Sugar Beet Harvest

Recently, as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, mostly in an effort to avoid working on a chapter in my thesis that was quickly become painful (think: redundant, superfluous, unnecessary, beating a dead horse, and just overall not adding a single new idea to academic discourse), I came across the headlines for the daily newspaper in my hometown. The Idaho Press Tribune has been a part of my reading repertoire since before I could actually decipher letters, words, paragraphs and articles. While that jet black in was still nothing more than strange black squiggles on paper, I was able look at the photographs, make stories out of the comics and figure out if there was going to be a yellow sun in the sky or a menacing cloud with a lightning bolt overhead each morning.  Living overseas, it has been years since I actually had a subscription to the paper, but that doesn’t mean I’m not up to date with happenings in the Valley. Not only do I see the headlines in my Facebook feed each evening (the advantage to being fourteen hours ahead in that the morning news stories show up before I go to bed), but I still get occasional clippings in the mail from my dear mother. (I never know which stories are going to show up in the envelope. It might be one about a former student who is doing well. Or maybe the story will be about someone we went to church with growing up. Book lists often make the clippings cut, as do random comic strips and the occasional goofy article included just to make me laugh.)

Most of the stories that make the newsfeed headlines have to do with local construction projects that are shutting down lanes of the freeway or the drama of a school board election recall campaign. Those pass me by like Malaysian snatch and grab hoodlums on scooters. But, recently, one caught my eye and then my heart.  The headline read: “Sugar beet harvest on the horizon.” Of all the days for the IPT posting to catch my eye, it was the day they wrote about the sugar beet harvest. I instantly felt a pang of homesickness, as nothing says fall in southern Idaho quite like the sugar beet harvest.

Sugar beets hold a special place in the memories of my childhood. I was fascinated by those giant brown tubers. Once harvest season started, giant trucks filled over the brim with the beets would roll by our house, one after another, all day long. Because they were filled by other giant machines, they were always overly full, meaning as they sped along the road, the top-most layer of beets fell to the wayside, littering the edges of the country roads. I can’t begin to count how many of those sugar beets I collected with my sister and brother over the years. For a long time, I was convinced that if I could crack one open, I’d find it full of sugar. After all, it was a *sugar* beet. In my eight year old mind, if I could only get through that tough outer layer, I’d have cups of refined sugar, just like the stuff in the yellow Tupperware sugar bowl on the dining room table. Sweet! Of course, the truth was about as polar opposite of that as one can imagine, which I found out once we were finally able to chop through one of the beets with a sharp-edged shovel.

No sugar.

That’s what the sugar beet factory is for. That appellation itself is a bit divisive. Everyone who was raised in the area calls it nothing more and there is no need to explain that the factory actually refines sugar and doesn’t *make* sugar beets, as the name seems to imply. I’ve heard people argue that it isn’t correct terminology to refer to the operations as a sugar beet factory, but these are usually the same folks who’ve moved in from California and Texas who think Boise is pronounced with a “z” sound at the end. You’re non-Idahoan ways are showing, folks!

If you are local to the Treasure Valley, the sugar beet factory is a landmark, both visually and olfactory.  Someone once tried to tell me it had an “almond-y” smell, which I would heartily disagree with, but after living away from home for so many years, I must admit to a fondness for the unique stink that permeates the valley during processing season. One whiff of that unique odor and I know I am home.

It’s a bit ironic that I’m weirdly touched by an agricultural headline from home at a time when agriculture in Southeast Asia seems to be trying to kill us all. Indonesia is burning crops at the end of the growing season (and forests in an attempt to make more room for palm oil plantations) and the smoke from their fires is infiltrating the Malaysian peninsula to an unprecedented level. The air has been so hazy that Malaysian schools have been cancelled three days in the last two weeks and it burns my eyes to be outside for more than an hour or two at a time.  Maybe it is precisely because of the current air situation in Malaysia that I am drawn to stories of home, where the sky is blue, the leaves are changing color and the harvest is in full swing.

It doesn’t matter how far I travel or how many stamps clutter up the pages of my passport, at heart I will always be from Idaho, land of sugar beets and giant trucks and that oh-so-familiar smell of Nampa’s sugar beet factory, as well as home of the Idaho-Press Tribune, a relic in world where news consumption has shifted to the online world rather than the rolled up paper delivered to one’s driveway each morning.

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Wordless Wednesday: Hazy Towers


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October 7, 2015 · 6:40 AM

A Recipe for Cement…and More

The idea of travel evokes many emotions. On one hand are the positive ones: excitement about seeing and exploring a new place and a new culture, and thrill at participating in new adventures and activities. But on the other hand, there is a bit darker side of travel that can, at times, be hard to reconcile for those of us raised within the confines of middle class American privilege. When I am on the road, it is hard for me to not see the poverty that abounds and even harder to know what to do about it. Should I bargain for a handful of bracelets from the little girls standing outside every temple in Siem Reap or does that encourage them to hawk to tourists rather than attend school each day? Does buying the stunning, but mass produced artwork from a night market in Laos benefit the sellers and their families or does it cheapen the beauty of their culture? I have read article after article online about being a thoughtful and responsible traveler, but in the end there is no way to overcome a small amount of internal awkwardness when it comes to traveling in developing nations; after all, it is because of travelers like myself, who have the expendable income to throw on a backpack and hop a flight to a remote country that these tourist-driven economies even exist.

As both a traveler and an ex-patriate, I think it is important to find ways to give back to the communities that I call home for several years at a time. In China, that meant serving as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years in rural Gansu province and then organizing a donation campaign to help earthquake survivors in Sichuan after the quake of 2012. Here in Malaysia, I spent six months volunteering as an teacher for Chin (a Burmese minority) refugees, trying my best to not only strengthen my students’ understanding of comparative and superlative adjectives, but to also given them a sense of what American middle and high schools will be like once they relocate. Once I started work at the embassy, I was no longer able to devote several days a week to the school, but was still on the search for other ways to be a positive member of the community in which I was living. At a bit of a crossroads, not sure what to do next and not having a whole lot of free time between working full time and working on a literature and writing graduate degree, the embassy newsletter had my answer! One Wednesday, scrolling through the pages of information about upcoming concerts in the city, welcomes and farewells to officers and their families, and my favorite, the book club calendar, I noticed an advertisement seeking help with a Habitat for Humanity project. I wasn’t wholly unaware of this project, as CLO had been doing fundraising all winter and more than once I had dropped my spare ringgit in collection containers around the building, but with actual building time on the horizon, I was excited to sign up and join in!

The US embassy was assigned two days to work on the project in a small town a few hours outside of Kuala Lumpur. I signed up for Saturday, thinking it would give me Sunday to rest and sleep in before another week of work. The Saturday crew met at the embassy at 5AM to hop in the vans to carpool down to the site. My van had one poor marine trying to sleep in the backseat and four women, all of whom chatted and laughed the entire trip south. Arriving at the land cleared for the new home, I was struck by several things: 1) the large piles of sand and rocks placed beside the road, 2) the square footage of the foundation of the home and 3)the fact that the sun was already blazing down and it was barely 8AM. These three things were to be the entire focus of my day.

Saturday’s crew had one goal: complete the cement foundation. The catch? The cement needed to be mixed. By hand. There was no electric cement mixer. There was only a pile of shovels, a pile of rocks, a pile of sand, bags of cement and a hose for water. Quickly, I learned the correct recipe for cement:

Habitat for Humanity Cement

5 wheelbarrows of sand

2 wheelbarrows of rocks

1 bag of cement

Add water until a thick goo. With a shovel, mix, mix, mix. Once the cement is the right consistency, load it up in a wheelbarrow, drop it in an empty corner of the foundation and spread quickly, before it starts to harden.

Repeat. For seven hours.

When we arrived at the building site and were given our job for the day, I overconfidently that it would be no problem. The foundation was small. It was perfectly square. It should be easy to fill it up, three inches thick. Boy, was I wrong. Wrong is an understatement. We worked the entire day, sweating in the relentless sun (thunderclouds threatened, but we never saw a drop of rain), and still we barely finished the foundation by the end of the day. By late afternoon, we were all dog tired, pulling the last of our energy to mix a final batch of cement to complete the last corner. (There was semi-serious discussion about buying the family a nice plant to put in that last corner to cover the lack of foundation. None of us were sure if we could load up the last wheelbarrows of cement ingredients, let alone stir, stir, stir.)

I learned several things about myself over the course of that seven hour work day. First, I discovered that I was not really cut out for physical labor. Apparently, there is a reason I prefer to collect degrees rather than get my hands dirty. (Okay, this wasn’t really a sudden epiphany. There is little about me sporty or athletic.) Sunday morning I could barely roll out of bed. It took until about Thursday before I was able to go up and down stairs without having to rest the majority of my weight on the railings. I was in pain. But, with that said, I also realized (or re-realized) how great it was to be a part of something bigger. I may never see that completed house, as other teams were working on continuing the project, but I know that in a small way, I helped to provide a solid home for a family in need. (While on the site, I walked over to see where the recipient family was currently living. It was basically some wooden walls covered by a blue tarp with a lean-to addition off the side that housed a one-burner gas stove.) One of the best moments in the day came mid-afternoon when everyone was feeling the pain of the work, but still plugging away. A fellow embassy volunteer, closer to my parents age than my own, walked over to where I was loading yet another wheelbarrow of sand and told me how impressed he was with how I had been holding my own throughout the day, always one of the last to break and the first back to the shovels. With a smile on my face, I told him I had my parents to thank for that one. Work ethics were never lacking in my house growing up.

My Saturday as a Habitat for Humanity volunteer was humbling and a good reminder that giving back is an important part of being a traveler. I might still struggle with the conundrums of coming from the privilege of a highly developed country living/visiting areas where governments and people struggle to ease the difficulties of daily life, but I try not to be blind to the issues. Finding small ways to help is important. I didn’t build a town, a neighborhood or even an entire house, but I did literally build a foundation for a new life for one family.

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Wordless Wednesday: Single Lady Driver Only

single ladies

Photo credit: Sunny B.

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Wordless Wednesday: Bon Jovi in KL

Photo credit: Hariff Hassan

Photo credit: Hariff Hassan

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Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books on My Fall TBR List

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books on My Fall TBR List

(Brought to you by The Broke and the Bookish)


I’ve been overwhelmed with the lists of fall publications I’ve seen lately, giving me a never-ending TBR list for this fall. The problem is, I don’t have a lot of free time for pleasure reading until after the holidays when I will have finished my thesis and graduated from my literature and writing program. (Fingers crossed!) Until then, the TBR list will continue to grow in and January I may have to hide away for a few weeks and do nothing but get caught up!!

(I do have a couple of “cheat” books on my list- those that I have been looking forward to that I’ve been able to read in the last couple of weeks. September counts as fall, right?)

Best Boy by Eli Gottlieb- Another book title I’ve seen over and over on lists of the best books of the fall and of the year, so this is definitely one I want to check out…maybe sooner than later…

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg- This one was just published a few weeks ago, but I’ve already seen in on several “best of the year” lists, so it is definitely one that I need to look into as soon as I get a chance.

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon- This is my other “cheat” book on this week’s list. It’s a YA novel that came out earlier in the month and has not only gotten great reviews online, but was recommended by a fellow blogger and book lover (check her out at Erratic Project Junkie), so I knew I had to pick it up ASAP. I’ve since read it and recommended it to several other people. Great book for teens and adults alike!

Fate and Furies by Lauren Groff- Another book making waves on the literary lists, both best seller and reviews. I can’t wait to get my hands on this one, although I have a feeling this might be one of the ones that has to wait until after the new year.

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson- A witty blogger making good on her writing skills? Publication and a payday? Who isn’t rooting for this woman?!? This one doesn’t come out until next week, but I am hoping it shows up on my e-library list ASAP!

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell- Vowell is one of my favorite narrative non-fiction writers and one of those authors whose works I buy automatically when they come out. I don’t even need to read the blurb or have any idea the subject. I will buy what she writes. Her new ones doesn’t come out until October, but I’ve already got it on my Amazon list, ready to purchase.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari- I’m not sure what to think about this one, based on the reviews, but I love Aziz. Anytime a new comedy special by him pops up on Netflix, I stop what I am doing and watch the entire thing. I think he is hilarious, so his take on modern dating will hopefully be as entertaining.

Purity by Jonathon Franzen- I love Franzen’s works. I love that they make me slow down and take in each character and scene. They aren’t always easy reads, definitely not for the beach, but he’s a fantastic writer and I look forward to each new release. For sure this one is going to have to wait until the thesis is turned in!

The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux- This is one of those “cheat” books. I’ve been reading it as I work on my thesis and I am loving all the pieces and parts from great contemporary travel literature. I’ve had this on my ereader, but am sorely tempted to get a paperback copy ASAP.

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling- If you have read some of my other TTT lists, you will know that I adored Kaling’s first book and have been looking forward to her second. This is another “cheat.” The book came out on Tuesday. I was home with the flu on Tuesday. I bought it and read it on Tuesday.

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A Different Kind of Girls’ Getaway

When I hear someone say they are headed off for a girls’ weekend, my mind instantly jumps to images of women wearing fluffy white robes with mud facial masks spread across their faces and cucumbers over their eyes. Or maybe the still photo in my mind is of a line of women sitting in large massage chairs with their feet in tubs of hot water, prepping for the Barbie pink mani/pedis headed their way. If not those images, then one of well-dressed ladies enjoying a nice white tablecloth dinner on the patio of a ritzy restaurant, glasses of red wine in their hands and pates of tapas on the table. The problem with each of these pictures is that my mind can’t really place me in them anywhere!

So, what’s a girls’ weekend to look like when I’m not willing to spend my entire paycheck on fluff and frill? Picture the exact opposite of all of the things above. Instead of billowy bathrobes, imagine sweat-soaked tank tops. Instead of massage chairs and pedicures, imagine long boats and millipedes. Instead of expensive alcohol and pristine table settings, image bags of melted trail mix and bottle after bottle of potable water.

Now those are the building blocks of a fantastic weekend getaway.

I first saw photos of the Malaysian national park at Taman Negara almost a year ago and have wanted to make the three hour trip north, but it seems like weekends are quickly overtaken with school requirements and work obligations. A few weeks ago, sitting at an outdoor steak restaurant (corrugated metal roof, folding tables, plastic chairs and the best Australian beef in town!), the idea was floated and we quickly had five ladies signed on for Labor Day weekend. No froof and fluff for us. We were off to the jungle for a weekend of hiking, river swimming and insect inspecting.

The most relaxing part of the weekend was the longboat ride up the river. Forty-five minutes of peace (minus the outboard motor), complimented by kingfishers sailing by, monkeys catching fish on the shore and one lazily swimming monitor lizard. Once we reached our upriver destination, it was a short twenty-minute hike to a place where the rocks create a natural whirlpool tub, complete with a massaging waterfall. (Maybe our girls’ weekend had a bit of spa-day included after all!) Since all things nature-y freak me out a bit (ironic, no?), I did spaz out a bit each time a leaf wrapped itself around my ankle, sure that it was one of the lecherous leaches we had been duly warned about before leaving Kuala Lumpur. Soon, our secluded swimming hole was overrun by late-arriving tourists (kudos to our guide for always getting us to destinations ahead of the masses, so we were able to spend a chunk of time unmolested by the other jungle trekkers), so we threw back on our wet shirts and shorts (from the sweaty hike) over our wet swimsuits (from the river) and made our way back down the hillside for another idle ride on the river.

The most unexpected event of the weekend was the night trek. I saw this outing on the original itinerary and didn’t think a whole lot of it, but quickly learned that it would have been more appropriately labeled the “Let’s Marvin Gay and Get It On” insect tour. That’s right. I don’t know if the rainforest is that (re)productive every night, but last Saturday there was some serious breeding going on. We were witnesses to everything from stick bug sex (which then led to a long conversation and later, several Googled articles, about what exactly a pregnant stick bug would look like) to leaf bugs and jungle-sized grasshoppers doing it. (Not together. That would make a strange set of baby bugs.) This entire walk took place in the pouring rain, which was no deterrent for the tiny tropical nightlife, but did teach me that my China-made/China-purchased raincoat had absolutely no waterproof abilities. I was as wet as anything out there that evening.

Our ladies’ weekend wrapped up with the biggest undertaking of the trip- a two kilometer trek up the mountain, through the rainforest, to a beautiful viewpoint at the top of the ridge. As with many (most?) Southeast Asia treks, this one was comprised mainly of stairs. So many stairs. And, keeping in mind that I am pretty wimpy when it comes to physical activities, I did my best to not fall behind the pack. (Considering the five month pregnant woman was leading the line most of the time, I had some strong-stamina shoes to fill!)

Up the stairs.

Up the stairs.

Up the stairs. Every time I thought I saw an end, we’d round a bend and I’d look up to see another endless set.

Essentially, I hate hiking. I always have. I love the view from the top and I am enamored with the possibility of seeing animals on the way, so I lace up my shoes and head out time and time again, but in the moment, I hate it. As much as I dislike hiking, I fear heights. So, what better way to end the weekend than with a canopy walk on the way down the mountain? (I’m apparently a sucker for self-inflicted torture.) The thing with canopy walks is that I’m terrified of being 150 feet in the air on a tiny walkway with nothing between me and the ground but a layer or two of tropical leaves, but I can’t walk away from the potential awesomeness that exists up there. So, once again, I tightened my backpack and struck out across the dangling bridges, keeping my eyes straight ahead and trying to steady my knocking knees. As I climbed the first set of stairs to the initial bridge, I asked the worker how many bridges there were in the course. He promised three. At the end of that first one, I posed the same question to a worker stationed on the platform. His English was less polished, but he seemed to understand me and answered, “Five.” Hmmm… Those two answers didn’t match up, but the thing with canopy walks is that once you start, you are in it for good. There are no emergency egress routes. There are no escape hatches partway through. The only way out is forward. Now thinking I had four more lengths to go, I headed out, with a mind only to getting through.

Three more to go.

Two more to go.

One more to go.

But wait. That was the fifth one and I was still fifty meters in the air. Someone did not tell me the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. As it turns out, there were eight sections in total, one a swinging staircase that had even the most height-loving of our group regretting their canopy walk decision.

While it wasn’t filled with cucumber eye masks or glittery nail polish or hard-to-pronounce French menus, this last weekend was a better kind of ladies’ getaway. As we sweated through our tank tops on the jungle trails, hummed along to Charlie Puth, commiserated over drenched clothes, and generally enjoyed clowning around in the rainforest together. If girls’ getaway weekends are about bonding, this one was definitely a success!

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Photo credits to Jaclyn, Audrey and Puma


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