Twenty, Five, and Four

Apparently, late May is a big time for anniversaries in my life, although until about two weeks ago, I hadn’t realized it. (I meant to write this blog last weekend so that it was much more timely, but after finally getting back on the blogging wagon, I had several even older posts that needed written, and am just now getting almost caught up. Well, unless you count that one about our awesome trip to Perth in February that I still haven’t managed to get put together. Chinese New Year, quokkas, nearly dying on an island bike ride. How has it not found a spot on the blog yet? Eeek!)

While May doesn’t contain a wedding anniversary or birthday (for me, at least, although I am guessing there are *many* wedding anniversaries that do fall in the spring-to-summer month), it does have several other significant dates that have recently popped up in my Facebook feed, reminding me that it seems to be a month of transition for our family of two. (What would I do without Facebook reminders? Those memory photos that it puts up? Sometimes I am not even sure where they come from. There is a great possibility that Facebook has hacked my life, now having a far more comprehensive idea of who I am than I do some days. Also, thank you to Facebook for reminding me to wish a happy birthday to people who are absolutely certain that the only reason I know it is their birthday is because my electronics reminded me. Sincerity might take a bit of a hit there.)

But back to anniversaries.

Twenty years ago, in late May, I graduated from high school. It I hard to think about where the last two decades have gone, but pretty easy to look in my passport and see where I have gone over those ensuing years. When I walked across that stage twenty years ago in my hideous yellow graduation gown I knew I was headed to college a few short months. I knew I would be rooming with my best friend and I was certain I was going to major in Spanish and I knew I wanted to study abroad while in college. Even at that early point, I knew I wanted to “go,” but little did I know just how much “going” there would be! (Yes, I know we voted to go boys in blue/girls in yellow because the contrast of the school colors would look nice, but why didn’t we push for blue, ladies? Did the boys really care if they looked washed-out and half dead in all of their graduation photos? Probably not! Keep this in mind future graduates of CHS. Two colors do look awesome marching down the aisle, but think long and hard about who must don the “gold.” Kelsey, I’m looking at you!)

While things didn’t quite turn out the way I just “knew” they would, life’s twists and turns did lead to two other, more recent anniversaries that come up in the same final week of May.

Five years ago it was that exact week that we finished packing up or selling everything we owned as we got ready for a career change for Thad, an unknown professional future for me and a new home/adventure for us both. With bigger items like the cars and lawn mower sold, the house rented out and everything but two suitcases each packed into a storage unit in Hagerstown, Maryland, to the nation’s capital we went. A new apartment, new friends and more new acronyms that I ever thought possible awaited us on the other side of the country. (I’m an EFM in the FS who worked as CLO and then PCSed to KL, another EAP post, with my ELO husband who is headed to INR for his next job. That’s barely the tip of the foreign service acronym iceberg. Madness reigns.)

Initial training, an assignment to Chengdu and months of language training later, it was again that final week of May that saw us making another huge change- our move to western China to take up a first posting with the Foreign Service. We’d spent a decent amount of time in Chengdu when we were Peace Corps volunteers (that’s another anniversary, coming up the end of June- 10 years since we left on that epic outing), so it was less overwhelming than many first tours, but the excitement to finally be on our way was palpable.

It’s crazy to think that Caldwell High School’s class of 1996 will be reunion-ing it up this summer, but even more so to ponder how different life has turned out from what my seventeen-year-old self had imagined. Somewhere in my boxes and boxes of stuff (probably storage boxes) I’ve got a senior year yearbook filled with notes of excitement and relief that high school was coming to an end, but little did I know just how far my wanderings would take me.  Just a year after that, I’d have my first passport, headed to the Dominican Republic and Haiti (Cuba got nixed at the last minute), opening doors to the promise of adventures far beyond the edges of Idaho.

So, happy anniversary 17 year old self, 33 year old self and 34 year old self. Blow out the candles and keep skipping down the sidewalk, looking for endings and new beginnings.

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Never Say Never

Never say never.

Three words that are good to live by, and yet so often are ignored, usually by me.

Even though I love to travel and am up for strange experiences, trying new things and always on the lookout for the quirky, there is another side of me that is weirdly neurotic about things having to be a certain way. For example, I have these four pink bowls that have cute little cartoon owls on their inside bottoms. I bought these bowls almost five years ago when we were living in Oakwood Crystal City and Thad was going through training in preparation for his tour in Chengdu. The Oakwood-provided bowls just didn’t cut it for my daily breakfast cereal consumption, so one day early on, I schlepped myself to the nearest Target on the public bus and bought a few household items, including new bowls. These were not only adorable, but the perfect size for breakfast. I bought four. These are my cereal bowls and have been for nearly five years; I eat Rice Crispies or cornflakes or Marshmallow Maties out of them every morning that I am home. Four bowls mean I must do my dishes at least every four days. (Without kids, you don’t generate nearly as many dishes as a big family, so have a whole lot more wiggle room on the dishwashing front!) A few weeks ago, three days into the cycle, Thad said he was going to make some soup. (He was having wisdom teeth issues, which have since been relieved by pulling two of the offending chompers.) I knew he was going to grab the first bowl he saw, so I purposely moved my adorable cereal bowl out of line-of-sight so he would have to go with one of the boring blue plastic bowls (which were part of a wedding gift we received nearly 18 years ago!) or the black ceramic ones (which were his before we were even married). And yet, half an hour later, when he came into the living room, guess what he was holding in his hand?! My cereal bowl! Needless to say, I gave him a terrible time about it, telling him I was going to starve in the morning now that I didn’t have my go-to breakfast dish. He did kindly wash it out and return it to the cupboard (probably a little annoyed at my reaction) so I would not waste away the next morning, but the point here isn’t that he ate soup out of the wrong bowl, but that my brain can be weirdly rigid about certain things, usually ones of little importance.

Why does this all matter? And what does it have to do with “never say never”?

You see, we’ve been going to Thailand for vacations for almost a decade now. (We went with friends when we were in Peace Corps, a couple of times for blue skies and sunshine when we were in Chengdu and now that it is just a hop, jump and skip away, a few times for long weekends.) On each of these trips, I’ve giggled and possibly made remarks about all of the backpackers dressed in what I call “elephant pants.” They are not designated as such because they make the wearer look large, but rather because a good percentage of them are decorated in a variety of elephant patterns. These pants are lightweight cotton, usually have elastic/drawstring tops and elastic ankles. They look extremely comfortable, but also look like pants for hobos. It is ridiculous how many tourist women (and a few men!) you see wearing these things in SE Asia, but especially in Thailand.

I’ve always mocked elephant pants.

Until two weeks ago.

When we went to Chiang Mai for my birthday weekend (click here to see a post about our awesome elephant trek), we wandered the night markets three different evenings. Of course, they were filled with the usual souvenir items: t-shirts, knock-off handbags, some artwork, strange leather good, etc. But nothing was more prevalent than elephant pants.

I held firm for two nights, but on our last night in town, I did the thing I said I would never do. I bought elephant pants.

They were only $3.

I couldn’t resist the bargain.

And they did look awfully comfortable.

(To be perfectly honest, I bought three pair. But only one pair had elephants on it.)

When I got back to our boutique hotel in the old town, I immediately changed into my new pants. It was nirvana. They were amazing! So lightweight. So comfortable. And a good length for my long legs.

I swore I would never own elephant pants. Now, these are my go-to outfit when I get home from the embassy each day. As long as we are not headed out for drinks or dinner after work, I go from my dress and heels right to elephant pants and a tank top. They are more comfortable than any pair of shorts or capris and nothing says a night of happiness with a good book than comfy pants adorned with pachyderms.

Lesson learned: Don’t knock the elephant pants until you’ve lounged a minute or two in their heavenliness.

(Disclaimer: I do not have a single picture of me in these glorious pants, as they are pretty much just lazy-day wear for me, but I did find these on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Premium-Elephant-Trousers-Bohemian-Buddhist/dp/B00O7RG2UE. Apparently you can buy them for $20. At least I got a good deal as I ate crow.)

elephant pants

Guest Blog Post: From Chengdu to Nairobi

We’re almost six months into our second tour and while we enjoyed our time in Chengdu, China, we wanted something completely different for our second tour. Now that we’re in Nairobi, Kenya, our wish was definitely granted. In many ways, life here is easier than it was in Chengdu:

  • The mail system is faster so my Amazon orders come at blazing speed (comparatively).
  • DAIRY! ALL THE DAIRY! I can drink fresh milk and eat cheese and yogurt and ice cream. NOM NOM!
  • I can find pretty much anything I need right here in Nairobi and not necessarily pay exorbitant foreign goods prices.
  • If I have a hankering for Indian food, DONE (and they deliver). Want Thai? DONE (and they also deliver). Pizza? Take your pick of about three different restaurants-all excellent!
  • Animals? YOU BETCHA! There is a park just 45 minutes away where you can see several of the Big 5. You can also feed giraffes and walk amongst baby elephants. All just a short car ride away.
  • But the best part? THE WEATHER! It’s so beautiful and perfect nearly all year round. Like the wee bear’s porridge, it’s not too hot nor too cold. As a woman who is not a fan of winter or bundling up, I was not sad at all to spend my Christmas day poolside slathered in sunscreen.

That said, it’s not always paradise:

  • There are real dangers and threats and you do need to be on your guard.
  • This is not a walkable city nor is there reliable and safe public transportation so having a car is a must.
  • The roads are terrible so you will be spending more on car maintenance than you probably would in the States.
  • It’s true that things move at a different pace here in Africa and sometimes it makes you want to jab a pen in your eye.

All in all, this place is a refreshing change of pace and while we have always been ambivalent about Africa, we have quickly come to appreciate all the perks and quirks of Kenya. We have liked it so much that if we were allowed to extend here (entry-level doesn’t have that option), we probably would. Our daughter can’t imagine leaving and there are so many great things to see and do here. I’m glad we were assigned here because I don’t think we would have voluntarily chosen to bid hard on Africa but we can see why people fall in love with it and never leave.

Kenya-for the win.

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In Search of the End of the Sidewalk: The Best of 2014

It is that time of year, where all bloggers worth their salt come out with their year-end roundup lists and since this blogger likes sodium chloride as much as the next writer, I’ll continue the tradition here at In Search of the End of the Sidewalk. (This is the 4th edition. You can click here to see reviews for 2011, 2012 and 2013.)

So, without further ado, here is the best of everything 2014! (“Everything” might be a bit ambitious with just a single full day left on the calendar…)

Best Books of 2014

Thanks to my trusty GoodReads account I was able to quickly go over my literature intake since January 1. If my count is right (remember folks, I’m working on a degree in literature these days, none of that fancy math nonsense for me!), this year my total book count is a whopping 153!! Keep in mind, several factors play into that overwhelming large number, including the fact that I have been unemployed for the last seven months and I’m working on a literature degree, which means not only am I reading for fun, I’m also reading for class. Oh, the books! The books! (Although, I must be doing something wrong when I add books to my “read” shelf. GoodReads had a cool link to show your books for the year, but when I clicked it, it showed I had read a mere two books this year. I read that many in a week sometimes! Anyone know what I am doing wrong?)

{Don’t forget to click on the links to related posts!}

5- California by Edan Lupucki

4- The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

3- Redeployment by Phil Klay

2- Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

1Hard Choices by Hilary Rodham Clinton

(This was a hard list to make. Next year, I may have to break it down to top five non-fiction, top five young adult and top five fiction, as it is hard to compare/judge the two genres.)

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Best Outings of 2014

(*In no particular order)

5- Hawaii. We started 2014 off with a bang, meeting my parents in Hawaii for a seven-day cruise around the islands. Between snorkeling, whale watching and kayaking, we found time for lots of all-you-can-eat buffets and nightly shows in the ship’s auditorium. Happy 2014!

4- Hong Kong. This was our last “China-vacation” before leaving post and what a great way to wrap up our first tour with the Foreign Service. While I didn’t love the cable car, the Buddha at the top was worth the terror and the funicular up Victoria’s Peak was a ride much more my style. We stayed at a great boutique hotel just a short walk from the metro and loved the ease of getting around this crazy, bustling Asian mega-city.

3- Kuching, Malaysia. By far my favorite city in Malaysia. What can beat a cave filled with bats, a day of rainforest hiking or a visit to wild orangutans?

2- Nampa, Idaho. Home leave! It is a fabulous perk of the Foreign Service, that after a tour abroad, officers and families are *required* to spend some time back Stateside. While for some this can be a burden, we’re lucky to have lots of family and friends willing to let us crash with them for days/weeks at a time.

1-Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, of course! A new country, a new city and a new home! It is always exciting (and intimidating, tiring, frustrating, invigorating…) to move to a new post, but so far, KL has been a great city to call home. Not only have we explored various parks within the city, but this year was the first time we’ve hosted a Thanksgiving, complete with friends, old and new.

*Honorable mention: New Meadows, Idaho. While on home leave, we bought twelve acres of beautiful mountain top just outside of New Meadows. Right now it is home to bears and deer and lots of small mountain mammals, but maybe when we retire in a million years, it will be home to us too!

Best Moments of 2014

(*Again, in no particular order)

5- Birth of our newest nibling- Camden Byron McDaniel, the youngest (and last?) child of my brother and sister-in-law. His arrival makes for a grand total of twelve niblings: six on Thad’s side and six on mine. We’ve yet to meet in person, but I see his chubby self on FaceTime every week or so.

4- Volunteering at the UNHRC school for Chin students in downtown Kuala Lumpur. This was a great opportunity to put my teaching skills to use and to introduce not only American vocabulary (Malaysian English tends to be quite British), but also talk about school culture in the US, where many of these students hope to be resettled.

3- Going back to school. This fall, I started an online graduate program in literature and writing. It has kept me busy, but I am loving the reading and writing and discussions with my classmates. Nerdily enough, I even love writing the term papers! (A big thank you goes out to my two editors: Matt and Angie!)

2- A new job! Technically, this won’t happen until 2015, as I start in mid-January, but getting hired in 2014 is a win. It was not easy to find work in Kuala Lumpur and it definitely wasn’t easy to get multiple rejection emails, but in the end, things seem to have worked out and soon I’ll be having to roll out of bed and get dressed with the rest of you!

1- Meeting the First Lady of the United States. It was a lot of work to prepare for her visit to Chengdu, but it was all worth it when the Consul General called me over and said to FLOTUS, “Michelle, I’d like you to meet our Michelle.”  She said she wondered who the tall blonde woman was and I told her I had spent the morning being her stand-in for height measurements!

So there you have it, the 4th edition of In Search of the End of the Sidewalk’s year-end roundup. As I look ahead to 2015, big plans are bouncing around my gray matter (although I think it is more pink than gray, which we all know I prefer anyway), looking to claim a spot in my continued search for the end of the sidewalk.

Happy 2015!

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Happy Birthday, Marine Corps!

During our two years in China, I spent weeks (or possibly months) plotting the details of each Marine Ball. Along with friends, we searched for hours online to find the perfect dresses, used the top floor bathroom to take measurements at lunch one day and then ordered our beautiful custom creations. We scanned page after page of up-do options and had endless talks over steaming bowls of noodles about whether to go with gold or silver accessories. As CLO, I organized make-up tutorials with one of our wonderful community members who was a professional make-up artist, so all of the women could sign up for a personalized rundown of what exactly to do with all those little boxes of cosmetics in their drawers. I also hosted a mani/pedi party each year, where all the women and girls were invited over for an evening of drinks and snacks and full-access to my nail polish collection. Yes, in the giant scheme of things, none of this is important, but it was fun to plan for a nice of playing princess and it was a good way to pass smoggy Chengdu Saturdays and the annual ball created a great excuse for all of the ladies to get together and play dress-up together.

Coming into fall this year, I assumed we would attend the Kuala Lumpur Marine Ball, but without my plotting partner Stephanie, didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the various permutations of gowns and shoes and jewelry. Tickets went on sale the week we were in Kota Kinabalu for Thad’s work, but I didn’t worry about it, figuring we’d pick up tickets the following week when we were back in town. Chengdu’s small ex-pat population meant you could get tickets up until the week before the event. Not so in KL! With a much larger ex-pat community and an embassy three times the size of our previous consulate, this year’s tickets were gone before we even got back to the peninsula! I was bummed when we missed out on the chance to go, but not heartbroken. It just wouldn’t be the same anyway…

But then, out of the blue, a week before the ball, Thad got an email asking if he wanted to buy tickets! He texted me to see what I wanted to do, but I was in class, so didn’t hear about it until I called him at the end of the day. Initially, I begged off, saying we didn’t need to go and to pass them along to someone else. Not one to usually change my mind, I surprised us both when I immediately called him back (stuck sitting in lovely KL traffic, so lots of time to spare) to say that yes, we should get the tickets and go. Why not!? Of course it isn’t going to be the same as last year when it felt like a party with all of our closest Chengdu-ren, but that’s the point to the lifestyle, right? New adventures. New experiences. New sidewalks to explore.

With just a week to prepare, I knew I’d be wearing last year’s dress (heavens, no!) which needed to be dropped at the dry cleaners ASAP. This was also the perfect excuse to go get my highlights redone, something I had been putting off since I haven’t been working and ex-pat salons here are a pretty penny. Before Thad got home from work that afternoon, the dress was at the cleaners, my hair appointments were scheduled (one for color earlier in the week and another for the up-do that day) and I had found a place for him to rent a tux. When I need to, I can move and shake, even in a crazy new country!

No, it wasn’t the same as last year. We didn’t sit at the head table and I didn’t trade plates with the boss’s wife when she liked the look of my dish better. We didn’t dance Gangnam Style with the consul general and we didn’t get photos taken with the best Marines ever. But, we did have the chance to meet eight new people, our fellow tablemates, who were great dinner company. We enjoyed a well-done ceremony celebrating the birth of the Marine Corps and we (okay, I) had a fantastic time checking out the myriad of dresses, all colors and styles, that danced the night away. It wasn’t Chengdu and that is okay. It is Kuala Lumpur, a post we are learning more about each week and a great place to spend Thad’s second State Department tour.

Happy birthday, Marines!

(To see pictures from Marine Ball 2013, click here. To see pictures from Marine Ball 2012, click here. Enjoy!)

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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.

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.