Where to next...

We took these photos as we were figuring out where to go next- R happened to be really sick this afternoon but the pictures turned out great!

There has been so much that's happened in Yangon this past year and clearly, I haven't been able to keep up with the pace and documenting it all in this space.  Some of that has just been being so invested here that I haven't had time to step back and reflect as readily.  Another aspect is we've had some pretty life-changing events in the last six months, both amazing and terrible.  So I'm just going to back up to where I left off and see if the words come to share and remember these things as they unfolded, despite that they happened months ago.

So let's talk about mid-level bidding.  For those unfamiliar with the Foreign Service's assignment process, your first two assignments are "directed".  Directed means they give you a list of jobs and places, you rank them in order of your preference, send it in and see what HR gives you.  Our first directed assignment (Shenyang, China) was not even on our list so it was a total surprise. Our second (Yangon, Myanmar) was our number one choice.  Both were great experiences, and we wouldn't change them for the world.
this is real life in Yangon- navigating the literal and figurative pot holes
After those first two tours, you are on your own to embark on "mid-level bidding".  This is a pretty opaque process where you look at a list and determine which jobs/places you'd like to go if they match up with the timing for when you leave post and how much training is required.  Then you try to figure out if you know anyone at those places or know anyone who knows anyone at those places who is willing to put in a good word for you.

We were originally hoping to stay overseas for our third tour.  Lots of people say it's good (professionally) to return to D.C. for this tour, but to start with, a return to D.C. sounded: expensive, stressful, and honestly, cold (I quite like the fact that I have had very few socks in my life these past two years).  I insisted that we get out of the East Asia Pacific Bureau which is where we've spent our first two tours and will inevitably be our home base (we LOVE Asia). So we looked at Africa. We looked at Europe.  We looked at Central and South America.

R interviewed for several positions and even got some positive feedback from a couple but when handshake day came (the day when the bureau is allowed to reach out and tell you the job is yours), there was no handshake.  We were pretty discouraged.  It just feels like you did all this research and work, and then you're left to wonder: what now?

A week or so went by and then the presidential election happened, which caught us all off guard.  Suddenly R was interviewing for jobs and they were offering them to him.  These jobs were in D.C., but they were good jobs.  It was difficult to say no to the first one that was offered, but it sounded like terrible work-life balance and while professionally, it would have been helpful, it sounded like a tough two years.

After much deliberation and some back and forth on when he could actually start he accepted the position to be a country desk officer.  As far as I understand it, he serves as the funnel/traffic cop for policy decisions and information within the state department and interagency that has to do with either of the two African countries he is covering.  Both are super interesting places that I wouldn't really want to live in so I'm happy for R to get to focus on something exciting, but from the comfort of D.C.

We're also thrilled because just days before R accepted this position, his sister accepted a job in D.C. and in January made the move from Chattanooga, Tennessee to our nation's capital! We're also excited to be back at our home church at which I have since accepted a part-time position as parish administrator.  On top of all of this, we have a number of friends from our time in Yangon that are also moving back to D.C. in the next few months.
R really wanted a family photo with a street dog. 
So while the process was a bit harrowing, we're pretty happy about the outcome and looking forward to what's ahead.

***Note: the photos for this blog post were all taken by my friend Tracy http://www.jacarandatreephotography.com/ October 2016 in downtown Yangon.  She is so fun to work with and I highly recommend getting photos done with her!



The right kind of rest at the right time: Ngapali Beach

fruit by the ocean
Recently an article title came across my Facebook feed that gave me pause. I can't say that I took the time to read it, but the assertion it's title made stuck with me. It was something along the lines of: you shouldn't waste your time with beach vacations because all beach vacations are the same. Instead you should explore people and discover cultures.
Huh. Well, that sounds very lofty and responsible and principled, but I have to respectfully disagree. I agree that most beach vacations are the same, but there are seasons of life where the sun and the sand and a good book are about all you can handle. (I know all of my mom friends with littles hear me).

We had a month or so from early October through to Veterans Day weekend in mid-November that just wore both R and I out on so many levels. We both got this terrible cold one after another the likes of which I've never seen. Fever and sore throats and just down for the count, home from work, asleep on the couch for several days on end.
there is a tiny crab at the center of the spiral that has made this beautiful sand art- these covered the beach!
Just as I recovered from that, I got food poisoning for the 4th time in 13 months. I made it to the Marine Ball but survived the night on just the bread basket and champagne.

During this stretch of illness, R was navigating the Foreign Service's mid-level bidding process for the first time, which I plan to post separately on, but for now I can comment that it was quite stressful. At the same time his portfolio issue was making international headlines and requiring several reports each week back to Washington and a fair amount of weekend work which he has done his best to avoid so far. 

Needless to say this was our low point in our tour in Yangon. I thought we might escape without one, but I think each tour has its peaks and valleys. 
coffee with a view please!
At the end of all this chaos, the embassy was closed for a Friday for Veterans Day and a Monday for a local Myanmar holiday so I booked us flights and a room at Ngapali beach. While R actually worked a good part of this four day weekend finalizing his onward assignment and writing a report on the latest crisis literally from the beach, it was still a lovely weekend away. 
lunch with friends! Also the friends I hung out with while R worked all weekend.
Ngapali is in the western Rakhine state of Myanmar and on the Bay of Bengal-part of the Indian Ocean. It's known for its incredible seafood and lovely beaches and it's actually named after Naples, Italy. We stayed at the Residences by Sandoway which is a property connected to and run by the Sandoway resort.  The Residences only has 12 rooms.  They are simple, but clean and a good $75/night cheaper than the resort.  Each morning you stroll down the beach 100 yards and have breakfast at the resort's seaside cafe. You're welcome to use the resort's pool which was lovely and empty most of the time we were there. All in all, the Residences by Sandoway is a great deal.
friends to have sundowners with
November is the start of the high season in Ngapali (and Myanmar in general) so it's imperative to book tickets and rooms early especially when working around a local holiday- everyone is itching to get out of Yangon.  The high season runs through February and then some of the international tourism dies down. Myanmar gets pretty hot from March- May so no one wants to climb temples in 100 F weather.  The beaches however remain temperate.  I would consider a trip back because the beach was just gorgeous and the seafood was incredible and sometimes you just need to sit by the ocean and feel small and remember that, this too shall pass.
So that's my argument for beach vacations.  Exploring cultures and understanding new places is all very good, but it takes an energy that in some seasons is hard to muster.  As an expat, we are doing that a lot of the time anyway and sometimes I just need something that is simple to understand.  If you can find rest close to where you are, I say it's a vacation well-spent.

lunch time spritzers

incredible seafood lunch at the end of this peninsula in the middle of the bay


Victory over the Fungus! and driving in Yangon

Many of you responded with sympathy in January when I shared how our car arrived in Rangoon carpeted in mold.  I will say, that was a definite low point in our tour.  Thankfully, the moving company took full responsibility.
R is concentrating on driving in Yangon traffic; I am blissful at our newly reupholstered car! 

Their first response was, can we give you the kelly blue book value of the car?  Well, that sounds fair if the damage is irreversible, but wait what about the rule that says diplomats get one car AND ONE CAR ONLY?  That's correct.  I sat in meetings with other diplomats just the day before going to port where they discussed if your car it totaled, there's no trading it in for a new one here nor abandoning it and buying a new one.  You just get the one.  That's just the way the laws are written.

So we had to tell the moving company, thanks but that doesn't actually fix our we-need-some-sort-of-transportation-here problem.  We did end up finding someone local who used to live in the U.S. and was willing to procure all of the upholstery (steering wheel, fabric side panels of the door, head rests, carpet, roof, seat covers, arm rest: you name it, we replaced it!) and replace it.  It took time of course and just last week the final touches were put on poor Suki Subaru who has been through a helluva lot (smash and grab in January 2015, scraped in a NoVa parking garage in May 2015, crunched by a moving truck in August 2015, Mold with a capital M December 2015).

So now that you're convinced you do NOT want to purchase this car from us, let me tell you- it's nearly perfect now!  It's like a brand new car on the inside all shiny and clean with these serious industrial monsoon season rubber floor mats that were mistakenly ordered.  And I STILL LOVE THIS CAR! We'll probably go somewhere next that won't allow us to bring her with us and it will break my heart.

Anyways, I've had the chance to really enjoy driving in Yangon which I wasn't sure I would.  I'd heard the traffic was insane and hiring a driver was a must, but while I don't judge those who entrust their vehicles and livelihoods to someone else (I LOVE when friends with drivers give me rides- it's the best! you don't have to worry about parking or having a glass of wine or anything), I do actually like scooting around in my subaru.

Here are the driving principles I follow to survive the roads in Yangon:
1. Choosing a lane is so boring.  If you straddle both lanes you can still pass people who are turning left in the lefthand lane on the right and swerve around trishaws, dogs, humans, water buffalos, bicyclists, monks, taxis, etc. blocking the righthand lane.  This is how the locals do it, so I have taken up this habit too.  I'll never be able to drive in America again.
Monks walk around town in the mornings accepting alms from people.  The people prepare rice or other food to give them.  It's good not to hit a monk while driving.

2. 90% of drivers in Myanmar are in vehicles that have the steering wheel on the righthand side of the car despite the fact that they also drive on the right side of the road (in America we drive on the right but steering wheel is on the left for better visibility).  This is due to the fact that a superstitious general sought advice from his astrologer who said that the country had moved too far to the left, politically.  In response, in 1970 he switched sides of the street to drive on to the right which solved EVERYTHING! Despite the changed policy, cars were still mostly imported from Japan (wheel on the right) and there you have it.   If you don't want to get sideswiped, you'd better master the friendly half-honk.  I just put my palm on the corner of the horn and barely tap it so that drivers know where I'm at when I'm passing and don't decide to swerve around the aforementioned trishaws, dogs, humans, water buffalos, bicyclists, monks, taxis, etc. blocking the right hand lane.

3. Smile and wave if you need to merge- even in bumper to bumper traffic, it goes a long way here.  There are many times when R will ask me to roll my window down, hang my arm out the window and smile to get over at the right time.  Other drivers peacefully oblige without a hint of frustration or bitterness.  Of course you have to get into this same mentality and leave your passive aggressive driving behind you in America.  If someone else asks to get in front of you, you yield.  It's a little crazy but it works.

4. Perfect your backing in skills or be doomed to never find a parking spot EVER.  People complain about the parking in Yangon but really I think they're insecure about their ability to reverse into a narrow space.  I practice every day both at the embassy where the parking spots are enormous and at home where there's risk of injury and I won't say I've mastered it but I'm much more apt now.

5. Never run your headlights during the daytime. While in America this is considered sensible and safe, in Myanmar people think that it drains your battery.  They will signal to you in traffic all over town by making a fist and then opening and closing their hand quickly to look like a light.  The first time this happened I was really concerned and couldn't figure it out.  By the third time I knew what they were trying to communicate but thought, oh I will show them- it's better to drive with lights on! But by now, I've given in.  I don't drive with my lights on in the daytime.  It's just easier to turn them off than have every taxi driver and parking attendant worried that I don't know I'm draining my battery.

6. My final piece of advice is to not be in a rush when driving in Yangon.  Traffic is unpredictable and not necessarily bound to a time of day or place in particular.  If I drive over 25 miles per hour here, I feel like I'm cruising on the freeway.  We typically show up 10 minutes let or 20 minutes early regardless of when we leave the house.  Some times it's the full moon or the new moon or a local holiday or a power outage or school traffic or a bus that ran into the cement embankment in the middle of the road that you can't predict.

But again, I like the chaos and fluidity of driving here.  I also don't have to drive very far or very much in Yangon so it's not a total headache for me.  


Yan-go! The Ultimate Yangon Scavenger Hunt

When I try to remember how Yan-go! started, I can vaguely recall my friend N saying, hey, I and a friend of mine were thinking of organizing a Yangon scavenger hunt would you want to join us?  I was a little hesitant.  Did I need one more event to plan? Probably not.  But we started meeting anyways.  We met over tacos and espressos and golden pho.  And our meetings were... refreshing.  Possibly because neither of these friends work at the Embassy, and it required me to leave for small chunks of time.  It felt like coming up for air.

getting set up for registration
Best t-shirts ever
rule #1: bring an umbrella, it's probably going to rain
So I kept going and we kept planning.  We picked a date first.  It was a date many months away which made it seem very far off.  We set up a website.  We discussed the hows and the wheres and the whens.  We contacted some sponsors and reached out to Yangon Heritage Trust who we wanted to donate all of the proceeds to.  We created a logo and made some flyers. We added a team member and brainstormed clues.  We made a Facebook page and then an event.  We told EVERYONE in town that we knew.  We made t-shirts (the t-shirts were integral to the whole project).

our script!

stickers- I loved seeing my logo come to life! 
Then it happened.  Over 200 people showed up to run around downtown Yangon in the rain.  Some of them even had coordinated costumes.  We made them paint their faces and look for clues on colonial buildings and talk locals into doing the Macarena.  We raised 1,000,000 Myanmar Kyat (don't google the exchange rate, OK? let's just pretend it's a super-impressive amount of money).  It was exhilarating, and something I'm still really proud of being a part of.

very official

All of our planning paid off!  I think everyone enjoyed the event and especially us- that may have something to do with the fact that we were dry and sitting in a bar for the afternoon not running around in the rain.

On your mark, get set, YAN-GO!

team table fries- i.e. supportive friends
grading results and determining a winner
Most of all I was grateful for the chance to get to know the other women I worked with to pull it off.  Everyone worked so well together. Everyone brought something unique to the table.
there were a lot of people that showed up for this event
many were supportive friends!
I definitely felt a post-Yan-go slump the day after.  I imagine it's what winning an election must feel like.  Except, well, those people have new jobs to go figure out how to do.  I had to go into regular work.
R even became a little famous for this photo which was featured on the embassy facebook page- he got over 4,000 likes!
So thankful for this unique way to show love to Yangon.  Yan-go! will definitely be one of my fondest memories from our two years here.  


Taiwan: The Heart of Asia

As previously mentioned, May- October is Monsoon season in Myanmar & one of my lessons learned at our first post Shenyang is to always take breaks during the bad weather if you want to survive it.  Very few places have good weather year round.  The bad weather may be different (in one case highs in the single digits fahrenheit and in the other non-stop rain for weeks on end), but it's escapable if you plan for it!
I love a good train station
Friends recently went to Taiwan over Water Festival (April) and came back with stories and instagram feeds full of cheap, delicious food.  R & I have wanted to get back to Taiwan since we visited Taipei in 2013 from Shenyang, and a trip out of the rain in August seemed just right.
We were determined to get out of Taipei this time around and see more of the island's mountains and beaches, and it was worth the effort.  Thankfully R was able to find the time to plan our trip.  Usually, it's up to me to figure out the travel logistics and I was happy to book our flights and a few nights at hotels in Taipei, but trains out of the city and lodging near Taroko gorge as well as finding the perfect bed & breakfast on the East coast (Taitung) was a little out of my range.  R was more than ready to put his Mandarin to use once again and put together the perfect itinerary.
Not much to photograph at the Whiskey distillery.  These smiles are pre-tasting and only got bigger as the afternoon progressed.
Our trip took us through some really beautiful places and allowed us to unwind and relax.  We probably spent too much time in Yilan visiting the Kavalan whiskey factory (though it's a charming town and we enjoyed the night market there).  Plus the whiskey is really something fantastic.

Taroko Gorge: Shakadang Trail:: these pictures do not give the colors of the water and the stones justice
so many butterflies in Taiwan.  
Taroko Gorge was high on our list to visit and it exceeded our expectations.  R coordinated with our hostel owner to get permits for us to hike the Zhuilu trail.  A number of places will do this, but you have to arrange it beforehand.  It is a challenging hike and for a least 500 meters of the trail is just 30 inches wide and then there's the gorge with no rail.  If you're even slightly afraid of heights, this trail will make you face your fears.  Unfortunately for us, due to rain the second half of the trail was closed.  We did 3.2 km in and then back but it was still lovely.  Of course, since a permit is required the trail had significantly less people on it than the tour bus stops throughout the rest of the park and that made it totally worth it!

we made it to Taroko Gorge!

We spent two nights at the entrance to the Taroko National Park.  The location was incredibly convenient and allowed us to do the short, but picturesque Shakadang trail the day we arrive from Yilan.  I think we probably could have moved on after we did the Zhuilu trail the second day.  We got back around 2p.m. and the location makes it kind of a food desert (shocking for any part of Taiwan).  If we were to do it again, I would have stayed the second night in Hualien where there's an enormous night market or just gone on to Taitung.

park of the Zhuilu trail
Zhuilu trail was pretty narrow for a good part of the trip.  I am holding on to the rope bolted into the side of the gorge.
Swallows Grotto:: swarming with swallows and tourists alike
beautiful waterfall near the sparrow's grotto
I was so excited to see the Eternal Spring Temple but R was nervous we'd miss the last tour bus back to our hostel so this is as close as we got
The following day, we got a driver and crawled down the lovely eastern coast stopping to see some of the beautiful coastline, volcanic rocks, and tide pools.  The blue of the pacific and the rocks reminded me so much of Hawaii.  It was stunning.
wouldn't you guess this is Hawaii?

That night, our B&B made reservations for us at Changbin 100 which is a restaurant without a menu, preparing just a chef's choice set menu, reservations only.  At most the simple, minimalist dining room sat 30 people.   After 24 hours of not-great food near Taroko, we really needed a food win.  Part of the reason we came to Taiwan was all the food and I felt like we had wasted a few meals on subpar food near the national park.

seafood pancake just 1 of 9 courses all for $30
Changbin 100 completely delivered.  It started with a small pitcher of sweetened ice tea that we could not get enough of which launched us into a NINE course meal: tempura soft shell crab, braised turnips, pork ceviche, blackened fish, steamed shrimp, and it just kept going.  After a few of the amazing dishes came out, I started to wonder to myself what a meal like this would cost us.  I know for a fact that this question hadn't escaped R either.  The bill came and I was afraid to ask. It totaled 1000 Taiwanese dollars which is about $32 USD for both of us! It was probably the best meal we've had all year!

sunrise in Taitung
fields of day lilies at liushidan shan

We found that Taitung is one of those rare places that has everything. There's the ocean and our lovely B&B was maybe a mile from it, but up in the hills in front of beautiful mountains positioned so you could see the ocean just off in the distance from their porch.

rice paddies and a view of the sea:: Taitung
This area is maybe an hour's drive from the Yu Shan National Forrest which is just teaming with wildlife and hardly any humans.  On a short hike we saw more butterflies than we could count.  We saw a salamander and a monkey and then just in the middle of the trail was... a PHEASANT!  We saw this huge bird and Ryan said: IT'S BEAUTIFUL! And it was.  I only knew it was some sort of pheasant from the vague childhood memory of a stuffed pheasant at a gourmet shop I visited weekly with my dad. When we told our driver he exclaimed- Oh! You're so fortunate!  That's our national treasure and they're very rare!  He then pulled out a 1000 Taiwanese dollar bill to show us the picture of the Swinhoe Pheasant.  We did feel fortunate for having such lovely and easy adventures.
Our hosts Lili & Aming recommended Yu Shan as well as Liushidan Shan which in August showcases hill after hill of orange day lilies.  The roads to the tops of the mountain were a bit curvy for me, and our driver insisted that we would enjoy the whole thing more if we hiked up the hills (not sure I agree but we went with it).

more butterflies

yushan national park

chasing waterfalls in yu shan is easy

Our second day in Taitung we spent resting at our lovely bed & breakfast.  This was part of R's plan but partially because renting a car and driver for the day isn't cheap.  I think this day had just as much to do with us coming back well-rested as all of the hikes, sunshine and nature.  We had another delicious breakfast prepared by our B&B's hosts' son and then read, did a little yoga and read some more.  This was also a fun day because R's sister (previously referred to as Mrs. Pi) was giving birth in America so we could track her progress and see all the pictures in realtime without feeling like we should be enjoying something else.  

At our hosts' behest we bought fresh sushi the day before and brought it down to the beach for a picnic dinner.  It was a perfect day.

putting the breakfast in bed & breakfast including fresh homebaked bread

view of the pacific from our breakfast spot on the porch

lovely tea set- our hosts had impeccable taste

living room space

mei mei the cat

our b&b in the rice paddy hills facing the pacific

beach where we ate sushi for dinner
Of course, all good things must come to an end so we had to head back to Taipei.  Thankfully we had a couple nights in a nice hotel before heading home to Yangon.   This gave us ample time to fill up on beef noodle soup and mango shaved ice before our trip was over.

imagine there are slow cooked short ribs just below the rice... 

beef noodles going, going, gone...

Taiwan is such a lovely place and I truly hope we can back there again!