2016 Book Challenge- A Book You’ve Read at Least Once

2016 Book Challenge- A Book You’ve Read at Least Once


I just realized, about two hours ago, that today is the last day of April. How did that happen? It seems like March was just wrapping up. Part of my “where did April go?” issue stems from the fact that I was on work travel to Vietnam for three weeks of the month, so they were a weird “limbo” time that made the month just disappear.  Being a solo-traveler for a good part of the month gave me some great reading time, plus the abundance of coffee shops around Ho Chi Minh City provided the perfect ambiance to settle in with a good book time and time again, so in April I finished fourteen books, many that deserve discussion, but in sticking with the end of the month wrap up for the reading challenge, this month’s topic will be “a book you’ve read at least once.”

Although not the intended topic for the month, this ended up being a perfect fit because of the work we are doing in the consular section at the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Since Embassy Sana’a (Yemen) closed a bit over a year ago, our embassy has seen a dramatic increase in the number of Yemeni cases we are dealing with, both in terms of immigrant visas, as well as American Citizen Services for Yemeni-Americans. We have three staff members who used to work in Sana’a, who have joined us here in Kuala Lumpur, and are a blessing to our section in many ways. Chatting with one of these fantastic ladies earlier in the month, she recommended I read I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali and Delphine Minoui, with Linda Coverdale (translator). I first read this book several years ago and honestly didn’t remember a lot of the details of Nujood’s story, but I had given it only two stars on GoodReads and I remember being frustrated with sparse narration of the story. I am not sure if that is the only reason I gave it just two stars, but at the time I may have found much of the story difficult to comprehend on a human/emotional level.

When my colleague recommended the book, I thought not only was this a perfect tie-in with the work I was doing at the embassy, but I instantly knew it would be my book challenge book of the month! I am not a huge re-reader of books, not because I don’t love the stories, but because I can’t help but pick up the newest publications, so my old favorites get pushed back as my to-read list fills up each month with all the great things coming out right now. This was a great way to go back and read a book again, and in this case, changed my entire opinion of the story.

My new connection to Yemen and my regular interactions with Yemeni people let me see Nujood’s tale through a whole new light. Yes, the narration was still sparse and the ending was not satisfying on a literary level (of course, what happened in the end is what happened and I don’t want a false-ending, but I think more follow-up and more of an ending would have benefited the final publication), I found the story itself to be much more powerful this time around. The bravery exhibited by Nujood, a ten year old child, is astounding. Not only did she have to fight against tribal customs and family rituals, but she confronted government itself- never an easy task regardless of age/nationality. The risks she took to save herself were immense and the fact that she was able to find the right people at the right time amazing. (The first time I read the book, I think I found this too coincidental to be entirely accurate, but with a new perspective on the country, I was less bothered by this detail on my re-read.)

What I find most fascinating about this month’s challenge read is just how differently I see this book the second time through. It backs up the idea that one never really reads the same book again, as each time we are in a different place in our lives, bringing a different perspective to the narrative at hand.  The first time I read this book, I was not at all thrilled. I didn’t hate it, but was probably not recommending it to others. The tables have turned. I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced is a short book, fewer than two hundred pages, so can be read in a day or two. It is a fascinating look at a country and culture that are not well-known by most Americans (how many could point to Yemen on a map?) which can speak to a variety of readers. I highly recommend this one to just about anyone.


In Search of the End of the Sidewalk’s 2016 Reading Challenge

_____ A book published this year– (A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin)

_____A book you can finish in a day-  (When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi)

_____A book you’ve been meaning to read

_____ A book recommended to you by a librarian

_____ A book you should have read in school

_____ A book chosen for you by your spouse/partner, best friend, child or sibling

_____ A book published before you were born

_____ A book that was banned at some point  (A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess)

_____ A book you abandoned previously

_____ A book you own but have never read

_____ A book that intimidates you

_____ A book you’ve read at least once   (I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced  by Nujood Ali)





Goodbye Ho Chi Minh City

As my three weeks of TDY (temporary duty, meaning I am still working for State, but at a different post/different country) come to a close in Ho Chi Minh City, I’ve discovered something about myself as a solo-traveler. Yes, I want to see all of the main sights and yes, I will pay to go to the top of a tall building to look out over the city. Yes, I will wander around the museum and try to make sense of awkwardly worded plaques and yes, I will get a little lost in my wanderings as long as I have a card for the hotel to hop in a cab in case I get really lost. I enjoy all of these things and have spent several afternoons and weekends doing all of it in and around HCMC, but one of my favorite pastimes here, on my own, has been finding a great spot to pull out my book and waste away an hour or two reading/people watching. (Is it really wasting? ? Probably not.)

When Thad and I travel together, we are on the move constantly, exploring new places and enjoying the trip together. With your favorite travel-buddy along, there is always something to chat about- whether it is what you saw earlier in the day or what is in the plans for tomorrow’s seeing. Solo though, those conversations all stay in my head (well, mostly- I have been known to talk to myself occasionally, but it is usually while I am on the move, sorting out directions or plans). Instead, I used my downtime from touring to relax in the shade with a book and a cool drink, sometimes on a park bench and others at a café.  (On the same theme, I also sent out spades of postcards as I enjoyed my strawberry smoothies, and sunshine, so for those in the loop, be on the lookout in about a month! I’m guessing that with the local post, that timeline isn’t too much of stretch.)

It was not a bad way to spend a few weeks.

Of course, I still prefer to travel as a couple. We’ve got almost eighteen years of co-traveling under our belts, so we’re pretty good at the divide and conquer aspects of adventure, but when that isn’t in the cards, I apparently do quite well just me, a book and a view.

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A Little Foreign Service Where’s Waldo

I think it is has come up before, but a major advantage to working for the US State Department in foreign postings is that we get to enjoy both US federal holidays as well as local holidays. (Of course, there is a number of days cutoff, otherwise some embassies/consulates would be on vacation all of the time!) My TDY to Ho Chi Minh City happened to fall at just the perfect time, as Kuala Lumpur had no holidays over that three week period, but Vietnam had one long weekend, right in the middle of my stay, so while my dear friends/colleagues in KL were fingerprinting and interviewing and collecting DNA and the million other things that happen in our section each day, I went on vacation to Hoi An.

The other bit of luck that came my way over the weekend was that Thad’s friends were in town from Idaho and he had taken time off work to hang out with them, so the whole crew flew up to Da Nang, where we are able to meet up and travel together for a few days.

Our outdated guidebook (Lonely Planet 2008, but we figured somethings never change!) pointed us towards Hue for a day, a suggestion we gladly took.  About two and a half hours outside of Da Nang, the Hue boasts the ruins/reconstruction of a citadel that were the perfect place to kick off our long weekend.  We wandered for hours, following a few unspoken rules:

1)      If an area is crowded by a tour group, quickly retreat

2)      If there are stairs, take them and see where they lead

3)      If there is an awesome, cool doorway, wander in to see what it offers.

4)      If there is shade, explore the area more thoroughly

5)      If there is no shade, walk briskly; Don’t stop moving to read the plaques- just get to the shade!

(Rule three meant that I was the only one out of the group who did not walk in on random old Vietnamese dude eating noodles in his underwear. Rules four and five were necessary as Saturday turned out to be 100 degrees, which my handy-dandy weather app told me carried a heat index of 117. As a whole, we are a pretty pasty group and were sweating in pretty much every place we could sweat. [I swear my eyes were sweating!] Avoiding direct sunlight was crucial.)

Lunch was another small adventure. Our driver dropped us off at a little shop that had only one offering. Noodles. There were no noodle options. No menu. I held up four fingers and soon four steaming bowls of noodles arrived at the table. They had a bit of spice to them, but were not anything I wouldn’t order again. The others as the table added a bit more spice to theirs, Josh and I shoveled our fatty meat pieces into Thad’s bowl and as a whole, we made quick work of those bowls. (There were also some other random foods wrapped in banana leaves deposited on the table. Justin took full advantage of the chance to try a bit of each.  That is a level of eating bravery I will never reach. One was never identified as either animal or plant-based…who knows…)

Saturday was long and hot, so we all opted for a quieter, cooler Sunday.

Hoi An sits on a river and we instantly knew the day must include a boat in some form or fashion. It turned out to be surprisingly easy to hire a boat for two hours, getting a private tour of the river and a few surrounding villages. (Tour might not be the right word, as our boat driver spoke nothing but Vietnamese and I was the most fluent one in the boat, with an ever-expanding vocabulary that includes such phrases as “left hand,” “right hand,” “good morning” and “thank you.” None of those were going to do us much good unless we needed to make a quick veer to the right or left.)  Nevertheless, we made ourselves at home on our boat (I do believe I was the only one who kept my shoes on!) and enjoyed floating up and around, watching fisherman, working boats and other tourists doing their thing.

How does one follow up something as strenuous as a boat ride? With nothing less than wandering the streets of Hoi An’s old town, checking out the shops and making multiple café stops for Vietnamese iced coffee, smoothies, lime juices and snacks, followed by massages and dinner. Being a tourist is rough!

But, as with all great things, the long weekend quickly came to an end and as a crew, we had to part ways. I headed back to HCMC to finish up my last week of work in the city and Thad, Josh and Justin headed back to Kuala Lumpur in preparation for another week’s travel in the region (Brunei, Borneo and Singapore were on the list). Being able to hop from place to place is a fantastic perk of the Foreign Service lifestyle and one that I am going to miss when we are in Washington DC next year. (It is possible, but much more difficult and expensive from the States. No Air Asia service…)

When you are on vacation in Da Nang from your TDY in Ho Chi Minh City from your posting in Kuala Lumpur from your home in Idaho…

It is a bit of Where’s Waldo for adults.

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(Photo credit: Thad Ross)

Saigon Zoo, Go Ahead and Skip It!

If you’ve read more than about three entries on this blog, you are well aware that much of my travel revolves around the ability to go see (and more importantly, touch) *all* the animals. Being based in Southeast Asia has given me some fantastic animal-touching opportunities: snuggling a koala, being a mahout for a day, illicitly touching a panda bear, etc. (Click the links for a quick jump to each of those animal-rific tales. They will open in a new window, so no need to worry about losing this one.) If the chance is there, I’m going to take it! With that in mind and with three weeks of being a solo-traveler in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the first things I did was take the chance to go visit the city zoo.

Now, zoos are not my favorite way to see animals, as I much prefer to get even closer and more personal with the critters, but I’ve been to some fantastic animal reserves/parks, which are just fancier names for zoos, but also usually with a bit more forward-thinking take on keeping wild animals. The animal-area in HCMC is called a “zoo,” but that didn’t put me off in the least. San Diego calls their animal park a zoo and it is amazingly well done, creature-centric and education focused.

So, one day last week, I skittered out of work as soon as I could, made the quick dash to my temporary apartment (a mere one block from the consulate- what a commute!) and changed into a sundress and headed out the door, all in the span of about ten minutes. My  CLO-provided map (thanks , HCMC CLO office!) said that the zoo was a convenient fifteen minute walk, so after a brief consultation with the front desk to make sure I was headed in the right direction (Vietnamese street names all still look the same to me- I have not gotten to a higher level of language understanding yet!) and a book and a bottle of water in my bag, out I went.

The map did not lie about the distance, but I may have slightly overestimated the convenience factor, mainly because I had to cross several large streets and at this early point in my HCMC tenure I had not yet grasped the finer points of local traffic patterns. (A week and a half in, I can report that I’ve gotten pretty good at playing Vietnamese “Frogger” and can weave my way across six lanes of traffic without missing a step.) Arriving in one piece at the front gate, I was a bit taken aback by the general appearance of the entrance to the zoo; rundown is a sliggt understatement. Rather than reading “zoo,” the welcome had more of a “so-creepy-you-might-die-inside-park” vibes. But whatever. I braved the traffic to get there, I was going to see what it had to offer, so I quickly offered up my two dollar entry fee and headed on in.

Saigon Zoo (the official name) is comprised of two main parts: the animals and the botanical gardens. One of these was well-worth my $2 and the other was not.

I’ve seen a zoo or two in my time, but this one ranks as one of the worst. There was a strange array of animals, everything from reptiles galore to sadly swaying elephants. The most abundant caged animal was deer- there was a huge dirt area dedicated to a herd of probably fifty critters. (The “caged” designation is key, as other than the deer, the second most ubiquitous animal at the zoo was rats. I saw enough free-range rats to last me for the next few weeks. ) The best exhibit was the sea otters, mostly because they were actually active and seemed halfway happy. They had just been fed a bucket of fish heads (where were the bodies?) and were skittering around from pond to pond eating their seafood-inspired lunches.

But, putting aside the deplorable menagerie and wandering  a few meters away , I found a decent  botanical garden. It was really more of a nice park that a botanical garden (no labels on flora, nothing seemingly in any order), but I’ll stick with their nomenclature on this one. Toss the poor city parks group a proverbial bone! The park was nice. It was filled with benches, a fountain and several smaller parks-within-a-park. It will come as no surprise that my favorite part of the botanical park was the two huge cranes who wandered by the bench where I had settled in with the book I brought along, in hopes of a peaceful evening. (HCMC is *loud,* so any bit of quiet is a nice reprieve from the bus horns, scooter squeals and general ruckus of a quickly expanding Asian city.) But back to the cranes. These two long-legged, long-necked, long-beaked buddies just walked by as if they had not a care in the world and I was just another inanimate object- a piece of the bench. (Did they make their great escape from the zoo side? If so, props to you giant cranes! Run while you can.)

My afternoon at the zoo was definitely not what I had envisioned when I logged off my State Department systems and headed out the door for the day, but it ended up being an interesting and entertaining evening, regardless. Would I recommend the Saigon Zoo to folks headed through town? Nope. But, if I lived here long –term (rather than my current three-week TDY) I think I’d be a frequent visitor, as the breath of fresh air a bit of calm among the chaos of the city would make for a welcome reprieve. Just ignore the swaying elephants, hungry-looking snakes and slightly mangy deer.

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Spa Time in Vietnam

Spas are not a place I’ve frequented much over the years, but I do have to say that living in Southeast Asia has given me more opportunities to indulge that I would ever have had in Idaho, or anywhere in the US for that matter.  Usually, my SE Asia spa-excursions have been mostly aimed at making my feet sandal-presentable as we tend to do a lot of walking on our trips around the region. A few days in sandals and even the best at-home pedicure gets pretty beat up. Not only are my heels in need of some serious attention, but whatever polish job I did before heading out is usually chipped and needing a bit of its own TLC. But really, my favorite part of a visit to the foot spa is the chance for some cute nail art on my toes, because let’s be honest, I can do a pretty fine job of painting at my own house, with a rainbow of polish choices arranged by color and shade just waiting for use in my upstairs medicine cabinet, but anything more creative is beyond my capabilities. (I would say less than 100 bottles, but over 50 when it comes to at-home color options. There will be some major sorting done on that collection when July rolls around and I am faced a much smaller, and therefore storage-poor, living situation.)

But, with a weekend on my own in Ho Chi Minh City and my planned outings to the War Remnants Museum waylaid by the fact that it is closed on Sundays, I figured my best bet for the afternoon was a visit to a Vietnamese spa. The ladies at the consulate here were raving about the great service and prices, so if I were ever to give new services a shot, this was the time and place to do it. (I’m not deeply upset about my lack of WRM visit, as we spent several hours there the last time we were in HCMC. It is fascinating and painful and horrifying all at once.  Definitely not kid-friendly, it is quite graphic and definitely leans towards the Vietnamese viewpoint on the “American War.” I would say all first-time visitors need to make a trek there, but repeat trips are not necessary.)

With my past spa experiences confined mostly to my many pedicures and my one adventure into the awfully intimate world of body wraps (that was in the Maldives and is a whole story of its own- talk about an invasion of personal space!), I thought I would give the facial a shot. Who doesn’t want smoother skin with smaller pores?  (Actually, as I write that, I must admit to finding it strange. Do we really care about things like the size of someone’s pores? Maybe the fact that it even gets an ounce of notice says something about the world which we all live in, but I can’t deride it too much, as I am obviously aware of this as a desirable trait.)

Sign me up for one facial.

Overall, I think the treatment went as it would anywhere, but being new to this phenomenon, I must admit to a couple (okay, three) of things that stood out to me:

  • How many different pastes can one person have slathered across their face in a matter of forty-five minutes? I count six, but may have lost track in the middle somewhere. They seemed to get progressively thicker and pastier as the session went on, with penultimate layer being a mask that dried into a lovely plaster on my face, cracking whenever a muscle twitched.
  • The head/shoulder massage was a nice addition to the afternoon. About twenty minutes in, I started to wonder how many times my face could be rubbed and patted in a variety of patterns. A face just isn’t that big and my facial was supposed to last three-quarters of an hour. But, it appears they actually do know what are doing! (Imagine that.) While the second to last layer of goo hardened on my face, I was treated to a lovely head/shoulder massage that did wonders for the muscles of my shoulder and back, which have taken a beating over the last week of sitting in a closet (I’m like an TDY EFM Harry Potter!) doing biometrics for 250+ non-immigrant visa applicants each morning. (HCMC is a lovely section, but could definitely benefit from some ergonomic office supplies next time end-of-the-year funds roll around!)
  • Is Pledge somehow a part of all facials? This strange, yet not terrible, afternoon ended with a final layer of liquid being rubbed around my face, this last one smelling exactly like the lemon-scented Pledge my mom made us use each Saturday morning to dust the plethora of wooden furniture around our house. (When your father is a high school woodworking teacher who spends each summer traveling to art shows to sell his beautiful creations, you are bound to have  a whole lot of custom-made wooden pieces around the house. At our place, everything from the lamps to the coffee table to the entertainment center were lovingly crafted in the backyard shop. We should have bought stock in Pledge!)

After nearly an hour laid out on a table in a backroom of a spa that can be found at the end of an alleyway (that’s were all the good things are, right?), I walked out of the building smelling like newly polished furniture with a face that must be as close to a baby’s skin as it has been in thirty-eight years.

Overall assessment: Not bad. I am not sure I’d go in for it again anytime in the near future. I think I’d rather opt for just a straight head/shoulder massage and get my full forty-five minutes devoted to those and have less of the weird oozing concoctions smeared across my face.  Luckily, at just under $15, it was an experiment well-worth its price and one that I am sure I will be wishing were affordable when we are hanging out in DC next winter. (It snowed there yesterday. It is April! How will I survive that ridiculous weather?)

(I have no spa pictures, but here are a few photos from my first week in Ho Chi Minh City.)

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KL Consular Team Hard at Work

US embassy helps out the needy

The Star, April 7, 2016

By Teoh Xiu Jong


KUALA LUMPUR: The US Embassy here is among the busiest foreign missions in the country, yet it does not hesitate to lend a hand whenever help is needed.

This was proven yet again yesterday when 18 members of its consular section literally got their hands dirty, preparing hot meals for the less fortunate who frequent Carl’s Kitchen in Jalan Gereja.

Deputy consul-general Thad Ross said Carl’s Kitchen was chosen because it had also helped Americans who needed assistance here.

“Many people do not know that Malaysia has such a place for the unfortunate. There are many people who need a meal, so our ability to help feels wonderful,” he said.

The team raised RM1,400 and brought food items worth RM600. All 18 took turns to prepare the food.

Senior consular assistant Rachel Leow, 51, said the experience reminded her of how fortunate she was.

“I have a family who cares for me, have a roof above my head and I can enjoy meals prepared by my parents,” she said.

Consul-general Jessica Norris, who led the team, said: “We decided to step out of our comfort zone to help. We like how open Carl’s Kitchen is to everyone, serving the community on a routine schedule,” she added.

Neglected by her children, Wong, 72, was among the many who dropped by for a free meal.

“I did not take good care of myself when I was younger because I wanted to give the best to my children.

“But now that my children have grown up, they have neglected me,” she lamented, adding that her children did not even visit her these days.