Christmas is such a busy time around our place with three birthdays in 26 days wrapped around the annual visit from Santa. Embracing the Philippines Christmas tradition of starting early and ending late, gone are the days of putting up Christmas decorations after the December birthdays and pulling them down before Mum’s. If the locals can put lights and trees up starting in September, surely November isn’t too soon for ours! The extra time with the tree must have helped draw Santa in, as there was some concern the jolly old fellow might miss our place this year due to some misbehaving incidents. Papa blames the new holes in Amira’s ears for prematurely and spontaneously inducing teenagerhood. Fortunately it seems Santa was distracted getting all the toys ready, suffering from selective memory loss, or has completely given up handing out coal due to concerns over global warming.
On what is already our third Christmas in the Philippines (surpassing the two in USA), it’s possible we may never fully adjust to the warm weather and palm tree lights. Everett is the notable exception since all three of his Christmas’ have been here. Despite being an ocean removed from the traditions the parents grew up with, we all work to find the balance between the old and new. In the weeks leading up to the main event, we were treated to Amira’s class performing Penguin Pete, we made ginger bread cookies, and of course we visited Santa to make sure he knew exactly what to bring.
With the countdown in the final stages, we got in one last pre Christmas family yoga session, wrote the note to Santa, set out the snacks to make sure Santa wouldn’t go hungry (or at least to make sure the cockroaches also get their own festive treat), took in the Christmas Eve fireworks and waited for morning…
The decadence and randomness of Christmas here has become so second nature that not even the African Safari Christmas theme phased us. Our acceptance of the inexplicable in our new home partly helps explain why a Christmas Day skate in the tropics (and in a mall no less) is one the season’s top highlights (of course when you are six, nothing beats the present opening). With Everett still too young to lace up for the first time (we can barely get the kid to wear closed shoes) it was the girls turn to skate together while the boys cheered them on
With the formal portion of the festivities complete, the only thing left to do was get the heck out of Dodge. Christmas in our own home is really important to Mum, and the kids are concerned if we leave Santa might not find them. Since Papa aims to be out of the city every minute he can, the best compromise is travelling in the afternoon of Christmas Day. With so many great places to visit only short distances away, it works for everyone. And with that we unleashed the kids on what is now our favourite Asian city…
Just over two hours away by plane, Taipei was so good that Mum is now scheming on how we can move there. Papa certainly isn’t resisting. While it doesn’t have as many years of history as many of the great Asian cities (Taipei is considered a “new” city having just turned 300 years old in 2009), and doesn’t have world renowned “must see” landmarks, it was such a great place to visit. Mum did a great write up of the trip here. We fell in love with the food (best served in the night markets…and you must try the boar sausage in a rice sausage), the ease of getting around (in the city on the metro and outside on the train), the friendliness of the people (who mostly speak English well…and who drew out some of Amira’s Mandarin), and the parks that were seemingly on every corner. Did I mention that a number of big bike companies actually make their bikes here? It was almost too good to be true.
Although Amira claims we only ever do grown up things on trips, we started our city tour at the Taipei Zoo. The panda was the obvious highlight, but the koalas (affectionately known around our house as HALL-AHS (which must be shouted)), elephants (“ellas”), rhinos, lion, leopard, tiger, giraffes, hippo and zebras were also exciting for Everett to see for the first time in real life. Beside the zoo is the Maokong gondola which goes up the hill to a number of tea houses and places to walk. Because we were late getting to the zoo and slow to move through it, we didn’t get far at the top. We still enjoyed the view, some snacks, and then came down after sunset and into the embrace of all the city lights.
Day 2 we spent visiting other areas around town. With limited knowledge of the city and therefore no expectations, we were pleasantly surprised by our stop at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. It reminded us of our many visits to the Lincoln Memorial in DC (which even Amira remembered!), and every hour they have a changing of the guard ceremony that is definitely worth seeing.
As much as we enjoyed the city, we picked Taiwan to get outside in nature. Papa had done a trip to Taiwan a year earlier going from the southern end to the north along the west coast for work. The trip took three days and never seemed to get out of urban areas. The east coast by contrast is exposed to typhoons and as a result is mostly undeveloped. Throw in mountains exceeding 3000m separating the two sides and you have exactly what this family was looking for. Toroko National Park is one of the top tourist draws in the country and one of the best places to take in the natural beauty of the island.
The jumping off point to Toroko is Huilien, which was a disappointing town (made worse by our hopes for a small mountain community), but did give us a place to load up on food for our day trips into the National Park. We actually stayed closer to the park in Xincheng which is almost the middle of nowhere, but it had mountains in the background, a pebble beach out the front door and the hotel had three dogs to keep the kids entertained and completed the trifecta of happiness. The gorge has buses running up and down the road all day stopping at the various trails and sights. Lots of trails were closed, and the more advanced trails have limited spaces per day and require advanced registration so we weren’t able to complete any of these, but we found lots of places to get away and enjoy the park over the two days we were there.
With refreshed souls, we headed back to the city on December 31 to end 2017 and start 2018 on a high note. Using the tried and true 7PM bedtime and 10PM alarm, the whole family got to see the incredible fireworks and light show off of Taipei 101. The view from Zhongshan Park was incredible, even if they reduced the number of fireworks to 16,000 down from 30,000 in years past. It’s a bit hard to explain to kids why you go two hours early to wait for a 6 minute show, but 850,000 people can’t all possibly be wrong! And the extra wait time gave Amira and Papa the chance to break away and take in the main stage for a bit in front of Taipei City Hall.
Our last full day in Taiwan was the most important, with Mum’s birthday to celebrate. A trip up Elephant Mountain at the edge of town followed by a visit to the Beitou area hot springs probably wasn’t how Mum envisioned spending the first day of her fifth decade, but it was a great way to end a wonderful trip.
With another great year past, a new place to go back and visit, and so many exciting things to look forward to in 2018 we returned to Manila with one last Christmas surprise following shortly behind us. In the spirit of the extended Philippines Christmas, a package arrived from Canada not long after we returned filled with lots of great new treasures and two wonderful birthday paintings from Gran. It was a perfect ending to the month of celebrations and the Christmas season, and hopefully the start of another new Christmas tradition.