From Zaijian to Aloha and Back Again

I love the idea of having an R&R. It’s brilliant. I work in a stressful job (okay, my job is minimally stressful, on the average day, but my location definitely can bring on the headaches) and as a “reward” for that, I get a plane ticket to either Sydney, Australia or anywhere in the US. Fantastic! (Side note from my previous life: teachers should all get a once-a-year R&R!)

Originally, I thought we’d opt for the koala bear option, but once I discovered how incredibly hard it is to get to hold one of these cuddly little creatures, I was less enamored with the idea.  (Plus, out of KL, we’ll be even closer to the land of the Vegemite sandwich, so we’ll probably make that trek in 2015.And I *will* find a way to hold one. I will.) So, with no need to exclaim, “Crikey, mate!” we set our sights on another land of blue skies and sunshine- the Sandwich islands.

The sunshine I had been dreaming of met us at the airport when we touched down at 8AM, nearly an hour before we took off from Chengdu that morning. (Oh, the magic of international dateline time travel!) I couldn’t wait to see everything the islands had to offer, but within hours my lungs rebelled against the clean air. After flying all night, we checked into the hotel, filled up on a giant plate of IHOP pancakes and then decided to take a nap for a few hours, rejuvenating our batteries after seventeen hours in airports and airplanes. In the space of that two hour nap, I went from healthy and full of energy to having a throat that felt like my pancakes had been made of porcupine. Not a good sign. By the end of the day, I had a full blown cold. I swear it is because my body is so used to a certain level of pollutants that it can no longer function correctly without at least triple PM2.5 digits.

While my cold was bad enough that had I been home, I probably would have called in sick to work for two days in a row, there is no calling in sick on vacation! I had sites to see, stores to hit up and a hair appointment that was not to be broken.

Luckily, we were able to wander around Honolulu for a few days before boarding our cruise ship, so I nursed the worst of the cold on solid ground. (Buying out the clearance rack at Old Navy was some great retail therapy that I am sure boosted the powers of my Target OTC cold medicine.)

Next up: cruise time!

With my purple flower lei draped haphazardly around my shoulders, Thad and I posed for what would be the first in a lovely series of cruise-forced photos. (Each time we got off the ship, there would be someone in a random costume, lining up guests for photos. One day it was a dolphin in a coconut bra, while another day it was a giant, squishy pineapple. These pictures were then developed and for sale on the ship for a mere $12 each. It’s too bad they were so pricey, as Thad and I made ridiculous faces in each and every one. It would have made a fantastic photo album.)

For the next seven days, we cruised the Hawaiian Islands. From snorkeling at Molokini, where I spent an hour following my favorite fish, trading “favorites” each time I found one that was more awesome to watching whales breech and tail slap their way across the bay, our first outing was fantastic.  I have the swimming skills of a house cat, which means I wasn’t able to dive several feet below the surface of the ocean, but Thad said he could hear the songs of the humpback whales that we shared the area with that day.  I did learn that snorkeling with a clinging cold can be a bit, well, gross. Put your entire nasal system inside a tight-fitting plastic mask and then float face down for an hour. Things drain. It just happens. But, I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to float with the fish because of a bit of congestion.  Ick. I know.

The cruise was filled with four-course meals (I had dessert every night!) and nightly shows heavy on the choreography and hits from a handful of decades ago. (Side note: there was a group of deaf vacationers on our cruise who attended these shows each night. I was mesmerized by their interrupter. She rocked out to musical hits through the decades and Polynesian war chants alike.)

Wandering through lava beds at Volcanoes National Park. Kayaking up a river to swim in the pool below a waterfall. Hopping through tide pools to visit sea turtles on Kona. Quietly walking the memorial at Pearl Harbor.

R&R is definitely full of rest and relaxation, but it wouldn’t be a fantastic vacation without days full of activities and adventures. Really, I’m up for just about anything as long it is warm and there is sunshine involved. Blue skies, golden sunshine and a touch of color on my skin- that’s what I needed after an already long winter in Chengdu. (As I write this, our AQI has been over 400 for more than twelve hours. And this is why my lungs didn’t know what to do with fresh air.)

I do have to wonder though, will I want to R&R in Alaska once we move to Malaysia?

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Accidentally Leaning Towards Judgement

Over the years, I’ve learned it is best not to be too judgmental of the decisions others make, as life takes us all in unexpected directions and it is hard to anticipate one’s reaction to a given situation until the waves of change are crashing. There was a time when I would have put money on the fact that I would never have a tattoo. I now have three, and can’t promise a fourth isn’t waiting in the wings. At one point in my life, I would have rambled on about how a bad haircut isn’t that big of a deal; it’s just hair after all. It grows out. Then, I joined Peace Corps, moved to western China and had a hairstylist who swore he had worked on blonde hair before bleach my head a glowing white. I wasn’t nearly as stoic about bad hair decisions as I had thought I would be.

But, over dinner at an outdoor café in Florence, Thad and I pinky swore that on our trip to Pisa the next day, there would be absolutely no “holding the tower up” shots. It’s overdone. It’s not unique. It’s a bit ridiculous.

Apparently, we were the *only* ones who felt this way.

From the time we stepped foot on the piazza that holds the Church of Miracles and the Leaning Tower, we were surrounding by tourists, posing in the infamous “holding the tower up” shot. They lined the walkway leading to the tower. They surrounded the tower, some holding it up and other pushing it over. They even clamored over the chains, bypassing the signs that said “stay off the grass” to get their coveted shot.  And while we weren’t after the in-demand camera angle that was so desired, Thad did have a great time documenting the tourists-turned-architectural bulwarks.

And then came the moment that I swore would never come. I did the shot.

Now, before you chuckle and think me a hypocrite for giggling at everyone else, I must say that my circumstances were very different, not in the least because I am holding the tower up from the *inside.* You see, I have this terrible fear of heights, which only seems to worsen with age. (Is it the knowledge of my own mortality that pushes me farther into the world of acrophobia or merely my own wimpiness gaining ground?)  The Leaning Tower of Pisa is tall (although not as tall as the Duomo in Florence, which I mostly scaled the day before) and once inside, the lean is felt much more prominently than I expected. As we curled up and around the inside walls of the tower, gaining height with each tilting step, my heart raced faster and faster. I quickly skittered by the cell-like windows that occasionally popped up along the wall, not needing a confirmation of my ever-growing distance from the ground below. Finally, we popped out on a platform, where I was happy to know I’d at least reached the pinnacle of my ascent, only to be told to keep moving by the guard, on what is apparently just an external landing, with the top of the tower still being several more flights of steps above.  This last stretch of stairway was tighter than before and now that I had glimpsed the outside world, I was ready to be done. But, with just a few more stairs to go, I couldn’t turn away and head back down, even though the voice in my head was screaming at me to do just that. While I wasn’t quite ready to bail on the whole operation, I was definitely feeling the fear building, so when Thad, who was behind me and yielding the camera, told me to stop and turn for a photo, there was no way I could do that without something to hold on to, but with no handrails in sight, that meant using the wall to steady myself.

Which, as it turns out, looks exactly like I am doing the “hold up the tower” pose!

I’m not! I may have a few tattoos and care about my hair more than I had previously thought, but I did not, I repeat, DID NOT do the “holding up the tower” pose!

So, once again, it appears my jump to judgment betrays me yet another time. I didn’t intend to do it. I swore I wouldn’t do it. In the end, I kinda’ did it.

*Photo credit: Most photos are courtesy of Thad Ross

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Guest Blog– Notes from the Field: Chengdu, China

I’ve been MIA for the last week,  hiding out in Idaho on a little vacation from Sichuan. But, I’ve not been totally unproductive when it comes to blogging.

Last week I submitted a guest blog to The New Diplomat’s Wife.  

Check out a few thoughts on Chengdu at: http://www.thenewdiplomatswife.com/2013/06/notes-from-field-chengdu-china.html

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Idaho vacation time

 

 

I May Become a Real Snorkeler Yet!

Growing up, my house was full of books, magazines and newspapers. I was surrounded by letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters and novels. Every opportunity to be an early reader was presented to me, but did I go for it? Nope. Why not? Because I also came from a house of teachers and I knew what their job was. It was to teach kids, at a school. So, why learn to read on my own when it was the teacher’s job to pass that information along? I figured just like it was Mr. Roger’s job to take me to the crayon and toilet bowl-making factories and it was the mailman’s job to deliver music catalogs filled with buy 8, get one free deals (plus a million of those postage stamp-like stickers of all of the cassette tapes available that I could lick and stick to everything in the house), it was my first grade teacher’s job to teach me to read. With this idea firmly planted in my head, my mom tied my shoes (I was a bit behind the curve on shoe-tying it would seem and Velcro had not yet hit the shoe scene), packed my Tupperware bowl of Lucky Charms in my Sesame Street lunchbox and delivered me to my first day at Van Buren Elementary School. Eight hours later, with straggling shoelaces, a milk-film lined plastic container nestled next to my Big Bird thermos, I walked out the side door of that same building literate. (Okay, literate in a first grade sense.) Yes, it took just one day for me to go from being a non-reader to a reader. Apparently, I had more book sense that I had let on, but I wasn’t going to show it until the teacher had done her job. (Someone give that woman a raise!)

Jump ahead two decades.

After years of half-hearted attempts to learn to drive a manual transmission vehicle, I was in my early twenties and still couldn’t get my husband’s truck out of the driveway if there had been an emergency. Driving the back roads around Marsing, I could eventually jerk the truck into first gear, get it moving and finally find some rhythm as I shifted upwards to normal driving speeds. That was all well and good when it was just some coyotes and pheasants as spectators, but add in even a single other car and my little bit of stick-shift confidence went flying out the window of the stalled pickup. I’d basically given up ever driving a manual vehicle anywhere witness-able by human beings, when, in the market for a new car, I fell in love with one of the new VW Beetles. (I guess that dates me a bit, as the “new” Beetles have since had yet another make-over!) With no skills to speak of, I bought a stick shift car, which I couldn’t drive home the twenty freeway miles to my house. Since we had gone car shopping in Thad’s stick shift truck, he couldn’t take the new car home either. With the pile of car sale papers adding up and my hand cramping from signing and initialing every detail known to man, I made a call to my sister, who drove an automatic, but could drive a manual, to come pick up my new car and deliver it to my house, with me following her in her car. With my shiny black Beetle safely in the driveway of my house, I had forced myself into a situation where I HAD to learn to drive it- for real. The next day, out I headed, across town to the court house for my license and registration, only killing the engine at every stop sign and railroad crossing, embarrassingly waving “so sorry” waves to the line of cars building behind me at each intersection and painfully lurching into parking spaces as I ran my new-car errands. But, by the time Thad got home from work that night, I was a near-master of the stick-shift. (Well, of my car’s stick-shift. It didn’t take me long to discover that his truck, the one I had frustratingly been learning on in fits and starts over the last few years, was one of the most persnickety transmissions I’d ever drive.)

And now jump ahead one more decade.

This last week was the Chinese New Year (happy year of the snake!), which means the Consulate was closed and it was time to get a little sunshine. For years I’ve seen pictures on the internet of huts perched on stilts above gorgeous, clear, blue seas. A little research said that many of these rooms could be found in the Maldives, and a bit more hunting turned up a direct flight from Chengdu to Male, meaning pollution-free skies, equatorial sunshine, silky soft sand beaches and a rainbow of tropical fish were a mere six hours away. There was only one problem with that plan though- I can’t swim. (Okay, two problems, the second being that I am pasty white and genetically am never meant to live anywhere near the Equator, but that is a dilemma for another day…maybe bidding day.)

On a secluded island, fifty miles from the capital city and only reachable by seaplane, snorkeling is one of the top holiday activities. But, as I said, I am no swimmer. Bless their hearts, my parents did their duty in this realm. They enrolled me in summer after summer of Caldwell Recreation’s swim classes at the public pool. With three kids and an always full summer schedule, we were always enrolled in the first course of the summer, starting in early June, and the first classes of the day. While this made sense from a parental-point of view, I have to say that for a reluctant swimmer, facing that early morning, not yet sun-warmed pool was no easy task. But, summer after summer I went to those classes for a few weeks and summer after summer I hated putting my head under the water, I hated jumping off the diving board and I hated flailing around in a pool that I’m pretty sure had more “p” than “ool.” When it was clear I wasn’t making much headway in the skills department, my parents took me to private lessons. This was better, in that it was in the afternoons and in a private backyard pool, and I am sure I made more progress in that summer than I did in my multitude of public sessions, but still, floating is the only water skill I really possess. In case of a water emergency, my plan has always been to float on my back or doggy paddle until help arrives. I think it is a solid plan.

But, when faced with a week-long vacation on the above mentioned tropical island, I figured it was probably time to pull out that stubborn streak that was the impetus behind waiting until day one of first grade to read or purchasing a car I couldn’t actually drive to force me in to learning how to operate a manual transmission. Armed with flippers, goggles and a snorkel and a bungalow with a private staircase leading directly into the sea, it was time to swim.

I would like to claim that I bailed into the water, swam with the fishes (in a good way!) and could now be mistaken for a big white fish, but my first attempt at snorkeling was not quite that smooth. With Thad as my personal lifeguard, I flipper-ed and masked up and painstakingly crawled down to the ocean, step by step. Once I had eased into the water, I clung to the railing like a barnacle, sure I was going to be swept out to sea and never seen again. (All this before my hair was even wet!) Getting comfortable with the lack of touchable bottom, I put my goggled head under the water, only to instantly hyperventilate. While my brain logically knew air was coming through the tube that broke the surface, my lungs freaked out and I was pretty sure I was going to die, while still in barnacle-mode.

Slowly, but surely, over the next hour, I ventured away from my railing, floundering from hut to hut like someone who was raised far from any ocean. (Southern Idaho anyone?) As my confidence grew, we were able to eventually leave behind the security of the railings and head out into the coral, visiting fish in their own homes. It was a bit surreal, being inside the world’s biggest aquarium! As I pulled myself waterlogged and sunburned self back up onto the deck of our bungalow (avoiding the two crabs who lived there all week as well), I wouldn’t claim myself to be a snorkeling champion but I was comfortable and confident and ready to not only see new parts of the reef around our island, but I was already pondering possible snorkeling destinations for our next R&R.

Some may call it stubbornness or pigheadedness, but I’d rather put a positive spin on it and say that once I set my mind to something, I’ll make it happen. That might mean making sure my first grade teacher gets a chance to do her job properly or that I don’t learn to drive a stick-shift until it becomes necessary for the car I want, but once I see the purpose in learning something new, I’m all over it, just like those clingy barnacles!

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Ringing in the Year of the Snake with Far from the Fireworks

All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go.

Thankfully, my bags aren’t filled with the regret and longing of John Denver’s. Rather, my packing list included much lighter items, like three swimsuits (a girl needs choices when she is willingly-marooned on a minuscule island, soaking up sunshine after a dreary Chengdu winter!) and an array of sundresses that haven’t been out of the closet in nearly a year.

Now, as I gingerly type this post with drying nails (hot pink sandal-worthy toes and glittery, UV-activated red polish on my 8/10 fingers), I can almost feel the sunshine soaking into my skin (I’m already prepared for the possibility of nursing a sunburn the following week, but it is a price I am willing to pay), smell the salty breeze wafting off the ocean, taste the fruity, umbrella bedecked drinks and picture the turtles and manta rays swimming beneath my stilted hut.

Maldives, I’m ready for you!

I’ve got new books downloaded to my Nook and several magazines that I stashed away for this occasion while I was home in the States. (I downloaded this year’s Newberry award-winning book, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate a few days ago, meaning to take it with me and read while lounging on my private deck, but made the mistake of starting it last night. Needless to say, I couldn’t put it down and ended up finishing it this morning, before packing commenced. READ IT! I don’t have time to write a review before heading out tomorrow, but this book is beautiful and should be read by all, young and old. Trust me.)

Bathing suits- check. Sundresses-check. Sunscreen-check. Reading materials-check. Now, it is just a matter of watching the clock slowly tick down the next twenty-four hours.

Needless to say, I will be totally (and contentedly) unplugged from the virtual world for the next week, so there will be no blog posts or Facebook updates.  Until then, I leave you with this mental image of my time on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean :

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(I found this picture online last month and saved it. I wish I had had the foresight to take note of the site where I stumbled across it. It is citation-less and this English teacher feels terrible about it!)

 

3 States + 3 Provinces / 12 Days = 0 Moose

The giant glowing ball in the sky is rising later and setting earlier.  The swimming pool is closed. Cardigans are being sported over lightweight blouses.  Sandals are giving way to closed-toe shoes. These are the unmistakable signs that summer is drawing to a close.  What is a temporarily retired teacher to do with her fall when there are no lesson to plan, students to teach,  papers to grade, or sporting events to attend?  While there are an array of possible answers to that question (some better than others!), this temporarily retired teacher chose to go on a New England road trip with her permanently retired parents.

Since Thad is still busy toiling away at the business of learning Chinese (which currently consists of five hours of instructor-led time in the classroom, study time at FSI between courses and then several hours of homework each night) I figured I may as well use the time to see a bit of the Northeast rather than just the high rise apartment buildings that are Crystal City.

After meeting the parental units in Manchester, NH,  (I much prefer my ninety minute puddle-hopper flight to their eight hour air-trek from Idaho) we embarked on a whirlwind tour of three states and three Canadian provinces. There were sights to be seen, attractions to behold, quirkiness to encounter and many, many places to get off the planned track for the day.

One of our first stops included a visit to Lenny, the life-sized chocolate moose found in Scarborough, Maine.  Lenny was the first of innumerable moose we encountered on our trip.  There were chocolate moose, of course, metal moose, stuffed moose, moose heads, moose prints, moose mugs, moose shirts, moose pencils, moose calendars, moose bags and nearly any other moose memorabilia one could ever possibly desire.  From Maine on into Canada, anywhere that had a handful of trees and a marshy area filled its stores with moose-mobilia.  They dotted their roadsides with bright yellow warning signs, designated crossing areas for the giant mammals and erected miles upon miles (or kilometers upon kilometers, depending on which side of the border the madness was on) of moose fences.  Now, like most travelers, I figured that with so much build-up and hype, there had to be a real moose sighting in my future.  I could not have been more wrong!  After seeing both realistic and cartoon pictures of moose plastered on everything from afghans to yo-yos (nope, no “z” items!), I have come to the conclusion that moose are just a figment of the cold, northeastern imagination.

While the moose-lessness of the trip was a disappointment, all was not lost.  Not lost all the time anyway.  There may have been a few navigational mishaps at times.  If a map says to take Route 2, and as the front-seat guide, I see a road that is labeled Route 2, I am going to suggest that we take it.  As Dad followed said route into Halifax, I thought we were on the right track.  The signs said “Route 2 Inbound” so I thought all was good.  And it was, for a bit.  Then, as we continued to follow the signs, it seemed as though we were making too many turns to the left.  How many left turns before we are going back the way we came?  Thinking little of it, I continued to excitedly point out the next sign, keeping us firmly on good ol’ Route 2.  Soon my wonderful signs were reading “Route 2 Outbound.”  Perfect!  That means we have headed through the city are about to emerge on the far side, just as we had planned. The ridiculousness of the whole situation become entirely clear though, when as we drove down a rather narrow street, we recognized not only the Taco Bell/KFC combination store that we had earlier considered stopped at to get lunch, but also the cart-dwelling folks hanging around outside!  Route 2 had taken us on a lovely loop tour of downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia.

After finally escaping the grasp of Route 2, our trip up the coast did garner us some great sightseeing. Peggy’s Cove is a great little stop where the waves crash up over gigantic rocks.  I was a bit concerned by the signs stating that tourists had died by getting too close to the massive waves, but then as I looked around at my fellow visitors, I realized for many of the tour bus groups, sudden heart failure or hip fractures were a more likely cause of concern for their octogenarian clientele.

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Prince Edward Island was a beautiful place to spend a few days.  It has been years since I imagined its landscape through the pages of Anne of Green Gables, but it every bit the storybook setting I had imagined.  Not only was the island filled with verdant fields and idyllic villages, but the white-washed churches each seemed to be made for nothing but beautiful countryside weddings.

Once back in the US, Boston and the surrounding area was our destination.  A visit to Salem was necessary, as The Crucible was read in my classroom on more than one occasion.  I had to laugh at the disparity of what is happening in that town.  The shops and museums all rely heavily on witch-themed tourism, so they give their visitors what they are looking for.  We saw more than one person dressed in full witch-garb, a variety of shops offering palm readings, tarot card readings and aura pictures and every type of mystical medallion possible.  On the other hand, a short walk across the main plaza, sits the National Park Service building, which is doing its utmost to show Salem as more than just the horrors of 1692.  Their entire building is dedicated to the maritime and military history of the town.  It is obvious that the town has a richer past than what it is known for, but try as the Park Service might, it is still the witches that lure in the tourists.

Rounding out our visit to the Northeast, Mom decided that she wanted to take a short jaunt out to Plymouth Rock.  Edward family legend has it that several of our ancestors were on the Mayflower in 1620 when it docked on the shores of what would eventually become Massachusetts. While the Pilgrims’ journey across the Atlantic Ocean lasted sixty-six days and was arduous to say the least, it isn’t much hyperbole to say that our trek to the rock was only slightly less painful.  I have to say that the Pilgrims may have faced unknown dangers at sea, but we faced a similarly difficult challenge- red lights!  After setting the handy-dandy GPS for the famous chunk of stone, we embarked on this one last side trip.  Our downfall was the GPS setting- never go with “shortest distance.”  Our route ended up taking us through small town after small town, each one with terribly timed street lights, meaning we hit nearly every red light from Salem to Plymouth!  Seriously. While we did not have massive waves to contend with nor did we face the possibility of being thrown overboard  and drowned, we did spend many a passing minute wondering if the small towns of Massachusetts had ever considered hiring a city planning engineer.  What we thought would be a quick trip to see Plymouth Rock morphed into a journey of epic proportions that finally required the procurement of several Hostess cupcakes if we were going to complete it successfully.

With our trip time drawing to an end, it was time to make our way back to Manchester, our alpha and omega. Bags were repacked and dirty clothes shoved to the bottom in the hopes that TSA wouldn’t decide to rifle through our carry-ons. How do I sum up a fall vacation that checked twelve days off of the calendar, spanned six states/provinces and ranged from picturesque landscapes of the Canadian countryside to downtown, modern Boston?  Easily.  No moose!