Saturday, October 22, 2016

Differences...They Make The World Go 'Round

In the Foreign Service, I had the privilege of serving in Honduras, Oman, Pakistan and then, after retirement, I was asked to go to Singapore and now Brunei. During my years of service I had the chance to observe how things are done differently in every country, many times with the same or very different result.  It's not that one way of doing things is right or wrong, but just different. The following things happened to me or someone I worked with at one of my posts overseas.  For those of you who follow me on this blog and are members of the Foreign Service, I'm sure you can relate and probably have many of your own examples!

·        You're driving and you need to change lanes.
o   Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei - You put your turn signal on. The acceptable culture is that the car in the lane you wish to be in slows down and allows you to enter their lane.
o   U.S. - Hell no! You can't come in my lane! I'm going to speed up and close the gap. So there! Often you end up passing your turn and making a U-turn to come back to it. Or you bully your way into the lane.

·        You are pushing your basket down the aisle in a grocery store.
o   Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei - There is a clerk sitting on the floor stocking items on a lower shelf. She has several boxes on the floor and there is not enough room for you to pass. You end up turning around and going back the way you came. She never looks up.
o   U.S. - The clerk quickly stands up, moves the boxes and apologizes. Often nothing needs to happen because the aisles are nice and wide.

·        Security has told to vary your route driving to and from work (the embassy) to avoid an established pattern of behavior.
o   Tegucigalpa, Honduras - One route is pot hole-free as you know it. You change your route and hit 4 pot holes large enough to have their own zip codes. You also drive into a hole in the road that is missing its man hole cover, probably being used as a cook top somewhere.
o   U.S. - No need to vary your route to work unless you hear a bulletin on the radio about a wreck.

·        You need to buy some chicken for a fried chicken dinner.
o   Bandar Seri Begawan,Brunei - You wander back to the meat department, following your nose. Chicken is in open cases, self serve style, each one with differing chicken parts. You pick up the tongs and pick your pieces. You also have chicken feet, tiny chickens and oddly chopped pieces to choose from. You shoo away a fly. The man next to you moves a few pieces with his hand, looking for just the right piece.
o   U.S. - You look at packages, carefully sealed with 'sell by' dates printed on them, all marked USDA Inspected and monitored carefully by the people in the meat department. You can also choose from chicken in a glass enclosed case. No fly is seen.

·        You and your friend want to go to the mall to do a little shopping.
o   Karachi, Pakistan - You request a vehicle from the Security Officer, making sure there is a driver and body guard available to go with you. Once at the mall, you must stay together and not more than 6 feet from your body guard. Fortunately, you can go in the fitting room by yourself.
o   U.S. - You drive to the mall.

·        You decide you want to go to the beach for a swim.
o   Muscat, Oman - It's June and a great day for a swim. You drive to one of the many beautiful beaches.  It's 115⁰.  You park the car and start walking toward the water. OMG...the sand is blazing hot! Half way to the water, you begin to run and by the time you get there, you have 2nd degree burns on the bottom of your feet. But the water is gorgeous and feels so good on your feet. You enjoy swimming in your shorts and tee shirt.
o   U.S. - It's a great 86⁰. You walk to the beach, lay down your towel and ice chest and stroll toward the water in your ittsy bittsy bikini.

·        You aren't feeling well, probably need to take something.
o   Tegucigalpa, Honduras - You go to the drug store and choose from any number of antibiotics, anti diarrhea meds or strong pain killers.  You choose 3 different medicines that you think will help it and pay the $5.00 for all.
o   U.S. - You call your doctor and find out they can't see you for 3 weeks. You try the neighborhood clinic in the neighborhood drugstore and after 45 minutes of paperwork, they tell you that you really need to see your personal physician. You grab a bottle of Advil and hope it helps somewhat while you wait the 3 weeks to see your doctor.  Three weeks later, you see the doctor and his $275 bill is all applied to your deductible.

·        You need to drive your kids to school.
o   Tegucigalpa, Honduras - You pile all 3 kids in the car and head to the school. Due to the security risk, you have your emergency radio with you and hear a warning that demonstrators have blocked the road to school. You struggle with an alternate route but end up having to go back home due to the threat of violence.
o   U.S. - You pile all 3 kids in the car and head to school. You arrive 5-10 minutes later and pull into the drop off lane. Kids kiss you and head into school.

·        You need a new pair of black pants for work.
o   Bandar Seri Begawan - You go online, find a pair at a Big Box Store and place your order. You get an email confirming your purchase. You immediately get an email cancelling your order. For the next 2 weeks you exchange emails with Big Box Store with no one able to explain why your order was cancelled. Extremely angry, you search for an email address for Big Box Store. You find one in New York and fire off an angry letter. A week later you receive an email thanking your your business and patience and oh gee, we just can't explain why your order was cancelled. Please place the order again. And by the way, we will give you free shipping on your next order. Six weeks later you get your black pants.
o   U.S. - You head to any Big Box Store near you, find the pants, try them on, pay for them and head home.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016


Homesick.  Webster's Dictionary defines homesick as "sad or depressed from a home or family while away from them for a long time." 

I've never really experienced being homesick. Both my children are grown and live away and have been for years. When I joined the Foreign Service, I sold my home, car, most of my worldly possessions and off I went.  I was assigned to Honduras, to Muscat, Oman and volunteered for 2 years in Pakistan.  Since I didn't really have a 'home', I never felt that feeling of being away.  I have never really experienced being homesick.

Until now.

I've been in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei for a little over 14 weeks now with a little over 6 weeks to go...and I miss my bed. I miss the routine that I established since I retired in July of 2014. I miss my new kitchen. I miss my car. To me, that sounds so foreign, so unlike me.  I've tried to figure out if maybe I miss something else that could be causing me to feel the way I do but I can't think of anything.  So I guess I am finally experiencing being homesick.

It's not like I'm  unhappy here.  I'm really not sad, as Webster's states I should be. I'm really enjoying the work, the people I work with and this lovely country. But something is missing. It could be that I spend too much time in the house instead of out doing things. But on the plus side, I'm putting my entire paycheck every two weeks in savings and am trying to spend as little as possible while I'm here.  Most of what I spend is at the grocery store! I only brought 2 suitcases and am allowed much less weight on Royal Brunei Airlines going to Hong Kong than on American Airlines from Hong Kong to DFW.  Besides, there aren't many souvenirs to be found here.

I might be feeling this way because I've successfully settled into retirement and am truly happy.  However, the opportunity to work again doing something I love, earn a salary again and see more of the world was something I just couldn't turn down.

I think I'll just have a glass of wine and get over it...who wants to join me?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Photography....The Possibilities

I love retirement. It’s exactly what I hoped for and more. And having the option to say yes to the offer of an overseas assignment when they come my way is a real plus. It’s a great way to continue to see the world, meet incredible people and absorb other cultures so different from my own.

I planned well ahead for the day I would turn 65 and face mandatory departure from my job with the State Department. I learned to make jewelry so that one day I might find an outlet to sell them so I could keep making necklaces, which I really enjoy. 

I also love photography and have thousands of beautiful photographs from around the world. I have many of them posted on another blog dedicated to just photos. The address for that blog is  When I was traveling, my friends would say “Share your shots!” So I set up that blog as a place post them and also serve as a memory book of where I’ve been and what I have seen.

For over 2 years I've been trying to figure out a way to market my shots. I looked at lots of websites where photographers sell ‘stock’ photos. Stock photos are images that are uploaded to an online agency and sold with a commission to the photographer. The commission can be anywhere from .50 to $150.00 or more per photo sold. And just who are the customers? Normally they are magazine publishers or advertisers. Maybe they need a picture of a mountain scene for their ad for hiking boots. Or a cute puppy for an ad for dog food. As a rule, the profits aren’t huge but it’s a start. And who needs huge profits to start anyway?

I found a website called Fine Art America. It came highly recommended to me by another photographer. You upload your photos and they sell them in lots of different formats.  You can have a photograph put on canvas, a tote bag, greeting cards or a framed print. A really fun idea is to have a photo put on a mobile phone case. They have lots of iPhone and Galaxy mobile phone models to choose from.  I currently have 77 photos for sale on my shop and most of them would look great on a phone case. 

With Christmas just a couple of months away, I thought I would self-promote my photograph website as a suggestion for a very cool Christmas gift. Maybe you went to Venice and never got that terrific shot of the canal and gondolas. Or you love elephants and would love a photo of the head of a beautiful elephant with a chunk out of his ear! Or maybe you would love to see a field of olive trees in Florence, Italy on your wall. Or a beautiful Texas sunflower on a tote bag.

The link to my Fine Art America shop is below. I hope you’ll take a minute to visit it and browse the photos. When the page opens, you will see my photos. Click on any photo and it will open to a page where you will see all the items you can have the photo put on.  

Thanks…and please let me know what you think!   My Fine Art America site

Monday, September 19, 2016

Temburong, Brunei and My Big Hike

So...I was asked if I wanted to go to Temburong, Brunei and climb the stairs to the observation site and look out over the tops of the trees of the Rain Forest, or canopy. I knew I wanted to see some of Brunei while I was here for 4.5 months so I was happy to be invited. Sure, I said.  I was told that there were 1000 steps to the top.  When I took a trip to Sri Lanka, I managed to climb the approximate 1200 steps up the rock known as Sigiriya Rock.  Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress built 1600 years ago with the ruins of a castle at the top.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and downright amazing. I did need some encouragement to keep going..."we are almost there!" Let me tell you, I was told that so many times, I felt like Jack of Jack and the Beanstock!  I finally made it and the view was a one of a kind, 360 degree drop dead gorgeous view. I was so glad I fought on and made it to the top.

I thought...if I made it to the top of that rock, I can climb the 1000+ stairs so I can look out over the canopy of trees of the Rain Forest in Brunei. But...that rock was 5 years ago.

There were 3 of us on this trek and our guide. We started out in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei taking a water taxi through the maze of waterways that snaked through mangroves and miles and miles of wild palms. The trip lasted about 35 minutes and was most pleasant. When we arrived and left the water taxi behind, we were met by our guide. We piled into his van, very old but apparently dependable.  The countryside was really pretty. It's a whole different feeling about the countryside when you're in the rain forest. Lots of greenery, monitor lizards and snakes. 

Soon the van pulled off the road on to a dirt and gravel parking lot. Breakfast! We need energy, our guide says.  Breakfast was Roti with egg.  Roti is a delicious crepe-like dish, very thin and a fried egg (yolk broken) cooked inside it.
Roti with egg
It was pretty darn good.  With tummies filled, we headed back to the van and more driving. The road was pretty bad and he had to nearly stop for some of the potholes. 

Soon, he pulled off the road again and we were told we had arrived for our second boat trip. 
These boats are called long boats and they are long...maybe about 25-30 feet long and about 12" deep.  We boarded our wooden boat, one at a time, based on size. Things needed to be balanced, you know?  

For the trip in, I was in the front and could sit on the 6" wooden board that they referred to as a seat. I chose to call it a 1 by 6 masquerading as a seat. My butt will never forgive me for this excursion.  We donned our life vests and headed up (yes, up) the river. Within minutes we approached our first rapids. Remember I said we headed UP  the river.  The 'captain' who was manning the outboard motor at the rear revved it and we charged ahead full steam. Another person was perched on the very front of the boat and had a long stick, maybe bamboo, ready for action. I wondered kill an alligator? Bat away a savage bird? No, her job was to look out for big rocks and push the boat away from them. 

You see, the water was only about 12" deep and the bottom of this river was covered in rocks, some larger than others which would do damage to the bottom of our boat. Oh, I forgot to mention that prior to boarding this boat I saw the 'captain' with a can, shoveling out water from the bottom of the boat. My confidence was not at its highest level.

Every once in a while, the gal up front would point her finger to the right or left and he would guide the boat right or left. Other times she would frantically work that stick in the water, hitting a rock and pushing the boat away from it. I have to say that after a while, it didn't bother me because the scenery I was seeing had the full attention of my eyes. This Is The Rain Forest! Trees were over 20 stories tall, so many different varieties of palm trees...monkeys in the trees...huge hornet nests. The banks of this very shallow river were solid beautiful white or black rocks, worn smooth by the current of the water.  We probably forged upstream over 5-7 rapids. These were kind of mini rapids but the Captain did have to rev up the engine to get us up and over them and the stick lady up front had to work hard, guiding the front of the boat away from and through the rocks. And yes, we did hit many many rocks.

After about 40 minutes we arrived at the beginning of the hike to the top. We all had to sign our names in a huge, nationality, age. When I wrote my age, the man looked at me and gave me the look, as if to say "Lady, are you sure you want to do this?" I just smiled. Little did I know....

Soon we arrived at a hanging bridge, not a bad bridge at all. A suspension bridge. The view was beautiful from it. Very well made. Very safe.

A new guide took us under her wing and with backpacks in place, we headed upward behind her.  I say upward because the first few stairs went up, then we went severely down, then a few back up, then more down. I asked if all these steps were part of the 1000 steps to the top. She turned to me and just shook her head.  Oh hell...I was going to be worn out before I started the 1000 Steps!

The steps. Oh, those lovely steps. They are made out of wood. Some were 9" deep, some were 4" deep. In some places there was a wooden rail to keep you from falling into the forest.  Some places it was a nylon rope with knots tied every few feet. Some steps had a 5' rise, others had a 9" rise. I think there was a whole lot of drinking going on when the stairs were built! About every 100 or so steps, there was a covered spot to sit. Catch your breath. Wait for your heart rate to drop below 125. Curse yourself for thinking you could do this.

Did I mention that my 2 friends were in tip top condition? Regular hikers. 30 years younger than me?

About half way up (when I was informed that I was only half way up) I suggested that the guide and my friends go on ahead. I needed to rest more than they did and I didn't want to hold them back. I convinced them that I was just fine but they needed to keep their pace and I needed to keep mine. So off they went.

If I sat and rested and felt myself able to take deep breaths again, able to not feel my heart beating out of my chest and able to shake off the wobbliness in my legs, I felt I could move on.  Going at my own speed was better for me. I would stop and pretend to be admiring the beauty and vegetation as others trotted by me. Damn them. I do think I was the oldest one on that 1000 Step staircase to the top!

At one point, I decided I had had enough. No mas. So I sat for about 10  minutes and felt much better. I realized that to have come this far and not reach the top would surely be something I would regret forever. So, off I went again. Poco a poco. Little by little. And finally I could hear lots of chatter...Chinese chatter. The last group that passed me snickering, I think. Sure enough, I reached the top. Our guide was sitting there and she looked at me and said "You OK?"  I wanted to say.."Hey, do I look OK???"  But I just said "Yes...I wanted to make it to the top."

She pointed to the metal structure and said "Top that way."

Oh crap.

There stood this tower, about 6' square or so, made out of metal. With a big Warning sign.  It was probably 20 levels of 7 steps each. And that was what would take me to the top and a catwalk to the FIRST level! I decided I was as far as I could go. I sat there for about 10 minutes and then saw my 2 friends walking down trail from the topmost top.  He said I could make it up the metal structure and the view was great.

My mind said go for it. My legs said are you kidding us? I took a deep breath and headed upward. I stuffed my iPhone into my bra since I didn't have pockets in my pants and I damned sure wanted a picture once I got up there. Up, up and up some more I went. I made it. I was at the most Top of Top I was going to get. Even if I had wanted to make it to the very top, I would have had to go up yet another damn tower and that meant down this one and up and down the taller one. Not happening.

I was happy with my view.  

It wasn't like the ones you might see if you google Rain Forest Canopy.  I had made it to the Canopy level, not the Emergent level. The Emergent level is where your are at the tops of the trees or above.

The way down the steps was much easier. I had brought an old pair of sneakers and the bottoms were slick so I had to be careful to not slip on leaves and on inclines, or declines. The long boat ride back was fun but I was now in the back and no room to stretch out my legs. Riding the rapids were much more fun going with the current and I was able to get a few videos.

Back at where this hike began, we were served lunch of chicken curry, rice and vegetables. For dessert, we had 2 bunches of those wonderful little finger size bananas. Love them!

Today is the day after. My quadriceps and calves are screaming at me. "What the hell were you thinking???" I have taken Advil.  The Empire State Building has 1800 steps. I climbed over half that distance. And took the stairs back down, not the elevator.

It is clear to me that when I return home in November I will be joining the health club again.  And this time around, I'll use it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Foreign Driving 101

I’m into my second month serving here in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital city of Brunei.  I think I’m finding my way around a bit better.  It’s comforting when suddenly, you realize you’ve been here before and recognize a store or sign.  Driving on the left side of the road now seems natural.  I do have to be careful when making a right turn to scoot over to the left instead of hugging the curb.  The true test will be when I return to Texas and am able to manage returning to driving on the right again!

The drivers here are among the most courteous I’ve ever seen.  Your turn signal is your way of communicating.  Back home, many avoid using their turn signal because…heaven forbid you should give another driver a warning of what you are about to do!  Here, you get dirty looks if you DON’T signal your intent.  And when you do, people actually let you merge into their lane or allow you to turn in front of them.  Imagine that. 

The hardest part is navigating the ‘roundabouts’ or circular intersections.  If you want to exit the roundabout, you can either be in the outside lane or inside lane. If you’re on the outside lane, you need to have eyes on the side of your head to see if someone from the inside lane wants out!  It’s controlled chaos!  But if you miss your exit, you can just drive around the circle again.  Good luck with that! And just pray that you don’t encounter one of the multi-lane roundabouts! 

 They also have some that, if you aren’t paying attention, that round painted circle in the middle of the intersection…you’ll just drive right over it! And as for instructions...forget about them!

Choosing to go to work for the State Department is hands down the best thing I have ever done for myself.  The work has been very rewarding and the travel opportunities have been nothing short of amazing.  I hated to be pushed into retirement (mandatory at age 65) but once I got home, I appreciated that every day would now be Saturday.  Fortunately the State Department has a program for retirees to sign on for temporary duty assignments.  And because of that, I continue to work sporadically, meeting terrific people and visiting new countries.  Last year it was 4 weeks in Singapore and this year, 4½ months in Brunei.  I continue to collect my Social Security and small annuity from the government and when I’m lucky enough to be called and asked to go somewhere cool and work for a while…that money goes into the savings account.  Or for new hardwood floors in my house.  Or a new facing for my fireplace.  Life is so good.

I guess I’m not really ready to call it quits just yet.  Maybe after next year.  Or the next year.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Walk in the Park

Last weekend Faye and I decided to do a little exploring.  Faye had seen a park on a trip to the market so we set out to find it.  It didn't take long for our left turn, right turn, GPS Lucy talking to us and then there it was.  From the street it looked great...lots of green space, a playground for kids, a gazebo or 4. 

We had to circle around before we finally found the entrance.  Once parked, we headed out into this park.  It was deserted. It didn't take us long before we both commented that it sure did need some TLC.  The grass was overgrown, electrical boxes were open and exposed wires sticking out at a 4 year old's level.  Faye had gone to a sort of zoo that was gorgeous when it opened and now, a couple of years later, it too was overgrown and appeared no one was taking care of it.  It was really a shame because it is such a large beautiful area and has so much potential.

He's down there somewhere...

We both heard a sound that I thought was go carts in the distance.  Something caught my eye and I saw a speed boat flying across the water of the river that ran alongside the park.  We walked toward the walled border of the park.  I saw an opening and as I approached it I noticed that it was several very wide steps that disappeared into the water.  Just then, I saw it.....a giant Komodo Dragon!!  He saw me at the same time, our eyes met and my feet left the ground as I screamed and tried to turn to my left to run.  I ran smack into Faye who heard me scream but didn't know why!  The instant before I turned to run/jump/scream, I saw this giant animal look like he was heading up the steps toward me but at the last second, he dove in the water and disappeared. 

Not the guy I saw but he looked JUST like this!
Faye was saying "WHAT WHAT WHAT?????"  I told her and then we both realized how we must have looked and we both cracked up.   We walked along the wall for a few more minutes until we were sure that the dragon had left for good.  The Komodo Dragon is common in this area and this guy was probably 4-5 feet long....the biggest damn lizard I've even seen!  Of course, now we can laugh at ourselves, which we've done many times since last weekend, but at the time it was no laughing matter.  

Here's a link to an article in the Brunei Times, the local English language paper.
Komodo Dragons in Brunei

So much for a leisurely walk in the park.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Joys of Serving Overseas

This weekend Faye and I found a fabric/craft/knitting/costume/tailor store.  And let me tell you, this store had everything under the sun.  Anything you would need for a wedding, birthday, costume or any occasion was there, yarn, thread, plastic and silk flowers, was like a giant MJ Designs and Joann Fabrics rolled into one.  

We decided that we needed to have something made so I decided on a top and Faye was going to get 2 jackets and a pair of slacks that would go with either jacket. As amazing as it sounds, the gorgeous satin brocade was cheaper than cotton fabric.  So we went back today, armed with pictures of tops, jackets and pants downloaded from the internet that we wanted made.  I decided to have 2 tops and a jacket made.  I fell in love with this gorgeous red satin material and just had to have a jacket made out of it. 

The tailor went about taking our measurements and wrote them all down.  Another man sketched a design from the pictures we had, noting any changes in sleeve lengths, neckline or length of the jacket that we wanted.   I found a beautiful top online  and it will have sheer sleeves and a lined bodice.  It will be made from the yellow print sheer fabric.  Another top was from a Simplicity pattern I found online and the fabric is a cotton with what looks like peacock feathers on it.

The whole experience reminded me of when I was serving in Pakistan and several of us found a leather man who could copy a purse from a picture. I better have better control over how many pieces of clothing I have made than I did with the leather purses!

We go back on August 5th to either pick them up or have alterations done to them.  

Oh, the joys of serving overseas!