Tag Archives: Foreign Service

A Rainy Reminder

I cannot overstate how much I love these crazy afternoon rainstorms that we’ve been having lately in Kuala Lumpur. If this is how rainy season is going to be, bring it on!

To be fair though, I am in the best position possible to love the sheets of water streaming from the sky, the blinding flashes of lightning that coincide exactly with cracks of thunder that jar even the most solid foundations. I’m lucky enough to be sitting in the office space of my house, which is softly lit by a floor lamp and a candle, cozy as can be, doing some online reading while the rain splatters against my window and the wind rushes through the palm trees in the driveway.

As I wander to the balcony to sit and watch the cars slink by in the onslaught and murky visiblity, I can’t help but think at how devastating this storm could be for those who don’t have the advantages and comforts that I have. All it would take is a slightly leaky roof or less than steady walls and this afternoon’s storm would mean small lakes in a home, coteries of critters seeking refuge and a sleepless night ahead as moisture pools in fabrics and mattresses.

What brings comfort and coziness to one can mean discomfort and disaster for another. As I press forward with my afternoon agenda of lesson plans and a bit of light literary theory reading, this dichotomy rests with me. It is always good to stop and count ones blessings, as the littlest things can make the biggest differences.

 

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BASE-ically Crazy, If You Ask Me

People travel for different reasons. For some, it is the lure man-made wonders- ancient temples and towering skyscrapers. For others, natural wonders call their names- deep, rainbow colored canyons and breathtaking mountaintops. Those who travel for work are in search of new connections, new deals and higher profits for their companies. Some travelers are looking to find something or someone, escape a situation or try to outrun a memory.

And some travelers are just looking for a new place to jump off the highest point possible.

 

Those are the folks we went to visit this weekend. Kuala Lumpur was holding its annual KL Tower BASE Jump event, meaning folks from all over the world gathered to hurl themselves off the top of a nearly 1400 foot high radio tower in the center of the city. We had heard rumblings that the jumpers were going to be in town this last weekend, but couldn’t find any specifics about when the jumps would be taking place. As I was driving to school on Friday, I saw a single parachute open mid-sky and was easily convinced we needed to find out more. As it turns out, the participants would be jumping most of the day Saturday and Sunday. (There were evening jumps planned too, but with KL storms, I’m not sure those happened.)

Sunday morning, after a quick shower and bowl of cereal, we headed into town. (I can actually see the KL Tower from my kitchen, but just the top bulb, which is where they jumpers take off, but because of the skyscraper-heavy skyline, we wouldn’t be able to see the rainbow of parachutes open.) We parked along the road, which means we actually parked in the traffic lane, but I figured it was all legit since I paid five ringgit and got a ticket to place in my window. Who cares that it was blocking future traffic; I had the official slip of tissue paper with a number on it. Too legit to quit. As we walked to the top of the hill upon which the KL Tower sits, we had to stop multiple times to watch the BASE jumpers coming off the building. From below, it is hard to see the initial leap, but the snap of an opening parachute draws eyes upward, creating a constant need to stop and stare.

We hadn’t planned on going into the tower itself, but when we got there, we were told we could go to the top and watch them jump from above. On a regular day, I’m not sure the tower entrance fee is worth it, but how often do you get to see people throwing themselves off a building with just a small backpack and a GoPro-sporting helmet? So, we quickly signed away our lives (not their fault if we fall off!) and headed up the elevator, which we shared with a jumper from California. When we told him we were from Idaho, he was excited and said that many of the jumpers loved going to Idaho to jump from the bridge in Twin Falls. He said that on Friday he made the KL jump nineteen times and did twenty-six more on Saturday and he was on number seven for Sunday and he was definitely feeling it in his joints. (I’m not sure what the long-term effects of the sport are, but I am guessing knee-replacements come early for some of these folks!)

Watching these guys (and gals! We saw three female participants) was incredible. I squawk if I even get near the edge of the building, but they would fly off of it on a rope swing with nary a peep. Are you serious? How does one not squeal as they dangle from a rope, suspended 1400 feet above the ground?

And how does one become so accustomed to hurling themselves off buildings that it merely jumping isn’t’ enough, but to up the game you must launch one another off by the feet, go piggy-back style or bail as a group, just to keep in interesting?

Most of the jumpers were young, in their 20s and this is what they do for fun. They travel the world in search of buildings, antennae, span (bridges) and earth (cliffs) from which to jump. (BASE.) I don’t know if these guys have “real” jobs or they just wander the earth, seeking the next thrill, but one young man made me laugh as he awaited his next turn to go over the edge. He was chatting with other jumpers on the platform, saying, “Man, I think I am going to ask my mom for a new helmet for Christmas.” Haha! Really? You jump off buildings for fun, but you are hoping Santa will bring you new equipment to shield your noggin? Cool, dude!

As an acrophobic of highest order, I can’t imagine strapping a self-packed chute to my back, snapping on a bike helmet and then leaning over the side of a building. Heck, I can barely get myself to the edge of the many tourist-trap viewing balconies we’ve visited all over the world. BASE jumpers travel in pursuit of actual, physical high points. I, on the other hand, will happily stick to the quest for cultural peaks and the summits of humanity.

 

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A Plan Thwarted

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
― Allen Saunders

It’s easy to make plans, but no matter how much work you put into them, sometimes things just don’t turn out the way you had envisioned it. On both big and small levels, this has been the theme of my move to Kuala Lumpur. Coming into our second posting with the Foreign Service, I thought for sure I’d have a job working at the embassy, hopefully in the Public Affairs section, as there were two openings coming available this past summer. I’ve got a strong resume, having worked not only as a teacher for nearly a decade, but as CLO for two solid years in Chengdu, plus I had lined up some fantastic references. But, after two interviews that felt positive and optimistic, and zero calls to my references, I got received two “We regret to inform you…” emails. I guess it is a sign that I should be doing something else. (Blog posts on that “something else” to come soon. Stay tuned!)

But, even on a smaller level, KL seems to thwart plans. After a long week at work (how are the short weeks always the longest?), we had a quiet day around the house on Saturday so that Thad could have a bit of down time, but then decided to venture out of town a day-trip on Sunday. Port Dickson seemed like a good choice for our first road trip in Malaysia, as it is less than two hours away and the closest beach to the capital. I’d done some research online and was excited to visit the ostrich farm they have just outside the town. According to their website, Thad could enjoy a nice ostrich burger for lunch and I could touch an array of animals the attached petting zoo. (Initially I was SUPER excited to go, as the website advertised ostrich rides. I was going to get my Swiss Family Robinson on, but then read a little further and realized that riders had to be under 40 kilograms, which is about 88 pounds. I don’t think I’ve weighed that little since about the 5th grade, so there will be no ostrich riding in my future. Sad!)

With plans for a road trip, some lunch and some animal visiting, plus a stop by the beach, we headed out late Sunday morning. The car had about a quarter of a tank of gas, so we thought we’d get on the road and find a petrol station along the road- they are a dime a dozen around here. (Plus, I knew lots of the ones along the freeways have Dunkin’ Donuts attached, so I may have had an alternative motive in my recommendation to scout one out along the way.)

Through the SMART tunnel we went and we were off. (The SMART tunnel is about three miles long and basically skips all of the downtown traffic, starting from just beyond the US Embassy and popping out at a toll both beyond the masses of the city, all for a mere two ringgit.) Probably fifteen kilometers outside of town, I spotted the coveted gas station/DD, so off we pulled. While I took care of gassing up the car (which really means telling the guy what kind and how much and then going in to pay) Thad went to the ATM to get cash for our little outing. Maybank is the official government bank here, so he opted for that ATM, figuring it would be the safest bet. Wrong! After putting in his card and PIN, the machine spit out a receipt but no cash. The slip of paper informed him that his card was expired (it was not) and that the machine would be keeping it. What?!?

Since Thad has spent the last two years dealing with a variety of fraud as a major portfolio at work, he was instantly on alert. Something was just not right. Within minutes we were back in the car, on the phone with our credit card company, cancelling both his card and mine and making sure that the account was locked down tighter than Fort Knox.

Feeling a bit annoyed with the card situation and lacking much in terms of cash (I had just used a good portion of what we had originally brought to fill up the car), we decided that a road trip out of town may not be the smartest move, so we packed it in and headed back to KL proper.

Big plans. Little plans. You can make them all you want, but in the end, you’ve just got to go with the flow and play it by ear. I may not be spending my days in heels and dress clothes, working to promote the US the way I had hoped I would be here and I definitely did not get to explore the ostrich park this weekend (or even get my coveted Dunkin’ Donuts treat!), but there are bigger and better things on the horizon for my day-to-day schedule and yesterday turned into a lovely afternoon of patio dining and people watching in the city.

In the end, it all works out.

 

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It Wouldn’t Be an Adventure without a Bit of Insanity

To survive with any kind of sanity intact when living overseas, it is best to learn right away that you can’t stop the craziness from happening, so flexibility and an ability to laugh at the situation, solve it and move on are necessities. (Luckily, none of these things take up any suitcase weight, so they are easy to haul from city to city, post to post, country to country.)

These traits are not ones that come naturally to many folks, myself included. Having been raised in the same house in southern Idaho for my entire life, I had a pretty set outlook on how the world around me should be. My days had a pattern to them that made sense for a middle class family with fifteen llamas and some room to run. Drop me in the middle of the Dominican Republic at the age of eighteen and suddenly, that box that I knew so well didn’t hold the right tools for day to day life. There was no large lawn that needed to be divided and conquered by the kids, no llama stalls to muck or bales of hay to haul to the feeder and no endless piles of books and newspapers to flip through as I lazed away a Sunday afternoon. (Three kids meant splitting major chores three ways, but I got pretty good, as the middle child, at finding ways to make my portion a bit smaller whenever I could. With the lawn, I quickly learned that taking the middle section and offering to mow first had some major advantages. By mowing first, I could accidently forget to take care of the section we loving called the “grasshopper lawn” and then it suddenly became the job of the sibling with the third that also connected to that part. And by making my end line a few yards in on either side, I could save myself a few passes with the mower, leaving them to the others to clean-up. The stalls were a bit harder to divvy up, but multiple breaks to lean on my pitchfork or always being the wheelbarrow pusher and then taking the long route back saved me a few scoops here and there.)

There I was, eighteen years old and living in a land that was vastly different from anything I had known. I was with a school group, but we each lived with a local family, so I was often on my own and flexibility and spur of the moment problem solving were not really a part of my repertoire at that time. Having been in the country only a few days, it was time to start school at the local university. My host family took me in a cab, but I was too overwhelmed to really focus and keep track of our routing. After a morning of orientation, I was expected to return to my host-home for lunch and the afternoon break. While everyone else seemed to scatter as soon as we were released, I quickly realized I had no idea in which direction I lived. None. And I had no idea what to do. Eventually, one of the counselors for our program must have seen the stricken look on my face and quickly consulted his list of addresses for foreign students and put me in a cab back to my residence, at which point I couldn’t even figure out which floor I lived on. (I’d blame jetlag, but it was only a three-hour time difference. It was more being so far out of my comfort zone that at the time, I didn’t even know where to start in processing this new life.) Luckily, Host Mom was standing on the balcony, yelling “Rubia! Rubia!” Figuring I was the only blonde girl in the entire neighborhood, I followed her directions until I made it home. Talk about learning on the fly!

Luckily, by the time we moved to China with Peace Corps, I had nearly an extra decade under my belt, with more foreign travel and general life experience to guide me. I quickly adapted to the 9AM calls on Saturday morning, telling me to be at the gate in twenty minutes for a department outing to the countryside. (Who needs a shower if you are going to the countryside anyway, right? And personal time?? It doesn’t exist if the danwei leader wants an outing. You just go.) Having course schedules change the night before the new term became routine and learning that all exams must only be marked in red ink or they must be remarked were tidbits that I just stocked away for the next round of classes.

Knowing that there is no way to know how a day is going to go, I shouldn’t have been surprised this week when I went to do a bit of grocery shopping and ended up with a barricade behind my car, at yet, I must admit to a minute of sheer wonder. How did that pole grow organically from the asphalt in the twenty minute I was gone?

Here’s the deal. On my way home from volunteering at a local refugee school (blog post on that to come soon!), I decided to stop at a local grocery store to grab a few items. It was just after lunch and the small parking lot was packed! I drove around the side of the building and found a great spot near the end of the spaces available. Pleased with my parking, I headed in to by some crazily overpriced cheese, some pasta-fixings and a few odds and ends snacks.

I wasn’t in the store more than twenty minutes.

As I did a bit of 4-wheeling with my cart across the parking lot that could play backup to Craters of the Moon, my focus was mostly on keeping my cart going in something resembling a straight line. I didn’t actually look at my car until I was nearly behind it, at which point I spotted the newly arrived pole. I stopped, looked around, double checked that this really was my vehicle (our make/model is super popular amount ex-pats in KL) and once I’d confirmed that yes, this was my SUV, I took another minute to ponder. How had I parked there? Where did the pole come from? And more importantly, what was I going to do?

My first thought was to just pull it out myself. Sure, why couldn’t I, wearing a dress and sandals, just yank that metal pole out of the ground? Needless to say, plan A was a bust. After shoving my groceries in the backseat (there was no way the trunk was lifting with that pole inches away), I went in search of a parking lot attendant. While explaining my situation, the guard looked confused, so I just asked him to walk with me to my car. As we got about halfway down the line of vehicles, he started laughing and said, “Oh, that is *your* car.”

Yes, that is my car!

Without another word, he unwound a giant linked chain, did some magical pushing and pulling on the pole and out it came. As he dragged it across the asphalt, he motioned for me to pull my car out and be on my way. No explanation, no apology. This is just the way it is.

All those years ago in the Dominican Republic (I’d rather not date myself by saying just how long ago it was, but suffice to say, I had no email address, as the internet was nearly non-existent, especially in Santiago and calls from home were horribly expensive long distance, once a month), had I been in a similar situation, I’m pretty sure I would have sat down on the curb, tears in my eyes, waiting for someone to make it better. Luckily, a few handfuls of countries and even more ridiculously random events later, Tuesday’s outing didn’t ruffle a feather.

Heck, it was nearly a VIP parking spot! If only the chain were a red velvet rope…

how

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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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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

VS

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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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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