonderful Julia in the Beijing airport! She wanted to make sure we navigated the huge place smoothly (we had to check in again after collecting our luggage, and the system is a bit different there). SO thoughtful! We enjoyed talking over milkshakes and catching her up on what we had done since last seeing her. 🙂

Our big 777 left about an hour late from Beijing due to a change in the runway (?). That meant we had a very tight connection once in Vancouver 10 hours later. We cleared immigration and US customs and ran to our gate. We made it in time, thankfully, and we were in Portland less than an hour later. It’s so good to be home after sharing this amazing experience together. We have a lot to keep pondering, discussing, and journaling…from homeland tour to home…I’m very grateful for it all.

At this gate…

This morning we set off for Chuzhou (say “chew-joe”) with anticipation. It is a “small” city of “only” 3 million inhabitants according to Michael, and it is about 50 miles east of the outskirts of Hefei. Still, with traffic in each city, it took us about two hours to drive there. Absolutely nothing looked familiar to me on the way! I think it’s due to a combination of being distracted by a fidgety baby the first time going to Chuzhou, as well as considerable development in roads and other infrastructure in the past 12 years.

Nothing looked familiar to me until we turned onto the street that led to the gate into the grounds of the orphanage. Not only did I recognize this place, I recognized a very important person waiting for us, the director/president of Chuzhou orphanage, Mr. Dou (say “doh”). He smiled broadly and followed our van through the gate to welcome us. He immediately pointed to Abbie’s dimple and said he remembered her. Two women were there to greet us as well, though they did not take care of Abbie during her time at the orphanage (the women I brought pictures to see again have since left). Still, they warmly and proudly greeted her as if to say, “what a good girl you have grown into.”

We walked slowly toward the building where Abbie spent her first 14 1/2 months of life. I recognized the clotheslines full of diapers as if time had stood still. We visited the small playground where I spotted the stone turtle on which she had once played. It was as if time had stood still. We walked up the ramp with the blue railing and through the orphanage doors. We turned left and went into the play room, which felt much warmer today than on January 14, 2005. We turned right and walked down the hallway that had just been washed, as I remember it to have been in 2005 with water visible on the floor. We walked on and went into the last room on the right. There was the window by which Abbie slept in her blue metal crib. The cribs have been replaced with small wooden ones, but the quiet room was the same. Ten babies were laying silently, and it was as if time had stood still. I had the same thought today as I did in 2005: a room full of babies shouldn’t be quiet. Though well taken care of, they had no choice but to learn how to self-soothe.

The exception to this feeling of time standing still was the type of children in the orphanage now. Michael said the Chuzhou orphanage is a small one with only about 50 kids (most in Anhui province have 100-200). Unlike our perfectly healthy Abbie, the babies and children in orphanages now – nearly exclusively – are disabled in some manner. I am thankful that girls are not being abandoned just for being girls, but still the notion of abandoned babies is troubling. As I wrote in the post about Alenah’s Home, babies continue to be abandoned if they need surgeries, therapies, or other treatments that families cannot afford. Today we saw children with motor impairments, Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other developmental disabilities. Those who appeared “normal” likely had a heart condition or other medical issue.

We stood in the baby room for a few minutes before heading back down the hallway and out the door. We went down the ramp with the blue railing, past the playground with the turtle and the clotheslines full of diapers. I was wondering what Abbie was thinking and feeling while at the same time being overcome with my own emotions. “I don’t want this to be where my daughter started!” I thought inside. I wanted to teleport us back to our home in the forest and get her out of here asap. It seemed like such a sad place to me, but when I looked at Abbie I saw joy. Not only joy in the miracle of her being my (our!) daughter, but joy in seeing her experience of Chuzhou orphanage. She was taking in this place as her own story, her own heritage, her own beginning.

We walked toward the gate – but not through it yet – and headed to a nicer building I had never been in before. Before going in, we saw two new buildings that Mr. Dou wanted to show us. This fall, the current orphanage (and home for elders who don’t have sons to care for them…they go together in the “social welfare institutions” of China) will be demolished and the new buildings will be utilized. We made it just in time to see Abbie’s orphanage, for which I am so very thankful.

We went into the nice building and were greeted with a bright welcome sign – we felt like celebrities! We sat on fancy sofas and were given cups of hot tea while we went through all of the records about Abbie. Michael translated as needed (Abbie did a pretty good job!), and we saw two new photos we had never seen before. Mr. Dou wrote in Abbie’s journal (as did her nanny back in 2005), and they even became WeChat friends! We went back outside and took some photos. Mr. Dou even took several selfies, which made us smile – he seemed to really enjoy our visit!

It was time to go to the gate. This is Abbie’s “finding site” from the day of her birth. (I like that they call it a finding site rather than a leaving site or an abandonment site.) At this point, one of the women was holding Abbie’s hand, so I followed behind. It was not a sad moment as I expected, watching her walk through the gate, but rather another one of joy. This was her beginning – her native place – but it is not her home. As she wrote in her journal, “I don’t belong there. I belong here, with Reed, Erin, & Jackson. I belong with my family.” There is so much more I could write, but I will leave it at that.

Next we traveled a short distance to a fancy hotel for an amazing lunch, courtesy of Mr. Dou. We had a private dining room with the biggest lazy Susan in the middle of the table that I’ve ever seen! The delicious Chuzhou dishes kept being brought out. We grabbed bites with our chopsticks as the center circle turned, and we enjoyed fried chicken, sweet and sour pork, head-on perch, pork meatball soup, beef hot pot, rice, watermelon, and about six different kinds of vegetables. We also had barley tea and fresh watermelon juice to drink, and Mr. Dou kept wanting to clink our glasses and say “cheers!” He invited Abbie to sit next to him, and she wrote in her journal that it felt like “the most important person in the world” invited her. 🙂

We had a nice conversation through Michael’s translation help, though Mr. Dou and the orphanage women noticed Abbie’s good Chinese skills. 🙂 The eating and talking came to a natural conclusion, and we said our goodbyes. We gave each person a small thank-you gift, though it seems impossible to fully express our gratitude to them. We drove back to Hefei in a fairly quiet van…it was a good quiet though; thankful for the experience, the embraced story that Abbie now has, and that we get to go home tomorrow. We are ready!

Through this door…

Today we took a 2-ish hour flight on lovely China Eastern Airlines (including a free, hot lunch & free, checked bags!) from Chengdu to Hefei. We are now in Abbie’s native province of Anhui. Hefei is the capital and is where we stayed in 2005 when we were given Abbie. (Her native town is Chuzhou, where we will travel tomorrow, but the government’s adoption paperwork had to happen in the capital.) Anyway, our local guide, Michael, greeted us with a smile and said to Abbie, “welcome to your home.” He specializes in working with adoptive families in Anhui, so we are in very good hands, as will be evidenced below…

We set out in the not-too-bad traffic and not-so-awful pollution through Hefei, which is now a city of 7 million. Hefei is Michael’s hometown, and he said it has changed a LOT since we were here in 2005, mostly in terms of growth (including a new, huge airport). We stopped briefly at our beautiful, downtown hotel to check in and unload (we are on the 26th floor this time!). Then we set out for a bit of site-seeing…nothing about this city looked familiar to me at this point, but that was about to change.

There’s not much to see in Hefei in terms of tourism, but it was my favorite day of our trip thus far. I had requested two sites: Huiyuan Park and the (formerly Sofitel) Grand Park Hotel. We first stopped at the park, which is important because our small group of adoptive families took a stroll through it with the babies back in January of 2005. Today’s stroll was much more pleasant, though I missed having Reed by our side. It was warm, colorful, and I had my very happy 13-year-old daughter walking alongside me. This park has sections representing different cities in Anhui, including Chuzhou, as well as a replica of a beautiful Buddhist temple, which we had photographed before. It was great fun for me to remember this place again and share it with Abbie!

The next stop was the Grand Park Hotel, which is just down the street from the park. As you might have guessed, this is where Abbie was given to us on January 10, 2005. It is no longer a Sofitel and does not cater to westerners, so CHI didn’t want us to stay there this time, but the visit itself was the best. I immediately recognized the outside of the hotel, as well as the grand lobby full of shiny marble and sparkly chandeliers. We also found the turtles swimming where they were 12 years ago, which nearly brought me to tears. I vividly recall taking photos and video of them to show then 3-year-old Jackson. 🙂

Michael sprang into action to help us retrace our steps at the hotel. We set off in search of the big room where the babies were brought in by the nannies, as well as the smaller room where all the paperwork was done. This hotel was routinely used for just this purpose in Anhui, though it has been many years because adoptions have nearly ceased with the reversal of the one-child policy. Between my memory, old photos from our blog, and helpful hotel staff, we found these places. We felt like detectives piecing together the bits of information and shining our flashlights in darkened rooms and corridors. Abbie thought it was great fun – she was actively putting the pieces of HER story together!

Then there it was…the door through which her physical presence joined ours. We had been preparing for Chu Yong Ran – our Abigail Skylar – for so long, and we had begun to attach to her through her referral photo and story, but now she was here, about to be in our arms. Through this door, our family was made complete: two children; two miracles. Back on that cold day, we spotted her instantly when she entered, despite the seven baby girls wearing identical pink and white snow suits. 🙂 Through this door, we now had our daughter. As Abbie described it in her journal entry tonight, through this door she was “standing in a miracle.” She also wrote, “I could see the past happening in the room.” Today in that moment, I felt the past come racing back and enter the present, and I once again felt the miracle.

We drove back to our hotel, quietly reflecting on our “site-seeing.” We got some noodles and dumplings for dinner, and we prepared our things for tomorrow. We are ready…

Blue sky and yellow dragon

Today was our last day touring around Chengdu, and we visited Huanglongxi Ancient Town, a 90-minute drive south of the city. On the way, we enjoyed a mix of Chinese music of all kinds, Abba (“Dancing Queen”), and Demi Lovato (“Let it Go”). 🙂 It was our third day here, and we have seen fleeting moments of blue sky each day. Kevin, our guide, said it is very rare and “precious” to get to see it, as they have fewer than 10 days per year where there is visible blue sky. And this is the first city where we have seen blue sky. When the forecast here is “sunny,” I think I would call it “hazy.” It’s not pleasant. 😦

Anyway, back to Huanglongxi… I think everyone else in Chengdu had the same idea to visit it today, as the crowds were like nothing I’ve experienced before, outside of something like a Blazers’ game or Coldplay concert! This “ancient city” is a combination of carnival rides and games, shops, and restaurants. There is a small section that is indeed “ancient,” but it’s mostly new structures made to look old, and it is highly commercialized. It is along a river by the same name (which means “yellow dragon”), and a man-made stream runs along the pedestrian street too. Children of all ages were in the water squirting one another with various toys that are sold along the way.

We wound our way up and down the streets and alleys, briefly stopping along the way for a quick peek at various activities (e.g., noodle pulling, ear cleaning) and foods (e.g., fried insects, dried mushrooms, numerous peppers). The sites, sounds, and smells seemed exotic, but it was challenging to take it all in as we had to focus on staying together in the crowd (& keeping up with Kevin!).

After walking for awhile, we stopped for a dim sum lunch where we had the local spicy dumplings, dan dan noodles, and jelly with brown sugar sauce. These were our favorite dumplings thus far, and we handled the Sichuan spice just fine. 🙂 We again sweat our way through a hot meal, and we finally asked for a bottle of cold water to share toward the end.

Kevin said not many westerners visit this place, and we only saw three during our time there today. Needless to say, Abbie and I get some interesting looks when we are out and about. I wonder what people think…I’m sure they know what our relationship is, but I’m not sure how it is perceived from the Chinese side. Kevin said that he is a true “first generation” of the one child policy, as he was born in 1979, the year it was implemented. He shared that his parents had a daughter before him who died of a heart issue. In Xi’an, Anna told us that she is the second of two daughters and that when she was born, her “daddy” lost his job and they were fined the equivalent of 30,000 yuan (about $4300). Today there is no more one child policy, and Kevin said young people don’t want to have many children because they are too expensive. It’s hard to wrap our minds around, and when I see little girls with their parents, I can only imagine what life Abbie would have now if she had gotten that hand dealt to her. Today she said she’s glad she didn’t “have” to grow up here (it may have been when she saw fried scorpions on sticks!), but I can’t help but wonder what all she’s thinking and processing.

Tomorrow we fly to Hefei, the capital of Anhui Province – Abbie’s province. We are ready…

Two words: Giant pandas!

Today was one we had been waiting for: we got to visit the Chengdu Panda Base. There are only about 1000 giant pandas in the world, 90% of which live in Sichuan Province. Of the 1000, about 60% live in the wild and 40% live in captivity. The Chengdu Panda Base is not only a tourist attraction (think panda zoo), but it is also a research facility and breeding program.

We once again had some rain, but our guide, Kevin, said that is good because pandas like the coolness. That meant they were out in the trees rather than hiding inside in the air conditioning (I’m not kidding). Kevin described them as very spoiled and lazy. They sleep most of the day and only eat bamboo that comes from the mountains; not what is grown at the panda base. He said the government pays peasants to pick the bamboo and bring it to the base. The caretakers also make cakes for the pandas and hide them in the trees so the pandas get some exercise finding them. The cakes are made of honey, corn, vitamins, et cetera, and are suitable for human consumption.

We started our viewing at the “teenagers” and then worked our way to the “kindergarten” and the “retired” pandas. Teens can live in small groups, but adults are separated as they are territorial and can be aggressive. In captivity, pandas can live up to 25 years (about 15 years in the wild). We didn’t see any rat-like newborns as it is mating season, and they will be born in late summer/early fall (panda pregnancy is only 3 months!). We were fortunate to get to see two adults feeding on bamboo. It was a thrill to watch!

We also saw red pandas, which are actually in the raccoon family, as well as some pheasants wandering around. Kevin said you used to be able to pay about $350 to hold a panda, but the government discontinued the program a few years ago when the pandas got sick. He also added that parents of adoptees like Abbie would always pay for it (he added that he thinks they’re quite spoiled, just like the pandas!).

After the panda base, we returned to the city for a famous Sichuan hot pot lunch. It was not only delicious but quite an experience as well. The boiling pot of chicken and vegetable broth is in the middle of the table and ingredients are brought to you for cooking. Locals have the spicy pepper broth mixed in, but for westerners like us, they have a separate pot in the center for dipping, otherwise it is too spicy. Kevin selected our ingredients – nothing “strange” (his word), like innards of various animals. We stuck with veggies like bean sprouts, cucumber, tomatoes, potatoes, and cabbage, and meats like sliced beef, pork meatballs, and shrimp dumplings. We also took tofu, and Kevin was surprised because westerners don’t usually eat it.

Each person mixes their own combination of sesame oil, garlic, cilantro, and green onion in a small bowl, and that’s what you put the food in once it’s cooked in the large hot pot. Since the pepper pot was separate, we dipped our items in it as much as we wanted the spice level to be. Kevin said we did a very good job for westerners, both with the spice and the chop sticks. 🙂 Oh yeah, you also drink hot tea with this meal – and it’s nearly 90 degrees here today with high humidity, so we all were sweating up a storm by the end of the meal (Kevin included)! It was an experience we will never forget (Reed and Jackson, Abbie thought you would’ve loved it).

After lunch, we visited Jinli Street and Kuan and Zhai Alleys. These were very crowded pedestrian streets lined with shops, crafts, and “local snacks.” Kevin moved us through fairly quickly, but he would stop along the way to explain some things to us. The local snacks ranged from pineapple sticky rice to black tofu to various items on a stick: heads (duck, rabbit), tongues, feet, tentacles, innards, and that thing on top of a rooster’s head. We were glad we had already eaten. 🙂

We had a little time to rest in the hotel and cool off (the ice cream bars helped!) before setting out for the evening. We began with a traditional Chinese medicinal (herbal) dinner. We again enjoyed rolling roast duck, sauce, cucumbers, and onion in little pancakes. We also tried Kung Pao chicken, which originates here, but we didn’t enjoy the “numb” peppers. They weren’t spicy hot but rather were a type of peppercorn that literally numbs your tongue. After dinner, we went to a Sichuan Opera variety show, including the famous changing masks, which Kevin said only a few people know how to do as the government keeps it a secret. It was colorful, musical, and quite entertaining. The highlight of the day remains the giant pandas however. 🙂

Another day, another wall

This morning, Abbie and I toured the old city wall at Xi’an. It’s about 8 miles around, so needless to say, we did not walk atop the entire thing. It was enjoyable to stroll along and talk with Anna about the history of the wall, as well as other topics about the Chinese culture and way of life. We viewed the drum tower and the bell tower, still in use today to mark the time. Next we visited the Muslim market, a pedestrian street lined with bright signs and food shops. We tasted a local sesame peanut candy and admired the diverse offerings, both by sight and smell (check out the peppers!).

We hopped back into our van to go to the airport. Anna took us through the check-in process and right to the security gate. We hugged goodbye and went through the efficient system. We got noodles for lunch, and now we sit at our gate with a 40-minute delay to Chengdu. Hopefully it won’t increase, and we will soon be on our way!

Update: We arrived in Chengdu about 90 minutes late and our guide, Kevin, was there to greet us. We made our way to the hotel easily, and we are looking forward to exploring another new city!

A Day of Statues, Buddhas, & Dumplings

We had such a full day in the Shaanxi province! After another marvelous Chinese breakfast, we set out for the Terracotta Warrior museum. On the way, we stopped at a factory where replica statues are made so we could learn about the process. We also saw how porcelain, lacquered furniture, and silk-embroidered goods are crafted. It was amazing!

The museum is a series of three “pits,” the first of which is the most extensive. Archaeologists are still working to restore the statues. The warriors and their horses were situated in a manner to protect the first emperor’s tomb. They were destroyed at some point by someone (we got two stories about that), through smashing them and setting them afire. They laid buried for some 2000 years until farmers working on a new well site discovered them in 1974. It was an amazing experience, and Abbie loved it (she took 50 photos).

We also got a lesson in real jade versus fake jade at a shop outside the museum. Then it was time for lunch and a tea ceremony. So cool! Afterwards, we visited the Da Yan Pagoda temple, back in the heart of Xi’an. This is a very tranquil place, and we learned a lot about Buddhism and Daoism from our tour guide, Anna.

As I write this, we are sitting at a dumpling banquet, trying to make room for a few more of the 16 varieties we’ve been served (some even shaped like frogs, ducks, and porcupines!). After we finish dinner, we will watch a Tang Dynasty song and dance performance depicting the story of Empress Wu Ze-tian. It’s been a very full day indeed!

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