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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Weekending in Kuching- Part 2

Day two!!

On our second day in Kuching, we headed to Bako National Park, a preserve on the edge of the island that can only be reached by boat. (Edward, the all-knowing cabbie, informed us that the idea was that if a road was built, resorts would soon follow so to help maintain the wilderness, it was a boat-only outing.) We hopped into our boat with semi-functional life vests over our shoulders (mine didn’t actually zip closed, but I figured the crocodiles would get me before I drowned, so it didn’t really matter in the long run) and headed out about fifteen minutes across the estuary and ocean to a jetty on a bay at the edge of the national park. We bumped across some pretty impressive swells, each one reminding me that less than six months ago I broke my tailbone- a slight twinge running up my spine as the boat touched down time and time again.

After checking in at the headquarters and being given a map with some crazy highlighting on it, off we headed to our first trail of the day. We wanted to take the trail marked with the white blazes, so were excited to quickly see red and white stripes painted on trees. Figuring the two trails (red and white) followed each other for a bit, up the mountainside we went, being careful not to grab the thorny trees for balance along the way. Up, up, up we went. Sometimes the climbs were man-built stairs and others they were just a matter of scrambling over tree roots, but follow the trail we did. After slipping down a hill and dangling from a tree branch, I found my footing and resumed the trek up the hill. Just as I was hitting the point of being pretty tired and questioning my sanity for having embarked on this outdoor activity, we came to ridge with a beautiful view of the ocean and a sign signaling the end of the trail.

What? The end? This isn’t where my sidewalk trail is supposed to end!

Apparently, the red/white trail is different from either the red or the white trail. We had wandered off in completely the wrong direction of our intended destination, but were rewarded with a view that spanned miles and a trail without a single other human being on it. (I’d suggest more color variety in future blazes! Instead of going red, white, and red and white, why not go with a lovely purple or a vibrant teal?! It would save my legs some burning.)

Time to backtrack and find the illusive white, only white, trail.

Once we were headed the right way, our white trail sightings included a snake across the pathway (not fun!), a spider nearly the size of my fist in a web that was probably five feet across and several macaques having fruit for lunch, husks of which rained down on us as we gawked from below.

And remember how sweaty I said I was at the caves on day one? That was nothing! That was like a walk across Target’s parking lot in May. After hiking in the rainforest for a few hours, I looked like I had stepped right out of a shower. My ponytail was drenched, with water actually dripping off the end of it; my tank tops where wet through and through; and, for the first time ever in my life, I actually had sweat dripping off the tip of my nose! I’ve seen that happen to people in movies and hardcore athletes, but for this rather stationary literature major, it was a new experience.

The best part of the white trail was, after hiking up and down the side of the mountain, we suddenly rounded a corner and there was the ocean: blue skies, sandy beaches, rocky outcroppings full of tide pools and waves rolling in one after another. It was gorgeous! I wasted no time finding a good “poking stick” (for the tide pools, of course) and headed out across the beach to the rocks to see what I could see. My favorite find of the day was the mudskippers. What cool little creatures! (I had no idea what they were as I poked at them. Fish? Reptiles? They could cling to rocks and run on top of waves. What the heck?! I had to send a photo to my nerdy science niece and ask for a full report.)

After fully exploring the beach and tide pools, we figured it was time to head back to HQ for some lunch, but no one was looking forward to retracing the ups and downs of the trail we had just followed. Thad said the ranger told him sometimes boats would occasionally pull into the bay and we could hire one to take us back by water, and sure enough, a guy in a boat was waiting out to sea a bit. Thad signaled to him and in he came, pulling as close to the beach as he could get, but obviously without a jetty, not being able to tie up anywhere. So, off came the shoes and we all did a bit of wading, hoping into the boat from a rather slippery rock. (Only one shoe ended up going for a swim. Not a bad record. 1 out of 8 shoes remained dry.)

The boat ride back included a detour to see a cool rock formation, another beautiful bay (this one has a hiking trail to it, so it is on the list for next time we visit the park, which we will be doing!) and then a second chance at wading in the ocean, this time from boat to shore.

After a quick bite to eat in the cafeteria, I wanted to go in search of bearded pigs. (Lunch would be the very unsuccessful part of the day, as the food looked quite unappealing. It was a small buffet, but the food all looked like it had been on the warmers since breakfast and there wasn’t much there that made me want to dig in, even after a morning of hiking. I opted for a package of cookies and a Coke. Maybe it wasn’t the healthiest lunch, but the sugar rush sure was nice!) When I cleaned up our table (something that seemed to surprise the cafeteria worker), I went and asked where I should go in search of pigs. The man I asked laughed and said they were “random.” Sadly, after an hour of wandering, I came across no random pigs. Something else to add to my “next time” list. There will definitely be a next time! (Shannon and Joe. Josh and Justin. We are going.)

Exhausted, we all boarded the boat back to Kuching (again, life jackets were handed out, but I still figure I’ll be a croc’s lunch before I’ll be rescued) and after some much needed showers and a quick nap, we ended the day with another feast of seafood (I opted for butter chicken and fried noodles) on the top of a parking garage.

Two fantastic days in the capital of Sarawak…but wait, that’s not all! Stay tuned for one more day of Kuching adventuring… next up: orangutans and long houses!

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Weekending in Kuching- Part 1

I have found my new favorite city in Malaysia.

It’s got caves and bats. There are steep rainforest hikes and huge amounts of cheap seafood. None of these things I care for in particular, but put them all together and through some kind of crazy adventure-math, it adds up to a fantastic city of outdoor fun.

Loyal readers will know I am less than sporty. As a matter of fact, I am the polar opposite of sporty. I have the amazing ability to be on the DL for injuries as wide ranging as bowlers’ elbow and Wii-exhaustion. As the internet informed me today, “my idea of roughing it is reading my book in an uncomfortable chair.” True. (I didn’t exactly know how to quote an internet poster I stumbled across on a pic dump site. Does one need to use quotes? Sadly, there were no references in my 7th edition MLA Handbook to point me in the right direction. Again, bookish. Not sporty.)

But Kuching, an all-around outdoors-y town is now the top of my Malaysia list.

The first full day we were in town, we decided to check out some local caves, with the help of a storytelling taxi driver named Edward. Edward, as far as we could tell, is a kingpin in the region. While we were with him, he got several calls trying to persuade him to be the director of the taxi driver association and he was summoned to his village for a meeting about building a long house in hopes of encouraging tourism to their part of the island. He’s in search of a gong for said longhouse and can retell the history of the island, from the original tribes to the white rajas to today’s present day politics in which Kuching has two mayors, splitting the town in half but creating a healthy competition that keeps it clean and safe. He’s got a lot of pans in the fire. Edward has info and he’ll share it with you, doling it out as appropriate. (Sorry, no orangutan stories on Saturday since those are for Monday morning on the way to the reserve. Patience, my friends. Let’s talk about coconuts and crocodiles instead.)

Edward took us to two caves: Fairy Cave and Windy Cave. Neither was appropriately named. Fairy Cave, while gorgeous, had neither fairies nor anything resembling them, but it did have beautiful cliff faces covered in moss and ivy and a natural skylight from which streamed mote-filled light. At times, we were the only people in the entire cave. It was amazing! (It was also a bit death defying, when it came to climbing down the narrow staircase, in the dark, under a low overhang, to get back out of the cave after our explorations.) And Windy Cave was not so windy. It should have been called Batty Cave. I’ve honestly never seen so many bats in one place in my life. Hundreds. Thousands. Maybe even hundreds of thousands. When we walked into the cavern entrance, it was the pitch blackness that struck first, but rather the sound: high-pitched squeaks- everywhere. It was incredibly loud as the little critters used their echolocation to find their way around the kilometer long cave. With flashlights (torches, in local parlance) in hand, we ventured forth, avoiding piles of guano on the walkway and making sure to keep our mouths closed when we looked up. There were big bats, medium bats and baby bats. It was a regular Goldilocks story in there!  (That sound you hear in the video? BATS!)

Oh, and it was a wee bit sweaty as well. Imagine heat, humidity and an enclosed space. And the thing is, I’m not a sweaty person. Or at least, I didn’t think I was. But after climbing the stairs to the entrance of Fairy Cave, which sits halfway up a mountainside and then going in to discover much more climbing in my future, it was more than glistening going on. Then, Windy Cave had less wind than its name would imply, creating a rather stifling environment, great for creatures of the night, but not as conducive to this girl from the desert of southern Idaho. The advantage to my double-layered tank tops for the day was the inside one could soak up the sweat while I used the outside one to wipe my forehead.

It may not be pretty, but all the dripping was worth the sights.

On the way back to town, Edward informed us we should eat dinner at TopSpot, a huge outdoor hawker stall arena set up on the top of a parking garage. It may not sound glamorous, but it was actually a pretty cool venue and Thad ate his weight in seafood, which means it was a win for him! Dinner and icy cold pineapple juice under the warm Malaysian sky was a pretty perfect end to our first day in Kuching.

Stay tuned for day two, in which I (remember: non-athletic, pretty wimpy and definitely not outdoorsy me- hiking in a humid rainforest where half of the living things want to kill you) go hiking in a rainforest..

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