Lovin’ the Lions

Elephants were the itinerary for the first weekend I was in South Africa, but after that incredible outing, it was time to get down to business. I flew to Johannesburg on business and it was time to clock in.  I had a week of community liaison office coordinator training ahead of me- a very full week of conducting training sessions for CLOs posted mostly in Africa, but a few from other regions, who were looking for support and a deeper understanding of their roles in their embassies and consulates. This was an amazing week of teaching (it made me realize how much I miss my classroom!) and networking, but as soon as we wrapped up the last session on Friday afternoon, I was off making plans for a Saturday trip to the lion park!

With my flight out of the country not until Saturday evening, I had two choices for my last day in South Africa: massage and manicure at the hotel spa, followed by a lazy afternoon and then a late checkout, or, an early morning van pickup to the lion park, followed by a fast shower before heading to the airport, thanks to that same late checkout.

There was no question where my money was going.

Lion park or bust!

The lion park was about an hour (in a different direction!) outside the city, but the drive was beautiful and after a week of long days in a classroom, it was nice to see something beyond cement sidewalks and shiny mall corridors. Going to the park early meant missing the major crowds, so I signed up to be there as they were opening. After a quick check-in and getting my paper bracelets showing my admission levels, the first stop was the safari truck. This looked exactly like you might imagine. It was a beige colored vehicle with rows of seating set inside a metal framed cage, the idea being that the animals are free roaming and the humans are the ones with restricted access.  The tiny/mini-safari lasted just an hour, but we got to see several lions up close (it was morning, so they were all lolling about in the grass, sunning themselves, not giving much heed to the truck that rumbles by a few times a day. Dinner had obviously been good the night before, as there was no interest in their visitors, either as entertainment or food.)

The safari in miniature, while billed as lion-centric, wasn’t confined to large cats. Our truck rolled through a large savanna populated by a variety of other African species: gnu/springbok, wildebeest, zebras (a baby!!), giraffes, ostriches, and wild dogs, just to name a few. The itty-bitty zebra foal was adorable- he couldn’t have been more than about a week old, still learning to make all four of those long legs go in the same direction at once and really wanting to frolic with the gnu, who ignored him entirely.

Post-safari-ito, it was time to utilize my second paper bracelet- the one that gave me access to the lion cubs! Just four months old, but already enormous and with paws bigger than my hands, these three guys were available for limited hours each day.  It was a slow morning at the park (it had been a really rainy week in Johannesburg, so tourism was down a bit), so I go the chance to spend time with just the animals and one other person, a CLO from the training who joined me on my last-day outing. The cubs, two yellow and one white, were amazingly soft and loved to be petted on the back and behind the ears, but were not fans of anything beyond the ears! Being morning, they were also not at their most active, mostly lazing about on the rocks and occasionally glancing in our direction, but at one point I did have a small wrestling match with a little guy who decided a bit of play was in order. The handler seemed a bit worried when he nipped at my arm during our wrestling, but I had no complaints! I was bit by a lion while in South Africa for work! (Comp claim??)

With an evening flight to catch and a looming hotel checkout deadline, it was time to say goodbye to my new feline friends, a goodbye that would extend to the city, country, and continent as a whole. Two weeks is a fast first visit to a new place and I know there is much I missed between my tours, museum visits, and market shopping, but I can’t complain about having the opportunity to see and experience and entirely new piece of the world.

After a very long flight back to the States (17++ hour from Johannesburg to Atlanta, seated next to a man on the aisle who seriously didn’t budge for the first ten of them), it was nice to be back home. Again, chatting over our cubicle walls, (no prairie dogging, rather we just chatter back and forth throughout the day, mostly about work issues, but occasionally about life in general), someone started talking about getting back from their last trip to Africa and how they got pulled aside at customs because they marked “yes” on the customs form, question 12 where it asks if you or your family had been in close contact with livestock (touching/handling) while overseas. I asked why she would check yes to this and she said because they went to an elephant park as a part of their trip.

Laughing, but a bit baffled still, I asked about it again and again, she mentioned the elephants.

Okay, so maybe this is an issue of definition. I’m currently reading Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper, about the wonders of lexicology, so my brain is steeped in all things dictionary-related and figured maybe it was a misunderstanding on my part, as English is a fluid, living language with every shifting meanings within its scope (side note: I want her job [side, side note- look for a Card Catalog Review on this one in April]).  In my Idaho-bred world, “livestock” refers to farm animals. We’re talking about pigs and goats and cows—things that young Idahoans don white shirts and black slacks to show in rings during county fairs under a green clover adorned banner of their local 4-H club. These are the critters that earn kids top ranking blue ribbons, which the same kids then turn around and betray in an auction to sell them off to the highest bidder, sending them right to the butcher. The kid keeps the blue ribbon and the buyer gets a winter’s worth of meat for their freezer. That’s livestock.

Elephant are not livestock. Although, the mental image of 4-H with elephants is an amusing one, especially at the end-of-fair round robin competition. (Apologies to those not fully steeped in county fair protocol. You’ll have to Google this one.)  Customs does not care if you touched an elephant, cuddled a lion cub, or chased an ostrich. They do care if you kissed a chicken or wallowed with a pig. Barn yard disease- that’s what they’re watching. Bird flu. Swine flu. Not pachyderm flu.

I may be been exhausted and jet-lagged and I have been known to mess up my customs form (hence, the passport debacle in Mexico in January), but I am confident in my reading/interpretation of the regulations. Elephants and lions- you’re in. Chickens and pigs- beware!

Out of flora and fauna, it always seems to come back to the fauna with me. Whether it is a call asking for advice on shipping pets overseas (yes, we get those often in FLO and no, we do not have an answer, the OBC is your best bet on that one!) or recommendations for the best animals adventures overseas, I find myself drawn into critter-related discussions on a regular basis. The question is will I talk about it, but for how long!

Next up on our travel itinerary- Iceland. Do they even have animals?

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Playin’ with Pachyderms

Never one to pass up a conversation about adorable animals, I was drawn into a couple different ones at the office over the last few days. Just today, chatting over the tops of our cubicles like we often do, a couple of us were talking about shipping pets. In the Foreign Service, this is a major topic that comes up time and time again- how to get a pet (usually a dog or a cat, but I’ve seen serious discussions about birds, rodents, turtles, etc…) from post A to post B. Never a cheap proposition, flying a pet around the world adds up quickly, with thousands of dollars (each move!) going to meet veterinarian requirements, buy tickets, and endure the quarantine process.  For some though, a pet is synonymous with family and no expense is too great to have them accompany tour after tour after tour.

In this rambling tête-à-tête about shipping between posts, I learned that the Frankfurt airport is apparently the Shangri-La of airports for travelling pets. In addition to nice rest facilities for the critters, and staff who are attentive and actually seem to care (apparently this is not a given), the airport has a top-notch veterinarian on call at all times.

Wondering why an airport would put so much effort into animal transportation had me a bit baffled, until a colleague mentioned that the airport is used as a main hub for circus animal movements in Europe.  Of course, this sent my brain down a widly different path, as the thought of sending circus animals by plane had not really ever occurred to me. Apparently, my childhood selection of picture books, plastic toys, and Disney movies has me eternally convinced at all circus animals travel by train- you know, the one with the red engine, the elephant with his trunk sticking out of the side of a car, the car with the giraffe head periscoping out of the top of his roof, and brightly painted advertisements up and down its length. This is how circus has moved, does move, and will always move. Right?

Welcome to the 21st century, Michelle! Circuses are fancy and travel by air. Sadly, this just doesn’t create the same nostalgic mental image as the train congers up. There are no lions roaring in the belly of the plane, no head/trunk holes in the fuselage for various critter pieces parts, although maybe if it were a private plane it could be brightly painted in primary colors.

Of course, with my recent trip to Johannesburg, the talk of elephants and lions smoothly slid into one about trips to various animal parks in South Africa. Unfortunately, I was not able to get out of town to do full-on safari trip, but I did squeeze in half-day trips, one to an elephant halfway house and the other to a lion park.

Yes, I said elephant halfway house.

Just a few hours outside of Johannesburg is an elephant park that houses a mere handful of pachyderms at a time- those who are awaiting placement in new homes. These giants come from a variety of places: one from a zoo that had closed down, one from a bigger park that was having social issues within its herds, and a couple from private complexes that could no longer house them. The day I went to the park, I was unable to meet the oldest member of the transient crew, as he had apparently “gotten up on the left side of the bed” and was in no mood for visitors. The keepers said the transition from the zoo has not been an easy one and he often opts of our socialization.

But, even if Old Man was grumpy that day, I still got to meet and spend the morning with some awesome creatures. The park is small and has a rolling population, but they have a great visitor program. Paired with an attached monkey park (which I opted out of!), elephant visitors still have to make their way through a free-range monkey enclosure to reach the sanctuary of the big guys. (There were monkeys out and about, but not in the terrifying numbers that still haunt my dreams after a trip to Monkey Forest in Bali. At no point was I concerned for my well-being or pondered the possible full ramifications of a broken-skin monkey bite.)

The tour started with a time to feed two of the elephants, mostly just a mash of pellets that they sucked into their trunks like powerful wet/dry vacuums. Our group was mostly adults and some folks were satisfied after dropping a handful or two into a trunk, so with a half-full bucket of pellets left, I went ahead and took a few extra turns at snack time. (The two kids our group were terrified of the elephants and hid behind their parents, regardless of the amount of coaxing by those they trusted. The adults didn’t seem overly interested, and the way I saw it, those enormous mammals ended some serious calories to survive the day, so really, I was the hero of the morning, at least in the long-lashed eyes of my new friends.)

Feeding time was followed by a really nice informational session in an outdoor classroom. We all plopped ourselves down on wooden benches and learned about the differences between Asian and African elephants (the usual, size, ears, toes, etc.), but also some really cool facts about how elephant skulls help cool their brains and about their five sets of ever larger teeth. Coming from someone who signs up for every imaginable animal outing possible when I travel, I was really impressed with the mini-biology lesson I got from the ranger and definitely came away from the day not only having interacted with elephants, but with a bit more critter data in my cranium.

The highlight of the morning was getting up close and personal (up close and pachydermal?)  with the stars of the show. Having no fear of the enormous animal, I walked right up to him and his trainer, full of questions about his age, history, future, etc. The trainer looked at me and said, “Have you spent time with elephants before?” I could only laugh and reply in the affirmative, as a detailed list of my many animal visits wasn’t on the morning agenda. After some hugs and kisses, it was time to bid adieu to our new friends and their wonderful keepers. (These men obviously loved their charges and took amazing care of them. It was really impressive to see the relationships that had been formed between man and animal and to hear of how hard the reserve works to send their animals away from the halfway house to safe and healthy forever homes.)

Elephants were the itinerary for the first weekend I was in South Africa, but after that incredible outing, it was time to get down to business. I flew to Johannesburg on business and it was time to clock in.  I had a week of community liaison office coordinator training ahead of me- a very full week of conducting training sessions for CLOs posted mostly in Africa, but a few from other regions, who were looking for support and a deeper understanding of their roles in their embassies and consulates. This was an amazing week of teaching (it made me realize how much I miss my classroom!) and networking, but as soon as we wrapped up the last session on Friday afternoon, I was off making plans for a Saturday trip to the lion park!

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When Sixteen *IS* Enough

Sixteen hours is a long time to be stuck in a single seat in a winged tin can. Sixteen hours is two full work days. Sixteen hours is two full nights of sleep. Sixteen hours is nearly eight movies, watched back to back. Sixteen hours can be forty-eight episodes of your favorite sitcom. (Currently, that is Black-ish in my world. Fantastic!!) Sixteen hours is painful at the eight-hour mark when you realize you have to do everything you’ve already done again before wheels touch the ground again. Sixteen hours can be a tiny bit of torture, both physically and psychologically.

Sixteen hours.

Sixteen hours means different things to different travelers. For some, it is the amount of time it takes to get back to their loved ones. For others, it is the amount of time it takes to leave one life behind and begin a new one. Some travelers do cross-oceanic flights on a regular basis for business and it is just another blip on the work radar, while some are experiencing their first flight over a couple of hours.

Living in China and Malaysia has given me a pretty good tolerance for looooong flights, although this one ranks right up there in terms of hours spent on one single plane. Stateside, I don’t even blink at a five or six-hour flight on the way back to Idaho. It’s all about perspective! (Heck, I hardly need to pack anything to entertain myself when flying cross-country in the U.S. Between the inflight magazine, the safety card, and the tiny package of peanut-free rice snacks, I’m set for more hours than I’d like to admit.) Unfortunately, the young man with whom I shared a row from Atlanta to Johannesburg (cheers for an empty middle seat!) was experiencing long-haul travel for the first time (Emory student- there were a whole slew of them on the flight). I have no idea what his name was, but let’s call him Kevin. He seemed like a Kevin. Kevin had flown regionally a bit, but had never done an overnight, many, many hour-long flight. I’m not sure where he got his travel advice, but he decided it was best to go the comatose route for the duration, so no sooner at the doors been sealed, he popped a sleeping pill (maybe two?), donned an eye mask and noise cancelling headphones and was seriously not heard from again for eight hours. (Multiple of Kevin’s buddies came by to take photos of Sleeping Beauty throughout his lengthy nap. I am sure some gentle ribbing will ensue.)

In general, I have no issue with Kevin’s choice to sleep away as much of the flight as possible, but it did become an issue after I had two glasses of Coke and really needed a quick trip to the lavatory in the sky. Starting with a gentle nudge to the arm, I tried to resuscitate my row-mate, but to no avail. With a hardier jostle, I tried again, but had no luck in even affecting a position change. A bit baffled and unsure what my next step would be, I happened to make eye contact with a guy standing in the aisle, just stretching and biding his flight time. The guy had watched the whole nudge/jostle routine in amusement and apparently I Iooked like I really did need some time away from 23J, because with a smile, he held out his hand as leverage and helped me crawl over top of Kevin. Kevin didn’t budge an inch or make a sound as I made my way from the window to the aisle. Not even a sleep snort.

So, how does one wile away sixteen hours (other than Kevin’s self-induced coma option)? Just like this!

7:10-7:45PM Watch passengers file onto the plane, fingers and toes crossed that the empty middle seat remains vacant, giving side-eye to anyone to slows down in the vicinity

7:45PM– Internal cheer that the plane doors closed and the middle seat is flier-less

7:45-7:50PM– Unload backpack, storing books and headphones in the seatback compartment, de-shoe, shoving them against the plane side to only come out during bathroom breaks, slide backpack into the middle seat foot space clearing up extra legroom, claim extra blanket from empty seat and settle in for the duration

7:50-9:00PM- Bust out a new book- A Very Expensive Poisoning by Luke Harding in this case (I’d say that saving this book for the flight has been killing me, but given its topic of state-sponsored murder, that might be a bad way to go. Plus, I’d only had it two days. But, I did want to start it two days ago!)

9:00-10:00PM- Eat dinner of pasta, breadsticks and brownie while watching Chip and Joanna be adorable as they fix up a crazy, falling apart property, daydreaming of owning a house again one day (Flying solo meant I only had access to one meal, so no item swapping for me this time around. Usually my salad goes to Thad and I get his roll in return. I was not unhappy to find several items I’d eat on the tray though, including a small bar of cheese and package of crackers, so while I would prefer my favorite travel partner to be along, I did survive and not starve this time around.)

10:00PM– Make acrobatic move to get over Kevin and visit the loo, thanks to the aisle dweller from the row in front of me. This was much more awkward for me than Kevin, as he still has no idea it happened and let’s be honest, it wasn’t pretty!

10:00PM-Midnight– Back to A Very Expensive Poisoning to continue to be both horrified and fascinated with the lengths certain current world leaders will go to in order to maintain control

Midnight- 2:00AM- Attempt sleep- curl up in a ball with feet tucked in until legs have lost all circulation, then switch to the bent-in-half position until either the guy in front reclines his seat, possibly causing a minor concussion, or until both legs have again lost all circulation and toes are tingling

2:00-3:00AM- Too tired to focus on reading but unable to sleep and too lazy to find a show worth thinking about for more than three minutes at a time, I stare blankly at the seatback in front of me, much like Puddy when Elaine breaks up with him after their trip to Europe on the fourth season of Seinfeld

4:00- 6:00AM– It is no longer actually early morning, as in the middle of the ocean time is messed up and I have no idea what time it is or what meal I should be wanting. I eat the banana out of random bagged “lunch” brought around by flight attendants. (Avoid the pre-made sandwich and the granola bar that is more crumb than bar. I supplement this snack with the animal crackers I brought in my backpack, knowing that at some point I would be hungry and left hanging by the offered meal service.)

6:00AM- Realizing that Kevin is up and in the aisle, I take advantage of the easy access to make another trip to the tiny ladies’ room, taking along a toothbrush and facewipe to make a measly attempt at freshening up mid-flight, and do a bit of bulkhead yoga as I await my turn in the tiny cubicle of a water closet

6:00-8:00AM- Continue restless sleep activity. Switch positions roughly every 20 minutes. Mostly be awake and annoyed.

8:00-9:00AM- “Enjoy” breakfast/dinner items from the Delta team. I opted for the chicken salad, eating the cold grilled chicken, pineapple and cookies. Watch another whirlwind house renovation thanks to Chip and Joanna. (This time around, I really could have used the trade-deal I have going with Thad. I am sure he would have appreciated my extra salad-offerings in return for his package of cookies.)

9:00-10:30AM-Finish the last pages of A Very Expensive Poisoning just as the plane touches down in South Africa, silently marking another continent off the checklist and rather pleased at my reading rationing. (Antarctica- I’m coming for you, somehow, some way!)

Not able to bear the idea of eight movies (are there even eight movies out there that I would want to watch?) or forty-eight episodes of a TV show (even the witty and well-written Black-ish), I opted for reading, kinda’ sleeping, and a bit of zoned-out staring. Just ten short days from now, I’ll be making the return flight, getting to go through the whole schedule again. A new book will need to be purchased (why, or why, this one time have NONE of my library books come off hold?!) and I’m crossing my fingers and toes for yet another empty middle seat to give just a bit more elbow room to the seemingly never-ending flight. Coming to Johannesburg I was excited about the prospects of exploring a new place and energetic/anxious about leading my first CLO training. Headed home, I’ll be looking forward to seeing Thad again, getting back into the flow of work, and preparing for a spring-full of DC visitors.

“The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who… looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space… on the infinite highway of the air.”
― Wilbur Wright


The Adventures of the Missing Passport (Part II)

Recap, for those who missed “The Adventures of the Missing Passport (Part I)”: Long awaited trip out of D.C., land in Cancun, too excited to catch up with best friend, passport goes MIA. That about covers it! (Click here for the entire story.)

The perfect English, with a slight Spanish accent, “Passports for check-in, please” rumbling around my head, I dug through my backpack, knowing I didn’t have my passport. I keep it in one place- the top pocket of my trusty and well-traveled Jansport backpack, a pocket seemingly made in size and shape to house my passport when I am on the road. One quick glance told me it was not there. I went through the motions of digging through the other pockets of my backpack, my jeans, my suitcase, but all along I knew the effort was futile. It is wasn’t in the passport pocket. I didn’t have it.

As Thad continued to check us in and get the rundown on the pools, the always open buffets, the constant flow of beverages (adult and otherwise), and the tourism options in the area, I started making calls. You don’t work on the Foreign Service payroll for five years and not make a connection or two around the globe. I reached out to a good friend from KL (she was my boss, as the acting Consul General in Kuala Lumpur when I was working there, but bosses and friends are often overlapping on the Venn diagram of Foreign Service relationships). She is currently posted in Mexico City, so I thought she might be able to let me in on who was the American Citizen Services chief in Merida, the closest consulate. My hope was that the ACS in Merida would have good connections at the airport to see if my passport turned up there. She sent me the name of the ACS chief and I couldn’t be more surprised to recognize it instantly, but not from Foreign Service connections. As it turns out, the current ACS chief in Merida was our trainer for Peace Corps China ten years ago. I reached out to a friend from Malaysia who put me in touch with a guy she worked with in Cuba who we happen to have known from China, all to try to recover my passport in Mexico. Yup, that’s the crazy small world we live in!

This story is very long and I am going to try to edit it down for everyone’s sake, but suffice it to say that the ACS chief promised to reach out and see what could be found at the Cancun airport. With the next day being Martin Luther King Jr. Day, nothing more would be done anyway, so we made plans to take the ferry to Cozumel the next morning and called it a night, three out of four of us carrying documents that allowed us to be in the country legally.

Monday rolled around and out to Cozumel we went, enjoying the sunshine, blue skies, and clear water. We did our thing out there, tried our best to ignore the people offering to rent us Jeeps, show us their tequila shops, and sign us up for every possible snorkeling and SCUBA-ing trip available. We gawked at the absolutely massive cruise ship in the harbor (that thing had waterslides on it!) and laughed at the 50++ crowd having a little too much fun at Senor Frog’s at lunchtime. Overall, not a bad way to spend our first full day south of the border. On the ferry ride back to the mainland, I got an email from the ACS team in Merida saying that the Cancun airport DID have my passport and that I should go out and get it. YES!! I could not have been more excited (and surprised) by this development. While part of me was hoping that it had been pickpocketed (taking a bit of the responsibility off of me for the missing passport), I was mostly happy to hear it had turned up and I’d have it back in my possession before dinnertime. High fives and a small happy dance ensued.

As the rest of the crew headed off to an afternoon of lounging by the pool, I hopped in a cab to the airport to go retrieve my passport. It’s about an hour each way from Playa del Carmen to the Cancun International Airport, so not a cheap taxi ride, but worth it to have my stuff back. With the email directions of how to get to customs to get my passport pulled up on my phone, I had to finagle my way through a variety of guards and “helpful” standersby to finally get to the glass doors that mark the customs areas, where my passport was being held. (Thank you college Spanish!) As I reached the last line of defense before the customs officials, the woman said to me, “But you aren’t a man…” in a perplexed tone. I dutifully explained that she must mean Michael, as that is the male form of Michelle and can be an easy mistake to make. She looked at me doubtfully, told me to stay put, and sauntered through the doors to the room I was sure held my beloved passport. After a bit, she came back, said nothing to me, but held the passport up, biodata page facing out.

Yup. That was a dude. Not me.

Apparently, one Mitchell Ross Fillmore (surname changed to protect the innocent) also lost his passport at the Cancun International Airport. Are you kidding me?! (There may have been an extra word between “you” and “kidding,” but I’ll leave that possibility to your imagination.)

The airport did have an American passport, but it was for Mitchell Ross Fillmore. Not me.


Downcast and disheartened does not begin to explain my state of mind. (Even in this moment though, I had to appreciate the humor in the situation. Stupid Mitchell Ross Fillmore. I hate you!)

I spent another hour and a half at the airport while they “searched” a variety of lost and found places, although I don’t get the feeling they were actually doing much behind the scenes. Frustrated and tired, I finally headed back to Playa in the early evening, figuring nothing else was going to happen at the airport and that I would check back in with the consulate in the morning.

After some dinner and time with my feet in the sand, a bit of internet research told me that there was a consular agent in Playa del Carmen, which would save me having to make the drive to Merida to get a new passport. I would still need to get an emergency passport (EPDP for those in consular circles) before I could leave the country, but I could do it all in a few hours rather than making an entire day of it.

9AM sharp on Tuesday morning, I called the consular agency in Playa and asked about getting an appointment for an EPDP.  Once they got over the shock of me asking for the service by the consular name, they told me I was welcome to come in any time before 11AM, so I quickly hopped in a cab and headed down to their conveniently located offices. Once there, I filled out the forms and then had to run the necessary errands that go along with a getting an emergency passport overnighted in Mexico. First it was to the bank to pay the overnight shipping fee and collect the receipt to present to the agent and then it was to the photo studio for passport sized photos, ones that the shop helpfully photoshopped to make me even whiter than I already am! (Thad stood on a corner while I worked on the photos, enjoying a banana milkshake that he’d ordered himself from a street side bodega, taxing his Spanish skills to the max, but making it all the more rewarding to sip.) Back at the agency, I swore the passport oath (I felt like I should give it to myself, I did it so many times in Kuala Lumpur) and then headed back to the resort to enjoy the rest of our vacation, knowing that the awesome agency team in Playa del Carmen and the ACS team in Merida had my back. (‘Merica!)

We spent the rest of the week touring archeological ruins, swimming through caves, bobbing in the ocean and eating way too much, but it was nice to know that the American consular section was able to take care of me quickly and efficiently. (Still, damn you Mitchell Ross Fillmore!)

To wrap up the missing passport saga, I had to get an immigration stamp in my new passport that would allow me to leave Mexico. (Not really wanting to leave Mexico, I thought about using the missing stamp as an excuse to move to Playa indefinitely, but alas, it seems I must return to a job and life on the northern side of the planned wall.) I stood line to meet with La Migra in Mexico, paid in USD cash (the only option!) for a small green stamp and then it was time to say goodbye to the January sun and sand.

The question remains though, how did I know I left my passport at the airport and am to blame for this whole mess when it was Mitchell Ross Fillmore’s passport at customs and not my own? Why not let myself off the hook and tell the story as if I had been pickpocketed, something I would have less control and therefore less blame for happening? Well, once I was re-ensconced in my D.C. cubicle, I sent a quick thank you note to that ACS chief in Merida, wanting to let him know I appreciated the help of his entire team. It didn’t take long before I heard back from him saying that as it turns out, the Cancun Airport DID find my passport and send it to the American consulate in Merida. (What!?! Ugh!!!)  If it had been pickpocketed, it would not have turned up, which means it was my own dumb fault for leaving it on the counter at customs. I can’t even blame Mitchell Ross Fillmore for this one. (Although, I do now blame him for many things around the house. If the trash is overflowing, I yell at Mitchell Ross Fillmore about it. If the peanut butter cookies are a bit overcooked, I blame Mitchell Ross Fillmore for it. And if I can’t find a paper I am looking for or I screw up typing a book review, it is totally Mitchell Ross Fillmore who takes the fall. Pretty much from now until forever, Mitchell Ross Fillmore is my go-to scapegoat.)

Now, back in D.C., I’ve turned in my EPDP and am awaiting my full validity passport (one with a non-photoshopped biodata page) and have taken a few steps to up my organizational game. I am now the owner of an passport/document organizer that will make its maiden voyage with me to Johannesburg in a few short weeks and you can bet I’ll be a bit more careful when filling out my next customs form. No plants, livestock, narcotics or bricks of cash for this traveler!


Me, a sunburn and an EPDP

The Adventures of the Missing Passport (Part I)

“Passports for check-in, please.” These were the words, spoken in perfect English with just a hint of Spanish accent that made me question the very heart of who I am as a traveler. As my fellow travelers slapped theirs onto the counter, still sipping their brightly colored, fruit-on-a-toothpick laden welcome drinks, my heart stopped. In that instant, I knew my no longer shiny, a bit ragged on the corners passport was missing. At nine years old, it had visas and stamps from all over the world (okay, mostly, but not entirely the Asian part of the world), it had a photo of me ten pounds lighter and no gray hair peeking through the strategically placed blonde highlights, but in that moment, most importantly, it had my Mexican immigration stamp- the one that allowed me to be in the country and the one that would, theoretically, let me out of the country a week later.


But you see, I am an organized traveler. I pride myself on my plastic folder of pre-arrival airline ticket check-ins, hotel reservation printouts, pre-booked shuttle vouchers, and a highlighted schedule of when and where we need to be for various activities. I’ve got this! My Peace Corps era backpack is never without the travel essentials (pen for filling out immigration forms, aspirin for those long-distance flight headaches, Twizzlers for after the less-than-filling mid-flight meals, various hygiene products including but not limited to disposable wipes, toothbrush/paste, and all things from the feminine aisle.) And yet, here I was, attempting to check in to a lovely resort in Playa del Carmen, sans passport.


That does seem to be the question of the day. I would like to blame it on a pickpocket at the airport, a story which I believed to be true for some time (more on that later), and one that would ease my bruised organizational pride, but in the end, I do believe the fault lies solely and painfully in my court

Here’s how it happened (along with my excuses for each step in the road to the missing passport):

  • Too happy to be on the road again: We’ve been pretty landlocked in D.C. since arriving in August. Between starting new jobs, finding a place to live, organizing the belongings of a 2000++ square foot house in Idaho into a 700-square foot apartment in the city, and resettling Stateside for a two-year stint, we’ve not wandered far beyond the suburbs of Virginia, and that was only for a few dinners with friends and a trip or two to the mall. (The mall has Taco Bell. That is how I get Thad to join me.) For the last handful of years, we’ve never gone four or five months in the same country, let alone the same city. I was itching like crazy to go somewhere new, so when my best friend planned a trip to the beach in Mexico and invited us, we couldn’t say yes fast enough!
  • Too excited to see my best friend after 14 months: For the first six years of our middle school teaching careers, we were joined at the hip. We carpooled together, we planned cross-circular lessons together (science and literature overlap in awesome ways, just try to convince 8th graders of it!), we spent a lot of time at Idaho Education Association activities together, we got together for hat-night poker parties on the weekend, and we talked- constantly. But, as life does, it moved us both in directions we never would have anticipated that first day of our teaching careers, sitting across from each other on the hard benches of the district cafeteria, definitely feeling like the new kids on the block (first year teaching does feel a bit like you are “Hangin’ Tough”). I joined Peace Corps and moved to China for two years. While I was gone, she moved school districts. I came back to our original district; she got engaged and then married. Thad joined the Foreign Service and we moved as the needs of the service dictated; she went to nursing school, became an amazing trauma nurse and joined the ranks of traveling nurses, crisscrossing the US to work in understaffed ERs around the country. Now, we don’t see each other nearly as much as we used to. All of that to say, I was beyond thrilled at the chance to spend a week together, gabbing and gossiping, quietly judging our fellow resort-goers in a way that our husbands just don’t do.  This excitement may have led to a lessening of my normal organization and travel awareness.
  • Too fast of form filling out: In the end, I do believe this was my ultimate downfall. I made it through immigration fine- forms fine, passport fine, smile and be nice to the border guard. All fine. Next up was the line for customs. On the plane, I filled out this one-per-family form, stuck it with my passport and didn’t think about it again, going right back to my audiobook. (I was listening to The Lost City of the Monkey God, which is a fantastic non-fiction story about the uncovering of archeological ruins in Honduras. It is topping my list of favorite books for 2017 right now. I highly recommend it!) Somehow, in my form filling, I didn’t read the directions clearly and all of the boxes that I should have checked “no” on, I checked “yes.” Needless to say, when we got through the massive line at customs, the official was not impressed that I declared that yes, we did have fresh produce and vegetable matter with us, that yes, we had been in close proximity to livestock recently, that yes, we did have large amounts of prescription medication on us and yes, we were carrying more than $10,000 in cash. With absolutely no humor in his voice, he sent us across the room to a table with blank cards and made me redo our form. The table. That is where my troubles began. I am 99% certain this is where I lost my passport. I think I must have set it down on the counter to fill out the new form attesting that no, I did not bring diseased food products with me, I did not have sheep and goats in my apartment, I did not plan to sell RX narcotics, and I did not have bricks of cash in my carryon. Frustrated and annoyed at myself about the original form, I was off my game. I hurriedly redid the from and skittered back into line, probably (highly likely) leaving my passport in its adorable cartoon owl cover with its nearly decade of rainbow of visas and stamps sitting on the counter.

The next two hours flew by as we tried to meet up with our friends, who it turns out had landed at a different international terminal at the Cancun airport. After a relay of calls back and forth, descriptions of outfits (“Me? Pink hoodie and blue jeans. You?”), surroundings (“I’m at AirMargaritaville, where are you?”), and the shuttle (“Look for a white van.”- this one being ridiculous as every shuttle between Cancun and Playa del Carmen is a white van), we finally found each other, hopped in and spent an hour car ride catching up on the last fourteen months since we had seen each other.

The next thing I knew, it was, “Passports for check-in, please” and a realization that in that frazzled moment at the Cancun airport, I betrayed years of international travel organization. I was an undocumented traveler in Mexico.

(Stay tuned for part II of the saga of the missing passport and our Mexican adventures.)

(20)16 Going on (20)17

2016 is now officially in the books, which means it is time for a quick round up of the last 365 days. While not a perfect year (is such a thing possible?), this last rotation around the sun was an overall good one for this blogger and In Search of the End of the Sidewalk.  The blog had nearly 9000 views from over 4,000 unique visitors, a number that isn’t terrible, but that I’d love to increase in 2017, so be sure to share the address with your friends -especially the bookish/travel-y ones! (Click here to link to the Facebook page so you never miss a post!)

It has been a year of transition at In Search of the End of the Sidewalk as I’ve focused more time on book blogging with the new “Card Catalog Reviews” that come out on Mondays and Fridays and a bit less on the travel blogging, as being DC-based has cut down on the international travel in the last six months. (With a that said, 2017 is starting off right with a trip to Mexico in January, South Africa in February and then plans are in the works for more adventures mid-summer. Travel blogging is not dead, just not a weekly feature.) I’m hoping to pair with some libraries in the coming year to expand readership of In Search of the End of the Sidewalk and also, hopefully help local libraries encourage reading and book discussions. (I’ve already spoken with three libraries in Idaho –Marsing, Homedale and Caldwell – and hope to partner with even more in the near future!)

All of that is to say, 2016 was a great year in the blogosphere and I’m looking forward to more posts, more readers and more comments in the New Year! To kick things off right, here is a *very* brief recap of last year in both travel and reading. Click on each to link to the original post.

Travel highlights:

Ringing in Chinese New Year in Perth

3 weeks in Ho Chi Minh City (and here, and here, and here.)

Caving adventures in Miri  (and here)

Summertime in Idaho

Revisiting all Washington DC has to offer

Best Fiction:

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Best non-fiction

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones

A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back by Kevin Hazzard


Worst reads of the year:

The Ten Best Days of My Life by Adena Halpern

The Last Girl by Joe Hart

The City at 3PM: Writing, Reading and Traveling by Peter Lasalle

Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South  by Beth Macy

Wild by Nature: One Woman, One Trek, One Thousand Nights by Sarah Marquis

Unfinished business from 2016 (AKA: To be read in early 2017!):

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon