Category Archives: Random Musings

Hamster Balls for the Win!

Growing up, we weren’t allowed inside pets. We had all sorts of critters, but that is just what happens when you live in the country. At various points, we had all the fixings of a farm, but never all in one moment. We had chickens and a mean ol’ rooster who attacked the small children sent in to gather eggs. We had calves that we christened with adorable monikers like Cookies and Cream or Bert and Ernie. (We also ate those same cute little guys when cold weather rolled in. They were fun “pets” in the summer and tasty tacos in the winter.) We had pheasants and rabbits and dogs and of course a smattering of slightly feral cats. Then came the llamas and a pygmy goat we babysat for a short time. But, for the majority of my childhood, all pets were outdoor pets. They had cozy stalls filled with warm straw and houses crammed with blankets and heaters, so were not lacking when it came to comfort, but none of them got to spend their evenings with the humans in the big house. That is, until my sister and I wheedled and begged (and probably annoyed) my parents to the point where they gave in. We would each be allowed to have an “inside” pet. She went with parakeets, getting a blue and a yellow budgie to add to our bedroom décor and I went with a hamster, thinking it was fuzzy and adorable. (These were the first iterations. We each went through several of our chosen pets throughout the years.)

My first hamster, Candy, was a light cream color and loved to fill his (her?) cheeks with pellet food and then spit it out if you got too close. (This turned out to be good preparation for when we got the llamas!) But, more than anything, Candy loved being shoved in his clear plastic wheel and set loose in the house. Luckily, we had very few stairs, as he seemed to always find them instantly and take himself off-roading in his wheel. He’d scurry around the house for hours until he had worn himself out and we’d find his ball tucked in a corner, him asleep, usually with a pile of poo. His adventures literally left him pooped!

Candy (and his successors) are what came to mind a few weeks ago when I was confronted with a human-sized hamster ball. You see, in New Zealand, there is a lovely company called Zorb where one can pay money to be strapped into a gigantic hamster ball and pushed down a rather steep hill. Thad stumbled upon this phenomenon on our first evening in NZ and we quickly decided the home of Zorb-ing would be our destination for the next day.

Hill? Hamster ball? Lots of bungee cords? Why not?!

It is pretty much exactly as it sounds. The workers drive you to the top of the hill (you are barefoot, so walking isn’t a great option) and strap you into a large plastic orb. It is really two soft, blow-up balls, one bungee-ed to the other to create shock absorbers. You get strapped in by the ankles, waist and a chest belt and then you’ve got loops above your head to grab with your hands. As soon as all the buckled are clipped, the worker asks if you are ready, and ready or not, down the hill you go!

Now, I love “dizzy” rides. The Scrambler is my favorite place to be at an amusement park. I can go on that thing again and again and then down a cotton candy and hop right back on. No problem! But, the Zorb gave my belly a run for its money.

Flying down the hill, all I could see was a rotation: green, blue, green, blue, green, blue. Grass, sky, grass, sky, grass, sky.

About half way down I began to silently pray that the cookie and apple juice I had for breakfast would remain in my stomach, which felt like it was making two rotations for each one of my body.  And of course, there was squawking the entire way down. I think it was a series of “aaack”s each time my feet made another trip over my head.

Reaching the bottom of the hill, I slowly and clumsily unhooked by various belts, stood up in the ball, only to crash back down, having lost all sense of direction and any coordination to which I may have previously laid claim. It took a good minute before I was able to squeeze myself out of the opening and zigzag my way away from the hill.

Zorbing was crazy and not cheap, but definitely an experience worth having! I think I would probably do it again, but with much more trepidation, as my tummy now knows what it is in for as I barrel down a hill, head over foot, time and time again. (And I know how poor Candy felt when he hit those few stairs, sending him tumbling in all directions!)

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Guest Blog Post: Yellowstone as a Winter Wonderland

This blog entry was written by Kelsey, a student at Syringa Middle School in Caldwell, Idaho. Recently, she spent a weekend exploring the great outdoors of Yellowstone National Park on a science trip with some of her classmates. Here are her thoughts after returning home, frozen, but full of new ideas!

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Before Yellowstone became a state park, Ferdinand V. Hayden gathered a group of explorers to take a “professional look” at the park. Among these men, were old and young , tall and short. None of the men had spent much time together, they knew each other vaguely. This trek to the park brought them closer and they acted just like old friends. As their last night on their trek neared, the men dreaded going home. After they got to know each other, they never wanted to leave.

On the last night of their adventures, the comrades sat in a circle around their final campfire together. Around this campfire, they conveyed their thoughts and feelings to one another. They admitted their thoughts on the beauty of the area and their wishes of staying there. Alvred Bayard Nettleton, the youngest of the explorers, granted the men’s minds an idea to stew on. Alvred thought that preserving the area would allow them to come back and show their families and allow others to see the stunning beauty of this area. Most of the men disagreed or thought it was impossible, and continued their conversations. That night all that was on those men’s minds was going home to their families.

In the morning they left each other’s company, few tears were shed and they were on their ways. The men all lived in different places, they took trains and cars to their destinations.  The only thing on their minds, the idea that came about in conversation the night before. As each of the men continued their lives, they still thought about this idea long and hard. The men finally came together and followed up on it. The law stating that the Yellowstone area was now considered a state park, was signed by Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872.

This is how Yellowstone National Park came to be.

This last weekend, I spent a weekend in the first national park, Yellowstone. This story, matches the one my classmates and I created last weekend. Just as the men did, we explored and created memories in our adventures. The rangers, that led us through these adventures told us this story.  I matched our adventures to ones that these men had back in 1870.

Although, these first men spent a year, we only spent a weekend. This weekend felt almost too short. Each and everything we did just seemed to end so soon. These moments let me get closer to people I didn’t talk to much. Just like these men, I went into the trip vaguely knowing everyone. And without technology, and only our personalities to sustain us, I got to know a great group of people. I just wished that we can stay this good of friends after our expedition.

This expedition, also allowed us to understand and witness the beauty of one of the last places in America that isn’t totally over run by urbanization. The views from every point in each of our hikes were gorgeous. Down to every tree branch, were little quirks and kinks that made Yellowstone, just an amazing place to be. The weather that we experienced might not have been traditional weather for Yellowstone, but it still made me appreciate everything there. Each and every animals’ path that we crossed was a fantastic experience. Even if we did just see tracks of an animal, I still felt as if that animal was there. The ones we did see in the flesh, were calm and allowed us to see their habitat as they did.

The first day we were there we focused on the geology of the area. We took samples of the water in several of the hot springs. By doing this we could test the pH of the water, along with using a heat gun to determine how hot these hot springs actually were. This day we didn’t see many animals, but we did see a lot of people. The boardwalks were covered with people, we didn’t let that stop us from being scientists. This was overall a sort of laid back day.

The second and final day was by far my favorite day of our “trek”. On that day we drove out about 30 minutes away from where we were staying and just hiked. We focused on ecology that day. The rangers took us out to the wilderness. I would have never seen myself as an outdoors person, but I felt at home. We took a path that was made just the week before, that the public didn’t use. The rangers took us out snowshoeing across the beauty and vastness of Yellowstone. At one point we walked up a hill, at the top I could see everything. I could tell how just breathless I was, it made me forget this was real life. Everything I was thinking just went out my ears and all I thought was that there was no way to describe what I was seeing.  It made me think, this is really what the world should look like. It made me sad to have to leave that lookout, and the bison friends we hung out with while we were up there. I didn’t take a picture, because I figured if someone really wanted to see it they would want the same experience up on that hill.

That night all of us explorers, tired and wanting to go home, came together in a circle. We sat there at the last campfire of our expedition. We told legends about each of our totem animals and heard a legend or two from our rangers. There, sitting in that circle around our “campfire” I felt close, personal with each and everyone of those kids. I felt that I had gotten to know them so well after the seemingly shortest weekend ever. I looked around and thought “ Man would I love to stay here and make memories with everyone here”.  I just enjoyed it so much. With the use of an old bison horn, we all said something we learned or did this weekend that we enjoyed. Everyone talked of how beautiful Yellowstone is and how we all loved the chance to get to know each other. We all enjoyed each other company and were good friends. Tears we shed, songs were sung, then we blew out the “campfire”. We then packed and went to sleep.

The next morning, we cleaned our dorms and headed on our way. We got on the bus, each and everyone of us dwelt on the the thoughts of our friendships and  the scenery. We enjoyed each others’ company for the rest of the bus ride.

The next day at school, everyone went back to their normal friends. I felt like we repeated the same thing that happened with those explorers. They discovered things, and became good friends, but without the beautiful park to keep them together they lacked that friendship. That is why I wish that everywhere was much like that park, because beautiful scenery brings people together.

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In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.

Khalil Gibran

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Our Home is Girt by Sea (AKA: We Have Giant Tuna!)

Australians all let us rejoice,

For we are young and free;

We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil;

Our home is girt by sea;

Our land abounds in nature’s gifts

Of beauty rich and rare;

In history’s page, let every stage

Advance Australia Fair.

In joyful strains then let us sing,

Advance Australia Fair.

Oh boy, do the Australian’s know how to rejoice in their beauty rich and rare! Last Tuesday night, I was Thad’s +1 for Australia Day, the biggest national holiday celebration in KL. Since we’ve been here, we’ve heard rumors that if we were to attend just one national day event, Australia’s was the one to which we would want an invitation.

Those folks were not wrong.

As a member of the 4th of July committee for two years in a row in Chengdu (which each year hosts two events: Chengdu and Chongqing), I am well-aware of how much work it takes to pull off these huge parties. The planning for next year basically starts about a week after the current year’s event. Having walked in those shoes, I was incredibly impressed with Australia’s shindig. Very over the top!

The evening started with the requisite speeches toasting the Queen of Australia (am I the only one who didn’t know they recognized the queen?!) and thanking the host country, but once the formalities were out of the way, the doors to the grand ballroom opened. In a rush, in flowed hundreds of guests, all headed straight for the food tables. Luckily, the food tables were ample and well-stocked. Thad’s first stop was the one labeled King Neptune, where an enormous tuna hung from above, the chef cutting off pieces for each person in line. After having more than a sample size of ol’ Neptune, we ventured over to the Outback table where an entire lamb was roasting on a spit. From there it was the seafood table which had an ice sculpture that dispensed shrimp for all the hungry guests.

(As pretty much the opposite of a “foodie,” I could leave or take most of the dishes that evening, but I was highly impressed with the presentation! Lights, fog machines, entire tunas, whole lambs, shrimp dispensers…all very fancy!)

In the midst of all these food tables scattered around the ballroom, guests mingled and nicely vied for the few cocktail tables, looking for somewhere to set their plates as they indulged in everything Outback. At one such table, where for a few minutes we commandeered a spot, we were introduced to several members of the Australian navy who are stationed in Penang. As I chatted with one woman who is up there with her husband’s post, I had a weird feeling that I had met the Australian me! She was about my age and does not have kids and follows her husband’s career from country to country. She was having a hard time finding a job in the area, so decided to go back to school and work on a degree program. Sound familiar?!

By 9:30, we decided to call it a night. I’d been in heels since 7AM and my toes were ready for a bit of freedom and I think Thad had worked his way around most of the buffet tables, so it was time to head home to kick off the shoes and loosen the belts.

Not only do they have adorable koalas and kangaroos as their beck and call but the Aussies know how to entertain hordes of diplomats looking for something cold to drink and a bit of meat to eat. Is there anything these folks can’t do?!

Word on the street proved to be right this time: Australia Day is where it is at when it comes to stuffy national day events!

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Taking the Curves as Fast as I Can

Curves. They are all over the internet right now. Dove wants women to accept their curves (and buy more lotion in the process)  and England wants to see those curves in action. (Click here to see the video.)  But curves have taken on a whole new meaning in my life over the last few weeks, as I’ve been wrangling one or two myself. But, my curves have not been of the physical nature, but rather the learning kind. Learning curves. And they’ve been steep!

Two weeks ago, I started a new job at the embassy in Kuala Lumpur. I’m now working in the consular section, covering an array of tasks- everything from answering calls from people looking for information (Will the embassy exchange my US dollars to Malaysian ringgit? No. Do you keep a list of local doctors/lawyers? Yes. Can I renounce my citizenship? You bet, for $2350!) to doing intake of passports/paperwork for visa applicants (looking through passports from Spain, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc. is fascinating!) But, all of this requires a working knowledge of consular affairs that is a bit rusty in my mind. I was lucky enough to be able to take CONGEN in 2011(the consular training course for Foreign Service officers taught by the Foreign Service Institute in Virginia), but then I ended up not using that training in Chengdu, so the details are a bit foggy, but coming back quickly.

B1/B2 visa? Let’s scan a photo and send you off for fingerprints.

Looking for a student visa? Be sure to give me your SEVIS receipt.

Slowly, the jargon of the consular world is coming back to me. (It does help that I’ve heard it from Thad every day for the last two years as well!)

Needless to say, every day has been a new adventure for the past couple of weeks and I’m quickly getting to the point where I don’t have to put each and every caller on hold to go run down an answer. I’m up to every other caller on hold!

Way back in November, when I hadn’t heard any positive news about employment, I was nominated to sit on the embassy’s employee association board. Thinking it would be a great way to get out of the house and more involved in the community, I accepted the nomination and ran for a seat on the board. On my second day back in the office, I got an email saying I had been elected. So, add that to the calendar as well.  (Just yesterday we had our first meeting and I was assigned to be in charge of “events.” It looks like I’ll be going back to my CLO roots with that one!)

The second part of the curves thrown at me by the new job is relearning to budget my time. When I wasn’t working, days had a lot of spare time in them. Time for a second breakfast. (That may have contributed to some new curves in and of itself.) Time to stop for a hot chocolate at Starbucks before going to the grocery store. Time for an afternoon catnap. Time to finish a book a day. Time to work on reading and assignments for school.

All that time has flown out the window!

I went from searching for productive ways to fill my days (and looking for ways to be out of the house when Patimah was cleaning) to having a full schedule on a daily basis. As I’m facing down end-of-term papers for twelve credits of graduate courses, I’m thinking the learning curve for scheduling is looking more like a vertical line than a gentle slope, but I there is no activity on the list I want to give up, so I’ll just keep plugging away: work, school, events and then around the corner to do it all again!

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Guest Blog Post: From Chengdu to Nairobi

We’re almost six months into our second tour and while we enjoyed our time in Chengdu, China, we wanted something completely different for our second tour. Now that we’re in Nairobi, Kenya, our wish was definitely granted. In many ways, life here is easier than it was in Chengdu:

  • The mail system is faster so my Amazon orders come at blazing speed (comparatively).
  • DAIRY! ALL THE DAIRY! I can drink fresh milk and eat cheese and yogurt and ice cream. NOM NOM!
  • I can find pretty much anything I need right here in Nairobi and not necessarily pay exorbitant foreign goods prices.
  • If I have a hankering for Indian food, DONE (and they deliver). Want Thai? DONE (and they also deliver). Pizza? Take your pick of about three different restaurants-all excellent!
  • Animals? YOU BETCHA! There is a park just 45 minutes away where you can see several of the Big 5. You can also feed giraffes and walk amongst baby elephants. All just a short car ride away.
  • But the best part? THE WEATHER! It’s so beautiful and perfect nearly all year round. Like the wee bear’s porridge, it’s not too hot nor too cold. As a woman who is not a fan of winter or bundling up, I was not sad at all to spend my Christmas day poolside slathered in sunscreen.

That said, it’s not always paradise:

  • There are real dangers and threats and you do need to be on your guard.
  • This is not a walkable city nor is there reliable and safe public transportation so having a car is a must.
  • The roads are terrible so you will be spending more on car maintenance than you probably would in the States.
  • It’s true that things move at a different pace here in Africa and sometimes it makes you want to jab a pen in your eye.

All in all, this place is a refreshing change of pace and while we have always been ambivalent about Africa, we have quickly come to appreciate all the perks and quirks of Kenya. We have liked it so much that if we were allowed to extend here (entry-level doesn’t have that option), we probably would. Our daughter can’t imagine leaving and there are so many great things to see and do here. I’m glad we were assigned here because I don’t think we would have voluntarily chosen to bid hard on Africa but we can see why people fall in love with it and never leave.

Kenya-for the win.

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An Interview with ExpatFinder.com

A few months ago, I was interviewed by ExpatFinder.com about my experiences living in Kuala Lumpur. That interview finally went live yesterday, so I thought I would share of bit of it here. (ExpatFinder.com is a website that helps people who are moving abroad with everything from finding housing and schools for their kids to providing information about insurance and jobs in their new homes.)

For those of us doing the ex-pat thing in conjunction with the US Department of State, we are lucky to have many of these issues either taken care of for us or have help from post once we arrive to sort out the rest. Not everyone has such a strong support system, so websites like ExpatFinder.com are crucial to making the moves easier.

Below are a few outtakes from the interview. The full thing can be found by clicking here.

Q: What made you move out of your home country?

A: After serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer for two years, moving “home” just felt too small when there was a whole world out there to explore.

Q: Where are you living now?

A: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Q: What has been the most difficult experience you’ve had when you were new in your host country?

A: Malaysia has been an easy transition, but I’d say the toughest part is getting used to the driving style, which is very different from driving norms in the US.

Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialize with other expats in Malaysia? How did you manage to find a social circle in Malaysia?

A: There is a huge ex-pat community in Kuala Lumpur, so new folks will find a variety of ways to get involved with others with the same interests. The biggest international school, ISKL, is a great starting point for that for kids with families. There are also a number of Facebook pages dedicated to ex-pat living, as well as local publications that can assist in the process.

Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Anything to recommend to future expats?

A: The travel out of KL is great. Air Asia is a good way to hop to nearby countries for long weekends or extended vacations. I love taking visitors to the KL Bird Park, which is always a hit with young and old alike.

Q: How does the cost of living in Malaysia compared to your home?

A:  Expat living in KL can be quite expensive, especially for me since I was previously living in western China. You can find nearly anything your heart desires, but you will probably pay a pretty penny for it.

Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in Malaysia?

A: Malaysia is great for travel and I love the warm weather. The hardest part of living here is dealing with the traffic and just the sheer distance back to the States. With no direct flights from KL to the US, going home or getting guests out can be quite an ordeal.

Q: What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?

A: Each new country is just a matter of adjusting to a new way of doing things. Learning to pick up on the subtleties of a new culture is important, but never easy.

Q: What tips can you give other expats living in that country?

A: I’d say connect with other ex-pat before arriving, if at all possible. They will be able to help you find those much-desired goodies from home at the supermarkets, point you in the right direction for whom to trust with your blonde highlights or give you the name of an honest and reliable taxi driver.

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In Search of the End of the Sidewalk: The Best of 2014

It is that time of year, where all bloggers worth their salt come out with their year-end roundup lists and since this blogger likes sodium chloride as much as the next writer, I’ll continue the tradition here at In Search of the End of the Sidewalk. (This is the 4th edition. You can click here to see reviews for 2011, 2012 and 2013.)

So, without further ado, here is the best of everything 2014! (“Everything” might be a bit ambitious with just a single full day left on the calendar…)

Best Books of 2014

Thanks to my trusty GoodReads account I was able to quickly go over my literature intake since January 1. If my count is right (remember folks, I’m working on a degree in literature these days, none of that fancy math nonsense for me!), this year my total book count is a whopping 153!! Keep in mind, several factors play into that overwhelming large number, including the fact that I have been unemployed for the last seven months and I’m working on a literature degree, which means not only am I reading for fun, I’m also reading for class. Oh, the books! The books! (Although, I must be doing something wrong when I add books to my “read” shelf. GoodReads had a cool link to show your books for the year, but when I clicked it, it showed I had read a mere two books this year. I read that many in a week sometimes! Anyone know what I am doing wrong?)

{Don’t forget to click on the links to related posts!}

5- California by Edan Lupucki

4- The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

3- Redeployment by Phil Klay

2- Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

1-Hard Choices by Hilary Rodham Clinton

(This was a hard list to make. Next year, I may have to break it down to top five non-fiction, top five young adult and top five fiction, as it is hard to compare/judge the two genres.)

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Best Outings of 2014

(*In no particular order)

5- Hawaii. We started 2014 off with a bang, meeting my parents in Hawaii for a seven-day cruise around the islands. Between snorkeling, whale watching and kayaking, we found time for lots of all-you-can-eat buffets and nightly shows in the ship’s auditorium. Happy 2014!

4- Hong Kong. This was our last “China-vacation” before leaving post and what a great way to wrap up our first tour with the Foreign Service. While I didn’t love the cable car, the Buddha at the top was worth the terror and the funicular up Victoria’s Peak was a ride much more my style. We stayed at a great boutique hotel just a short walk from the metro and loved the ease of getting around this crazy, bustling Asian mega-city.

3- Kuching, Malaysia. By far my favorite city in Malaysia. What can beat a cave filled with bats, a day of rainforest hiking or a visit to wild orangutans?

2- Nampa, Idaho. Home leave! It is a fabulous perk of the Foreign Service, that after a tour abroad, officers and families are *required* to spend some time back Stateside. While for some this can be a burden, we’re lucky to have lots of family and friends willing to let us crash with them for days/weeks at a time.

1-Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, of course! A new country, a new city and a new home! It is always exciting (and intimidating, tiring, frustrating, invigorating…) to move to a new post, but so far, KL has been a great city to call home. Not only have we explored various parks within the city, but this year was the first time we’ve hosted a Thanksgiving, complete with friends, old and new.

*Honorable mention: New Meadows, Idaho. While on home leave, we bought twelve acres of beautiful mountain top just outside of New Meadows. Right now it is home to bears and deer and lots of small mountain mammals, but maybe when we retire in a million years, it will be home to us too!

Best Moments of 2014

(*Again, in no particular order)

5- Birth of our newest nibling- Camden Byron McDaniel, the youngest (and last?) child of my brother and sister-in-law. His arrival makes for a grand total of twelve niblings: six on Thad’s side and six on mine. We’ve yet to meet in person, but I see his chubby self on FaceTime every week or so.

4- Volunteering at the UNHRC school for Chin students in downtown Kuala Lumpur. This was a great opportunity to put my teaching skills to use and to introduce not only American vocabulary (Malaysian English tends to be quite British), but also talk about school culture in the US, where many of these students hope to be resettled.

3- Going back to school. This fall, I started an online graduate program in literature and writing. It has kept me busy, but I am loving the reading and writing and discussions with my classmates. Nerdily enough, I even love writing the term papers! (A big thank you goes out to my two editors: Matt and Angie!)

2- A new job! Technically, this won’t happen until 2015, as I start in mid-January, but getting hired in 2014 is a win. It was not easy to find work in Kuala Lumpur and it definitely wasn’t easy to get multiple rejection emails, but in the end, things seem to have worked out and soon I’ll be having to roll out of bed and get dressed with the rest of you!

1- Meeting the First Lady of the United States. It was a lot of work to prepare for her visit to Chengdu, but it was all worth it when the Consul General called me over and said to FLOTUS, “Michelle, I’d like you to meet our Michelle.”  She said she wondered who the tall blonde woman was and I told her I had spent the morning being her stand-in for height measurements!

So there you have it, the 4th edition of In Search of the End of the Sidewalk’s year-end roundup. As I look ahead to 2015, big plans are bouncing around my gray matter (although I think it is more pink than gray, which we all know I prefer anyway), looking to claim a spot in my continued search for the end of the sidewalk.

Happy 2015!

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