Category Archives: Random Musings

Never Say Never

Never say never.

Three words that are good to live by, and yet so often are ignored, usually by me.

Even though I love to travel and am up for strange experiences, trying new things and always on the lookout for the quirky, there is another side of me that is weirdly neurotic about things having to be a certain way. For example, I have these four pink bowls that have cute little cartoon owls on their inside bottoms. I bought these bowls almost five years ago when we were living in Oakwood Crystal City and Thad was going through training in preparation for his tour in Chengdu. The Oakwood-provided bowls just didn’t cut it for my daily breakfast cereal consumption, so one day early on, I schlepped myself to the nearest Target on the public bus and bought a few household items, including new bowls. These were not only adorable, but the perfect size for breakfast. I bought four. These are my cereal bowls and have been for nearly five years; I eat Rice Crispies or cornflakes or Marshmallow Maties out of them every morning that I am home. Four bowls mean I must do my dishes at least every four days. (Without kids, you don’t generate nearly as many dishes as a big family, so have a whole lot more wiggle room on the dishwashing front!) A few weeks ago, three days into the cycle, Thad said he was going to make some soup. (He was having wisdom teeth issues, which have since been relieved by pulling two of the offending chompers.) I knew he was going to grab the first bowl he saw, so I purposely moved my adorable cereal bowl out of line-of-sight so he would have to go with one of the boring blue plastic bowls (which were part of a wedding gift we received nearly 18 years ago!) or the black ceramic ones (which were his before we were even married). And yet, half an hour later, when he came into the living room, guess what he was holding in his hand?! My cereal bowl! Needless to say, I gave him a terrible time about it, telling him I was going to starve in the morning now that I didn’t have my go-to breakfast dish. He did kindly wash it out and return it to the cupboard (probably a little annoyed at my reaction) so I would not waste away the next morning, but the point here isn’t that he ate soup out of the wrong bowl, but that my brain can be weirdly rigid about certain things, usually ones of little importance.

Why does this all matter? And what does it have to do with “never say never”?

You see, we’ve been going to Thailand for vacations for almost a decade now. (We went with friends when we were in Peace Corps, a couple of times for blue skies and sunshine when we were in Chengdu and now that it is just a hop, jump and skip away, a few times for long weekends.) On each of these trips, I’ve giggled and possibly made remarks about all of the backpackers dressed in what I call “elephant pants.” They are not designated as such because they make the wearer look large, but rather because a good percentage of them are decorated in a variety of elephant patterns. These pants are lightweight cotton, usually have elastic/drawstring tops and elastic ankles. They look extremely comfortable, but also look like pants for hobos. It is ridiculous how many tourist women (and a few men!) you see wearing these things in SE Asia, but especially in Thailand.

I’ve always mocked elephant pants.

Until two weeks ago.

When we went to Chiang Mai for my birthday weekend (click here to see a post about our awesome elephant trek), we wandered the night markets three different evenings. Of course, they were filled with the usual souvenir items: t-shirts, knock-off handbags, some artwork, strange leather good, etc. But nothing was more prevalent than elephant pants.

I held firm for two nights, but on our last night in town, I did the thing I said I would never do. I bought elephant pants.

They were only $3.

I couldn’t resist the bargain.

And they did look awfully comfortable.

(To be perfectly honest, I bought three pair. But only one pair had elephants on it.)

When I got back to our boutique hotel in the old town, I immediately changed into my new pants. It was nirvana. They were amazing! So lightweight. So comfortable. And a good length for my long legs.

I swore I would never own elephant pants. Now, these are my go-to outfit when I get home from the embassy each day. As long as we are not headed out for drinks or dinner after work, I go from my dress and heels right to elephant pants and a tank top. They are more comfortable than any pair of shorts or capris and nothing says a night of happiness with a good book than comfy pants adorned with pachyderms.

Lesson learned: Don’t knock the elephant pants until you’ve lounged a minute or two in their heavenliness.

(Disclaimer: I do not have a single picture of me in these glorious pants, as they are pretty much just lazy-day wear for me, but I did find these on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Premium-Elephant-Trousers-Bohemian-Buddhist/dp/B00O7RG2UE. Apparently you can buy them for $20. At least I got a good deal as I ate crow.)

elephant pants

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Mahout for a Day

Picture this: Me, in over-sized, heavy cotton pajamas (jean blue), hair in two braids, sunglasses perched on the top of my head, barefoot and dirtier than I’ve been since I was probably eight years old. My face is caked in dried mud; my shirt has streaks of dirt running from collar to hem and my pants look like I’ve spent the afternoon riding a large mud-covered animal. But wait. One more detail. Beneath that dried on muck covering my face is a smile that goes from muddy ear to muddy ear. Why so happy about looking like Peanuts’ Pig-Pen? Because I just spent the entire day riding and tending to TJ, a lovely 35-year old elephant who became my pal for the day.

My day started with a 6:30AM alarm, which is normally much too early on a vacation, but it was no problem, as I’d been up for an hour already, lying in bed quietly, trying not to squirm too much as I looked forward to my day as a mahout. As soon as it was not ridiculous to be up and dressed, I hopped down to the restaurant of our adorable boutique hotel, settled nicely within the old city walls, and had some cornflakes, partially because I can’t start my day without breakfast and partially because I needed something to do until our 8AM excursion pickup arrived.

Thai Elephant Home, our destination for the day, is about an hour outside of Chiang Mai. The trip out was fascinating. I always love just driving through new places and I had to giggle to myself as I watched people bundled up in winter coats, beanies and scarves to brave the early morning 55 degree weather that cools the city in January and February. (We loved the weather! It was a perfect break from the constant heat and humidity of Kuala Lumpur.) Upon reaching TEH, we were handled bundles of clothes to change into, knapsacks to take along on the trip and bottles of water to keep us hydrated as we headed into the mountains.

Elephant assignments followed. Thad was given one of the largest, which frankly I was glad went to him. Even my “average” sized critter was enormous once I was mounted. The world looks different from atop an elephant head! I was assigned TJ, who brought up the rear of the line (we were a group of five, so awesomely small!) , which meant she wore a bell that tinkled all the way up the mountain and back down the other side, reminding me a bit of a horse-trek we took in Songpan, China, where the horse bell about drove us all nuts! Luckily, TJ’s bell was quieter and more soothing, plus I liked that it meant someone always knew where we were at!

With TEH, guests don’t ride elephants in baskets or with a trainer. Each visitor gets their own elephant for the day- solo. Of course, there are trainers who go along for safety (we learned command words, but TJ did whatever the heck she wanted and who was I to tell the elephant which way to go?! She knew the route better than I did!) TJ obediently bent down, allowing me to step on her front leg, at which point she stood, shooting me onto her back, and off we went. There was a rope behind me that I could hold onto going down hills, but otherwise, it was bareback all the way.

I have to say, there is no sensation in the world like having your bare feet pushed up against the skin of an elephant. To sit up there and just imagine how much muscle and power is beneath you, knowing that in the end, you have no control, is a few parts terrifying and a few parts exhilarating.

At the top of the mountain, we dismounted and had some lunch (banana leaf for the humans, grass/trees for the elephants) and then it was time to hit the spa. In the US, you’d excpect to pay $100 for a mud-mask and massage day at the spa, but we enjoyed it right out of the mountain with our elephants. TJ loved her mud-bath, getting coated from trunk to tail in a gooey mess, which made remounting her a bit petrifying. I was getting well-versed in her boosting me onto her back, but with both of us packed in slippery slime, I hit her back and kept going! Thank goodness for that one rope, which I clung to with all my might!

At the bottom of the mountain we forded a stream, dropping all sunglasses, cameras and phones on the far bank, and then headed back into the middle of the idle flow for bath time, much needed my animals and humans alike! Rolling off TJ into the river, I had my work cut out for me, trying to clean mud off an elephant! Luckily, she helped by provided extra rinse water from her trunk! It felt like something out of a cartoon, where the elephant serves as a shower.

As we headed back to camp, it had been a long day, which I loved, but I was honestly ready to be off TJ’s back. Horse saddle—soreness is one thing, but imagine that times about three, to factor in the width of an elephant. I was sore- everywhere! We did swing by an elephant drive-thru on the way back to buy sugar cane as a treat for the last kilometer of the journey. I held the bundles on my lap and TJ would lift her trunk up to get one each time she ran out. I only wish I had had more! An elephant can go through a bundle of sugar cane like a fat kid with a bag of Cheetos.

Animal-travel. Fauna-frolicking. Creature-trips.

I don’t know what the best clever name for my favorite kind of travel is, but whenever we are looking at new places to visit, one of the first things I do is figure out what animals are native to there and how I might possibly hold, cuddle, ride or basically fondle (in a good way!) whatever adorableness the country has to offer. Thailand, and specifically Chiang Mai, has a corner on the elephant business, so while we did visit our share of beautiful, gold-leafed temples and wandered night markets until we could no longer see straight, the highlight of my latest trip to Thailand was Thai Elephant Home, the small elephant camp (the camp is small, not the elephants) that allows visitors to be a mahout for a day- riding and tending to their own creature from sun-up until saddle-soreness makes one ready to call it a day.

“The very things that held you down are gonna carry you up and up and up.”
― Timothy Mouse, Dumbo

 

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Bangles and Babies

Bangles and babies go together, right? What newborn doesn’t want to “Walk Like an Egyptian” or doesn’t dream of an eternal flame burning? Okay, maybe I’ve got the wrong type of bangle there (but really, who doesn’t love singing along to some fantastic 80s ballads?), nevertheless, bangles and babies collided in my world last week.

I’ve been to a lot of baby showers for friends and family over the years (and blogged about several of them), usually grumbling because for a married woman with no kids, baby showers are filled with landmine questions.  In general, baby showers are my least favorite kind of shower (rainy season rain showers in Malaysia may rank as my top choice) because they are open season on personal questions about why I don’t have kids, regardless of how well I know the asker. Apparently, if you are co-guests at a baby shower, you can ask anything that pops into your head!

 

My less-than-stellar past baby shower experiences were eclipsed last week through when the consular section in Kuala Lumpur hosted a party for one of our officers who is having her baby in late January. Malaysia’s eclectic mix of cultures took center stage Friday night, when our American-style shower was combined with an Indian bangle ceremony.

Awesome!

One of our local staff members who is Indian-Malaysian offered to give the party an Indian-twist, which she did in spades! She brought in sarees for any of the ladies who wanted to really get into the theme of the party (I chose a deep purple one with a beaded paisley pattern long the edge), jewelry to match, all the accouterments for the ceremony itself, and of course, a beautiful saree and flowers for the mother-to-be. Of course, the baby shower was not about me (thank goodness!), but I did love that I got to dress up in an absolutely gorgeous saree and spend the night contemplating a tour in India. (I’m actually not super keen on a post in India, but I am dying to see the Taj Mahal at some point. I don’t need two years of India, but I could definitely use two weeks!)

While most American bridal showers consist of a few games (ick!), gift opening and lots of cake, Friday’s event was unique in the way that the focus was on the soon-to-be-mother. Each person who attended the shower was invited up to individually greet/bless the mother through a small ritual consisting of sprinkling rose water over her, putting sandalwood paste on her cheeks and placing glass bangles on each of her arms. These few brief moments were special, as it gave each guest a chance to say a few words one-on-one, even in a room full of chatting women. It was a bit of calm in a room filled with music, conversations and laughter.

Living abroad can be difficult, especially when it means missing out on important events in the lives of family and friends at home (yes, even baby showers!), but it is nights like Friday that help fill those gaps. Never in Idaho would I have gathered with friends from Yemen, Malaysia, Venezuela and the US, donned a magnificently hued saree and attended an Indian bangle ceremony in celebration of a friend’s impending motherhood.

Sand dances, gold crocodiles and foreign types with hookah pipes-Bangles and babies are where it is at!

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Seriously, Malaysia Takes Ingrown Toenails Seriously

I’ll put it out there from the start- I tend to minimize all illness/injuries. I’m pretty sure most anything can be walked off and there is no need to miss a day of school or work unless bodily fluids are running or you are in the hospital. In the last year though, I’ve started to think maybe my medical philosophy has steered me wrong. It was due to these stringent “rules” that I wrote a literature paper and worked for three days, all while blind in my left eye. Just when I was thinking it was time to rethink my “suck it up and stick it out” thought process, Malaysia has reiterated that overly cautious and slightly wimpy is not the way to go.

How did this rethinking of my thinking come about? An ingrown toenail.

That’s right. I would like to officially retake my stand on illness and injury. Pull it together and do what you need to do.

You see, I have had problems with an ingrown toenail on my left big toe since March. It all started when we went to Tioman Island to do our SCUBA certification. I stubbed my toe hard on something and it broke the nail down fairly low. As it grew in, it grew *in.* Since March, I’ve just dug it out occasionally as it pushed into the skin. It hurt a little, but was never something I couldn’t fix with a pair of nail clippers and a few winces of pain. (Keep in mind, this was the same SCUBA trip that took place a week before my sudden left-eye blindness. Maybe SCUBA is the death of me in a way I never imagined!) Lately though, the home remedy was no longer sufficient. Last Friday night, after a fun farewell dinner for one of our local staff who has worked at Embassy KL longer that I have been alive (seriously), I sat down to do a little self-surgery. As I took the clippers to the edge of skin, basically the skin folded back on its own, leaving a strangely gaping hole and no nail to dig out. (Gross, I know. Sorry if you are eating breakfast as you read this. But if you are eating breakfast, thank s for starting your day with In Search of the End of the Sidewalk !) Thad took one quick look at it and announced we would be going to the walk-in clinic first thing Saturday morning to have it cut out by a professional.

Since the toe was red and pretty painful by this point, I relented and off to the nice, shiny private hospital in KL we went. I assumed that the clinic would be able to cut it out and then send me on my way, but boy was I wrong. This is where the drama of a single ingrown toenail begins.

Saturday we went to the clinic. They wouldn’t cut my toe, instead made me an appointment with an orthopedic doctor for Tuesday and gave me a bag full of prescription drugs- anti-inflammatories, pain medication and antibiotics. They sent me home to wait for my mid-week appointment.

Tuesday rolls around and off I headed to the doctor. I took an hour off work, figuring my 11AM appointment would have me back at my desk by 1PM. Boy was I wrong!

My first meeting of the day started with the doctor giving me two options: do nothing or cut into the nailbed, forever changing the shape of the nail. When Thad asked if there was a middle-of-the-road option, we were told no. So, we opted for the second, as doing nothing was not going to be useful. The doctor then told us he could do it December 18! What? I thought it was going to happen today; that’s why we had the appointment. The doctor got all kinds of surly and told us that is not the way it works and that he had to be at the airport in two hours to catch his flight to India, so there was nothing more he could do.

After asking a few questions, which he interpreted as arguing, he finally referred us to another orthopedic doctor in the same building. (Those of you who know me know that I am not an arguer- especially in that kind of situation! I am not sure why he interpreted it as such, but needless to say I was less than impressed with his entire bedside manner.)

Doctor #2 on Tuesday was a much better fit. He actually examined my foot (something the first doctor did with a mere glance) and said he could remove the toenail and let it grow back in on its own, suggesting the more radical option be saved and used only if the toenail didn’t return correctly. He also said he could do the surgery today. (He kept calling it a surgery. I kept calling it a procedure. Little did I know how correct he was!)

We scheduled for 2PM in the day clinic for the procedure (I was still sticking with that term) and showed up a bit early to check in. Upon giving my name and passport and removing every piece of jewelry I was wearing, I was escorted to a curtained off area where I was handed a dressing gown, a pair of disposable underwear (?!?!) and a hairnet.

Suddenly, this all got a whole lot more serious. Why do I need all of this for a toenail?

I changed and Thad tied up the forty-seven ties on the back of my gown, not even trying to contain his giggles at the ridiculous disposable granny panties and hairnet I was rocking. Then, they made me lay in the bed and off I was wheeled to, yes, SURGERY!

I was actually taken to a surgery room where I was transferred onto a surgical bed and hooked up to a variety of machines. Covered with a blanket which had a magical layer of warm air being blown into it and with the huge ceiling lights all aimed at my foot, it was time for the doctor to make his grand entrance.

Again, we are talking about an ingrown toenail here!

Not being able to contain myself by the time, I blurted out, “Doctor, this is all a little dramatic for a toenail, don’t you think? In America, we would have cut it out in a walk-in clinic.”

He laughed a bit and then went to work, numbing most of my foot with four injections that made not very nice words tumble out of my mouth in a murmur or two of pain. He told me he was giving me the American dose of numbing injections rather than the Asian. Did he just call me fat??

All the while, as he numbed and cut and clipped (not painlessly, I might add) he wanted to talk about the visa waiver program! Are you serious? I should count this as work hours! So, while I had a minor (VERY minor) operation on my big toe, I did a bit of simultaneous consular section outreach.

The numbing and cutting and clipping took about half an hour and then I was wheeled back to where Thad was waiting. The nurse suggested I rest for another half an hour, but I said I was probably all right to go. There is nothing lying there would do for me, so she handed me my sack lunch (Yes, I am serious. I got a sandwich, two orange juices and a water. Sadly, no cookies.) and off we headed to pay my bill, get my new drugs and head home.

All in all, my ingrown toenail is going to set me back about $800 and a day and a half of work. (Luckily, we have very good insurance, but I am still not sure how to register the claim. I think I am going to look up the medical terms for ingrown toenail and make it sound super fancy, otherwise, it is ridiculous!)

And this, my friends, is why I am reverting to my previous beliefs about medical issues. If you aren’t seeping bodily fluids and you are not prone on a hospital bed, you are fine. Who would have guessed a single ingrown toenail would become so much drama and ridiculousness? Not I, I proclaim as I lay on my couch, trying to type with the computer on my lap and my foot propped up above my heart level. I guess they take their toe problems seriously in Malaysia!

Lesson learned.

 

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Thailand Instead of Turkey

Since we are going to Idaho for Christmas this year and will be surrounded by snow (maybe?!), live Christmas trees, sparkly wrapped packages, peppermint hot chocolate and all of the excitement of the holidays at home, we opted for the non-traditional Thanksgiving celebration.  Last year we had Foreign Service friends from Chengdu and Kuala Lumpur over for a giant turkey (two, actually!), every possible side dish you can imagine and several hours of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Spaces” video on loop (thanks, Tom!), but this year we traded all of that for Friendsgiving in Thailand:  fruity drinks with umbrellas in them rather than turkey, lunch delivered to our beach chairs instead of dinner at a dining room table and snorkeling with the sharks (just one!) instead of pop music on repeat.

I have no complaints about either one.

With friends in town for the month of November, we thought wrapping up their visit with a trip north was the perfect way to celebrate. What’s not to be thankful for with white sandy beaches, clear blue water, inexpensive massages and beautiful pink sunsets?  (Plus, it was one more stamp in their passports, after a whirlwind three countries in four weeks!) Shannon and Joe had already hiked the rain forest in Borneo, wandered miles of pavement in Singapore, visited Batu Caves and all the sites Kuala Lumpur has to offer, dressed up in formal wear for the marine ball and checked out the street art in Penang. There’s no better way to end a first-trip to Southeast Asia than with a bit of tropical paradise.

Possibly the most amazing thing about our Thanksgiving weekend was that we spent three days either on the beach or on boats (or a combination of the two!) and I got absolutely no sunburn! Granted, I did get a weird set of hives, possibly from the hotel shampoo, but that is entirely out of my control. Between one day lounging on the hotel beach, one day snorkeling off a dive boat three hours from shore and spending one day at Hong Island, I barely had a pink tinge to my skin. It’s amazing what a little bit of sunscreen can do for a white girl! (Tan? No way. That is asking too much for this pasty skin.)

On our Air Asia flight Wednesday afternoon, Thad and I were trying to count how any times we’ve been to Thailand and I think we came up with this being our sixth trip there, but even with multiple visits to Bangkok, Phuket and Krabi over the years, last weekend did offer up a new experience- fish pedicures. That’s right- a tank full of tiny fish that eat away the dead skin around your toes and feet. Thad partook of this strange experience when we were in Cambodia with friends a few years ago, but I think I did a little night market shopping while he let his feet be nibbled upon. The idea of purposefully letting something, even a little something, bite me held no appeal.  But, it when Joe wanted to give it a shot (not his first go at the strange experience) I decided now was the time for me to join the club. Everyone’s doing it, right?

How did it go? I don’t think there is any need for words. Watch the video. That is all.

I may not have busted out the turkey platter, gravy boats and autumn table cloth that I obsessed over getting last year, but Thanksgiving 2015 was fantastic and I got the best of both worlds this year: Thanksgiving with best friends on a beach and then a white (??) Christmas with family in Idaho. Happy holidays all around!

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Singapore through New Eyes

An odd part about living abroad as an expat with the Foreign Service in contrast to the extended travel we used to do on our summer breaks from teaching in Idaho is how routine certain far-flung trip/cities have become. When I graduated from high school almost twenty years ago (is that possible?!) I would never have imagined that a weekend in Singapore would be second-nature and easily booked on a Thursday evening to fly out on a Friday morning. And yet, being assigned to Kuala Lumpur, planning a weekend in Singapore is about as much work as putting together a trip to Salt Lake City would have been. We’ve been there half a dozen times now, and have hit almost all of the main attractions. We’ve been on the night safari at the zoo, visited both the city botanical gardens and the Gardens by the Bay, spent hours sitting and people watching at the base of the merlion, wandered Sentosa and Haw Par Villa, shopped the markets in Little India and lunched in Chinatown and perused the high end shops on Orchard Street. Heck, we’ve even tried out the international hospitals, ophthalmologists and neurologists in Singapore! I think the one major tourist attraction we are missing is the Singapore Flyer, a huge Ferris wheel taller than the Eye of London. Thanks, but no thanks on that one.

But, this last weekend, we got to enjoy it all over again, almost as if for the first time. (Our initial trip to Singapore was in 2007. We were on winter holiday from our small teachers’ college in China where we were serving as Peace Corps volunteers. Along with good friends who were also PCVs in Gansu province, we did a multi-country tour of SE Asia and decided, on a bit of a whim, to hop a long-distance bus from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore for an overnight excursion. Unplanned, but spectacular, it was one of the highlights of that trip.) A good friend of Thad’s from high school came out to visit for two weeks and wanted to add another stamp or two to his shiny new passport, so a trip to Singapore was a great way to get another country and another experience in just a long weekend. Even though we’ve been there a handful of times, this last one stood out because we got to experience it all again, as if for the first time. Garrett was full of boundless energy, wanting to see and do everything the city had to offer, so we tied on our tennis shoes and headed out for two action-packed and long days of conquering the sites of Singapore, shin splints and haze be damned.

It was fun to take in the city again from the perspective of a new traveler. Wanting to see and do more than chill, we booked a budget hotel with small rooms, as we planned to spend little time there. What we didn’t know upon booking was the weekend we stayed would be the hotel’s first weekend with guests. It was brand new! This was great in that that pillow top mattresses were to die for and everything was sparkly still, but there was some evidence that they were still working out the quirks in their building. Morning showers and hot water were a particular issue. While Thad and Garrett opted for quick and cold, I chose the on/off method of conserving water to get maximum heat. To each his/her own. We did “get” to take selfies with the manager for their Facebook page, so there was that…

In two and a half days, we saw as much of the lovely city-state as humanly possible. Thad and I have a special love for Haw Par Villa, a strange and wonderful park on the marina side of town, built by the founders of the Tiger Balm empire. Wanting to pass on traditional Chinese beliefs about spirituality and the afterlife, the park is made up of statues and 3-D murals depicting traditional Chinese tales. A visit through the grounds culminates with a trip to Hell. Literally. The creators put together a slightly horrific and strangely graphic diorama inside a man-made cave that walks patrons through the nine courts of Hell, specifically outlining misdeeds and their punishments before one can drink the tea of forgetfulness and be reincarnated to give this world another shot. Haw Par Villa is strange and wonderful, cartoonish and graphic, all in a single glance.

After going through Hell together, we stuck to a much more cheerful and lighthearted schedule, focusing on the marina area, visiting the Sands Hotel and its ridiculous compound/attached mall area, where I searched endlessly for a merlion charm for my Pandora bracelet, but apparently such a thing does not exist. The air conditioning was a nice reprieve from the heat/humidity/haze of outside, so a turn or two around the shops wasn’t a bad break. The Gardens by the Bay were also on the itinerary for the day, a place we had not previously visited, so the one for which I was most excited. The free parts of the gardens are quite extensive, but we did shell out the Sing dollars to get into the Cloud Forest Pavilion and the Flower House. I was particularly drawn to the cloud forest, as they are talked about extensively in Jonathon Maslow’s Bird of Life, Bird of Death, one of the books I am writing about in my thesis. It was awesome to see that habitat in person, even if it was man-made. It may not be the basis of why I chose that book for my writing, but I’m going to chalk the ticket price up to research anyway!

While I was the one pushing to visit this particular green house, I think Thad and Garrett may have enjoyed it more. The set-up reminded me of the aquarium in Baltimore, where you go to the top of a multi-story building and wind your way down through the exhibits, back to the main floor. In Baltimore, that worked great for me. It was just a series of ramps circling down through tank after tank of fish. The cloud forest was not so comforting for those of us with major fears of heights. Rather than solid floors, the path that wound down was more like a suspension track with woven metal floors that you could see through. Not good. Plus, it moved. Just a bit, but a bit was too much for me. I tried on the top floor to do it, but made it about ten yards before chickening out and heading back to the stairs in the center of the building. I opted to meet my companions on each solid level. Towards the bottom, maybe floor three (there were seven in total), I decided to give the walkway a try again, thinking I could make it happen since we were so much closer to the ground. Did I make it to the next level? I did. Did I see or enjoy a single flower or plant along the way? I did not. Did I nearly run over a lovely Indian family who were camped out doing photos in the middle of the walkway? Shamefully, yes. It seems Maslow at least had the “death” part of the cloud forest right!

Feeling like we were quickly running out of time to see and do everything the city had to offer, on Sunday we opted for tickets on a hop-on/hop-off style bus tour that took us to Little India for some great Deepavali shopping, Chinatown for an amazing xiaolongbao lunch and through the modern financial districts as well as the historically colonial neighborhoods of town. Seeing the city through Garrett’s eyes was rejuvenating, as he loved each and every place we wandered. Watching him barter for singing bowls in Chinatown or search for a taste of durian, it’s great to be along as someone experiences something so entirely different from their normal day-to-day life. It makes me think maybe I should have become a tour guide! The hundreds and hundreds of photos and dozens of videos on Garrett’s phone attest to his newfound love of all things Singapore.

And of course, no trip to Singapore is complete without some quality time with the merlion, so we had dinner down on the marina and enjoyed the perpetually warm nights that come with being mere degrees above the equator.

After my two most recent trips to Singapore having been on behest of my eye, I loved having the chance to go down and take in the sights as a tourist- 100%. There is much truth in the fact that last weekend’s trip really was seeing Singapore through new eyes- both Garrett’s and my own. (Click here for the back story on my previous, less fun and more stressful trips to Singapore.)

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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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Filed under Random Musings