‘Tis the Season?

The halls are decked with boughs of holly and stockings are hung by the fireplace with care, and yet, I can’t quite wrap my head around the season. Is it really Christmastime again? (Okay, really, my million miles of staircases are decked with glittery, plastic garland and my stockings are hung on the bookshelf, but it’s close.) But, how can it be Christmas? I am wearing a sundress and sandals and my hoodie never sees the light of day. The Christmas tree is up, sparkling in the corner of the living room and I’ve put “winter smells” on the Scentsy, all in hopes of making 90 degrees feel like December in Idaho. But, the tiny lizards skittering on the wall behind the tree are a gentle reminder that we aren’t in Kansas (or Idaho) anymore.

So far, with five months under our belts (five months already?!?), Kuala Lumpur has been a great second posting. The city is easy to live in (well, if you don’t count the slightly crazy traffic patterns) where you can find anything- for a price. While I hear people complain of pollution problems, it is a million times better than Chengdu, so another check in the “positive” column for us. Physically, Kuala Lumpur is a much simpler place to get by on a day to day basis than anywhere we lived in China.

But, the thing that really gets to me is not the physical aspects of living here, but the mental- it’s all about the seasons.

As a native Idahoan, I’ve seen my share of chilly winters. When I was a kid, we’d get snow drifts in the backyard that were ripe for tunnel and fort creation and the canyon behind our house was prime sledding real estate. We’d bundle up in our rainbow colored moonboots, dorky earmuffs shaped like fuzzy rodents and uber-puffy coats with mittens on a string and head for the hills. Literally. Years later, as an adult, a similar process would take place at my parents’ cabin in the mountains. Although I was lacking the over-the-top 80s outdoor gear, layers upon layers were easily accumulated and adorned before heading out in search of the perfect place to make inaugural runs down the hillside. (Sometimes, making your own path has its own perils. I’ve got a scar on the small of my back to prove that going top speed down an ungroomed hill isn’t always as fantastic of an idea as it appears when you are standing at the top of the abyss. You never know where a sharp spike of a branch lies hidden just below the surface of the snow…)

I don’t love cold, but I am willing to make the best of it.

The lack of cold was actually one of the huge selling points for me when we looked at KL. Strangely, after twenty-or-so weeks, it is the thing that has been hardest to wrap my head around here. I can understand why people park their cars in the street, blocking traffic (pretty much because, why not? No one does anything to discourage/stop it) and I get why malls are the hottest entertainment around (can you say “automatic air con?).

But no seasons?

How does one mark time? When I look at photos from the last half a year, I’m wearing my Malaysia uniform in all of them- brightly colored, layered tank tops and neutral shorts with a pair of strappy sandals. Was that taken in July? October? December? Who knows!?!? I’d never have a problem picking out the time of year a photo was taken when we were in Idaho, Utah, Washington DC, Chengxian or Chengdu. These places all have seasons!

Eventually, it does start to mess with your mind. Time flows wrong without the passage of seasons. I can look at a calendar and know subjectively that Halloween/a birthday/Thanksgiving/Christmas is upon us, but as soon as I glance away from the calendar, those thoughts flee like cockroaches from Thad’s shoe.

It really is strange.

The best way to remedy thoughts of it not being the holiday season is a quick trip to one of the local malls. Currently, they are all blasting carols throughout their corridors and the bigger the mall, the more massive the Christmas display erected in its center court. (We’re talking several stories high trees, snowman that look like they got make-up advice from the Joker, animatronic elves- each and every one bucktoothed, as if it is a genetic predisposition, and even small Ferris wheel that looks like it belongs to Santa himself.

So, with December and the holidays having sneaked up so stealthily, my one wish for the man in red this year is for post #3 to have seasons. They don’t have to be long or dramatic, but seasons where the temperature fluctuates and my wardrobe requires at least a minimal rotation, maybe a nod to some cute boots or a fashionable scarf and definitely the desire for a cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream on top. I’ve been good this year, I promise, and my list is short. Seasons. Mild ones, even.

Season’s greetings, from the land of no seasons!

 

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A Kuala Lumpur Friendsgiving

My intentions were to never host a Thanksgiving dinner. Ever. But, like all great schemes of rodents and humans, my plans went awry.

You see, being a middle child has many downfalls. I never got the first crack at anything (piercing my ears, getting a Walkman, driving a car) and many of my clothes when I was a child were gently worn before they made it into my dresser drawers. Even in school, I was constantly compared to my older sister, who was just two years ahead of me. But, not being the youngest, I also didn’t get any of the advantages that come with being the last baby of the family. There were many small offenses that my younger brother got away with on a regular basis that wouldn’t have flown for my sister or me, namely fake-claims of torture by his older siblings.

Stuck in the middle. That is me.

Always looking on the bright side though, I have found a way to make my middle ground a productive one. Up until we moved away from Idaho, one of those advantages was never having to do the heavy lifting on the holidays! As soon as Thanksgiving plans were finalized, I annually threw my name into the potluck pot to bring rolls. That’s right. Rolls. Not homemade rolls, but swing-by-the-grocery-store –on-the-way-to-the-meal rolls. In a pinch, I could be counted on to pick up any other last might Albertson’s buys, so it wasn’t as if I weren’t willing to do my share. It is just that my share didn’t involve much time in the kitchen.

The long term plan was to show up every fourth Thursday of November to indulge in my dad’s deliciously home-cooked feast. When that was no longer an option (an idea I can barely contemplate), I figured either my sister would host, as the oldest sibling, of my brother’s wife would throw a spectacular holiday even.t.

Then, two years ago we moved to Chengdu, where I organized a community Thanksgiving dinner for the Americans who were living there with the consulate. This one required a lot more legwork on my part, planning and preparing, but again, nothing in front of a stove or oven. Sticking with my traditional role in the event, I signed up to bring the rolls when I created the potluck papers. With tiny Chengdu ovens, we ordered the turkeys pre-cooked from a local bakery, where I just went ahead and put in my bread order at the same time. Easy peasy.

2014 changed it all. No longer could I just be the roll-gal.

With a combination of friends from Chengdu and new embassy friends here in KL, I went from never taking on a Thanksgiving dinner to hosting for ten. (I know ten isn’t a huge number for a holiday meal, but it was more than a big enough one for my inaugural efforts!) After weeks of preparing and shopping, it was time to make this thing happen. Emails about traditional must-haves had gone back and forth and an awesome turkey tablecloth was on order from Amazon. (Side note: it never came. Sometimes the DPO is unpredictable. I am guessing it will come home with Thad today. Five days too late for this year’s table masterpiece, its debut will be put off indefinitely, as I have no plans to become an annual host of this feast-madness. I hauled Thad to Spotlight with me, where we [by which I mean I] spent nearly an hour debating the pros/cons of tablecloth vs. place mats. I had a new turkey platter (although not nearly as awesome as the one I grew up with), fancy new gravy boats (that ended up being totally non-functional, dripping gravy across the table from one end to the other) and nine chairs ready for seating. (But wait! Ten guests were coming…eeek!)

Luckily, our fantastic guests are much better cooks than I am and threw in to make sure the meal was a success. Along with a massive amount of bird, we had gourmet mac ‘n cheese, sweet potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole, rolls (of course!), mashed potatoes, gravy, tossed salad, and pie. Lots of pie. As dishes went in and out of the oven and off and on the stove, Skype calls were made to locals all over the US, with Thanksgiving wishes extending from KL to families and friends on the other side of the world.

By the end of the meal, we were all ready to loosen our belts a hole or two and stumble our way to the living room for an entertaining evening debating with state would be best to cut loose from the Union and giggling at horrifying maternity announcement photos on Facebook.

I may not have been able to get away with merely showing up, rolls in hand, but this year’s Friends-giving reminded me of how many people I have to be thankful for; those who we were able to spend the day with and those who range from Nairobi to Washington DC to Idaho are all counted among our many blessings.

Happy Thanksgiving! Gobble. Gobble.

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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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Superlatives and Cockroaches

Trying to be calm and collected, I deftly maneuvered around the room, looking over students’ shoulders to see their progress on a foldable activity charting comparative and superlative forms of adjectives. Praising a student for writing “more fun” instead of “funner” and then quickly hopping over to the other table to re-explain that you can’t always just put “-est” on the end of any adjective to make it superlative, I was only 70% focused on my larger lesson. The other 30% of my brain was entirely honed in on tracking the movements of the mid-sized cockroach who had joined our class for the day. Knowing that my students lived in rooms very much like the one we were using as a classroom, cockroaches are a part of their lives on a daily basis and I didn’t want to be the wimpy foreigner who couldn’t handle a couple of oversized antennae wiggling across the floor. But, being barefoot, it was essential that that dang, prehistoric bug didn’t get anywhere near my feet! (Yes, I also have cockroaches in my house, but they are mostly confined to the first floor laundry room, and when I see them, I always squawk like a terrified owl and run for higher ground, hollering at Thad to come destroy the evil that can’t scurry across my floor with impunity. Such a reaction would probably not gain me much respectability in the classroom, so I use every ounce of my willpower to keep my shit together, at least temporarily.)

Some days it is cockroaches and others it is rats. Always there are lizards. The abundant wildlife in my classrooms would lead one to believe that I’ve taken up a new career as a middle school science teacher, but alas, English is still my first love and my new little friends are just an added bonus.

Moving every couple of years means it can be difficult to have a prolonged career trajectory, but we knew that would be the case when Thad joined the State Department. Trading my career for the ability to have a lifestyle that not only settles us in far-flung locations for a few years at a time, but also gives us the chance to travel on a regular basis was not a spur-of-the-moment decision, nor was it an easy one. At the time, I’m not sure I realized just what it meant, employment-wise, to uproot every couple of years, but with a few moves behind us now, I’ve come to see that while there can be a lot of frustration inherent in the process, there is also a level of freedom that would be unachievable if we had stayed as educators in Idaho.

This go-round, unable to find a position at the embassy in KL, I decided to look beyond the official diplomatic community and see what other opportunities existed around the city. It wasn’t long before I stumbled upon the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees, the branch of the UN that deals with helping refugees resettle into safer countries. Malaysia is home to a huge number of refugees, many of them coming out of Burma. These displaced families are here trying to get their documents and paperwork in order so that they can apply for visas to resettle to any number of western countries, including the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Families can be here for years as they get in line for resettlement, which means certain “daily-life” activities need to carry on- schooling being one of them. To facilitate their continued education, the UNHCR supports dozens of refugee schools across the city, where students take daily courses in English, math, science and their local language. After filling out the forms and getting the necessary background checks, I was assigned to a Chin refugee school in the center of the city. The neighborhood is a rundown one and the school is merely a set of rooms in an apartment building, but volunteering there two days a week has quickly taken me back to my days as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

In class, when I am not stealthily dodging cockroaches, we review basic grammar points (like most TOEFL students, there are problem areas that need constant attention) and talk a lot about western culture. Since the ultimate goal of these students’ families is to move to an English-speaking country, we talk a lot about western holidays, mannerisms and classroom behaviors, but there are also a whole lot of pop culture chats. Who knew Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber were so beloved by Chin students from Burma? I’ve learned vast amounts about soccer, as they all have favorite teams and players and most of the boys are horrified at my immense lack of knowledge of anything “football”-related.

When we learned we were headed to Malaysia for our second posting, I was disappointed to find out I wouldn’t be able to teach at the international schools due to visa regulations. (This rule has since changed, but the modifications came about too late for me to apply for positions since international schools hire in January/February of each year and the visa requirements didn’t adapt to fit my needs until late April.) Thinking that I couldn’t teach, I turned my eye to other positions within the embassy community, looking at a couple that seemed to be perfect fits with my background in education and volunteering, but when neither of those worked out, after a few days of wallowing in the misery of rejection, it was back to teaching I found myself, although in a different manner than I had ever imagined. Now, I spend two days a week in small rooms, with just ceiling fans for ventilation and a not-quite-erasable white boards, helping upper elementary and middle school aged kids prepare for a life-changing move, but couching it all in lessons about Thanksgiving and One Direction. It may not be what I had planned for myself for this second State posting, but, as it often turns out, the unplanned experiences are the most rewarding.

(*Note on photos- Because my students are minors and refugees, I did not want to post any pictures of individuals to the internet, as they have fled their home country out of concerns for their safety and security.)

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A Canopy Walk, Hidden in Fine Print

With work beckoning Thad to Kota Kinabalu for the short week of the Columbus Day, we decided to make a trip of it, going early to enjoy the long weekend, before he had to hit the ground running with site visits and American Citizen Services for those living on the Malaysian island. We were last here in the summer of 2009, when we stayed in a hostel just a few blocks from the hotel that provides our lodging this time around. While the accommodations are different, the city is much the same. (Originally, I wrote “drastically different,” but then I realized that it isn’t necessarily *that* different. The hostel we stayed at a few years ago had private rooms with small private bathrooms. The hotel we are at this time around gave us a huge room, but it is mostly unused space. I could easily host a Zumba class with the vast expanses of open area available. But, while the bathroom is larger, the shower leaks, creating a lovely ode to Lake Superior each time we bathe, just going to prove the old adage, “bigger isn’t always better.” To be fair, I didn’t have to schlep a backpack up several flights of stairs on Sunday evening, instead my luggage was delivered to my room by a bellhop and the view is much nicer this time around. It turns out, our current digs might not be “drastically” better, but they are definitely several rungs up the accommodation ladder- maybe even a few coveted stars.)

Thanks to Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas, we had an extra day to play before Thad’s calendar was overwhelmed with a variety of appointments, so we decided to get out of the city for the day and see what Mt. Kinabalu had to offer. Last week, Borneo was lashed with a massive amount of rain, making the windy road up the mountain a bit slower of a route due to several landslides that had recently been cleared, but other than a few bumps and jolts, the ride was enjoyable. We stopped at the base of the mountain for pictures and were regaled with our tour guide’s stories of how there is a race up the mountain each year, the fastest climber having done both the ascent and decent in a mere two hours. (Two hours wouldn’t even be enough for me to get a few kilometers from the trailhead!) As a part of our day-long tour (on which we were the only participants- yay!), we also stopped at a small botanical garden where Bibo (the tour guide) enumerated the various orchids found in the park, which ferns were safe to eat and the story of why he had renamed one tree in the park as “the sexy tree.” (I had a hard time following the whole story, but something to do with the fact it didn’t have bark or had peeling bark, so it looked naked. Needless to say, even without full comprehension, it was an awkward moment in the tour!) After an overwhelming number of flora-related facts, all starting with “For your information…” it was off to the pinnacle of the day’s events- the hot springs.

When we signed up for the tour on Sunday evening, I saw a vague reference to a “canopy walk,” but it was hidden in the fine print of the brochure, not really registering with me as a part of the day’s events. It may be wise, in the future, to pay a bit more attention to those tiny details scribbled at the bottom of schedules. As it turns out, before we could have a go at the hot springs, we had the “opportunity” to enjoy a canopy walk through the treetops of the Borneo rainforest. Even as I type this, it sounds beautiful and relaxing and a pleasurable way to spend a bit of time. How have I forgotten the torture so soon? (It’s the traveler’s version of childbirth. Combinations of strange chemicals override your memory, lessening the horrors of the event so that you will sign up to do it again and again! One propagates the species while the other seems to keep this blog alive!)

To the canopy walk we went.

To get to the tiny walkways in the treetops, we first had to trek our way up the mountainside, which in a rainforest means a rather humid and sticky climb. From here on out, I’d like to blame the sweaty palms, shaky legs and general irritable mood on this ascent, rather than them being symptoms of my irrationally strong dislike of all things high.

The problem with this canopy walk, and I would imagine many such ventures worldwide, is that once you make the initial choice to start through the maze, you are stuck a gazillion meters above the ground with no recourse other than to continue forward. There is no way to step off the course, wave to your friends and promise to meet them at the other end. Start and you must finish.

So, with sweaty palms, shaky legs and a generally irritable demeanor, forward I went. Foot in front of foot, eyes locked on the next platform (slightly more stable, but not exceedingly) and party to a continual running dialog with myself. (This ongoing self-talk was not the uplifting and encouraging pep talk one might imagine, but rather included a slew of words my mother doesn’t know I know and self-chastisement for having gotten myself in a 40-meter-above-the-forest-floor predicament.)

One would think the reward of some time relaxing in the hot springs would be incentive enough to get across those high wire-esque paths, but, again when you travel, you never know what you are going to get. Rather than the highly heated hot spring pools of Idaho (both Givens outside of Marsing and Zimm’s in New Meadows were childhood favorites), these “springs” were a series of small, deep tubs that the bathers filled themselves from slow-release spigots. After about fifteen minutes and enough lukewarm water to cover our shins, we decided we had experienced this strange version of relaxation to our hearts’ content and headed back to the van; I figure I’d just take a hot soak in the tub back at the hotel and get the same experience, but with the bonus of reading material!

Kota Kinabalu (lovingly referred to as KK to Kuala Lumpur’s KL) is a fantastic town on the ocean with a much more chill vibe than KL offers, even on its quietest day . If State ever decides to open a consulate here, I’ll be pushing for a bid in a heartbeat. It has enough western “stuff” going on to feel less alien than many places we’ve traveled, but still retains more of its core personality than does KL, where foreign influence is seen on every corner, both because of historical occupations and the current fervor for all things western.

Even after tricking me into a death-defying walk through the jungle treetops, Kota Kinabalu still earns a top spot in my ever-burgeoning “Things to do in Malaysia” list and will definitely be a destination for future visiting friends.

 

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A Plan Thwarted

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
― Allen Saunders

It’s easy to make plans, but no matter how much work you put into them, sometimes things just don’t turn out the way you had envisioned it. On both big and small levels, this has been the theme of my move to Kuala Lumpur. Coming into our second posting with the Foreign Service, I thought for sure I’d have a job working at the embassy, hopefully in the Public Affairs section, as there were two openings coming available this past summer. I’ve got a strong resume, having worked not only as a teacher for nearly a decade, but as CLO for two solid years in Chengdu, plus I had lined up some fantastic references. But, after two interviews that felt positive and optimistic, and zero calls to my references, I got received two “We regret to inform you…” emails. I guess it is a sign that I should be doing something else. (Blog posts on that “something else” to come soon. Stay tuned!)

But, even on a smaller level, KL seems to thwart plans. After a long week at work (how are the short weeks always the longest?), we had a quiet day around the house on Saturday so that Thad could have a bit of down time, but then decided to venture out of town a day-trip on Sunday. Port Dickson seemed like a good choice for our first road trip in Malaysia, as it is less than two hours away and the closest beach to the capital. I’d done some research online and was excited to visit the ostrich farm they have just outside the town. According to their website, Thad could enjoy a nice ostrich burger for lunch and I could touch an array of animals the attached petting zoo. (Initially I was SUPER excited to go, as the website advertised ostrich rides. I was going to get my Swiss Family Robinson on, but then read a little further and realized that riders had to be under 40 kilograms, which is about 88 pounds. I don’t think I’ve weighed that little since about the 5th grade, so there will be no ostrich riding in my future. Sad!)

With plans for a road trip, some lunch and some animal visiting, plus a stop by the beach, we headed out late Sunday morning. The car had about a quarter of a tank of gas, so we thought we’d get on the road and find a petrol station along the road- they are a dime a dozen around here. (Plus, I knew lots of the ones along the freeways have Dunkin’ Donuts attached, so I may have had an alternative motive in my recommendation to scout one out along the way.)

Through the SMART tunnel we went and we were off. (The SMART tunnel is about three miles long and basically skips all of the downtown traffic, starting from just beyond the US Embassy and popping out at a toll both beyond the masses of the city, all for a mere two ringgit.) Probably fifteen kilometers outside of town, I spotted the coveted gas station/DD, so off we pulled. While I took care of gassing up the car (which really means telling the guy what kind and how much and then going in to pay) Thad went to the ATM to get cash for our little outing. Maybank is the official government bank here, so he opted for that ATM, figuring it would be the safest bet. Wrong! After putting in his card and PIN, the machine spit out a receipt but no cash. The slip of paper informed him that his card was expired (it was not) and that the machine would be keeping it. What?!?

Since Thad has spent the last two years dealing with a variety of fraud as a major portfolio at work, he was instantly on alert. Something was just not right. Within minutes we were back in the car, on the phone with our credit card company, cancelling both his card and mine and making sure that the account was locked down tighter than Fort Knox.

Feeling a bit annoyed with the card situation and lacking much in terms of cash (I had just used a good portion of what we had originally brought to fill up the car), we decided that a road trip out of town may not be the smartest move, so we packed it in and headed back to KL proper.

Big plans. Little plans. You can make them all you want, but in the end, you’ve just got to go with the flow and play it by ear. I may not be spending my days in heels and dress clothes, working to promote the US the way I had hoped I would be here and I definitely did not get to explore the ostrich park this weekend (or even get my coveted Dunkin’ Donuts treat!), but there are bigger and better things on the horizon for my day-to-day schedule and yesterday turned into a lovely afternoon of patio dining and people watching in the city.

In the end, it all works out.

 

It Wouldn’t Be an Adventure without a Bit of Insanity

To survive with any kind of sanity intact when living overseas, it is best to learn right away that you can’t stop the craziness from happening, so flexibility and an ability to laugh at the situation, solve it and move on are necessities. (Luckily, none of these things take up any suitcase weight, so they are easy to haul from city to city, post to post, country to country.)

These traits are not ones that come naturally to many folks, myself included. Having been raised in the same house in southern Idaho for my entire life, I had a pretty set outlook on how the world around me should be. My days had a pattern to them that made sense for a middle class family with fifteen llamas and some room to run. Drop me in the middle of the Dominican Republic at the age of eighteen and suddenly, that box that I knew so well didn’t hold the right tools for day to day life. There was no large lawn that needed to be divided and conquered by the kids, no llama stalls to muck or bales of hay to haul to the feeder and no endless piles of books and newspapers to flip through as I lazed away a Sunday afternoon. (Three kids meant splitting major chores three ways, but I got pretty good, as the middle child, at finding ways to make my portion a bit smaller whenever I could. With the lawn, I quickly learned that taking the middle section and offering to mow first had some major advantages. By mowing first, I could accidently forget to take care of the section we loving called the “grasshopper lawn” and then it suddenly became the job of the sibling with the third that also connected to that part. And by making my end line a few yards in on either side, I could save myself a few passes with the mower, leaving them to the others to clean-up. The stalls were a bit harder to divvy up, but multiple breaks to lean on my pitchfork or always being the wheelbarrow pusher and then taking the long route back saved me a few scoops here and there.)

There I was, eighteen years old and living in a land that was vastly different from anything I had known. I was with a school group, but we each lived with a local family, so I was often on my own and flexibility and spur of the moment problem solving were not really a part of my repertoire at that time. Having been in the country only a few days, it was time to start school at the local university. My host family took me in a cab, but I was too overwhelmed to really focus and keep track of our routing. After a morning of orientation, I was expected to return to my host-home for lunch and the afternoon break. While everyone else seemed to scatter as soon as we were released, I quickly realized I had no idea in which direction I lived. None. And I had no idea what to do. Eventually, one of the counselors for our program must have seen the stricken look on my face and quickly consulted his list of addresses for foreign students and put me in a cab back to my residence, at which point I couldn’t even figure out which floor I lived on. (I’d blame jetlag, but it was only a three-hour time difference. It was more being so far out of my comfort zone that at the time, I didn’t even know where to start in processing this new life.) Luckily, Host Mom was standing on the balcony, yelling “Rubia! Rubia!” Figuring I was the only blonde girl in the entire neighborhood, I followed her directions until I made it home. Talk about learning on the fly!

Luckily, by the time we moved to China with Peace Corps, I had nearly an extra decade under my belt, with more foreign travel and general life experience to guide me. I quickly adapted to the 9AM calls on Saturday morning, telling me to be at the gate in twenty minutes for a department outing to the countryside. (Who needs a shower if you are going to the countryside anyway, right? And personal time?? It doesn’t exist if the danwei leader wants an outing. You just go.) Having course schedules change the night before the new term became routine and learning that all exams must only be marked in red ink or they must be remarked were tidbits that I just stocked away for the next round of classes.

Knowing that there is no way to know how a day is going to go, I shouldn’t have been surprised this week when I went to do a bit of grocery shopping and ended up with a barricade behind my car, at yet, I must admit to a minute of sheer wonder. How did that pole grow organically from the asphalt in the twenty minute I was gone?

Here’s the deal. On my way home from volunteering at a local refugee school (blog post on that to come soon!), I decided to stop at a local grocery store to grab a few items. It was just after lunch and the small parking lot was packed! I drove around the side of the building and found a great spot near the end of the spaces available. Pleased with my parking, I headed in to by some crazily overpriced cheese, some pasta-fixings and a few odds and ends snacks.

I wasn’t in the store more than twenty minutes.

As I did a bit of 4-wheeling with my cart across the parking lot that could play backup to Craters of the Moon, my focus was mostly on keeping my cart going in something resembling a straight line. I didn’t actually look at my car until I was nearly behind it, at which point I spotted the newly arrived pole. I stopped, looked around, double checked that this really was my vehicle (our make/model is super popular amount ex-pats in KL) and once I’d confirmed that yes, this was my SUV, I took another minute to ponder. How had I parked there? Where did the pole come from? And more importantly, what was I going to do?

My first thought was to just pull it out myself. Sure, why couldn’t I, wearing a dress and sandals, just yank that metal pole out of the ground? Needless to say, plan A was a bust. After shoving my groceries in the backseat (there was no way the trunk was lifting with that pole inches away), I went in search of a parking lot attendant. While explaining my situation, the guard looked confused, so I just asked him to walk with me to my car. As we got about halfway down the line of vehicles, he started laughing and said, “Oh, that is *your* car.”

Yes, that is my car!

Without another word, he unwound a giant linked chain, did some magical pushing and pulling on the pole and out it came. As he dragged it across the asphalt, he motioned for me to pull my car out and be on my way. No explanation, no apology. This is just the way it is.

All those years ago in the Dominican Republic (I’d rather not date myself by saying just how long ago it was, but suffice to say, I had no email address, as the internet was nearly non-existent, especially in Santiago and calls from home were horribly expensive long distance, once a month), had I been in a similar situation, I’m pretty sure I would have sat down on the curb, tears in my eyes, waiting for someone to make it better. Luckily, a few handfuls of countries and even more ridiculously random events later, Tuesday’s outing didn’t ruffle a feather.

Heck, it was nearly a VIP parking spot! If only the chain were a red velvet rope…

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