This week is mid-Autumn Festival in China and Ava, JD, Ma, Druncle and I celebrated it at our friend's farm with a home-cooked banquet of Dai minority food. Perhaps a little too spicy and sour for my liking, but it looked great and we all ate plenty.
So we've come to the end of our five weeks in the UK. We fly back tomprrow. We spent today packing and I'm convinced all three of our suitcases are overweight, such is the spending power of my lovely wife!
We've had such a wonderful time. JD has really connected with my parents and all his relatives, and we've managed to see everything and everybody we had hoped for, and more. And, importantly, whilst we usually arrive with one or more illnesses to deal with, this time we were all pretty much well and healthy which make a big difference.
Knowing that we are unlikely to be back here for a couple of years is a sad feeling, and a real shame for JD. But Kunming is "home" (for now at least) and I imagine things wouldn't be quite so special if we were meeting up with everybody all the time. All the same, we'll miss you all.
Walking down the High Street of the small, unremarkable town of Bridport, 5400 miles from where I live, I bump into Andy and Liz Rowe who are 300 miles from where they live.
Andy and I were neighbours for three years at College but had largely lost touch over the last 30 years. Now what are the chances of that?
Whilst we are based at our barn cottage, they are camping (in some style) near a pretty water mill and, having been invited to visit, we spent a very pleasant morning reminiscing and catching up on our lives. "Small world" doesn't even begin to explain it...
We spent a fun day up in London today in the company of my good friends Paul (the other one) and Elaine Bruton. I wanted to show JD the actual London sights that he'd become familiar with through a London-based storybook he'd been sent some time ago.
So we took the book along with us, pointing out the pages and the corresponding real places. We started at Trafalgar Square, where we got told off for trying to sit JD on a lion statue (unlike when I was a child and unlike the heroine of his story!). Then on to the changing of the guard at Horseguard's Parade. A salute from JD got the usual blank stare from the guard on duty, but a mounted policeman later let him stroke his horse and feed him (the horse!) a sweet.
We wandered down the Mall to Buckingham Palace and then walked back through St. James's Park, just about made it to the Houses of Parliament in time for Big Ben to chime 12. JD knows the tune off by heart as the supermarket down the hill from our Kunming house playes the tune electronically on the hour and we've paused to listen to it many a time. This was the real thing, though - a lot louder! Our attempt to take a river bus down to the Tower of London was thwarted by a police evacuation of the embankment, so we took a tube and saw the castle and Tower Bridge before a well-earned cup of coffee overlooking the Thames.
It was a tiring, but rewarding day. And great to catch up with the Brutons. Elaine was one of my best friends before leaving for China in 2005, while Paul is one of this blog's regular readers and most frequent commenters. Thanks guys for a great day.
Today was our Open Day where we invited a lot of friends and family to come to my Mum and Dad's house for a chat over food and drink. We welcomed ex-work colleagues [eg Susie from Futurekids and Alan from National Power, in picture, left], family [eg cousins Maureen and Dorothy, left side below] and friends from College days [eg Ratch and Catherine, below] plus many others. It was a lovely event, held outside in the sunshine with a gazebo for those who preferred the shade. Thanks to everyone who travelled from near and far to come see us. It was terrific to catch up with you all again.
The Sams family took us to a large National Trust stately home yesterday in Stourhead. We met up with Krista [see left], a mutual friend, and her Mum for a lovely day walking around the grounds and admiring the "Capability Brown" designed gardens [see below]. We enjoyed beautiful sunshine as we explored the area and finished the day off with ice-creams. Just as we drove back it started to rain - so far, the British weather has been very kind to us!
We are spending a few days in Dorset with our good friends, the Sams family. We're squeezing this visit into the start of our holiday as their eldest son (Aled, the ginger below) is off to Nepal for a volunteering challenge within a few days.
We are staying in the Sams' house - a huge place with a steeply rising back garden which backs onto a forest and a lovely park area. We've had a very warm welcome and when, on arrival, JD was shown to a huge toy railway their youngest son Ben had prepared, he gained a friend for life!
We spent our first half-day in pretty Sherbourne village, full of charity shops (for Ava) and the Abbey above (where JD played "spot the dead person"!).
A ping-pong tournament (JD cheated, see below) and a BBQ ended off the first day's fun.
JD had a busy, but thoroughly enjoyable, day yesterday. He spent the morning running wildly around the play centre with his two friends, Kaiya and Zayden, while I chatted with their mum Nancy, a university colleague of mine who I get on very well with. Then lunch at "Old MacDonald's" (as JD calls it) and home for a nap. After waking, we were off to Summer's birthday meal. Summer [centre in photo] is the one year old daughter of Kelly [left in photo], with whom I run the Lattitude training. JD was the most enthusiastic singer of "Happy Brithday" once the cake arrived and is already getting very excited about his own birthday in a couple of weeks. First is Jiajia's birthday tomorrow, though. She's in Shenzhen!
We find ourselves in sub-tropical XiShuangBanna, in the far south of Yunnan near the border with Laos. We were picked up last night by "Dancing" Man and Lady and he bravely drove the 12 hours overnight to MengLa town where we have checked into a rather swish hotel.
The "Dancing" family have good friends down here who are looking after us with banquets, free accomodation and various activities planned. The first of these today was fishing, which JD thoroughly enjoyed, showing no fear of the flapping, sharp-finned little fish!
After a few hours emptying the pond, we wandered around in the countryside a bit, finding a chilly little stream. With temperatures here in the mid-30s, JD couldn't resist, so he took a dip. After ten minutes, and with no warning at all, the heavens suddenly opened and a torrential downpour threatened to drench us before we got to the car - crossing the stream and climbing the bank wasn't as easy as it looked, with sharp stones and thorny bushes!
Once we'd dried off, we headed back to our hotel where JD and I enjoyed a more conventional swim in their outdoor complementary swimming pool, full of kids who had seemingly never seen a foreigner before, let alone a western child!
Today is Mid-Autumn Festival in China and Ava's family celebrated with our good friends, the "Dancing Family", and their relatives in a Muslim restaurant yesterday evening. JD and Ava are front right. The woman in green, centre, is Ma-in-law who is still begging to be allowed to live with us again after her "final straw" outbursts a couple of weeks ago. On her left is "Drunkle", Ava's permanently drunk pseudo-uncle whom JD calls "Smelly Man" as he never washes. Yes, we do have a rather weird and dysfunctional family here!
As ever, when the most of the food has been eaten and the conversation gets too fast or heavily dialect for me to keep up with, I usually take JD out for a look around the restaurant grounds. We both get bored at these sort of events after a while. This sign caught my attention, with it's completely unnecessary "mess" in the middle". Now what's all that about?
JD's best friend, Liv, turned three today, and JD turned 2⅓ yesterday so, with Liv and her parents leaving for Australia in a few weeks, we thought a little party was in order.
Balloons up, home-made cake prepared, snacks ready, presents wrapped, party hats made, poppers popped, pass-the-parcel poised and toys galore. The kids played really nicely together and JD belted out the "Happy Birthday" song which he'd been practising for weeks before prematurely blowing out Liv's candles - JD thought it was his birthday and, rather bizarrely, so did Liv! It was such a shame when Cindy & Martin had to leave with Liv, knowing that JD may never see his little friend again. "JD very sad" he said as the door closed. Jiajia and I are starting to wonder about a trip to Australia in a couple of years....!
Ava, JD and I spent a lovely morning at the Golden Temple yesterday along with my friends/colleagues Cindy and Martin, their daughter Liv, and two of their Chinese friends. Liv and JD love each other's company and it's a shame that Cindy and Martin are heading back to Australia in a few weeks. We've really appreciated their support and friendship.
Today was a recovery day after the journey back to China, and a largely sleepless night with an upset and screaming JD. None of which is being helped by a stinking cold with all the requisite symptoms. The school term starts tomorrow and Lattitude, the charity for whom I do teacher-training ever 6 months (starting on Monday), is having all sorts of problems getting their volunteers' visas. So I've no idea how many students, if any, I'll have turn up next week.
But the UK trip was so worth it. We only just made it, with Ava's suspected TB and confirmed pneumonia, and plans were changing all the time. But you can't beat family, can you? Or good friends. Everyone rallied round and were so generous with their time, energy and money. JD has a whole new bunch of relatives and he grew up an awful lot in those three weeks. Let's hope there's less trauma when we (hopefully) return in Summer 2016. The countdown has begun!
[PS 27th Feb: I had a fever last night and woke without a voice! Ava still coughing - 5 months and counting. But at least the Lattitude volunteers all got their visas finally, so a fully cohort next week]
Here at Dave's we've enjoyed meeting up with our ex-Kunming friends Peter and Judy [above], an old mate of mine Krista, and her hubbie Stuart, and the Sams family [right]. Our friends mean a lot to us as a family as Ava has very few relatives and mine are usually many thousands of miles away. So to keep in touch by email, Skype or letter means a lot. And our visits to the UK provide a brief but valuable way to renew friendships.
When we made the last minute decision to UNcancel our trip to the UK after Ava's TB scare and pneumonia, we knew we'd have to cut back on our planned travels to see all and sundry. Thankfully, many of our friends and family have put themselves out to come and visit us at the places where we are basing ourselves. At my parent's house three College friends travelled down to say "Hi", while various uncles and aunts popped in to meet JD and catch up on our news.
This weekend saw a visit from an old friend of mine, Wang Hui. who was a student who graduated from Qiannan Teacher's College just as I arrived there to teach, back in 1994. We became very good friends though during my time working in Guizhou Province and have kept in touch ever since. She is now married and finally found the time to visit Kunming (an 8 hour drive) with her husband and son. Unfortunately, I was working all weekend, but we shared a banquet on Sunday evening and, along with some other friends, drove to visit a huge organic farm on Monday morning.
The farm has a dozen massive greenhouses, showcasing a wide variety of vegetables and squash [see above]. Also in the grounds were a small animal farm (JD's first chance to see chickens, horses, goats and ducks in the flesh), a statue park, fishing lakes, waterfall features, hotels, garden shops and restaurants. It was an interesting area to explore and JD had great time leading us all around [see below].
After seeing all the attractions for a couple of hours and buying some tasty, but very overpriced, vegetables we settled down to a particularly delicious lunch, featuring all locally grown/raised food.
And being Children's Day, we also had a few nice kids' surprises, such as special plates of food made into smiling faces and animals and a visit from Mickey Mouse ...irresistable!
Afterwards, Wang Hui and her family headed directly back to Duyun, while the rest of us drove back to Kunming. Not surprisingly, JD slept particularly well that evening!
We were treated to a visit from Daizzy and her family this week. She was in Kunming for a couple of days from Qiaojia (5 hours away by car - used to be 13!) where she lives and works as an English teacher. I did a week of training there some 8 years ago and we have kept in touch ever since. The weather was hot and warm and her daughter, "Amber", enjoyed playing on the slides with JD in our local children's park. Unfortunately, the following day was suddenly quite cold and wet and, perhaps because of that, I found myself feeling quite dizzy throughout the day (something I suffered from a lot a few years ago, but have been free of since). Hopefully it's just a blip on the health front.
I had a nice meal with Glyn (Head of Lattitude Australia) and Kelly (Lattitude China Co-ordinator) last weekend. It was good to get a sense of Lattitude's bigger world picture, as I often only focus on the volunteers to China whom I train every 6 months. We may think that the authorities and schools here cause big issues, but when you hear about Lattitude's problems in, say, India and Vietnam and you realise that Chinese bureacracy is comparatively efficient and honest!
The new restaurant we tried had tasty food, attentive service and some glorious Chinglish on the menu. The "Lazy food" looked fun but we finally decided against a glass of "Iraqi Cloud Water"! Apparently the Chinese makes no sense either!
Our old friends (that's "long-term" old, not "ageing" old) Peter and Judy are back in Kunming, and kindly managed a long trip across the city to join us for dinner this evening. It was lovely to see them again, introduce JD (who wasn't even "a twinkle" when they were last here) and catch up on each others' news.
They came very laden with gifts. I told them it felt like being visited by the three wise men. Except there was only two of them... and they aren't both men.... and their presents were much better than myrrh etc. They are certainly wise, though. I recall they gave Ava and I an hour's "marriage counselling" before we'd actually got married (and yet we still tied the knot!). And what gifts! Books and sweets and biscuits for JD, fashion mags for Ava, a collectable plate for Ma, sweets and cup-a-soups for me, a birthday gift for Ava, a birthday gift for JD, a British newspaper for me, etc etc! Very kind indeed.
It is our good friend Gemma's birthday today and, despite her being off travelling somewhere between Bali and Australia at the moment, we decided to buy her a gift for when she returns. So meet "Gemma", the orange fish above. And when we found out how cheap the fish were (Sorry, Gemma! 2RMB each = 20p a fish!) we decided to buy two more to keep her company. Meet "George" (black) and "Margaret" (white) named after the G & M in Gemma's name - purely coincidental that my parents share the names (...Ava chose them, honest!). Wonder how long they'll survive for (...the fish, that is, not my parents)? Were we meant to buy food or something?
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