Tags Posts tagged with "Family"


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Trees on the Ridge

When I looked over the photos I took at Bryce National Park memories come flooding back. I can remember one of the walks from the car to the path, there were small banks of snow I had to cross as well as muddy areas I had to skirt. To most people it was a short walk measured by yards and not miles but I was towards the end of my chemotherapy treatments and it was daunting. By the time I reached the pathway I was out of breath and needed to rest. I remember looking out at the canyon and letting its grandeur sink in. The red rocks with white snow on them were a sight to see. As were the magnificent trees that lined the ridge. Their twisted roots above ground somehow found a home in the harsh environment.

In a way I felt like those trees. It had been a long hard battle; the form of lymphoma I had was rare, very aggressive, and it hid well. Before my diagnosis, I went to several doctors and each time I was prescribed a stronger dose of antibiotics. I was always hopeful that this time it would work, that I’d be able to walk up the short flight of stairs outside my apartment without it feeling like I had just ran a marathon. But each time I was disappointed. However, like the trees at Bryce the buffeting made me want to hold on to my life, to fight for the strength to continue.

When I first received chemotherapy it was amazing how fast it started to work. In just five days my lungs had cleared enough that I was able to lie down on my bed. It was Christmas day and after a month of sleeping sitting up it was heaven. That first week I also lost twenty pounds of fluid. I was luckier than I could have imagined, without chemotherapy I probably wouldn’t have lived to see New Year’s Day. And while at first chemo was a miracle and I thought it wasn’t so bad each treatment was harder for my body to take. I needed a reprieve, a chance to forget about the fight and just live.

Thankfully two of my sisters and my niece were able to travel with me to Bryce. While there, my older sister told me about when she had last she visited. She and her family walked the trail which led to the bottom of the valley and then back up. She said it was a great hike that wasn’t too hard. Obviously I wasn’t up to it then, but I remember thinking when I am feeling better, I will come back and take on that trail.

I wanted to see the valley from below, I wanted to immerse myself into the surroundings, to feel alive and healthy again, and now that I remember this conversation I have a renewed desire to go back to Bryce and take on that trail. We drove around to several lookouts and saw the valley from many angles. My little sister and niece ran up to the higher viewpoints but I was content to stay below and take pictures of the canyon and its amazing trees.

Chemo was hard but it didn’t last forever. It was something I had to deal with and like the trees I had solid ground below. Doctors, neighbors, coworker, and especially family who took care of me in the days following each chemo session all buoyed me up and kept me strong. They were like roots; helping me survive on a rocky ridgeline.


That little trip rejuvenated me and helped me endure my last few treatments. It was also quality time with my family and I’m very grateful that I’m still around to appreciate them. Whether they are near or far vacation can bring out the best in you. They can make you braver than you are and connect you with people from both around the world and your own back yard. I have been cancer free for two years now, and while my life isn’t perfect, I hope that I have deep enough roots so that I can brave whatever trials the future holds.

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Family Travel

Gone are the days when family travel was considered a luxury. With the wide-range of travel promos being offered today, and (thanks to the internet) easy online booking process of airlines, hotels, tour operators and travel agencies, families are now going places to have unique experiences together.

Family Travel

And it looks like the upward trend will continue. A study commissioned by the Embassy Suites Hotels indicates that millennial parents take trips with their kids significantly more than older generations, and 38 percent of them do so three or more times a year.

The difficulty of traveling with kids may be slowing down the trend though. The same study mentioned earlier says that 11 percent of parents surveyed find family travel stressful, and that stress was a top reason why some did not take trips with their kids more often. Dealing with child tantrums while waiting for boarding at the airport, finding ways to entertain a bored child at a resort, trying to get hot meals for the kids while away from home are just a few of the demands of traveling with children that parents need to deal with while on vacation. Who would want to travel again soon with their children after a nerve-wracking trip?

Embassy Suites Bumper

To address these family travel concerns and enhance the family travel experience, the Embassy Suites launched the #PrettyGreat Family Travel Hacks program in March 2015.

The program includes an online community that engages parents and provides fun and useful tips from family travel experts and fellow parents to help make traveling with their kids easier and more fun. After all, a vacation is supposed to be time away from the stresses of daily living!

Embassy Suites Dance Party

Here are nifty samples of the ‘hacks’ on the #PrettyGreat Family Travel Hacks hub:

  1. Pack your kid’s outfits in separate bags.
  2. Do not pack clothes that require ironing.
  3. If you have an early flight, get the kids dressed the night before in comfy clothes so they are ready to roll out of bed and make that early morning flight.
  4. Wear your baby. It’s helpful to have your hands free in the airport when you’re lugging around two suitcases, three carry-ons, three personal items, two kids, and the overpriced lunch you grabbed in a rush on your way into the terminal. Bonus: the stroller is then free to be used as a luggage cart.
  5. A pool noodle can act as a bed-bumper on the fly.
  6. No speakers? No problem. Put your phone inside an empty glass to amplify the sound and let the dance party commence.
  7. Use the hotel garbage can as a stool. When they can’t reach the sink in the hotel to brush their teeth, flip the garbage can over and let them stand on that.

Tic Tac Toe Napkin

Aside from the online community, the Embassy Suites is adding new family-focused amenities as part of the #PrettyGreat Family Travel Hacks program. Families can expect coloring books and crayons upon check-in and cocktail napkins with family-friendly games during the evening reception, among other stuff on the house. Select hotels are even providing baby care amenities such as baby wash, wipes and other essentials this summer. These are on top of their usual family-friendly two-room suites, free made-to-order breakfast each morning and complimentary drinks and snacks for two hours every night.

Embassy Suites Buzz Lightyear
Photo: Lisa Niver, We Said Go Travel


And, further to the all-suite brand’s commitment to providing families with a great guest experience, the brand is incorporating family-specific training into its orientation program and on-going team member training sessions. This is to equip its team members with the necessary skills to ensure families staying with them can focus on enjoying their vacation time together, discovering awesome places and building beautiful memories.


Photo credits:
Family Travel: Colleen Kelly via Flickr
All other photos: (c) 2015 Embassy Suites

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Before the main course, we feasted on spicy calamari rings, dipped in warm, homemade marinara, I’d created myself.  I never imagined myself standing in the kitchen, dancing to Persian music with my prince, feasting on fresh calamari, in the middle of a tropical, Japanese island paradise.  Nasser slipped in and out of the kitchen snagging a morsel of calamari as he returned to the balcony to grill fillet mignon and fresh vegetables.  Nasser has broadened my horizons: opened my appetite to succulent liver, gizzards and hearts flavored with turmeric, onions, garlic and olive oil, fresh baked salmon smothered with milt and shitake mushrooms, or grilled button mushrooms stuffed with sausage.  My eyes have been opened, as has my palate, but mostly my heart.  My life is full of happy moments and fascinating experiences.

Earlier in the day, I visited Shuri castle and the royal tombs as well as the holiest place of worship in Okinawa with my son, Hunter.  We traipsed up the side of the mountain on an ancient stone path, to see a beautifully lit cavern, over-looking the ocean and the countryside.  Two stalactites dripped into small stone pots; Hunter slipped his fingers into the clear water, which had been considered holy in ancient times.  Hunter remarked that the enchanted place, with its cascading greenery and intricate root systems, reminded him of Fern Gully.  The atmosphere exuded peace.   I had a wonderful time with Hunter.  I wished Nasser could see what I had seen, but he had given me this special time to share with my son.  We had already shared many precious moments in this wondrous place.  We had even visited an untouched beach, just as I had with Hunter today.  How sweet to share these experiences with each of them.  Today, my feet sank in the soft, moist sand as I sauntered down the beach after Hunter.  Then, the surface of my boots scraped against the sharp coral stone and slipped on the green slimy moss.  Hunter remarked, “Mom, you can’t come around here, it’s only for boys”, he teased.   He correctly deduced I could not mount the dangerous, sharply inclined coral island, but I did navigate the less treacherous periphery and joined him round the other side (he had mounted the island and slipped through the opening in the center, whereas I had gone around).  The lilt in his voice belied his genuine surprise, “How did you get here?”  Never underestimate the power of a middle aged woman challenged by her strong, young adult son.  The satisfaction that spread across my lips may have been lost on him as I was out of his line of sight, but I savored the moment, then slipped back around the sharp, rocky face and met him back on the other side.  He collected beautiful coral specimens to create treasures for his friends as I plucked up brilliant pieces of sea glass, surfaces rubbed smooth by the gritty surface of the ocean floor.  The sea mist played with my hair and kissed my skin.  A brilliant blue Ryukyu sparrow played on the sea wall nearby.  Though I had slipped down the concrete wall to the beach, my sore shoulder hindered me from mounting it to return to the car; so, we made our way up the beach to a concrete stair way, collecting treasures along the way.  What a delightful time I shared with my sweet son.

            Back at home, we joined to collectively create a fabulous dinner.  I made the salad: fresh, bright greens, crisply baked pecans, slivers of yellow, red and orange bell pepper, bright red tomatoes, shiny black olives, topped off with tiny, deep red, sweet and sour zerescht that Nasser prepared for me.  He and Hunter grilled fish, chicken wings, eggplant, okra, veggie patties for Hunter, and mushrooms stuffed with spiced tofu.  We enjoyed a sweet Riesling with our neighbor, Loryn, who’d joined us.  Later, Hunter and I would walk her to her friend’s house.  The brisk walk in the fresh, cool Okinawan air awakened me.  Everyone went to bed as I put away the food and washed the dishes…a rarity.   Hunter, Nasser and I usually argue over who “gets” to do the dishes.  How different.  How refreshing, from what I hear of many other families.  But my family is not typical… It is unusual, beautiful…abundantly lovely.

How precious to share these moments from such an extraordinary place, this island paradise.  We have traipsed around, visiting farmer’s markets, peaceful remote villages, desolate beaches.  We have danced at midnight, stopped off at noodle shops, treasure stores, sacred temples, botanical gardens. Life is beautiful beyond imagination and this place is ethereal.  I wish all could see what I have beheld with my eyes, held what I have with my hands, felt and experienced what I have.

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The bright green, perfectly manicured grass illuminates the giant pink and white rose petal heart, and a guitarist strumming a Beatles Love Song amplifies the cheesiness of the situation to everyone within earshot. I stand, dizzy with anticipation and sweating despite it being a comfortable 65 degrees, on the deck overlooking the 18th tee of Pebble Beach Golf Course. My mother and father are renewing their wedding vows today, on their 30th anniversary. My mother is radiating with giddy anticipation, and my father is nervous and excited in the quiet way that only those close to him can distinguish.

The whole family traveled from all corners of the US to celebrate this momentous occasion. I am proud and excited, yet at the same time want to run for the hills.

As we stand there waiting to be called down, paraded in front of hundreds of strangers, the weather begins to change. The sunny California day seems to be changing with my emotions. The Pacific ocean turning from calm to rocky, as grey clouds quickly move in casting shadows on the monstrous houses that line the coast.

Wanting to make sure this wedding happens before rain comes in, the wedding planner waves us down.

I try not to notice all of the people watching us from the deck of the Pebble Beach Restaurant. My boyfriend touches my back, comfortingly urging me forward. He knows how much I despise unwanted attention. Without that slight push, I am not sure I would have the courage to march across the green with so many eyes on me. My sister parades to the heart like she owns the place, as I slowly and self-consciously make my way across one of the most famous golf courses in the world.

The wedding planner, beaming with faux happiness, dangles a garland of flowers intended for me, and drapes it across my head. Pink, white, red and yellow roses adorn my head. The scent of freshly cut flower overwhelms my senses, yet does not do a thing to calm my nerves. Photos are snapped, I force a fake smile.

My sister, skinny, blonde, and perfect in every way, stands next to me. Chest proud, shoulders relaxed, smug. I look her up and down, trying not to compare myself to her like I do at every family gathering. I, the older sister, aspire to be like her. Thin, confident, and dripping with an “I don’t care what you think” attitude.

From the outside, no one would know the self-conscious turmoil bubbling inside me. I look put together, though on the inside I am anything but. Travel has been my escape and a key element in teaching me about myself and all that I am capable of. As I make my way around the world, my self-confidence grows with each new adventure. This trip, I tell myself, is just another stepping-stone toward positive growth.

So, I try to change my thoughts from negative to positive as the guitarist begins to play Alan Jackson’s country ballad ‘Remember When’, signaling the start of the ceremony. My mother and father stand in the center of that cheesy flower heart holding hands.

As the minister speaks his words, words about love and acceptance and happiness, I try as hard as I can to focus on my parents; my mother-beaming, and my normally stoic father-red in the face and crying.

I look around at where I am and what I am doing. One of the most beautiful golf courses, on one of the most beautiful stretches of land in the world. Even with the changing weather, the deep blue of the ocean collides with the bright green grass and brightens everything, including my attitude.

All of the distractions surrounding us; the people watching, the golfers playing, the ocean waves crashing, blur.

It is here in this blur, surrounded by love and beauty, that I am grateful. The love of my family, coupled with the beauty of the celebration and nature around us, allows me to finally throw out all of the negative thoughts that occupy my mind.

The ceremony ends and I walk with my head held high back to the deck. It is time to celebrate with a champagne toast and the sun, peaking through the clouds, just before it sets over the Pacific Ocean.

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Croagh Patrick, Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland.

Knock Airport, Co. Mayo is claimed by proud locals to be the foggiest airport on earth; it is remote, built on a hill and, reassuringly, has a large statue of Jesus at the beginning of the runway. Once safely alongside, we walked across the tarmac, rain beating down, to find the door into the arrival lounge locked. After several minutes of waiting in the drizzle, an airport official eventually obliged and somehow raised laughter when he probably deserved complaints, by declaring, in lilting, West of Ireland tones, “It was a surprise flight, we didn’t know you were coming!”

Soon though our party (my wife, two daughters and mother) were zipping along country roads on the way to the wedding of my niece, Anne. We also looked forward to an extended three-day break in Mayo, the county of my father’s birth. The MPV toiled admirably with six of us on board and far too much luggage. When we eventually reached Westport, it was getting dark. We knocked on the guesthouse door to be met by a friendly, unashamedly ‘left-field’ landlady, dressed in floral apron,  tweed dress and a sixties beehive hairstyle.

 “Come in, come in,” she said, “I’ll make some tea. Why wouldn’t I?” 

Completely unable to answer her question we smiled broadly.  And they say it is just the English and Americans who are divided by the same language!  But we immediately felt at home here, like putting on your most comfortable slippers.

 “Where have you all come from?” she asked as she busied off to the kitchen.

 I explained that during the day we had all travelled from four separate UK cities, to which she replied:

 “Jeez, I’ll bet ye feel murdered!”

Five minutes later we were feasting on Irish soda bread and strong tea, while the landlady  explained that a ”widow woman” up the street had died that day and she was now “away to the wake”. I detected more than a slight sense of eager anticipation in her voice.

 “Just leave the crockery and help yourself to whatever you want – sorry I have to go.” And with that offer the dear woman headed for the door.

 You just don’t get that sort of hospitality in the chain hotels, even if duvets had not yet replaced eiderdowns and the owner’s cat gave us a menacing John Wayne stare.

The next day, Anne was married, romantically (Pierce Brosnan got spliced there) to Seanin at Ballintubber Abbey: that most iconic of Catholic churches, where priests had fled by boat across the lough at the back of the abbey when religious zeal consumed Cromwell.  Later we feasted, sang and danced to fast, Irish music. What a difference to English weddings, I thought, where there is a reluctance to start off the dancing. Here just about every table emptied as guests rushed to the floor. The next day, fortified by a full Irish breakfast, with black and white pudding, we strolled past the pretty blue and pink buildings, lured by the sound of the wild Atlantic hammering onto the rocks in the harbour. On our way, we counted six Guinness tankers piping the black stuff into the cellars of the countless bars as nuns strolled by.  The secular and the sacred seemed to co-exist very comfortably in this beautiful little town and the general ambience of the place was most attractive.  

The next day, I sat alone at the top of Croagh Patrick, a sharply pointed mountain, which in excess of 25,000 Catholic pilgrims climb on the last Sunday in July: Reek Sunday. I looked down on the town, the majestic Mayo countryside and the distant specks of my closest family. I felt humbled by the fact that my father had come over to Manchester all those years ago to toil and sweat to help build the city’s skyscrapers. It had been nearly thirty years since his death but we sat together on the top of the mountain that day and the pieces of my life seemed to fit together in an unusually clear and comforting way. His was not a perfect life and nor has mine been, but in my heart I heard my dad say that there is no future in the past. The chance to make the most of the years to come was what mattered more.

 Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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Looking around the table, listening to the stories of Borneo, gorillas in Rwanda and other exotic spots, I felt a bit out of place.  This was ironic.  While I grew up in California, I work in International Development which had taken me to Peshwar, Jalalabad, Bogota, Banda Aceh, Tegucigalpa….just to name a few distant outposts.  However, this trip was different…my dad and I were sitting in an elegant tent in the middle of the Serengeti as the wildebeest migration wandered through camp.


It all started when my dad mentioned his retirement dream of seeing the migration and going on safari.  My mom, a more artistic than adventurous soul, said she’d rather not go, and my dad generously asked if I’d like to join him.  This sparked a year-long research project of finding the right safari….did we want to stay in tents?  Five star hotels?  Did we want our own guide?  What country, what animals, what cultures?   We finally narrowed it down to the Serengeti in Tanzania, with a multiple-day stay in a camp following the migration.


Arriving from two continents, me from Italy and dad from California, we stayed one night in Arusha before meeting our gregarious and knowledgeable guide, Cornelius.   Our trusty Land Cruiser was packed the next morning with luggage and treats, and off we went.  The drive quickly went from hot, noisy, dusty Arusha to the wide-open spaces of the rift valley.


Our first stop not on the printed itinerary as we were quick to learn was the “way of Cornelius” was a lone Baobab tree.  Here Cornelius hopped out, jumped a fence of thorns and begin our education on the amazing array of birds living in the micro-habitat around the Balboa.  Birds with long tails, yellow coloring, delicate features opened a new world of African safaris was opened to us as we stood looking up.  We would learn that the  “big five” (lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino) were only a fraction of the life on in the Tanzanian savannah.


As we arrived at our next destination, Lake Manyara National Park, dad and I were like kids in a candy store.  As our first true “safari” spot, it lived up to our dreams, with a baboon family welcoming us at the gate, rhino rib trees displaying spectacular lines and angles, and our first glimpse of a cheetah.  Next was Gibbs Farm, one of the first guest houses in Tanzania, sitting on acres of organic coffee and produce. More than 70 percent of the items on the menu are products of the farm. Our first night’s meal, cooked by a professional chef included a peanut and eggplant soup and fresh herb soufflé…not items I had anticipated eating on safari!


The next day brought elephants chasing away lions, thousands of pink flamingos, a rare black rhino sighting, and frolicking baby zebras on our drive into and through the Ngorongoro Crater.  Driving down the other side of the crater, we entered the hot, dusty backside of the conservation area.  Umbrella trees went from a rarity to the predominant life-form on the landscape.  From green to brown the landscape changed as we lazily neared camp.  As we neared, a storm descended upon us, sloshing the Land Cruiser about, giving Cornelius the chance to demonstrate his talent at taming the “Land Cruiser in mud beast.”  Watching other Land Cruisers in the distance not move with us, we appreciated Cornelius’ driving skills more than at any other point along the trip.

Upon arrival, we joined the small group of other hardy storm survivors who had reached our intimate camp on this vast plain.  Sitting at dinner that night, I realized how special the moment was in this place … sounds of wildebeest grunting in the background, stories of travels far and wide circling the table, and my dad sitting at my side, smiling and laughing as he fulfilled his retirement dream.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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So we as a family want to set apart one holiday exclusively for beaches, calm beaches. We even gave it a title – ‘Beach Tour’. There we head to the shores of Lombok archipelago. The Gilis had always been in our list. The only child in our 4-member group, 5 year-old Evy, my niece, is so jubilant that she wouldn’t mind jumping down the landing plane right into the blue ocean!

 We stay at the Senggigi area with plenty of restaurants and hotels and a lovely beach where taking a morning stroll is a great experience. It’s calm, it’s only for us, and for Evy. We have the whole beach to ourselves on our first morning. There is a feeling of desertedness as we scan the wide arch that is Senggigi beach. But soon it is happiness and Evy’s ululations of excitement which dominate our moods. She needs to be given the best of times this holiday. And we need Lombok’s great beaches to realise that.

 On our way to Gili Trawangan on the second day, our guide takes us to a nearby beach called Nipah from where we would be ferried across. There is no plan to linger around at this ‘transit beach’. However, the blue water and a desolate state charm our exploring minds. We delay our ferry ride. An abandoned wooden log on the beach and the only waiting ferry on the water with the background of hills in the distance is quite a stately setting for some DSLR moments. Signs of sought-after loneliness.  Evy wants to sit on the wooden log. We say yes.

Then the Yamaha sputters smoke briefly and the boatman sounds the siren. We cruise along on the calm waters of early morning.

A mile or two away the pictures of a typical tropical island gain clarity. A lanky, white man is holding his huge surfboard and walking along the beach. Evy points towards snorkellers popping out of water now and then – “See, like dolphins, hahahah”.My wife Lina and her sister Rita get busy preparing our things before we disembark on the beautiful Gili Trawangan.

The guide helps us put on our snorkelling gear. The fish are a bit shy at first, it seems, but then they swim in, in their dozens, in many hues. After spending a full hour under and above the water we take shelter in a beachside restaurant for brunch. The beach activities, the sunbathers, children designing sand castles are our entertainment while savouring salad and macaroni.

Itching to get more of the island, we move to bicycling. We hire 3 cycles, with me carrying Evy on mine. This is probably the best part of the island trip as we stop by nearly 10 spots on our way. Each spot gives a different view of the beach, the mountains and the coral waters. We pass by outdoor lounges of star hotels, posh al-frescos and souvenir and tattoo shops. After about 5 kilometres the path gets isolated. This is when we start stopping here and there randomly. Horse carriages keep overtaking us, some pass by us.  I don’t like the idea of using motor cycles here as noise doesn’t go well with the purity of idyllic silence.

We park our bicycles under some palm trees and check out the shallow coral waters. At a distance is a mountain spread. It is sizzling hot, but that doesn’t dampen our spirits to bicycle further and stop at another spot where we come across an empty traveller’s rest area. From here the view reveals the end of the mountains. Beyond that point it is only the Indian Ocean, all the way. A full two hours before getting back to the crowded beach area where the boatman is ready again, for the return journey. Evy hasn’t had enough.

We comfort her with the promise of hitting yet another beach the next day. We are back at Senggigi  in an hour and fifteen minutes. Tomorrow is Kuta beach, Lombok’s Kuta, not Bali’s.

Bali’s cousin here displays coral waters and a very calm scene where sunbathing and relaxation are the most ideal things to do; without the crowds. But we do sea walking! The shallow waters during low tide here stretch to nearly a kilometre into the ocean. As you walk along the sea you are connected to a cove with boulders and big coral rocks which make up a spectacular scene. It is totally calm now. There is no one here barring us.

Our love affair with beaches can’t get any better, especially when we have beaches to ourselves, with only the waves and the wind being accompaniments.  The best part of it all was, Lombok makes Evy happy.  That makes us happier in turn.

About the author: Pramod Kanakath, a teacher and a travel writer, and a photographer. Currently based in Indonesia.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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I still remember my first impressions of Hong Kong. Racing through Kowloon in the back seat of a red taxi at midnight in 1990, I saw the neon. Bright and colorful, flashing and still, the neon signs peered at me through the side streets as my taxi made its way to the quiet of the New Territories, Hong Kong’s countryside.

I wouldn’t live among the neon that year or the other four years I spent in Hong Kong that decade, but it didn’t take me long to journey to the densely-populated areas where neon signs defined both major avenues and smaller side streets. I loved Hong Kong’s neon signs so much that I even discussed them in the opening chapter of my memoir, Good Chinese Wife.

Before I made a recent trip back there with my husband, I had read about the dying art of neon signs there. The old neon signs are being replaced by newer LED lights. And the artists who work with neon are retiring and there just isn’t the interest among the newer generations.

So I set out to take a look for myself last week in Hong Kong.

What I found was troubling. Streets either looked like this, with LED lights and no neon in sight.

signs in western

Or like this, with one neon sign per street.

More neon in western

As I looked around Hong Kong Island, I continued to see very little neon.


Pawn shop

Yung Kee neon sign

And even in Kowloon, it was difficult to find a lot of neon.

Neon at Luk Fu

Neon signs have been a part of Hong Kong from before my mother first traveled there in 1962. In Good Chinese Wife, I write about walking around Hong Kong and imaging my mom and her family there thirty years earlier.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 9: Honeymoon in Hong Kong:

As man and wife, Cai and I headed for an abbreviated honeymoon in Tsim Sha Tsui, the district that sits at the tip of the Kowloon Peninsula. We were staying at the Miramar Hotel on Nathan Road, only a mile up from the waterfront promenade that overlooks what I consider to be the most breathtaking skyline in the world. My mom and her family usually stayed in the same area. The Miramar was a popular hotel back then, but I had never heard any of my family members speak of it. Still, I pictured them walking down this street thirty years earlier, dressed in suits and shift dresses, and poking their heads into the tailors and jewelry shops that lined the road. 

Among the traffic congestion and crowds of students, pajama-clad grannies, and tough teenage boys with blond-tipped hair, Cai and I slowly inched our way from the Jordan train station south toward the hotel. I felt graceful and special holding Cai’s hand. We had not spent much time in this area together, although it was one of my favorite spots in Hong Kong. 

While I didn’t write about neon lights in this excerpt, they were everywhere in the district I describe above. At night, the Tsim Sha Tsui area came alive because of the colorful neon signs on Nathan Road–the main street–as well as the side streets that twisted around this densely-populated area.

Back then it was a given that this and other urban areas were adorned by neon signs. That’s not the case now. I now wonder how much neon will be left the next time I visit Hong Kong.

When my father was 16-years old, his father took him and his older brother to Wyoming to climb The Grand Teton. Towering above beautiful Jackson Hole, WY, “The Grand” is the highest mountain in the Teton Mountain Range and the second highest in Wyoming. Its what many would call a “starter mountain.” Experienced mountaineers can tackle it in one day, while those choosing a more leisurely experience can take two or three.

Grand Tetons 5
My Father and I attended Exum Climbing Camp

Climbing runs in my family. Besides my grandfather’s expedition with his sons, my father has climbed on three continents and took my older brother climbing in Chamonix Mont-Blanc when he was 14. On that particular trip to France, my mother and I (8 at the time) tackled a different mountain- Thunder Mountain, at Disneyland Paris.

When the summer of my 16th birthday approached, it was no surprise when my mother and father decided to meet me in Wyoming after I completed an Outward Bound course in Utah. It was finally my turn to summit a mountain alongside my father.

When we arrived in Wyoming in July, the summer climbing season was in full swing. Bearded, flannel wearing (yes, in July) muscle men roamed the climbing gear shops in Jackson Hole. Training camps were full, and we fortunately had reserved two spots and a guide through Exum Mountain Guides in Moose, WY.

Over two days, we reviewed top roping and avalanche drills; we tied countless knots and fitted all of our gear. Perhaps the most fascinating part of our training was that snow and ice climbing was no longer part of the regimen- back in 1972 there had been a glacier that had covered part of The Grand. Now, that glacier is all but gone.

On the third day, we began or ascent. We camped in the saddle, or low point, between The Grand Teton and its neighbor Middle Teton.  We arrived, pitched our tents, and promptly crawled inside to ride out a 20-minute hail and lightning storm that had descended on the mountains. Hail the size of dimes pelted our cover as we tried to find rest on the rocky ground.

Grand Tetons 2
Approaching The Grand Teton summit as the sun rises

No sooner had we fallen asleep then our 3 a.m. alarms went off. It was time to make the final push. In the dark, we climbed with hands and feet up the rock scree just above the saddle. As we moved up further and further, the sun rose with us, bathing the towering rock spiral of the peak in an orange and pink glow.

We reached the summit just after sunrise. I stood there next to my father at the top of the same mountain he had climbed 36 years before with his own father, taking in the miles of Wyoming views. We looked down at the survey marker disk, hammered into the stone below our feet. “Huh, that’s interesting,” he said, “This survey marker says 13,770 feet. When I climbed it last, it was 13,766!” Through my altitude-induced exhaustion, I squinted up at him, “I guess we’ll just have to do another one to be even,” I sighed. He sat down next to me to take in the view. “Guess so…”

IMG_2150Nikita and Maria are clearly sisters, though they never explicitly say so. Aside from their common resemblance, the way the run together hand in hand along a small stream goes a long way towards describing their relationship with one another. As they lead us towards an old Silk Road fortress that predates Marco Polo’s visit to the region by several hundred years, the girls stop to pick out a tasty root (they insist we try it after eating a bit themselves to make their point) or point out an old inscription now nearly covered by plant growth.

To friends from home, the very notion of a trip to this region is unwise. Straddling the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the international market in the main village of Ishkashim will in fact be the site of an assassination only a few weeks after we pass through the area. During our visit, however, the only regret we’ll feel is perhaps not trying hard enough to connect with our hosts one evening or not trying enough varieties of the Iranian candy that comes across from the Afghan market. That’s the strange thing about regret in wisdom, though: they only make sense in retrospect. In the moment, as we travel and live, we can only try to make the decisions that seem most appropriate at the time.

Relaxing around a dimly lit sitting room in their small house, Maria and Nikita’s entire family is full of laughter and questions. Their father, with whom I share enough language to have a basic conversation, asks about out map and our travels and why we came to the village of Ratm far into Tajikistan’s Wakhan Corridor. The surface reason, and the one I answer his questions with, is of course this “First Fortress” that for so long has guarded the Wakhan from invaders out of China. These days the only “invaders” into the Wakhan seem to be the occasional tourists, visiting the area as a loop off of the Pamir Highway or en route to go trekking in a remote corner of Afghanistan.

Only after we leave Nikita and Maria’s house will I realize that the moment that sticks most strongly isn’t of the fortress itself, but of these two girls who so happily walk us there. Without any consideration for themselves, they simply drag along two foreigners – after all, we could only reasonably be there for one thing! In so many regions of the world this would raise ‘travelers alarms’ immediately. “What are they going to ask for? Pens and candy? Money directly?” With these two, however, the concern just isn’t there. We sit on top of an ancient fortress, yet laughing with them is the clear focus of the moment.

Their whole family atmosphere feels this way. The youngest sister of five walks around making faces at each in turn while the father sits beside me and pours over the map of Tajikistan. They offer tea and bread, as would be expected to guests in any Wakhani home. Consummately Japanese, my girlfriend responds with impromptu origami while all I have to offer is photos view from the display of a camera. It is not much, but somehow it is more than enough. We bond as strongly with this small family as we have with hosts and friends with whom we share a complex discussion (or at least a commonly language!), in part because Maria and Nikita’s love for each other and for their family is a gentle reminder that sometimes these simplest things are the most important.

Traveling through the Wakhan is full of moments like these, trading earrings with a feisty grandma at a bus stop and consulting with an Afghan physician about the right herbal remedy for blistered feet. Towards the end of the journey, at a homestay closer to Ishkashim, it turns out that our host family is related to our friends back in Ratm. We get an address, and mail photos from the next major town. Around the same time, a result of the assassination in Ishkahim, fighting breaks out in the regional capital and government services are suspended in the conflict. Ratm, and indeed most of the Wakhan Corridor, are remote enough that our friendly family should be fine. Traveling to the region? Perhaps it wasn’t as safe or wise as we’d believed. Having met only the friendliest families in the area, though, we look back at the trip without regret.

About the Author: Stephen Lioy is a writer and photographer based primarily in Central Asia. Follow along on his travel blog as he explores the ancient Silk Road and beyond.

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