Gems of Rio de Janeiro

I first got to know Rio through the riotous lens of a Carnivale, but I promised myself I’d find out what local life was like.   So I stayed in Rio for 3 weeks. Here are a few of my favorite discoveries:

Lagoon, photo credit Ana Carolina do Nascimento Guimaraes

Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas-A lagoon with a paved 7.5 km (>4.5mile) bike/running path lined with sports clubs.   I wouldn’t get in the water, mind you, because before the Olympics, water tests showed high levels of sewage and related viruses.  But this was my favorite way to knockout the daily jog.  The path is mostly treelined,  and even though I usually tolerate running only if I’m running after something, I felt pretty good about trying to complete the loop.  There were usually a few good looking folks running or walking, for an extra little motivation to keep going.

acai.jpgAcai – Before I’d heard about Oprah promoting acai as a superfood, I was experiencing it as my daily nourishment.  Brazilians love their corner fresh fruit juice stands, which always stock half frozen treats made with their Amazonian staple, acai fruit.  At first the consistency reminded me of 7-eleven slushees, and this half frozen version is inevitably sweetened, but it’s still brimming with antioxidants.  It’s practically a thicker form of sorbet, a bit like having a superfood ice pop.  Acai doesn’t export very well, and getting to eat the local flavor is a must for any visitor.


Arpoador-The beaches of Brazil can’t be missed-they have it all: sun, sand, surf, and gorgeous eye candy.  Ipanema and Copacabana have been made most famous by their eponymous songs, but it’s this little bit of sand and cliff called Arpoador in between those beaches that I started calling home.   A popular surf spot, this area also has some of the best sunset views.  Muscle Beach calls this place home.

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Capoeira– a combination of martial arts, dance, and music.   If there ever was an art form evoking Zoolander’s “They’re breakdance fighting!”, this would be it.  To immerse myself in this local dance, I practiced capoeira at a local school daily in the evenings.  We danced barefoot on concrete in what seemed like an open air parking garage.  Everyone spoke mostly Portuguese and acted incredibly warm and welcoming, even encouraging me to showcase my clumsy moves.



The Will to Live

It’s been 10 years to the week of my father’s passing.  Although he was terminally ill, everyone in the family was attempting to live with a degree of normalcy-chemo treatments, endless doctor appointments, the shrunken apparition of my Dad notwithstanding.  I’d even moved to Hong Kong and my parents planned a visit from the US, presumably approved by the doctors.  There’s no way to tell if that was really a good idea, but with terminally ill patients, the bar is usually fairly high for doctors to step in and intrude on the patient’s wishes.  At least in the US.

There’s something called optimism bias that keeps most people going in life, the idea that the future holds more promise than the past, and that life keeps getting better.  Out of all of the things taken away from a terminally ill patient, this can perhaps be the most debilitating.

My father was hospitalized twice during his stay here.  The first time he was feeling weak, and we admitted him at a hospital on Victoria’s peak.  It was a nondescript hospital called Matilda practically perched in the clouds, known for a high quality standard of care.  Getting there involved taking a car up winding tree lined roads, as if ascending to a forested vacation rental.  After a brief stay we brought him back to my home, and life went on as usual for a few more days.

“I think something’s wrong with your Dad.”

I rushed into the master bedroom framed by the picturesque harbour, with a sea view so deep that anyone on the bed could have pretended it was about to set sail.  My Dad was laying motionless and unresponsive on his side, as if an errant dingy waiting to cast off, but without a rudder or captain.  His eyes were wide open, and he didn’t look panicked, but he couldn’t move and despite the blinking, was clearly not responding cognitively.

We rushed him to the nearest public hospital immediately.  As he was wheeled in, being the practical one in the family , I squeezed my mom’s hand and quickly reminded her of the “do not resuscitate” order my Dad had signed.  The DNR is meant to save the dying from harsh treatment during resuscitation attempts.  So this could be it.  Although I was trying to prepare my mom for that possibility, I now realize that by focusing on my mom, I was actively deflecting the need to prepare myself for the same possibility.

But he turned out to be “ok”, as far as we knew.  They told us that his glucose levels had just dropped to the point where he was physically unable to function.  Asking further questions didn’t seem to lead anywhere, which may have been a result of the language barrier.  English was not the first language for anyone on staff and neither was Mandarin.   If we asked what was going to happen, the staff would generally refer to the fact that he had stage 4 cancer.  No sh*t Sherlock.   Dad was coherent again though, and he looked tired but could at least broadly communicate.

One of the English speaking doctors came through, and Dad, sporting that practical streak, asked, “So, what about my flight back home (to the US in a week).”  The doctor looked at him a bit blankly and said, “Oh you can’t go.”  My parents have always been masters of the innuendo, sometimes a bit afraid to clarify, but always prone to interpret news in the worst possible way.  His crestfallen face said it all.  He did want, or he did need to ask for more details, but the only words that made it out of his mouth were “I..can’t..go..home?”  The doctor confirmed definitively and when pressed just repeated the familiar mantra that he was weak and had stage 4 cancer.

HK public hospitals are generally known for quality medical care, but now I know that towards the end, communication is the most important aspect of medical care.  I remember sitting in a stairway crying to my boss about how poor the communication was. Quite possibly,I’ve since harboured a deep resentment for that Grim Reaper, MD, or even HK in general.  Yet at the time I still wasn’t thinking about the gravity of the situation.  We could have transferred my Dad back to that sanctuary in the clouds, but I hadn’t translated “weak” into “he’s dying as we speak.”  In my heart I believed it was like the first hospitalization, where he would be released after a few nights of recovery.  As for the flight, the doctor was probably just waiting to give my Dad the green light.  But I’d seen my Dad’s look and I was already looking up the cost of an international air ambulance.  Maybe there was a bit of cognitive dissonance though, because someone eventually called my sister and asked her to come..and it must have been me.  Dad got on the phone with my sister briefly and smiled at the sound of her voice, but over the next 24 hours slowly wilted away, his breath fading.

I was the only one with him when he left us in the middle of the night.  I ran out into the hallway, thinking about calling for help, but realizing it was fruitless.  The rage in me rose like a tidal wave.  Would he have died here if the doctors hadn’t taken away hope?  How could the doctors have been so cavalier with a man’s life!

In the aftermath there were enough logistics issues to keep me distracted, and we realized that no one had discussed with my Dad the taboo topic of how he wanted to go.  My mom, sister, and I stayed together for about a week, trying to make sense of what had happened, most likely thinking that the future was sure to be brighter than those days.  My mom looked like she’d aged 10 years overnight.

I’m now renting an apartment in the same building my Dad spent his last vacation in.   Not because I’ve been here the whole time, but somehow 10 years later I’ve crossed a few oceans and still come back full circle.  The area has been right in the path of development, and new buildings, restaurants have sprung up and it’s now brimming with expats.   This time I’m raising a bright, joyful baby here because I met my husband in Hong Kong.  Because sometimes those dark days do turn to light.


Rio de Janeiro Highlights

As the curtain closes on the 2016 summer olympics, here’s a look at the hot spots to see in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Christ The Redeemer – One of the new 7 Wonders of the World, this 38m tall statue embraces the city with open arms from Corcovado mountain.

View from Cristo


Sugar Loaf-Named during the height of the sugar cane trade, when sugar was molded into cones, this granite and quartz mountain is located in Guanabara Bay.  The famed cable car ride provides incredible views of the city.



View at dusk with Cristo in the distance

Hanggliding-I booked with EasyflyRio, who called me when it was the best time to fly.  The weather was gorgeous and off we went from Pedra Bonita, above The Parque Nacional de Floresta de Tijuca.  Literally the birds eye view of Rio’s beaches (Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, Barra da Tijuca), Christ the Redeemer, the Sugar Loaf, etc…  beachwow.JPG

paraglider in the distance


Arpoador Cliff (between Ipanema and Copacabana)-If you’ve ever wondered how Arpoador got its name, well today’s your lucky day.   Arpoar is the portuguese word meaning “to harpoon” and an arpoador is one who harpoons. Back in the day when whaling was popular, this area was the best spot to scope them out.  It’s also a great viewpoint for the sunset.

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Overlooking Ipanema beach
Overlooking Copacabana beach

Favelas -Makeshift housing built by the homeless that have developed into full scale communities.  If all favelas in Rio were combined, the population would comprise Brazil’s 9th largest city.  Rocinha is Rio’s largest and most densely packed favela, and several tours are offered during the daytime.  This Brazilian slum is perched among the hills, proffering sparkling views of the rich towns underneath.  It’s best to go on an organized tour with someone who lives or works in the favela, but it’s safe to visit and a stark look at the communities left behind.




View from Rocinha


And of course don’t forget the draw of Carnivale…stay tuned for that lowdown

5 Things to do in Hong Kong in 24 hours

Hong Kong is a transient city I’ve moved to 3 times in the last decade.  Call me an expat turned local.  But if I were visiting for 24 hours for the first time, here’s what I’d do:

1)Victoria Peak-For the active ones, there are both steep/short and long/winding hikes to the top.  The shorter hike starts at the end of Old Peak Road (take a cab to the end of old peak road and you won’t miss it) and is a steep but tree lined shady hike to the top.  For the average fit person it should take about 20 minutes, but be forewarned, the hill will certainly get your blood pumping.  Otherwise get to the peak tram in Central and take a leisurely uphill tram to see the view.  It’s not necessary to goto the skydeck, the free views are the same.

2)Dimsum-There’s nothing dim about dimsum- the wheeled carts of food feature brightly decorated delicacies made for sharing.  It’s Chinese tapas.  I typically take visitors to the Maxim’s on the top floor of city hall (with a view to boot)-don’t forget the baked savory pineapple pork buns and indulge on that fresh mango dessert at the end.

3) Ding ding-The easiest and cheapest transport in HK is the 2 dollar tram.  Well it might be 2.50 HKD by now, but not much more.  Go on the top deck for open air views and you can ride from the west side of HK island to the east. (or vice versa)  The tram line traverses major roads and is one of the best ways to experience the island.  Apparently also easy to catch Pokemon.

4)Star Ferry-A ferry between HK Island and the Kowloon peninsula (which is the closest to China).  Also a cheap transport, hop on at Central (HK) or TST (Kowloon) pier for a short ride and plenty of photo ops.

5) Temple street night market-Beginning early evening (by 5pm) vendors turn a couple of streets in Mongkok into open air markets. (Get out at Mongkok mtr and look for signs) These are extremely diversified markets selling clothes, wallets, purses, (“LV”, “Gucci”, “Prada”, etc)  knick knacks, toys, and all sorts of bits and bobs.  Even if you’re not a shopper it’s an experience you want before shopping goes the way of the world wide web and drones.  Do bargain.

Bonus round: Goto Lan kwai fong for a nightlife district on steriods.



The Chinese Experience


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As soon as I tried to check in for my flight, the agent informed me there was no such leaving at the time.  Not exactly what I wanted to hear before a business meeting.  Amidst the confusion I discovered it was a code share flight, and they wanted me to check in with the operating airline, which is usually not the case, but..the Chinese have their way.
After finding my flight information, the agent informed me that I would have to sit in the back of the plane, because the front rows would be empty to balance out luggage weight.  The only flights I’ve ever been on where my seat weight mattered were on 10 seater planes in Hawaii, but..the Chinese have their way.

When I boarded the plane, there were still scattered passengers in the front rows.  Sure enough, I had been placed in the last possible row, as if any inch forward would have tipped the plane.  When I asked the flight attendants if I could move, they readily agreed.  I moved to the front of the plane without triggering the silliest accident of the year.

The meal served was reasonably tasty (for an airplane meal).  Though as a I picked through my noodles, I found a number sticker at the bottom that was clearly meant for the lid rather than the interior.  I asked for another, and it was switched silently without apology…the Chinese have their way.

As we streamed out of baggage claim, the swarms funneled back through a “line” meant for customs.  But there was no line in the typical sense of the word.  The movement of people depended on the ebb and flow of the channel; there was no holding your place in line and cutting was encouraged.  If you could make it to that position in the mob, you deserved to be there.

I planned to take a taxi after exiting the subway, and when I asked the subway attendant for help she pointed in a general direction with an annoyed look.  There was definitely no taxi stand at the exit she pointed at.  Outside, the skies were grey and a fine drizzle splattered the pavement.

I decided my best bet for a taxi would be from the shiny looking mall across the street.  Sprinting through muddy puddles, I finally ended up at a roped line marked “taxi”, where I waited..and waited…and waited.  The person ahead of me managed to get a taxi, but I was out of luck, and when I asked the nearby parking attendant why there weren’t any taxis, he said: “Oh, taxis don’t come here unless they are dropping people off.”  When I finally flagged down a taxi on the street, he dropped me off 2 blocks away from my destination, despite insisting he knew where it was.  I’d already put my heels on in the car, and as I struggled down the road with the skies spitting on me, I still smelled the unmistakeable odor of smoke.  The 2 other people sharing the sidewalk were smoking in the rain!  The Chinese…

I walked into the building sopping wet.  The smoke I’d picked up on my clothes mingled with ash tainted stale air inside the building, and I started actually looking forward to breathing HK air.  One consolation was that I’d have access to an office bathroom soon.  The building was clearly dated, so I was not expecting much, but my heart still sank as I walked closer to the ladies room.  The door was cranked wide open, revealing an out of order sink covered in blue tarp.  If I’d wanted to pump milk there was nowhere to hide.  There was not even space to set down my bags and straighten my suit.  I settled for smoothing rain water through my wild hair.  When in China…

The meeting was ok, and in an attempt to avoid getting stuck in Shanghai traffic, I had booked a 9pm flight out.  I already knew it would be delayed, rain notwithstanding.  After my flight was delayed 2 hours, we arrived back in HK having missed the last airport train to the city.  My entire plane got in line for a taxi.

And this, folks, is China.

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Fix You

In middle school I was involved in a casual dance troupe.  We were a hodgepodge of several Chinese girls brought together weekly to learn Chinese folk dance from a Taiwanese teacher in Ohio.  Before our first performance, as we gathered in the bathroom to change into our costumes, it became clear that the kids were also somehow in charge of their own makeup.  Most of us did not regularly wear makeup, but I was shocked to see a few girls take out makeup bags chock full of “ingredients”, presumably on loan from their mothers. My mother often proudly announced that the only day she wore makeup was on her wedding day, so she certainly did not own any, much less decide to hand her preteen daughter any makeup, stage performance be damned.  After my initial confusion, I gathered that the makeup was meant to be shared.  Everybody seemed busy applying war paint already, and given I had no idea what to do, I thought I’d start with the one item I had a shot at putting on myself.  I loudly asked, “Where is the lipstick?”  To which one of the girls chortled, “Lipstick is put on last.”  In a fumbling retort I muttered “Oh, I just wanted to know where it was.”   And then I watched in the giant mirror as my cheeks turned to the rouge the other girls were dabbing on.

Beauty without makeup (photo credit

Twenty odd years later, I’m only marginally more skilled at applying makeup and i’ve acquired my mother’s abhorrence for painting my face.  Yet it still strikes me that women have to do so much on a regular basis to look “put together”.  Underneath it all is pressure applied by women on women to have plucked and drawn eyebrows, long/curly/thick eyelashes, glossy lips with just the right touch of color, and not a speck of hair visible in places you aren’t supposed to have hair (but everyone does).  I’ve always held a possibly purely antagonistic view that makeup complements Western faces better and was made with them in mind.  This thought comes from peering into white faces and sometimes not being sure if their makeup is super light or if that’s the way they were formed.

Admittedly, I struggle with the idea that men can often look the way they were formed, possibly wearing the same white t-shirt and jeans throughout school and while finding startups, while the other half of the world obsesses about fine details.  As women become equal and prominent members of society rather than merely pieces of art, I sincerely hope and plead that we won’t remain a canvas picked apart because of lack of highlights or color intensity.   It’s sure to be an uphill battle; the billion dollar beauty industry is a tough machine to pull apart, and my annoyance with it is on par with my feelings for the tax/accounting industry.  How many productive woman hours are wasted on standards of beauty that feel like an arms race to the bottom?

These tweaks could not be less appealing than when it comes to our baby girl.  One of the songs we like to sing to her is Coldplay’s “Fix you”, for its soulful melody.  I don’t know enough of the words to know what the song’s about, but out of unfettered love we change the lines to: “And I will try…to KISS you (not fix you).”

Contemplating The End

Recently a friend of a friend passed away from colon cancer in his early 30s, after battling it for the last 10 years.  He passed away at the same hospital my father did, who also succumbed to the same cancer.  It brought back a few pangs of regrets, memories of searching for closure.

Both sides of my family have been blessed with longevity- my grandmothers are in their 90s.  When my grandfather passed away at 97, he was still in strong spirits, despite having essentially been blind the last 5 years of his life.  (There may have been some fancy medical term for his loss of eyesight, but let’s be honest, after 90 years of use his eyes retired.) As a former principal, he was universally liked by students and faculty, to the point where he would be randomly stopped and thanked in the street years post retirement.  One of his most memorable attributes was his unrelentlessly positive attitude towards everything (well except maybe towards his wife).    Hospitalized for pneumonia,  he still managed to impart his charm and wit on the nurses.  The nurses would quiz him on what 2 +3 was, and he’d cheerfully reply, 23!  Reminds me of a quote: “Don’t take life too seriously.  No one gets out alive anyway..”

Truly living…through travel, food, health, and parenting