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East Asian Immersion: Dalian part II

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We awoke on our second morning in Dalian highly energized to continue our exploration of this dynamic and unpredictable city. We'd already seen the major municipal produce market, but we found a smaller one in the opposite direction from Eton Place. I don't think I could ever get enough of the colorful celebration of our earth's variety of fruits and vegetables that a Chinese market presents. We've embraced that variety at home as well as when we travel. Fortunately in Miami we have access to probably 90% of the common edible fruits and we have about thirty of them in our regular rotation. One special attribute of China is the huge selection of green vegetables that gives every meal an individual imprint, and that diversity was on full display here as well.

We had a lunch of barbecued lamb in a Uyghur restaurant incongruously located on Dalian's famed Japanese street. The street itself was a rather unimpressive collection of seedy bars with Japanese-style fronts, but the food made the detour worthwhile.

Labor Park, or Lao Dong in Chinese, is the largest city park in Dalian. I enjoy taking the kids to parks when we travel because they're beautiful places where we can join with the locals in recreational activities. Labor Park was a real stunner, carefully maintained with colorful landscaping and intriguing paths. One of the first paths we came to was a beautiful, striped golden walkway that I tried to convince the kids was the Yellow Brick Road from the Wizard of Oz. Cleo is too old now to be tricked so easily and quickly noticed there were no bricks. The lush vegetation was complemented by the diverse and magnificent skyscrapers that surrounded the park.

Labor Park was magical in many ways. Aside from the glorious landscapes, we encountered many groups of locals engaged in various artistic activities purely for their own pleasure. In one pavilion a group of middle-aged people were dancing to traditional music and they were happy to let our kids join in. Just a short distance away another group was dancing with colorful silk scarves and they very amicably encouraged the kids to join them in that activity as well. Next were two very ordinary-looking guys performing a synchronized hip-hop style modern dance to Chinese music with very serious faces. Were they practicing for some kind of a performance, or was that just their way of getting exercise? One thing for sure they weren't doing was putting on a show for tourists, as we were the only Westerners we saw in the park that day and no one else was paying the them the slightest attention. These kinds of sights are common in Chinese parks but we've never encountered such a diversity of performances in one place as we did in Labor Park. It was great to see our kids having so much fun and at the same time having a completely natural immersion in one of their ancestral cultures.

From the park we walked towards the center of downtown Dalian. On the way we encountered a seafood restaurant where we had the most delicious plate of boiled crawfish I've ever tasted, with all due respect to Louisiana. The garlic seasoning and the firm texture of the crustaceans were incomparable.

We passed through Youhao Square where a giant spherical sculpture rests on five upturned hands, intended to signify the solidarity of five continents. I'm not sure if it was Australia or another continent that was excluded.

The ultimate destination of our walk was Zhongshan Square, a major downtown hub that is representative of Dalian's evolution from a Russian outpost to a Japanese colony to a modern Chinese metropolis. The square was initially constructed by the Russians at the end of the 19th century, but most of the buildings adjacent to the square were constructed by the Japanese. These buildings have all been repurposed by the Chinese as banks and government offices, and sleek modern skyscrapers now form an interesting backdrop on every side.

At one corner of the square a guy in army fatigues was selling packages of bird seed. The pigeons in the square were fearless and flew onto the kids' palms, shoulders and heads much to their delight. A group of young people arrived in the square for a modeling shoot and asked Mei Ling if they could include our kids in some of the photos. Spenser turned out to be a natural.


We were still far from finished with the magic of Dalian. Little Venice is the popular name for a development that is officially known as Montage de L'Eau, on the northern shore of Dalian facing Dalian Bay. Little Venice seeks to provide the experience of Venice including copies of some of its most famous buildings as well as canals and gondolas. Foreigners often disparage the Chinese penchant for copying or mimicking Western monuments and landmarks, but I think it is an area where East and West simply fail to see eye to eye. The Chinese don't feel they have taken something away from its originators by copying it, but rather they perceive it more as a tribute. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, if you will. As far as I'm concerned it's just something interesting to experience and I don't feel any need to make judgments about it. Montage de L'Eau was completed just a few years ago and is fairly unknown outside of Dalian. The bus dropped us off fairly close to the entrance where we were greeted with the familiar site of vast, shiny skyscrapers that were in the final stages of construction.

If it hadn't been for the gondoliers and the knockoff of the bell tower for St. Mark's Basilica, I wouldn't have known that Dalian was going for a Venice impression at all. The feeling was more like any number of modern cities with canals or downtown rivers, like San Antonio or Chicago. Many of the buildings had a neo-Classical appearance but didn't look particularly Venetian, and they were set back from the canals rather than bathing in them. It was a very beautiful place on its own merits and we enjoyed crossing the bridges and exploring the canalside pathways.

Of course gondola rides were on offer, and at a substantial discount to the ones available in the original Venice. The kids enjoyed being on the boat but the water was too still and the surroundings too tranquil for the ride to add much to the experience for me. Little Venice was a enchanting place in its own right but was in no way comparable to the breathtaking original.

It tuned out there was much more to the area we were in than Little Venice. We exited on the opposite side and found ourselves on a wide, landscaped promenade that coursed along Dalian Bay. Little Venice posed gaily behind us in the shadow of the new skyscrapers we had seen earlier.

We walked west along the busy promenade until we reached the end of Montage de L'Eau, where there were several other interesting buildings including an apparent replica of the Arc de Triomphe. We kept walking past the port until we reached Dalian's strange clam-like convention center.

By now dusk was falling and it was time to head to our third night market in Dalian, back near Xinghai Square. It was pleasant enough but didn't have same energy as the other two we'd visited. Another exciting and magical day in Dalian had come to an end.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:01 Archived in China Tagged travel kids china family liaoning dalian travel_blog little_venice zhonghsan_square Comments (2)

East Asian Immersion: Dalian part I

View China/Japan 2019 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

I was completely unfamiliar with the city of Dalian until I was on my eighth visit to China, so I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of Westerners have never heard of it. Even after being to China so many times, the only way I came across Dalian was by studying a map to better understand my location when I was visiting the equally unknown city of Shenyang. Every time I visit China I become a little more familiar with its geography, but there's always another level of detail to investigate. While reviewing Shenyang's surroundings, I realized that the province of Liaoning had a rather striking coastline that resembled a closed hand with its index finger extended to point southward into the sea. About halfway along the index finger peninsula, a much smaller peninsula projected eastward almost like a wart on the back of the finger. Most of this wart was comprised by the only sizable city in the region, which was Dalian. I immediately felt an attraction to the city due to its remoteness from other metropolitan centers and its obvious intimate relationship with the sea. Mei Ling told me she had never been there, but Dalian had a good reputation in China as a vacation spot. I placed it on my ever-lengthening list of places to visit without expecting we would get there just two years later.

After we decided we would base ourselves in Beijing for summer vacation and visit nearby cities, Dalian was one of the obvious destinations. It is accessible from Beijing by train in about five hours or by plane in an hour and a half. Since our Airbnb in Beijing was at the doorstep of the Airport Express train, we decided to fly. Our Airbnb in Dalian was a significant upgrade from Beijing, a 23rd floor condo in a complex of massive skyscrapers in the center of the city called Eton Place. One of Mei Ling's oldest friends, Guo Guo, flew in from Guangzhou and stayed with us in Dalian.

Once we were settled in our Airbnb we set off for the closest night market we had researched. The supposed night markets had all disappointed us in Beijing and we were hoping for a better experience in Dalian. Our condo complex was surrounded by wide avenues with never-ending streams of speeding cars which could often only be traversed via underpasses. Our unfamiliarity with the location of the underpasses forced us off course and into new and fascinating discoveries. The most visually striking feature of the city was the futuristic skyscrapers, some of which were as tall as the Empire State Building in New York City. In fact they appeared even taller as they generally stood some distance from the other tall buildings, unlike in New York City which looks like a forest of skyscrapers. The most amazing were the tallest tower in our home base of Eton Place, currently the 42nd tallest building in the world, and Dalian International Trade Center, currently the 49th. The International Trade Center was useful as a landmark as it could be seen from practically anywhere near the center of the city. The five tallest buildings in Dalian were all completed within the last five years, and sixteen of the tallest twenty within the last decade. It was clear that Dalian had recently undergone a remarkable transformation.

Zhongyuan Food Street was the epitome of a Chinese night market with an enormous variety of food choices along a single colorful, throbbing street. The first restaurant we encountered boasted a large array of tanks with every imaginable type of seafood. The hawker at the front was eager to keep our interest and showed the kids around the tanks, eventually letting them play with a live octopus.

Sadly for the hawker, we weren't about to sit down at the first restaurant we saw. We gradually weaved our way through the crowd, marveling at the vast selection of skewers, small plates, fresh fruit, and live seafood restaurants that lined the sides of the street. It was a scene that couldn't be found anywhere in the world except China (and Taiwan).

We eventually settled on a live seafood place and gave our orders at the tanks. We decided on live octopus, blood clams and tairagai clams, an unfamiliar fish whose named translated to "young lady", and sea intestines. Sea intestines are a bizarre life form that bears an uncanny resemblance to human guts.


Mei Ling requested the octopus to be prepared raw, which meant that the chopped tentacles were still squirming when the dish was brought to the table. Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean the octopus was still alive. However, the nerves to the tentacles still function for a while even after the head and brain are detached. Naturally it's revolting to many people but it's far from the most shocking thing I've eaten. We offered it to Cleo and Spenser but only Spenser could be convinced to try it.

In the morning we went to the main market within walking distance of our apartment. It was a large complex with warehouse-type buildings devoted to seafood, meat, and produce. The meat section was particularly overwhelming with dozens of stalls tightly packed together and the sounds of cleavers chopping through thick cow and pig bones. The smell of freshly slaughtered animals and offal was heavy in the air, and motorbikes and loading equipment zipped through the narrow aisles with wild abandon.

The outdoor sections were largely devoted to fruit and spices. At one point, a vendor good-naturedly lifted a corner of his canopy to allow a large SUV to turn the corner. We spent most of the morning in the market and the adjacent shopping center, where we engaged in a fruitless quest to locate a magnetic backgammon set. Another interesting discovery were small green melons that had been grown in Buddha-shaped molds.

In the afternoon we took the bus to Xinghai Square, a relatively new feature of Dalian that has been described as the largest city square in the world. Across from the bus stop was either a small park or a large lawn inexplicably adorned with the figures of a giant bulldog, a young Buddhist monk, and three enormous fish designed to look like hedges. None of us had any idea what the tableau was intended to signify and there was nothing around to provide any clue what we were looking at. Over the next few days we were going to become accustomed to these whimsical sights around Dalian.

Xinghai Square is a lot of things, but city square is not one of them. There isn't anything resembling a city near the enormous grassy oval, which is surrounded on most of its perimeter by tall, ultramodern apartment buildings and hotels. Despite the apparent housing for tens of thousands of people, the expanse between them was empty except for occasional pedestrians strolling towards the waterfront. Each of the many entrances to the oval was flanked by aerodynamic mesh sculptures of athletes engaged in different sports.

The south-facing portion of Xinghai Square is the only break in the ring of skyscrapers. Between the oval and the waterfront is an elevated, curved platform that reminded me of the roof of the Oslo Opera House. It's called the Open Book monument, although it looks a lot more like a skateboard ramp than a book. Furthering the confusion is a bronze statue of a skateboarder on one of the monument's staircases, although there were no actual skateboarders on the book and I highly doubt the security guards would have looked favorably on that kind of activity.

The waterfront area was quite crowded and fun. We admired the profile of the Xinghaiwan Bridge that crossed the bay while the kids chased a remote-controlled motorcycle around the concrete plaza. There was a good-sized amusement park adjacent to the plaza and we let the kids enjoy a few rides. Having a little time to process what I had been seeing, I was starting to realize I was in a very special and unusual place. This little corner of China was still too remote and insignificant to be of any interest to Western tourists, yet it was greatly appreciated by the Chinese and had acquired a peculiar hypermodern yet traditional aesthetic. I felt very fortunate to be witnessing this amazing transformation of a rural city into a unique modern metropolis.


On the eastern side of Xinghai Square a canal extends from the bay inward towards the city. On the far side of the canal were some particularly ornate apartment buildings and a beautiful Gothic castle which we later learned was the ultra-expensive Castle Hotel.

We headed back to the city and another busy night market for dinner. I learned how to get sea snails out of their narrow spiral shells and Cleo learned how difficult it is to pick up a quail egg with chopsticks. By the end of the night we'd already had more fun in Dalian than we'd had in five days in Beijing.

Posted by zzlangerhans 15:37 Archived in China Tagged travel china family liaoning night_market dalian travel_blog xinghai_square tony_friedman Comments (2)

America's Northern Midwest: Cedar Rapids


We made the three hundred mile trek from Minneapolis to Cedar Rapids in one day, but we gave ourselves the luxury of a detour to La Crosse, Wisconsin. There were several interesting things to see in this mid-sized town on the Mississippi. Grandad Bluff is a six hundred foot cliff that overlooks the town and has views that extend as far as Iowa. From the parking lot there was a paved path to the viewpoint and a refreshing summer breeze at the top of the bluff.

Downtown La Crosse looked like it hadn't changed much since the 1950's There was even an ice cream parlor that looked like a throwback to a post-war soda shop. We braved the long line to get refreshments for the kids. La Crosse was one of the most beautiful American towns we've passed through. The residential neighborhoods were really well kept with large, interesting houses. We looked up the home values later and were pretty amazed how inexpensive they were. Wisconsin's climate isn't to our taste but we found it to be one of the most pleasant and interesting states we've visited, probably only equaled by Oregon.

Close to the river it's hard to miss the World's Largest Six Pack, six enormous beer storage tanks that have been covered with giant LaCrosse labels. It was another reminder of Wisconsin's whimsical and creative character.

There's a nice highway that follows the Mississippi downstream along the western edge of Wisconsin. Once we turned back inland there was nothing but farms and fields as far as the eye could see. I've always been horrified by the prospects of long-distance drives through the American midwest but there was something hypnotic about all the flat, green expanses.

For some reason I couldn't recall I'd chosen an Airbnb in Iowa City instead of Cedar Rapids. It was a perfectly fine little house but it was a full half hour south of where we wanted to be. By the time we arrived we were way to exhausted to drive all the way back to Cedar Rapids so we had a local dinner and crashed.

We started our full day in Iowa at a local farmers market. So far we'd had a market on every weekend day and a couple on weekdays as well. As it turned out, a farmers market in the state synonymous with farming wasn't much different from anywhere else.

Despite its relatively small size Cedar Rapids had its very own food hall called NewBo City Market. It was a lowkey place without a lot of options but we were happy to have it. Eating at food halls has become an important tradition for us when we travel.

After lunch we drove southwest to Amana, the largest of seven villages in a cluster called the Amana Colonies. The Colonies were established in the mid 19th century by a group of German emigrants who wanted to live a religious communal life. Although the villagers no longer live a communal existence, they have maintained many of their traditions and the historic appearance of the villages. The villages' handicrafts and wineries have helped Amana develop into a tourist attraction with a theater and a museum.

On the way back to Iowa City we kept our eye out for the perfect cornfield close to the road. Eventually we found it and got everyone out for a close inspection of the beautiful plants that are so intricately entwined with the history and economy of Iowa.

After an early dinner we went to a fireworks show at the shore of the Iowa River. It was still one day before Independence Day but presumably the organizers decided they would get a better turnout on a Sunday evening than Monday. There was a beautiful community of houses built on floating platforms in the river, and a large park where we could run around and play Frisbee.

Monday morning we began the long drive back to Chicago. It was a pleasant cruise through more lush, rolling landscape carpeted with corn fields and dotted with white farmhouses.

We took a slight detour north to see the Dickeyville Grotto in Wisconsin. This is yet another multi-year labor of a solitary individual, in this case a German pastor named Mathius Wernerus. This ornate religious complex of concrete and stone is covered in colorful mosaics of semi-precious stones and shells that were sourced from all over the world, along with broken glass and other debris. The Grotto was part of a wave of construction of religious shrines and grottoes that swept the Midwest in the early 20th century.

We had one more stop planned in Galena, a small town in Western Illinois with a lot of preserved colonial buildings. When we arrived it was very crowded with holiday weekend trippers from Chicago and just didn't seem like it was worth exploring. We drove around the town a bit but eventually decided to just press on to Chicago and arrive in time to get comfortably settled and have dinner.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:06 Archived in USA Tagged family iowa travel_blog midwest cedar_rapids tony_friedman Comments (1)

America's Northern Midwest: Milwaukee

I've lived in several different parts of the United States thanks to the vagaries of educational and employment opportunities and over time I've come to appreciate the subtle cultural differences between regions. These differences are much more pronounced in the major cities and I've developed a fondness for the variegated character of American cities. Some time ago I set a goal of visiting every major American city and I've seen the majority of them. My favorites are New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon but I've been surprised how many others differed radically from what I expected. Houston and Atlanta were upside surprises while Seattle and Chicago were disappointments. 2016 was the year that Cleo told me she didn't want me to take her out of school for travel any more (she was four) so we wedged two trips into her summer break. We had a long road trip in central Europe planned for the end of the summer so we devised a two week itinerary for the American Midwest right after Cleo's school ended for the year.

Every July there's a multi-day event called Taste of Chicago which bills itself as the world's largest food festival. I'd never been there, but word of mouth was that it was a big culinary event in which some of the best restaurants in Chicago served their food from stalls in a downtown park. As luck would have it the end of our two week time slot coincided perfectly with the beginning of the festival so we decided make Chicago the end of the road trip rather than the beginning. We flew into Chicago in the evening and crashed in a cheap motel, and then picked up our rental minivan the next morning. We had our nanny with us to help take care of Spenser, who wasn't even a year old yet, and watch the boys when we wanted to go out to dinner with Cleo. After loading up the minivan we drove straight to Milwaukee which was just an hour and a half away.

In 2016 the food hall movement was rolling along in American cities. It was lunch time when we arrived in the city so we headed to the Milwaukee Public Market even before dropping off our stuff at the Airbnb. The market was very busy and had a mixture of mini restaurants and delis. With six of us we were able to sample most of the restaurants that interested us and get a very satisfying lunch. It was a perfect way to kick off the road trip.

Not many Americans, let alone international travelers, would think of going to Milwaukee on vacation. To the extent the city even has a reputation, it is as a boring midwestern nonentity with a lot of breweries. Fortunately I've learned not to pay much attention to those capsule summaries of American cities that are largely generated by media and people who've never been there. Los Angeles is not a shallow wasteland of surfers and celebrities, Boston is not a snobbish Brahmin enclave, and Portland is not overrun with hippies chomping granola. Nor did Milwaukee turn out to be a convocation of beefy Nordic types washing down sausages with cases of canned beer. Over the next two days we discovered that Milwaukee is quite beautiful, surprisingly quirky, and full of interesting things to do for families. Our Airbnb was a pleasant if undistinguished three bedroom house in a funky central neighborhood called Walker's Point. We made a brief stop there after lunch to drop off the bags and be sure we had a place for the night.

Our first stop after checking in at the Airbnb was Brady Street, a nine block stretch in the bohemian Lower East Side neighborhood that's famous for restaurants and bars but also has eclectic stores, ethnic markets, and thrift shops. Art Smart's Dart Mart is the kind of store that every mid-sized city should have at least one of, a colorful collection of novelties and offbeat sports equipment that ultimately has something for everyone. If you can't find something at Art Smart's that you never knew you needed but now you can't live without, then I don't want to know you. Close by is another necessity of American city life, an authentic Italian market. Glorioso's has been an institution on Brady Street for seventy years and once we were inside it felt like we had entered a place where nothing had changed for decades.

As the afternoon went on we continued to explore Milwaukee's cornucopia of unique attractions. Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory is known affectionately to locals as "The Domes". The cluster of three glass hemispheres sits improbably in a nondescript park like an outpost on a distant planet. Inside are elegantly landscaped plant collections that would be the envy of any botanical garden. It was one of the most beautiful and magical places I can remember seeing within the continental United States.

Milwaukee hadn't finished amazing us for the day. Lots of American cities have a river snaking through their center and too many of them have no clue whatsoever how to incorporate them into the urban landscape. My hometown of Miami is one of the worst offenders. Fortunately Milwaukee got its act together in the 1990's and constructed a beautiful path that extends along three miles of river that pass through the city's oldest and most scenic neighborhoods. The RiverWalk provides a relaxing way to admire Milwaukee's river and historic buildings while enjoying a series of eclectic sculptures such as the Bronze Fonz.

We topped our awesome first day in Milwaukee with dinner at Wolf Peach, which at the time was one of the city's most beloved bistros. The contemporary American food was pleasant if not particularly innovative, but what was most enjoyable was the restaurant's brick and stone farmhouse style and patio seating on a cool summer evening.

We kicked off our second day in Milwaukee at the South Shore Farmers Market, a large Saturday market in a beautiful residential neighborhood right at the shore of Lake Michigan. We never judge an American city until we've seen at least one farmer's market and once again Milwaukee passed with flying colors. The market was busy and energetic with live music, plenty of greenery, and a lovely park with a lakeside view for a picnic.

Science museums are a great way to make sure the kids are having as good a time traveling as we are. Milwaukee's Discovery World has a great location on a short promontory into Lake Michigan. It is just a block away from the Milwaukee Art Museum whose Quadracci Pavilion was designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The pavilion is topped by a sculpture of enormous steel wings that opens and closes twice a day and we were able to time our visit to enjoy the spectacle.

Discovery World was one of the better science museums we've visited in the United States. There was heavy machinery to operate, a decent music lab, and a design workshop. One surprising display was a bed of nails that patrons were invited to lie on. Mei Ling took a go at it and discovered that they weren't fooling around. The nails were really sharp. Of course since her weight was distributed on all of them her skin didn't get punctured but they left some nasty marks that lasted most of the day.

Milwaukee is a pretty large city but so far we'd spent almost all our time close to downtown. We ventured inland to the River Bend neighborhood to check out American Science & Surplus, another unusual hobby and curiosity shop that is like a nerd's paradise. It was the kind of store where one could have stocked up on a full year's worth of Christmas, birthday, and Tooth Fairy presents for a curious kid. I would have been happy to spend most of a day in here but it became exhausting trying to keep up with the kids as they tore through the aisles investigating all the colorful knickknacks. We didn't leave before selecting a few puzzles and games for the road trip.

We had dinner at Circa 1880, a highly regarded small restaurant that had the added advantage of being walking distance from the Airbnb. It was nice to have a relaxing dinner with just us and Cleo without constantly having to keep an eye on what the boys were doing.

On our last morning we had another farmers market to visit, much smaller than the one we'd been to the previous day. It was set in another pretty park surrounded by idyllic homes. In the center of the park was a cluster of colorful metal tree sculptures, yet another taste of that Milwaukee funkiness that we had quickly come to love. Afterwards we took a brief swing through the Milwaukee County Zoo before getting back on the road west to our next stop, Madison.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:41 Archived in USA Tagged travel family blog milwaukee wisconsin Comments (0)

Wheels down Panama

A long Carnaval weekend in Panama City

sunny 86 °F

By all rights this section of the blog should be entitled "Wheels down Panama City", since we never actually left the capital. The problem is that the English language internet believes that the only important Panama City is a resort town in the Florida panhandle. Any time one searches for an activity or restaurant in Panama City, one has to make sure that the search result doesn't actually refer to the city in Florida. It's often easier just to search using "Panama" and then scroll to the results that focus on the capital. The blog title is to avoid similar confusion.

The main reasons we chose Panama City for our first trip with all three kids and no nanny were that it is a relatively short three hour plane ride away, warm in February, and a country neither of us had ever been to. It was also clear there was much more to the city than we could expect to find on a Caribbean island, for example. When I bought the tickets, it never entered my mind that it might be Carnaval weekend. I always thought that Carnaval would be in mid-February at the earliest, and we were going the first weekend of the month. In fact, the 2016 Carnaval was the earliest since 2008. This actually turned out to be quite fortuitous for us, since it provided us with nonstop food and entertainment options right at our doorstep.

Since it was a short trip and we had no plans to leave Panama City, we decided not to rent a car. That meant no car seats, of course, so a much easier trip through airport security. We fit all our supplies into two carry-ons, although Mei Ling definitely pushed the envelope with her enormous Samsonite roller. Two individual reclining strollers, two mei tai carriers, four I-pads and we were ready to go.

We took an early afternoon flight on Thursday which gave us plenty of time to get to our Airbnb and settle in. Unfortunately, much of that time was consumed trying to meet up with an associate of our Airbnb hostess. We got a shared van from the airport to her office building but we had to wait for her to return from some errand. Then we all piled into a taxi and drove to our Airbnb in a towering condo building called the Rivage, right on Avenida Balboa facing the Pacific Ocean. I was super irritated when our guide obtained the key from a combination box on the door to let us in. So, the whole reason for the extra stop was what? I felt a little better once we got inside and saw a huge open kitchen and living area, with two good-sized bedrooms off on a hallway. The living room led out onto a balcony with a plexiglass barrier, twenty-two floors above Avenida Balboa.

By the time we'd unpacked and let the kids run around a little, it was time to start thinking about dinner. I thumbed through the lists of restaurants I'd brought and eventually settled on a place called Restaurant Jimmy. It was a very favorably reviewed parillada, or grill, in an area full of restaurants and nightlife called El Cangrejo. We decided to walk since it was our first day in a new country and we wanted to get a sense of the street atmosphere. Mei Ling put Spenser in her mei tei and we tossed the kids in the strollers. The walk was a lot longer and more arduous than we had realized, mostly thanks to the difficulty of navigating Panama City sidewalks with the strollers. Similar to a lot of Latin American cities, the curbs dropped into deep gutters which we had to traverse and the sidewalks were often torn up or blocked by parked vehicles. We soon found ourselves pushing our kids on the side of the road as cars whipped by us.

Eventually we found the street where Jimmy was supposed to be, but there was no Jimmy. We asked a local guy about the restaurant and he directed us down another street, where we found another guy who directed us again, and so on a few more times until we suspected we'd never end up at Jimmy. Eventually, however, we rounded a corner and there it was. As is virtually inevitable when we work so hard to find a restaurant, the food was pretty awful. The only dish that was enjoyable was the octopus. Grilled squid was particularly noxious, floating in oil and some pungent herbs that I was worried were present mainly to mask a lack of freshness. Monkfish was definitely not monkfish, and more reminiscent of tilapia. But the waiter was pleasant and the beer was cold, and Cleo ate French fries.

I'd been told that Uber worked well in Panama City, so we called an Uber which quickly showed up and whisked us home with little fuss. We were exhausted from the long walk to the restaurant and quickly crashed.

When I woke up, it was overcast and I took a couple of early morning photos from the balcony. The condo faced the Pacific Ocean, which was striped with evenly-spaced shallow waves. To the north was the impressive skyline of the banking district and the luxury neighborhood of Paitilla. To the south I could see the recently-constructed ring road of the Cinta Costera traversing the ocean around the historic district of Casco Viejo.

Our plan for the first full day was to go to the fish market and then Casco Viejo. As with the previous night, we decided walking was our best bet. We headed inland a couple of blocks to get a feel of the real Panama City behind the oceanside condos and then made our way south towards the fish market. As with the previous evening, it was a hard slog over high curbs, broken concrete, and blocked sidewalks without much of interest along the way except a couple of roadside breakfast stands.

We eventually made it to the fish market, which was a little bit of a disappointment given its smallish size and fairly uninspiring selection. Of course, after all the work we put into getting there we made sure we explored every corner of the place.

We were two hours early to eat at the highly-recommended fish restaurant on the second floor, so we had to be content with a few cups of ceviche from a colorful stall operated by a couple of friendly ladies. The lobster was my favorite.

From the market we headed west. Mei Ling had somehow figured out there was a Chinatown in Panama City. She has a knack for finding Chinese neighborhoods and Chinese people in the most unlikely places. I was skeptical, but sure enough after a couple of blocks we found ourselves in front of a classic Chinatown entrance gate.

After the gate, however, we didn't find a whole lot of Chinese culture. We did encounter one small Chinese supermarket where Mei Ling got to hobnob with some Chinese Panamanians and we got some snacks for the kids, who were a big hit with the locals. After that, we took in some of the local street scenery including one interesting ruined house where only the facade and balcony remained intact.

We meandered along the base of the Casco Viejo peninsula and eventually found a beautiful little square called Parque de Santa Ana filled with gnarled trees draped in Spanish moss. A charming stone gazebo occupied the center of the square. We let the kids burn off a little energy running around the square, then followed Avenida Central eastward to the touristy part of Casco Viejo.

As we walked east, the buildings around us quickly took on the well-preserved colonial appearance familiar to us from places like old San Juan, Puerto Rico and El Centro in Cartagena.

The nerve center of Casco Viejo is Plaza de la Independencia, overlooked by the lovely Catedral Metropolitana. Local vendors congregate in the center of the square to sell Panama hats and various local handicrafts to tourists. I didn't notice until just now that the tall individual photobombing us here seems to be wearing two Panama hats. Perhaps the one underneath has a hole in it. Mei Ling bought three mola handbags for Cleo and her little friends from a Kuna vendor.

After a forgettable snack at an over-rated "deli" nearby, we resumed heading east towards the water, stopping to relax in a tiny park right at the shoreline.

A little further on we found the Paseo las Bovedas esplanade which runs along the top of the seawall. We took turns going to the top and checking out the views of the ocean and the skyline, since carting all the kids and the strollers up would have been too much work.

Our next mission was a real lunch, which we accomplished at Ego y Narcisso on Plaza Simon Bolivar. This was much more successful than our earlier attempt to eat, with the highlight being a tangy and savoury grilled octopus. The police had blocked off the oceanside Avenida Eloy Alfaro for Carnaval so we made our way back towards the fish market via an inland route that was still pleasantly scenic.

We made it back to the fish market with every intention of eating at the second floor restaurant, but there were so many crowded outdoor seafood restaurants around the market it just didn't seem worth the effort. We sat ourselves down at the most lively place and had a satisfying meal of fried fish and shrimp.

After lunch we walked to the produce market a block away but it was clearly too late in the day and the market was mostly shut down. We flagged down a cab but ended up taking longer to get home than if we had walked. They had just shut down Avenida Balboa for Carnaval and we were stuck in a traffic jam for almost half an hour. Eventually we jumped out of the cab and walked the last couple of blocks back to the condo. We had some time to kill before dinner so we took the kids up to the rooftop pool, which had beautiful views over the city. Unfortunately the lighting conditions made it impossible to get crisp pictures.

For dinner we we decided to go to a restaurant called The Fish Market, which seemed to be very highly regarded on the review sites. We could see that preparations for Carnaval were in progress below us, so we decided to walk down the newly pedestrianized Avenida Balboa. Things looked like they were going to get interesting, but they hadn't really gotten started yet. The restaurant ended up being OK, although it was expat-run and clearly catered to the tourist crowd.

The next day we took an Uber to the Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal. Uber works very well in Panama, but the prices are actually higher than regular cabs as long as you make sure you have negotiated a fare before you get into the taxi. Our driver was friendly and showed us the location of the main wholesale produce market in Panama City, which I hadn't found in my preparation for the trip. The Locks didn't end up being a great stop for us. The observation deck on the fourth floor was completely lined with tourists who showed no inclination to move and in fact seemed to be trying to take up as much space at the railing as they could. After about ten minutes of trying to see between the cracks and chasing after the kids we snapped a few photos of the boats over people's heads and looked for something to eat. Here again, we were disappointed. There was supposed to be a decent cafeteria with local specialties on the fourth floor but we couldn't find it. The second time we looked, one of the employees told me it no longer existed. There was a coffee shop with little sandwiches and pastries on the ground floor, and an apparent restaurant on the second floor that was closed at noon on a Saturday with no sign or explanation. After we got home, I looked up the cafeteria again and saw reviews dated after our visit, so who knows. I never did figure out what was so amazing about the locks that kept people glued to the railing for hours, but I included a couple of photos for the engineering junkies.

We easily found a cab outside the visitor's' center and instructed him to take us to the wholesale market, which was fortunately open for business despite Carnaval. The market is off of Avenida Omar Torrijos Herrera, close to the Tribunal Electoral government building. This stop was a lot more fun for us than the Canal had been. Since we'd been denied lunch at Miraflores, we quickly made our way to the covered part of the market where there were several food stalls with a selection of different soups and stews, accompanied by beans, plantains, and rice. We chose one of the more popular stalls and weren't disappointed, filling our bellies while the kids took their afternoon naps. Afterwards, we made our way around the outdoor stalls. The produce, especially the fruit, looked good but there wasn't anything we hadn't seen before. It definitely paled in comparison to the wholesale produce markets we had been to in Mexico and Colombia. One surprise was finding the Colombian fruit lulo, which is called naranjilla in Panama. We bought a bunch but unfortunately they weren't ripe, but rather hard and sour. We still ate them, of course. The passion fruits we got at the same place were much better, enormous and juicy.

Everyone was hot and sweaty after the produce market so our next stop after snacking on fruit at home was the family pool at the condo. This was another well-designed outdoor pool on a lower floor, but still with awesome views.

By the time we got back to the condo, it was already getting dark and we could see crowds starting to grow in the street below us. We made our way downstairs and found ourselves just outside a security checkpoint. The soldiers guarding the checkpoint demanded to see our passports, which was a little confusing since I doubted all the Panamanians going inside had passports. We eventually convinced them to accept our driver's licenses, and after a little patdown we got into the main Carnaval drag on Avenida Balboa. We wandered down the avenue and did some people watching and ate some street food, mostly fried fish and skewers. A little while later a small Carnaval parade kicked off and about ten floats began making their way around and around a tight course.

We could see that the scene was starting to morph from a family event into a more hardcore party atmosphere, so we decided to head back home. The soldiers at the security checkpoint wanted us to detour around the entire block to our condo instead of walking back through the entrance. Mei Ling didn't think much of that idea so she simply went from soldier to soldier until one allowed us back through the gate, much to the dismay of those who had previously forbidden it. Once we were upstairs I noticed that the thumping techno beat from the street easily reached the 22nd floor where we were staying. I needn't have worried however. We were all asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows.

For our last full day, I wanted to do something different but none of the close attractions seemed like it would be right for us. Boat trips inland towards Gamboa were complicated to arrange and I wasn't excited about having to deal with all three kids on a small boat for many hours. Isla Taboga sounded like a more pleasant boat ride, but little to do on the island except play on the beach. The kids are a little too young for watersports. Panama Viejo sounded hot and probably not a lot of fun for the kids. I wasn't sure if the Parque Natural Metropolitano was even open on a Sunday, and I couldn't determine if the walking paths would be navigable with strollers. Eventually we decided not to be ambitious and just to walk back to Casco Viejo.

First we took the kids across the Cinta Costera highway to a playground we had spotted from the condo. The kids climbed around for a little bit, but it was designed for bigger kids. We walked over to the oceanside promenade and took a few photos.

We went through the usual rigamarole with security, and identification, and body searches and made our way along Avenida Balboa to the fish market. The second floor restaurant was closed for Carnaval, but we luckily decided to try another restaurant on the ground floor. This turned out to be the best meal of the trip, with the highlight being a whole fish which had been braised in a savory escabeche. Once sated, we walked down to Casco Viejo to explore the few streets we hadn't seen the first time.

After a quick stop for frozen yogurt, we found a tiny beach for the kids to play on. It was a little gritty but they didn't seem to mind.

On the way back from the beach, we found a large open lot where some guys were painting walls for an upcoming art festival. They were very cool about explaining what they were doing and invited us to the festival, but unfortunately it would take place long after our departure.

I was carrying a drowsy Ian on my back at this point and the afternoon heat was kicking up, so we ducked into Las Clementinas for a break. This was a pretty cafe with delicious blended juices that we couldn't stop ordering.

On the way back we found a nice spot right at the shoreline with a backdrop of the Panama City skyline.

Back on Avenida Balboa, the Carnaval was getting back into full swing. One new feature was some guys strolling around in costumes with papier mache fright masks, posing for pictures for tips.

We tried almost every barbecue on the way back, and washed it down with plenty of Balboa and Atlas beer. Cleo got her face painted, and Spenser got a ride in Mei Ling's handbag.

On the last day I woke up early and was able to catch a nice view of the sun rising over the Pacific.

Our flight didn't leave until 5 PM so we took a cab back to El Cangrejo and ate at a Middle Eastern restaurant called Beirut I had spotted on the first day's adventure. It was a decent meal, but nothing out of the ordinary.

We retrieved our bags from the condo and caught another cab to the airport, having completed our first successful international trip as a family of five.

Posted by zzlangerhans 16:57 Archived in Panama Tagged children family carnaval panama carnival Comments (0)

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