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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Christmas in Krabi

Weathermen can’t be trusted. (Apologies in advance to all of my loyal readers of the weatherperson persuasion.) As far as I am concerned, weather prediction is right up there with fortune telling and tarot card reading. It is all a guess. Possibly an educated guess, depending on the information being provided, but in the end, the predictor is a teller of tales. Maybe it will rain. Maybe you will marry the billionaire man of your dreams and live on a yacht. Maybe the empress card will be drawn and in nine months you will welcome a new addition to your family. Maybe. On a scale of not possible-probable-likely, these three divinations rank in the same place: possible, but not probable.

This last weekend, we went to Krabi, Thailand to celebrate the long Christmas weekend. (Thank you President Obama for granting all federal workers Friday off!) We got in late on Thursday night, so just had dinner at our hotel restaurant and wandered the grounds to get a feel for our surroundings. (oh yes, and to the family mart to buy the toothpaste that we each thought the other had packed.)

But on Saturday, we were ready to hit the town. Our first stop was the beach, via tuk-tuk, of course. We grabbed a quick lunch at a diner along the way and then wandered down the shoreline. An armada of long boats was leaving the beach as we walked, their colorful flags waving their departure as they headed out with loads of people bound for snorkeling on various islands just beyond sight. Farther up the beach, we found a small cove overrun with macaque monkeys. These being my least favorite of the primates, I kept my distance. No need to get chased into the ocean by an evil little creature on the first day in town. I’ll happily enjoy their partner grooming and fruit-throwing antics from afar.

As the afternoon rain set in, we headed back to the hotel for a bit of downtime, out of the pouring rain and to regroup before heading back to town for dinner and nighttime meandering.

Evening in Krabi is a fantastic time of day. I love it! The sun has set, meaning for the first time all day I am not baking like a toasted cheeser. (Yes, I ended up with a sunburn, but a rather mild one. All said and done, I think I had more pain from the back massage I got than the reddening of my skin, so for a tropical vacation, this counts as a win in my world!) Night is when the shops really get hopping, strings of fairy lights are everywhere and flyers for everything from massages and pedicures to all manner of fashion/variety shows dance on the sidewalk where they’ve been abandoned by hapless passersby.

It was during this evening stroll that I happened upon my new BFF: Jackie. Jackie is a gibbon who, along with his owner, hangs out on the street at night to make a baht or two off tourists. I am just the sucker he is out there for. I will gladly pay 100 baht (just over $3) to hold his fuzzy little self and take a few photos. Much like the Agnes in Despicable Me, when she spots the stuffed unicorn and squeals, “It’s so fluffy, I’m gonna’ die!” I wanted to squeeze his little self until I died. There were definitely thoughts of just sprinting away, Jackie clinging to my neck. I am sure that plan would have worked out well…

On Friday night, we made a plan for Saturday that included packing up one of the backpacks with towels and books and heading to the beach for the day. After walking its length the day before, I was excited to go hang out and do some serious people watching. (Krabi was *amazing* for people watching. I could sit for hours and examine the varied- both in terms of style and quality- tattoos adorning youthful bodies in their late teens to a bit more saggy versions on the senior set. And, apparently, bikinis are no longer just for those with model-like bodies, as I saw women of every shape and size sporting two-piece swimming outfits. Big and small, young and old, bellies all over southern Thailand were soaking of the sun this Christmas holiday.)

But, thanks to the roll of the dice/fortune cookie type predications foretold by weather.com, my Saturday plans had to be reworked. You see, clad in my own two-piece bathing suit, I decided to do a quick weather check before we headed out for the day. Knowing it is rainy season, we expected showers at some point in the day, so were just trying to figure out how early we should head to the beach. Well, weather.com predicted 95% chance of rainfall starting at 10AM. 95%! That’s not a “maybe” kind of prediction. 95% pretty much means that short of divine intervention, it is going to rain in the 10 o’clock hour. It had the same percentage for 11AM and noon, dropping off to and holding steady at 80% from 1PM until evening.

95% chance of rain means a change in plans.

Rather than set up on the beach, only to be run off by heavy rain, we decided to go for a walk, having lunch at a restaurant on the beach (with umbrellas) and then see where the rest of the day took us. Our morning at the beach was called off.

Did it rain on Saturday?

Nope. Not a single drop. The entire day.

I could have had hours of watching the pasty folks from Eastern Europe turn pink and then red in the glaring sunshine of the tropics. I could have shooed off hawkers trying to get me to put my blonde, lower-back length hair into cornrows that would look about as ridiculous as a cat wearing a party hat. I could have enjoyed a corn on the cob, roasted on the beach.

I could have…

But, I didn’t. I gave in to the Nostradamus-like predictions of weather.com and nixed my plans for lounging on the beach. It is my one regret of the weekend. (On the upside, I did run into Jackie again, so took a second opportunity to snuggle the adorable little gibbon!)

Weathermen of the world, you may have foiled me this time, but I’m on to you. From here forward, your predictions of chance shall be left where they belong, on the boardwalks of Coney Island and in the dark parlors of Victorian England. Get thee hence!

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Weekending in Kuching- Part 2

Day two!!

On our second day in Kuching, we headed to Bako National Park, a preserve on the edge of the island that can only be reached by boat. (Edward, the all-knowing cabbie, informed us that the idea was that if a road was built, resorts would soon follow so to help maintain the wilderness, it was a boat-only outing.) We hopped into our boat with semi-functional life vests over our shoulders (mine didn’t actually zip closed, but I figured the crocodiles would get me before I drowned, so it didn’t really matter in the long run) and headed out about fifteen minutes across the estuary and ocean to a jetty on a bay at the edge of the national park. We bumped across some pretty impressive swells, each one reminding me that less than six months ago I broke my tailbone- a slight twinge running up my spine as the boat touched down time and time again.

After checking in at the headquarters and being given a map with some crazy highlighting on it, off we headed to our first trail of the day. We wanted to take the trail marked with the white blazes, so were excited to quickly see red and white stripes painted on trees. Figuring the two trails (red and white) followed each other for a bit, up the mountainside we went, being careful not to grab the thorny trees for balance along the way. Up, up, up we went. Sometimes the climbs were man-built stairs and others they were just a matter of scrambling over tree roots, but follow the trail we did. After slipping down a hill and dangling from a tree branch, I found my footing and resumed the trek up the hill. Just as I was hitting the point of being pretty tired and questioning my sanity for having embarked on this outdoor activity, we came to ridge with a beautiful view of the ocean and a sign signaling the end of the trail.

What? The end? This isn’t where my sidewalk trail is supposed to end!

Apparently, the red/white trail is different from either the red or the white trail. We had wandered off in completely the wrong direction of our intended destination, but were rewarded with a view that spanned miles and a trail without a single other human being on it. (I’d suggest more color variety in future blazes! Instead of going red, white, and red and white, why not go with a lovely purple or a vibrant teal?! It would save my legs some burning.)

Time to backtrack and find the illusive white, only white, trail.

Once we were headed the right way, our white trail sightings included a snake across the pathway (not fun!), a spider nearly the size of my fist in a web that was probably five feet across and several macaques having fruit for lunch, husks of which rained down on us as we gawked from below.

And remember how sweaty I said I was at the caves on day one? That was nothing! That was like a walk across Target’s parking lot in May. After hiking in the rainforest for a few hours, I looked like I had stepped right out of a shower. My ponytail was drenched, with water actually dripping off the end of it; my tank tops where wet through and through; and, for the first time ever in my life, I actually had sweat dripping off the tip of my nose! I’ve seen that happen to people in movies and hardcore athletes, but for this rather stationary literature major, it was a new experience.

The best part of the white trail was, after hiking up and down the side of the mountain, we suddenly rounded a corner and there was the ocean: blue skies, sandy beaches, rocky outcroppings full of tide pools and waves rolling in one after another. It was gorgeous! I wasted no time finding a good “poking stick” (for the tide pools, of course) and headed out across the beach to the rocks to see what I could see. My favorite find of the day was the mudskippers. What cool little creatures! (I had no idea what they were as I poked at them. Fish? Reptiles? They could cling to rocks and run on top of waves. What the heck?! I had to send a photo to my nerdy science niece and ask for a full report.)

After fully exploring the beach and tide pools, we figured it was time to head back to HQ for some lunch, but no one was looking forward to retracing the ups and downs of the trail we had just followed. Thad said the ranger told him sometimes boats would occasionally pull into the bay and we could hire one to take us back by water, and sure enough, a guy in a boat was waiting out to sea a bit. Thad signaled to him and in he came, pulling as close to the beach as he could get, but obviously without a jetty, not being able to tie up anywhere. So, off came the shoes and we all did a bit of wading, hoping into the boat from a rather slippery rock. (Only one shoe ended up going for a swim. Not a bad record. 1 out of 8 shoes remained dry.)

The boat ride back included a detour to see a cool rock formation, another beautiful bay (this one has a hiking trail to it, so it is on the list for next time we visit the park, which we will be doing!) and then a second chance at wading in the ocean, this time from boat to shore.

After a quick bite to eat in the cafeteria, I wanted to go in search of bearded pigs. (Lunch would be the very unsuccessful part of the day, as the food looked quite unappealing. It was a small buffet, but the food all looked like it had been on the warmers since breakfast and there wasn’t much there that made me want to dig in, even after a morning of hiking. I opted for a package of cookies and a Coke. Maybe it wasn’t the healthiest lunch, but the sugar rush sure was nice!) When I cleaned up our table (something that seemed to surprise the cafeteria worker), I went and asked where I should go in search of pigs. The man I asked laughed and said they were “random.” Sadly, after an hour of wandering, I came across no random pigs. Something else to add to my “next time” list. There will definitely be a next time! (Shannon and Joe. Josh and Justin. We are going.)

Exhausted, we all boarded the boat back to Kuching (again, life jackets were handed out, but I still figure I’ll be a croc’s lunch before I’ll be rescued) and after some much needed showers and a quick nap, we ended the day with another feast of seafood (I opted for butter chicken and fried noodles) on the top of a parking garage.

Two fantastic days in the capital of Sarawak…but wait, that’s not all! Stay tuned for one more day of Kuching adventuring… next up: orangutans and long houses!

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Weekending in Kuching- Part 1

I have found my new favorite city in Malaysia.

It’s got caves and bats. There are steep rainforest hikes and huge amounts of cheap seafood. None of these things I care for in particular, but put them all together and through some kind of crazy adventure-math, it adds up to a fantastic city of outdoor fun.

Loyal readers will know I am less than sporty. As a matter of fact, I am the polar opposite of sporty. I have the amazing ability to be on the DL for injuries as wide ranging as bowlers’ elbow and Wii-exhaustion. As the internet informed me today, “my idea of roughing it is reading my book in an uncomfortable chair.” True. (I didn’t exactly know how to quote an internet poster I stumbled across on a pic dump site. Does one need to use quotes? Sadly, there were no references in my 7th edition MLA Handbook to point me in the right direction. Again, bookish. Not sporty.)

But Kuching, an all-around outdoors-y town is now the top of my Malaysia list.

The first full day we were in town, we decided to check out some local caves, with the help of a storytelling taxi driver named Edward. Edward, as far as we could tell, is a kingpin in the region. While we were with him, he got several calls trying to persuade him to be the director of the taxi driver association and he was summoned to his village for a meeting about building a long house in hopes of encouraging tourism to their part of the island. He’s in search of a gong for said longhouse and can retell the history of the island, from the original tribes to the white rajas to today’s present day politics in which Kuching has two mayors, splitting the town in half but creating a healthy competition that keeps it clean and safe. He’s got a lot of pans in the fire. Edward has info and he’ll share it with you, doling it out as appropriate. (Sorry, no orangutan stories on Saturday since those are for Monday morning on the way to the reserve. Patience, my friends. Let’s talk about coconuts and crocodiles instead.)

Edward took us to two caves: Fairy Cave and Windy Cave. Neither was appropriately named. Fairy Cave, while gorgeous, had neither fairies nor anything resembling them, but it did have beautiful cliff faces covered in moss and ivy and a natural skylight from which streamed mote-filled light. At times, we were the only people in the entire cave. It was amazing! (It was also a bit death defying, when it came to climbing down the narrow staircase, in the dark, under a low overhang, to get back out of the cave after our explorations.) And Windy Cave was not so windy. It should have been called Batty Cave. I’ve honestly never seen so many bats in one place in my life. Hundreds. Thousands. Maybe even hundreds of thousands. When we walked into the cavern entrance, it was the pitch blackness that struck first, but rather the sound: high-pitched squeaks- everywhere. It was incredibly loud as the little critters used their echolocation to find their way around the kilometer long cave. With flashlights (torches, in local parlance) in hand, we ventured forth, avoiding piles of guano on the walkway and making sure to keep our mouths closed when we looked up. There were big bats, medium bats and baby bats. It was a regular Goldilocks story in there!  (That sound you hear in the video? BATS!)

Oh, and it was a wee bit sweaty as well. Imagine heat, humidity and an enclosed space. And the thing is, I’m not a sweaty person. Or at least, I didn’t think I was. But after climbing the stairs to the entrance of Fairy Cave, which sits halfway up a mountainside and then going in to discover much more climbing in my future, it was more than glistening going on. Then, Windy Cave had less wind than its name would imply, creating a rather stifling environment, great for creatures of the night, but not as conducive to this girl from the desert of southern Idaho. The advantage to my double-layered tank tops for the day was the inside one could soak up the sweat while I used the outside one to wipe my forehead.

It may not be pretty, but all the dripping was worth the sights.

On the way back to town, Edward informed us we should eat dinner at TopSpot, a huge outdoor hawker stall arena set up on the top of a parking garage. It may not sound glamorous, but it was actually a pretty cool venue and Thad ate his weight in seafood, which means it was a win for him! Dinner and icy cold pineapple juice under the warm Malaysian sky was a pretty perfect end to our first day in Kuching.

Stay tuned for day two, in which I (remember: non-athletic, pretty wimpy and definitely not outdoorsy me- hiking in a humid rainforest where half of the living things want to kill you) go hiking in a rainforest..

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‘Tis the Season?

The halls are decked with boughs of holly and stockings are hung by the fireplace with care, and yet, I can’t quite wrap my head around the season. Is it really Christmastime again? (Okay, really, my million miles of staircases are decked with glittery, plastic garland and my stockings are hung on the bookshelf, but it’s close.) But, how can it be Christmas? I am wearing a sundress and sandals and my hoodie never sees the light of day. The Christmas tree is up, sparkling in the corner of the living room and I’ve put “winter smells” on the Scentsy, all in hopes of making 90 degrees feel like December in Idaho. But, the tiny lizards skittering on the wall behind the tree are a gentle reminder that we aren’t in Kansas (or Idaho) anymore.

So far, with five months under our belts (five months already?!?), Kuala Lumpur has been a great second posting. The city is easy to live in (well, if you don’t count the slightly crazy traffic patterns) where you can find anything- for a price. While I hear people complain of pollution problems, it is a million times better than Chengdu, so another check in the “positive” column for us. Physically, Kuala Lumpur is a much simpler place to get by on a day to day basis than anywhere we lived in China.

But, the thing that really gets to me is not the physical aspects of living here, but the mental- it’s all about the seasons.

As a native Idahoan, I’ve seen my share of chilly winters. When I was a kid, we’d get snow drifts in the backyard that were ripe for tunnel and fort creation and the canyon behind our house was prime sledding real estate. We’d bundle up in our rainbow colored moonboots, dorky earmuffs shaped like fuzzy rodents and uber-puffy coats with mittens on a string and head for the hills. Literally. Years later, as an adult, a similar process would take place at my parents’ cabin in the mountains. Although I was lacking the over-the-top 80s outdoor gear, layers upon layers were easily accumulated and adorned before heading out in search of the perfect place to make inaugural runs down the hillside. (Sometimes, making your own path has its own perils. I’ve got a scar on the small of my back to prove that going top speed down an ungroomed hill isn’t always as fantastic of an idea as it appears when you are standing at the top of the abyss. You never know where a sharp spike of a branch lies hidden just below the surface of the snow…)

I don’t love cold, but I am willing to make the best of it.

The lack of cold was actually one of the huge selling points for me when we looked at KL. Strangely, after twenty-or-so weeks, it is the thing that has been hardest to wrap my head around here. I can understand why people park their cars in the street, blocking traffic (pretty much because, why not? No one does anything to discourage/stop it) and I get why malls are the hottest entertainment around (can you say “automatic air con?).

But no seasons?

How does one mark time? When I look at photos from the last half a year, I’m wearing my Malaysia uniform in all of them- brightly colored, layered tank tops and neutral shorts with a pair of strappy sandals. Was that taken in July? October? December? Who knows!?!? I’d never have a problem picking out the time of year a photo was taken when we were in Idaho, Utah, Washington DC, Chengxian or Chengdu. These places all have seasons!

Eventually, it does start to mess with your mind. Time flows wrong without the passage of seasons. I can look at a calendar and know subjectively that Halloween/a birthday/Thanksgiving/Christmas is upon us, but as soon as I glance away from the calendar, those thoughts flee like cockroaches from Thad’s shoe.

It really is strange.

The best way to remedy thoughts of it not being the holiday season is a quick trip to one of the local malls. Currently, they are all blasting carols throughout their corridors and the bigger the mall, the more massive the Christmas display erected in its center court. (We’re talking several stories high trees, snowman that look like they got make-up advice from the Joker, animatronic elves- each and every one bucktoothed, as if it is a genetic predisposition, and even small Ferris wheel that looks like it belongs to Santa himself.

So, with December and the holidays having sneaked up so stealthily, my one wish for the man in red this year is for post #3 to have seasons. They don’t have to be long or dramatic, but seasons where the temperature fluctuates and my wardrobe requires at least a minimal rotation, maybe a nod to some cute boots or a fashionable scarf and definitely the desire for a cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream on top. I’ve been good this year, I promise, and my list is short. Seasons. Mild ones, even.

Season’s greetings, from the land of no seasons!

 

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A Kuala Lumpur Friendsgiving

My intentions were to never host a Thanksgiving dinner. Ever. But, like all great schemes of rodents and humans, my plans went awry.

You see, being a middle child has many downfalls. I never got the first crack at anything (piercing my ears, getting a Walkman, driving a car) and many of my clothes when I was a child were gently worn before they made it into my dresser drawers. Even in school, I was constantly compared to my older sister, who was just two years ahead of me. But, not being the youngest, I also didn’t get any of the advantages that come with being the last baby of the family. There were many small offenses that my younger brother got away with on a regular basis that wouldn’t have flown for my sister or me, namely fake-claims of torture by his older siblings.

Stuck in the middle. That is me.

Always looking on the bright side though, I have found a way to make my middle ground a productive one. Up until we moved away from Idaho, one of those advantages was never having to do the heavy lifting on the holidays! As soon as Thanksgiving plans were finalized, I annually threw my name into the potluck pot to bring rolls. That’s right. Rolls. Not homemade rolls, but swing-by-the-grocery-store –on-the-way-to-the-meal rolls. In a pinch, I could be counted on to pick up any other last might Albertson’s buys, so it wasn’t as if I weren’t willing to do my share. It is just that my share didn’t involve much time in the kitchen.

The long term plan was to show up every fourth Thursday of November to indulge in my dad’s deliciously home-cooked feast. When that was no longer an option (an idea I can barely contemplate), I figured either my sister would host, as the oldest sibling, of my brother’s wife would throw a spectacular holiday even.t.

Then, two years ago we moved to Chengdu, where I organized a community Thanksgiving dinner for the Americans who were living there with the consulate. This one required a lot more legwork on my part, planning and preparing, but again, nothing in front of a stove or oven. Sticking with my traditional role in the event, I signed up to bring the rolls when I created the potluck papers. With tiny Chengdu ovens, we ordered the turkeys pre-cooked from a local bakery, where I just went ahead and put in my bread order at the same time. Easy peasy.

2014 changed it all. No longer could I just be the roll-gal.

With a combination of friends from Chengdu and new embassy friends here in KL, I went from never taking on a Thanksgiving dinner to hosting for ten. (I know ten isn’t a huge number for a holiday meal, but it was more than a big enough one for my inaugural efforts!) After weeks of preparing and shopping, it was time to make this thing happen. Emails about traditional must-haves had gone back and forth and an awesome turkey tablecloth was on order from Amazon. (Side note: it never came. Sometimes the DPO is unpredictable. I am guessing it will come home with Thad today. Five days too late for this year’s table masterpiece, its debut will be put off indefinitely, as I have no plans to become an annual host of this feast-madness. I hauled Thad to Spotlight with me, where we [by which I mean I] spent nearly an hour debating the pros/cons of tablecloth vs. place mats. I had a new turkey platter (although not nearly as awesome as the one I grew up with), fancy new gravy boats (that ended up being totally non-functional, dripping gravy across the table from one end to the other) and nine chairs ready for seating. (But wait! Ten guests were coming…eeek!)

Luckily, our fantastic guests are much better cooks than I am and threw in to make sure the meal was a success. Along with a massive amount of bird, we had gourmet mac ‘n cheese, sweet potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole, rolls (of course!), mashed potatoes, gravy, tossed salad, and pie. Lots of pie. As dishes went in and out of the oven and off and on the stove, Skype calls were made to locals all over the US, with Thanksgiving wishes extending from KL to families and friends on the other side of the world.

By the end of the meal, we were all ready to loosen our belts a hole or two and stumble our way to the living room for an entertaining evening debating with state would be best to cut loose from the Union and giggling at horrifying maternity announcement photos on Facebook.

I may not have been able to get away with merely showing up, rolls in hand, but this year’s Friends-giving reminded me of how many people I have to be thankful for; those who we were able to spend the day with and those who range from Nairobi to Washington DC to Idaho are all counted among our many blessings.

Happy Thanksgiving! Gobble. Gobble.

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Happy Birthday, Marine Corps!

During our two years in China, I spent weeks (or possibly months) plotting the details of each Marine Ball. Along with friends, we searched for hours online to find the perfect dresses, used the top floor bathroom to take measurements at lunch one day and then ordered our beautiful custom creations. We scanned page after page of up-do options and had endless talks over steaming bowls of noodles about whether to go with gold or silver accessories. As CLO, I organized make-up tutorials with one of our wonderful community members who was a professional make-up artist, so all of the women could sign up for a personalized rundown of what exactly to do with all those little boxes of cosmetics in their drawers. I also hosted a mani/pedi party each year, where all the women and girls were invited over for an evening of drinks and snacks and full-access to my nail polish collection. Yes, in the giant scheme of things, none of this is important, but it was fun to plan for a nice of playing princess and it was a good way to pass smoggy Chengdu Saturdays and the annual ball created a great excuse for all of the ladies to get together and play dress-up together.

Coming into fall this year, I assumed we would attend the Kuala Lumpur Marine Ball, but without my plotting partner Stephanie, didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the various permutations of gowns and shoes and jewelry. Tickets went on sale the week we were in Kota Kinabalu for Thad’s work, but I didn’t worry about it, figuring we’d pick up tickets the following week when we were back in town. Chengdu’s small ex-pat population meant you could get tickets up until the week before the event. Not so in KL! With a much larger ex-pat community and an embassy three times the size of our previous consulate, this year’s tickets were gone before we even got back to the peninsula! I was bummed when we missed out on the chance to go, but not heartbroken. It just wouldn’t be the same anyway…

But then, out of the blue, a week before the ball, Thad got an email asking if he wanted to buy tickets! He texted me to see what I wanted to do, but I was in class, so didn’t hear about it until I called him at the end of the day. Initially, I begged off, saying we didn’t need to go and to pass them along to someone else. Not one to usually change my mind, I surprised us both when I immediately called him back (stuck sitting in lovely KL traffic, so lots of time to spare) to say that yes, we should get the tickets and go. Why not!? Of course it isn’t going to be the same as last year when it felt like a party with all of our closest Chengdu-ren, but that’s the point to the lifestyle, right? New adventures. New experiences. New sidewalks to explore.

With just a week to prepare, I knew I’d be wearing last year’s dress (heavens, no!) which needed to be dropped at the dry cleaners ASAP. This was also the perfect excuse to go get my highlights redone, something I had been putting off since I haven’t been working and ex-pat salons here are a pretty penny. Before Thad got home from work that afternoon, the dress was at the cleaners, my hair appointments were scheduled (one for color earlier in the week and another for the up-do that day) and I had found a place for him to rent a tux. When I need to, I can move and shake, even in a crazy new country!

No, it wasn’t the same as last year. We didn’t sit at the head table and I didn’t trade plates with the boss’s wife when she liked the look of my dish better. We didn’t dance Gangnam Style with the consul general and we didn’t get photos taken with the best Marines ever. But, we did have the chance to meet eight new people, our fellow tablemates, who were great dinner company. We enjoyed a well-done ceremony celebrating the birth of the Marine Corps and we (okay, I) had a fantastic time checking out the myriad of dresses, all colors and styles, that danced the night away. It wasn’t Chengdu and that is okay. It is Kuala Lumpur, a post we are learning more about each week and a great place to spend Thad’s second State Department tour.

Happy birthday, Marines!

(To see pictures from Marine Ball 2013, click here. To see pictures from Marine Ball 2012, click here. Enjoy!)

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Filed under Random Musings