From Mundane to Extraordinary

I’ve learned a lot from traveling for the last five years. But the lessons I’ve learned haven’t been the exotic ones I expected, full of mystery and history.

When you grow up in a place, every other place in the world seems magical, full of amazing sights, ancient history, and of course unique plants and animals. Living next to mountains and fields, cats and coyotes just doesn’t hold a candle to seeing the Tower of London or feeding an elephant.

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Of course home has its benefits–it’s home, after all–but everywhere else in the world just seems so much more magical. Adventures seem more likely to happen when you’re in an unfamiliar place; strange languages, unknown roads, and new sights  lend a touch of the exotic to all you see.

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But really? All these foreign places and amazing sights–cobras,
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beaches,
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palm trees,DSC_0511.jpg

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are homes to regular, ordinary people. People who have lives, and families, friends, and jobs. People who worry about money, or have lost a loved one, or have relationship struggles, or health problems. It’s easy to romanticize the unknown; much harder to realize that life is much the same no matter where you end up living it.

Flying back in to Colorado a month ago, seeing the mountains and the spreading plains again, all I could think of was how impressed Singaporeans, who only know a tiny, hot, tropical island, would be. Snow-covered mountains, vast plains, and a sky that meets the ground instead of a building. You never get sunrises like this, where you can see for miles, in Singapore.
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In fact, all you can see there is HDB buildings for miles.DSC_0824.jpg

I never used to think of where I grew up as anywhere someone would ever want to visit–unless they were into skiing. It was just home, and there was nothing extraordinary about it.

And then I moved away. Suddenly, with the clarity of distance, the familiar seemed a lot more desirable. It’s hard to live in a place where you don’t speak the language, the food in the grocery stores is all strange (fishballs and bean curd, anyone?), and even the trees and roads look different.

What’s familiar to you is strange and extraordinary to someone else. Maybe your life seems boring and pointless right now as you change diapers and make food all day every day and you’re longing to go travel the world, or perhaps you spend all your waking moments in school and doing homework and you want to go out and start real life, or maybe you really want to be married so you can be happy like all the married people you see.

But the grass isn’t always greener. Travel–especially being away from familiar things for a long time–is difficult and can be lonely. Starting real life–finding a job, paying bills, fixing things–is a lot more work than it sounds like when you’re in college. Being married is not an automatic recipe for happiness.

All of these can be good things, just like living in another country can be a good thing. But don’t expect them to give more zest to an otherwise bland life.

It’s not where you live that makes life extraordinary–it’s who you are.

 

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Incompetence as Comedy: or, American Airlines Flight 82 from Auckland

The travel industry has a bad reputation in general. It has this reputation because it deserves it. Take, for example, our recent attempt at leaving Auckland, New Zealand on a flight to Los Angeles (Flight number AA82).

You all know what it’s like to fly somewhere: wait in a line here, another line there, have your passport inspected, your face scrutinized, and if you’re lucky, you’re patted down and felt up and herded around like a bunch of sheep for a few hours before finally getting to the gate, where you’re left to sit on some of the most uncomfortable chairs you’ve ever seen. Oh, and you do all this while carrying a toddler and your bag that felt quite light the day before when you packed it, but now feels like it weighs about ten tons.

Well, we made it through all the indignities of airports without losing our dignity, and settled in to our uncomfortable seats with all our baggage strewn around us at about 1:30 pm, an hour before the plane was scheduled to board at 2:25 pm.

A portly British man wearing a bow tie (or papillon as he called it) and a large tag around his neck that loudly proclaimed “Press Pass” sat down across from us. He boasted some about his experience flying, the fact that he was flying business class, and that he’d been upgraded twice because of his press pass (the only reason he wore it as he was mainly retired).

“What language is he speaking?” he queried, pointing at JQ.

“Toddler,” I said.

Not sure where he lived all his life to never hear a toddler speaking, but he was certain he knew a lot about flying.

As the scheduled boarding time got closer, the boarding area started to fill up. People were doing exercises, taking naps, and generally preparing for a long intercontinental flight.

2:25 p.m. came and went, with no signs of boarding or of anything else happening other than the usual passenger paging over the intercom. Mr. Hoping-for-an-upgrade assured us that the airline was probably just waiting for a few important passengers or perhaps a large group, and that we would be sure to board soon.

Then, at 3:00, they finally made an announcement. “We regret to inform you that American Airlines Flight 82 has been delayed due to mechanical engineering difficulties. We will inform you of our progress in 45 minutes.” Everyone rolled their eyes; JQ demanded to be taken back to the vending machines to “Beep beep” them, and, of course, Mr. Hoping-for-an-upgrade pointed out the pilot and copilot in the cockpit. “You see,” he said, “if anything were seriously wrong with the airplane, the pilot wouldn’t be on board playing cards!”

Alas, Mr. Hoping-for-an-upgrade was wrong. Fifteen minutes later, American Airlines sent emails and text messages to all the passengers, alerting them that the flight was canceled. Of course, the people at the desk made no announcement until thirty minutes after that, just to keep everyone in suspense. Or perhaps they didn’t even know themselves!

Then the announcement came: “We regret to inform you that American Airlines flight 82 to Los Angeles has been canceled due to mechanical difficulties. Your baggage will be found at bag claim five. Please go to the arrivals area and pick up your bags, then go American Airlines check-in at departure area D to rebook a flight and be given a lodging voucher. Also, make sure to return any duty-free items you may have purchased.”

And that was it. That was all the instructions we were given for what to do now that we had no flight to go on.

So we all got up, picked up all our luggage, and began the arduous journey back through the terminal, trying to figure out how to get to arrivals from the departure area (spoiler alert: you can’t). Groups of twenty or thirty people stood around looking confused, while one man wandered around asking everyone in sight, “Do you know how to get to customs?”

After trudging nearly halfway back, we spotted an airport help desk, who pointed back where we came from and said, “Oh, arrivals is just down the stairs over that way.” Back we trudged—only to find all the stairs we knew about only went up! After a lot more back and forth, we learned that actually, passengers from the canceled flight needed to go back to their gate so they could be funneled into arrivals. So we went back yet again.

By now, it was nearly 4:30 and all we had accomplished with our lives in this time was standing in queues and walking through hallways. Surely humans were meant for greater things than this?

After some more queueing and more walking through hallways and through the arrivals area (which we saw when we first actually arrived in Auckland), we arrived at passport control. To add to the pointlessness of this entire endeavor, we had to fill out an arrivals form, to give them very important information about what it’s like to sit at the gate in their airport for a few hours. “Where are you arriving from?” the form questioned. “Have you been hiking anywhere?” “Do you have any fruits?” “How long are you planning to stay in New Zealand?” “What is your address here?” All these questions in their varying iterations put JQ right to sleep.

Untitled After passport control, where they carefully examined our faces to make sure they still matched our passports, it was off to more walking through hallways and standing in queues (now with a sleeping baby in arms) to pick up our baggage. On the bright side, we all finally found bag claim 5. And our baggage was actually on it, which seemed to be the one feat that American Airlines could pull off. The customs officer questioned us closely again: “Did you buy any fruit while you were in the departure terminal?” Apparently the departure terminal of the Auckland airport is no longer New Zealand and the fruit there will contaminate ALL THE CROPS and they will all DIE! Or maybe he just had to ask—because when we replied in the negative, he let us just walk through and not put our baggage through the x-ray machines (which would entail—you guessed it!—more standing in queues).

After all that, it was 5:00, and we finally made it to check-in counter D for American Airlines—with about four hundred other people, all in the same position we were in. More queueing entailed, and Jared used the last 16% of battery on his phone to call the number on the little ticket they gave us. So we got a flight rebooked for the next evening, which would get us to Oregon a hair’s breadth before a very important person’s wedding.

Now just remained the knotty little problem of where we would stay. If our phones had worked (mine had no data, and Jared’s no battery), we might have just sucked up the cost and called the Airbnb we had stayed at the whole week. As it was, we stayed in the queue to try to find some lodging for the night. We waited…and waited…and waited…and then JQ, who had napped about thirty minutes and was starting to get hungry, started screaming, “Mommy, go out! Mommy, I go out!” It was a lightbulb moment for the staff, who hurriedly came and escorted us up front. “Oh, you have a child! Come wait up here and we’ll be with you in just a minute.” Everyone around us looked a little jealous, and a couple people jokingly called out, “Wait, I’m his sister! I’m the auntie!” Moral of the story: definitely try to travel with a two-year-old if possible.

But! The story’s still not over. We were given the name of our hotel—which was in Hamilton, two hours away from Auckland (the hotels in Auckland were all completely booked)—and told to go out door two, where a bus would be waiting for us. So we went and waited with the bus. The bus driver had a bad back and was a little out of shape, so Jared helped him load everyone’s luggage. And then we waited some more while I fed JQ all the snacks I had packed for the airplane. We waited an hour—the bus driver said he was waiting for confirmation—but in the end his bus was full, and he decided to just go. It was a lovely little drive through New Zealand’s farmland: the sun glinted off of rivers and mountains, green fields with cows pastorally grazing, and Maori cemeteries. Untitled

When we got to Hamilton (New Zealand’s fourth largest city, apparently), a new comedy of errors began. The forty people on the bus were in about eight different hotels, all in different parts of town. The bus driver wasn’t quite sure where all of them were and kept stopping to look them up on his map.

When we finally got to our hotel—called the Quest—we were dropped off with about 8 other people, including a little old lady and gentleman (in their seventies, or so) who had three or four large suitcases. It was well after 8:00 p.m. at this time, and there was a sign on the door of the hotel saying that hotel reception closed at 7 p.m. Somehow someone opened the door and everyone crowded into the small reception area, where there were four envelopes waiting with the names of those who had reservations. Two of the envelopes had correct names and room sizes on them, but one of them had been booked and was a single room for a French couple, and the other was for a name that nobody in our group had. So out of 8 people, there were rooms for four (as two of the rooms were single rooms). We tried calling the hotel management, but they were just as confused as everyone else—except they did mention that more rooms had been booked at their branch two blocks away—Quest on Ward. So eventually Jared made the executive decision that the couple in their 70s should just take the room that was under someone else’s name, and we and the French couple set off for the next hotel—walking, of course, as our bus had long since departed.

When we got to Quest on Ward, of course their reception was also closed and the door locked. We tried their intercom to get someone to open the door for us. The first time we called, a lady answered who said she couldn’t hear at all; eventually she hung up. Then someone else answered and said the same thing: “Your connection is terrible!” After about seven tries, we gave up on the intercom and called the number given. Just as we were finally getting someone to understand what we needed, a hotel resident came by and let us in. Once in, we discovered only one room had been reserved—and with us and the French couple, we needed two. So Jared called up the manager and asked what was going on, and he said he would be by shortly. In the end—apparently the manager had his own idea of “short”—the French couple wandered off and were never heard from again!

So—six hours after we learned our flight was canceled, we finally made it to a room and were able to rest. In the morning, the manager said that American Airlines hadn’t told him how many people were coming and had just sent random people an hour and a half away without booking them any rooms. There were still other, minor problems once we were in possession of our room, like our food allowance only being usable if we charged it to the hotel, ate at a select list of restaurants, and subtracted the 10% commission the hotel wanted, even though American Airlines staff insisted the hotel wasn’t entitled to any commission!

Was it all inevitable? After all, American Airlines didn’t know their plane would encounter a mechanical error, and surely it’s better to have a day of delay and queuing than to swim with the “baby sharks” (as JQ calls them) in the big blue Pacific? Jared, who happens to have helped edit a book on emergency response (which you could read, but it’s rather boring) says absolutely not. The basic planks of emergency management, he says, are prevent, prepare, respond, and recover. The first, obviously, is about stopping something bad from happening; the second is about planning what to do when something bad happens; the third is about enacting your plan and improvising when something happens; and the fourth is about restoring capacity and rebuilding systems even better after a disaster. American Airlines, we surmise, had invested almost everything in prevention—fixing the plane, which was rumored to have been on the ground since earlier that morning—and ignored preparation (which, this being one of the weeks of Chinese Spring Festival, was extra important). The result was a botched response, with the agents even unclear about how we were supposed to get to baggage claim, and the comedy of incompetence thereafter. One would think that a major international airline would have some sort of system in place for communicating with passengers and service providers like hotels, but apparently Auckland Airport’s American Airlines didn’t think it was worth their while. The problem, it seemed to us, was not simply that the person in charge didn’t know what they were doing, but that there was nobody in charge!

Resilience means being prepared for disasters, which are statistically inevitable: bad things, no matter what, will eventually happen. And when they do, laughing is always a healthier response to yelling or crying. If you make the wedding, that is—or maybe even if you don’t!

Camping: The Good, the Bad, and the Ridiculous

DSC_0255.jpgWe made it. 3.5 weeks, 4,000+ kilometers across Australia, 60 meals cooked on a crummy stove, 24 nights of sleeping in a campervan, 12 mosquito bites per day, 3 blog posts, and 2 times driving on the wrong side of the road later, we made it to Melbourne.
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“So you’ve come to Darwin for therapy,” said one little old lady at the first Australian city we visited. We laughed, but in some ways it’s been true. As an escape from the never-ending city jungle of Singapore, Australia has been amazing. Seeing mountains and fields, breathing fresh country air, watching spectacular sunsets, admiring the stars at night (too much light pollution in Singapore to see any but the very brightest stars), and waking up with the sun have all been instrumental in cleaning away the dust of the city from our hearts. I didn’t know how much I missed the country until we were in it again.DSC_0334.jpg
Did you know the kookaburra’s call sounds a little like a crazy person laughing? It’s one of the strangest birds we heard in Australia. JQ goes around saying “Kookburra, mama! More Kookburra!”DSC_0440.jpg

We may have ruined JQ with all the Australian wildlife: now he’s fond of seeing “Nakes!” in everything–hoses, squiggles, bus seats–everything and anything has the potential to be a snake.
Untitled  He also got to feed a kangaroo,Untitled

and pet lizards. And now he’s asking if he can go see a “kangroo eat.”
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The other animal he got to feed was the “croc croc dile,” known to most normal people as a crocodile. Crocodiles now apparently lurk in any small space, such as under the coffee table or in holes in walls. And a beware any pair of tongs, because it will be quickly re-purposed as a croc croc dile.
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It’s kind of shocking how much JQ has grown up over the last month. Not only does he now eat like a horse and chatter non-stop, but he’s assigned himself duties too, and become our personal servant of the restrooms. Any time either one of us says we have to go, we hear an insistent “I day two (JQ) come with!” and an immediate putting on of shoes ensues.  While in the bathroom, he then proceeds to check every trashcan (perhaps for bombs or other hidden threats?), wash his hands multiple times or at least smear them with soap, lock (and unlock multiple times) the stall doors, make sure there’s enough toilet paper for general use, and flush the toilet when we’re all done. He takes great pride in carrying out all these duties faithfully. Though I have to admit, it will be nice to finally get home and have a closable bathroom door that NO TODDLERS can get through.
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Sometimes there was great lighting, so I tried to persuade my models to go for a family picture. They’re too impatient to go for more than one try, so apparently I only have half a picture of me in Australia. I assure you all of me was there, though!

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So it’s been four weeks of seeing sunsets, walking on the beach, taking photos, and spending time together as a family. Oh, as well as spending plenty of time being bitten by mosquitoes, getting annoyed with each other (definitely don’t try camping with people you can’t stand), alternately sweating or freezing at night, and having my ear talked off by a two-year old.

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And after four weeks of close quarters in a campervan, I’m ready to head home.

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How Long Does it Take to Cook a Mushroom?

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We stayed last night at a beautiful caravan park with a lovely river, the loudest birds ever, and the best camp kitchen we’ve come across in our travels. Usually, “camp kitchens” will include a roof and two things Aussies call “barbecues” which resemble an actual barbecue in nothing except that they use propane gas to heat them. However, THIS kitchen had two real barbecues—the kind that will actually put char marks on your food and put out a decent amount of heat.

Yes, you read that right. I’m actually excited that something designed to cook gets hot. Does life get any better than this? While our campervan is cozy and cute and has its own sink and refrigerator and gas stovetop, the person who designed the stovetop must have been someone who never cooked, because this flame struggles to even boil a cup of water within less than twenty minutes. And forget overcrowding the pan. If you put more than four mushroom slices in a skillet over this flame, they turn into nice little bundles of mushroom boiling in water—and never get past that stage.

On top of winning the award for slowest cooking, it also has to be coddled to even stay on. It lights easily enough: just a click of the lighter will get it going. But you then have to remove your hand from the knob ever so gently, like it’s a sleeping baby you’ve just laid down. If you do it wrong or go too fast, the baby will cry—or in this case, the flame will go out—poof! And then you have to start the process all over again. When it’s being especially infuriating, it makes you hold the knob down with one hand while doing everything else you need to do with the other hand until your four mushrooms are a nice brown and it’s time to put the next four in. At least, being in a campervan, the kitchen is small enough you can grab an onion, find a knife, rummage through the fridge, and help JQ “cook piece bread” without ever letting go of the knob.

So yesterday, we used the barbecue and had some grilled hamburgers, onions, and mushrooms. And the best part was, I could even use both hands.

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef: A Play in One Act

The setting is a boat in the Coral Ocean, about 3 hours off the coast of Cairns, Australia.

Characters:

JQ: a two-year-old boy who has blonde hair and a distinct penchant for doing everything himself. “I do” is his favorite phrase.

JARED: a determined PhD student; becomes very concerned about wasting time if he takes more than a half hour doing anything besides reading; friendly, personable, adventurous. Looks at the moment like he’s survived a year in the wilderness with a wild beard and fluffy curls down to his shoulders.

ANNIKA: A harried mother; quiet; hasn’t much of her own to contribute. Very devoted to JQ and JARED

RUBY: an Irish girl out traveling Australia before going back to the confines of university in Ireland

A HIPPIE AMERICAN COUPLE: complete with unshaven legs and armpits, long hair, and an endearing idealism

TWO DANISH GIRLS: who, despite being beach volleyball professionals, promptly become seasick and look like death; they say nothing, only uttering a few groans here and there.

THE BOAT CREW

Random SNORKELERS

SCENE I: The Edge of the Boat

Untitled JQ: I see baby dark, Mommy!

ANNIKA: Yes, let’s go see baby shark!

They make their way out of the boat to where enthusiastic snorkelers are putting on their masks and flinging themselves into the sea to look at the corals and fishes. Paddling around with their red life-jackets and colorful pool noodles, they look like a swarm of enthusiastic puppies let out for the day to see some sights.  

JQ: chatters enthusiastically I see baby dark, Mama! I swim, Mama! I see baby dark, Mama!

ANNIKA: Yes, baby, let’s get ready! Can you put your mask on?

JQ: I dit, Mama! Sitting at the edge of the boat, with their feet dangling off, they prepare to go snorkeling  

ANNIKA: Ok, JQ, let’s put your mask on.

JQ: gets clingy No mask. Pushes it away and howls

ANNIKA: Do you want to see baby shark?

JQ: No baby dark!

ANNIKA: Do you want to swim?

JQ: No swim!

BOAT CREWPERSON: to JQ Can I help you put your mask on?

JQ: No mask! Clings to ANNIKA and wails loudly.  Sighing, ANNIKA gets up and EXITS with JQ

 SCENE II: After Diving

On the boat. Random snorkelers are coming back up, finished with their outing for the day. ANNIKA and JQ are waiting, and then JARED enters. Untitled

JARED: Scuba diving was intense! That was the scariest thing I’ve ever done!

ANNIKA: What, really? But I thought you liked adventurous things

JARED: Yes! If something goes wrong, you can’t just swim back to the surface or you’ll destroy your ears. Plus, they made me go underwater like 15 minutes before everyone else was ready so I was just waiting there wondering if they’d forgotten about me.

ANNIKA: But were you able to see the coral and the fish?

RUBY (the Irish Girl), butting in: I saw, like, some huge clams. They were about the size of a dinner plate. Oh, and there were some really beautiful fish.

JARED: To be honest, I was more focused on not dying than on the fish.

ANNIKA: So, you won’t be going back?

JARED: Snorkeling is so much more fun, and you don’t feel like you’re going to die.

ANNIKA: Well, I do, but I just have to remember to breathe and then it’s not so bad.

JARED: Yes, but you’re at the top of the water already, not stuck underneath it!

SCENE III: The Way Home

Everyone is exhausted from their full day of seasickness and happy-puppy snorkeling. Sitting on the top deck of the boat, people begin to talk.

 JARED: (to EAGER HIPPIE MALE) So, where are you from?

EHM: Oh, we’re from the US.

JARED: Oh really, where?

EAGER HIPPIE FEMALE: Florida, actually. Have you heard of St. Petersburg? It’s kinda cool and artsy. Where are you all from?

ANNIKA: Well, I’m from Colorado and he’s from Oregon.

EHF: Oh, Colorado. We loved Boulder. It’s a great little town.

JARED: So what are you doing in Australia?

EHF: Well, we were getting a little tired of provincial American life and wanted to learn more about the world. So we’re taking a year to travel around and see the world.

ANNIKA: Oh, really? So what have you seen so far?

EHF: (giggles a little) Well, we’ve actually been traveling for six months already. We started in Hawaii…I know it’s still America, but it’s different enough.

EHM: And then we came to Australia. We’ve been living on this farm in Australia free of charge—we just had to do some work on the farm, y’know, and they’d let us stay.

EHF: So, when we finish in Australia, we’re going to go to Bali, and then if we have time, we want to see Cambodia, Vietnam, maybe Thailand….

EAGER HIPPIE MALE: Y’know, I just really want to help people. There’s so many people out there, like, y’know, in pain, or in need of money, or stuff, or advice. I want to help them all.

Gradually, people fall asleep or stop talking: Eager Hippies embrace, having previously snogged to their hearts’ content, and fall asleep with his head on her shoulder. The boat becomes quiet as, exhausted from their day of swimming, people wait to get home.

Campervan Adventures in the Bush: In Which We Almost Lose Puppy and Get Eaten by a Huge Snake

I’m not sure who I am anymore. I’ve never been camping in my life (unless you count sleeping in our log cabin playhouse), yet here I am, renting a campervan in Australia with Jared and JQ for almost an entire month.

So far, it’s been one and a half days, and in those days, I’ve learned how to drive on the wrong side of the road (with no major mishaps besides turning on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal), had a somewhat hot and sleepless night with a small person kicking me, and been on a hike in the bush that was a bit longer than we expected.

Since we’re in a campervan, we wake up as soon as the sun comes up, which here in Cairns, Australia, is at the rather early hour of 6:00 a.m. Since it was still pretty cool early in the morning, we decided to take a short walk through the bush (which is what they call the rainforest/any area not in cities that’s not the Outback) and have a look at the wilder side of Australia.

JQ insisted on bringing Puppy, his favorite stuffed animal, as what could be more useful on a hike than something to cuddle? Untitled So we found the trailhead, where there was a big sign with a map, bearing warnings like “Do not touch the Suicide Plant as it contains a terrible neurotoxin that will make you want to kill yourself,” and “Only experienced bushwalkers should attempt these trails.” We decided maybe it would be best to not touch any plants, and found a nice loop walk that looked short. Jared had me take a picture of the trails, just in case, and then we set off. The first bit was easy: a boardwalk with some well-spaced stairs and otherwise flat terrain. But then it became just a narrow track lined with tree roots and leaves, and not brushing against leaves became increasingly more difficult. The first casualty was Puppy: JQ was sitting on Jared’s shoulders, and as Jared passed underneath a particularly low hanging tree, a nasty thorny vine snatched at Puppy’s fur and JQ’s shirt. JQ clung to Puppy and shrieked until we disentangled them, then he sobbed like it was the saddest day in his life. Thankfully, it was just a mean-spirited tree with spines over every inch of it including the leaves—but not containing any potent neurotoxin!

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The second time it happened, Puppy actually got snatched! JQ looks at this picture and keeps saying, “Mommy, baby sad!”

We kept walking, checking our map every once in a while to make sure we were on the right track. Suddenly, Jared stopped and cried, “Get back! Get back! There’s an eight-foot-long snake with its head raised! That’s the biggest snake I’ve ever seen!” I was a bit miffed that he stopped me even getting a good look at it, but I suppose I’d rather be alive than bitten by one of Australia’s poisonous snakes or crushed by a python.

We walked and walked—up hills and down, over more tree roots, past more nasty vines that snatched Puppy away from his owner, around one more snake (much smaller this time), and still there was no end in sight. Then finally we came to a sign that stated: Speewah Campground: 3.4 km (for those of you who are metrically illiterate, that’s around 2 miles). We looked at our sore feet, the slimy leaves, the hills, the clouds of mosquitoes following me wherever I went and devouring my blood as soon as I stopped—and groaned.

However! We made it—inexperienced bushwalkers though we are. We walked (or nearly crawled) up the hill to our campsite with 7 miles already logged in shoe leather.

And then came the fun part. Since I had assumed we’d be taking only a short walk over decent ground, I had worn open-toed sandals. That wasn’t the best idea. When I came back, there were three leeches stuck to my feet, and they didn’t want to come off. I pulled off one black, slimy end and it immediately started waving around, looking for another place to latch on. (Is it bad that it kind of resembled a hungry baby ready to nurse?) Untitled

So today we learned: do not go hiking in the bush unless a) you’re sure you know how long the hike is, b) you’re dressed appropriately, and c) you don’t mind seeing rather large snakes. There may be a bit of puppy rescuing involved too!

The Ease of Being You

He listens to the music with a blissful look on his face, arms going “round and round,” feet dancing in circles. He’s just a two-year-old in a diaper, but for the self-assurance he displays, he could be the president ( I dare you to catch the president dancing around in a diaper to “The Wheels on the Bus”!).

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Yes, he knows how to take a selfie already. #momfail

I learn something new from JQ every day. His insistence on doing things by himself even when he’s only going to fail (do, Mommy), his patience when he has to repeat himself five times and we still don’t understand what he’s saying, the ease with which he greets people, and the quickness with which he comforts a crying baby. Basically, he’s the person I always wanted to be but wasn’t.

To someone who’s been afraid of everybody her whole life, always second-guessing everything I do and say (and feeling awkward regardless), this utter lack of self-consciousness is mostly only something I dream of having. I’m pretty sure I was terrified of people even when I was two.

This kid, though? I’m pretty sure he escaped the awkward-introvert-who-can’t-think-of-small-talk gene.  He makes friends wherever he goes–with old ladies on the bus, kids on the playground, and anyone who will smile at him on the train. Sure, he doesn’t like creepy old men who stop and pinch his cheeks or try to get him to come with them (just, why?), but then, who does?

Someone once said to me that they thought Christians could only be extroverts–that people who are quieter or find it difficult to talk to people should change their behavior to always be outgoing and friendly, ready to talk to anyone at any time. I’ve thought about this comment a lot over the years: do I need to change who I am (I’ve tried, and so has my mother), and even the way I look at the world? Was I created wrong? Ungodly?

And as I’ve thought about this, the more I think it’s wrong. Yes, it’s decidedly more socially acceptable to be the friendly chatterbox who loves being around people ALL THE TIME. But socially acceptable doesn’t mean it’s the way things have to be. It doesn’t mean that my gifts don’t matter. It doesn’t mean that every Christian has to be your neighborhood joy-exuding person who never met a stranger. If everyone was a chatterbox, who would shut up and listen to them?

As I’ve grown older, I’ve stopped worrying so much about what I have or don’t have and wishing I was different. Now, I focus on what I can do and do it the best I can. Turns out I can talk just fine as long as I know what I’m talking about (though I still don’t like small talk and just sit there in awkward silence most of the time).

So what I’ve learned from JQ? Live life with exuberance and joy, not always wishing for something you don’t have or to be someone you aren’t. I’m not any less of a person because I hate going up to someone just to say hi. And if you’re the neighborhood joy-exuding person? Hooray! The world needs you too.

A Lonely Merry Christmas

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Lonely baby


It turns out Facebook is not a good substitute for face to face interaction. Who knew?

It’s bad enough on the usual days of the year: people post pictures of their cool adventures with friends and family (guilty!), all the fun things their kids do, and maybe occasionally the five dishes in their sink that they need to do (“I’m such a bad housekeeper!). But on Christmas Day, of all times, it’s even more apparent. Everyone posts pictures of their lights, their trees, their snow, their families: everyone has a place to go for Christmas.

Except us. We’re just here, preparing to move out of our house in twelve days. Instead of getting presents, we’re purging. Instead of celebrating with family or friends, we’re all alone. Yes, unlike the Virgin Mary who had no refuge but a stable for the birth of her Son, we have a solid house and cozy beds (and air-conditioning). Also unlike the Virgin Mary, we have no visitors to bring gifts and celebrate with us that Christ is born.

In previous years, Christmas has been a season of finding light in the darkness. This year, for us it has a different focus. Just as Jesus was born in an unfamiliar manger in a strange town, we’re in a strange country surrounded by strangers. There’s much to be said about the comforts of home–but surely there’s a point in wandering, too?

For years after Christ’s birth, Mary and Joseph wandered, seeking refuge from an unstable king who wished to kill their Son. For years, Christmas brought to them not warm fuzzies and cozy feelings about how great humanity is, but running–for the good of the world.

Today, instead of singing saccharine songs about the “most wonderful time of the year” mixed in with odes to winter and expecting everyone to be wonderful and happy because Christmas, we’re singing “Wayfaring Stranger” and living it too. In this way, we are like the holy family: we are recognizing there is more to life–more to Christmas–than thinking about ourselves or all the good things it can bring out in people.

Christmas brings a message of hope, of peace on earth and goodwill to men. It brings assurance that these things exist, that they are possible. But it also reminds us they are, for now, not realized yet. First there’s the waiting, then the running and hiding, then–finally–the heaven that Christmas promises to bring.

Christmas is not heaven. But it will be. All our waitings and wanderings will, one day, bring us home. And then we won’t be wayfaring strangers.

Coming Home

It’s that time of year again: we’re moving soon. But this time we won’t be going to any exotic or far-away place. Instead, we’ll be moving back home to Colorado (just for a year, of course: how could we stay somewhere longer than a year?!).

After Singapore, Colorado almost seems exotic. Snow? And mountains? And seasons? And no HDB buildings as far as the eye can see?
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Today it feels like as soon as we begin to settle in to a place, our routines become more comfortable, and we move out of survival mode into oh-yeah-I-can-actually-do-things mode, we move. And while this is one move I’m glad to make (sorry, Singapore, I don’t love you), it’s still tearing up roots and going through a big adjustment yet again. For the sixth time in almost five years. And that sounds crazy. No wonder I’ve been mainly hiding in my house for the last several months.

And after months of mainly staying home and venturing out to the playground, I’ll have to learn how to interact with people again beyond the inanities of small talk. (“How do you like Singapore?” Answer: smile and nod, say “It’s…very hot.” If I’m in a generous mood, I may go so far as to say, “We enjoy swimming here,” or “It’s great to be able to get inexpensive fresh juice whenever you want it.” Seriously, how are you supposed to answer a question like that?)

But do I even know how to be a friend any more? Am I still an intelligent human being even though I’ve been dragged all over the world for the past few years, and now am poked and prodded to death every time I try to have a thought? (I’m hiding away while JQ takes a bubble bath–hiding, because he started fishing hairs out of somewhere from the bathtub and showing them to me, and then because he started painting me with bubbles. Let’s just say–not conducive to Deep Thoughts!)

I guess my worry is: I’ve changed so much. Have I grown away from being home? Or has “home” grown in the other direction so that neither of us will recognize the other?

Will I be that friend that regales others only with stories of eating fishballs and other delicacies? Or will I have no life outside of how wonderful (or obnoxious) my kid is? Will people even remember who I am since I’ve been gone for so long?

Silly worries aside, there are so many things to anticipate, like being close to family and friends (free babysitters for JQ!), good American food (dairy products! cheese! meat! no fishballs!), and seasons (cold weather! snow! wind! spring and fall!). Jared is looking forward to the library of books he has already ordered from Amazon–only thirty or forty books, he says nonchalantly– that is awaiting him in Colorado. I’m excited about introducing JQ to farm life with all its ways to keep small boys busy.

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So look out America: we’re coming for you!

JQ Is TWO!

Well, that went fast.
DSC_1242.jpg Two years ago, we were just getting to know a brand-new baby boy who didn’t do much else besides eat and sleep.

Now, he’s somehow morphed into this huge toddler who runs around, eats like a horse, and is starting to talk non-stop. We’ve been trying to teach him both English and Chinese (hah!) but didn’t really think he spent enough time around Chinese speakers to actually learn Chinese too. Except he’s been running around the house recently pointing at things and saying a word that doesn’t really sound like any English word. It took us a while to figure out what he was saying, but finally we decided he’s saying “zhege” (pronounced jei-ge, but which he says more like “ticka” or something), which means “this.” I guess maybe spending time with a bilingual Singaporean family is paying off? At least he can now say “I zhege” for everything he wants. Yeah, we’re raising a fabulous communicator.

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But, we can now figure out what he wants when he takes us to the food museum (a.k.a. the refrigerator) and points at something and says “I zhege.” Usually he wants one of his favorite foods–something like cheese, cheese fries, feta cheese, cheese sauce, macaroni and cheese, and did I mention cheese? If he doesn’t want one of the above, he’s usually asking for some kalamata olives or a drink. Lest you think he’s developing nutrient deficiencies on his cheese diet, he will eat other foods, like fruits and vegetables, and he always insists on getting bananas when we go to the grocery store. Unfortunately, he never eats said bananas so they always gather a crowd of fruit flies in about a day and then sit on the counter in a puddle of tears because they’re mourning about how hot it is. At least, that’s the only explanation I can come up with for why bananas die in a puddle of their own liquid two days after coming home from the grocery store. But I digress.

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Speaking of food, I have now watched enough food videos on Facebook with him for him to be convinced that all videos on Facebook are of delicious things. Usually, his assumption is correct, like when he watches a video of brownies or chicken fingers. But yesterday, his “Yum yum!” was a bit misplaced when a video of painting pumpkins came up. At least he’s not a picky eater?

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To counteract the bad effects of watching too many Facebook videos, JQ cooks with me too. He’s the key supervisor of making scrambled eggs in the morning, though he still has a bad habit of bursting into tears every time I put the eggs in the pan to cook, saying “I ‘tir, mommy, I ‘tir.”

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On the other side of his regular two-year-old boyness is the neat freak. If he spills something or gets food on his hands, he immediately says “uh-oh, mommy, uh-oh!” and runs to get a towel to clean it up.

Along with his cleaning powers is a built-in sense of empathy: whenever anyone is hurt or sad he’ll give them a big hug and then run to the bathroom to get tissues for their nose.

He has several stuffed animals (Frog, Puppy, Bear, Giraffe), and when he’s feeling extra sentimental about them, he runs into our bedroom and sets them on top of my pillow, where they’re not allowed to be moved.

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Happy birthday JQ! We’re so happy you’re part of our life (and can clean up all our messes).