(20)16 Going on (20)17

2016 is now officially in the books, which means it is time for a quick round up of the last 365 days. While not a perfect year (is such a thing possible?), this last rotation around the sun was an overall good one for this blogger and In Search of the End of the Sidewalk.  The blog had nearly 9000 views from over 4,000 unique visitors, a number that isn’t terrible, but that I’d love to increase in 2017, so be sure to share the address with your friends -especially the bookish/travel-y ones! (Click here to link to the Facebook page so you never miss a post!)

It has been a year of transition at In Search of the End of the Sidewalk as I’ve focused more time on book blogging with the new “Card Catalog Reviews” that come out on Mondays and Fridays and a bit less on the travel blogging, as being DC-based has cut down on the international travel in the last six months. (With a that said, 2017 is starting off right with a trip to Mexico in January, South Africa in February and then plans are in the works for more adventures mid-summer. Travel blogging is not dead, just not a weekly feature.) I’m hoping to pair with some libraries in the coming year to expand readership of In Search of the End of the Sidewalk and also, hopefully help local libraries encourage reading and book discussions. (I’ve already spoken with three libraries in Idaho –Marsing, Homedale and Caldwell – and hope to partner with even more in the near future!)

All of that is to say, 2016 was a great year in the blogosphere and I’m looking forward to more posts, more readers and more comments in the New Year! To kick things off right, here is a *very* brief recap of last year in both travel and reading. Click on each to link to the original post.

Travel highlights:

Ringing in Chinese New Year in Perth

3 weeks in Ho Chi Minh City (and here, and here, and here.)

Caving adventures in Miri  (and here)

Summertime in Idaho

Revisiting all Washington DC has to offer

Best Fiction:

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Best non-fiction

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones

A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back by Kevin Hazzard

 

Worst reads of the year:

The Ten Best Days of My Life by Adena Halpern

The Last Girl by Joe Hart

The City at 3PM: Writing, Reading and Traveling by Peter Lasalle

Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South  by Beth Macy

Wild by Nature: One Woman, One Trek, One Thousand Nights by Sarah Marquis

Unfinished business from 2016 (AKA: To be read in early 2017!):

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

 

Goodbye Ho Chi Minh City

As my three weeks of TDY (temporary duty, meaning I am still working for State, but at a different post/different country) come to a close in Ho Chi Minh City, I’ve discovered something about myself as a solo-traveler. Yes, I want to see all of the main sights and yes, I will pay to go to the top of a tall building to look out over the city. Yes, I will wander around the museum and try to make sense of awkwardly worded plaques and yes, I will get a little lost in my wanderings as long as I have a card for the hotel to hop in a cab in case I get really lost. I enjoy all of these things and have spent several afternoons and weekends doing all of it in and around HCMC, but one of my favorite pastimes here, on my own, has been finding a great spot to pull out my book and waste away an hour or two reading/people watching. (Is it really wasting? ? Probably not.)

When Thad and I travel together, we are on the move constantly, exploring new places and enjoying the trip together. With your favorite travel-buddy along, there is always something to chat about- whether it is what you saw earlier in the day or what is in the plans for tomorrow’s seeing. Solo though, those conversations all stay in my head (well, mostly- I have been known to talk to myself occasionally, but it is usually while I am on the move, sorting out directions or plans). Instead, I used my downtime from touring to relax in the shade with a book and a cool drink, sometimes on a park bench and others at a café.  (On the same theme, I also sent out spades of postcards as I enjoyed my strawberry smoothies, and sunshine, so for those in the loop, be on the lookout in about a month! I’m guessing that with the local post, that timeline isn’t too much of stretch.)

It was not a bad way to spend a few weeks.

Of course, I still prefer to travel as a couple. We’ve got almost eighteen years of co-traveling under our belts, so we’re pretty good at the divide and conquer aspects of adventure, but when that isn’t in the cards, I apparently do quite well just me, a book and a view.

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A Little Foreign Service Where’s Waldo

I think it is has come up before, but a major advantage to working for the US State Department in foreign postings is that we get to enjoy both US federal holidays as well as local holidays. (Of course, there is a number of days cutoff, otherwise some embassies/consulates would be on vacation all of the time!) My TDY to Ho Chi Minh City happened to fall at just the perfect time, as Kuala Lumpur had no holidays over that three week period, but Vietnam had one long weekend, right in the middle of my stay, so while my dear friends/colleagues in KL were fingerprinting and interviewing and collecting DNA and the million other things that happen in our section each day, I went on vacation to Hoi An.

The other bit of luck that came my way over the weekend was that Thad’s friends were in town from Idaho and he had taken time off work to hang out with them, so the whole crew flew up to Da Nang, where we are able to meet up and travel together for a few days.

Our outdated guidebook (Lonely Planet 2008, but we figured somethings never change!) pointed us towards Hue for a day, a suggestion we gladly took.  About two and a half hours outside of Da Nang, the Hue boasts the ruins/reconstruction of a citadel that were the perfect place to kick off our long weekend.  We wandered for hours, following a few unspoken rules:

1)      If an area is crowded by a tour group, quickly retreat

2)      If there are stairs, take them and see where they lead

3)      If there is an awesome, cool doorway, wander in to see what it offers.

4)      If there is shade, explore the area more thoroughly

5)      If there is no shade, walk briskly; Don’t stop moving to read the plaques- just get to the shade!

(Rule three meant that I was the only one out of the group who did not walk in on random old Vietnamese dude eating noodles in his underwear. Rules four and five were necessary as Saturday turned out to be 100 degrees, which my handy-dandy weather app told me carried a heat index of 117. As a whole, we are a pretty pasty group and were sweating in pretty much every place we could sweat. [I swear my eyes were sweating!] Avoiding direct sunlight was crucial.)

Lunch was another small adventure. Our driver dropped us off at a little shop that had only one offering. Noodles. There were no noodle options. No menu. I held up four fingers and soon four steaming bowls of noodles arrived at the table. They had a bit of spice to them, but were not anything I wouldn’t order again. The others as the table added a bit more spice to theirs, Josh and I shoveled our fatty meat pieces into Thad’s bowl and as a whole, we made quick work of those bowls. (There were also some other random foods wrapped in banana leaves deposited on the table. Justin took full advantage of the chance to try a bit of each.  That is a level of eating bravery I will never reach. One was never identified as either animal or plant-based…who knows…)

Saturday was long and hot, so we all opted for a quieter, cooler Sunday.

Hoi An sits on a river and we instantly knew the day must include a boat in some form or fashion. It turned out to be surprisingly easy to hire a boat for two hours, getting a private tour of the river and a few surrounding villages. (Tour might not be the right word, as our boat driver spoke nothing but Vietnamese and I was the most fluent one in the boat, with an ever-expanding vocabulary that includes such phrases as “left hand,” “right hand,” “good morning” and “thank you.” None of those were going to do us much good unless we needed to make a quick veer to the right or left.)  Nevertheless, we made ourselves at home on our boat (I do believe I was the only one who kept my shoes on!) and enjoyed floating up and around, watching fisherman, working boats and other tourists doing their thing.

How does one follow up something as strenuous as a boat ride? With nothing less than wandering the streets of Hoi An’s old town, checking out the shops and making multiple café stops for Vietnamese iced coffee, smoothies, lime juices and snacks, followed by massages and dinner. Being a tourist is rough!

But, as with all great things, the long weekend quickly came to an end and as a crew, we had to part ways. I headed back to HCMC to finish up my last week of work in the city and Thad, Josh and Justin headed back to Kuala Lumpur in preparation for another week’s travel in the region (Brunei, Borneo and Singapore were on the list). Being able to hop from place to place is a fantastic perk of the Foreign Service lifestyle and one that I am going to miss when we are in Washington DC next year. (It is possible, but much more difficult and expensive from the States. No Air Asia service…)

When you are on vacation in Da Nang from your TDY in Ho Chi Minh City from your posting in Kuala Lumpur from your home in Idaho…

It is a bit of Where’s Waldo for adults.

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(Photo credit: Thad Ross)

Saigon Zoo, Go Ahead and Skip It!

If you’ve read more than about three entries on this blog, you are well aware that much of my travel revolves around the ability to go see (and more importantly, touch) *all* the animals. Being based in Southeast Asia has given me some fantastic animal-touching opportunities: snuggling a koala, being a mahout for a day, illicitly touching a panda bear, etc. (Click the links for a quick jump to each of those animal-rific tales. They will open in a new window, so no need to worry about losing this one.) If the chance is there, I’m going to take it! With that in mind and with three weeks of being a solo-traveler in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the first things I did was take the chance to go visit the city zoo.

Now, zoos are not my favorite way to see animals, as I much prefer to get even closer and more personal with the critters, but I’ve been to some fantastic animal reserves/parks, which are just fancier names for zoos, but also usually with a bit more forward-thinking take on keeping wild animals. The animal-area in HCMC is called a “zoo,” but that didn’t put me off in the least. San Diego calls their animal park a zoo and it is amazingly well done, creature-centric and education focused.

So, one day last week, I skittered out of work as soon as I could, made the quick dash to my temporary apartment (a mere one block from the consulate- what a commute!) and changed into a sundress and headed out the door, all in the span of about ten minutes. My  CLO-provided map (thanks , HCMC CLO office!) said that the zoo was a convenient fifteen minute walk, so after a brief consultation with the front desk to make sure I was headed in the right direction (Vietnamese street names all still look the same to me- I have not gotten to a higher level of language understanding yet!) and a book and a bottle of water in my bag, out I went.

The map did not lie about the distance, but I may have slightly overestimated the convenience factor, mainly because I had to cross several large streets and at this early point in my HCMC tenure I had not yet grasped the finer points of local traffic patterns. (A week and a half in, I can report that I’ve gotten pretty good at playing Vietnamese “Frogger” and can weave my way across six lanes of traffic without missing a step.) Arriving in one piece at the front gate, I was a bit taken aback by the general appearance of the entrance to the zoo; rundown is a sliggt understatement. Rather than reading “zoo,” the welcome had more of a “so-creepy-you-might-die-inside-park” vibes. But whatever. I braved the traffic to get there, I was going to see what it had to offer, so I quickly offered up my two dollar entry fee and headed on in.

Saigon Zoo (the official name) is comprised of two main parts: the animals and the botanical gardens. One of these was well-worth my $2 and the other was not.

I’ve seen a zoo or two in my time, but this one ranks as one of the worst. There was a strange array of animals, everything from reptiles galore to sadly swaying elephants. The most abundant caged animal was deer- there was a huge dirt area dedicated to a herd of probably fifty critters. (The “caged” designation is key, as other than the deer, the second most ubiquitous animal at the zoo was rats. I saw enough free-range rats to last me for the next few weeks. ) The best exhibit was the sea otters, mostly because they were actually active and seemed halfway happy. They had just been fed a bucket of fish heads (where were the bodies?) and were skittering around from pond to pond eating their seafood-inspired lunches.

But, putting aside the deplorable menagerie and wandering  a few meters away , I found a decent  botanical garden. It was really more of a nice park that a botanical garden (no labels on flora, nothing seemingly in any order), but I’ll stick with their nomenclature on this one. Toss the poor city parks group a proverbial bone! The park was nice. It was filled with benches, a fountain and several smaller parks-within-a-park. It will come as no surprise that my favorite part of the botanical park was the two huge cranes who wandered by the bench where I had settled in with the book I brought along, in hopes of a peaceful evening. (HCMC is *loud,* so any bit of quiet is a nice reprieve from the bus horns, scooter squeals and general ruckus of a quickly expanding Asian city.) But back to the cranes. These two long-legged, long-necked, long-beaked buddies just walked by as if they had not a care in the world and I was just another inanimate object- a piece of the bench. (Did they make their great escape from the zoo side? If so, props to you giant cranes! Run while you can.)

My afternoon at the zoo was definitely not what I had envisioned when I logged off my State Department systems and headed out the door for the day, but it ended up being an interesting and entertaining evening, regardless. Would I recommend the Saigon Zoo to folks headed through town? Nope. But, if I lived here long –term (rather than my current three-week TDY) I think I’d be a frequent visitor, as the breath of fresh air a bit of calm among the chaos of the city would make for a welcome reprieve. Just ignore the swaying elephants, hungry-looking snakes and slightly mangy deer.

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