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

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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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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