30 January 2017

Our BIG Summer Plans

Nearly 3 years ago, I published a post on this blog announcing that we were moving to China. We arrived in China in July 2014, and as you know, we've since made another international move. Ever since our initial move, we have not set foot on American soil.

All that is changing this summer.

After 3 years, we will be returning to the USA to spend one month in the country, reconnecting with all of our friends and family.

I was searching for the most quintessential "Angel and Rachel in America" photo I could find...this is it, isn't it? 

Is it weird that this decision feels almost as serious as the decision to move overseas was in the first place? Deciding to visit and travel in the USA when you earn a currency much weaker than the US dollar is a bit intimidating, we've found. We have thought about all sides of the issue, we've made several pros and cons lists--and eventually decided to simply commit to the trip and go.

Thank you to friends who recommended Kayak for flight bookings--I am really happy with the flights we were able to get and the deal I found using a multi-city itinerary! We are flying into Los Angeles and spending a few days in that area, before taking a domestic flight to Texas. At the end of our trip, we will be leaving from Texas to return to Malaysia. Sometime in the middle of all that, we'll either be roadtripping to Michigan or flying to Michigan to spend a good chunk of our time in our old home state.

Why are we going back to visit now? From before we ever left the USA, we had prepped our families with the idea that we did not plan to visit the USA for 4-5 years. There are so many factors that have to line up just right that it's not an easy trip to plan or make. Life is made simpler when you aren't trying to hop 'home' all that often. At this point, we're only at 3 years by the time we're returning, but a variety of family and personal reasons have led us to choose this as the right time--one of those reasons being my sister's June wedding. We're not necessarily the emotional "everybody has to be at all family weddings" type, but on a practical level, I am a really good person to have around for running a major, emotions are involved, too. We can't totally delete them. :)

We are incredibly excited to return and meet and speak with lots of people, eat some 'guilty pleasure' sorts of food (Arby's!!! Boxed mac'n'cheese!!! Wheat Chex!!!), spend time enjoying some comfy American pastimes like bonfires. To hug my grandparents and aunts and uncles and to have fun adventuring with our siblings and cousins and play with our nephew. I'm eager to finally, finally pick up my ring, just in time for the due date. Whenever I feel a little bit homesick for the USA, I don't feel homesick for February or September or December or anything like that....I feel homesick for summer. Green, open fields and rolling hills and bike rides on sunny days. There's only one season of the year that I would ever want to visit--and summer is it.

On the other side of excitement is also a remaining feeling of intimidation. After 3 years away, it's a bit hard to fathom how to visit a place you once lived. How do we get a phone and service for just a month? How do we get health insurance that'll cover one month in the USA, just in case of emergency (responsible adult things) ? How do we get a reasonably priced rental car in California? Will Angel have a reunion with The Bear? If we roadtrip to Michigan, where will we stop/sleep along the way? The questions running through my mind are nearly endless. I'll probably have to try driving again while I'm there and it's been a while. Everyone has grown up a lot in the last three years. There are a lot of unknowns. And on a practical level--this is majorly going to be an exercise in visiting the USA on a budget...and it's been so long I don't even remember what the best budget strategies are for that country anymore! If you have any budget travel or budget shopping advice--please, I'm all ears! Shopping will actually be a big part of the trip budget...some items are more easily found or less expensive or better quality when purchased in America (or sometimes...just not available at all where we live), so we already have a list going of what we'll need to be looking for. And vivid purple haircolor tops that list. Also, a new swimsuit. (If you ask Angel, he'd probably say a laptop tops that list, but people are allowed to have different priorities, right?)

And just like that...this'll be a very unusual summer for us. Talk to me if you have any ideas on things I ought to know about budget travel in the USA these days, or just things I ought to experience or try while in the States, or things I need to remember to do before we leave. Have you started making plans and commitments for the summer yet?
26 January 2017

6 Tips for a Minimalist Home

I often jokingly refer to our "nice, clean, empty" home. When it's been a little too long since the last time I visited the grocery store, I revel in the look of my "nice, clean, empty" refrigerator. However, even I admit the need for food and thankfully my refrigerator never stays empty for long. We have many friends who live in our same apartment complex and our apartment is the emptiest home I know--and that's on purpose. We have a functional minimalist home, and here are the strategies we use:

6 Tips for a Minimalist Home

1. Have stuff that serves a double duty. For example, we don't own bowls and plates. We own 6 dishes that are deep enough to serve as bowls and wide enough to serve as plates. They meet both purposes and that way we only have 6 dishes in our cupboard.

2. Don't take everything that's free. Sometime your house isn't full of stuff because you love shopping and spending....sometimes it's full of stuff because people give you lots of things for free and either you feel obligated to keep it or think someday maybe you'll have a use for it. Just because it was free or it was a gift doesn't mean its worth the space it takes up. Sometimes it is worth it. I gratefully take useful hand-me-downs. We bought next to no furniture for this apartment due to hand-me-down tables and beds and cupboards from family and friends. But if the hand-me-down isn't adding to your life and it's just taking up space, you don't need to accept it/keep it.

3. Realize that not all 'necessary' things are truly necessary. We don't have a microwave, or a dryer, or a television set, or an oven--4 appliances that tend to be seen as 'staples' in many homes. We don't have those because our lifestyle doesn't require them at this point in time. We hang our clothes to dry, we reheat leftovers on the stove top, we don't bake, and we watch TV on the laptop. Your non-necessary appliances may be different from ours. Maybe you don't need a blender (we do, because of Angel's smoothie habit), or maybe you don't need a rice cooker (when you make rice 3 or 4 times a week like we do, it's worth it. When you don't? Probably not worth the cupboard space). "Everyone has one" is never a good enough reason to hold onto something that you don't actually use.

4. Consider using 'stackable'/'collapsible'/foldable' items for things you only need occasionally. With only the two of us, we don't need a lot of chairs on a regular basis. But when we have a group of guests over, we do. Having 10 or 20 nice, sturdy, comfortable chairs sitting around in our small dining/living room area would make the area very crowded, and would be inconvenient when I'm sweeping and mopping and need to move everything. So, instead, we have several stackable plastic chairs and stools that can come out when we're feeding a big group. When we're not, they can stay stacked and out of the way of normal life. Counting the stackable chairs and my yoga ball, which is my favorite and preferred chair (also the preferred chair of any kids that come to visit...wonder why?), we can seat 16 people in our home. If we run downstairs and borrow my parents' stack of stools, we can seat an additional 8. And probably we shouldn't have too many more than 24 people at a party in this small of an apartment anyways... We have folding tables that we normally use as laptop desks in our spare room that we can easily bring out to the main room for large meals.

5. Don't be afraid to borrow. If your friends and family already have an item you need for a one-time use, does it really make sense to buy another one? I can definitely relate to not wanting to be a burden on others, not wanting to take advantage of their generosity, but sometimes borrowing really makes sense. Angel wanted to take instax photos, the tiny polaroid photos, for an event we were hosting to give as favors to guests. We didn't have the camera, but we had a friend with the camera, so we borrowed it for the night and just bought our own film to use with it. My parents have a massive DVD collection--we have a non-existent DVD collection because we can always just borrow one and then return it.

6. Do invest in the things that are actually important to your lifestyle. Don't keep things around that you don't use, don't keep clothes around that don't fit or that you secretly hate, don't keep items around just because it seems like you ought to have them even though you don't want them--but DO purchase and keep items that will be helpful for your lifestyle. Having 5 different pairs of athletic shoes is not important or necessary to everyone, but Angel has to have a pair for each sport he plays (did you know I would have never known that basketball shoes were different from running shoes if it weren't for him?). I have a sewing machine and a variety of art supplies, and hairstyling/coloring tools. We share a respectable collection of educational resources and games and props for lessons. And guess what, I don't know if you've noticed, but I don't wear a capsule wardrobe containing only black, grey, and white. I don't have a huge wardrobe, but what I have looks like a rainbow.

Do you have a minimalist home? What strategies do you use to keep your home clutter-free? Or are you more the personality who is more comfy in a less organized environment?
24 January 2017

What do You Want to Know about Malaysia?

I'm perhaps a bit of an odd expat in terms of not really being shocked by nor doing much recording of the differences between my birth culture and the one I live in. Truth be told, I think I sometimes forget that Malaysia isn't necessarily a big influence on the lives of others around the world--I forget that it might be a bit hard for you to picture what our lives look like here. So...I wanted to share a few bits about life in Malaysia in general.

* The "jungle meets civilization" effect that I've mentioned before is very real. We live in a large city, larger than any I've lived in in the USA. In spite of living in a large city, we see monkeys hanging out in and around our apartment building's parking lot every day. My parents have spotted a tusked wild boar while on a casual stroll behind our apartment. Five minutes from where we live, I could walk down toward a little creek that flows toward the ocean and odds are I'd spot at least one 5-foot long monitor lizard. Cicaks (geckos) inside the house are an everyday occurrence and mosquitoes are a major menace, all the more so because they carry diseases like Dengue and Chikungunya.

*There are three major people groups in Malaysia: Malay, Chinese, and Indians. In addition to these three groups, there are also Orang Asli, the many smaller people groups that are indigenous to Malaysia and have their own cultures and traditional religions. There are also many foreigners--much of the construction work and service professions are staffed by people from Nepal, Indonesia, the Philippines, or Vietnam--many of whom are in Malaysia on work contracts and send money back to their families living in their home country. There's also a pretty large presence of Europeans, North Americans, and people from other countries throughout Asia. We have met very few people from South or Central America here--if Angel ever does happen to hear anyone speaking Spanish, he is drawn to them like a magnet, but it's fairly rare.

*There are a LOT of public holidays here, and this is related to the multi-cultural society. Major Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist holidays are recognized as national holidays (along with holidays relating to the nation's history)--since we live in a busy city that doesn't have good traffic at the best of times, we've learned to stay home on national holidays, because traffic will slow to a crawl and parking spots will become non-existent when everyone is off of work for the holiday. For the upcoming Chinese New Year, we already know not to attempt any grocery shopping or outings to the mall, because a large percentage of shops shut down in honor of the holiday.

*The differences between public bathrooms in the USA and public bathrooms in Malaysia are very real. And...they're one of the reasons I don't drink much when I'm out and far from home. Ha! Not all toilets are squat toilets and you can bet that after years here I've scouted out all of the best public bathrooms. Many more western-style public bathrooms have been built in malls in the past decade, but still, having actual toilet paper in your own private stall is almost non-existent. In nicer bathrooms, there is usually one communal roll near the entrance and you can tear off some toilet paper to take into the stall with you.

*We have many of the same fruits that are available in the USA. Strawberries are grown locally in Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. However, there is a wide variety of local fruits which would be a little harder to find in grocery stores back in the west. It's common to see durian, jackfruit, pomelos, mangosteen, lychee, longan, mata kuching, rambutan, and other fruits being sold in little stalls on the side of the road. Angel must stop and buy a pomelo every time he drives by a pomelo stall--this is not because pomelos are rare, but rather, because he is obsessed with them.

*The two main parts of Malaysia are East and West Malaysia, and there are 13 states in total. The country is quite different depending on what region you are in, which is a bit surprising considering that the whole of the country of Malaysia is smaller than some of the larger states of the USA.

*Malaysia does not have birthright citizenship--just because you are born here doesn't mean you have the option to become a citizen. Having a parent who is a Malaysian citizen makes the difference. My sister was born in Malaysia but is not a Malaysian citizen, rather a citizen of the USA. This lack of 'birthright citizenship' means that Malaysia faces the situation of having many 'stateless' children growing up in the country--children who were born to foreigners while living in Malaysia, for various reasons are unable to receive citizenship in their mother's birth country, and end up having no citizenship in any country in the world.

*Malaysia, because of its exact geographic location, is known for being relatively safe from natural disasters. Earthquakes that take place in Indonesia are occasionally felt here as slight tremors. There have been some serious floods in some regions in recent years, but most major typhoons don't get close enough to Malaysia to cause damage. The most severe natural disaster in recent history was the 2004 tsunami--which hit the coastline pictured above, including our own neighborhood, destroying a number of homes. Even in that disaster, though, Malaysia suffered less than Indonesia and Thailand, who were hit more directly.

Anything you'd like to know about this fascinating country? If I can, I'll answer questions in the comment section.
22 January 2017

Traveling in Trang, Thailand

I gave you the backstory on how we ended up choosing a road trip to Thailand as our Christmas vacation, but how did we choose Trang? Whenever we mentioned our upcoming trip, and said we were visiting Trang, we'd get responses like "Where? Never heard of it!" from friends and relatives.

Here's what happened. We were looking at Google's map of Thailand for cities that weren't too far of a drive from home. We went to Hat Yai many years ago, and knew that there wasn't much to do in the area, so we crossed that one off the list. Phuket and Krabi are very well-known, but they're less easy to get to by car from Malaysia, and also more expensive because of their fame in the travel world, so we decided against those. That left Trang. When I searched: "Things to Do in Trang" on the internet, references to caves, waterfalls, and islands kept popping up. Those are three of my favorite things, so that made the decision easier. The whole decision-making process, starting from "Should we fly somewhere or drive somewhere? What country should we go to?" to booking the hotel in Trang, took about an hour.

Where to Stay

When searching for hotels in Trang, we didn't come up with that many options. but did find Mitree House, a bed and breakfast that had great reviews, wifi and parking available, and still had 3 rooms open for the week after Christmas. We were very happy with the large rooms we stayed in, and Angel and the girls appreciated watching TV, even in the selection was a bit weird (Captain America dubbed in Thai and some kind of movie about zombie sharks? I don't know, I was reading a book). The things you're amused with when you don't have a TV at home. The hotel was reasonably priced--we got our rooms for the equivalent of a bit less than $25 USD a night--considering that included breakfast and a nice, secure place to stay, and parking, we were very happy and would highly recommend Mitree House.

What to Eat

Rebekah was on a mission to eat green curry in Thailand, but we discovered green curry doesn't actually exist in Thailand. Okay, right there I'm obviously joking...but for real, we never ended up finding a place that sold green curry. We wandered the town and ate at several little Thai Chinese restaurants--we particularly like the crispy pepper-and-garlic chicken and pork dishes and the basil chicken. Getting cokes and sprites served in glass bottles was fun! At these little local shops, a meal was about 50 Baht ($1.50 USD) but the meals were quite small--Angel ordered two meals for himself every time, though they were the right size for me!

There is a night market near the Trang Railway Station that is quite large on weekend nights. There were lots of local snacks and meals available there. Rebekah ordered mango sticky rice and some sort of local dessert which reminded us of cotton candy. Angel tried various fruits and ice creams.

Each morning we went to the fruit market--once the family realized the the pomelos tasted strangely much better than the pomelos we're used to in Malaysia, they just had to get their fill of pomelos each day! One entire pomelo was 50 Baht, about $1.50, cheaper than they are in Malaysia!

We also visited the Robinson's in Trang, a large department store that happened to have a doughnut shop. Good doughnuts aren't so easy to find in this part of the world...personally, I don't like doughnuts, but the rest of the family does. They ended up eating doughnuts three times on our Thailand trip! But I can't tease them for that because I went to a ramen shop for lunch one day and greatly enjoyed my ramen in Thailand. Sometimes, on vacation, you just want your favorite foods, regardless of whether they're 'traditional' to the location or not! ;)

What to Do

We had a 4 night stay, with three full days in Trang. Here's what we did.

Tone Nga Chang Wildlife Park

We visited this park, which contains a number of waterfalls, on our way into Thailand, before continuing on to Trang, and were very happy we made the stop, as it was really impressive! We walked up to the second set of falls, where there was nobody except our own family, and really enjoyed the natural beauty of the powerful water!

Lost Elephant Cave

A really beautiful cave, with countless stalactites and stalagmites. The cost was 40 Baht (just over $1) per person for the tour and we were oohing and aahing throughout the journey. Except when the guide said something about a crocodile (I think he was trying to say that a stalagmite looked like a crocodile), but Sarah thought maybe he meant there were crocodiles in the cave and she got pretty nervous.

Yong Ling Beach

On our first morning in Thailand, we headed out to this beautiful beach and found that we had the entire beach to ourselves. There were signs showing the "Tsunami Evacuation Route," which were pretty sobering, considering that most of us remember the 2004 tsunami quite vividly, and we were on the beach just days after the 12th anniversary of the tsunami.

 Most of us hadn't worn swimsuits, so other than Angel, no one went swimming, but we enjoyed exploring the rocky cliff at one end of the beach and scouting for sand and bits of coral in the sand and the shallows. There were quite a few monkeys hanging out near the beach so we didn't dare get out any snacks.

Kantang Hot Springs

These have several different spellings in English letters--actually, that's true of most of the destinations we visited in Thailand. I assume that's because it's difficult to accurately represent the sounds of Thai in our alphabet. So you might also see these referred to as "Khuan Kaeng Hot Springs".

This was a pretty cool little stop, and the springs are very, very hot indeed! A slight sulfurous smell in the area, but not like, say, in Yellowstone if you were expecting something like that. There were a large group of boy and girl scouts picnicking when we visited and they told us "Hello!" and "I love you!" many times. You could tell they were having a fun day out! We got to walk on a very interesting though somewhat treacherous elevated cement walkway that was mission some handrails. Don't trip and fall into the hot springs...

Also, do me a favor and read the photo with the rules about behavior near the hot springs. I particularly like the one about not boiling eggs in the springs...

Le Khao Kop Cave

So...this cave. I read reviews on Trip Advisor for this cave ahead of time, and found them hilarious because the overall summary of the cave experience seemed to be, "I felt like I was going to die!!!! And it was the coolest thing ever!!!!"

I've visited caves in various parts of the world and I've never had a cave experience like this one. Our party of 7 divided into two boats and paddled down a little river to the cave entrance. The guides had us lie down in the boat for entering the cave, as the ceiling is low and they didn't want us to bump any parts of our body into anything. Once we'd entered some way into the cavern, they had us get out of our boats and take a little walking tour inside some larger caverns. The guide took a family photo for us, and we had a few minutes to look around and enjoy the stalactites, before they guided us back to the boats.

This was when it got serious. They had us take off our shoes, lie down, and point our feet so that no unruly toes were sticking up to high. The guide told Dad to take his glasses out of the pocket of his shirt and put his camera underneath his body--and then the two guides began to push our boat through the "Dragon's Belly" of the cave.

In this part, no exaggeration at all, the ceiling of the cave and the various stalactites are just inches away from your body. At some parts, the passageway gets so narrow that the boat scrapes the rocks on both sides. For me, this part of the cave was actually oddly relaxing, to simply lay perfectly still and watch the rocky ceiling slide past right above me. I'm a very small person--I've heard reports that for larger people, there is more risk of actually getting some part of your body knocked or scratched by the passing ceiling of the cave, so this tour is not recommended for those who are uncomfortable with small spaces. Our whole family thought it was really cool, and not too scary, although the more responsible people in the group (i.e. Mom and Dad) were thinking about things like flash floods and stuff that could make this adventure a little too dangerous.

Just a few kilometers from this cave, we found a little place to rent kayaks, and embarked on kayak races against each other in a small circular channel that flowed around a limestone 'mountain' of sorts.


We spent one entire day not even on the mainland at all, but rather island-hopping to various nearby islands off the coast...but that day already got a whole entire blog post all to itself: Island Hopping near Trang, Thailand

Have you ever heard of the city of Trang before? Have you visited Thailand? What's the coolest cave you've ever visited? I do try to collect caves around the world, you know...
19 January 2017

Response to Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events

Some months ago, there was a show that premiered that seemingly everybody on the internet got excited about. It was some sort of reunion based on what I believe is called Gilmore Girls, which appears to be a show that aired on TV sometime in the past. After this exciting reunion aired, I stumbled across a number of bloggers' reaction posts in honor of the reunion series. These were extremely confusing to read, considering I've never seen anything of either the original show or the reunion.

However, those posts gave me a brilliant idea of what, as a blogger, I should do when a show came out that I was passionately excited about.

I am a fan of A Series of Unfortunate Events. You know how most kids my age were Harry Potter fans? Similar to that sort of passion, just not a series that managed to get quite as much fame as the Harry Potter series did. I have always loved the use of the English language in this series, and have read all of the off-shoots such as the Unauthorized Autobiography and The Beatrice Letters. I have even read the other Lemony Snicket books, including The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming, which has become one of my family's favorite not-Christmas stories and has inspired us to make latkes on a number of occasions. I will say, I've never read anything by Daniel Handler that I actually liked--his adult fiction is too dark and gory for my tastes, but when he writes as Lemony Snicket, I love his work for children and regularly recommend the books to any parents trying to get their middle-schooler to read something, anything at all.

So, it's not a surprise that I was watching the first episode of A Series of  Unfortunate Events within an hour of finding out that the episodes were now available. I wanted to collect and record my impressions of the series for any other Snicket-fans. And the rest can just be as confused as I was when you are were all discussing Gilmore Girls. Payback time!

*There might be spoilers in this list. I'm not sure. I don't think so, but then, the first book came out in 1999, and I started reading it shortly all of this seems like common knowledge to me.

> I like Lemony Snicket as narrator, and his signature defining of words "a word which here means"...but it was a bit jarring at first that you could see his face out in the open like that. Never actually seeing Lemony Snicket's face is a consistent move throughout the books. I got used to it, though, and enjoyed scenes with him, particularly the hotel scenes.

> The overall bizarre, surrealistic feel of the show fits the stories very well, and feels more appropriate than trying to set Unfortunate Events into a more realistic world setting. This story wouldn't quite work in a realistic world. The real world has CPS. And yet...anyone who's ever had to deal with people in power over them who simply cannot use their brains can find something to relate to in this series.

> I liked that it was rather accurate to the books--often to the exact lines said and exact scenes that happen, and yet sometimes there were other added scenes or little surprises that were fun, and kept it from being too predictable for die-hard fans who know the books precisely. (i.e. the little scene where the hook handed man makes three different kinds of buttercream frosting for the wedding cake for Count Olaf to taste--one vanilla, one with a hint of nutmeg, and one that's a bit...lemony. There are a few intriguing side plot angles--referencing mysteries that aren't don't get mentioned till later in the book series--and regarding one significant change...perhaps they thought that the original manner of Dr. Orwell's death was too gory/traumatizing for TV.

> The look of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny was perfect for their characters. Their acting sometimes felt a bit overly stiff and awkward. But they're still endearing.

> I loved detailed references that are caught by those who know the books: the missing sugar bowl...."The world is quiet here."....etc.

> I was worried about Uncle Monty, since I wasn't sure there could be as perfect of a portrayal of Uncle Monty as the way he was in the 2004 movie...but if anything, I like this Uncle Monty ever so slightly more than the one from the movie. And now I wish I had an Uncle Monty, of course.

> Those parents? They were just trying to traumatize us or what??

>As an English teacher I find Aunt Josephine's philosophy that grammar provides all the answers you need admirable. I still don't really like her as a person, though.

> Count Olaf's associates are SO creepy.

> I appreciated the greater diversity in casting of characters as compared to the previous film.

> Normally, I'm drawn to more of the 'bad guys' in books and movies. However, the bad guys in this series are so rotten there is nothing to love. Phil, on the other hand, is awesome. I want a friend like Phil. I think my four favorite characters from the show are Phil, Uncle Monty, Gustav, and Sunny.

> In high school, I wrote poems (mostly limericks, for some reason) about every character in the series. In Count Olaf's poem, I rhymed his name with 'rice pilaf.' In the show, they rhyme Count Olaf's name with 'rice pilaf' in a song they write about him. High school me feels very proud.


Have you seen the show yet? Read the books? What do you love/not love about it?

If you haven't seen it--have you no sense or humor or appreciation for the immense vocabulary contained between the covers of a Verified Functional Dictionary of the English language?
17 January 2017

The Longing to be Understood

Like many a preteen, I sometimes feel like wailing, "No one understands me!!" However, because I'm an adult, I don't wail it, and I don't flop down on my bed afterwards. Yet, growing up, and being misunderstood so frequently, has shown me how much I value the small core of people who do understand me, who 'get' the kind of person I am, for better or for worse

My extremely affectionate baby sister Sarah decided in the past that she liked stroking my hair. Now, I don't like people touching my hair at all. That's part of the reason I don't get it cut often. I cringe when people touch my hair, and there's a reason for that. But Sarah is my precious baby sister, she's young, she doesn't know, and I determine that I'm not going to push her away by telling her. My mom yells from across the room, "Quit that, Sarah! Rachel hates it when people touch her hair."

I was surprised for a minute that my mom knew, that she remembered. And then I reminded myself, she's my mom, she gets me, of course she remembers my quirks, for good and for bad.

In my freshman year of college, I attended a banquet. I was sitting next to my friend Angel when the speaker said, as an introduction to her speech, "I'm not the smartest girl at Calvin. I'm not even the smartest girl in this room." I was just thinking to myself that I would never start a speech with those words when Angel leaned over to me and whispered in my ear: "If you were up there, you'd probably say 'I AM the smartest girl at Calvin and in this room.'"

I told that story to my mom, and from that point on, she knew Angel was the one to watch. Why? Because he understood just the kind of person I am, and Mom knows how powerful that sort of understanding can be.

Some time ago, my sister wrote to me: "How does Angel know that you say "X" and draw an X with your finger in the air when you don't like something?" She was surprised. She knows that little idiosyncrasy, but she was surprised Angel knew it too. The fact is, Angel lives with me. He gets me. He pays attention and understands me--and I cherish that understanding because I know it's a treasure of great worth. He knows that some things are much harder for me than they might be for others, and that other things are much easier for me than they are for others--his expectations and understanding of me are not based on the arbitrary roles I might fill: "This is what a wife is like." "This is what a 25 year old is like." "This is what a woman/American/Caucasian/cosmetologist/etc. is like." Instead--he knows me as simply myself, with my own unique ways of thinking about and responding to the world. Do you know how seriously awesome that is?

I understand him, too. When he posts certain sorts of statements on Facebook--I can just roll my eyes over at him and say, "Everyone's going to think you really mean what you said." He'll grin that crazy grin and say, "I know! Isn't it hilarious?" I know when he's being truly himself and when he's switched into some alternate version of himself that he thinks is appropriate to the current situation. I know when something's actually bothering him or when it's just his fierce eyebrows contributing to his overly serious expression.

Not everyone will understand you all the time, and that's perfectly okay. When I write satirical blog posts that are taken seriously--it's obvious that not everyone understands my writing style. We all experience misunderstanding constantly. People who don't quite get us make assumptions about our inner motivations that are entirely untrue, that lead to awkward conversations, strained relationships, and feeling like we have to walk on tiptoe around someone else or pretend to be people that we are not. Many in our lives will never really understand us, our inner motivations and the way our brains work and process information. Instead, because it's simpler, they put us in categories (by race, gender, age, job, education, role in society), and assume that we have the same motivations as others in our general category. It would be unreasonable to expect everyone who interacts with us to 'get' us--so instead we learn to get along in a more surface-level relationship, navigating differing expectations of motivations and actions in order to preserve balance.

 To be truly understood, deeply known and simply accepted for being the person that we naturally are is a longing we each have. Hopefully, we each have at least a few people who fulfill that longing, and we ought to meet that need in a few other peoples' lives as well. People who understand us in both the really important ways--motivations, deepest loves, goals--and in the little ways--habits, idiosyncrasies, likes and dislikes--are just the best ever. When you find those rare people who do 'get' you--don't let them go. Write down their phone number. Stay near to them. Get your advice from them. Marry them, if need be. They are too precious, so hold 'em close.

Who are the people in your life who 'get' you? Have you ever had experiences or relationships where you felt as if the other person did not even begin to understand you, and you didn't understand them, either?
15 January 2017

Island Hopping Tour in Trang, Thailand

A day spent on a boat, touring islands just off the coast of mainland Thailand was the day we were all most excited for in our trip. During my research in advance of our vacation, I definitely knew it was possible to go on boat tours of the nearby islands, but I could find little specific info on how to book a tour or how much tours generally cost, so we weren't quite sure if it would be possible or within the trip budget, but we figured we'd work it out once we arrived in Trang.

On our first night, we walked around to a couple different tour operators and got quotes on prices for tours. Based on my research, I was really hoping that we'd be able to get a private tour, as I'd heard that joining a 'big boat' tour can be a more frustrating experience, since you're crowded in with dozens of other people and have to stay on their time schedule. After asking around, we ended up booking a private tour for our family on our own longtail boat. The cost was 900 Baht (about $25 USD) per person, so this was our major splurge of the trip. It's worth noting that the ticket price + additional fees that we were quoted for joining a 'big boat' tour was also 900 Baht per person, which meant, for the size of our family, it was no more expensive to hire our own boat, and I'm very glad we did.

We booked our tour for the 3rd day of the trip, leaving us all in eager anticipation of the fun adventure that lay ahead. We were due to leave in a van at 8:30 in the morning, and, as is usual for us, we showed up at the tour operators' office at 8:10. We're eager like that. One of the few gigantic families you'll ever meet who is routinely early to everything.

Our tour was scheduled to include a stop for snorkeling at Koh Chuak, snorkeling at Koh Kradan and lunch on the beach, and a visit to Emerald Cave at Koh Muk along with some snorking off the coast of Koh Muk.

Have I mentioned that most of our family has never snorkeled before and a good portion of us have little-to-no experience swimming outside of a pool? Great. I was very excited but let's just say I was glad for the existence of life jackets. In our family, Angel is very comfortable swimming in oceans--the surfer boy from California, of course. Mom is also a great swimmer, she grew up swimming and snorkeling in Lake Huron--but she had a little 'barnacle' in the form of Sarah attached to her at all times. Rebekah and Dad can hold their own. I'm not terribly athletic and kept choking on ocean water when the mouthpiece of my snorkel came apart from the breathing tube, but I survived and was only a bit sore the next day. We tease MaryGrace about being accident-prone and our sweet sister returned from the day with feet rather sliced up because kept accidentally bumping them into the rocky coast of the island.

All that to say--successful snorkeling actually requires a little bit of coordination and athletic ability, and Angel probably had the best time of all of us because he was best equipped. We did see other people out and about with toddlers in the ocean but for very protective parents, this would probably be a very nerve-wracking experience. Sarah can swim, but the wind, currents, and waves were a bit too much for her to fight against, which is why she stayed attached to Mom and in a life jacket the whole time.

Before our vacation, we'd all heard of the famous "Emerald Cave" or "Morakot Cave" on Koh Muk. What makes this cave cool is the fact that the only way to get inside is to swim in or kayak through the little inlet from the ocean that goes through the cave. Once you get in, you're in a little sheltered beach area that is surrounded on all sides by rocky cliffs. It's incredibly surreal--so cool to realize in real life that places like that exist on our planet! This is such a famous place that there was a number of people around in this area--we went at around 3-3:30 in the afternoon. Our tour guide said there might be up to 200 people in Emerald Cave during the morning busy rush when big boats come--I don't know how true that is but if so...I'm really glad we were there with only about 50 other people around.

Inside Emerald Cave, Thailand

Snorkeling near Koh Muk and Koh Kradan was a different story, though. In both of those places, we were the only snorkelers in the area and it was quite peaceful, with very clear water. Highlights were spotting sea urchins, sea anemones, an angelfish and some very large clam-like creatures.

Koh Kradan, Thailand

Koh Chuak was busier, a number of other snorkelers were present. You might be able to tell by now that this introvert is always happier when crowds are light or non-existent. That's true, but at the same time, the fact that there were other people swimming around did nothing to take away from the adventure and wonder of it all. It wasn't noisy because most people were pretty intent on looking through their goggles at the underwater world below. The funniest part was just after we'd all gotten in the water when our family was in a group, getting the hang of the snorkeling gear, and suddenly I hear Sarah begin to scream through her snorkel--a fish had decided to get a little too close for her comfort.

By the way, I have no idea what all the black and yellow striped fish that we saw by dozens are called. Do you happen to be a fish expert and know their name? I'd like to know but don't know an easy way to find out.

We ate a boxed lunch on the beach at Koh Kradan ('we' being everyone other than me...I don't eat when I'm adventuring) and then some of us took a long walk down to a deserted area of the beach with some tree swings while Sarah and Mom built some sand creations, including a mermaid tail for Sarah. At the end of the day, our guide got out plates of fresh watermelon, which tasted heavenly after a day spent in the salty sea!

Speaking of salt water...if you have curly hair, tie it up as tightly as you can before embarking on an adventure like this, and just plan on looking rather ridiculous for the rest of the day as your hair endures the combined terrors of salt and wind. Mom brought a pick with her and combed out tangles in her straight hair throughout the day and managed to look like a movie star, but for the rest of us curly-haired girls, I don't think a pick could have even done the job without the aid of conditioner. Speaking of conditioner--make sure you have packed some along. I didn't have any and at the end of the day I was using body lotion in my hair in the shower for detangling effect. Also, a full day in the sun and sea is brutal on bleached hair dyed purple--I had to color my hair as soon as we came home from the trip to get it nice and bright again.

Moving from hair to skincare, at some point in the day we joked that we were like the "vampires" of tourists in Thailand, because while bikins and sunburns were prevalent among the others we spotted, most of us were wearing suit with sleeves and were reapplying sunscreen dutifully every time we got back in the boat. My swimsuit top is actually long sleeved, and I was glad of that, as it got a bit chilly when the boat was speeding away after picking us up from snorkeling. But I did not see anyone else out there wearing long sleeves. Our "vampire" tendencies paid off, though--I didn't get even a hint of sunburn. My beauty school textbook said that sun damage is the cause of 80% of visible signs of aging in skin--yeah, I'm diligent! :) MaryGrace, Dad, and Rebekah got slightly sunkissed...and Angel, the only one who wasn't wearing a swimming top or life jacket and wasn't as faithful about applying sunscreen, got the only actual sunburn/tan lines.

We used the XiaoMi Rebekah won in a lucky draw last year for our underwater adventures, and I put this video together of Angel's snorkeling footage and of the interior of Emerald Cave. Note, I'm not pretending this is a great video. My beloved Angel is a notoriously terrible cameraman....but I think the adventure of this video outweighs the less-than-smooth camera work. ;)

Tiny islands are some of my favorite things on this planet. What are you favorite things to see and do on vacation?