Monday, April 21, 2008

Summing Up Life

I saw this on another blog--a kind of interesting snapshot about where you've been and where you might be going. The one I saw used the number 10 but honestly I couldn't remember anything about this time in 1997--except that it was April then, too. So I figured I'd stay within the boundaries of my recollections.

Have a go and post your responses under "my comments" or post on your own blog!

5 years ago: I was recovering from having our 3rd child and dealing with the issues of a teenage runaway that was living with at the time

5 weeks ago: I made reservations for our last visit to the coast

5 days ago: I laid on the couch in the throes of a killer cold watching movies and taking care of my son who had malaria

5 hours ago: I watched the movie “Paycheck” and didn’t realize I had already seen it until I was half-way through. Which goes to show what a memorable movie it was.

5 minutes ago: I got up to see what the dogs were barking at and decided to post this entry.

In 5 minutes: I will hit the publish button on my blog

In 5 hours: I will be driving 6 kids to school

In 5 days: I will welcome our friends back from their visit to the States

In 5 weeks: I will be panicking about having things ready to pack 10 days later

In 5 months: I will be starting my new job in Beijing, China after a 6 year leave from work

In 5 years: I will watch my oldest son graduate from high school

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Some Days It's Great to be a Parent

As Cameron gets older (he's 13 now) we're starting to see glimpses of the person he's becoming. I've spent quite a few moments fretting about my kids not being quiet enough, polite enough, conversational enough, kind enough...whatever "enough" it sometimes seemed that everybody else's kids were doing so much better at that particular moment.

ISM has a community service requirement for kids once they start 7th grade of 20 service hours per school year. Kids can do things on their own or sign up for school activities to get their hours. Some kids find a passion and become involved in something pretty focused early on. Others, like Cameron, dabble--a few things at church, a few things through school, but no real set agenda (other than getting those hours).

A week or so ago the cook for the Tanzanian canteen at the school had a stroke. She was in the hospital for 3 weeks and is unable to pay her bills. I don't know the exact cost, but it's possible that this kind of hospital bill would be $200-300 or so. It's not a lot in our eyes, but it's the kind of thing that can cripple a family--family members who may not have been able to work because they are taking care of the person in the hospital (here you only get medical care--food and personal care are the family's responsibility at hospitals), the person who is sick has lost their income, and a family falls apart.

Today was the school's Family Fun Day. Several students set up carnival-type games to earn their community service hours. At the 11th hour, Cameron and a couple friends decided to put together a booth where people could pay 500 shillings (about 45 cents) to throw darts at targets and win a soda or a piece of candy. I raised my eyebrows a bit because they were putting this together via phone Friday night...

Their booth raised 97,000 shillings--about $80! That's a lot of dart throwing at 45 cents a pop. They donated the money to the mama from the kitchen to help her pay for her medical bills. I know that she will absolutely never expect something like this and that money will help that family tremendously.

We were so proud to watch Cameron talk about this woman and her situation this week and what he and his friends were going to do...and not because they needed the hours. It was because they recognized a need and realized their potential to make a difference. Living in Arusha and being a part of ISM has not only opened his eyes to the needs around him, it has empowered him to do something about it. We are so grateful for the experiences he (and the rest of our family) has had and the opportunities to grow in such meaningful ways.

Cameron was already a great kid and a very special person; he is on his way to even bigger things!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Why We Can't Sleep

Our current neighborhood is pretty quiet--no cows, no chickens, no people standing around yelling. Noah has malaria and I've come down with something, too--so being able to lay around a quiet house this afternoon sounds wonderful.
But it's not happening.

And this is why. Someone has put a ladder up to the other side of our house and the local vervet family has taken full opportunity to inspect the roof. But they're doing it very quietly.

No, it's our intrepid watchdogs. You know, the ones who can't be bothered to wake up at night. Today they are determined to protect us from the ravishing monkey horde at all costs. No amount of mud or hanging laundry will stop their attempts to jump 40+ feet to get at these furry little invaders. If they were actually doing something useful, I'd admire their persistence. Today, not so much.
This particular monkey family lives in the area and often comes along our wall to pick papayas and avocados. It's more of a snatch and grab operation, though. Today, they've come for the afternoon. *Sigh.*

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Is This Heaven?

If it isn't, it's got to be close! After bumping along 6 miles of rough roads and looking for "a big grove of trees, you'll know it when you see it, there's a guy standing there you gotta pay" we found this little tropical water hole! OK, swimming in fresh water is not advised but on the recommendation of others, we went for it. And it was absolutely heavenly!

The water was crystal clear in this pool and about 12-15 feet deep. Plenty of room for leaping out of trees, as Cameron demonstrated a LOT. Plenty of room for running off the edge like a crazy man, as Noah demonstrated a LOT. Plenty of room for paddling around in circles, as Ava did a LOT.

It looks like it was some kind of underground spring but there was a current that dragged the kids around if they jumped in at one end. A mushy end under the trees (away from the swimming area) was an excellent place to spot several terrapins and the monkeys arrived at the end of the day to hoot suspiciously at the fun we were all having.
One of the best parts, believe it or not, was having to pay. That meant that all the people who happened to pass by on bikes or on foot were not allowed to enter the area near the pool and so were prevented from watching us as if we were curious zoo exhibits. It happens often enough and it's something we have never really gotten used to, especially when we are trying to just have a bit of family time together.
It was funny to think about all the swimming we've done here in Tanzania and this was the first time we have been in fresh water to swim! There are a lot of nasty bugs you can catch from swimming in fresh water and it's generally discouraged, but this place was recommended by people who had been here several times with no ill effects. The whole day was fun, peaceful, stress-free, uneventful, and all about family fun! In other words, heavenly!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

It's not too Early to Think About Christmas...

Especially if you're a Harry Potter fan and want to pick up this treasure. For those not in the know, an important plot element in the final Harry Potter book "Deathly Hallows" involves a book of wizard-world fairy tales called "The Tales of Beedle the Bard" which are similar to our Grimm's or Andersen's fairy tales. Several story titles are mentioned and the tale of "The Three Brothers" is the one that is told in full and describes the Deathly Hallows that become important to Harry's defeat of Lord Voldemort (and if that was a spoiler for you at this late date, so sorry that I ruined the surprise).

JK Rowling wanted to do something special to thank six people who had been instrumental in the success of Harry Potter and had been supportive of her. So she handwrote and illustrated six copies of "The Tales of Beedle the Bard", had them individually handbound, and gave them as gifts. Then she wrote one more which was just purchased by Amazon for about $4 million. Rowling is donating the proceeds of that sale to charity.

I love the fact that all the pictures have the white-gloved hands holding the book, the way they might hold an early edition of Shakespeare! And the glimpses from inside seem to indicate that she is a pretty accomplished artist as well as writer. I think that reading the book would be like reading a journal or diary. Since it's handwritten, you couldn't just skim through. It would require some concentration and focus. The paper looks heavy and textured and the whole reading experience just sounds absolutely heavenly!

I can't imagine that Amazon is just going to sit on their four million dollar treasure--so if it's on your list, you'll probably be needing to start saving!

Sunday, April 06, 2008


Everyone who hears we’re moving says, “Wow, big changes, huh?” It’s an understatement to say that there will be big changes. We will be moving from one of the poorest countries in the world to a country on the fast track in economic development. From a rural community to one of the largest cities in the world. From a beautiful warm climate back to four seasons. From a community heavy on development and missionary work with a large resident expatriate population to a community of more mobile diplomatic and business people. From a school of less than 300 to a school of more than 1,800! So, what is China?

China is one of the world's oldest continuous civilizations, consisting of states and cultures dating back more than six thousand years. It has the world's longest continuously used written language system and the source of the "four great inventions of ancient China": paper, the compass, gunpowder, and printing.
The city's climate is monsoon-influenced, characterized by hot, humid summers and harshly cold, windy, dry winters. Average temperatures in January are at around 19 to 24 °F, while average temperatures in July are at 77 to 79 °F. Three-fourths of the year’s precipitation falls in the summer.

Air pollution levels on an average day in Beijing are nearly five times above WHO standards for safety. China's extremely inefficient use of coal - the country's main source of energy - results in much of the pollution. Dust from erosion of deserts in northern and northwestern China result in seasonal dust storms that plague the city; the Beijing Weather Modification Office (a rather Orwellian-sounding thing) sometimes artificially induces rainfall to fight such storms and mitigate their effects. In April 2002, one dust storm alone dumped nearly 50,000 tons of dust onto the city before moving on to Japan and Korea. China’s tremendous economic development has come at an environmental cost, one that is likely to continue. The international focus of hosting the 2008 Olympic Games this summer does mean that China has spent the last 6 years trying to reduce the levels of pollution within Beijing.

The population of Beijing Municipality was 17.43 million in 2007. In addition, there are a large but unknown number of migrant workers who live illegally in Beijing without any official residence permit. The population of Beijing's urban core (city proper) is around 7.5 million.

The Chinese language has a number of different dialects, of which Mandarin is the most
common. Needless to say, it is considered a difficult language to learn! Assuming we are ever to manage learning to speak and understand basic Chinese for day to day tasks, it’s not likely that we’d ever be able to read or write it, leaving us functionally still illiterate. My favorite story so far that I found on line is the “taxi books” that people use and make—collecting business cards printed in Chinese and English for every place they go. Then, when you need to get somewhere, you just point to the card of the location you want to go to and the taxi driver takes it from there!

The major religions are Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, and Christianity. Ancestor worship figures highly in all traditional forms of worship. Because China is a communist country, the government exerts a noticeable degree of control over many aspects of life, including religious freedom, news, internet, and other printed materials, and perceived threats to national security. The country has a less than stellar record of human-rights violation and its ongoing relationships with Myanmar and North Korea have caused international tension. China continues to experience conflict over its relationships with Tibet and Taiwan as well.

Despite this, China is racing at an economic breakneck pace. The traditional system of communism clearly has not applied to economic development here. Multinational corporations like Microsoft, Nokia, and Sony abound. Western good are easily available in large cities and we can combat homesickness with a Starbucks Grabde Mocha, a Big Mac and fries, or a pizza from Dominos. Missing something for the home? Ikea is a short drive away. Really feeling the pull of Americana? Hong Kong Disneyland is easily accessible.

Also a short drive—the Great Wall, Tianamin Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Masoleum of Chariman Mao. Decent roads and trains allow for much more convenient travel than we have here. There are lots of opportunities for camping and hiking—and since we know hardly anything at all about China, I don’t think we’ll run out of things to see and do!

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Hillmans in Beijing

As most of you know, we will be leaving for Beijing, China in August to start the next adventure of our lives. We will continue to post on life in Tanzania and the progress of Peace House Secondary School, we thought we’d take a break and say something about where we’re headed!

Personally, we will not be living within the major metropolis of Beijing. We will be living in an area called Shunyi, about 15 minutes from the Beijing airport and on the very outskirts of Beijing. We are quite far away from the industrial areas, so the air quality is much better in that area. We will live in a compound that has swimming pools, tennis courts, and a bowling alley. The streets are paved so the kids will be able to bike and scooter around, something they’ve missed doing (especially since our bikes were stolen in our robbery in October). Our potential house is a detached town-house style with 4 levels and 1-2 rooms on each level, so we’ll get our exercise going up and down! We will have a housekeeper as we do here, but not gardeners and security guards. We will have a car, but will do much more biking. The school is 5 minutes away, there is a Chinese grocery just outside our compound, and a shopping area with a Western grocery, Starbucks, Dominos, and health/dental clinic is a 15 minute walk away.

We will be able to come and go from school together and see the kids during the day, which will be great. Mark will be the Director of Communications, which makes him similar to an assistant head of school. He will oversee aspects of communications between the school, parents, and community, strategic planning, and marketing. He is hoping to be able to work in some time coaching kids. He is already attending a conference this summer and an international conference in the fall!

I will be teaching special education to grades 3, 4, and 5, an age I haven’t worked with before. There will be another special ed. teacher at the same level. Disability incidences are low, as most international schools will limit the type and severity of disabilities that they will accept. The impact of students learning in a second or third language, however, impacts on services that are provided.

International School Beijing has about 1,800 students from age 3 to grade 12. It uses an American-style curriculum, which will be very different from what the kids are now used to, and will take some getting used to. Because of its size and urban location, it offers far more extracurricular activities than our current school—Scouts, band, choir, orchestra, a theatre, gyms and weight rooms, running tracks, and sports teams with competitive leagues (including baseball, hooray!) It is much more like the schools our kids would attend back in the States. Instead of 15 students per grade, there will be over 120 per grade. Everything is very shiny and fancy-looking; at the same time, we have loved our school here in Arusha and know that the quality of the education here is comparable to what we would get anywhere. We are definitely trading a small-town, small-school feel for something much more upscale and urban. There is a much higher turnover in the student population (about 50% of the student body is there less than 3 years) and draws a large number of diplomatic families and people working for multinational corporations. Chinese nationals are not permitted to attend international schools, so any Chinese students there hold passports from other countries. There are a large number of American and Korean students and the majority of the teaching staff is American and Australian. You can click here to see pictures of the school--I can't get them to copy in for some reason.

More later on other things about China and Beijing!