Cable Car Insanity

In the first thirty years of my life, I think I can count on one hand the number of cable cars/ski lifts I’ve ridden on. There was the one time at Lagoon, legs dangling and bumping along from one end of the amusement park to the other, after which I decided I’d rather just make a mad dash from the Colossus roller coaster, through the alley of carnival games, past the Shooting Star coaster, weaving through the dizzy-ride arena (Scrambler! Tilt-o-Whirl! So much fun!), to reach the other end of the death-defying lift before my friends disembarked. The trek was worth the few extra months of beating my heart saved by opting out. Then there was the time in middle school where I thought for just a moment that I would become a skier, so signed up for the annual school-sponsored ski trip. (What was I thinking? Not having ski-appropriate clothing, I ended up miserable on the bus ride home in my soaking wet and freezing jeans, fully convinced that snow sports were not for me. Ever.) And don’t forget the rickety lift to the top of the Great Wall outside of Beijing, that while short, was probably the most mechanically unsound of them all. That may be a fully comprehensive list of cable car experiences for the first three decades of my existence.

And since then?

A ridiculous amount!

Just in the last year I’ve been on the one at Bamboo Sea in western China, the one in Hong Kong to see the giant golden Buddha , the one at Park City in Utah to ride the luges down the mountain and now, just this last weekend, the one on Langkawi Island. I had a nice average of one every ten years, now I’m at one each fiscal quarter!

With three days of freedom (okay, freedom for Thad, as my days are pretty open at this point), we decided it was time to check out the much talked-up Langkawi, an island off Malaysia’s west coast. With round trip tickets for right around $100 each and the flight just an hour long, it was a perfect way to get out of town for Labor Day weekend, which also happened to be Merdeka, Malaysia Day.

After wandering Oriental Village, at the base of the cable system, we loaded up for the harrowing ride to the top. Each car seats six, but we were lucky enough to be at the end of one timed ticket groupings, which got us a private car. Now I could let my freakiness out as we ascended the exceedingly steep mountainside (at times, the cable car is being pulled up the hill at a 42 degree angle), since I didn’t have to try and mask the fear of imminent death. While Thad stood and wandered from side to side in the car, messing with the window slats, taking pictures of the waterfalls and generally making the car jiggle more than necessary, I sat perched on the edge of my bench, holding on to the railing for dear life (I’m not exactly sure what I think the railing is going to do if the car comes unattached from the cable, but either way, I white-knuckled it to the top!) and looking up to catch a glimpse of the ocean here or a glance at the forest there.

While it just takes about fourteen minutes from the base station to the top station, we decided to hop out at the mid-way station to get a better view of the island and ocean, but then did continue on up to the peak of Gunung Machinchang. Not wanting to pass up the chance for a mountaintop hotdog, we sat and enjoyed the spectacular view as Thad opted for some processed meat before re-embarking on a ride in a car that dangles from a cable.
Glad to be back on solid ground and not looking to increase our altitude in the least, we opted for a day of snorkeling with the fishes on Sunday. We saw baby sharks (which begs the question, “Where were the adults?!”), puffer fish, parrotfish, angel fish and a million others I can’t identify, but happily followed around for hours.

Langkawi was a great weekend getaway and definitely somewhere we’ll be hauling guests who want to see a bit more of the country, other than the capital city itself. But, I do think I’ve hit my cable car quota for 2014, so will have to send visitors up the hill by themselves, while I sit at the bottom, drinking an icy cold glass of pineapple juice and enjoying the views from exactly zero feet above sea level!

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Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island by Regina Calcaterra

Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island by Regina Calcaterra

Etched in sand

Heartbreaking. It’s the one word that best wraps up Regina Calcaterra’s 2013 memoir of growing up on Long Island with a mother who was truly a monster and a social services system that was broken, leaving five children to raise themselves and each other.

With five kids from five fathers, Cookie is hardly an ideal mother-figure, but add in untreated mental illness, alcoholism and a propensity to physically and verbally lash out at anything in her path and you’ve created a nightmare of a home. Regina, the middle child of the five, lives her childhood being bounced from home to home, staying in foster homes for a time here and there, only to have her mother win back custody time and time again. As the product of the man her mother was most hurt by, Regina bears the brunt of her mother’s anger, being lashed with a belt, hung from a closet rod, kicked and punched and continuously referred to as a slut and a whore from as young as she can remember. Although Regina tries to run away a few times, she realizes that she has to be home to protect her younger siblings, caring for them when Cookie disappears for months on end.

Until, in a moment of pain and utter exhaustion, Regina finally gives in and tells the authorities the true extent of the abuse at home. When she finally comes clean, her family of five siblings, who have lied and stolen and worked hard to stay together as a unit, are separated, which is exactly what they had been working to avoid. Having been the one who “told,” Regina carries with her a massive guilt, as it’s not too long before the social services system returns the two youngest kids to Cookie, at which time Rosie, the baby of the family, takes Regina’s place as the ultimate scapegoat, enduring humiliating abuse and degradation for years.

Not able to do anything to help her younger brother and sister, Regina follows the advice of some caring teachers who remind her that education is the only way out of the life she was raise in. She works hard through high school and eventually gets accepted to university, where her life is filled with classes, the gymnastics team and working multiple jobs to be able to not only support herself, but secretly send money to Rosie, who is now living in horrible conditions in Idaho with Cookie and her newest male companion.

It’s heartbreaking and unimaginable that an human being could treat another in such a vile way, but Regina and her siblings are an amazing story of a family who does its best to look out for each other, individuals who pursue their own paths to a happier life and one woman who works hard to become a part of the system that failed her as a child, empowered to make the changes needed so that future foster kids don’t have to suffer the way she did.

This was another midnight-nothing-to-read library download for me. (It’s what happens when I don’t have to set an alarm and I finish a book with nothing pre-downloaded. I go to the Boise Public Library e-books page, sort through the “now available” titles until I find something random that look interesting and off I go. It’s a bit like playing Russian roulette with literature!) Not coming off a recommended reading list, a new release list or a review from a friend, this turned out to be a good pick. Regina Calcaterra’s Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island is not an easy read, but one that reminds us all that it is possible to overcome the odds, even when the chances seem impossibly slim, earning it:

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Flitting Around KL

Want a pedicure? Go to the mall.

Looking for a good restaurant? You’re mall-bound.

Excited to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster? Mall.

Need groceries? The mall is an option.

After nearly two months in Kuala Lumpur, it has become readily apparent that the mall is the central hub of all the hustle and bustle of this growing city. Granted, the fact that 75 degrees is considered cool and cover from an afternoon rainstorm is often required, is does make a bit of sense that the urban culture has grown into one that revolves around giant shopping complexes.

But, it takes a bit of getting used to.

Pre-Foreign Service life, when we were in Idaho, I think we would go to the mall maybe once or twice a year. We’d usually make a stop around the holidays, when it was overflowing and annoyingly crowded, stay for twenty minutes, decide there was nothing there I couldn’t buy online and quickly evacuate, leaving the mobs of Christmas shoppers behind.

Now, like it or not, I am at a mall at least once a week.

Trying to avoid that easy go-to weekend spot, we decided to visit the KL Butterfly Park for some outdoor fun. Covered in a huge net, the park is an array of winding trails though a tropical jungle, where the butterflies flitter about freely, perch on bushes or feast on the flowers and fruit provided by the sanctuary. The park isn’t a large one, so even after meandering slowly along the various paths, we had seen all of the areas in under an hour. Figuring we wanted to get our full 20 ringgit worth, we found a park bench above a koi pond and stopped to enjoy the views.

When we decided we’d felt enough sweat drip down our backs and as we saw the ominous gray clouds quickly encompassing the Petronas Towers, it was time to make a break for it. What we didn’t realize is after snaking our way through the park itself, there was a small museum attached along the exit path.

It was a museum of which I made quick work.

Rather than just an informational presentation about butterflies of Malaysia, Southeast Asia or the world, the curators thought it would be good idea to give all the visitors nightmare fodder on the way out. Not only were there pinned bugs of all varieties, many bigger than my splayed hand, but there was also a section of caged, live creepy crawly critters, many of them labeled as being indigenous to the peninsula.

Ummm thanks, but I did not need to know that those multi-legged, scarily antennae-d, jumping and flying insects were possibly taking up residence in the trees outside my house. (I’ve already had to fight a giant cockroach infestation, which luckily seems to now be under control. Only a dozen or so saw their untimely demises under the sole of Thad’s tennis shoe before they decided to clear out. Okay, a bit of well-placed poison may also have been deployed to encourage them to find a new residence.)

My favorite part of the museum though was the photo wall, which was just slightly less than scientific in its captioning. (For friends and family who visited the Chengdu Panda Reserve with us and we took you though the museum at the top of the hill, we’re talking a similar level of museum curation. While KL’s building has no giant vats of panda sperm or scarily taxidermied saber tooth tigers, it does have photos of lizards, labeled as creatures from outer space. 20 ringgit well-spent.)

Since the butterfly park isn’t going to be on the docket every weekend for the next two years, but restaurants and pedicures will be, a jaunty rendition of Robin Sparkle’s “Let’s Go to the Mall” is going to be a favorite tune around here for the foreseeable future. (If only I had some jelly bracelets and a cool graffiti coat…)

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The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit

the wives of los alamos

Over the last six months, I’ve seen TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos pop up on various book lists and recommendation websites, but I was not overly drawn to it. Initially, I thought it was non-fiction, which intrigued me a bit, but after realizing it was fictional, it just never made my ever-expanding reading list. And then, the worst happened. It was midnight; I was wide awake and bookless. The horror! After checking my library holds and realizing I was quite a ways down on all of my wait lists, I started perusing the “now available” books and this one popped up. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I downloaded it and then stayed up way to late immersed in the lives of the women who populated the newly created town of Los Alamos.

As their scientist husbands were called upon by the US government to work on a special project in the desert of the southwest, these women and their families were uprooted and packed along for the ride. It was a ride that would take them to a make-shift city where their families could not visit, their letters were read and censored and where a husband’s status determined the housing provisions. Removed from the world they knew, these wives who used to serve tea in academic circles and having nightly dinners with their husbands suddenly find themselves donning jeans, shopping in a commissary and when their husbands actually made it home for dinner, finding them mute when it came to anything work related.

While some may have had inklings of what was going on behind the closed and guarded doors where their husbands went to work each day, none expected to go down in history as a part of the town where nuclear bombs were first brought into existence.

Some people may be turned off by the first-person plural point of view that carries throughout the entire novel, thinking it feels a bit removed and “royal,” but I thought it did just the opposite, making the reader a part of the ups and downs of the unique living situation into which these women were forced. By telling the tales of various women through a “we” narration, the reader feels what it is like to be frustrated with the situation, mentally placing themselves among these women, rather than glancing in from the outside. (I do wonder though, how a male reader would feel about the very female-oriented telling of the story. It might be a much harder literary choice for men to get on board with, since it permeates the entire novel, making it quite exclusionary when it comes to audience.)

Surprisingly, I found a lot of parallels between the lives of these women who moved to Los Alamos and my own. The US Foreign Service is also an organization that uproots families (although by choice), removing them from loved ones at home, making them miss births and birthdays, holidays and homecomings. It is a world where housing is assigned and problems with housing are funneled through the employee’s workplace. Spouses are thrown into a new living situation, some prospering, some merely surviving and others throwing in the towel when the whole thing becomes too much. While it seems like odd to draw a comparison between the US’s nuclear weapons creation program and that of their Foreign Service, I did feel a certain attachment and understanding for what these women were facing.

It didn’t take more than a handful of pages for this book to catch my full attention, drawing me into the lives of a group of women who followed their husbands, for better or worse. TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos easily earned a solid:

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A Park that Fits the Bill

It was a dark and stormy night.

No, scratch that.

It was a chilly and overcast day in November of 1996.

I was a freshman at BYU, rooming with my best friend from high school and trying to navigate a world that relied on public transportation, hours of pouring over indecipherable math homework and long distance bills that would have made Bill Gates cringe. Cori, one of five other girls that I lived with in an on-campus apartment, but the only one I’d known for years and the one with whom I plotted dorm details, like how I would bring a computer for us to share (can you imagine roommates sharing a computer these days?!) and she would bring the stereo system, was an elementary education major. One of her first semester classes was biology-something-or-another, which required an outing to the Salt Lake City aviary to observe the birds who called the park home. Since the holidays were just around the corner, we decided to make a day of it, going into SLC to check off the boxes on her assignment and then hitting up the mall to do a bit of Christmas shopping with the measly amount of money we each had in our bank accounts.

Neither of us had taken a car to college freshman year, which meant we became pretty adept at the bus system in Provo/Orem, but moving outside of that bubble was a bit of a risk. We knew there was a commuter bus that went to downtown Salt Lake and we knew where we needed to be in the city, but how to match up those two points was a mystery. In the days before Google could answer any and all questions, we did what many folks did- just go for it and figure out the details along the way.

I honestly don’t remember where the first bus dropped us or how we got to the aviary (although I do have a slight recollection of having to schlep quite a distance, on foot), but I know we eventually made it to the park. I’m sure we spent a few hours wandering the park, Cori taking notes on the various hollow-boned critters and making a spreadsheet of information to write up into a report later that weekend, but my main memories include having a snow owl screech at me as if I were trying to kill her babies and thinking that the emus looked like something out of Jurassic Park. (Using the bathroom at the park, I distinctly recall imagining the possibility of those crazy birds surrounding the facilities and strategically attacking like the velociraptors do in the movie.)

And then the snow started. Just as we were getting ready to finish up at the aviary, snow started coming down like it was Christmas in a children’s book, quickly covering the ground and soaking our winter coats. The mall got cut from the day’s itinerary and I remember being miserably cold and wet on the bus ride back to Provo.

It’s funny how a single day, nearly twenty years ago (eeek! Is that even possible?) can color ones view decades later. I’m not sure I’ve been to a proper aviary since that bitterly cold day in 1996. Yes, I’ve been to zoos with bird zones and amusement parks with netted bird areas, but a full-on aviary has been absent from my life since the day the snow owl and emus tried to take me down (at least, in my overly active imagination.)

Last weekend, we remedied that unknown hole in my life, visiting the KL Bird Park, here in the center of Kuala Lumpur. And, I must say, it was a much more positive (and warmer!) experience than that one gray November day, freshman year.

The KL Bird Park is almost entirely covered in a net, meaning many of the critters roam freely, waddling across the pathway in front of visitors, flying overhead or perching in trees, awaiting another round of papaya deliveries from the staff. The best part of the day though, was the bird photo booth. For a mere ten ringgit, you get to choose two birds to sit with and get your photo taken. (I discovered afterwards for thirty-five ringgit, you can get all the birds! I will definitely be going that route next time we visit. All the birds!) I picked out the biggest birds they had- a Malaysian owl and a hornbill for my monumental photo op.

It was awesome!

But, to add to my teenage terror of the raptor-like emu attack, the KL aviary had a bird I had never seen before- a creature that looked like a prehistoric version of the emu. He was the same height and size as a regular emu, but with a head that looked like it belonged on a dinosaur- ancient and brightly colored. I don’t know where this thing has been my whole life, but it’s a good thing my 1996-self didn’t have an inkling of its existence.

Public transportation, bitterly cold November weather, soaking snow and attack birds


Self-driving, tropical afternoon atmosphere and holding friendly fowl

The winner is pretty clear- the KL Bird Park will definitely be on our attraction list for future visitors! All that is needed is a handful of ringgit and a camera. We’ll provide the transportation and tropical weather.

Say cheese!


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We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

we were liars

It’s been months since I’ve done a YA literature book review, not because I’ve given up on the genre now that I’ve been out of a middle school classroom for a few years, but more because it has been awhile since I’ve found one that really stood out to me. While I love the dystopian genre as much as anyone (although, I have to say I don’t think I am going to be able to bring myself to go see The Giver when it comes out in theaters soon; how could they possibly have done that better than the book?), I am getting a little worn out on it. Authors are churning these books out in the way of vampire books a few years ago; it’s becoming mundane and derivative and I’d love to see a new spin on it. Until then, I may have to walk away from YA dystopian for the foreseeable future.

Luckily, there is still great YA rolling off the presses and E. Lockhart is leading the way with the recently published We Were Liars. This book hooked me from the very start, drawing me into a world of a publicly distinguished, but privately broken family who spends every summer together on their own private island. While the adults (three sisters) are enmeshed in a King Lear-esque drama over who will inherit the kingdom, the oldest of the cousins come together each summer to fritter away the warm months, each year growing more aware that their family is break apart even as they grow closer, with nothing short of tragedy to turn their tale around.

Cadence, one of the “Liars” (the nickname given to this coterie of kids who live separate lives for nine months out of the year, but then gel together as one for the warm, long days of summer) and our narrator throughout, feels like a reliable narrator, until the reader realizes that the story she tells may have other versions that she is unwilling or unable to share. While the twists of her account are not necessarily obvious until later in the novel, E. Lockhart’s use of fairy tales to weave together the adult and teen components of Cadence’s recollection give the reader a feeling of not all being quite as it seems. What may seem like a perfect American family soon has cracks that are irreparable, making the reader realize that maybe the idea of a “perfect” family fits with Hans Christian Anderson’s compilations more than it does any reality of this world.

The instant I finished this book, I sent a message to my oldest niece (an 8th graders and avid reader), telling her to drop everything and go find this book. If I still had a classroom, I’d go out and buy several copies to start handing out to students on the first day of school. It really is that good! E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars is going to draw in a variety of readers, both male and female, from the middle grades up. Any book that keeps me up until 2AM, swiping page after page easily earns:

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Purchasing a Piece of Peace

It’s amazing how quickly five weeks of home leave can fly by, between wanting to meet up with friends and family, getting through endless shopping lists and a variety of doctors’ appointments and trying to grab a few minutes here and there to just relax and enjoy the blue skies and warm days of June in Idaho. (Home leave is congressionally mandated time that all Foreign Service officers are required to take between overseas postings. Originally, it was meant to make sure officers came home, reacquainted themselves with the country they represent and give them a chance to catch up culturally, which can be hard after being immersed in a land so different from “home.” Some folks contend that the home leave requirements are outdated now that technology has created such a small world, but I think it is still a necessary- if costly- endeavor. Officers and their families need to physically reconnect with their friends and family and spend some time on the ground in the States, as in the end, their job is to represent that home government overseas and it’s hard to do that if your only links to it for years on end are through binge watching Netflix and a never-ending Facebook feed.)

As we worked our way through two years of shopping (Wunderlist is an amazing tool!), buying a new suit and laptop for Thad, new running shoes and some sundresses for me, we soon tired of Target (blasphemy, I know) and the mall. Luckily, one of our final purchases didn’t require searching for a parking spot in a sea of asphalt or weaving through crowds of young mothers chasing their toddlers. Rather, all that was needed was a sturdy pair of shoes and some four-wheel drive.

Last on our shopping list: a bit of mountainside property.

After selling our home while in Chengdu, we decided that we wanted to once again own a small slice of Idaho, but this time without renters or a management company or a tilting retaining wall. Instead, we wanted tamarack pines to attract woodpeckers, huckleberry bushes to attract bears and some wildflowers scattered throughout it all. It wasn’t a “normal” shopping list for a realtor, but we found someone great who showed us an assortment of lots that fit the bill, with one standing out above the rest.

A hilltop meadow overlooking three mountain peaks that segues into pine trees and berry bushes as it slopes down the mountainside was the clear winner of the search. (The fact that there were deer on it each time we went to see it was a bonus point as well.) It took a bit of back and forth with the banks, as we were not the only ones vying to buy the twelve acres of Idaho timberland, but we can now, once again, officially call Idaho home, as there’s a small piece of acreage with our names on it, ready and waiting each time we return to the Northwest.


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