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: Apparently you can buy them for $20. At least I got a good deal as I ate crow.)

elephant pants

Mahout for a Day

Picture this: Me, in over-sized, heavy cotton pajamas (jean blue), hair in two braids, sunglasses perched on the top of my head, barefoot and dirtier than I’ve been since I was probably eight years old. My face is caked in dried mud; my shirt has streaks of dirt running from collar to hem and my pants look like I’ve spent the afternoon riding a large mud-covered animal. But wait. One more detail. Beneath that dried on muck covering my face is a smile that goes from muddy ear to muddy ear. Why so happy about looking like Peanuts’ Pig-Pen? Because I just spent the entire day riding and tending to TJ, a lovely 35-year old elephant who became my pal for the day.

My day started with a 6:30AM alarm, which is normally much too early on a vacation, but it was no problem, as I’d been up for an hour already, lying in bed quietly, trying not to squirm too much as I looked forward to my day as a mahout. As soon as it was not ridiculous to be up and dressed, I hopped down to the restaurant of our adorable boutique hotel, settled nicely within the old city walls, and had some cornflakes, partially because I can’t start my day without breakfast and partially because I needed something to do until our 8AM excursion pickup arrived.

Thai Elephant Home, our destination for the day, is about an hour outside of Chiang Mai. The trip out was fascinating. I always love just driving through new places and I had to giggle to myself as I watched people bundled up in winter coats, beanies and scarves to brave the early morning 55 degree weather that cools the city in January and February. (We loved the weather! It was a perfect break from the constant heat and humidity of Kuala Lumpur.) Upon reaching TEH, we were handled bundles of clothes to change into, knapsacks to take along on the trip and bottles of water to keep us hydrated as we headed into the mountains.

Elephant assignments followed. Thad was given one of the largest, which frankly I was glad went to him. Even my “average” sized critter was enormous once I was mounted. The world looks different from atop an elephant head! I was assigned TJ, who brought up the rear of the line (we were a group of five, so awesomely small!) , which meant she wore a bell that tinkled all the way up the mountain and back down the other side, reminding me a bit of a horse-trek we took in Songpan, China, where the horse bell about drove us all nuts! Luckily, TJ’s bell was quieter and more soothing, plus I liked that it meant someone always knew where we were at!

With TEH, guests don’t ride elephants in baskets or with a trainer. Each visitor gets their own elephant for the day- solo. Of course, there are trainers who go along for safety (we learned command words, but TJ did whatever the heck she wanted and who was I to tell the elephant which way to go?! She knew the route better than I did!) TJ obediently bent down, allowing me to step on her front leg, at which point she stood, shooting me onto her back, and off we went. There was a rope behind me that I could hold onto going down hills, but otherwise, it was bareback all the way.

I have to say, there is no sensation in the world like having your bare feet pushed up against the skin of an elephant. To sit up there and just imagine how much muscle and power is beneath you, knowing that in the end, you have no control, is a few parts terrifying and a few parts exhilarating.

At the top of the mountain, we dismounted and had some lunch (banana leaf for the humans, grass/trees for the elephants) and then it was time to hit the spa. In the US, you’d excpect to pay $100 for a mud-mask and massage day at the spa, but we enjoyed it right out of the mountain with our elephants. TJ loved her mud-bath, getting coated from trunk to tail in a gooey mess, which made remounting her a bit petrifying. I was getting well-versed in her boosting me onto her back, but with both of us packed in slippery slime, I hit her back and kept going! Thank goodness for that one rope, which I clung to with all my might!

At the bottom of the mountain we forded a stream, dropping all sunglasses, cameras and phones on the far bank, and then headed back into the middle of the idle flow for bath time, much needed my animals and humans alike! Rolling off TJ into the river, I had my work cut out for me, trying to clean mud off an elephant! Luckily, she helped by provided extra rinse water from her trunk! It felt like something out of a cartoon, where the elephant serves as a shower.

As we headed back to camp, it had been a long day, which I loved, but I was honestly ready to be off TJ’s back. Horse saddle—soreness is one thing, but imagine that times about three, to factor in the width of an elephant. I was sore- everywhere! We did swing by an elephant drive-thru on the way back to buy sugar cane as a treat for the last kilometer of the journey. I held the bundles on my lap and TJ would lift her trunk up to get one each time she ran out. I only wish I had had more! An elephant can go through a bundle of sugar cane like a fat kid with a bag of Cheetos.

Animal-travel. Fauna-frolicking. Creature-trips.

I don’t know what the best clever name for my favorite kind of travel is, but whenever we are looking at new places to visit, one of the first things I do is figure out what animals are native to there and how I might possibly hold, cuddle, ride or basically fondle (in a good way!) whatever adorableness the country has to offer. Thailand, and specifically Chiang Mai, has a corner on the elephant business, so while we did visit our share of beautiful, gold-leafed temples and wandered night markets until we could no longer see straight, the highlight of my latest trip to Thailand was Thai Elephant Home, the small elephant camp (the camp is small, not the elephants) that allows visitors to be a mahout for a day- riding and tending to their own creature from sun-up until saddle-soreness makes one ready to call it a day.

“The very things that held you down are gonna carry you up and up and up.”
― Timothy Mouse, Dumbo


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Thailand Instead of Turkey

Since we are going to Idaho for Christmas this year and will be surrounded by snow (maybe?!), live Christmas trees, sparkly wrapped packages, peppermint hot chocolate and all of the excitement of the holidays at home, we opted for the non-traditional Thanksgiving celebration.  Last year we had Foreign Service friends from Chengdu and Kuala Lumpur over for a giant turkey (two, actually!), every possible side dish you can imagine and several hours of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Spaces” video on loop (thanks, Tom!), but this year we traded all of that for Friendsgiving in Thailand:  fruity drinks with umbrellas in them rather than turkey, lunch delivered to our beach chairs instead of dinner at a dining room table and snorkeling with the sharks (just one!) instead of pop music on repeat.

I have no complaints about either one.

With friends in town for the month of November, we thought wrapping up their visit with a trip north was the perfect way to celebrate. What’s not to be thankful for with white sandy beaches, clear blue water, inexpensive massages and beautiful pink sunsets?  (Plus, it was one more stamp in their passports, after a whirlwind three countries in four weeks!) Shannon and Joe had already hiked the rain forest in Borneo, wandered miles of pavement in Singapore, visited Batu Caves and all the sites Kuala Lumpur has to offer, dressed up in formal wear for the marine ball and checked out the street art in Penang. There’s no better way to end a first-trip to Southeast Asia than with a bit of tropical paradise.

Possibly the most amazing thing about our Thanksgiving weekend was that we spent three days either on the beach or on boats (or a combination of the two!) and I got absolutely no sunburn! Granted, I did get a weird set of hives, possibly from the hotel shampoo, but that is entirely out of my control. Between one day lounging on the hotel beach, one day snorkeling off a dive boat three hours from shore and spending one day at Hong Island, I barely had a pink tinge to my skin. It’s amazing what a little bit of sunscreen can do for a white girl! (Tan? No way. That is asking too much for this pasty skin.)

On our Air Asia flight Wednesday afternoon, Thad and I were trying to count how any times we’ve been to Thailand and I think we came up with this being our sixth trip there, but even with multiple visits to Bangkok, Phuket and Krabi over the years, last weekend did offer up a new experience- fish pedicures. That’s right- a tank full of tiny fish that eat away the dead skin around your toes and feet. Thad partook of this strange experience when we were in Cambodia with friends a few years ago, but I think I did a little night market shopping while he let his feet be nibbled upon. The idea of purposefully letting something, even a little something, bite me held no appeal.  But, it when Joe wanted to give it a shot (not his first go at the strange experience) I decided now was the time for me to join the club. Everyone’s doing it, right?

How did it go? I don’t think there is any need for words. Watch the video. That is all.

I may not have busted out the turkey platter, gravy boats and autumn table cloth that I obsessed over getting last year, but Thanksgiving 2015 was fantastic and I got the best of both worlds this year: Thanksgiving with best friends on a beach and then a white (??) Christmas with family in Idaho. Happy holidays all around!

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Christmas in Krabi

Weathermen can’t be trusted. (Apologies in advance to all of my loyal readers of the weatherperson persuasion.) As far as I am concerned, weather prediction is right up there with fortune telling and tarot card reading. It is all a guess. Possibly an educated guess, depending on the information being provided, but in the end, the predictor is a teller of tales. Maybe it will rain. Maybe you will marry the billionaire man of your dreams and live on a yacht. Maybe the empress card will be drawn and in nine months you will welcome a new addition to your family. Maybe. On a scale of not possible-probable-likely, these three divinations rank in the same place: possible, but not probable.

This last weekend, we went to Krabi, Thailand to celebrate the long Christmas weekend. (Thank you President Obama for granting all federal workers Friday off!) We got in late on Thursday night, so just had dinner at our hotel restaurant and wandered the grounds to get a feel for our surroundings. (oh yes, and to the family mart to buy the toothpaste that we each thought the other had packed.)

But on Saturday, we were ready to hit the town. Our first stop was the beach, via tuk-tuk, of course. We grabbed a quick lunch at a diner along the way and then wandered down the shoreline. An armada of long boats was leaving the beach as we walked, their colorful flags waving their departure as they headed out with loads of people bound for snorkeling on various islands just beyond sight. Farther up the beach, we found a small cove overrun with macaque monkeys. These being my least favorite of the primates, I kept my distance. No need to get chased into the ocean by an evil little creature on the first day in town. I’ll happily enjoy their partner grooming and fruit-throwing antics from afar.

As the afternoon rain set in, we headed back to the hotel for a bit of downtime, out of the pouring rain and to regroup before heading back to town for dinner and nighttime meandering.

Evening in Krabi is a fantastic time of day. I love it! The sun has set, meaning for the first time all day I am not baking like a toasted cheeser. (Yes, I ended up with a sunburn, but a rather mild one. All said and done, I think I had more pain from the back massage I got than the reddening of my skin, so for a tropical vacation, this counts as a win in my world!) Night is when the shops really get hopping, strings of fairy lights are everywhere and flyers for everything from massages and pedicures to all manner of fashion/variety shows dance on the sidewalk where they’ve been abandoned by hapless passersby.

It was during this evening stroll that I happened upon my new BFF: Jackie. Jackie is a gibbon who, along with his owner, hangs out on the street at night to make a baht or two off tourists. I am just the sucker he is out there for. I will gladly pay 100 baht (just over $3) to hold his fuzzy little self and take a few photos. Much like the Agnes in Despicable Me, when she spots the stuffed unicorn and squeals, “It’s so fluffy, I’m gonna’ die!” I wanted to squeeze his little self until I died. There were definitely thoughts of just sprinting away, Jackie clinging to my neck. I am sure that plan would have worked out well…

On Friday night, we made a plan for Saturday that included packing up one of the backpacks with towels and books and heading to the beach for the day. After walking its length the day before, I was excited to go hang out and do some serious people watching. (Krabi was *amazing* for people watching. I could sit for hours and examine the varied- both in terms of style and quality- tattoos adorning youthful bodies in their late teens to a bit more saggy versions on the senior set. And, apparently, bikinis are no longer just for those with model-like bodies, as I saw women of every shape and size sporting two-piece swimming outfits. Big and small, young and old, bellies all over southern Thailand were soaking of the sun this Christmas holiday.)

But, thanks to the roll of the dice/fortune cookie type predications foretold by, my Saturday plans had to be reworked. You see, clad in my own two-piece bathing suit, I decided to do a quick weather check before we headed out for the day. Knowing it is rainy season, we expected showers at some point in the day, so were just trying to figure out how early we should head to the beach. Well, predicted 95% chance of rainfall starting at 10AM. 95%! That’s not a “maybe” kind of prediction. 95% pretty much means that short of divine intervention, it is going to rain in the 10 o’clock hour. It had the same percentage for 11AM and noon, dropping off to and holding steady at 80% from 1PM until evening.

95% chance of rain means a change in plans.

Rather than set up on the beach, only to be run off by heavy rain, we decided to go for a walk, having lunch at a restaurant on the beach (with umbrellas) and then see where the rest of the day took us. Our morning at the beach was called off.

Did it rain on Saturday?

Nope. Not a single drop. The entire day.

I could have had hours of watching the pasty folks from Eastern Europe turn pink and then red in the glaring sunshine of the tropics. I could have shooed off hawkers trying to get me to put my blonde, lower-back length hair into cornrows that would look about as ridiculous as a cat wearing a party hat. I could have enjoyed a corn on the cob, roasted on the beach.

I could have…

But, I didn’t. I gave in to the Nostradamus-like predictions of and nixed my plans for lounging on the beach. It is my one regret of the weekend. (On the upside, I did run into Jackie again, so took a second opportunity to snuggle the adorable little gibbon!)

Weathermen of the world, you may have foiled me this time, but I’m on to you. From here forward, your predictions of chance shall be left where they belong, on the boardwalks of Coney Island and in the dark parlors of Victorian England. Get thee hence!

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A Different Sort of Vacation

Growing up, vacations and education were synonymous. When we loaded up the car to go on a trip, it wasn’t always about the destination, but the sites along the way, be they historic, the natural wonders of the world or of the museum/zoo/aquarium realm. The one time I remember taking a purely “fun” family vacation to Disneyland and Sea World in southern California; both outings ended with an unnamed sibling, with terrible motion sickness, puking- first at Disneyland, meaning we had to pack it in for the day, even though I had only been on the teacup ride once and then a few days later, after we left Sea World, but all over my brand new dolphin stuffed animal. (Needless to say, that was a short-loved toy, as it was forever tainted with kid-spew in my mind.) Apparently, sticking with educational outings was for the best.

Not only did we always head to places that would allow us to see amazing natural creations (the Redwood Forest, the paleontological digs of Dinosaur National Park and the tide pools of the Oregon Coast, the latter of which I’m still obsessed with, not being able to go anywhere near a good tide pool without a poking stick in hand to prod around in the shallow waters for anemone, starfish, crabs and other fun sea creatures) and just as spectacular man-made ones (the monuments of Washington DC, the Grand Coulee Dam and the LDS temple in Salt Lake City), but the ride itself was ensconced in learning. Before heading out on each trip, we’d make a shorter jaunt to Boise to the “teacher store,” where my parents (both teachers!) often got supplies for their classrooms. With no in-car DVD players to entertain kids on long trips, we went a more bookish (and possibly nerdy) route. Each of us got to choose a workbook from the teacher supply store to work on in the car. The choices were endless: math workbooks, phonics workbooks, reading workbooks, social studies workbooks, science workbooks… You name the subject and there was a grade-level appropriate book to go along with it. I think I mainly steered towards the ones with reading passages and then content and vocabulary questions, not getting within 100 feet of the math section of the store. (Who in their right mind does math on vacation?!) With our shiny new purchases in hand (and maybe a fun new pencil or stamp from the tempting piles near the register), we were ready to head out for locations unknown.

As an adult, most of my vacations have followed this same pattern. (Okay, less workbooks to entertain me along the way, but those have been replaced with the books I read aloud to Thad as he drives- usually something non-fiction, so it really isn’t too far of a stretch from those childhood vacations.) We travel to places where there are new things to see and do, whether it be to the amazing waterfalls at Iguazu to the far reaches of the Chinese territory in Xingjiang to the spectacular Bayon Temple in Siem Reap to the ancient Coliseum in Rome. Vacations are all about new places, new ideas and new cultures.

But, I must admit to having recently (within the last few years) found another type of vacation that I love just as much: the relaxing-do-nothing-vacation. We did not do these as kids. I’d heard tales of them-people going on cruises where they just lounge by the pool and drink fruity concoctions with umbrellas in them or full-service resort vacations with pools and spas and room service. The first entirely do-nothing vacation I ever took was during the long Chengdu winter of 2013 when we booked a charter flight to the Maldives. For a week, we lived in an over-the-water bungalow with private stairs that emptied right into the ocean. Snorkeling was just merely feet from my bed. A sunburn and several banana shakes later, I was hooked.

This last weekend, we took a second one of these relaxing, do-nothing vacations, this time to Phuket Island, Thailand, as a last-chance outing from the ‘Du. We stayed at a great beach side resort (private beach, two pools, a giant balcony off our king-sized-bed room) where we quickly fell into a leisurely routine. I’d get up first and enjoy the early (well, earlier) morning and then once we were both showered and dressed, we’d get some brunch (I was partial to the waffles and ice cream option on the menu!), and then head back to the room to cool off from the gazillion degree heat and 95% humidity for a bit. By late morning, it was time to go swimming, choosing either “round pool” or “square pool” (hey, you have to have a way to tell you pool options apart!) through the middle of the day. Between swimming and lounging, we’d kill the afternoon. Then, after another round of showers, we’d head into town for dinner and a bit of wandering, getting back to the room in time to go to bed and start the whole mellow process again the next day.

These do-nothing vacations will now be a regular part of my holiday routine. They won’t be the end-all, as I still have a whole lot of world to see: safaris in Nairobi, cathedrals in Istanbul (not Constantinople), koalas in Australia, the Taj Mahal in India, pyramids in Peru, and on and on… But, it is nice to occasionally book a weekend of downtime where nothing more than sipping on pineapple juice, finishing a book (or two) and trying to keep the sunburns to a minimum is expected of me.

Although, a workbook or two by the pool does still hold a certain appeal…

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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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