More Mobius Strip than Line Segment

Often, life is depicted as a horizontal line, starting at birth and proceeding on a linear course. History teachers love timelines, as they lay out events in an easily understandable chronological order. Epic battles are waged, empires rise and fall, great men and women leave their various marks, science and technology march forward and the knowledge of the world expands while the physical distance seems to shrink, all on these straight edges. (In school, I loved color coding my timelines. Pink could represent births and deaths, purple could be starts and ends to wars, green could mark social milestones, etc. History, while so cruel at times, can be so pretty!)

And yet, the older I get, the more time seems to fold back on itself, rather than running along smoothly from point A to point B. These folds tend to be minor, yet they pop up again and again. (Imagine them to be the crow’s feet around the eyes of the cosmic world. Inconsequential, but here to stay.)

For example, I remember sitting in my 8th grade geography class, wondering why Mr. Shake thought we needed to know the countries and capitals of the world. We’re from Idaho, after all! As we studied each region, we were given a quiz over those political designations; I hated studying for those tests. As a thirteen year old, I thought it was utter rubbish. I recall having a particularly difficult time on the “Americas” unit test. Yes, there are some freebies in there- Guatemala City is the capital of Guatemala, Panama City is the capital of Panama and Belize City is the capital of Belize. (Or so it was! When I wanted to push for a Caribbean post as being high on Thad’s most recent Foreign Service bid list this spring, I quickly realized Belize up and moved their capital to Belmopan.  That’ll throw a monkey wrench in the globe-makers plans!) But not all of those Latin and South American countries make it so easy on 8th graders. For the life of me, I could not keep Haiti and the Dominican Republic straight. How was I to know which got the tiny part of the island and which took the lion’s share of land? And their capitals? I still remember memorizing that by knowing the Dominican Republic matched is capital- both having two words, leaving Haiti and Port-a-Prince as the “other.”


Jump ahead six years to my sophomore year of college and suddenly, there is no doubt in my mind which part of Hispaniola was Spanish-speaking and which went the French route. Why? Because I was boarding a plane to spend winter semester in the Spanish-speaking half of what seemed like the other side of the world to my junior high self. Suddenly, Mr. Shake’s geography class wasn’t a bunch of busy work! (Although, much like with my color-coded timelines, I also enjoyed coloring the maps we created for each region of the world. The hardest part was that no two touching countries could be the same color, meaning he wanted us to stick with basic [read: boring] color choices- red, green, yellow, orange, etc.  Really though, I wanted to do all of Africa in various shades of pink and purple- maroon, raspberry, grape, violet, orchid, magenta. I could easily come up with enough hues to fill in all fifty-four nations without ever having two of the same shade touch. But no. Primary and secondary colors it was.)


And then there was sixth grade. (I’ve debated back and forth in my head for a week now about whether this was sixth or seventh grade. I really can’t decide!) I joined an after school team called OMSI that would enter the spring competition in northern Idaho. I know there were different sections, possibly some math and science related options, but I quickly signed up for the humanities-based project, as even then letters always made me happier than numbers. Our project for the competition was to write and act out a play about the final days of Pompeii. I am sure there were very specific rules about timing and major points that had to be touched upon, but decades (what?! really!?) later, those escape me. What I do remember is donning a bed sheet-toga and a head of perfectly curled spiral ringlets. That year, I read every book in the Wilson Middle School library about Pompeii and volcanoes and Greek history. I was obsessed with those photos that show the casts made by bodies buried in ash as people fled to the sea.


Now, a few more years down the road (it’s best not to give an actual count this far out!), I’m about to experience another cosmic crow’s feet event. Yesterday, Thad booked plane tickets for our anniversary trip- to Italy and Greece! We’ll be spending just under two weeks touring Rome, the Vatican, Florence and Athens. And of course, no inaugural trip to the Boot would be complete without spending a day wandering the ruins of Pompeii. (I’m guessing bed sheet togas and heavily hair-sprayed ringlets are discouraged.)


Straight lines are easy to draw and give a good glimpse into a given era, but in reality, life is more Mobius strip than line segment.




Flat Hailey Writes Home

Flat Stanley-if you aren’t familiar with this two-dimensional world traveler, grab your car keys and head straight for the nearest bookstore! He may be paper thin, but he’s been all over the globe and back, teaching kids about geography and culture and hopefully inspiring the next generation of backpackers, Peace Corps Volunteers and Foreign Service Officers.

When I was last home in Idaho, a friend gave me her daughter Hailey’s version of Flat Stanley- Flat Hailey. Flat Hailey is a world traveler in her own right and needed to add a few more country stamps to her passport. So, with that in mind, I slipped Flat Hailey into my carry-on luggage and brought her to China for a few months of adventure. Flat Hailey has now been slipped back into an envelope and is headed back to Idaho this week, but below is the letter she wrote to Real Hailey about her adventures, along with some pictures of her journey.



Dear Hailey,

Thank you for sending me to Asia this winter. It gets very cold in Idaho and I was happy to go somewhere a little warmer for a few months. As much as I like the snow, you have had much too cold of a winter for me. After all, I am only wearing a dress- not exactly a good outfit choice for winter in Idaho. As you know, I love to travel and see new things and in the last few months, I have done a lot of that! Thanks for sending me on a new adventure.

When I left you in late January, I stowed away in Michelle’s carry-on baggage. I have to say, the ride to China was a long one, but luckily, she had lots of fruit snacks and granola bars stashed in her bag, so at least I didn’t get hungry. (I wonder if she noticed all the extra empty wrappers when she cleaned out her bag.)

Upon touching down in China, I was surprised by how many people there are in Chengdu. This place is packed! The city has more than seven million residents, who all seem to be going somewhere all of the time. When I was out exploring, I almost got ran over by a scooter once or twice. Luckily, I quickly learned to look both ways and then both ways again before crossing any street- even at the crosswalk.

For a few days, I went to work at the US Consulate. Sorry there are no pictures of that! I had to lock up my camera each time I visited. But, it was fun to see all of the Chinese people who were hoping to come to America and have their own adventures. I wonder if any of them have “flat” friends.

The number one thing on my list of places to visit in Chengdu was the pandas, and boy did I get to go see them. It was awesome! I went with my new friend Kaiya. Kaiya’s mom and dad work at the US Consulate in Chengdu and she goes to school here. She is four years old and pretty shy, but we had a really good day hanging out together. The little pandas are cute and cuddly, rolling all over and playing, just like kids and puppies do. I really wanted to run up and hug one of them. Maybe next time… The older pandas are pretty lazy. They did not do much while I was visiting. I think most of their days are spent lazing around, eating bamboo and taking naps. Hmmm, now that I think about it, those pandas have a pretty good life! (Although, rather than bamboo, maybe I’d want to eat cupcakes all day.)

In China, I also went to a history museum. At the museum, I learned a lot about how Chinese women used to have their feet wrapped up very tightly to make them tiny. This was called “foot binding.” The many different shoes were very small, but the sewing on them was beautiful. There was a purple pair that I especially liked. I also learned more about the earthquake that happened in China in 2008. I got to meet a pig who survived being buried under rubble for six weeks. Because he didn’t have food to eat when he was trapped, he ate coal. I think that would be a terrible dinner! Again, cupcakes would be much tastier! Now he lives at the museum and is very fat. The museum must feed him anything he wants because he is gigantic.

Chinese New Year also happened while I was visiting Sichuan. Instead of celebrating the arrival of the New Year on January 1st like we do in the United States, the Chinese celebrated it in February. This year is the year of the snake! To ring in the New Year, the whole city lit up with fireworks. I have never seen anything like it, not even on the 4th of July in America!

I didn’t spend my whole three months of traveling just in China though. During the Chinese New Year holiday (they take a week off of work), I flew to the Maldives, which is a country made up of tiny islands in the Indian Ocean. It was beautiful!  You know how much I like sunshine and this was the perfect vacation from my Chinese travels. I got to stay in a hut over the water where I could watch fish all day long!  I spent some of my time snorkeling, seeing puffer fish, rainbow fish, trumpet fish, starfish, sharks and so many more things I can’t list them all. Each day when I got back from swimming, I hung on the clothes line with the bathing suits so I could dry out before dinner.  I also spent time relaxing in the sun, getting a bit of a tan (and maybe a little sunburn too) as I sprawled out on a chair and read lots of books. I’m particularly partial to the Flat Stanley series. I think we have a lot in common.

It has been a very good few months of traveling, but now I am super excited to be home and share all of my photographs with you, Hailey.  Thank you for letting me go on such a great adventure. I can’t wait to find out where you will take me next! I am emailing you this letter now, as I am going to hop into an envelope and start my journey home tomorrow. It will probably take me two or three weeks to make it back to your house, but I can’t wait to see you again. Look for me in your mailbox!


Flat Hailey

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Geography Woes

We’ve all got regrets from our years in middle school and junior high, some of which most of us would probably rather not delve in to, especially in the realm of the clothes we were convinced were “cool.” (Think: Hypercolor shirts, overalls, big bangs, pegged baggy jeans,…oh, the list could go on…) But, as my search for the end of the sidewalk has taken me down paths I never could have imagined when I was wandering the halls of Jefferson Junior High, I couldn’t have foreseen that a bit more effort in Mr. Shake’s geography class would have come in handy.

I dreaded those frequent map quizzes, with just the outlines of countries and mocking stars of capitals. At the time, did I think I would ever need to know the difference between Haiti and the Dominican Republic? (I finally got those straight in my thirteen year old mind by remembering that Haiti is the shorter word, so it gets the smaller part of the island. That is some quality logic! That information became key when I moved to the island of Hispaniola to study abroad during college. With the big and little of it in mind, I was able to safely find myself on the correct side of the island. Most of the time.) Or did I need to know where the Yellow River was in China? (When that is the determining factor for heat in your apartment, you soon figure it out!)

At the time, Bangkok was one of the cities that actually stood out to me when the maps of Southeast Asia were handed out, not because I had any great interest in Thailand, and not even because it sounds like it was named by a prepubescent boy, but because it held the exotic appeal of hard men being humbled and tough men tumbling and references to people and places and events I didn’t understand, but backed by haunting music that clung to my mind like pearls to an oyster.

A score and a few years later, I found myself back in that sweltering city, not for anything as exotic as a global chess tournament, but rather for training with the State Department for my first non-teaching job in over a decade.

I may have sat in a hotel conference room for forty (or more!) hours that week, learning a massive amount about the eight portfolios that make up my position, which was well-worth the trip, but the minute we were released at the end of each day, I was ready to go see the city.  Within moments of being dismissed for the afternoon, I was in our (very posh!) hotel room, stripping off the layers of clothing necessary to keep warm in any conference room around the world (never mind that it was a balmy 90 degrees outside), shucking the tights, corduroy skirt  and cardigan for shorts, a tank top and sandals.

One night, we had the chance to meet up with our fellow ex-Crystal City Oakwood mo-partment mates, David and Ian, who were in town for a brief layover before heading south to the lovely beaches of Phuket. (See, I’m telling you, an entire country named by pre-pubescent boys. Wait until you see the picture of Thad at the Mo Chit Skytrain stop.)

We met up at Cabbages and Condoms, a great restaurant that started as a small NGO, and has blossomed into several locations within Thailand. Other than serving good food and fun, fruity drinks, their shtick is that all of their proceeds to go AIDS prevention and family planning education- both very worthy causes.  While we waited for David and Ian to arrive, we perused the shop filled with all things condom.  I decided against sending the postcards home to my elementary-aged nieces and nephews, but did end up buying both a shoulder bag and a scarf for myself. (Both of which I could have bought at the weekend market for a lower price, but I figured it was a good way to help the cause.) Rather than mints coming with the bill as a parting gift, we were each given a lovely, pink-wrapped condom as our take-away for the night. They have a theme and boy, do they stick with it!

As I think back to that second-floor classroom on 10th Street in Caldwell, the one in which I dreaded the day the atlases and colored pencils were handed out, the one in which I felt like nothing we were doing would ever have any consequence in my own life, I have to laugh. More than any other class (okay, other than English, but I have a natural bias there), geography is the hallmark of the Foreign Service. Capital city names roll of the tips of tongues like poetry off the lips of a bard. Who doesn’t need to know where Dhaka and Djibouti are? Or Dakar and Dushanbe? And if you don’t know them, it doesn’t take long to not only place them on a map, but learn their current state of political affairs and exactly how long it takes to fly from said city to home in the States. These are the places where you find that middle ground between despair and ecstasy. These are the places that will be home.

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