Charmed Life

“Can I swap places with you?” asked Bart.

Bart and his wife Sofie, both Belgian, were walking by, and had stopped to chat with Wendy and I as we sat at a poolside table on the Lido deck. The two of us were in the midst of 宵夜, a late night snack of leftovers from lunch at a Bergen seafood restaurant: steamed mussels and boiled fresh shrimp, washed down with Grolsch beer (me) and hot tea (Wendy). Since seafood tends to smell rather fishy, we decided not eat them in our stateroom, nor bring them into the Lido restaurant to eat. Besides, peeling shrimp is quite messy.

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No, Bart was not asking for a sample of the crustaceans (he’s from the land of moules-frites, after all). I had just told him the itinerary for my six-week European trip. “You’re going to all these beautiful places I want to go to!” he exclaimed.

Six weeks in Europe. Never mind complete strangers, pretty much all my friends were in awe and envy that I was going to go gallivanting around the world, while they were stuck at home with work/raising kids/saving the world, etc.

But as I related my news to each of my friends, I caveated and asterisked the heck out of my impending travel plans. (I tried to downplay my charmed life, untethered to any productive responsibilities. But my friends aren’t much fooled by my act.)

The first two weeks would be spent with my mom Wendy (and her cousin Shujun with husband Harry) on a cruise to Norway*.

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Disembarking from the Rotterdam in Rotterdam

The second two weeks would be spent with Dad (and Joe) traveling independently around Scotland and England**.


The boys in Edinburgh

The third two weeks would be spent with my step-mom Yeeta (and 20 other people) on a Thailand-based escorted package tour of Slovenia and Croatia***.

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Roving in Rovinj

(Thank goodness I only have three parents, and none of them are Elizabeth Taylor.)

The downsides of this trip were:

  • – I don’t like cruises.
  • — Taking my Dad traveling is indeed ‘travail’ – hard work.
  • — I don’t like escorted package tours.

The upsides of the trip were:

  • + I’d never been to any of these places before.
  • ++ I wouldn’t have gone to any of these places, if it weren’t for my parents.
  • +++ After six weeks in Europe, my spoken Cantonese and Thai would improve immensely.

And I got to do cool things like photograph drying fish in Norway. By the way, it smelled exactly like Thai or Chinese salted fish.

Even though I’m an over-planner, I couldn’t have planned the trip this way even if I set out to do so. It was just a complete fluke that the dates fell into place, and that all these destinations were conveniently grouped in Europe, the most densely compacted of continents. (Ah, Europe. Where the language changes every 50 miles, and until the euro came along, the currency changed every 100 miles.)

Dad wanted to go to Scotland and England (even though he’d been there before.) Yeeta wanted to go on a package tour, to anywhere, so long as it was somewhere she had never been to before. Since it was a milestone birthday for her this year, I told her I’d go with her, even though I generally avoid escorted package tours like I avoid Ebola.

(Dad absolutely refuses to go on package tours as well. It’s been a long-standing bone of contention between them. But they’ve now figured they could go on vacations separately, and the sky wouldn’t fall on their heads.)

I told them I wouldn’t be available until October, since my work contract ended September 30, as did my house-sitting stint.

“October? It’ll be cold in Scotland by then! I want to go in September,” said Dad.

“Well, my work contract ends September 30 . . .”

There was a tour of Slovenia and Croatia put on by Yeeta’s favourite tour operator starting in mid-October. Neither of us had been there before, so Yeeta and I signed up for it. Yeeta didn’t want to go to Scotland with us because she didn’t want to be gone for such a long time.


Our tour was ‘sponsored’ by a bank, which got us a discount if we paid with their credit card. Hence the obligatory social media photo pose.

This would work out quite nicely, I thought. After I wrapped up work and house-sitting in September, I would spend October in Europe, and be back by the first week of November, in time to do the Rim-to-Rim hike in Grand Canyon, which had been arranged even before I even knew I was going to Europe.

Meanwhile, Wendy had signed up with Bob for a 14-day cruise of Norway during the last two weeks of September. They were going to go with her cousin Shujun and her husband Harry from Canada.

In mid-August, Bob found out he wouldn’t be able to go on the trip. Wendy asked me to go as a substitute. I said no, I had to work and house-sit, and besides she had Harry and Shujun to hang out with. Plus she had a single supplement by default, from Bob.


Wendy never pleads. Underlying that entreaty was: “You’re taking your father on a trip to Scotland. You’re going on a package tour with your step-mother even though you hate package tours just because it’s her milestone birthday. Yet you won’t come with your mother on a cruise, even though it’s my milestone birthday too.”

Solomon had me not only at the umbilical cord, but the jugular. I have three parents; and if I was obliging Dad and Yeeta by going on a trip with each of them, I should also do the same for Wendy.

I agonized over the pros and cons. I didn’t want to flake out on my responsibilities, but it was possible to cut short on the work contract. And I could make arrangements for the house-sitting. These really weren’t sacrifices. It wasn’t like a “if I had to decide which of my three parents to save if I could only save one or two from a burning building” kind of dilemma. This was a good problem to have. It’s a blessing that each of my parents are still healthy enough to walk, eat and go see the world. It’s a rare luxury for adult children to be able to join their parents traveling. Lucky Celia indeed.

I slept on my decision. The next morning, I told my client I was quitting early. I made arrangements about the house-sitting. I emailed Wendy to say I’d go with her. But if things miraculously worked out for Bob by Labor Day such that he could go on the cruise, I could change my flight and let him go instead according to the original plan.

Then I got the following text from Wendy:

“It is not right to make u make major changes to accommodate me. Bob said the third option is to forgo his part and I go by myself. I think that is best so you can keep your plan to work till end of September.”

Argghhh! I had told her the exact same thing the first time around, but she was deaf to the message, until Bob said the same thing to her.

“I said I would go, so I’m going!” I told Wendy through gritted teeth.

Then I emailed Dad.

“Since you haven’t bought your plane ticket yet, it turns out I can meet you in Inverness earlier, as soon as September 27, since I’m going on a 2-week cruise with Wendy to Norway that ends on the 26th.”

Dad called me back. “You couldn’t go with me in September when I asked you because you said you had to work, but now you’re going with Wendy on a cruise?”

Sometimes, you just can’t win.


“Don’t get lost and don’t forget to be back here by 6!” was Yeeta’s parting shot. One of my step-mom’s phobias is being lost, because she has no sense of direction. And she tends to assume the same of others, even her me who’s traveled independently in lots of places without knowing the language. Doubters just gotta doubt . . .

We had just finished the ‘obligatory’ portion of the tour of the coastal town of Split where we walked through the walled city that was built into Diocletian’s palace, and now had free time for almost an hour before the tour group was to meet up in front of the bell tower to go to dinner. Free time meant shopping, sitting in café to rest one’s weary feet, get an ice cream cone or walk around to take more pictures. Yeeta was going to sit with and hang out with some of the other folks, since she was tired from all the walking we’d done.

I started off walking down the same alley as Gig and her mother, but then they stepped into a shoe store. I kept going on my own. A few twists and turns later, I found myself outside city wall and on the waterfront Riva promenade sandwiched between Napoleonic-era buildings and the sea. It was a clear, sunny Sunday afternoon. The water was clear enough that you could easily see schools of brown fish swimming beneath the bronze-spangled surface in the twilight.

Ferries were pulling in and out—Croatia is home to a thousand islands. There was also a cruise ship docked for the day. I smiled at the sight of the familiar orange-bottomed lifeboats. Not so long ago I was on such a ship myself.

I caught sight of a Tisak (a Kwik-E Mart type convenience store), which occupied a narrow storefront in one of these early 19th century arcades facing the sea, and remembered that I wanted to look at Croatian cooking magazines. One of the things I like to do when I’m in a foreign country is to browse the local magazines. Even though I can’t read the text, there’s usually enough of interest which you can pick up from seeing the photos. And if it’s in a roman alphabet, you can sometimes tease out the gist of the text.

I was engrossed in comparing between two cooking magazines, flipping through the pages, trying to decide which one I should buy. I vaguely noticed that the store clerk, a middle-aged bottle blonde in a red uniform vest, and a burly guy were discussing and fiddling around with the sliding glass doors. At one point, they were both outside the glass doors, but came back into the store. I resumed browsing the magazines. Finally I decided on one, and turned to pay for it. It was already 5:40, and I wanted to go walk around town some more before dinner.


The view of Split from the bell tower of St. Domnius (St. Duje) Cathedral

Then I noticed that the people in the store were rather interacting in an animated fashion. It seemed unusual: people usually walk in, buy what they need (gum, cigarettes) and walk out without saying much.

Along with the shop clerk, and the burly man (apparently a handyman), there was another Asian woman in her late 30’s. They were banging and prodding and trying to pull/push the closed sliding glass doors with some urgency.

Because the doors were stuck.

I could see outside the squeaky-clean glass so clearly: the resort vista of palm trees, a setting sun, the cruise ship horizontally dotted with windows . Vacationers strolling on the promenade licking ice cream cones. The view from our ‘cell’ would give that from San Quentin a run for its moneyIt seemed incongruous we couldn’t go outside. I was sure we’d be out in a few minutes. It would probably be a minor fix.

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The view from our ‘cell’ would give that from San Quentin a run for its money

“There’s no other exit through the back?”


I realized I was glad that this wasn’t a hold-up/burglary. Then it dawned on me to be even more thankful that this wasn’t a fire, although in which case, we might have been more willing to take something to smash the presumably bullet-proof glass to break out for our lives. I was appalled there was no emergency exit in this shop. But as it stood now, none of us wanted to incur property damage.

The shop clerk and the burly man got the attention of a few passersby outside, as well as a waiter from the café next door, who tried to force the door open, but only managed to force it open a couple of inches. Wide enough for the shop clerk to hand him a can of beer, but not enough for any of us to get through.

The Asian woman was upset and getting agitated. Not because she was Korean, but because she was the tour leader/guide of a group of Korean tourists, who presumably spoke no Croatian, very little English, and were dependent on her to shepherd them around this exotic and foreign country. To make things worse, her group was supposed to be getting on their tour bus with her for a 3-hour drive to the next town where they would be checking in their hotel for the night.

Having seen how hard Oy worked as our tour guide shepherding us around, I could imagine the immense responsibility resting on this Korean guide’s shoulders. I felt for her. Me, I was just a tourist client, so I could just kick back and wait for someone deal with the situation for me. She was the one her clients depended on to address whatever issues they had on their tour, but now she herself was having a major problem that she was powerless to solve.

It was now 5:55 PM. I had a phone, but no SIM card. I don’t like being late if it is going to hold up/inconvenience others, and none of my fellow tour group knew where I was. I had Oy’s mobile number. I asked to borrow someone’s phone so I could call her. Unfortunately, no one in there could call a Thailand mobile number. Then I remembered I just happened to have Mr. Drago’s (our Croatian coach driver), and Mr. Burly used his cell phone to call him for me.

“Mr Drago! It’s Celia. Can you please tell Oy I’m stuck in a Tisak. It’s facing the sea!” I asked Mr. Burly to explain (in Croatian)what was going on to Mr. Drago . . .

“OK, don’t worry,” Mr. Drago said.

The minutes ticked by. We tried switching the power and fuse box on and off. Mr. Burly examined every corner and around the glass door for any possible give, fiddling with the wires, trying to figure out if there was some sort of motion sensor thing. There was also a tiny lock on the door frame, outside and inside. We tried the keys inside. We handed the keys to someone outside for them to try the outside lock. Nothing happened. The way the doors were hung, they were inside the lip of a ceiling wall. There must have been some sort of electronic mechanism that controlled the doors, which seemed to have been designed to refute brute/mechanical force.

The Korean guide was pacing around, fuming and complaining. She was frantically calling on her phone to the other tourist clients in her group to let them know what was going on and figure out how to get out. Passersby came and went, peering inside at the four of us in the retail aquarium, offering suggestions, making half-hearted attempts to open the door. For them, we were a mild diversion, fodder for discussion at dinner.

The clerk was pretty passive, considering this was her store. She wasn’t doing much, mostly looking on. I wondered why she wasn’t calling her boss/manager or even the corporate office for help. Was it because it was Sunday? I wondered how often something like this happens. Maybe it had been Mr. Burly’ fault for trying to fix the door, but causing it to get stuck instead. He had called a locksmith, but since it was Sunday evening, and/or may it was Croatia, the locksmith would get here in an hour or two. Maybe.

A couple of the Korean men from the guide’s group showed up outside the glass door. They tried prodding and fiddling with the door from the outside, but they had no better luck. The guide stuck inside shouted some instructions through the door to them, probably telling them to take everyone else to the bus and she would call the hotel and figure out how they could get checked in.

By now, it was 6:30 PM. The cruise ship was pulling away from the dock, headed to its next destination. I was really glad that I wasn’t a passenger on that cruise boat, because there was nothing I could have done about being abandoned ashore.

If this had happened while I was on the cruise in Norway with Wendy, Auntie Shujun and Uncle Harry, it would have been much worse. There would have been so much more fuss. (In fact there had been a passenger on our cruise who had been late in returning to ship, past its designated departure hour. But at least he came on board.) There was no way I would have been able to call Wendy, and none of them got wifi to check email on board. They would have freaked out. Good thing this was the package tour portion of my trip. I crossed my fingers, hoping that Mr. Drago would have told Oy and Oy would have the situation under control. Especially with Yeeta. It was 100% given that Yeeta was having a fit. I sighed. She was probably more upset than I was about the situation.

Then I did freak out. I saw a few of my fellow Thai tourists walking along the promenade, presumably headed to dinner. I jumped up and down and banged on the glass like a madwoman to get their attention. “Hey! Hey! Hey!” I needed them to know where I was, and that I was OK. I also wanted to make sure Oy knew where I was and what was going on, since I didn’t know if Mr. Drago had told her.

Auntie Mee and her niece Bomb were the first to spot me and walked over. “Hey, Celia what are you doing here? What’s going on?”

“Are you OK? I told you not to get lost and hurry and come back. You’re always . . . “ Yeeta had appeared at the door, and launched into a nagging litany was somewhat (thankfully) obsfucated by the glass. But she could see I wasn’t in any physical danger, so it was more to vent her annoyance at the worry I’d caused her. Then Oy came up to the door and told me that she’d walk the group to nearby restaurant where we were slated to dine, and then come back for me. Phew, I didn’t want her to think I was flakey in showing up late for dinner.

I settled down for the long wait, if it really was going to take that long for the locksmith to come. This wasn’t such a bad thing, being trapped in a Croatian convenience store. There were snacks (Kinder chocolates, pretzel sticks, peanuts, potato chips). There were beer and soft drinks. There were magazines to browse, even English ones on the top shelf. There were postcards, souvenir magnets and keychains, and guidebooks to Dalmatia, so I could read about the sites I was being kept from seeing, in any of a dozen major tourist languages. They only thing missing was somewhere to sit. I didn’t really want to sit on the hard sandstone floor.

It could have been worse. I could have been trapped in a shoe store. (“But then you could have spent the time trying on shoes,” said Gig later.) I bought a can of Ožujsko beer. I’d been in Croatia for an entire week, and still hadn’t tried the local beer. I offered to buy one for everyone else in the store, but no one took me up on the offer.

“Wait!” I paused before I handed over my money. “Is there a toilet in here?” I needed to make sure there was somewhere to empty my bladder, even if there was no emergency exit.

Come to think of it, it was pretty stupid of me to pay for the beer; I could have probably just taken it and drank it. The convenience store owed me at least that much for the inconvenience they’d caused me.

Two police officers came, a man and a woman. Finally! They tried the same ineffective poking and proddings we had tried, to no avail. Then they shrugged their shoulders, said they couldn’t do anything about it, and said it wasn’t their problem/responsibility and walked away.  With the arrival of the police, the crowd of lookers-on grew larger. Oy had came back, along with Mr. Drago. I raised my can of beer at them, and asked if they wanted anything from the store. No.

Darkness had fallen. I started to feel bad that Oy and Mr. Drago were still waiting patiently outside. Mr. Drago at least had his cigarettes. I asked the clerk for some paper and a pen, and wrote Oy a note in English, telling her that she and Mr. Drago should just go back to the restaurant to have dinner with the rest of the group, and I would take a taxi to the hotel on my own, since I knew its name, and I had Croatian kuna (local currency) on me.

“Of course not,” Oy said. “I’m not going to abandon you like that.” I got the sense though it was more out of obligation to Yeeta, because Oy knew I was perfectly capable of getting back to the hotel on my own.

Next, the firemen showed up. They were more capable of dealing with the situation than the police – they had brought along useful equipment like a manual/hydraulic jaws of life. It was rather like jack/lever. The first one was too small to force the doors open. Someone went off to fetch another one, one size bigger. With forceful, scissoring movements, the glass doors budged open, bit by bit. As soon as it was wide enough, the Korean guide leapt out the door. I ran out next, and gave Oy and Mr. Drago a hug. I didn’t even mind Mr. Drago’s eau de cigarette smoke. “Woohoo, freedom!”

There was large crowd gathered outside, and they probably applauded and cheered, but I didn’t really notice. It must have been a like a Chilean miner moment.

“I’m so sorry to have caused you so much trouble,” I apologized.

“It’s OK, it could have happened to anyone.” She grinned. “Although, it’s a good thing it was you and not your mom. You were pretty laid back about it. Really, drinking a beer!”

We got to the restaurant in time for desert, although they had saved me some fries and the main course of grilled Croatian sausage rolled up like a snail. It tasted like ไส้อั่ว sai-ua (an Isan/northeastern Thai style sausage).

The experience hadn’t been too bad. One of my favourite books recently is Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, which is based on a real life incident where some Peruvian revolutionaries invaded a diplomatic party and held the dinner guests hostage for four months. In Bel Canto, there is an opera singer among the party. Consequently, Chicago’s Lyric Opera commissioned a real opera out of it, which premiered this month. If I were to be trapped somewhere for four months, I can’t imagine what a nutcase I would become.

The next day, as our coach drove past the outer walls of Dubrovnik, we spotted a fire station. “Hey,” Auntie Mee poked me in the ribs. “You should take note of where the fire station is at, in case you get trapped again.”

“No, she had better not go into any more Sevens from now on,” said Yeeta (the Thai slang for convenience store is taken from 7-Eleven)

“That’s right, I’ll only go to Family Mart!” I joked. (Family Mart is a rival convenience store chain in Thailand.)

Two days later, Mr. Drago told me I was in the newspaper.

“No! You’re kidding me!” It must have been a really slow news day in Croatia that something as trivial as malfunctioning Kwik E-Mart doors would rate a mention in a national tabloid. Then again, Croatia is a nation of merely 4.3 million people. I bought a copy from a Tisak (a free standing kiosk this time.) The front page of the 24 Sata (24 Hours) featured migrants/refugees struggling to transit through Croatia to northern Europe, and the 20,000 Croatian kuna (US$2,800) handbag carried by a pretty young politician who’d been charged with ‘irregularities’. The Tisak snippet was buried on page 18.

I got a friend of the friend to translate the article for me when I got back:

On Sunday, around 6:00 in the evening, two Japanese tourists went into a kiosk on the Riva in Split.  In the kiosk was a saleswoman and a worker who was fixing the sliding door.  The sliding door got stuck, so the worker called for help.  The women were panicking.  People were trying to help open the door.  After a half-hour, the police came.  After the police, the firemen came. After 1 hour and 15 minutes the “hostage crisis” was over and the Japanese disappeared into the night.  The onlookers cheered for the firemen.

“Japanese”?! We were one Korean and one Chinese masquerading as a Thai.

“Panicking”?! Bullsh-t! One was very pissed off, and the other was vey relaxed.

It was more than 1 hour and 15 minutes, but I’ll let that one slide.

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Considering I didn’t like escorted package tours to begin with, this incident made me disdain them even more. Even though this could have happened when I was traveling independently with Dad in Scotland or on the cruise in Norway with Wendy, I can’t help associating this with the package tour trip. So it’s could be my excuse for not going on any more such tours!

Polar Reversal

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“So after you’re done with the car, you just park it here, in front of the gate to the dock [where our cruise ship was docked], and you leave the key on the little ledge inside the driver’s side wheel well. Then we’ll come pick it up.” The car rental company agent took a photo of my driver’s license, jotted down my credit card information, and that was it. I had rented a car, a little blue Subaru for the day we were on shore in Narvik, Norway to drive ourselves to Polar Park.


Before I left home to go on this cruise, I had looked up the shore excursions for each port, out of curiosity to see what kind of attractions there were at all these little coastal Norwegian towns I had never heard of. I had also talked to my friends who had been on cruises before, and they were only too happy to give me advice.   “Really? I get to give you, Miss World Traveller, tips on cruises?” joked Hubert. He told me that the shore excursions booked through the ship were usually overpriced, so one could often just show up on shore and there would be local tour companies offering a similar tour for much cheaper. The only saving grace of the ship’s excursions was that if there was a delay, the ship would definitely wait for their excursion clients to come back, and not sail off without them!

Narvik had boasted of an attraction called Polar Park, which billed itself as the “World’s Northernmost Wildlife Park”, about 68 km away inland. I can easily skip churches, but I didn’t want to pass up the chance to see animals like wolves, bears, and deer. The exchange rate was 1$US = 8.6 NOK (Norwegian Kroner). So I had persuaded Wendy (my mom), Auntie Shujun and Uncle Harry that if we rented a car for $80 US, and paid the zoo admission of 215 NOK (about $30 US) per person, we’d still come out ahead, instead of $150 per person by going with the ship’s excursion. They agreed, so I booked the car online.

“Are there signs telling us how to get to Polar Park?” I asked the rental car agent.

“Oh yes, there’s signs.” I had printed out google map directions before I left home, but still, it was good to know. I figured we couldn’t really get too lost in a rural area; there weren’t too many roads. It was a big attraction for small town Norway, so I was sure there would be signs. Even on Highway 5, there are tons of signs for Andersen’s Pea Soup, and that’s hardly worth writing home about.

“This car isn’t very clean,” said Wendy and Auntie Shujun from the back. An empty plastic soda bottle rolled around on the floor. Small town in Norway, end of tourist season, I didn’t expect to find much choice in the fleet. “So long as it gets us there and back . . .” I shrugged in the driver’s seat and shifted into first gear.

I was glad I had rented the car. So far on the cruise, Uncle Harry had been paying for all the wine we ordered for dinner each night, and wouldn’t let Wendy or me pay, even though we tried to insist. It’s a very Chinese thing, to fight for the honor and privilege of picking up the check. In a way, it’s also chivalrous or chauvinistic, so I call it the ‘old geezer’ act. It usually amuses non-Chinese whenever they see it happen, whether or not they understand what they are seeing. So in my renting the car, I would be able redress that balance a bit, along with paying for the zoo admission and filling up the gas later. I would be drinking the wines Uncle ordered with a clearer conscience.

It was a clear, sunny crisp day. We left Narvik, driving north across a suspension bridge that was also slightly cloggy due to reconstruction. Wendy and I ooh’ed over the pretty fall colours, since we don’t get much of that in California. Uncle Harry and Auntie Shujun aah’ed as we skirted the coast, winding through mountains and a couple of long tunnels, since they live inland in the flatter areas of  Ontario. After being on the ship for so many days, and walking around the port towns we stopped at, it felt a little odd but liberating to be driving a car.

An hour into the drive, someone requested a pit stop, so I pulled into a restaurant/convenience store parking lot. To back out of our spot to continue our journey, I had to shift to reverse, which was to the left of 1st and 2nd gear (In my car at home, the reverse is to the right, below the 5th gear). I tried to shift, but each time I pressed the gas pedal, we went forward, not back.

“Here, get out and let me try,” offered Uncle Harry. He got into the driver’s seat, and tried shifting. “The clutch is a bit soft. Maybe it’s worn out.”

“Well, the rest of the gears shifted fine on our way driving here,” I pointed out.

“Maybe it’s just the reverse gear doesn’t work, maybe it’s broken.”

“Ai yah, not only is the car dirty, but they gave us a car that doesn’t work!” chorused the back seat.

“That is pretty awful,” I agreed. How could this company be so irresponsible and reckless to rent out a car that without a functional reverse? It was shock to have something like this happen in Scandinavia, where you expect everything to be orderly, efficient and done by the book. “I’ll email them when I get back,” since I didn’t have a SIM card in my phone to call them.

Wendy, Auntie Shujun and I got out to push the car backward, while Uncle Harry steered the car. What to do now? We decided to press onto Polar Park, since we were more than halfway there, rather than waste our limited time to go back to complain and exchange the car for a fully-functional one. The car’s forward mobility was fine. We simply had to cross our fingers that when we got to the parking lot of Polar Park, they had drive-thru type parking spaces so we wouldn’t need to reverse!

We ended up missing the turn at the major roundabout for Polar Park. Continuing along the coastal road E10 for 20, then 25, 28 miles, we found ourselves in a rural area, with buildings far and few between, with no sign of Polar Park. We eventually found another gas station and asked.

“Oh you’re in Bogen now, you have to go back and turn at the roundabout at Bjerkvik about 28 km back to take E6.” said the clerk. It always blows my mind that even in the dinkiest of towns of Norway (and the Netherlands), the locals are pretty fluent in English. I can’t imagine a gas station clerk in the US being able to give directions to lost European tourists in German, French, Spanish, etc.

When we backtracked to the major roundabout there was no sign for Polar Park, but tons of official directional signs for the site of the 1940 Battle of Narvik. I thought that was odd; I would have thought that most tourists who come to these parts would be more interested in seeing a zoo than a battlefield, and that the directional signage would reflect that.

When we arrived at Polar Park, it was already noon. There weren’t too many people there. We found a drive-thru parking spot. Uncle Harry elbowed me out of the way and won paying for the admission tickets, though not before incurring the ire of European man in front of us, thinking we were trying to cut in line.

Polar Park is set on a long swath of hillside, along and above a creek. The day we were there, they had wolves, arctic foxes, brown bears, lynxes, elk, musk ox, deer and reindeer on display. (They also have wolverines, but not on display then.)  While some of these animals have been socialized and are used to humans, the setting itself seems to have been kept natural. There are various enclosures each the size of a neighbourhood park, spacious enough to give the animals roaming space; even in confinement, they need enough elbow room. Each enclosure is habitat for one species of animal. For the human visitors, it really does take a lot of walking uphill and downhill to get around and see them all. The enclosures are full of bushes, trees and natural vegetation, so you have to peer mindfully in stillness, until your eyes are tuned in to little movements that are not of leaves and plants rustling in the wind.

Just a short distance past the ticket office as we headed towards the main enclosures, we passed a wolf-visit enclosure, where some other visitors had each paid 1,500 NOK to hang out with the wolves for 30 minutes. (It was also possible to hang out with the arctic foxes for the relative bargain of 200 NOK per adult.) The wolves had been socialized enough to interact with visitors, and were excitedly loping around the group. One wolf stood up on its hind legs, resting its paws on the shoulders of a trembling young Asian woman, as if to waltz with her while trying to sniff and lick her face. “Don’t be scared, don’t show fear,” said the zoo guide in a firm voice.

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Dancing with wolf

Once we got to the main enclosures, we usually had to walk all the way around the chain link fence perimeter to spot the animals. There were only a handful of other visitors when we were there. One stocky, middle-aged woman by herself seemed to be pretty good at quickly spotting where the animals were, so we followed her wherever she went, very quietly, so as to not scare or disturb the animals. Perhaps she was a professional wildlife photographer, or simply had honed instincts. Or maybe she had that vibe that drew animals to her. Being a photography buff, Uncle Harry was very interested in her camera, with a very long/large lens. Later she told him she had driven up from Switzerland in her own car over the course of a month, and her camera cost over 200,000 Swiss francs.


The animals can be in an elusive, private mood and cocoon themselves away. Or they may deign to show themselves and come closer to the fence where people are. Who knows why animals do what they do, or when they’ll do what. Maybe sometimes they’re curious about the visitors. Maybe sometimes they’re bored and want to people-watch. Maybe they like getting attention from visitors who are respectful, calm and quiet (when they’re not fighting over who’s paying).


Arctic Fox

The coats of the arctic foxes had changed into their winter whites from the summer browns. Covered in snowy fluffy long fur, and bushy long tails, they looked adorably cuddly, like a doggier type of cat. Their faces and pointy ears were grey. With their squinty eyes, they looked drowsy and relaxed basking in the winter sun, although they were very aware of us as they curled up in front of us, with the chain link fence separating us. “After you walk away,” their expression seemed to say, “we’ll relax our guard and take a real nap.”


There were two wolves in the next enclosure. We’d spotted one deeper in the enclosure and walked up to the chain link fence to take closer-up shots by zoom. Wendy was so engrossed in taking pictures of that wolf in the distance, she was completely oblivious to other wolf that had come up to her, scoping her out.


…oblivious to the other wolf that had come up to her

The wolves began to walk away, but still sticking close to the fence perimeter, as if to entice us, so we followed. They would glance at us, as they paced around, stretched, yawned, and sat down to rest in front of us. Maybe they had caught scent of the ham and cheese sandwiches in our backpacks we had packed from the breakfast buffet.


These wolves had calm demeanors and dignified expressions. I didn’t find them intimidating, and it wasn’t just because they were safely separated from me by a tall fence. They just looked like leonine dogs. Whereas before I had pooh-poohed the idea of paying 1,500 NOK to interact with the wolves, now I began to think it might have been worthwhile after all.


We stood there taking photo after photo of them through the diamonds of the chain link fence, until we had enough shots, put out cameras away, and simply gazed at each with mutual unabashed interest. Then one of them howled, as if to communicate with the wolves higher up the hill that were out of sight in another enclosure. That set off a call and response racket that went on for a few minutes. Maybe they were lamenting their enforced separation from each other. Or maybe they were just exchanging gossip about what they might be having for lunch. It was an eerie racket, mournfully fierce, unbearable to my untutored ears. If I heard such noises while camping in a nylon tent, I would be terrified.

The lynxes were the most reclusive of all the animals of Polar Park. With their tawny coats with black splatters, reminiscent of a leopard, they were very hard to spot. The tips of the tail and the points of the ears are a solid black on adults; on the cubs, the black was a more faint smudge. I primarily know the lynx as model of Mercury car; I really had no idea what they were. They are bigger than domesticated cats, and much smaller than wild cats such as tigers and lions.

Luckily, we were with the Swiss Miss, who saw the mother followed by two cubs. The mother was very wary: as we came in closer to look at her through the fence, she would move to the right. We started walking towards the right as well, following her. Her cubs stayed close to her, and as she ran as if to shake us off, we started jogging too. The mother ran though the tall grass, but followed the inner perimeter of the fence, so we could still track her, pausing intermittently. It made her hard to see (and photograph). It was curious: if she didn’t want us to see her, she could have run inwards towards the center of the enclosure and be completely out of our sight. But she was always within several feet of us. Was it a form of practice, a game for her of cat and mouse? Her cubs, with the naiveté of youth, paused to check us out with unabashed curiosity.


Lynx cub

Having seen the highlights, Uncle Harry headed back to the car to rest and eat his sandwich, since he was tired. The rest of us, continued on to look at the red deer and the musk ox. The red deer stag reminded me of my high school classmate Kevin, with its wide set eyes perched high on an inward looking face.


Red deer stag

The musk ox is the most cartoonish looking of bovines(?). With a short bow of a horn over its eyes, the tips taper into a flip up curl on either side of its face, giving it the look of a Tory judge on a bad-wig day. One of them entertained us by getting up and using a stump still rooted in the ground to scratch the inner ‘armpit’ of his front left leg and then backing up to scratch his rear. The stump had been carefully sawn off to the right height. The musk ox wore a shaggy coat of long fibres, like a bison. His front hump was taller and more pronounced than his hindquarters.


Musk ox

“There will be a special feeding today at the lynx enclosure at 1:30 PM,” the ticket seller had told us. It turned out that it had been arranged for a large group of tourists . . . from our very own ship. Even though we had already seen the lynx and her cubs, we thought it would be fun to see them again while feeding. So we tagged along with the group, but stood at the far end. The zookeeper had a bucket of food in her hand, and she stood by the door to the enclosure, calling “Josefa . . . Josefa!” a few times. But the mother lynx didn’t come out, and neither did her cubs.


 . . . waiting in vain . . .

The three of us smiled lightly at each other. We all felt lucky and smug that we had gotten to see Josefa and her cubs, even without feeding, and that our visit to Polar Park was a bargain, compared to what the tourists in the group paid. “The only benefit of going with the ship’s excursion is that you won’t get lost driving yourself!” we joked amongst ourselves.

We headed back to the visitor’s center and the car. Uncle Harry would probably be worried that we would be late in getting back, and missing the ship, but we figured if we left BEFORE the ship’s tour group, we should be able to get back to Narvik in time. Uncle Harry had tried fiddling some more with the reverse gear, but the problem remained.

On our way through Narvik, I had spotted a gas station and pulled in to fill up the tank. “Let me pay for the gas,” said Uncle Harry.

“No way,” I said. I ran off into store/kiosk to pay. “I’m at Pump 4,” I said. “Do I give you my credit card now or later.”

“Someone is already paying,” the clerk nodded towards the window. Uncle Harry had spotted the ‘pay at pump’ option, and had whipped out his credit card to pay, while I had wasted precious seconds going inside.


“You’re not supposed pay,” I scolded him, as I started up the car. “Please let me pay.”

“No, you already paid for the car rental. That is only fair.” Uncle Harry retorted.

“Well, you paid for the zoo tickets as well. So you better not buy any more wine for dinners!” I glared.

“Then what am I supposed to drink? Gasoline?”

All four of us burst into laughter simultaneously in the little blue Subaru.

FAST FORWARD to one week later. I was a tautly strung up bundle of nerves driving to pick up Dad from Inverness airport because:

  • I had gotten lost trying to find the Inverness Railway Station car rental office – which turned out to be in a kiosk in the shopping mall across the street
  • I was driving a beast called the Nissan Qashqai (Qinghai? Qaddafi? Is it a Chinese or Libyan name?) that was much larger than what I normally drive at home. (This was on behalf of Dad. Apparently he prefers to ride in bigger cars now. When he last came to visit us in the States, he made me rent an SUV to drive him around.)
  • I had not driven on the left hand side, on narrow roads, liberally peppered with roundabouts since five years ago. I was rusty.
  • I didn’t know if my Dad would actually arrive at the airport on the flight. If he missed his connecting flight to Inverness from Manchester, he would have to figure out how to contact us (he had no smart phone) and how to get to Inverness, since the next direct flight would be the following day. He is not quick on his feet, literally or metaphorically.
  • We were late – if the flight had arrived on time. We were critically late – if Dad had indeed arrived on the flight – we might have missed him. If Dad didn’t see us at Arrivals, he would conclude we weren’t coming to pick him and simply catch a cab to the hotel on his own.

I found an empty parking space in the airport short-term parking lot, but misgauged the turning radius. I shifted to reverse to back up. The ‘R’ was to the left of the 1st and 2nd gear.

Once again, the reverse gear did not engage. I was stuck, blocking the lane.

“Let me see,” Joe tried to shift it to reverse, but he couldn’t figure it out either.

When it rains, it pours: everything had been going wrong today, and now this? How was it even blinking possible, that two rental cars in a row couldn’t go in reverse?? Argh!!

I spotted a man walking in the parking lot with a roll-on bag, and rolled down the window.

“Excuse me,” I hollered with the most sheepish of smiles. “We’re American tourists. We can’t get our reverse gear to engage. Can you help us?”

He came over. “Usually you have to press a button or knob or pull it up,” he said fiddling with it. He pulled the waist of the skirt around the gear stick up the shaft. The reverse gear clicked into place. “There you go!” Aha, maybe that’s what I was supposed to have done in the Norwegian rental car as well.

And fortunately Dad was waiting in the arrival lounge. “When I didn’t see you, I thought maybe you had missed your flight to Inverness and weren’t in town yet!”


Can you name the six languages on this sign?

Loss of memory and/or sweatshirt

I have this habit of giving things away, and then not remembering at all that I gave it away, much less whom I gave it to.  It’s embarrassing how often someone will be talking to me and say “See, you gave me this when . . . ” I’ll look blankly at them and say “Really, I gave you that? When?” I have no recollection whatsoever.  (In some of those cases, it may be that I was recycling a gift I thought would be better appreciated by someone else.)

So this is awkward . . . I made an ugly X’mas sweatshirt last year. I was looking for it so I could wear it for the season.  But I can’t find it. I might have given it away to someone, but I can’t remember. You’d think I’d remember something like that – after all I made the sweatshirt. But I can’t remember.



So, if you’re the person I gave the sweatshirt to, and happen to read this, please let me know who you are.  I’m not asking for it back.  I just want to know whom it’s with. Hopefully you’ll wear it at least once this season, with a sense of enjoyment.  (But if you finally decide you really don’t like it anymore, and where planning to get rid of it, I’ll take it back.)


Thanksgiving 2015

This year, for Thanksgiving, I signed up to make lime jello cheesecake for the lunch gathering at my Aunt Pauline/Uncle Paul’s house (for my dad’s side of the family.) My cousin T volunteered to make macaroni and cheese. Joe got nudged to make sticky rice; he kind of wanted to anyway.

Much will be editorialized about Thanksgiving being the quintessential American melting pot holiday, where we can bring whatever we want from our extra-American roots to the dining table. I have a funny story to add these chestnuts. Most Chinese/Cantonese Americans have a ‘stuffing’ of sticky rice with chinese sausage, mushrooms, etc. as part of Thanksgiving. My friend Casey (who’s Japanese American) was telling me when he went to his first Thanksgiving with Dorothy’s family (she’s Chinese American), he was surprised there was no mashed potatoes and gravy, but there was sticky rice instead!

For the gathering on Friday evening for my mom’s side of the family, we did hot pot, since the Dungeness crab season has essentially been kibboshed. And even though it doesn’t really go with it, I made Minnesota salad.

The twist this year is that I was going to be making these dishes where I’m house-sitting: different kitchen equipment, different stores.

I set off to buy all the Thanksgiving ingredients on Tuesday, and found everything except lemon jello at the family-run, Farmer Joe’s Market (it’s a like a mash-up of Whole Foods and late Andronico’s) up the street.

On Wednesday, I looked at the recipe to start the cheesecake base. I had forgotten to get brown sugar. So when I went to Safeway to get the lemon jello, I decided instead of buying a box of brown sugar, I’d simply take a few packets of the turbinado (brown sugar) from the in-store Starbucks. All I needed was ¼ cup anyway. Yes, I was being cheap, yes I am Chinese, you can put the two together. But I did have a sliver of conscience: I decided to split the difference. I took a few packets from Starbucks, and stopped by Peet’s down the street and take some from them also! (Since I had met Casey for coffee the previous afternoon in another Starbucks, and hadn’t added any sugar to my drink, I was simply making up for that entitlement!)

WTF! There was no lemon jello at Safeway either. There was lime, cherry, orange, but no lemon. 0 for 2 now. Had it been discontinued? (That is a recurring theme in my life: my favourite products keep going obsolete.) I was panicking slightly; I didn’t know what or how to substitute for lemon jello for this recipe. I had lemons at home for juice and rind, or I could buy fancy imported lemon curd, but this is one of those recipes you do not want to mess around with. Especially not less than 24 hours before you’re supposed to serve it to an audience who is very familiar with how it looks and tastes.

Further down the street was a Mexican market. Hallelujah! Mi Tierra had lemon jello. (I think Mexicans eat more jello-based deserts, i.e. I’ve seen to-go cups of fruity yogurt-and-jello parfaits in bakeries and supermarkets).

Even better, they had another bone-based food: chicken feet. I bought some to simmer for soup, to leach out the cartilage, since my knees are still grouchy. (I’m not a fan of the concept of supplements, although a couple of my similarly-doubter friends have said glucosamine does work.)

During my grade-school years in Bangkok, my friends and I would sometimes snack after school on jello powder or instant noodle bricks, straight from the package, no water added. The jello powder was essentially like Pixie Stix, but in packet form. The noodle bricks (either Mama or Wai Wai), we could sprinkle the chili/flavor powder over it. All of our parents scolded us for doing so, because it was supposedly bad for you, but that made it all the more delish. Besides, they could never explain precisely why it was bad for you, just a vague ‘it’s bad for your digestive system.’

It’s neat to see the transformation of the pale green lime jello crystals dramatically becoming a clear “Romancing the Stone” emerald green once it comes in contact with water. The plumes of dissolving powder undulating in streaks made me think of the Northern Lights, which I’d seen for the first time this past fall. There’s different colors possible for them apparently; they appear in greens, pinks, purples, as well as white. But my eyesight is poor, all I ever see when I look up at objects in the night skies is shades of white.

I carefully poured the lime jello over the lemon cheesecake layer, so that it would neither disturb nor foam bubble. Unlike the apricot shortbread that’s in my repertoire of deserts, I find that dealing with foods in layers where it’s important to keeps the layers clean for aesthetics takes more effort/patience than I can afford, even though it looks so cool.


Lime jello cheesecake

I remember seeing photos of a rainbow-layered jello desert when I was a kid, probably on the back of the box, and being very impressed with it. I remember wanting one for my birthday, even if it probably wouldn’t taste as good as cake with frosting.

There was a really interesting article in the New York Times Magazine on Betty Crocker food, which I associate both these recipes from that era. Both of these recipes are rooted in post-war iconic American processed foods: miniature marshmallows, Dole canned crushed pineapple, lime and lemon Jell-O, a silver block of Philadelphia cream cheese. But there’s good stuff in them too, like fresh cranberries, walnuts for both these dishes, and whipping cream (no, believe it or not, not Cool-Whip!)

For the Minnesota salad this time, I hand-chopped each of those cranberries with the Migros knife, since that was the best tool I had on hand. I bet most people don’t know that (1) cranberries have seeds, roughly the size and color of mustard seeds, and (2) the inside of a cranberry is white and spongy firm, not mushy, so it’s actually easy to slice. But after a while, the chopped cranberries mixed with sugar bleed, resulting in a juice that is the dark red color that you’d expect. I wonder if it’s due to oxidation? As it turned out, hand slicing left the cranberries too chunky, so there wasn’t enough to juice to tint it the usual shade of pink.

Of the 90% of Thanksgiving meals that feature some sort of cranberry, I wonder what is the ratio of dishes that use fresh cranberry vs. processed cranberry (canned, jellied, prepared sauces). Joe’s family’s Thanksgiving dinners rely on Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce. The tradition is really about the opening of the can and sliding the garnet cylinder so that it shudders out with a whomp! when the vacuum of the can fills with exposed air.

Hotpot at Mom’s tends to proceed in fits and starts, since the electrical wiring at her house is very archaic. True to form, there was lots of short-circuiting and re-setting the circuit breakers, since Mom had both an induction hot plate/soup pot, and a shabu grill plate going, and an electric kettle to boil water for topping up the hotpot. She keeps buying different electric hot pots to try out and discarding them. “Why don’t you simply stick to the butane canister stoves?” I asked. “I don’t know how to use them,” even though she had one.

The other Thanksgiving tradition is to acknowledge thanks and gratitude. Instead of talking about the stuff that truly matters: health, family, friends, etc, I’m going to give a shout-out for things which can simply be bought with money. I’m very happy they exist at this point in my life. In alphabetical order:

  1. Asphalt Mix chocolates from Recchiuti, San Francisco.
  2. Blenheim apricots. And mangosteens.
  3. Bundaberg Ginger Beer
  4. Cheetos
  5. Chocolate Showers from Loard’s Ice Cream (East Bay)
  6. Converse Chuck Taylors
  7. Dad’s Cardamom ice cream from Three Twins
  8. Dave’s Organic Red Heirloom Pasta Sauce
  9. Drawn & Quarterly graphic novels, but especially those by Adrian Tomine and Guy Delisle.
  10. Duarte’s, Pescadero
  11. Egg custard tarts from Napoleon Bakery, Oakland
  12. Egg salad sandwiches from Pret a Manger (yes, the chain)
  13. Galaktabureko (desert) at Evvia, Palo Alto
  14. Haig’s Muhammara dip
  15. Hawker Fare, Oakland
  16. Hong Kong-style milk tea from Shooting Star, Oakland
  17. Icebreaker underwear
  18. Jambalaya, fried fish and a sunnyside up egg at Cajun Kitchen, Santa Barbara
  19. Kimchi from the tofu guy at Mountain View Farmer’s Market
  20. Koobideh, barbequed tomato and rice from Rose Market, Mountain View
  21. Lers Ros, San Francisco.
  22. Madras Café, Sunnyvale
  23. Meiji Chelsea Yogurt Candy
  24. The New York Times in hard copy
  25. Newman’s Own Newman’s O’s cookies (their version of Oreos)
  26. Oaklandish Bart Tree t-shirt
  27. Ollalieberry milkshakes at Fatapple’s, El Cerrito/Berkeley
  28. Ortlieb panniers
  29. Pinot Noir wines from Navarro Vineyards
  30. Roast duck and roast pork from Cheung Hing in San Francisco
  31. Sakurambo Vert tea from Lupica
  32. Samosas from Rangoli, Santa Clara
  33. San Jose Tofu, San Jose
  34. Smartwool socks
  35. Swimming at the Eagle Park Pool in Mountain View
  36. Thick crust pizza from Blue Line Pizza
  37. Trader Joe’s Butter Almond Thins
  38. TriSwim Body Wash
  39. Vitamin D lotion from Body Time
  40. Walnut-date candy from Kee Wah Bakery in Hong Kong

Chaperoning 5th Grade Science Camp at Yosemite: Part 4 of 4

I once read John Wooden used to teach his basketball players how to put on socks and tie shoelaces — I thought that was hilarious. You’d think that by the time they got to UCLA, these high school graduates would’ve already had years of experience in lacing up their Chuck Taylors. It turns out to have been part of the coach’s overall philosophy in being prepared.

The night before the Yosemite Falls Trail challenge hike, Wayland and I had planned ahead to teach the kids how to shorten their backpack straps and tighten their shoelaces. Since it might be the first time these kids to do such a long and high-elevation hike, so we also wanted them to be prepared. Tightening the laces would prevent the toes from sliding down and jamming painfully into the toe-box, when going downhill. Shortening the backpack straps elevated the center of mass higher, making it easier to carry the weight. We also figured we’d empty our own backpacks as much as possible, in case we needed to help carry some of the kids’ items on the hike up. It was complicated by the likelihood that we wouldn’t go back to camp before dinner, and so the kids would need their warm jackets with them for the evening, while the day-hike was going to be sunny and hot.

With Jenna, we were eager and excited to teach these young first-time hikers the rules of the trail. Stay on the uphill side of the trail when you stop, for safety. Pull over, don’t block other hikers by stopping in the middle of the trail. Do not drop rocks or any items down hill or over the side, as it could injure others below. Let other people pass if you are going slow. Call out to let people know you are passing. We also taught them easier and safer ways to walk downhill like zig-zagging, the pigeon toe, and side step.

I was really looking forward to hiking the Yosemite Falls Trail, rather than Vernal Falls (the other option.) In all my previous visits to Yosemite, I’d been to Vernal Falls and Half Dome, but I’d never done the Yosemite Falls Trail. And now, icing the cake was the fact that it had just rained hard the week before. Yosemite Falls was flowing in full majesty, instead of an austere summer trickle. You could actually hear the cascade pounding from the meadows in the valley. But the drought and overall paucity of rainfall has taken its toll. Over the week we were there, you could see Yosemite Falls getting smaller day by day.

Fifth-graders seem to tie their shoelaces as a ritual rather than an application. I pointed out to a couple of the kids that their laces were untied.
“OK,” they bent down and tied the bunny ears, without untying the knot that was resting loosely on top of the shoe tongue.
“No, you need to tighten them.”
“OK,” they tied the bunny ears again for a double knot.
“No, you need to undo the bunny ears AND the knot. Retie the knot so that’s taut over your foot, and then tie the bunny ears again. Otherwise, your foot will be loose inside your shoe, and you’ll get blisters. It’s easier to walk if your feet are snug in your shoes.”
John Wooden had been onto something.

Kids will be kids. Wayland and I were constantly checking with kids during the hike: “How are your feet? How are your shoes feeling?” They would invariably say “Fine,” “I’m OK.” But during breaks many kids were taking off and putting on their shoes and socks repeatedly, more than just getting out a pebble. Sometimes they would wear their shoes without socks. “Aren’t you going to get blisters that way?” “No.”

Likewise with their backpacks. The kids simply crammed everything into their backpacks willy-nilly. This takes up too much space, especially when it got hot and the kids shed their jackets and warm layers to store inside. It also made it hard to find things quickly, as you had to dig around the contents like a tumble dryer. We tried to teach them to roll up their jackets when putting them inside their backpacks.

Even though the statistics were more impressive, hiking 1000 ft over two miles with 30 switchbacks was less exciting than climbing Grandmother Rock (15 ft) or Spider Cave (25 ft) — it’s just walking, after all. Hiking is one those activities which you appreciate more as you get older, like jazz. Even for some adults, it’s just a means to an end (“I don’t care where we hike, but where will we go for lunch afterwards?”)

It was no surprise that for the kids, the most enjoyable aspect was chatting with each other, and occasionally taking a serious look at the view, interspersed with commentary: “I’m tired of going uphill.” “Can we stop for a break?” “I need this rock to give me energy.” “I need this stick to help me walk.”

I was feeling slightly whiny and fatigued myself. I’m used to hiking at a constant clip, and at my own pace, which tends to be faster than average. Being forced to go slower than my natural pace is more tiring. [40] Although if I’m engaged in talking with someone, I will instinctively adjust to their speed; the pleasure of conversation will outweigh the effort of slowing down.

Now I was hiking with 14 kids, whose collective tendency was to dawdle. So engrossed in talking, they walked even slower. The frequent stops and starts for water breaks, etc, were also more draining. But hey, I was here for them, not me.

Tommy “Tender Wizard” the Tomato — the Pied Piper of chaperones with a relaxed and fun-loving approach — said his trail group was so jazzed, they went up another 500 feet along the trail, and they got done before we did (it took us 6 hours, including stops). For that, I wished I could have been with their trail group instead that day! Perhaps preparing for the shoelaces and backpack straps had been overkill. Some kids got dehydrated; two nosebleeds, one headache, lots of chapped lips — perhaps we would have done better in simply reminding them drink more water, and worrying less about anything else.

Still, there was no better place to be than on the Yosemite Falls Trail that day. The clear blue-sky, mild sunny weather, the incomparable view of the valley and the surrounding mountains and granite walls, experiencing it in postcard-perfect conditions was a rare privilege. Especially when we stopped for lunch in a rocky bowl almost directly across from the falls, with a near-horizontal rainbow bowing across violin strings of falling water. Jenna took great care in appointing seats for each of the kids, placing them just so on each rock. (The rocks were almost all taller than each child!) It was a challenge even for us three adults to move around to distribute the lunch ingredients. But the setting was incredible. You could almost feel the mist of water. I finally brought out my binoculars for the first time, and the kids took turns looking through.

No subsequent hike to Yosemite Falls will ever be as memorable as this first one.

Yosemite Fall with rainbow

Yosemite YF Lunch

Lunch in the Rocky Bowl

THE WORST THINGS THAT HAPPENED FROM POORLY-TIED SHOELACES on this trip was serious. One of girls in Mom’s group tripped while walking — on pavement —to a shuttle stop. Because her shoelaces were not tightened, when she stumbled, her foot fell out of her boot, and she hit her head hard. She got dizzy, a lump on forehead, and some pain. They caught the shuttle back to Camp Curry, and checked with Mr. MacLeod (who had stayed back at camp that day) and the Nature Bridge staff. Since the girl had sustained a head injury, she was required to be medically examined at the clinic in Yosemite Village. It was getting close to the clinic’s 5 PM closing time. So Herb Chan (the volunteer designated driver) drove Mom and the girl to the clinic, just in time to see a doctor. The clinic explained they would have to charge ~$138 before they could examine the patient (the patient could get reimbursement from their own health insurance afterwards.) If they couldn’t reach the girl’s parents, Herb was going to fork over his own credit card.

Mom got hold of the girl’s mother on the phone to explain the situation, and ask for her credit card authorization. The girl’s mom spoke Cantonese; fortunately, so did Mom. The mother balked. “Why can’t they take insurance? Why can’t the school pay? I have to ask my husband first.” Mom was outraged, “How can this woman not pay? Doesn’t she care about her daughter?” In the meantime, the doctor gave the girl a cursory check. By the time the cold-footed mom had decided that her daughter should be medically examined, and was willing to provide the credit card number, the doctor had left for the day. Mom later said it would have been better if they hadn’t gotten hold of the girl’s parents, used Herb’s credit card to pay for the doctor for a proper examination. (Act first, ask later!)

They went back to Mom’s tent-cabin for the girl to rest under Mom’s care. By late evening, the girl was feeling well enough to go back to her own cabin. She got up, tamped her feet half-way into each half-boot — not bothering to unlace them — and shuffled down the tent-cabin steps. The next day, the girl was OK to go on the activities, even though she had a little pain and a large lump on her head.

Within the pool of chaperones, Lincoln always tries to include a designated driver and a camp monitor chaperone. The designated driver is not for DUI prevention, but to have access to a car in case of emergencies. Science camp travels by bus, so they needed to have wheels for contingencies, like taking students to get medical attention. Last year, Herb Chan needed medical attention himself; he slipped on ice and broke his wrist. Wayland had to drive him and his car home.

The camp monitor is an adult who watches over any kids staying behind at camp — not participating in the trail group activities because they are sick, injured, or simply punished for misbehavior. Ideally, it would be an administrator, like a principal, so that they could also deal with serious discipline infractions, relieving teachers of that burden at camp.


Wayland and I were literally left holding the bag of leftover gummy bears which Jenna had left with us the previous day. In hopes of some relief, we told the kids that they behaved well, that if we didn’t have to call on any of them for the next 24 hours, until we boarded the bus back to Oakland, we would hand out the rest of the candy.
Yes, it was a bribe.
No, it didn’t work.

We had to nag the students with the usual litany of “keep quiet,” “pay attention,” “drop that stick” all the live long day. But there was never any doubt we would hand out the gummy bears. The kids would never let us get away with it!

Come Friday afternoon, we were waiting around at the Camp Curry parking lot for the buses to show up (the coaches taking us back to Oakland), I surreptitiously counted the remaining gummy bears in the bag. There would only be one per student, plus half a dozen left over. Wayland went around holding out the bag to each kid. “We have enough for one per person, so take just one, and we’ll figure out what to do with the leftovers.” As he was saying this, the first couple of kids happened to take two.

There was an immediate outcry from the other kids: “You’re ONLY supposed to have ONE! Put it back. Just one!” The rest of the kids each duly took one gummy bear, and Wayland hung onto the rest of the bag.
“Here,” Lizzie came up to me, holding out a red gummy bear.
I was confused. “Thank you, but no, I already had one. To be honest, Mr. Lew and I each scarfed a bunch of them yesterday afternoon.” (And if we hadn’t, there would have been enough for you to have each gotten two gummy bears!).
“No,” she explained. “I took two, but since you’re only supposed to take one, I’m giving one back. But Cindy took two, and she said she’d throw it away, and she pretended to but she didn’t” By now more kids around me chorused vigorously. “That’s not fair,” “She shouldn’t have two gummy bears,” “That’s not nice, that’s cheating.”

“Well, thank you for your honesty, Lizzie. I appreciate it.” I looked at her, and then saw Cindy keeping away in the distance. I grinned ruefully. “Yeah, I know, Cindy . . . has a personality of her own.” (Are chaperones even allowed to badmouth one student to other students?) The past few days I had observed Cindy’s tendency to hoard. Whenever we handed out food for lunch, she always took more than she could finish, and would squirrel it away in her backpack, for later. It didn’t seem to be a case of 眼闊肚窄 (her eyes being bigger than her stomach), rather it was the ‘i’t’s better that it’s mine, rather someone else’s.’

Lizzie continued on. It wasn’t fair Cindy could get away with it. “At school, I’m nice to her, and but she says mean things to me.”
“If you think she’s done something bad, maybe you shouldn’t have respect for her. Do you really want to care about the opinion of someone whom you don’t like or respect?” (I was sinking fast out of my depth.)

My spiel washed over their heads. The kids hovered around expectantly, with growing bewilderment. Wasn’t I going to give Cindy a talking-to and confiscate the extra gummy bear already? That’s what adults were supposed to do, right? Figure out who’s right, who’s wrong; and punish the wrong-doer.

If I were a teacher or principal, who knew what they were doing, I assume that’s what I would have done.

But I didn’t. Would it change anything? Would it be worth the effort? One measly gummy bear. Really, kids, it’s not going to matter. You will grow up, get jobs, and and earn enough buy all the gummy bears you want. In fact by then you won’t want gummy bears. It’ll be organic 70% cacao dark chocolate covered gluten-free goji berries. Or beer.

As a cynic whose heart is now two sizes too small — the shrinking happens when you mutate into adulthood, kids — it’s touching to see children’s unblinkingly belief that grown-ups can fix all problems. It’s even tempting to bask a little in the undeserved heroism.

But there is also my saudade in your inevitable loss of naiveté — as you grow older and discover that things aren’t always fair; the right rarely prevail; and the wrong don’t always get their just deserts.

Fifth-graders, you will find that grown-ups are not any smarter, or better-behaved than you.
Some people will play fair and be nice. Some people will play dirty and get ahead at the expense of others. But takes all kinds of people to make this world complete.

So for the here and now, did I go with the “Cindy gets away with an extra gummy bear and you don’t/Life is unfair/So deal with it”? Or did I give them what they expected, and confiscate the contraband, just to prolong their childhood faith in grown-ups’ ability and duty to make everything alright?

Neither. The lesson of this teachable moment was going to be “Grown-ups are flaky,” because hallelujah and deus ex machina! the coaches had just pulled up. I slunk off to start loading the suitcases.

It was our morning on last day, half day actually. All seventeen of the 17 Falls trail group were at the Ahwahnee Hotel stop waiting for the shuttle. The kids were antsy. Jenna had to tell the kids sprawled along the bench seat to scoot over to make room for an elderly woman. The woman didn’t take the seat, probably leery of such hubbub. Peter, normally one of the good kids, was literally climbing — not the walls — but the stone-and-mortar base of the shelter column. He got the idea from an athletic young man who was setting up his rock-climbing equipment across the way. “Get down!” I commanded. (It didn’t help to know that Peter had fallen out of bed a few times at camp.) It became a teachable moment. “What’s the stuff climbers use on their hands when they climb?”
“It’s talc or chalk, and it helps absorb the sweat from their hands so they have a better grip.”
“What’s it made from?”
“Hmm, maybe ground up chalk dust like when you clap blackboard erasers together…”
“We have whiteboards in class.”
“Here, I can make some chalk powder for you . . .” Josh, always ready to help out a friend, saw an opportunity to grind rocks into dust.

There was another man also waiting at the shuttle stop, observing the scene. He struck up a conversation with us. “I’d like to be a chaperone.” Wayland and I looked at each other and simply cracked up. I can’t imagine what the man saw in us or what we were doing that would have tempted him to say that. He told us when his daughters were young, he would have to chaperone their out-of-town trips for sports activities or field trips. We told him he would be very welcome to at the Lincoln School 5th grade science camp next year. But he lived in Arizona.

Perhaps this man was moved by the idea of helping others being its own fulfillment and reward, as most of us chaperones were. For me, the best experiences are those where you learn something new, or are dropped into an alien environment from your usual existence. The former reduces ignorance, the latter saves you from complacency. Chaperoning science camp does both for me. Fifth-graders are not a part of my day-to-day life. After hanging around a school-ful of them for a week, I’ve learnt that I don’t know as much as I ought to, I have less control over anything than I think, but with enough best intentions, common sense, and patience, things will work out, though not always in the way I expected.

Frankly, I think chaperoning 5th graders for a week would be a good exercise for any working professional. For a volunteer contribution of less than $200, it packs more punch than any corporate training/team-building/morale boosting workshop. Working with kids is fun and keeps you on your toes. And kids will tell it like it is – keeping it real.

Whoever you are, future chaperones, here’s a list of practical tips:

  1. Bring lots of extra bandannas – There’s always kids who forget theirs. Be realistic enough to not expect every single loaner back. (Not all kids are like Liam.
  2. Carry in your daypack (beyond the Nature Bridge packing list):
    – squeeze tube of lip balm
    – bandages
    – small swiss army knife
    – wet wipes
    – packets of tissue paper
    – plastic bags for trash
  3. Bring PABA-free (hypoallergenic) sunscreen (the REI one in a white-yellow packaging is pretty good.)
  4. Immediately train your trail group to count off. (The trail groups rosters number each kid.) Make them count off religiously, before and after every group movement!
  5. If there are two or more kids who are troublesome together while on trail group walks, separate them, i.e. send kid A to the front; and kid B to the back. This works for the short-term, before entropy joins them back together.
  6. Otherwise have the single troublesome kid to walk next to you, so you can keep close tabs on him/her.
  7. Check in with the naturalist at beginning of each day, to get a sense of schedule/sequence. It helps the chaperones to know when to herd the kids more quickly, to make sure time doesn’t run out for doing other activities. But camp activities are inherently flexible.
  8. Make sure your kids really drink enough water and don’t get dehydrated. Otherwise . . .
  9. Know how to stop nosebleeds. (Better yet, take a first aid or CPR class)
  10. Know where the Camp Curry security/extra keys office is located, and their hours.
  11. Consider confiscating kids’ flashlights before entering Spider Cave – make a judgement call depending the kids’ personalities and dynamics
  12. Inspect kids’ shoelaces for tautness, especially for long/elevation gain hikes.
  13. Inspect kids’ backpack straps and adjust, before long/elevation-gain hikes. Kids tend to like the straps long to drag; but it’s less ergonomic to carry.
  14. Bring binoculars or gummy bears. Useful as a bribe for good behavior.
  15. Know the current price of commodity iron: 68$ per DMT (dry metric ton); and granite countertops ($45-$250 per square foot). You will awe the Minecraft players.
  16. Practice how to roll up and stuff sleeping bags quickly. You will need to help kids pack away their sleeping bags during departure day cabin inspections
  17. Know when to ask another adult, or kid, for help.

BACK TO POST [40] When I was in high school, I used to run the Bay to Breakers with my friends. One year, we had to walk the course because one of my friends was hung over from prom the night before. Walking turned out to be much more exhausting than running the course.

Chaperoning 5th Grade Science Camp at Yosemite: Part 3 of 4

When we went by the Ahwahnee Hotel to catch the shuttle. Jenna explained that it was a historic building and the ‘grandest’ hotel in Yosemite. “Do they serve acorns at the Ahwahnee Hotel?” Mathilda asked. “They should serve acorn mush so that the visitors who come here can try the foods that Indians ate.” Jenna said no. Mathilda was astonished. “Well they should!” Acorn mush had been on her mind since Grandmother Rock.

Before Spider Cave, Jenna took us to Grandmother Rock to practice climbing. Grandmother Rock is over 10 feet high. There’s a rule that kids are not to climb on anything taller than themselves, except under adult supervision.

This exercise would also be a preview of how the kids would handle Spider Cave. There was usually at least one kid in each group, who was not up for the challenge of climbing in the dark. No kid would be pushed to do something they didn’t feel ready for.

Everyone climbed up Grandmother Rock, some with a little boost of the foot from Jenna. The entire group spread out quite comfortably on the expansive, relatively flat top. There were grinding holes of various depths and diameters in the center, which Jenna explained that the Ahwahneechee women used to use to grind acorn and other plants they gathered for food. The depths indicated that the holes had been used for thousands of year. Perhaps different holes correlated to different foods.

“Now to get down, you have two options,” Jenna grinned. “You either slide down the other side of the rock, or you can climb down the same way you came up.” Most of the kids, starting with the most fearless, slid down. There was a hollow at the footfall, scooped out over time by the landing of countless feet. It had filled with water from the previous week’s rain. Most kids simply landed feet-first in the puddle. One or two kids opted to climb down instead. Now only Wayland and I were left at the top.
“Adults! Adults! Adults!” the kids screamed. There’s nothing like seeing grown-ups attempt what kids do naturally. Wayland slid down first, and landed with a 9.0 finish. “Yay!” they cheered him.
As I scooted into position, I saw that it was going to be hard to land without getting my shoes wet. That little worry made me nervous, and I hesitated for longer than I wanted to. “Here goes nothing!” I pushed my self, and landed with a small splash. During this distraction, Sonny and some of the other boys had climbed up Grandmother Rock again on their own.
“I was going to ask if anyone wanted to climb up again, they could. But you guys beat me to it.” Jenna said, mildly surprised. All of the kids went for an encore; even Phillip, who was not the smallest, but the most timid. It seemed as if our kids would all be going into the Spider Cave, and Wayland would be waiting outside by himself. In fact, most kids said afterwards that they had more fun at Grandmother Rock than Spider Cave.


In the afternoon, we walked from Lower Yosemite Falls, where we had lunched and made our way to the Yosemite Visitor Center Museum. We had arrived way in advance for Julia Parker’s story-telling time. So we walked around the outside exhibits, to check out the miniature model dioramas, and read the interpretive signs. The best part was when the kids could step inside the Miwok bark huts and take pictures of each other. Still, they were listless, restless, and acting up. “It’s funny how you can tell they’re low on energy,” Jenna commented. When we had dragged out as much time as we could outdoors, we went inside the museum. We were a little apprehensive; hopefully the 5th-graders would behave when during Julia’s session.

Julia Parker is nominally an NPS employee, but more than that, she is a living institution. She is an Ahwahneechee woman, whose ancestors lived in Yosemite Valley, which they called Ahwahnee. She’s old, with long salt and pepper hair. She tells stories, demonstrates and talks about Indian culture and history with museum visitors. Everyone is in awe of her and treats her with utmost respect. Her male counterpart is Ben. She and Ben appear on alternate afternoons at the museum to talk to students and groups. (Last year, our trail group was at the museum on a “Julia” day, so I’ve never met Ben.)

Julia settled in on her perch at museum, a raised platform with basket-making materials, traditional tools, and incongruously, a 1970’s beige push-button phone. The kids gathered around her, sitting cross-legged on the carpet.


Spirit walk in the meadow under El Capitan (Each person walked alone in their own space/silence)

Since we had spent most of the previous day in the meadow under El Capitan, Julia told an Indian story about El Capitan. A mama bear had two cubs who fell asleep on top of a rock. The rock grew so tall overnight, the top couldn’t be seen. Mama bear panicked, not knowing where her cubs where. She put out an APB to all the animals to help her find her lost cubs. They figured out the cubs were on top of the rock, but each animal who tried to reach the cubs failed. Finally a puny inch worm crawled zig-zag up the face of El Capitan and reached the cubs. The timing of the story was very apt; less than two months ago, two climbers had successfully free-climbed their way to the top of El Capitan.

Having spent all day in the sun, doing so much exercise, most of the kids dozed off soon after they sat inside the cool, dim museum, lulled by Julia’s serene, almost monotone voice. I hoped Julia wasn’t offended; that she was used to that with so many school groups visiting her. At least the kids were quiet, and not disruptive while she spoke. I felt drowsy too.

At length, Julia’s tale ended and she asked “Do you have any questions? It can be about the story, or anything about the Indians in general.”
There was a a pause. I dreaded the thud of silence, awkward when no one has any questions after a long presentation.

Surprisingly, the kids perked up and peppered away with questions, mostly from Doug, Sonny, Josh, Anne. There were a lot of food questions, since the we had just seen the grinding holes in Grandmother Rock. Most of the boys’ questions were about ‘manly’ things like hunting, arrows, etc. Julia answered some, but deflected many as “that’s man’s talk.” She may have been capable of answering; but it seemed more like a cultural practice to segregate certain topics by gender roles. If you asked an Ahwahneechee man about making acorn mush, perhaps he might defer to women as the authorities on that topic.

Naturally, the boys wanted to meet Ben; Josh even asked if they could come back to the museum the next day! Even the kids who hadn’t asked Julia anything wanted to come back to the museum and meet Ben. I was impressed that the kids found the museum interesting and wanted to go back. Even though it’s small, and we had spent very little time inside, they were quite interested in the exhibits.

We escorted our kids out the museum, and assembled on the large open plaza in front. The adults were relieved, job well done: we’d managed to avoid any behavior mishaps in our trail group for the day. Jenna brought out plain animal crackers for the afternoon snack and we would have a ‘toast’, to ensure everyone to drank some water.

Josh said “I don’t want to drink any water. I’m not thirsty.”
“You need to get your bottle out to toast.”
“I’m not thirsty.”
“Come on, everyone is ready.”
“Josh, get out your water bottle now.” I glared at him from across the circle.
“No I don’t want to!”
We volleyed back and forth a few times. It’s unusual for Lincoln students to be so stubborn. Say what you will about stereotypes, but most of them fit the Chinese archetype of being 聽話 obedient.
By now, the rest of the kids and adults were watching our exchange in silence. I didn’t want to hold up the rest of the group from toasting, and waste their time, so I got up and took
Josh aside.
“Look, even if you don’t want to drink, you should take out your water bottle, and take a sip.”
“I’m not thirsty.”
“Even if you don’t feel thirsty, you need to drink some water, otherwise you’ll get dehydrated. We’ve been out and about all day.”
“I don’t want to drink any water.”
“Well at least pretend to take a sip of water. [28] When you’re in a group, and every one else is taking out their bottle of water, you need to participate. It’s about having respect for your group.”

“No, I’m not thirsty.”
“You need to drink to stay hydrated!” Oh my god, I was turning into my dad.

When I was a kid, what I most hated was when my dad nagged me ad nauseum about something I already knew: “Don’t read in such dim light, or your eyes will go bad. Don’t read slouching in bed, otherwise your eyes will go bad.” (I didn’t think about how he might be tired of saying it all the time.) As much as the repetitiveness, it was the know-it-all tone that bugged me, “I know better than you, so I’m teaching you.” [29] I knew he was right, but the kid in me was defiant — I wanted to annoy him in return for annoying me in the first place!

“Josh, drink some water. Your body needs the water it’s lost.”
“Water makes me barf.”

It was a good thing I was too angry with him, otherwise I would have lost it by bursting into laughter. The bloody-minded, ridiculous things kids say just to be contrary. We shot mental daggers from our eyes at each other unblinkingly, like cheesy special effects from a Shaw Brothers flick.

“Look, this not just about the water. This is about respect for your group. You are part of this group, and you’ve gotta have respect for the others in the group. By not getting out your water bottle to drink, and spending all this time arguing about it, you are disrespecting the others in the group. What if this had been yesterday, right before we went to Spider Cave? What if we were wasting time having this same argument then? There wouldn’t have been time to go through Spider Cave twice, we’d only have been able to go through once. How would you have felt about that? You would have missed out, all of you would have missed out on the extra fun?Drink some water now!”
“I don’t want to.”
I sighed. This was getting nowhere, so I cut my losses and tried a different tactic.

“Josh, you’re a smart kid. I’ve already explained to why you need to drink water to stay hydrated. But I know I don’t really need to repeat it, because I know you’re a smart kid, you understand what I’m saying. I’m just reminding you.’
“I’m not smart!”
“How can you not be smart? You’ve made it to fifth grade! You’re here at science camp! You’ve made it this far. You’re certainly not dumb!”

This was ludicrous — kids always 認叻! What silly kid would proclaim himself dumb to the adult he was arguing with. Josh really was stubborn 硬頸!

We walked back into the circle. [30]

“IT’S TOO BAD WE DIDN”T GET TO GO BACK TO THE MUSEUM TO SEE BEN,” Mathilda told me. She had a lot of questions she wanted to ask.
“Well, maybe you could write him a letter and ask your questions. We could get his address from Jenna, or send it to him at the museum. Or if you have email, you could probably email him.”
“He doesn’t have email!” Mathilda declared, surprised at my cIuelessness. “How could Indians have email?” I think she had the conflated the notion that Ben was probably as old as Julia, and since they were such experts about Indian traditions, they must be living the traditional way as well, so it would be incongruous for them to have email.

In the interlude between the end of the Yosemite Falls Trail hike and dinner at Yosemite Lodge, Wayland and I decided to let the kids play in the plaza in front of Yosemite Lodge. It was too late to go to the museum. It wasn’t worth shuttling back to Curry Camp to wash-up for 5 minutes, and turn right around to shuttle back to Yosemite Lodge for dinner.

Led by the charismatic Doug, the kids elected to play “Wax at the Museum,” which seemed to be a variation of “Tag.” Doug was one fifth-grader who was smarter than most adults. He was curious, articulate, attentive, and poised, but still came across as a personable ten-year old. I kept half-thinking “what is he doing here, shouldn’t he be in college already?” [31]

Wayland and I kept a casual eye on the kids, calling out “Freeze!” whenever any lodge guests or hospitality workers (including a man in kitchen whites, with a matching white rose tucked coquettishly behind his ear) were walking through the plaza area. The kids would freeze in place and let the adults pass through in peace. From where we were sitting, you could see into the Yosemite Lodge lounge, where ESPN was on a large screen TV. The TV was jarring, surreal reminder that the world marched on outside our science camp bubble.

Timothy, who had been the first one tagged, was leap-running from bench to bench. “Look, I’m doing parkour!”
I called him over. “Stop that. Sit down here for a little time out.” It was a half-hearted admonishment. The plank benches were laid out in an enticingly parallel configuration, with just the right spacing. I would want to run on them too, if I were a ten-year old.
Timothy sat down on a bench behind us. Sonny who had now been tagged out, came over by him, and they started horsing around. I turned forward again, focusing on the larger group of kids still in play.

The second round of “Wax at the Museum” started. Only Timothy was still sitting on the bench behind me. He was crying quietly, immobile, but for periodic involuntary gulps.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
He didn’t answer.
“What happened?”
He didn’t say anything. I was puzzled, but only mildly concerned. It had been a strenuous and exciting day. Perhaps it hadn’t been a good idea to let the kids play ‘Wax at the Museum’ after the long hike — it got them wound up. Maybe Timothy needed some quiet time on his own, until dinner might be just enough.
When the dining hall doors opened, we were the first trail group to go in and queue for food. Timothy hung back, keeping to himself, still crying, uncharacteristically silent – his usual mode is cocky bravado. I stood at the end of the line with him, asking him what was wrong, what had happened. He didn’t say anything, responding with only crying gulps. Alarm finally dawned on me — crying this prolonged was serious.

I gently led him outside. There was a Badger Pass two-seater ski lift chair parked in front of the dining hall. We sat down.

“What happened? Did someone do something to hurt you? Did someone say something that really hurt your feelings?” Was it something I had done? What could I do to make it better? Did someone say something about someone else? Did he want to talk to Mr. Fong?

He still didn’t say anything. Sometimes he nodded, sometimes he bobbed his head, but mostly it was the hiccuping reflexes of crying.

I tried everything I could think of to get him to talk. Timothy was getting goose pimples on his arms from the chilly air, so I went to get his jacket. I made him drink some water. I gave him a gummy bear (I was holding the leftover stash from Jenna,) but he simply gripped it in his hand.

Some people will go into an unstoppable rant when they are upset, telling you everything: who, what, how, why, twice, thrice. Listening to them takes patience, but at least you know what is going on. This was so much worse. Timothy was holding it in so resolutely — in the face of muteness, I had nothing to work with. I was making it worse by muddling around. I couldn’t figure out if I should keep repeating the questions at him until he talked; or just sit there in silent sympathy with him, and wait until he was ready. I’d dealt with lots of crazy co-workers and work situations before, but nothing as nerve-wracking as this.

All options exhausted, I started crying too. I was sad that he was so sad. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find out what was the problem. I was helpless in making him feel better. Most of all I was terrified that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and screwing things up.

In my desperation I shared a story with Timothy which I rarely told anyone: someone had said something that deeply hurt me when I was a child. I hoped by telling him about my story, he would to tell me his hurt in return. But he still cried in deafening silence. [32]

Mr. Fong came out of the dining hall — his group had gone in to dinner, as had many others during our roost on the ski lift chair. I briefly explained the situation. I’d struck out; now it was his turn at bat.

That night’s dinner theme was “Oriental.” I got some minestrone soup — fortunately they hadn’t tried to make it ‘hot-and-sour’ — and slumped into an open seat. I was glad not to be hungry; and forego gloppy chow mein and sesame chicken.

Mom wasn’t at the dinner table either. It had turned out to be a bad night for her as well, more spectacularly so — one of the girls in her trail group had fell and hit her head, sustaining a possible concussion. Mom was holed up in our cabin watching over the resting girl. Mr. MacLeod had arranged for to-go dinner boxes to be packed up and taken over to them.

Mom’s words “I would have flunked her, if I were the principal,” ricocheted in my head. I had absolutely flunked chaperone-hood, but still I wished my mom was at the table so I could discuss Timothy with her, even if it was a relative tempest in a teacup, compared to what she had on her plate.

Mr. Fong was gone for a really long time, but eventually I saw him, Timothy . . . and Sonny talking in the far corner of the dining hall. Sonny?! I racked my brains, had they been doing anything so egregious that could have upset Timothy so strongly? . . . and how on earth had I not noticed anything!?

Timothy took a tray and went to the food line. Mr. Fong came back and resumed eating his by-now cold dinner.
“Is Timothy OK? What was the problem?” I asked.
“Well, apparently they were playing and Sonny said Timothy couldn’t play because he was on a time out, and Timothy said he could and they beat each other up. Timothy claims Sonny put him in chokehold, and Sonny claims he didn’t, he merely punched him lightly in the arm. But neither are willing to back down from their side of the story, so . . .” he shrugged.

I had a nagging, sinking feeling that I must have part of the problem. Perhaps Timothy hadn’t wanted to tell me because he felt I had done him some wrong?

“It’s all right.” Mr. Fong took it all in stride — it was all in day’s work for him. “We had some wrinkles in our group today too.”

I ended up telling Mom about the incident weeks later. “Just so you know for next time,” she advised me, “you should ask the kid’s buddy, or the other kid that was involved, or even the other kids who were around. They would definitely tell you if you asked.” I wish I had known, it would have saved a lot of trouble. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that to begin with!

Hanging around 5th graders inevitably made me think back to when I was their age, reviving long dormant memories. My fifth grade year had been marked by a singular incident. Hanging around the Lincoln School contingent made me think about the what-ifs — in a parallel universe, I might have gone to Lincoln for grade school. What then would I be like today? [33] How much would we have in common, that could-have-been me and the me I am now?

There were several journaling exercises during the activities. Jenna would write leading questions on her mini-whiteboard: What did I like most about Yosemite? What was most memorable? What did I see? hear? smell? touch? Most kids would write about the more lofty aspects, like the sound of Yosemite Falls, gripping the stone surfaces when climbing Spider Cave, the sight of of Half Dome. If they had been honest, they would have written something like this:

What I liked most: There were sticks and rocks everywhere.
Most memorable: Crushing rocks with my bare hands.
I saw: The shiny crystals inside the rock that I broke open
I heard: The banging of rocks I pounded together.
I touched: The rough grainy bark of the sticks I gripped.
I smelled: Ground-up dry rock dust.

Just like the one-time principal of their school [34], most of the boys in our trail group were obsessed with sticks and stones. When you’re walking miles and miles in Yosemite each day, with sticks and stones are strewn all over the place, resistance to temptation is futile.

The kids would pick up fallen branches to use as walking sticks “We have to walk sooooo much I’m tired. I need this stick to help me walk!” Occasionally they’d wave them around as swords, which drew immediate rebukes from the chaperones.

Just as frequently, the kids would pick up rocks and stones along the way, Mostly, they’d bang or scratch them together. Most of the time they knew better than to throw them, except whenever we were next to a creek.

Yosemite Swing Bridge beach

The beach at Swinging Bridge. Lots of rocks.

Whenever and wherever we were sitting down, the kids would start fiddling around with whatever was in reach: dirt, sand, dried leaves, pine needles, and rocks on the ground, building and destroying little piles. It was what was at hand in the outdoor classroom. Their hands needed to fidget with something, even as they were listening with their ears. The kids may have looked inattentive, but they were sponging up some of it. Liam impressed Jenna by knowing that the name of the Indians was Ahwahneechee – he hadn’t looked up from the rocks he was preoccupied with. (He’d heard it the night before at Naturalist Dave’s bear talk.)

Being the responsible chaperones we purported to be, we nagged constantly at the boys to drop the sticks or rocks that they were just as constantly picking up. I started made bad jokes to relieve the tedium [35] of repetition: “Timothy, drop that rock so it can stay here with its friends.” “Sonny, I’ve taken away enough sticks from you to build a Miwok bark hut”.

“Do I need to really need to sound like a broken record and tell you to drop that stick?” I nagged at one kid. Then to soften it into a teachable moment, I added “Do you even know where the expression comes from? Back in the day when we had vinyl records; if the record got messed up at a certain point in the song, it would repeat itself.” [36]

Sometimes we gave up and temporarily turned a blind eye to what they picked up, until they did something dangerous, like waving a stick around high. “Drop that!” — we didn’t want any eyes poked out. One girl in another trail group had sustained an eye injury from a rock accidentally bouncing into her eye when the kids were skipping stones.

The kids weren’t above gaming us either. “But Mr. Wayland said I could have a stick,” when I told one boy to drop the stick. Or “How come you’re not telling Adrian to stop playing with rocks, but you won’t let me?”

Who’s kidding whom? It’s more fun when it’s forbidden — if we had given carte blanche to the kids with sticks and stones, they would quickly become bored with them.

The Pollyanna in me was glad (but trying not to show it) that the kids liked playing with sticks and stones. I didn’t think it was all bad. After all, wasn’t that the point of bringing them to Yosemite — to experience the great outdoors up close and personal, and derive their own amusements directly from nature? You hear about kids nowadays who only know how to ‘play’ with manufactured toys, that they can’t combat boredom on their own. [37] , [38] It’s refreshing and reassuring to see it’s not entirely true. Left to their own devices in Yosemite, they can entertain themselves just fine — with a little help from Minecraft.

The highlight of the Yosemite Falls Trail hike was OMG Point, a bit past Columbia Rock, accessed by a short spur trail. Since the platform behind the safety railing at OMG Point was so small, Jenna would take 4-5 kids at a time to view the stupendous panorama stretching from Yosemite Falls to Half Dome, gorgeously clear on this bright blue-sky golden-sunny day. In the meantime, the the rest of the trail group had to wait on the main trunk trail.


Columbia Rock, on the Yosemite Falls Trail

Jenna had assigned a little journaling exercise for the kids who were with her at OMG Point. Some kids finished the assignment quickly. Since we were parked about a thousand feet above the valley floor, on a narrow mountain trail, there was very little space for the kids to run about and play that was within sight of the chaperones. Naturally they started to pick up rocks and stones and bang them together, trying to make fire caveman-style, pulverize the granite into powder, scratch graffiti onto the rock faces of the trail walls, or even fossick for ore. And even though we’d been very strict while hiking up about kids not picking up rocks, because dropping them downhill could injure hikers below us, at this point, it seemed under or beyond our control.

I weakly tried to salvage teachable moments out of rock-play. “You know, you could also start a fire if you had a magnifying glass, and directed sunlight through it.” “Notice how one rock will leave a scratch mark on the other, but not the other way around? There’s something called Mohr’s scale of hardness. . .” The kids sensibly tuned me out and contentedly played on their own.

“I’m looking for rocks with valuable metal and take them back with me and sell them,” said Timothy. “Well, you can’t take anything from a national park, not even rocks or sticks. You have to leave them here. Otherwise one day there’d be none left.” (I often repeat this to my own mother, who really likes beach-combing for interesting rocks to take them home.)

The kids pounded rocks with gusto. It was very satisfying when a rock broke open into two, revealing its interior. Most of the rocks in Yosemite Valley are granite, which is relatively brittle. The boys showed me their crushed rocks.
“Is this diamond? It’s sparkly.”
“No it’s quartz.”
Some rocks had specks of reddish-brown. “Well that could be iron,” I speculated. (Oh why oh why hadn’t I paid more attention to earth science class in 9th grade?)
“What’s iron used for?”
“Hmm…. cast iron frying pans? Woks?” [39]

“How much is this worth?” Josh demanded.
“Well that depends on the price of iron right now, which we could look up when we get back to school.” (Or an internet connection.) Hastily, I did a mental back-of-the-envelope calculation.
“Hmm, maybe that’s worth ten cents.”
“Only ten cents!” said Josh doubtfully. “Nooo . . . it’s gotta be worth more than that. Like $20!”
He eyed me suspiciously. “I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to trick me into leaving all these rocks here, by making me think they’re worthless, because you said we’re not supposed to take rocks home.” With an exaggerated flourish, he surreptitiously stuffed a few rocks to weigh down his backpack.

I found it a bit odd that they seemed so fixated on the resource value of the rocks. But I’d also been overhearing the kids talking about an online game they played that involved warlords and accumulating resources (Later I found out it was Minecraft). It started to make sense. The concept of mining-based wealth had carried over from the virtual world into the real world, where they could actually lay their hands on ore.

BACK TO POST [28] I mentally cringed as I said this. I was a hypocritical adult to preach to him about conformity, doing things you didn’t want to do, so you could fit in with the others. That’s 180 degrees from my personal philosophy

Of course I did just that. On our way back to Oakland, our bus stopped at Carl’s Junior in Oakdale for dinner. I wasn’t hungry and I didn’t find anything on the menu appealing. But I ordered a hamburger and ate half: to be polite; to forestall any fuss of “why aren’t you eating anything? you should eat something”; and to avoid appearing snobby “I don’t like fast-food.” The kids were excited to be eating at a fast-food chain. It’s OK occasionally, and this would be appropriately one of those occasions.

Almost all the kids also picked up the nutritional information pamphlets that chains are required to provide. I thought it was because they wanted a souvenir from Carl’s Junior. It turns out that Ms. Fong was teaching her class about nutrition and the poor quality of industrial food; she showed them the “Super-Size Me” movie and had them read Michael Pollan and “Fast-Food Nation.” “Start them young, and for some of them, it’s really made them change their eating habits. You know, some 5th grade girls already have their periods, because of the hormones in meat make them mature sooner!” she said. The kids were taking the pamphlets because they wanted a real-life example to apply to what they’d been learning.

BACK TO POST [29] Tell me something new already. Even today, I am easily irritated by people repeating things I’ve heard before or already know. The line from “Wall Street”, when Gordon Gecko says, “Come on pal, tell me something I don’t know, it’s my birthday. Surprise me.” — could have been mine.

BACK TO POST [30] The next day, I was pointedly focused on Josh to drink whenever we had a water break. He seemed resigned to my proddings with good grace.

BACK TO POST [31] Doug tried to pick up Chinese phrases from the rest of the kids. The twins, with a slightly malicious streak, would speak Cantonese in front of Doug, but refused to translate for him.
“What’s 芝士菠蘿 …” Doug asked me. I couldn’t figure out the rest of the phrase he was phoneticizing. “It’s cheese pineapple . . . the rest is some phrase I don’t know. It’s a bun you get in Chinese bakeries, but there’s no actual pineapple in it.” The twins refused to repeat the entire phrase, so it was probably something cheeky.

I had already startled the twins once, when I heard them say 死八婆. “Watch the language!” I warned them. I get sneaky little kicks out of surprising people who don’t think I understand anything but English!

BACK TO POST [32] Later I would feel a bit foolish for having told him the story. Kids either remember everything you tell them, or nothing. I crossed my fingers for the latter.

BACK TO POST [33] In yet another parallel universe, I would have gone K through 12th grade entirely in El Cerrito. I did go to El Cerrito HS for the last two years of high school, where my best friend Christina. . . was a Chinese-American girl who had gone from K through 12th grade in El Cerrito. I always marveled that she was my karmic doppelgänger: what I might have become. On Christina’s part, she would have missed out on some unconventional outings if she hadn’t been friends with the me I was. She’s currently a 5th grade teacher.

BACK TO POST [34] I go hiking a lot with my mom. As we start off from the trail head, she’ll start looking for downed branches that would make good walking sticks — even if she’s got a retractable hiking stick. Half the time she’ll forget her hiking stick at home — on purpose, I suspect. It’s her fixation, this perpetual quest for the perfect walking stick. She finds one and picks it up, but still keeps her eyes peeled in case she spots a better one. The old will be tossed out, to be replaced by the new, in quick succession. For her, it’s the best part of hiking.

She likes it even better when we hike along beaches or rocky creeks — she loves looking for rocks. “Look at how pretty this one is! And see this one, the shape is just like a gourd,” — she has to show off every single one of them to someone. When I go hiking with my mom, I always have to slow down and periodically look back, checking that I haven’t lost her.

Mom used to take the rocks she collected home with her (I think half of Moonstone Beach ended up around her fireplace and mantelpiece, after a road-trip down Highway 1). As an enlightened spoil-sport, I’ve been reminding her that she’s not supposed to take any thing away from the parks and beaches. “If you bring all those rocks, they’ll weigh down my car and ruin my fuel efficiency!”

So, she’s been good about leaving rocks back in place, although she’ll half-grumble at me preemptively. “OK, OK, I’m just looking. I’m not taking anything because I know you’ll scold me.” She’ll carry her finds for a few miles: simply owning them for the duration of the hike is enough to satisfy her acquisitiveness.

BACK TO POST [35] My cousin Tim (there’s a real Tim!) and I were traveling in India, where pushy street vendors were constantly harassing us. Tim got very tired of it, and developed a counter-attack. “No, I don’t want to buy your postcards, but how about I’ll sell you this for 5 rupees instead?” He’d hold up a soda bottle cap or rock he’d picked up from the ground in front of the vendor’s face. Most of them would be surprised enough that they’d back off. We’d have a moment’s peace until the next vendor approached us.

BACK TO POST [36] I wonder what idiom parents said to their kids, before the days of Edison and victrolas? Do today’s kids even know what a compact disc is?

BACK TO POST [37] My other conspiracy theory is that toy marketing has stifled kids’ imaginations. Recently, I was talking to my five-year old nephew about his cherry-picker truck made of Lego. “You could make a Lego cherry tree, and then use your truck to pick the cherries on the top branches,” I suggested
“I can’t make a Lego cherry tree,” he replied solemnly.
“Is that because you don’t have enough Lego parts to make a cherry tree, or because there’s not a Lego cherry tree set?”
He thought for a moment, “Because there’s no set. I can only make things in Lego sets.”
Damn you, Lego! You’ve completely betrayed your original philosophy of stimulating children’s creativity. You’re boxing-in the minds of today’s children with your boxed sets. I’m buying my nephew a Barbie doll for Christmas.

BACK TO POST [38] And like many adults, the kid would often review photos on their digital cameras, the only electronic gadget they were allowed to bring.

BACK TO POST [39] Afterwards I thought of a better smart-aleck reply: “For ironing clothes.” Esprit d’escalier!