Author Archives: Michelle Ross

California by Edan Lepucki

California by Edan Lepucki

California

How far would you be willing to push the line between right and wrong to ensure your own safety? What options would be on the table if it meant keeping your spouse and unborn child protected? At what point to the heinous choices of others become too much and you break off the relationship, even if it is providing you with the basic necessities for survival? Edan Lepucki’s new novel, California uses a post-apocalyptic outer Los Angeles setting to address these questions, creating a world where black and white are no longer distinguishable amongst the thick gray swath painted by the morals and ethics of personal survival.

Reminiscent of The Road, although less bleak and not as beautifully written, California takes place in the near future, when much of the United States has been destroyed through a series of natural disasters, followed by widespread crime and violence. As the infrastructure of cities begins to breakdown, those with the means to do so are willing to pay for protection in the form of Communities- self-contained areas that promise tranquility and peace through heavy vetting of residents and high costs for inclusion. Those without the money to buy their way into these new establishments are left to fend for themselves, some remaining in the decaying cities while others strike out on their own in the wilderness.

Cal and Frida are part of the latter. After Frida’s brother dies as a suicide bomber in the city, she and Cal realize there is no place left for them in “civilization,” so they embark on a journey into the woods where they hope to create a new life for themselves. Soon though, the desire to be with others is overwhelming and after hearing of a larger community of settlers just a few days hike away, they set out to find their neighbors. Having been warned away from this group, they are nervous, but especially Frida, who believes she is pregnant, can’t stop her curiosity of what might be just over the ridge.

What they find is a surprise on many levels. Now, they must decide if they want to be a part of this reclusive settlement (if the members will even have them) or if it would be best to go back to their small cabin and continue on their own. The longer they stay and the more they learn about this functioning outpost, the harder their decision becomes and the less in sync with one other the tight couple grows.

Lepucki forces the reader to confront a series of philosophical conundrums, both about what it means to be a family and at what point the price for security is too high. With no tightly tied up happy ending, the novel leaves the reader to put themselves in this near future setting and wonder what choices they would make and at what point it would all become too much. Although the basics of the post-apocalyptic plot aren’t’ new, the twists and turns and ethical challenges help Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, earn a solid:

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Chateau Ross, Open for Bookings

Getting to KL was a challenge; there is no doubt about that. From delayed flights to crazy cross-town cab rides to unexpected overnights along the way, a “short” thirty-hour travel day turned into over forty hours. But, since arriving, we’ve been slowly working on getting settled in at our new home and Thad’s been plugging away with the check-in process at the embassy. While we don’t yet have internet (although, by the time this gets posted, we will, but as for now, we’re web-less and I am just stacking up posts for when I am reconnected to the blogosphere) and I don’t have a phone set-up, I’m finding ways to compensate and juggle learning a new place while staying connected with the old ones. (That feels awfully Girl Scouts-esque/sing-along-y…something about gold and silver and old and new friends. Having only survived a single year of Brownies before deciding that brown was not my color and I’d rather not wear those dorky knee-high socks with tassels, I have merely a rudimentary knowledge of Girl Scout workings. I do love a Thin Mint right out of the fridge though!)

Six months ago, I would never have thought I would be homesick for Chengdu, but there are definite twinges of that now that we are on the ground at post #2. In Chengdu, I had a full-time, wonderful job with great colleagues and fantastic bosses. In Chengdu, I had a tight group of friends who were always up for some freshly pulled noodles at the Muslim restaurant, a Wednesday evening of horribly un-athletic Zumba or Sunday morning brunch at the Lazy Pug. It’s only been three days in KL, but I already miss those existing relationships. I know in time I will find the same here, but I dread the awkward first introductions, get-to-know-you lunches and initial happy hours. Now, I have to start at square one with explaining my 5-year-old-like eating habits and why melons just taste too melon-y and there is no need for sauce on 98% of dishes.

But, this is what we’ve signed up for and I’m on board, but that doesn’t make the transition stress-free.

We are thrilled with our new home. Already, many people at post have commented on how lucky we are with our housing assignment and how they wish they had our place. The best description of it is a very tall split-level. There is a garage on the bottom (which I’ve taken to calling the basement, even though it is ground level), then up half a flight of stairs is the living room and a splendid screened-in patio that looks out towards the pool. (Screens= less chance of dengue, although I hear two community members currently have this lovely “bone breaking” curse, so it’s always good to be vigilant.) Continuing up another half flight of stairs is the kitchen/dining room, from which you can see the Petronas Towers, a stunning sight when they are lit up at night. Up again and you reach the master bedroom/bath, with vaulted ceilings and what is possibly the worst blanket known to man. (The welcome kit is a “disposable” one, although I’m not sure it ever gets disposed of. When our HHE arrives, we have to pack up the kit and keep it in the basement to use again in two years when our stuff heads on to unknown post #3. I’m definitely a pretty low-maintenance person, but this welcome kit leaves a whole lot to be desired. The kitchenware is super flimsy and the bath towels are sized for homunculi, but they are great for exfoliating! I figure the welcome kit is meant to be crappy so that you are just that much more appreciative and happy when your own blankets/towels/linens arrive.) And finally we reach the top floor, which I am dubbing the “guest floor” as it has two spare bedrooms and a full bathroom. (This should encourage all of you who are contemplating coming to Malaysia for a visit in the next two years. We’ve got an entire floor for you!) We’ve also got a pool just a few feet from our backdoor, but we have yet to try it out, due to a lack of usable towels! (The teensy ones in the welcome kit aren’t really pool-appropriate. But soon…I’m pondering an IKEA run this weekend.)

Compared to Chengdu, we have a massive amount of storage space and are excited to get our personal belongings here to really make our new place “home.” Once I’ve got pictures and wall hangings up, my massive bean bag chair ensconced in the living room and my treadmill put back together, we’ll be set for the next couple of years. Home sweet home. (I initially typed “sweat,” which is nearly as appropriate with the gazillion percent humidity outside each day.)

Guests, start planning your travel now. Two years in KL is going to fly-by and you don’t want to miss out on an entire floor to yourself!

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Top Ten After Ten

With a full ten days under my belt in the sweltering city of Kuala Lumpur, I can’t help but continually marvel at how different it is from Chengdu. Yes, there are some similarities, but with the large Chinese population in Malaysia, I really expected to see a lot more Mainland mannerisms than I do here. So, after just under a fortnight in our new home, here are my top ten KL observations:

  • Daily life takes less energy. The other day, I went to the 7-11 to top up my phone. As I slowly ambled towards the store (I made the poor choice of going at 2PM, at which point in the day anything more than an amble is not likely to happen), in my head I was making a plan of what exactly I needed to ask for and figuring out how to make sure I got my point across. With the chill of high power AC hitting my damp skin, I was greeted with, “Hello ma’am!” and realized that I no longer needed to think through my requests. English was the go-to language in most stores throughout the city, so there was no need to think through vocabulary or rehearse grammatical structures in preparation for a small purchase. (Although, I have found that utilizing the correct local phrase is key. It is vital that I ask for my phone to be “topped up” rather than just ask to have money put on it. The latter request just got me a quizzical look, eyebrows raised and head cocked to the left. Topped up, on the other hand, immediately registered and my phone was once again in working order.)
  • Right-hand driving is odd, but learnable. Upon my first foray into the wild, wild world of wrong side of the road driving, I was sweating bullets (with the AC on high) and nervous at every turn. I actually missed the roundabout I needed to go around because I was freaked out by entering it on the left. I ended up having to go all the way around the block and come at it a second time, which was still disconcerting, but I made it into the flow of traffic and back out again, all with no scrapes or scratches on the new car. I’ve yet to make an entire trip anywhere without accidentally turning on the windshield wipers instead of the blinker, but I’m assuming eventually that too will become second nature. But, the X-Trail and I have been out on a variety of solo trips (all rather short) and one longer trek to the IKEA with the GPS/Thad as my navigator. (Again, we may have missed a few turns, mostly because there are a ridiculous number of flyovers here, which don’t register on the GPS as different from the main road, so it isn’t until long past the point of no return that the GPS either gives me the quiet thumbs up or loudly recalculates as I try to keep my panic to a minimum, reminding myself that we are on no timeline and that the IKEA towels will await my arrival.)
  • Life is all about the malls here. They are large. They are air conditioned. And they are full of high-end stores that I choose not to afford. But, if I am ever in need of a Prada handbag, a Rolex watch or some Versace heels, I have a bead on where to burn my ringgits.
  • Not all grocery stores are equal. In Chengdu, we were all thrilled when a new imported item showed up in the Treat or at Metro and I scheduled by trips to the Trust-Mart to all take place before noon, as it was early afternoon when the hanging chunks of chicken and bins of meat started to really take on a funk. In KL, there are three supermarkets within a mile of our place, all of which are chalked full of foods I recognize and not a single piece of raw meat is seen outside of a cooled display case.
  • Speaking of food: halal and non-halal. Learn it and don’t mix it. I learned this lesson the slightly awkward way. (I wouldn’t say hard way, as I was corrected before I could make too large of a blunder, but it still brought a blush to my cheeks.) Last week, upon my first solo outing in the X-Trail, I went to the Cold Storage grocery store to get the basics to fill our fridge and cupboards. Thad had very few requests, but one in particular was for some lunch meat. We had seen it in the grocery store earlier in the week and it was something that was pretty hard to come by in western China, so it was on the top of my shopping list. I grabbed a package of chicken from the refrigerated section of the store, continued my shopping through the spices and condiments, cookies and crackers and eventually found myself in the far back corner of the store, prominently labeled “non-halal.” There, amongst the bacon and sausage, I saw some packages of deli ham and thought it would be a good addition to the chicken. Picking up two packages, I placed them in my cart and turned to check out the cereal and snack section of the store, but was quickly stopped by a clerk. Gently and without any obvious horror on her face, she told me that all non-halal items had to be purchased within the non-halal section of the store and placed in a separate bag from the rest of the available items. Thank goodness that woman was there! I can’t imagine the embarrassment if I had made it up to the regular registers with my pork products, effectively offending two-thirds of the shopping population that morning. Lesson learned. Make all non-halal purchases separately and bag them individually.
  • Purse paranoia has me in its clutches. Purse snatching is a huge problem here, with everyone I’ve met at the embassy either having had it happen to them or to someone they know well. Men on motorbikes ride by and grab purses off of women walking along the sidewalks on a fairly regular basis. Enough that everyone talks about it, all of the time. In Chengdu, I walked a lot of places, with nary a thought to the safety of it. I’d plug in my headphones and enjoy lovely combination of Bon Jovi, Britney and Backstreet Boys as I went on my merry way. No such thing will happen here. Instead, when walking here, it’s important to be constantly aware of the surroundings, watching the motorbikes (especially those with double riders) and keeping an eye on which side of the road to walk on and handbag placement (always on the shoulder away from the road). It’s been on to feel such a slight paranoia on a regular basis. The longer we are here, the more obvious it is to me why everyone has a car and drives here. It isn’t just because of the heat.
  • Starbucks is my friend. Chengdu was the first time I ever spent money in a Starbucks and there I became a semi-regular, going for an oversized chocolate muffing for a Friday morning snack or frequenting the peppermint hot chocolate counter from November through January (seriously, it was like Christmas in my mouth.) Now though, I am no longer looking for a mid-morning work break (no job makes that easier to avoid) or a steaming cup of anything (more ice!), but I am in real need of their Wi-Fi connection. Our home internet has yet to be hooked up, so currently, my only connection to the world of newsfeeds, blogs and online shopping is through a cup of iced passion fruit tea and a maximum of two hours from the free passcode. (Due to the lack of internet, but the time this post actually makes it onto In Search of the End of the Sidewalk we will be well passed the ten day mark, but I’m trying…trying…trying to be patient.)
  • Not working is weird. I know I did it for a year when we were in DC for training, but I think over time I forgot what it was like to not have that daily schedule. On the outside it sounds like a great deal- not having a job to check in at each day, but I know myself well enough to know that I don’t stay home well. After two years of CLO-ing, I thought it would be great to have a bit of time off between jobs, but apparently two months is more than enough for me. I am ready to go back to work, to have my days full of assignments and emails and colleagues. (Right now, the household lizards, all of whom I have dubbed “Lenny” are my only colleagues. I haven’t yet started to talk to them, so that’s good, but it is just a matter of time.) I’ve applied to several positions at the embassy, so now it is just a matter of waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
  • Lizards are to be loved, mosquitoes are to be avoided. With a 280% increase in dengue fever over this time last year, the bug-eating reptiles are man’s new best friend. Knowing that these four-legged, squirmy creatures are actually a health-benefit, I try not to squeal too loudly when I open the cupboard below the sink and see one scurry under the pipes or squawk too loudly when one dashes over the top of the clothes dryer when I wander in to the laundry room first thing in the morning or even screech when a Lenny scampers over my foot on his way to the wall when I get up for a glass of water in the middle of the night. New house rule: No wimpy-girly noises that potentially scare off the critters that do nothing more than nosh on blood sucking, disease-carrying insects.
  • Although they share a continent and a time zone, on the surface, Kuala Lumpur and Chengdu share very little else. To have a great tour here, I need to put the comparing aside and love Kuala Lumpur for what it is- a great city with a few bumps and bruises, making it not that different from Chengdu, after all.

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Sweet Sixteen

Sixteen years of sidewalk searching behind us and hopefully endless ones ahead.

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Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton

hard choices

Often, I avoid writing book reviews on books that are already saturating the blogs, best seller lists and “must read” lists, as I rarely think I’ll have anything new to add to the litany of literary conversations, as these books tend to be deconstructed to the point of destruction. But, I’ve been compelled by one recent release to weigh in, mostly because it hits rather close to home. Hillary Clinton’s new memoir Hard Choices has been pulled apart, sentence by sentence, as her run for the highest office in America is imminent. Her allies have seen it as a justification of the choices to, at times, work with countries whose governments we oppose on many levels, as a defense of State’s role in the Benghazi attacks and their aftermath and as drawing a strong line in the sand against countries such as China and Syria. On the other hand, her detractors see the publication as nothing more than a chance for some free publicity leading up to the 2012 presidential elections, getting her “side of the story” out to the press and public through book signings and other events that they see as transparently working the electorate.

Regardless of the politics on either side or the dizzying spins pundits of all walks have placed on the book, I think it holds its own as a glimpse inside the US Department of State and what goes on behind those historical handshakes, Secretary-ruling-the-world memes and viral photos from the White House’s Situation Room. Hard Choices lets the average American into the inner workings of our country’s diplomatic corps, from the consular officers who protect our nation’s borders by carefully screening visa applicants to the political officers who report, from on the ground, about changes in official policy as well as the vibe of the general population within their host country.

Growing up in Idaho, the Foreign Service was just that- foreign. I had no idea what it was, and really, I probably couldn’t have even told you it existed. It never came up in any career day or job fair and wasn’t definitely not on my radar until my Peace Corps days. Having a book like Hard Choices top the best seller lists at least puts this small but important part of our national government in the spotlight for the average American citizen.

While the tome is definitely thorough, and at times can feel a bit plodding, readers should set aside their political leanings and read it not so much as Clinton’s personal memoir, but rather as a view into a world that is often kept quite quiet. Partisan judgments aside, Hilary Clinton’s Hard Choices is well-worth the time investment required by the 600 page undertaking, as it shines a spotlight on how our country interacts with others throughout the world, both friend and foe, earning it:

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Sometimes It’s Not Such a Small World After All

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about my travel adventures, but usually my mini-rants are about long delays or annoying flight changes. International travel lends itself to these types of circumstances, as multiple flights, often on different airlines, are hard to match up over the course of twenty-four or thirty hours of travel from airport to airport, continent to continent. It’s all a part of the deal.

Last weekend’s travel saga, though, takes the proverbial cake. (The taken cake was no Betty Crocker, cook-at-home-for-a-kid’s-birthday-party style either. We are talking Buddy the Cake Boss, over the top, multiple layers, moving parts and fireworks style cake for the adventure that was our trip from Washington DC to Kuala Lumpur.)

The day started early. E-a-r-l-y. My alarm went off at 2AM, which isn’t even morning in my book, but is what had to happen to get showered, repacked, checked out and in the lobby by 3AM for our not-so-super-Super-Shuttle pick-up. (Okay, technically the alarm never went off, as even though I had set two, I didn’t trust them to get me up on time, so I slept less of a slumber and more of a “lay here with your eyes closed, checking the time every five minutes” kind of sleep. When I was within fifteen minutes of the alarms sounding, I just got up, turned them off and drug my miserable self into the shower.) Our surly driver’s attitude should have clued me in to what a long day it was going to be, but I brushed off her grumpy attitude, thinking it was early and maybe she had been out late celebrating the 4th of July. (When I booked the shuttle, online, I made a note that we would have four large suitcases to check and two carry-on bags, knowing that it is probably a bigger than normal amount of baggage for folks traveling around the States. After all, we are moving to a new country! I was very clear about the amount of space we would need. Well, as it turns out, we were her first pick-up of the run and she was quite displeased with our luggage situation, which Thad stacked neatly and compactly in the back of the van. She proceeded to lecture us about the size of our bags, at which point I nicely told her that I had noted it on our reservation. She said she didn’t care and “What if everyone else has that many bags?” As it turns out, of the other four people we picked up Saturday morning, only one had anything more than a carry-on bag, as his was a mere backpack. I seriously considered pointing this out to her when we unloaded at the airport, but held my tongue, figuring a bit of good karma wouldn’t hurt since we had a whole lot of travel in front of us. If only I had known then how the day was going to go…)

But I digress…

After getting to Dulles International Airport, checking in and clearing security, we arrived at our gate to find out that between the time the counter issued our tickets and our appearance at the waiting area, our flight had been delayed FOUR hours for maintenance issues. Regardless of the worries about what plane-work would require four hours of time and if I really wanted to get on that machine anyway, that put us very close to missing our flight out of San Francisco. Along with everyone else on that flight, we queued up at the United service desk to see what could be done. The solution was a convoluted one that entailed our bags taking a mid-morning flight to SFO out of Dulles without us and Thad and I hopping in a taxi to dash across town to catch a different DC to SFO flight from Reagan International Airport in less than an hour. With few options, we jumped in a cab and asked him to get us across town as quickly as possible, which meant taking our lives in our own hands. With seatbelts firmly buckled, we were off on a ride that would take us swerving onto the shoulder multiple times and weaving in and out of traffic as the morning sun glared through the front window. On the radio played a series of what I can only guess (and hope!) were Islamic prayers. At that point, I was willing to pray along with anyone to get to National in one piece and with a bit of time to spare.

Survive we did.

With no luggage to check and boarding passes in hand (printed by the service desk at Dulles), we headed straight for security. Shoes off. Laptops out. Pockets empty. Grab it all and go! We got to the gate with time for a quick powder room break and then onto the plane we went. Whew. We were back on track for Kuala Lumpur.

Until we hit San Francisco.

After disembarking the plane, we made our way to the gigantic electronic reader board, only to see that our flight to Hong Kong was also now delayed, but just an hour. No problem. We’d have time to grab a bite to eat, stock up on snacks and continue on the journey.

And then one hour turned into two, which rolled into a third. There was no way we were going to make our Hong Kong connection.

Back to the service desk we went.

This time though, things became more complicated, as we were changing airlines, from United to Cathay, so we didn’t yet have boarding passes and we were going to have to recheck the luggage in Hong Kong. While I guarded the backpacks, Thad sweet-talked the gate agent into coordinating with Cathay and pushing our bags on through to Kuala Lumpur and getting us a second booking, this time on the flight for the following morning, in case we didn’t make the connection. There was still a bit of confidence that we would be able to make a quick transition in Hong Kong, so we were hoping to be on-track with the original plan, but had a plan B put together, just in case.
We didn’t make the connection, by less than twenty minutes.

But, we were met at the gate by a United representative who had hotel and food vouchers in-hand, who told us not to pick up our luggage since it was booked through and who told us we had two seats on the morning flight to Kuala Lumpur.

While it wasn’t ideal, a bit of a rest day in the travel itinerary was not the end of the world. United booked us in a decent hotel that was attached to the airport, so we never had to leave the confines of the building, which turned out to be ideal since it was pouring rain the next morning. Thad, thinking ahead, had packed himself some overnight items in his carry-on bag, as we’ve traveled enough to know that on multiple leg trips, overnight is always on the table. I, on the other hand, an eternal optimist, just knew that we were going to make all of our connections and be tucked away in our new beds before I’d need a change of undies or clean socks.

Optimism failed me.

Luckily, Chinese hotels always have toothbrushes as part of the bathroom “stuff,” so while Thad was showered in an entirely new outfit as we headed back to the airport on Sunday morning, I at least had clean teeth and was smelling like a boy from the deodorant I “borrowed” from my dear husband to get me through the day.

Well rested and ready to go, we sauntered on up to the Cathay ticket counter and handed over our passports, anticipating a quick turn-around since we had no luggage in tow. We watched at as the counter attendant clicked on buttons. And then typed some more. And then looked at our passports again. And then hit a few more keys. Finally, she looked up at us and said, “But you have no reservation.”

What? United, what did you do? (Or not do?)

At this point, I still have no idea where the breakdown happened, but break-down it did. The woman in San Francisco said we were booked on that flight. The man in Hong Kong said we were booked on that flight. And yet, we were not booked on that flight.

There were lots of seats though, so soon two boarding passes whirled out of the printer. Before walking away, we double checked to make sure our bags would also make the flight. And again, she looked up at us and said, “But we have no bags for you.”

What? United, what did you do? (Or not do, again?)

Overnight our bags had disappeared. It took nearly an hour of wrangling, calls from Cathay to United, us sitting on a bench, us reminding the counter we were still waiting, more calls and then finally, bags! It sounds like United locked the bags up for safe-keeping, but then didn’t have a morning attendant to answer the calls or retrieve the bags until just minutes before our flight took off.

We wove through security (yay for not having to take your shoes off in Asian airports!) and darted through immigration (yay for a diplomatic line!), arriving at our gate in time to walk right on to the plane, which was nearly done boarding.

I flopped down in my middle of the row seat, happy to be on board for the final leg of this ridiculous journey. At this point, it was all out of our hands. We were on the last flight of our trip and we were 90% sure our bags were as well.

The math is a little tricky with time zones and datelines and all that crazy international clock manipulation, but as close as I can tell, from DC hotel to KL home, we were on the road for nearly forty-eight hours. Forty-eight hours of stress, haggling with airlines, rescheduling pick-ups and just trying to make it from flight to flight. Needless to say, we are happy to be ensconced in the air conditioning of our new house, settling in for a new two year adventure.

Washington DC. San Francisco. Hong Kong. Home.

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Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman

In Search of the End of the Sidewalk has been slightly neglected for the last few weeks, as I’ve been on home leave, back in Idaho, which was the plan all along. I rarely blog when I am actually on the road, but that doesn’t excuse the horrible abandonment inflicted upon the “Book Musings” section of the blog. It is on my mind with each book I read, but I get so excited to pick up the next book in my pile that I never get the previous review actually written. But, this last week, I read a book that has forced me back into my book reviews, for better or worse. Now that I am back in the book reviewing saddle, expect to see book posts a bit more frequently.

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman was the book that reignited my passion for writing about books, but sadly, not because it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. Much the opposite. I was excited to read this memoir, which was the book club pick for June’s gathering at the consulate in Chengdu. I knew I wouldn’t still be in the country for the meeting, but the book intrigued me and I didn’t want to be left out. In retrospect, I should have cut my Chengdu book club ties and just walked away.

Based on her travels from Hong Kong to mainland China in the late 1980s, I looked forward to Gilman’s book giving me an earlier glimpse into China, where I have just finished up four years of living. Instead, I got just over 300 pages of whining, complaining and generally horrible behavior by a couple of American young women.

Yes, foreign travel can be frustrating and trying, but Susan and her co-traveler, Claire, spend weeks taking advantage of both their fellow travelers and the locals they meet along the way. Their privileged American upbringing quickly becomes apparent, but throughout the first few chapters I let it slide, thinking the moral of the book was going to be that travel gives the wanderer a new perspective on her blessings and makes one humble and more open to new experiences. If that was where the book was headed, I might have been able to forgive their trespasses, their disloyalty and overall lack of self-awareness. But, that lesson never seemed to come to fruition.

While Claire pirouetted and sashayed her way across the Middle Kingdom, slowly losing her mind, Susan spent her down time wrapped up in either the literal arms of a stranger or blaming Claire for her quickly deteriorating mental state. This breakdown becomes the main storyline of the book (not at all what I expected from a narrative labeled as a travel memoir), but even as the tale draws to an end, I never feel like readers are given an accurate retelling of what really happened. With such a massive upheaval becoming the crux of the story arc, I’d still like to know what caused the chaos. (As a traveler and a huge fan of travel writing, I’ve got my guesses, but the book does nothing to answer these unaddressed questions.)

The only saving grace of this memoir is the writing itself. While occasionally over the top with the number of ballet moves performed on a single page by dearly declining Claire, Gilman does a good job of evoking what a newly opened China would have looked like, smelled like and felt like. The descriptions of everything from communal squatty toilets to the state run hotels rang very true to me and I appreciated her recollection of the minutiae that make a foreign land unique.

Overall, I just could not get on board with Susan Jane Gilman’s Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven and am glad I didn’t spend more than the $4 I did to buy it used at Hastings. Without giving too much away in terms of plot, I just can’t forgive these two young ladies for their behavior towards other people. Yes, they were young and naïve when it came to the ways of the world, but that doesn’t excuse them for treating others as merely stepping stones on their pathway, to be literally left behind when they are no longer useful. Only the better than average writing of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven saved Gilman’s memoir from the one-shell ranking, with that barely squeaking it into a rating of:

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Asphalt Flowers and Chalk-White Arrows

The cracked, wobbly-bricked, phlem-covered sidewalk of Chengdu has run out. It may not be a glamorous sidewalk, but after a couple of years devoted to wandering it, like the fictional yellow brick road, I’m pretty happy with the adventures and friends I’ve found through its twists and turns.

Nearly two years to the day after touching down at Shuangliu Airport, we’re headed back there again, suitcases and carry-ons in tow. We’ll spend a brief bit of time on American soil, visiting family and friends, taking care of doctors and dentist appointments and spending a pretty penny on electronics and clothing, but soon we’ll head off again, bound for a new set of walkways, ones that currently contain quite a bit of uncertainty, but if I knew what was at the end of the sidewalk, the trip would quickly lose its appeal.

We are off again, looking for the places where asphalt flowers grow and chalk-white arrows go.

Searching. Searching. For the place where the sidewalk ends.

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends

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Cardboard Scraps and a Whole Lot of Dust

The day of reckoning has come and gone.

Not that there was ever any question about whether we’d be under our weight limits, which are ridiculously high. Even with the addition of a treadmill and a gigantic bean bag chair since we arrived in China, we just barely hit the one-ton mark for HHE during our pack out on Tuesday.  (I sometimes think that if Thad were doing this Foreign Service thing alone, he wouldn’t need multiple shipments. He’d load his clothes in his suitcases and put his TV and PlayStation on a boat and off he would go. It seems most of the fluff around here belongs to me.)

More than being overweight, I was worried about not having enough pounds to pack. To ship boxes back to DC for permanent storage, we had to have at least 250 pounds and I worried that we wouldn’t make it. Like a sumo wrestler, trying to pack on the pounds before a big bout, I was scrambling to find heavy items to fill out my States-bound shipment. Add in some books, a random computer monitor that was never unpacked after arriving in Chengdu and copious amounts of winter clothing and we hit the mark, with room to spare. Goodbye stuff. I’ll see you again…well, who knows. Someday when we do a DC tour. At which point I will probably hate you all and send you directly to the Goodwill, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

Tuesday morning started with a swarm of movers (okay, more like seven, but one guy seriously scurried everywhere he went, so he made the whole thing feel a bit more frenetic) taking over my apartment. Being uber-prepared, my goods were all sorted by shipment types and piles were labeled, so things got underway without a hitch. Mostly, I sat on my couch, waiting to be needed. Occasionally there were random questions I had to answer, like explaining why we had such a giant bottle of aspirin (blame it on Costco shopping) or if we really wanted to ship my jewelry by air. (Yes! Accessories are important. They must arrive ASAP!)

Oh, and there was the tampon incident. You see, I had an extra box of them that I was going to ship by air, so it was in the appropriately labeled room. At one point, I walked by the UAB room as I was making my occasional trip around the apartment, only to stop and watch one of the movers look at the box with a very confused expression. Curious as to what would happen next, I stayed in the hallway, just long enough to watch him open the box and smell the contents. Yup, a big ol’ whiff out of the tampon box. I’m not sure what he thought was in there or what it might smell like, but he got a disappointing cotton and plastic aroma. At this point, I moved on in my wanderings, thinking the strange incident was over. If I only knew the awkwardness that was to come…

Just a few minutes later, the manager of the move came up to me with that same box in hand and asked me what it was. I told her they were tampons, but that didn’t seem to clear up the situation in the least. She then pulled one out, waved it around and asked if it had liquid in it. I had to explain that it was cotton and plastic- no liquid involved and yes, it was fine to ship by air. Promises that the box was safe to send in UAB were extracted and back to managing she went, with seemingly no idea what an awkward situation we had just shared.

So there was that…

My favorite part of the day though had to be watching the movers make Franken-boxes. Much like the fabled monster (we’ll leave the literary analysis of his monstrosity to another post), the boxes were cobbled together out of pieces and parts. The TV got one of these custom-made creations, as they didn’t have any actual TV boxes with them, but the best fabricated box of the day belonged to my patio chairs. These, they stacked on top of each other and then cut box parts to go all around the chairs. By the end, the final product makes it look like I am shipping my own personal Pac-Man arcade game. Nice!

With only cardboard scraps and a whole lot of dust left behind, my days in Chengdu are numbered. (That number being 2.) Now, it’s just me and my suitcases.

Forward, ho!

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3…2…1…Pack!

Packing. It has taken over my life. Okay, not so much my life as my mind. I may not be spending hours carefully wrapping ethno-plunder and figuring out how to take apart my treadmill, but I am spending that same amount of time thinking about wrapping, disassembling and general moving-related uncertainties. (One perk to being with the State Department is that they send movers in to do all of the actual packing and hauling of boxes. One downside to being with the State Department is that they send movers in to do all of the actual packing and shoving of random items into boxes that make no logical sense, but are at least hopefully well-swaddled in packing material.)

After several sleepless nights during the week, last weekend it was time to kick off some actual moving prep on my end. Two lovely ladies, Stephanie and Kristen, came over to help get the ball rolling. We sent Thad to the consulate to work on his end-of-tour cables and EER while we dug through drawers, closets and cabinets.

To make organization easier, I made signs for each of the spare bedroom doors, labeling the intended destination for the piles within. One bedroom became UAB (this is the stuff that goes by plane and arrives first, but has a very low weight limit, so it will be mostly clothing), one became HHE (this is the bulk of household goods, goes by ship and can take months, but has a ridiculously high weight limit that we don’t come close to touching) and then a final room was labeled DC (these are things going back to permanent storage, like my collection of winter coats!). Thad may have made fun of my (admittedly dorky) signs, but they made the process much easier, since everyone knew at a glance where those items were headed.  Plus, who doesn’t love a good sign or two? (I only wished I had better markers at home to make them cuter!)

For a few hours on Saturday afternoon, my apartment became a flurry of movement. Everything we’ve had on our walls had to come down (leaving me with a million ugly nails sticking out of the cement walls), the china cabinet had to be emptied of the souvenirs we’ve picked up over the years (everything from an Argentinian mate cup to a Chinese china tea set to a huge platter from the Maldives to Athena’s owl from Greece) and drawers that have been home to random electronics cords and hair ties had to be sorted (it is amazing how fast a “junk drawer” manifests itself in a new home, no matter what continent we are living on!).

Now, after that whirlwind of work on Saturday, I’ve got three rooms with overflowing piles, a semblance of organization (it totally works in my mind!) and I owe a favor or two to the lovely ladies who helped make it all happen.

But, we’re not out of the woods yet. I’ve still got a lot of small, odds and ends tasks to be done before the movers come next week. (We’ve got a pack out survey tomorrow and then the real deal is a week later- May 20.)

*Nail polish- I figure I should probably spend a bit of time and sort out my 70-some bottles of nail polish. I am sure there are a few of those that are getting old and gross, some that just aren’t colors I will ever wear again and some that are nearly gone and not worth shipping on to KL.

*Clothes-They  need to be sorted into piles that will go in the suitcase (which I will be living out of for two months), what will go UAB and what will come later. It’s hard to think through what I might possibly need in the coming weeks- definitely casual summer clothes for Idaho, but then some summer work clothes in case I do get a job in KL (keep your fingers crossed for some movement on that front) and then shoes and accessories to go with it all. It really is too much to think about! (The winter stuff is already sorted, as I couldn’t wait to get rid of coats and scarves and gloves for a few years. No winter- yay!!)

*Electronics- These will be the last things to go, as I’ll want blog access until the very last day, which will be easy, but sometime between now and then there needs to be some major cord organization. I think I’m going to bust out my box of Ziploc baggies and start sorting cords by type- camera, iPad, laptop, MP3, etc.

*Paperwork- State recommends that we hand-carry a variety of papers with us, everything from medical records to employment records. To that end, I ran across the road to the stationery store this morning and picked up a variety of plastic organizing folders so all of these documents make it from Chengdu to Nampa to Washington DC to Kuala Lumpur in one piece. I got one folder for my personal papers (teaching certificate, State job evaluations, etc.) one for Thad’s work documents, (he hasn’t seen his adorable bunny-covered folder yet, but I am sure he is going to be thrilled when he does!) and then one for all of our travel-papers, like airline tickets, hotel reservations and rental car registrations.

As I am living in the world of denial when it comes to the impending goodbyes, I can focus my energy on these more mundane t asks, the ones that need to be completed but don’t have the emotional baggage that will come next week as I have to say goodbye to some fabulous friends, a boss and coworkers who have been incredibly wonderful to work for and a job that not only kept me busy and on my toes, but gave me a solid foundation in the ways of the Foreign Service, for which I will always be grateful. So, while I continue to float in my canoe on that famed African river, I’ll go sort a few more dishes, clean out the overflowing sock drawer and finish deciding which books get to go to KL and which must suffer the hardship of being boxed for a few years.

 

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