Tag Archives: Foreign Service

Top Ten After Ten

With a full ten days under my belt in the sweltering city of Kuala Lumpur, I can’t help but continually marvel at how different it is from Chengdu. Yes, there are some similarities, but with the large Chinese population in Malaysia, I really expected to see a lot more Mainland mannerisms than I do here. So, after just under a fortnight in our new home, here are my top ten KL observations:

  • Daily life takes less energy. The other day, I went to the 7-11 to top up my phone. As I slowly ambled towards the store (I made the poor choice of going at 2PM, at which point in the day anything more than an amble is not likely to happen), in my head I was making a plan of what exactly I needed to ask for and figuring out how to make sure I got my point across. With the chill of high power AC hitting my damp skin, I was greeted with, “Hello ma’am!” and realized that I no longer needed to think through my requests. English was the go-to language in most stores throughout the city, so there was no need to think through vocabulary or rehearse grammatical structures in preparation for a small purchase. (Although, I have found that utilizing the correct local phrase is key. It is vital that I ask for my phone to be “topped up” rather than just ask to have money put on it. The latter request just got me a quizzical look, eyebrows raised and head cocked to the left. Topped up, on the other hand, immediately registered and my phone was once again in working order.)
  • Right-hand driving is odd, but learnable. Upon my first foray into the wild, wild world of wrong side of the road driving, I was sweating bullets (with the AC on high) and nervous at every turn. I actually missed the roundabout I needed to go around because I was freaked out by entering it on the left. I ended up having to go all the way around the block and come at it a second time, which was still disconcerting, but I made it into the flow of traffic and back out again, all with no scrapes or scratches on the new car. I’ve yet to make an entire trip anywhere without accidentally turning on the windshield wipers instead of the blinker, but I’m assuming eventually that too will become second nature. But, the X-Trail and I have been out on a variety of solo trips (all rather short) and one longer trek to the IKEA with the GPS/Thad as my navigator. (Again, we may have missed a few turns, mostly because there are a ridiculous number of flyovers here, which don’t register on the GPS as different from the main road, so it isn’t until long past the point of no return that the GPS either gives me the quiet thumbs up or loudly recalculates as I try to keep my panic to a minimum, reminding myself that we are on no timeline and that the IKEA towels will await my arrival.)
  • Life is all about the malls here. They are large. They are air conditioned. And they are full of high-end stores that I choose not to afford. But, if I am ever in need of a Prada handbag, a Rolex watch or some Versace heels, I have a bead on where to burn my ringgits.
  • Not all grocery stores are equal. In Chengdu, we were all thrilled when a new imported item showed up in the Treat or at Metro and I scheduled by trips to the Trust-Mart to all take place before noon, as it was early afternoon when the hanging chunks of chicken and bins of meat started to really take on a funk. In KL, there are three supermarkets within a mile of our place, all of which are chalked full of foods I recognize and not a single piece of raw meat is seen outside of a cooled display case.
  • Speaking of food: halal and non-halal. Learn it and don’t mix it. I learned this lesson the slightly awkward way. (I wouldn’t say hard way, as I was corrected before I could make too large of a blunder, but it still brought a blush to my cheeks.) Last week, upon my first solo outing in the X-Trail, I went to the Cold Storage grocery store to get the basics to fill our fridge and cupboards. Thad had very few requests, but one in particular was for some lunch meat. We had seen it in the grocery store earlier in the week and it was something that was pretty hard to come by in western China, so it was on the top of my shopping list. I grabbed a package of chicken from the refrigerated section of the store, continued my shopping through the spices and condiments, cookies and crackers and eventually found myself in the far back corner of the store, prominently labeled “non-halal.” There, amongst the bacon and sausage, I saw some packages of deli ham and thought it would be a good addition to the chicken. Picking up two packages, I placed them in my cart and turned to check out the cereal and snack section of the store, but was quickly stopped by a clerk. Gently and without any obvious horror on her face, she told me that all non-halal items had to be purchased within the non-halal section of the store and placed in a separate bag from the rest of the available items. Thank goodness that woman was there! I can’t imagine the embarrassment if I had made it up to the regular registers with my pork products, effectively offending two-thirds of the shopping population that morning. Lesson learned. Make all non-halal purchases separately and bag them individually.
  • Purse paranoia has me in its clutches. Purse snatching is a huge problem here, with everyone I’ve met at the embassy either having had it happen to them or to someone they know well. Men on motorbikes ride by and grab purses off of women walking along the sidewalks on a fairly regular basis. Enough that everyone talks about it, all of the time. In Chengdu, I walked a lot of places, with nary a thought to the safety of it. I’d plug in my headphones and enjoy lovely combination of Bon Jovi, Britney and Backstreet Boys as I went on my merry way. No such thing will happen here. Instead, when walking here, it’s important to be constantly aware of the surroundings, watching the motorbikes (especially those with double riders) and keeping an eye on which side of the road to walk on and handbag placement (always on the shoulder away from the road). It’s been on to feel such a slight paranoia on a regular basis. The longer we are here, the more obvious it is to me why everyone has a car and drives here. It isn’t just because of the heat.
  • Starbucks is my friend. Chengdu was the first time I ever spent money in a Starbucks and there I became a semi-regular, going for an oversized chocolate muffing for a Friday morning snack or frequenting the peppermint hot chocolate counter from November through January (seriously, it was like Christmas in my mouth.) Now though, I am no longer looking for a mid-morning work break (no job makes that easier to avoid) or a steaming cup of anything (more ice!), but I am in real need of their Wi-Fi connection. Our home internet has yet to be hooked up, so currently, my only connection to the world of newsfeeds, blogs and online shopping is through a cup of iced passion fruit tea and a maximum of two hours from the free passcode. (Due to the lack of internet, but the time this post actually makes it onto In Search of the End of the Sidewalk we will be well passed the ten day mark, but I’m trying…trying…trying to be patient.)
  • Not working is weird. I know I did it for a year when we were in DC for training, but I think over time I forgot what it was like to not have that daily schedule. On the outside it sounds like a great deal- not having a job to check in at each day, but I know myself well enough to know that I don’t stay home well. After two years of CLO-ing, I thought it would be great to have a bit of time off between jobs, but apparently two months is more than enough for me. I am ready to go back to work, to have my days full of assignments and emails and colleagues. (Right now, the household lizards, all of whom I have dubbed “Lenny” are my only colleagues. I haven’t yet started to talk to them, so that’s good, but it is just a matter of time.) I’ve applied to several positions at the embassy, so now it is just a matter of waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
  • Lizards are to be loved, mosquitoes are to be avoided. With a 280% increase in dengue fever over this time last year, the bug-eating reptiles are man’s new best friend. Knowing that these four-legged, squirmy creatures are actually a health-benefit, I try not to squeal too loudly when I open the cupboard below the sink and see one scurry under the pipes or squawk too loudly when one dashes over the top of the clothes dryer when I wander in to the laundry room first thing in the morning or even screech when a Lenny scampers over my foot on his way to the wall when I get up for a glass of water in the middle of the night. New house rule: No wimpy-girly noises that potentially scare off the critters that do nothing more than nosh on blood sucking, disease-carrying insects.
  • Although they share a continent and a time zone, on the surface, Kuala Lumpur and Chengdu share very little else. To have a great tour here, I need to put the comparing aside and love Kuala Lumpur for what it is- a great city with a few bumps and bruises, making it not that different from Chengdu, after all.

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Sometimes It’s Not Such a Small World After All

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about my travel adventures, but usually my mini-rants are about long delays or annoying flight changes. International travel lends itself to these types of circumstances, as multiple flights, often on different airlines, are hard to match up over the course of twenty-four or thirty hours of travel from airport to airport, continent to continent. It’s all a part of the deal.

Last weekend’s travel saga, though, takes the proverbial cake. (The taken cake was no Betty Crocker, cook-at-home-for-a-kid’s-birthday-party style either. We are talking Buddy the Cake Boss, over the top, multiple layers, moving parts and fireworks style cake for the adventure that was our trip from Washington DC to Kuala Lumpur.)

The day started early. E-a-r-l-y. My alarm went off at 2AM, which isn’t even morning in my book, but is what had to happen to get showered, repacked, checked out and in the lobby by 3AM for our not-so-super-Super-Shuttle pick-up. (Okay, technically the alarm never went off, as even though I had set two, I didn’t trust them to get me up on time, so I slept less of a slumber and more of a “lay here with your eyes closed, checking the time every five minutes” kind of sleep. When I was within fifteen minutes of the alarms sounding, I just got up, turned them off and drug my miserable self into the shower.) Our surly driver’s attitude should have clued me in to what a long day it was going to be, but I brushed off her grumpy attitude, thinking it was early and maybe she had been out late celebrating the 4th of July. (When I booked the shuttle, online, I made a note that we would have four large suitcases to check and two carry-on bags, knowing that it is probably a bigger than normal amount of baggage for folks traveling around the States. After all, we are moving to a new country! I was very clear about the amount of space we would need. Well, as it turns out, we were her first pick-up of the run and she was quite displeased with our luggage situation, which Thad stacked neatly and compactly in the back of the van. She proceeded to lecture us about the size of our bags, at which point I nicely told her that I had noted it on our reservation. She said she didn’t care and “What if everyone else has that many bags?” As it turns out, of the other four people we picked up Saturday morning, only one had anything more than a carry-on bag, as his was a mere backpack. I seriously considered pointing this out to her when we unloaded at the airport, but held my tongue, figuring a bit of good karma wouldn’t hurt since we had a whole lot of travel in front of us. If only I had known then how the day was going to go…)

But I digress…

After getting to Dulles International Airport, checking in and clearing security, we arrived at our gate to find out that between the time the counter issued our tickets and our appearance at the waiting area, our flight had been delayed FOUR hours for maintenance issues. Regardless of the worries about what plane-work would require four hours of time and if I really wanted to get on that machine anyway, that put us very close to missing our flight out of San Francisco. Along with everyone else on that flight, we queued up at the United service desk to see what could be done. The solution was a convoluted one that entailed our bags taking a mid-morning flight to SFO out of Dulles without us and Thad and I hopping in a taxi to dash across town to catch a different DC to SFO flight from Reagan International Airport in less than an hour. With few options, we jumped in a cab and asked him to get us across town as quickly as possible, which meant taking our lives in our own hands. With seatbelts firmly buckled, we were off on a ride that would take us swerving onto the shoulder multiple times and weaving in and out of traffic as the morning sun glared through the front window. On the radio played a series of what I can only guess (and hope!) were Islamic prayers. At that point, I was willing to pray along with anyone to get to National in one piece and with a bit of time to spare.

Survive we did.

With no luggage to check and boarding passes in hand (printed by the service desk at Dulles), we headed straight for security. Shoes off. Laptops out. Pockets empty. Grab it all and go! We got to the gate with time for a quick powder room break and then onto the plane we went. Whew. We were back on track for Kuala Lumpur.

Until we hit San Francisco.

After disembarking the plane, we made our way to the gigantic electronic reader board, only to see that our flight to Hong Kong was also now delayed, but just an hour. No problem. We’d have time to grab a bite to eat, stock up on snacks and continue on the journey.

And then one hour turned into two, which rolled into a third. There was no way we were going to make our Hong Kong connection.

Back to the service desk we went.

This time though, things became more complicated, as we were changing airlines, from United to Cathay, so we didn’t yet have boarding passes and we were going to have to recheck the luggage in Hong Kong. While I guarded the backpacks, Thad sweet-talked the gate agent into coordinating with Cathay and pushing our bags on through to Kuala Lumpur and getting us a second booking, this time on the flight for the following morning, in case we didn’t make the connection. There was still a bit of confidence that we would be able to make a quick transition in Hong Kong, so we were hoping to be on-track with the original plan, but had a plan B put together, just in case.
We didn’t make the connection, by less than twenty minutes.

But, we were met at the gate by a United representative who had hotel and food vouchers in-hand, who told us not to pick up our luggage since it was booked through and who told us we had two seats on the morning flight to Kuala Lumpur.

While it wasn’t ideal, a bit of a rest day in the travel itinerary was not the end of the world. United booked us in a decent hotel that was attached to the airport, so we never had to leave the confines of the building, which turned out to be ideal since it was pouring rain the next morning. Thad, thinking ahead, had packed himself some overnight items in his carry-on bag, as we’ve traveled enough to know that on multiple leg trips, overnight is always on the table. I, on the other hand, an eternal optimist, just knew that we were going to make all of our connections and be tucked away in our new beds before I’d need a change of undies or clean socks.

Optimism failed me.

Luckily, Chinese hotels always have toothbrushes as part of the bathroom “stuff,” so while Thad was showered in an entirely new outfit as we headed back to the airport on Sunday morning, I at least had clean teeth and was smelling like a boy from the deodorant I “borrowed” from my dear husband to get me through the day.

Well rested and ready to go, we sauntered on up to the Cathay ticket counter and handed over our passports, anticipating a quick turn-around since we had no luggage in tow. We watched at as the counter attendant clicked on buttons. And then typed some more. And then looked at our passports again. And then hit a few more keys. Finally, she looked up at us and said, “But you have no reservation.”

What? United, what did you do? (Or not do?)

At this point, I still have no idea where the breakdown happened, but break-down it did. The woman in San Francisco said we were booked on that flight. The man in Hong Kong said we were booked on that flight. And yet, we were not booked on that flight.

There were lots of seats though, so soon two boarding passes whirled out of the printer. Before walking away, we double checked to make sure our bags would also make the flight. And again, she looked up at us and said, “But we have no bags for you.”

What? United, what did you do? (Or not do, again?)

Overnight our bags had disappeared. It took nearly an hour of wrangling, calls from Cathay to United, us sitting on a bench, us reminding the counter we were still waiting, more calls and then finally, bags! It sounds like United locked the bags up for safe-keeping, but then didn’t have a morning attendant to answer the calls or retrieve the bags until just minutes before our flight took off.

We wove through security (yay for not having to take your shoes off in Asian airports!) and darted through immigration (yay for a diplomatic line!), arriving at our gate in time to walk right on to the plane, which was nearly done boarding.

I flopped down in my middle of the row seat, happy to be on board for the final leg of this ridiculous journey. At this point, it was all out of our hands. We were on the last flight of our trip and we were 90% sure our bags were as well.

The math is a little tricky with time zones and datelines and all that crazy international clock manipulation, but as close as I can tell, from DC hotel to KL home, we were on the road for nearly forty-eight hours. Forty-eight hours of stress, haggling with airlines, rescheduling pick-ups and just trying to make it from flight to flight. Needless to say, we are happy to be ensconced in the air conditioning of our new house, settling in for a new two year adventure.

Washington DC. San Francisco. Hong Kong. Home.

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Asphalt Flowers and Chalk-White Arrows

The cracked, wobbly-bricked, phlem-covered sidewalk of Chengdu has run out. It may not be a glamorous sidewalk, but after a couple of years devoted to wandering it, like the fictional yellow brick road, I’m pretty happy with the adventures and friends I’ve found through its twists and turns.

Nearly two years to the day after touching down at Shuangliu Airport, we’re headed back there again, suitcases and carry-ons in tow. We’ll spend a brief bit of time on American soil, visiting family and friends, taking care of doctors and dentist appointments and spending a pretty penny on electronics and clothing, but soon we’ll head off again, bound for a new set of walkways, ones that currently contain quite a bit of uncertainty, but if I knew what was at the end of the sidewalk, the trip would quickly lose its appeal.

We are off again, looking for the places where asphalt flowers grow and chalk-white arrows go.

Searching. Searching. For the place where the sidewalk ends.

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends

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Cardboard Scraps and a Whole Lot of Dust

The day of reckoning has come and gone.

Not that there was ever any question about whether we’d be under our weight limits, which are ridiculously high. Even with the addition of a treadmill and a gigantic bean bag chair since we arrived in China, we just barely hit the one-ton mark for HHE during our pack out on Tuesday.  (I sometimes think that if Thad were doing this Foreign Service thing alone, he wouldn’t need multiple shipments. He’d load his clothes in his suitcases and put his TV and PlayStation on a boat and off he would go. It seems most of the fluff around here belongs to me.)

More than being overweight, I was worried about not having enough pounds to pack. To ship boxes back to DC for permanent storage, we had to have at least 250 pounds and I worried that we wouldn’t make it. Like a sumo wrestler, trying to pack on the pounds before a big bout, I was scrambling to find heavy items to fill out my States-bound shipment. Add in some books, a random computer monitor that was never unpacked after arriving in Chengdu and copious amounts of winter clothing and we hit the mark, with room to spare. Goodbye stuff. I’ll see you again…well, who knows. Someday when we do a DC tour. At which point I will probably hate you all and send you directly to the Goodwill, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

Tuesday morning started with a swarm of movers (okay, more like seven, but one guy seriously scurried everywhere he went, so he made the whole thing feel a bit more frenetic) taking over my apartment. Being uber-prepared, my goods were all sorted by shipment types and piles were labeled, so things got underway without a hitch. Mostly, I sat on my couch, waiting to be needed. Occasionally there were random questions I had to answer, like explaining why we had such a giant bottle of aspirin (blame it on Costco shopping) or if we really wanted to ship my jewelry by air. (Yes! Accessories are important. They must arrive ASAP!)

Oh, and there was the tampon incident. You see, I had an extra box of them that I was going to ship by air, so it was in the appropriately labeled room. At one point, I walked by the UAB room as I was making my occasional trip around the apartment, only to stop and watch one of the movers look at the box with a very confused expression. Curious as to what would happen next, I stayed in the hallway, just long enough to watch him open the box and smell the contents. Yup, a big ol’ whiff out of the tampon box. I’m not sure what he thought was in there or what it might smell like, but he got a disappointing cotton and plastic aroma. At this point, I moved on in my wanderings, thinking the strange incident was over. If I only knew the awkwardness that was to come…

Just a few minutes later, the manager of the move came up to me with that same box in hand and asked me what it was. I told her they were tampons, but that didn’t seem to clear up the situation in the least. She then pulled one out, waved it around and asked if it had liquid in it. I had to explain that it was cotton and plastic- no liquid involved and yes, it was fine to ship by air. Promises that the box was safe to send in UAB were extracted and back to managing she went, with seemingly no idea what an awkward situation we had just shared.

So there was that…

My favorite part of the day though had to be watching the movers make Franken-boxes. Much like the fabled monster (we’ll leave the literary analysis of his monstrosity to another post), the boxes were cobbled together out of pieces and parts. The TV got one of these custom-made creations, as they didn’t have any actual TV boxes with them, but the best fabricated box of the day belonged to my patio chairs. These, they stacked on top of each other and then cut box parts to go all around the chairs. By the end, the final product makes it look like I am shipping my own personal Pac-Man arcade game. Nice!

With only cardboard scraps and a whole lot of dust left behind, my days in Chengdu are numbered. (That number being 2.) Now, it’s just me and my suitcases.

Forward, ho!

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3…2…1…Pack!

Packing. It has taken over my life. Okay, not so much my life as my mind. I may not be spending hours carefully wrapping ethno-plunder and figuring out how to take apart my treadmill, but I am spending that same amount of time thinking about wrapping, disassembling and general moving-related uncertainties. (One perk to being with the State Department is that they send movers in to do all of the actual packing and hauling of boxes. One downside to being with the State Department is that they send movers in to do all of the actual packing and shoving of random items into boxes that make no logical sense, but are at least hopefully well-swaddled in packing material.)

After several sleepless nights during the week, last weekend it was time to kick off some actual moving prep on my end. Two lovely ladies, Stephanie and Kristen, came over to help get the ball rolling. We sent Thad to the consulate to work on his end-of-tour cables and EER while we dug through drawers, closets and cabinets.

To make organization easier, I made signs for each of the spare bedroom doors, labeling the intended destination for the piles within. One bedroom became UAB (this is the stuff that goes by plane and arrives first, but has a very low weight limit, so it will be mostly clothing), one became HHE (this is the bulk of household goods, goes by ship and can take months, but has a ridiculously high weight limit that we don’t come close to touching) and then a final room was labeled DC (these are things going back to permanent storage, like my collection of winter coats!). Thad may have made fun of my (admittedly dorky) signs, but they made the process much easier, since everyone knew at a glance where those items were headed.  Plus, who doesn’t love a good sign or two? (I only wished I had better markers at home to make them cuter!)

For a few hours on Saturday afternoon, my apartment became a flurry of movement. Everything we’ve had on our walls had to come down (leaving me with a million ugly nails sticking out of the cement walls), the china cabinet had to be emptied of the souvenirs we’ve picked up over the years (everything from an Argentinian mate cup to a Chinese china tea set to a huge platter from the Maldives to Athena’s owl from Greece) and drawers that have been home to random electronics cords and hair ties had to be sorted (it is amazing how fast a “junk drawer” manifests itself in a new home, no matter what continent we are living on!).

Now, after that whirlwind of work on Saturday, I’ve got three rooms with overflowing piles, a semblance of organization (it totally works in my mind!) and I owe a favor or two to the lovely ladies who helped make it all happen.

But, we’re not out of the woods yet. I’ve still got a lot of small, odds and ends tasks to be done before the movers come next week. (We’ve got a pack out survey tomorrow and then the real deal is a week later- May 20.)

*Nail polish- I figure I should probably spend a bit of time and sort out my 70-some bottles of nail polish. I am sure there are a few of those that are getting old and gross, some that just aren’t colors I will ever wear again and some that are nearly gone and not worth shipping on to KL.

*Clothes-They  need to be sorted into piles that will go in the suitcase (which I will be living out of for two months), what will go UAB and what will come later. It’s hard to think through what I might possibly need in the coming weeks- definitely casual summer clothes for Idaho, but then some summer work clothes in case I do get a job in KL (keep your fingers crossed for some movement on that front) and then shoes and accessories to go with it all. It really is too much to think about! (The winter stuff is already sorted, as I couldn’t wait to get rid of coats and scarves and gloves for a few years. No winter- yay!!)

*Electronics- These will be the last things to go, as I’ll want blog access until the very last day, which will be easy, but sometime between now and then there needs to be some major cord organization. I think I’m going to bust out my box of Ziploc baggies and start sorting cords by type- camera, iPad, laptop, MP3, etc.

*Paperwork- State recommends that we hand-carry a variety of papers with us, everything from medical records to employment records. To that end, I ran across the road to the stationery store this morning and picked up a variety of plastic organizing folders so all of these documents make it from Chengdu to Nampa to Washington DC to Kuala Lumpur in one piece. I got one folder for my personal papers (teaching certificate, State job evaluations, etc.) one for Thad’s work documents, (he hasn’t seen his adorable bunny-covered folder yet, but I am sure he is going to be thrilled when he does!) and then one for all of our travel-papers, like airline tickets, hotel reservations and rental car registrations.

As I am living in the world of denial when it comes to the impending goodbyes, I can focus my energy on these more mundane t asks, the ones that need to be completed but don’t have the emotional baggage that will come next week as I have to say goodbye to some fabulous friends, a boss and coworkers who have been incredibly wonderful to work for and a job that not only kept me busy and on my toes, but gave me a solid foundation in the ways of the Foreign Service, for which I will always be grateful. So, while I continue to float in my canoe on that famed African river, I’ll go sort a few more dishes, clean out the overflowing sock drawer and finish deciding which books get to go to KL and which must suffer the hardship of being boxed for a few years.

 

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A Different Sort of Vacation

Growing up, vacations and education were synonymous. When we loaded up the car to go on a trip, it wasn’t always about the destination, but the sites along the way, be they historic, the natural wonders of the world or of the museum/zoo/aquarium realm. The one time I remember taking a purely “fun” family vacation to Disneyland and Sea World in southern California; both outings ended with an unnamed sibling, with terrible motion sickness, puking- first at Disneyland, meaning we had to pack it in for the day, even though I had only been on the teacup ride once and then a few days later, after we left Sea World, but all over my brand new dolphin stuffed animal. (Needless to say, that was a short-loved toy, as it was forever tainted with kid-spew in my mind.) Apparently, sticking with educational outings was for the best.

Not only did we always head to places that would allow us to see amazing natural creations (the Redwood Forest, the paleontological digs of Dinosaur National Park and the tide pools of the Oregon Coast, the latter of which I’m still obsessed with, not being able to go anywhere near a good tide pool without a poking stick in hand to prod around in the shallow waters for anemone, starfish, crabs and other fun sea creatures) and just as spectacular man-made ones (the monuments of Washington DC, the Grand Coulee Dam and the LDS temple in Salt Lake City), but the ride itself was ensconced in learning. Before heading out on each trip, we’d make a shorter jaunt to Boise to the “teacher store,” where my parents (both teachers!) often got supplies for their classrooms. With no in-car DVD players to entertain kids on long trips, we went a more bookish (and possibly nerdy) route. Each of us got to choose a workbook from the teacher supply store to work on in the car. The choices were endless: math workbooks, phonics workbooks, reading workbooks, social studies workbooks, science workbooks… You name the subject and there was a grade-level appropriate book to go along with it. I think I mainly steered towards the ones with reading passages and then content and vocabulary questions, not getting within 100 feet of the math section of the store. (Who in their right mind does math on vacation?!) With our shiny new purchases in hand (and maybe a fun new pencil or stamp from the tempting piles near the register), we were ready to head out for locations unknown.

As an adult, most of my vacations have followed this same pattern. (Okay, less workbooks to entertain me along the way, but those have been replaced with the books I read aloud to Thad as he drives- usually something non-fiction, so it really isn’t too far of a stretch from those childhood vacations.) We travel to places where there are new things to see and do, whether it be to the amazing waterfalls at Iguazu to the far reaches of the Chinese territory in Xingjiang to the spectacular Bayon Temple in Siem Reap to the ancient Coliseum in Rome. Vacations are all about new places, new ideas and new cultures.

But, I must admit to having recently (within the last few years) found another type of vacation that I love just as much: the relaxing-do-nothing-vacation. We did not do these as kids. I’d heard tales of them-people going on cruises where they just lounge by the pool and drink fruity concoctions with umbrellas in them or full-service resort vacations with pools and spas and room service. The first entirely do-nothing vacation I ever took was during the long Chengdu winter of 2013 when we booked a charter flight to the Maldives. For a week, we lived in an over-the-water bungalow with private stairs that emptied right into the ocean. Snorkeling was just merely feet from my bed. A sunburn and several banana shakes later, I was hooked.

This last weekend, we took a second one of these relaxing, do-nothing vacations, this time to Phuket Island, Thailand, as a last-chance outing from the ‘Du. We stayed at a great beach side resort (private beach, two pools, a giant balcony off our king-sized-bed room) where we quickly fell into a leisurely routine. I’d get up first and enjoy the early (well, earlier) morning and then once we were both showered and dressed, we’d get some brunch (I was partial to the waffles and ice cream option on the menu!), and then head back to the room to cool off from the gazillion degree heat and 95% humidity for a bit. By late morning, it was time to go swimming, choosing either “round pool” or “square pool” (hey, you have to have a way to tell you pool options apart!) through the middle of the day. Between swimming and lounging, we’d kill the afternoon. Then, after another round of showers, we’d head into town for dinner and a bit of wandering, getting back to the room in time to go to bed and start the whole mellow process again the next day.

These do-nothing vacations will now be a regular part of my holiday routine. They won’t be the end-all, as I still have a whole lot of world to see: safaris in Nairobi, cathedrals in Istanbul (not Constantinople), koalas in Australia, the Taj Mahal in India, pyramids in Peru, and on and on… But, it is nice to occasionally book a weekend of downtime where nothing more than sipping on pineapple juice, finishing a book (or two) and trying to keep the sunburns to a minimum is expected of me.

Although, a workbook or two by the pool does still hold a certain appeal…

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Help, I’m Trapped in an Elevator! (Guest Blogger- Stephanie H.)

Today’s blog is written by one of my favorite Chengdu-ren, Stephanie H. She is an OMS (office management specialist) with the Foreign Service and came to western China just a few weeks after us, so we’ve had two years of China-adventures together. Along with her husband and daughter, she’s headed to Nairobi for posting #2. (Yes, I will be going to visit. Africa has a ridiculous amount of animals that I *must* touch!)

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I’m all for new experiences (clearly, because I live in China and believe me, there are some EXPERIENCES to be had here) but one I’ve never felt the need to have? Being stuck in an elevator. We all know the potentially scary scenarios when the elevator suddenly stops and the lights go out. We’ve seen the movies. The cable snaps, plummeting the elevator down…the elevator is crowded and people get hot, crabby and hungry and the bickering starts…two people find love by chance when they are forced to talk to one another….Ok, maybe that last one wouldn’t be so bad. However, to my pleasant surprise, none of those horrific things actually happened. Here’s what actually happened:

I was on my way home from work, schlepping my ginormous gym bag and a big sack of potatoes (for the potluck dish I was bringing to the consulate Egg-stravaganza the next day). I stepped into the elevator with a young Chinese man, pressed the button for my floor and up we went…for about 17 floors. Somewhere between the 17th and 18th floors, the elevator jerked to a stop and the lights went out.

Now, in the States, you’d have a little phone that calls an emergency person (or the front desk at a hotel) and someone speaks your primary language to you and immediately dispatches help. In China, there is no such phone. What you have is a button that rings a bell, which in the case of my building, connects to the security office. With a slight crackle, a voice speaking a million miles a minute begins saying something in a language I’m shaky at best in understanding. The young Chinese man (whose eyes have been glued to his phone since our fateful ride began) explained our situation to the disembodied voice. Then, in fairly perfect English, he turns to me and translates what The Voice said. Oh, what joy! I felt I had won the “Who Would You Want To Be Stuck In An Elevator With?” lottery! The Voice said that it would be ten minutes, the power went out in the whole building and they had to reboot (?).

Resigned to forced conversation which was WAY better than awkward silence, I learned my new “roomie” studied photography in the United States for 5 years (hence, the good English) and actually had hopes to return there in the next 5 years to live permanently. We chatted about different states, what he liked about the U.S. (freedom), what he didn’t like about it (food). And then we took a selfie together to commemorate our bonding time.

Ten minutes later, the lights came on…but we were not going anywhere. So we rang the button again. I should mention that while my roomie had no cell phone service, I somehow did. I was texting furiously with my husband (and my best friend, of course) and my knight in shining armor worked behind the scenes to make sure the building security knew that people were still stuck in the elevator. Apparently, word had not gotten around after we rang our little bell that we were still inside.

40. MINUTES. LATER. We hear voices yelling stuff down to us from the floor above. Then the elevator started jerking upward as if someone was manually pulling us up (which they totally were). The doors pried open and we are met by the head security guy and his trusty sidekicks, the hotel engineers. My roomie decided to take a photo of them, probably for his scrapbook. We gathered our things, exited the elevator on the 18th floor and started heading for the stairs. My roomie lived on the 19th so he only had one flight to traverse. I lived on the 24th so I had a few more to go.

We got to roomie’s floor and realized that the doors are locked from the stairwell and there is no door handle so we went back down and ask one of the engineers to let roomie in on his floor, and me on mine. The engineer asked what floor I lived on and when I told him the 24th, I saw the look of slight panic and dread in his eye. He then helpfully asked if I wanted to take the elevator.

Yes, he asked that.

I looked at him like he’s crazy because I have THE WORST poker face and told him “No, thanks.” He replied with “Oh, are you sure? Because it’s working now.”

“No, no I’m good. I’d rather take the stairs.”

So, I made this poor man who probably smoked at least two packs of cigarettes a day haul his skinny-self up 5 more flights. With a “bu hao yizi” and a “xie xie,” I walked the length of the hall to my home while he decided to take his chances going down with the elevator. Good luck, dude.

After all that, thank goodness my roomie wasn’t a creep-ster.

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Today’s guest blogger- Stephanie H. (Sadly, we were unable to track down the elevator-selfie…)

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Berry Picking, Perms and Esprit Shoulder Bags

It’s tough to be in your tweens (although that wasn’t a word when I was that age)/early teens, when your list of “wants” far exceeds whatever small allowance you receive. I remember being about twelve and decided that I *must* have a perm for my super long hair before the new school year started, but there was no way I could afford the $80 to get it done at a mall salon, which is what I wanted more than anything. Cutting a deal with my mom, she offered to pay half, but that still left me with a $40 bill, which was unheard of in my twelve-year old budget.  Plus, I was still dying to join the ranks of the cool kids with their Esprit shoulder bags, not to mention wanting a Trapper Keeper to organize all of my classes, now that I had different subjects to keep track of.  With my shopping list quickly growing, I realized that doing a few extra chores around the house was not going to cut it when it came to my funding needs, so I decided to branch out.  Berry picking sounded like a great way to make some summer money and hang out with friends, especially since the berry patch was owned by my best friend’s mom. Candace and her brother had been picking berries for their mom for some time, but as summer rolled around, they offered to let me in on the gig, which meant I could finally get some cold hard cash flowing into my pink, Velcro-closing wallet.

Little did I know at the time, berry picking began when the sun came up, meaning that I had inadvertently agreed to getting up before the chickens throughout my summer break! Since the berry patch was about a fifteen minute walk from my house and we needed to be there at sunrise, I rolled out of bed, threw on some shoes and headed down the hill, water bottle in hand, when I would much rather have been curled up under a blanket, snoozing away for a few more hours. (Going down the hill in the mornings was fine, but trudging back up it late morning, when the sun was out in full force was not nearly as idyllic.)

The other young berry pickers and I were paid by the flat, rather than an hourly rate, a great way to discourage the ever-present threat of a berry fight. (Hey, you put a bunch of 12-15 years olds in a patch of staining blackberries at the crack of dawn and it is bound to happen at some point.) We were paid at the end of each shift, which was definitely encouragement to show up again the next day, as the immediate thickening of my wallet reminded me that I was inching closer to those start-of-the-school-year goals. (Eventually, I did get the much coveted perm and an off-brand Trapper Keeper, but sadly, I was never able to strut the halls of Jefferson Junior High with an Esprit bag slung jauntily over my shoulder. Even after a summer of berry picking, it was not in my budget. Harsh choices were made. Perm, in. Esprit bag, out.)

I hadn’t thought about my berry picking summers in a long time, until recently it came to my attention that the countryside surrounding Chengdu is filled with strawberry farms, which come into season starting in late February. After getting these tidbits of information from several different sources, I decided that it was time to dust off the berry-picking skills and organize a CLO outing to one of these farms.

But, like most CLO outings, our trip became a bit more of an adventure than I had anticipated. We loaded onto a huge bus in the early afternoon, for what was supposed to be about an hour ride outside of town. At about the hour mark, we reached a small village that had several signs up, advertising strawberry fields. Feeling confident that this would not be another endless trip like when we went to the Bamboo Sea in the fall, I announced to the bus we were almost there, just as the driver pulled off to get directions to our final destination. (This is common here- for drivers to have a general idea of the location, but then stop to ask directions multiple times as the destination approaches.)

Hubris- always a downfall!

When we made a U-turn and head back the way we came, I thought we were just retracing a bit of our route to go down a road more suited to our large vehicle (the original one was dirt, muddy and full of huge holes). Boy was I wrong! Apparently, it was decided (without consulting the trip planner- myself!) that we could not get to the original farm with our full-sized bus and we would go do a different field. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, but the newly decided upon field was on the other side of Chengdu, a hour away!  After a series of back and forths, there was nothing to be done but to continue on to the newly appointed patch.

Finally, *hours* after our departure, we disembarked the bus at a strawberry farm filled with row after row of greenhouses. With cameras flashing, as the huge group of foreigners arrived, we were led to several greenhouses on the far side of the fields, where we were greeted with row upon row of fresh, ripe, wonderfully sweet smelling strawberries. I filled a basket about halfway, really just for something to do, as I hadn’t intended to buy any at all, but watched as families with several kids ended up with multiple overflowing baskets of delicious fruit. The kids may not have loved the long bus ride, but once they hit the ground, the boredom of the commute was long-forgotten, lost amongst the sticky red fingers and high-pitched giggles.

While this round of berry picking didn’t yield a perm (thank goodness!) or a fancy Trapper Keeper and I do still slightly covet that Esprit shoulder bag, it did give me a week’s worth of strawberry mini-muffins and another great CLO outing bus escapade to add to the ever-growing stack of misadventures in the Middle Kingdom.

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Rolling the Dice

There are a lot of things in my life as a middle school teacher that were unique to that world. For instance, in “regular” life, it is rare that someone comes running up to you wanting you to help someone who has fallen down (okay, probably more likely been pushed down if it was in middle school) and needs help. This might happen once or twice in your entire life, but it was a daily occurrence when I was on playground duty. I always asked “Are there any bones showing?” before getting too close to the scene of the crime, as I don’t deal with gruesome injury well. (If the answer was yes, I quickly told them to go find Mr. E, the fantastic 7th grade teacher who taught next door to me. He was much better equipped to deal with strangely protruding limbs than I was.) Or, it is rare that in daily life I have to question why someone randomly fell out of their seat in the middle of a presentation. (As I type this, I am picturing myself sitting in my weekly section heads’ meeting and having one of the senior officers just tip out of his/her chair for absolutely no reason at all. While it is a hilarious image, it just doesn’t happen, and yet in middle school, this was a weekly, if not daily, incident.) In that “real” world that kids so desperately want to join, I never have to get someone’s hair unjammed from her locker, tell someone to go put the praying mantis back outside where it belongs or wonder who took a bit of the doughnut on my desk (Ethan S., I’m looking at you!)

And while I mourn the loss of these ridiculous moments, because I loved (nearly) every minute of teaching 8th grade, I’ve discovered my current life brings with it its own set of unique happenings that never would have been a part of my Idaho –life. Of course, there is the First Lady introduction from a few weeks ago, but there are also the days like last week when I had to do the check-in of shame because I forgot my badge at home. (I was laughed at by the Marine who checked me in and scoffed at by the one who checked me out. Remember guys, I’m the one who brings you coffee and treats on many mornings!)

As we prepare for our imminent departure from Chengdu though, there has been several other Foreign-Service-real-life-moments pop up. (In case you are marking your calendars, we’ve got six weeks left in the land of pandas.) First of all, we got our housing assignment in Kuala Lumpur, meaning our home for the next two years was determined by the notes we put on a piece of paper and the opinions of a committee in KL. I’m happy to say that I am thrilled with the thought-process of that board, but it is strange to think that just a few bits of information on a single sheet of paper determine where we will reside for two years. I’ve nary a complaint about the beautiful townhouse we will be moving into in July, but I understand how it can be a frustrating process if one doesn’t love their assigned housing. In the States, I would never have given a short survey to a random group of people whom I had never met and asked them to find a house that would make me happy. But, in the Foreign Service, no one blinks an eye at it. (As a matter of fact, some of us send many-a-night with our eyes wide open, not sleeping as we excitedly anticipate housing news.)

The other (seemingly) crazy FS-thing we did this week was buying a car. Yes, you read that right. We bought a car, sight unseen. (Okay, a little sight seen, through a series of emailed photographs.) Last year, when we got our placement in KL, we decided that we definitely wanted a car so that we could get out of town on the weekends, go to the beach, hit up Singapore, etc. With that in mind, a few weeks ago, I started scouring the weekly newsletter from KL, in search of a car that would fit our needs and not break the bank. (Diplomats don’t tend to give great deals on their cars, as they always think they can sell them for what they bought them for. This actually holds pretty true in a lot of places, but it means bargain-shopping for a vehicle takes some patience.) But, last Wednesday, a new car popped up in the Malaysian Monitor that was just what we were looking for: an SUV with good clearance for the crazy rainstorms that hit the city on a regular basis and the less than smooth roads that permeate much of the country outside the city, and that came with a price tag that fit within our discussed budget. Knowing that vehicles like that get snapped up quickly, I sent an email to the owners that very day. After a series of back and forth emails about price, photographs, contracts and money wiring, today we signed the sale agreement and I sent the down payment to the current owners. After less than a week of negotiations, we will have a car waiting for us when we get t Kuala Lumpur this summer. (This should also serve as incentive for friends and family to come visit!!) In the States though, I can’t imagine buying a car 1) in such a short amount of time, 2)with just a few pictures as reference (I did Google the make and model extensively) and 3)with no test drive. My fingers are crossed that this world of “corridor reputation” is a great incentive for people to be upfront and honest in their dealings. (I tend to assume everyone is to begin with, but know that is probably a naïve way to approach the world. I can’t’ image purposefully screwing someone over, so it is hard for me to picture someone else doing the same.) For better or worse though, we will soon be the proud owners of a Nissan X-Trail!

While I no longer have to look the other way when a 6th grader comes to me with a newly lost tooth in his hand, wanting me to “look, it’s so cool!” and I don’t get the pleasure of asking why anyone would think it is a good idea to leave their schoolbag out in the rain all weekend, I do get to play what amounts to a single hand of poker for my housing and roll the dice when it comes to major life purchases.

Foreign Service, you provide a strange life, but never a dull one!

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Putting the “Fun” in Funicular

Often, I reference my non-existent bucket list and my lack of New Year’s resolutions, but one thing I do keep track of is my modes of transportation. I love to rack up as many different ones as I can in a single trip, but am more exciting when I can experience a brand new one. Our long weekend in Hong Kong (it’s Tomb Sweeping Day in China) gave me the chance to do just that- ride a funicular! How have I never done this before? It was a weird cross between a trolley car and a roller coaster, having the size and speed of the trolley, but the steepness of that initial assent to the peak of a roller coaster. Since our funicular was red, in my mind, all I could think of as I watched it make its trips in and out of the station was Mr. Roger’s trolley car (although ours had a black roof, rather than the ever-memorable yellow one in the Neighborhood.) Still, I couldn’t wait to take my place on the wooden bench and steel my abs for the ascent that pretty much crushed all of my body weight onto my backbone.

Up and down Victoria’s Peak on the funicular was definitely worth the hour wait on the bottom and the shorter, but much windier/rainier wait on the top. (We somehow made it to the top just as a crazy rainstorm hit the peak, with the wind pushing the rain UP the mountain and enshrouding the whole thing in a massive cloud.)

The weekend was one of “rides,” although not all were as fun as the funicular. (Come on, it has fun in its name. How could it not be fantastic?) Sadly, death-defying-cable-car swinging –from-a-not-nearly-stable-enough-metal-rope has the word “fun” nowhere in its description. But, on it I went. At the other end of the ride was a beautiful, bronze, sitting Buddha that I absolutely wanted to see, but getting there was a mental challenge, to say the least. I don’t do heights. It isn’t a conscious choice to not like them, but more in lines of a phobia- I know it isn’t rational and yet when my pulse starts racing and my stomach churns, threatening to bring breakfast back and my palms get clammy, there is little I can do.

After waiting two hours in line to get tickets for the cable cars, it was finally time to head to the top of the mountain. (Who waits two hours and then pays money to be terrified? What a ridiculous idea! Plus, it didn’t help that for the entire two hours, I had to watch the cable cars going up and over the mountain, reminding me of just what I didn’t want to do.) When we got to the ticket counter, we could choose between the glass-bottomed cable car or the standard one. Thad was really leaning towards the glass bottomed one, but I convinced him that if I were going to go on this death trap, I’d rather go on one where I could at least stare at the floor and pretend I was on level ground the whole ride up, rather than being able to see my death hurtling towards me. So, standard carriage, roundtrip it was.

Fear brings out the four letter words in my vocabulary. Going up, there was a lovely family (mom, dad and young daughter) who decided it would be a great idea to stand up and take pictures of the 360 degree views of Hong Kong. I get why they would want that, but come on people! Let’s not jiggle this dangling car any more than necessary. Get your ass on the tram, sit down and don’t stand up again until we reach the other end of the ride. No standing and repositioning. No posing for selfies by the door. NO MOVING! Luckily for me, this lovely family was deaf. That meant I could grumble away with a sailor’s tongue and native language didn’t matter. Their lack of hearing meant I didn’t even have to measure the tone of my tirade. Nice. (I was blown away by how many people in Hong Kong speak English and definitely had to sensor my random comments, which I can make loudly, with impunity in Chengdu. In Hong Kong, I had to be a little more careful about commenting on the hairstyle of the woman right next to me on the subway or deriding the etiquette of the oblivious middle-aged man who cut me off as we crossed the crowded intersection.)But seriously people, find your seat, put your ass on the bench and spend the next twenty-five minutes praying to whichever high power you believe in; whatever it takes to get us to the top safely!

I must admit, coming back down the mountain was a bit less harrowing. My adrenaline stores had been fully depleted on the trip up the mountain, so coming back down, I felt more resigned to my possible fate. If Death decided to come knocking at my door, there wasn’t much I could do to turn him away. My eyes were open (almost) the whole way down and my swearing was kept to a minimum, partially because I didn’t have the good luck to return with the deaf family and mostly because I tired and ready to move on to a new adventure. I had read the map/information handout about the Buddha entirely, front to back, every caption and asterisked bit of information as a distraction on the way up, so coming down I had no choice but to hang on to the center pole with white knuckles and scan the horizon for possible hazards, all the while keeping a keen eye on the cable itself. (How often do they check that thing for fraying?)

Since you are reading this, it is a fair assumption that I survived the cable car, a slight bit traumatized, but in the long run, none-the-worse for the experience. And while I have been on my share of cable cars in the past (you’d think I’d learn!), this was definitely the longest and earns a spot in my transportation annals.

It only took four years of China living, but we finally made it to Hong Kong! (Another check on the non-existent bucket list and no new stamp in my passport.)

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