My niece joined the family on July 12th, 2010. This special young lady's mother is my younger sister, which in classic Chinese culture makes me her Jiu Jiu (舅舅) -- thus the title of this blog. Here I intend to semi-regularly post reflections, thoughts, stories, and assorted whathaveyous pertaining to our trip to China, adoption in general, and (mostly) watching my niece grow up. Since the web is a very public place, I will attempt to maintain my family's privacy while telling the story... but I invite you to follow the blog and come along for the adventure!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Catching Up: Pennsylvania Railroading

Just a quick note: HAPPY 5775!  L'shana tovah!

And now... continuing with my efforts to catch up on what happened more than a month ago...

The day after our visit to Dutch Wonderland, it was time to see (and experience) some old-style railroading. After a morning of the girls having a fine old time in the lobby (the instant they noticed me pointing my iPhone at them, they dove laughingly under a table and wouldn't come out 'til I gave up on getting a photo of them sitting & singing), we set off for the Strasburg Railroad.  There was some trepidation because when we rode the train last year, the Pipsqueak wasn't exactly thrilled with some of the louder noises, but with her BFF in tow we were all in high spirits squeezing into AJ's van. (All our concerns turned out to be unfounded -- it's amazing what a change just a year can make in how little girls view the world around them!)

There was the usual "oops" as we started with a wrong turn (Dude, you wouldn't ever tell your sister "left" when you mean "right," would you...?) but it wasn't too long before we were on familiar territory and shortly afterwards the S.R.R. yard tower and nearby railroad museum hove into sight. After some review of the offerings posted on the station wall, we settled on bundle tickets offering both a ride on the Road to Paradise and entry to the railroad museum across the street.

We chose our seats on one of the beautifully restored old rail cars (the girls were happily amazed when I converted a bench facing backwards into a bench facing forwards with a quick flip of the back) and it wasn't long before the clanging, hooting old steam engine pulled us away from the platform and through the Lancaster County farmland.


There was the usual stop where the engineer blew his whistle and we waited to hear if the ghost of an old, long-defunct railroad's engine would answer (of course it did!), then a short stop on a siding while another train passed, until we came up alongside the Amtrak lines running behind a bare concrete warehouse. "This, folks, is... Paradise!" was the laconic announcement from the conductor, and we all had a fine time waving at the engineer and his fireman as they uncoupled the engine from one end of the train and drove slowly past on a parallel track to hook up at the other end for the return trip.

There was a quick stop as a couple of families got on & off at one of the railroad's picnic groves, another stop on that siding for another train to pass us on its way to Paradise, and then we were back at the station. We hung out at the station for a little while as the girls checked out the restrooms, then the gift shop. We collected the group portrait taken aboard the train by the "butcher" and set off across the street to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

Walking past the 1950s-style Good Humor Ice Cream truck that had pulled up out front (complete with driver in the original white uniform, selling real Good Humor ice cream) and made our way into the museum's entry hall.  After a few minutes oohing and aahing at a model railroad we entered the museum proper and spent a happy afternoon wandering among an amazing assortment of old engines, rolling stock, interactive educational displays (including a fun Lego town), memorabilia, and railroad-related artifacts. We also took a few minutes to walk around outside among the museum's unrestored holdings, where the girls put on a strange little show for us and I paused to investigate how one installs a bay window on a caboose.

As Mom said after looking inside one of the old restored steam engines inside the museum, these supposedly "primitive" machines were easily as complex and advanced as any produced today.

Eventually we ran out of displays to clamber over and (after having to use our cell phones to pull everyone together from the far ends of the museum building) we sat down in the lobby and tried to find a place to go for dinner.

This may sound simple, but on a Sunday in Pennsylvania Dutch country, there aren't exactly a bajillion places open late in the afternoon or into the evening. A few failed web searches & phone calls later, we headed back to the Lincoln Highway to see which fast food joint might still be open. Before we reached the intersection, we passed the Hershey Farm, Restaurant & Inn (which is in Ronks, several miles from Hershey). Mom thought it looked open, so we pulled in and waited while she ran in to find out. Moments later, she came back out with the good news that they were indeed open and had a large buffet that cost less than many of the others we had been considering. (All a bit of a surprise, since their website listed hours that would've meant they were closed.)

After we took turns taking photos with "Amos" (the 2-story-high Amish farmer off to one side of the parking lot) and on an Amish buggy near his feet, we went in for dinner and basically ate ourselves silly. We were surprised when Miri consented to try one of the chicken nuggets and pronounced it good. In fact, she like the nuggets so much, her happily shocked uncle went back to the buffet for three more platefuls for her. (This was so amazing because, for the past couple of years, McDonald's Chicken McNuggets are the ONLY type of meat my niece has allowed past her lips.) I finally went to one of the custom dish cooks and explained that the Pipsqueak is an uber-picky eater but loved their chicken nuggets... so could he let me in on their secret? He disappeared into the back area to check with his boss and came back a minute later with a big smile and a piece of the carton the nuggets were shipped in with the manufacturer's name & description. (We're still trying to find a way to buy them in less than massive-restaurant-bulk quantities so we can see if she likes them as much when they're prepared at home.)

After a fun half-hour sojourn in the hotel's large gift shop, we packed our bulging bellies back into AJ's van and returned to the hotel.  Miri's BFF and her mom had to head back home, so we said our goodbyes and rearranged our accomodations. Just like our other family trips (including China), AJ & Miri took the empty bed in my room and I had fun with my giggly niece before we all settled down for the night.

Even though S and her mom had gone home, there was still had a full day of family vacation time left to go, and we had plans for the day... which I'll write about here soon!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Catching Up: Return to Dutch Wonderland

I'm clicking the dial on the WABAC just a few tiny notches so we can all revisit the beginning of August and I can tell the story of our extended trip into Pennsylvania Dutch country & environs. (See? When I said I'd catch up, I really meant I was going to catch up!) But first, a word from my present-day self...

The Pipsqueak continues really liking kindergarten, and her teacher is turning out to really be awesome.  We've still had a few bits of extra anxiety here & there (and she's not sleeping by herself in her own bed every night), but all in all it's been A Good Thing for all parties involved. Miri even surprised the entire family by becoming... a cheerleader! She's not on the school's official squad (she's too young), but the after-school program has an informal cheerleading squad for their informal football team, and my niece apparently decided it looked like fun and signed herself up. So, not too much unlike her mother (back when she was on the cheering squad in junior high), every now & then my niece will suddenly be clapping & stomping rhythmically for no apparent reason, and she's had a lot of fun putting on a show for Grandma & Grandpa so they could see how she cheers.

Oh, and today is my sister's forty-Xth birthday, so Miri has periodically burst into a Mandarin-launguage birthday song at random times throughout the day. She also helped Mommy blow out the candles on her brownie cake, and couldn't hold back her excitement when Grandma told her she should go tell Mommy to look in the big box near the front door. :-) More news as developments occur... but now it's back to the past with a visit to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania!

We still haven't managed to get our whole group of adoption friends together for a trip to Dutch Wonderland (a site that Miri's been waiting to return to after last year's visit), but this year we did manage to have some friends join us. After our usual later-than-planned start and a couple of minor traffic-related misadventures along the way, we met up with Miri's BFF SH and her mom TH at the Shady Maple Smorgasbord for a big late lunch/early dinner up in Pennsylvania Dutch country. The family's been going to the Shady Maple on & off for years -- ever since Mom & Dad stopped there on their honeymoon more than six decades ago. It's not the world's greatest food but it is good food, and lots & lots of it, with lots & lots & lots of variety, and at a reasonable price. (Dude, it doesn't hurt that you can probably spot the place from low Earth orbit, so it's not too har to find!)

Anyway, we had a good belly-busting meal that culminated with the girls experimenting with the results of mixing different colors of slushies in their glasses. We then caravaned to our hotel (Country Inn of Lancaster, same place as last year and probably again next year) and took advantage of Dutch Wonderland's late afternoon entry special (if you go in after 5pm, it doesn't count against your full-day ticket that you can use for the next day). Having bought tickets online ahead of time [1], we pretty much sailed through the entrance -- once we pried the girls loose from the massive & strategically-located gift shop -- and had a good time wandering the park & taking advantage of several rides before closing time. We even bumped into Princess Brooke, the Safety Knight, and Duke the Dragon at the entrance so the girls got some really nice souvenir photos.

Oh, before I continue, a word about photos. Some dummy (not naming any names, here) made sure to charge both the regular & backup batteries for his camera, back up everything on the memory card, and even pack a mini-tripod... then left his camera sitting on the nightstand in his room. The result is that I was using my iPhone as still camera and video camera as well as GPS and communications device for the entire trip. The results weren't half-bad, despite maxing out the phone's memory & running the battery almost to total zero two days in a row, but there are fewer photos of the trip than usual. Coupled with my normal attempt to maintain at least some amount of privacy, this means there will only be limited illustrations in this serious of posts. Sorry... next time I'll tie the darn thing to my overnight case instead of leaving it laying around...!

Anyway, as I was saying... We returned to the hotel and soon had arranged for me to be in one room, our folks in the next, and the girls and their mommies in the 3rd. I slept quite well that night, but I understand it took a while for the bouncing, giggling, telling of stories, comparing of sleepytime fashions, etc. etc. etc. to draw to a close before the occupants of that 3rd room could get some shuteye.

We were all up bright & early the next morning and headed out for a full day at Dutch Wonderland. The Turtle Whirl was such a favorite that the girls & their moms rode it three times, and the girls probably would've stayed on the Wonder Whip all afternoon if we let them, but a couple of rides were a little less enthusiastically tried out. There's one that I can pretty much guarantee Miri will never ride again if she's given the choice, and the older of the two spaceflight simulators was so old that even my 5-year-old niece felt the graphics were disappointing.

On the other hand, I could hear both girls making loud happy noises on the "Crazy Plane" ride, but my sister couldn't exit the thing fast enough. We rode all the water rides (for some reason, we didn't get nearly half as wet on the log flume as we did last year) and got to see all the different diving shows (where sitting too close to the red "splash zone" seats made up for the log flume's shortcomings), and Miri even got her pony ride (missed due to bad timing last year).  The bulldozer, panda, and bouncing frog rides warranted extra time. I avoided any of the high-G rides (roller coaster, Turtle Whirl, etc.) because it's still a little too close to this spring's eye surgery for such adventures, but it was a lot of fun to watch the girls enjoying themselves so much. (It was also nice to occasionally just site & talk with my folks while the Little Dynamo was busy getting AJ shaken, dizzy, spun around, or otherwise occupied.)

One feature that's new at the park this year is Exploration Island, where the main attraction is a scattering of nearly life-size animatronic dinosaurs. The Pipsqueak & SH enjoyed them, and the rest of the grownups were impressed, but... old dinosaur hand that I am [2] I was in hog heaven the entire time. I mean, c'mon -- how often do you get to interact with a young T-Rex, or a mama Triceratops and a couple of her babies? By coincidence, I have a few extra photos of this part of the park...

(Yes, I know the Pterosaur technically is not a dinosaur... it just looked too cool to leave out.) All the grownups were excited to learn that the Shunosaurus is a "Chinasaur," but the girls didn't seem halfway as impressed with that fact.  The only thing that bothered me about this particular installation (the animatronic figure itself was impressive, even "breathing" like a living creature) was that DW's careful fact-checking apparently did not extend to the grammar used in the sign's language...

There was also the usual scattering of "DON'T" signs throughout the area, but they all had a sense of humor so they didn't break up the "family" feeling of the place. These three were among my favorites:

The "Do Not Touch" sign made me laugh, because I have a photo of Uncle Beazley as the desktop picture on my laptop, and Miri knows him well from our visits to the National Zoo. I remember when he was located on the Mall downtown in front of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, usually with a small horde of kids clambering up, down, and all around... some invariably in the exact same pose as shown on the sign. But I digress...

I had seen on the DW website that they had recently experienced some flooding, and had been worried that Exploration Island and the associated rides (highway, gondola, and jungle boat) would be closed, but all were operating normally. However, the water level was still a bit higher than usual, as shown in the animated GIF below.

I swear I left a couple of hairs between the boards of that bridge... but all's well that ends well, and we all enjoyed a full day at the park. The only feature we didn't take advantage of was the water park, but none of us minded too much because we were all happily tuckered out.  After a more-expensive-than-planned sojourn in the DW gift shop, we tried to find the restaurant where we'd eaten last year (the waitress took a shine to Dad as soon as she saw his "USS Coral Sea - CV43" cap and gave us all the veterans' discount plus a free serving of pie for Dad), but we ended up at a different chain restaurant and still managed to have an OK dinner before returning to our rooms and collapsing contentedly into our beds (with much less pre-lights out activity, I understand).

The next day was spent riding the Strasburg Railroad and visiting the Pennsylvania Railroad Museum, but that's all for another post... so, until then... Zai Jien!

[1] You can get much better deals on DW tickets if you buy them online in advance than you can at the park or even through "special" pricing at the local hotels. Just print out the ticket pages (complete with their barcodes) at home & bring 'em with you to the park.

[2] I was into dinosaurs before it was cool. Growing up, I was on a first-name basis with the dinosaur exhibits in New York's Museum of Natural History. It got to the point where, when I was around 4 years old, Mom started telling me something about one of the dinos we were looking at and I corrected her -- and when she tried to tell me something different, a nearby museum guard interrupted with, "I'm sorry, Ma'am, but your son is right...!"