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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