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Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

We walked a good portion of Yangon today, but the highlights were the Shwedagon Pagoda complex and the street vendors in Chinatown.

This morning after a lovely breakfast at Ten Mile Hotel, we took a cab into the city from the area around the airport. It was a long drive and I was grateful that we had not tried to come all that way last night after our flights, and rather found a room near the airport. We only managed to get into our beds by 1:30 am local time as it was.

Anyhow, now we have two nights at the Pickled Tea Hostel. It is very close to the Shwedagon Pagoda, and that was our first stop after checking in and unloading our bags. Margaret brought along a lightweight sarong to wrap around when it was pagoda time and otherwise wore a sort of tennis skirt. I decided to wear one of the sarongs that I brought, since it is heavy fabric and would be bulky to carry. I am not used to wearing sarongs, and while it was comfortable enough, seriously restricted my stride – that long skirt. And it was much more fabric than I needed, so it wrapped around twice and kept me toasty warm on this 90 degree day.

The road to our hostel.

Entrance to the pagoda. There are a few shrines on the complex built of mosaic mirrors, like the one on the right.

The mirror tiles kept fascinating me.

Yeah. No, seriously. I could not get enough of the mirror buildings.

A view of the many pointy tops surrounding the pagoda.

Again, shoe problems like last year. It’s hot so I’m not in my boots, and boots are practically all I wear at home. So I went with flip flops instead, but soon my feet were rubbed raw. Flip flops are not good for miles and miles of walking. So I stopped at a vendor’s shop and bought different sandals, that didn’t rub between my toes like the flip flops. But by the end of the day (we guessed we walked six miles or so), my feet have blisters from those too. So, despite the heat and the wardrobe of skirts, I am going to stick to hiking shoes. They won’t match my clothes but I’ll be able to walk. Wish me luck on the blisters healing somewhat before our three-day hike to Inle Lake coming up.

Green dude.

The Buddha

Burmese people are so excited to see us! They ask for photos with us.

Once we agree to have our photos taken with someone, others notice and come and get in line. Hilarious.

Ok! So what did we walk to, if we did so much walking?

First of all, the Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s a huge complex with multiple pagodas and tons of little shrines and some big shrines and statues and holy places and bells. Enormous place. We could have spent the entire day there if we had wanted to see every single Buddha statue and every piece of fascinating architecture. The main pagoda houses eight hairs from Siddhartha Buddha, along with relics from the previous three buddhas as well. Presently it is 326 feet high, and apparently grows a little bit more each time someone restores and re-guilds it.

We had to cover up our legs and remove shoes (and socks!) to enter the pagoda. Under the beating sun, we were quick learners, and I can now tell at a glance which tiles will scald bare feet, and which are better to walk on.

Lots of very hot tiles and no shade.

A look down at the entrance while we were up on top.

Brand new monks

Bang a gong

The architecture of the temples and shrines and pagodas is remarkable.

Love that deep red against the gold.

Here there be dragons

Then we walked into the center part of the city of Yangon. We stopped at several markets. The BoGyoke Market is a main attraction, so we visited there and were less than impressed after the fun markets in Santiago we visited last winter. Next to it was the “new market,” so we visited that one as well. Both were well-organized, serious places to shop. You could purchase calendars, rolls of fabric, eyeglasses, batteries, prescription drugs, bras, shoes. Sure, you could get anything there, and it was all under one roof, but …eh, we were bored. There was also a classy modern mall, that we went into, and it was no different from a mall in the states. We mostly went into that one for the air conditioning.

By this time we were suffering from heat and fatigue, so we went into the Shangri La, a high-end hotel and dropped into the bar for some cocktails and more air conditioning. To our surprise, other visitors at our same hostel came in a few minutes after we were settled. They had just come from chinatown and recommended it. So after our rest, we headed that direction.

Pigeons loaded the wires here, interested in the food below.

Some of the food looked so good it was hard to walk past without sampling.

Lanterns strung in the sky in Chinatown for New Year’s celebrations.

Crowded is maybe an understatement. Yes, that is a vehicle driving through.

Vegetables

Meat

Your choice of tasties. (Look at the little kid behind the vendor. Can you believe I missed that shot?!)

Not much capitol investment required to get this small business up and running.

It was an excellent choice. The decorations are going up for Chinese New Year’s celebrations. The place was swarming, but I get the impression that it’s business as usual. Margaret and I wandered up and down narrow, canyon-like streets crammed with vendors until dusk. The food vendors were the most interesting.

Finally we walked our long walk home. We passed the Shwedagon pagoda again, this time lit up at night, but we photographed it from a distance since we were not going to pay the entrance fee again.

Fountain lit up at night.

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Birthday berry tart with ice cream and a candle!

I celebrated for five days in a row this year. I think I deserve it. 😉

My birthday was Tuesday, but I took a few days off work and began the reveling on the Saturday before.

First up was an overdue visit to my friend Vladimir in St. Johns, a neighborhood of Portland. We went out walking and he steered me directly into the path of some scrumptious samosas at The Sudra. St. Johns is most famous for its green gothic suspension bridge, of which I did not take a decent photo here, but you get the idea. It is stunning, and after Vlad and I ate lunch, we continued our walk then crossed the bridge over and back in the sun.

I bid my friend adieu, then hopped into the Jeep and sped off northward to Seattle, to visit my brother Ian and his girlfriend Karen, for the weekend. Ian had smoked some pork and Karen prepared an array of sides like multi-coloured carrots with a glaze. When I arrived, dinner was just about ready and we chatted and drank wine for hours.

The St. Johns Bridge from near Vlad’s place.

Looking toward Portland from the St. Johns Bridge.

Looking toward the community of St. Johns from the bridge west of Portland.

A treehouse we passed on our way toward the bridge.

Sunlight on the bridge.

They put me up for the night, as always, in their guest bedroom that looks out toward the Space Needle, Seattle’s most famous landmark. I thought that something looked dreadfully wrong with the Needle. When typically it’s elegant legs arc into the sky supporting a perfect spaceship-shaped disc, it seemed decidedly chunky and awkward. I fretted about some ghastly renovation that left it possibly safer, but no longer artistic perfection. In the morning I looked out and saw with relief that the entire top of the Needle is enveloped in plywood scaffolding. Renovations, yes, but they have only just begun. The improved and (I assume) lovely Space Needle will be open in time for summertime tourists.

Sunday they took me to the Ballard Market, a place we hit every Sunday when I’m there, so I imagine they hit it every week they can. It’s a grocery store for my super-health-conscious relatives, who purchase meat directly from the ranchers, and vegetables directly from gardeners. Afterward, Karen introduced us to one of her favourite eateries, Eve Fremont, where we all decided on bison burgers!

Bison burgers all around.

Mushrooms at the Ballard Market.

Get a load of these boots!!

Karen studied for school while Ian and I talked, then she and I went shopping. I’ve been wanting black boots for over a year. I have beautiful brown boots that have lasted for years because I spent the money to get high quality. It was time to do the same for black boots. Because when you need black boots, brown boots just won’t do! Can I get an Amen! Anyhoo, while the super helpful assistant was in the back, searching for what was available in my size, Karen and I browsed a little too far into the section for boots-you-would-buy-if-it-was-your-birthday-and-you-felt-like-splurging. Oops. When the assistant showed up with an armload of boots suitable for the office, I had to send her away for one more box. I left with two pairs of boots, one of them was thigh-high, velvet, high-heeled, and sexy as hell. Take THAT 48 years old!

Oh, did I tell you I turned 48? Can I just say that 48 is a liiiitttle too close to 50, and I am nowhere near 50 years old. Just… saying.

For my second night, I wanted to turn it up a notch, so I had reserved a room in Seattle landmark, the Olympic Hotel, built in 1924. It’s now a Fairmont hotel. I began to get a sense that this place was all about service like no place I’ve ever stayed. About 10am, I got a personal text that said, “Crystal, your room is ready. You can check in any time you like. Your keys are ready and you can pick them up at either entrance.” It was signed Natalie. I smirked and ignored it. All except for thinking 10 am? Since when is your hotel room ready at 10am? Later in the day, during a down moment, I decided to text “Natalie,” just for giggles. “Hey thanks, Natalie. I’m in Seattle already, visiting my brother for my birthday. I’m not ready to check in yet but I will when we’re done running around. Looking forward to oysters at Shuckers later tonight.”

I was startled to get an immediate response. Natalie was apparently not a robot. She wished me a happy birthday, then asked if she could reserve a table for me at Shuckers, the oyster bar at the hotel.

Happy Birthday from the Olympic Hotel

Something sort of special about a personal welcome.

I was again struck with the service of the place when I arrived and was handed a welcome packet with keys that had my name printed on it. Natalie was the only person I had mentioned my birthday to, and when I arrived in my room, there was a tiny cast-iron pan filled with macaroons and chocolate chips, and a hand-addressed birthday card. Seriously?

That night we ate heaps of oysters and Jim, the fabulous and friendly waiter, chatted with us every time he passed by. I gleefully told him I was celebrating my birthday with my brother, and of course, when we ordered dessert split three ways (we were stuffed to the gills), it came with a birthday candle and garnish. “On the house,” Jim insisted. We goofed around and took photos in the gorgeous empty spaces in the hotel after dinner.

Lovely Fairmont Olympic Hotel

My handsome brother

Ian wanders off

Karen and me waiting for fresh oysters!

Monday, back at the house, I kissed and hugged them goodbye and headed back home to Rainier, only 2 1/2 hours south.

Tuesday, my actual birthday, I had nothing scheduled, but managed to get a half-dozen errands done that had been sitting and waiting for me for weeks. Yes! I LOVE getting things done. Happy birthday gift indeed.

Wednesday I went south to Oregon City for another overdue visit to my dear friend Marlene at insearchofitall. It has been months and months since we’ve seen each other, and have only communicated through our blogs or infrequent emails or cards. I adore Marlene, and though we meant to go to lunch together, we had jabbered non-stop for an hour before we remembered our plans. We jabbered all through a long lunch. I realized on my drive to see her that it was my birthday and I had not had any cake! Marlene kept me company while I went and found a store with just the slice of cake that I needed. Finally I gave hugs and kisses goodbye and headed back in time for my final celebration.

My neighbor, Dick, loves to gamble for fun. There is a brand new casino here – not even a year old – that he keeps saying he’s going to take me to see. It was finally the day. He swung by to pick me up and off we went. The ilani casino in La Center, Washington is definitely the sparkliest thing around. From their website: “The design of the 368,000 square-foot casino resort will project the culture of the Northwest and pay tribute to the heritage of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe.” I used to live in Nevada, and I was just recently in the fabulous Cherokee Hard Rock Casino in Tulsa. So this casino is pretty mild in comparison to the big ones. But for the only thing of its kind around, it’s big enough and glitzy enough. And it sucks up your money really well, just like all the other casinos.

Brand new gorgeous ilani casino in LaCenter, WA

Shrimp and scallops with pasta

After a couple hours of gambling, Dick and I went over to try their seafood restaurant. I know, you probably think after all the eating I’ve done in this post that I couldn’t possibly handle more eating. But I suffered through the agony of one more celebratory birthday meal, just so I could take this photo and delight you all. No, I’m kidding of course. One lovely thing about birthdays, everyone wants to feed you! BONUS!! I should have more birthdays. As long as I can stay in my forties, I’ll keep having birthdays year after year, after year, after…

A view of the B&B from the beach on a glorious Christmas morning.

A view of the B&B from the beach on a glorious Christmas morning. {Click any of these photos for a larger view in better resolution}

I’d like to take the time to talk about our Christmas lodging before I continue on the journey. If you are interested, click here for Day one and here for Day two.

Arno found the SeaQuest Inn Bed & Breakfast online for us, and reserved three nights. The closest town is Yachats, seven miles to the north. There are neighbors, but the location is rural and isolated, which is what we are often looking for in a vacation. It’s less than 3 1/2 hours from Portland whether you travel on I-5 or if you use Highway 18 and head out through McMinnville. Unless you’re like us, and stop at a bazillion neat sights along the way, and stretch it to two days.

Arno does a little whale-watching from the great room

Arno does a little whale-watching from the great room

Waves crash beyond the breakfast table

Waves crash beyond the breakfast table

This B&B is a large, comfortable home on the beach. Our room had a sliding glass door that opened onto a patio and the lawn you see in the photo above. We literally walked to the beach from our room. All rooms have a view of the ocean and the beds are positioned so that guests can watch the waves crash. During our stay I watched this amazing swell that made me think of surfing every single day I was there. Unfortunately, there are too many rocks to plan a future surf vacation.

Personalized door to our room

Personalized door to our room

Arno's little tree that he put up in our room.

Arno’s little tree that he put up in our room.

Hosts Stephanie and Sherwood make the place, however. Yes, it’s beautiful and yes it’s right on the beach and yes it’s a high quality place for a reasonable price. But we did that two years ago in Bend, OR at a different B&B, and it was not the same kind of vacation. This time, when Sherwood and Stephanie greeted us with a cheerful “Welcome Home!” it became obvious they meant for us to feel that way. Listen, I padded up the stairs to breakfast in my socks. That’s how comfortable I was.

Another example: We were too tired to drive into town for dinner our first night. Between our own cooler and suggestions from our hosts, we made a delicious little evening meal for ourselves. Even though we were too late for wine hour, they set out a bottle for us before they left for the evening. Arno and I had the entire great room to ourselves, with Christmas music playing and the lights from the tree. It was cozy and romantic and lovely.

One of the rooms. (not ours; it was too messy)

One of the rooms. (not ours; it was too messy)

The gourmet breakfasts are above and beyond. Often more than one course, and always plenty to eat. The presentations were so beautiful that one morning a fellow guest commented, “It looks so nice I don’t want to eat it.” But of course she did.

We ate our breakfasts in the huge and welcoming great room on the second floor, with stunning ocean views, a giant fireplace (with stockings hung!), couches and chairs and everything else someone could want in there, to include a piano and a Christmas tree. It’s beside an enormous kitchen that is open to the great room, so we could chat with Sherwood and Stephanie while they prepared food.

Cozy book room beside the guest kitchen.

Cozy book room beside the guest kitchen.

Even the guests were part of the appeal this year. I can’t help but compare it to other B&Bs I have visited, where the guests hesitate to open up, or even to show up. You may also know that my nature is to avoid social situations (I know I don’t show it, but I’m a good faker), and being around people is often very stressful for me. But there was something here that made me relax. I looked forward to gathering for breakfast or the evening wine hour. We met the most interesting people with great personal stories. The most exciting story of all was finding out that one of the guests knew about the products Arno’s company builds. It’s a small company, so most people, even local people, have never heard of it. The guest was prior Navy and had served aboard a ship that used the UAVs built in Hood River, Oregon. How cool is that?

Taken during our gorgeous Christmas morning on the beach. After breakfast we headed back out to play in the tidepools.

Taken during our gorgeous Christmas morning on the beach. After breakfast we headed back out to play in the tidepools.

Belgian waffle with walnuts and strawberries and cookie butter.

Belgian waffle with walnuts and strawberries and cookie butter.

Dinner reservations in town were a breeze because the hosts had thought of it ahead of time, suggested reservation times, and made the reservations for us. They graciously called and canceled for us one night too, when our sight-seeing kept us too far away to make it back on time.

We were a little more spoiled than the usual guests, I imagine, because it was the holidays. We were invited to a social gathering with their neighbors on Christmas

Baked egg croissant with fresh tomatoes and feta, salsa, and jams.

Baked egg croissant with fresh tomatoes and feta, salsa, and jams.

Eve evening. Stephanie was excited to have prepared all kinds of seafood hors d’oeuvres. The place was decked out to the max in holiday decorations that really added a feeling of festivity for me, particularly since I didn’t decorate at home this year.

You’ve seen me rave about things in the past, so I’ll try not to apologize for making this blog post more like an advertisement than a vacation story. It was a big part of our trip, so the special attention is warranted. 🙂

Sherwood, me, Arno, Stephanie. They are wearing their Christmas gift aprons. (I'm in my socks!)

Sherwood, me, Arno, Stephanie. They are wearing their Christmas gift aprons. (I’m in my socks!)

Any resemblance?

Any resemblance?

On Thursday I got braces.  I had been wanting braces for the past two years. Added bonus: maybe I’ll slim down over the holidays.

I had braces at age 15, got them off at 16. My teeth had been remarkably crooked then. We’re talking the kind of bad teeth that make a teenager hold her hand in front of her mouth when she smiles. One of my front teeth actually hung out over my lip when my mouth was closed. My small mouth was so crowded that a new incisor began growing in the roof of my mouth. Yep, they were that bad.

But the braces worked; my mouth looked great. My joke for the longest time was, “I’m never getting braces again!” The assumption being, like bungee jumping, once you’ve done it once, you don’t actually have to do it again. You’ve done your time.

My new theory is that my teeth are naturally inclined to be so ferociously crooked, that they simply couldn’t abide by the neat straight rows, and – though it took 25 years – they managed to get all cockeyed once more.

This is the 4th day I’ve had metal in my teeth, and I’ll lay it out there: not a big fan. Dr. Angle’s office staff is fabulous, and this was loads less traumatic than the first time. Braces have made big changes in all these years. Still, there are multiple levels of pain: headache, jawache, pain chewing, pain in the butt. The sharp metal barbs are tearing the inside of my mouth to shreds, and they catch food particles just as well in 2012 as they did in 1986.

In fact, that’s the basis of the dieting plan: too lazy to clean your teeth? Don’t eat!

Just the thought of using the array of tiny plastic clean-your-braces tools brings a defeated sigh to my lips. There’s a one-inch bottle brush on a  two-inch handle, Eez-Thru floss threader, floss, concave toothbrush, long-handled dental mirror, mini toothbrush, travel toothbrush, and a bottle of fluoride rinse. There is a container of soft wax, to pack around the metal barbs once teeth are cleaned, to minimize cheek lacerations.

There is Canadian Whiskey, to numb the pain of the open wounds. (Actually, Dr. Angle’s office didn’t provide that)

Following the routine as instructed is maddening. The flossing alone takes me 15 minutes because I have to take the threading tool, get the floss up underneath the wire, unthread it, then floss that one gap. Then pull the floss out, get the tool again, thread into the next gap, etc. I’ll have to set my alarm earlier just to get to work on time! So imagine that every time you eat, even just a nibble, even just one bite of Wonder Bread (and it’s as though you’re chewing venison jerky), necessitates the routine. You will have to first spit out all the disgusting food-infused wax (that is, the parts you didn’t swallow), then begin the half-hour clean routine. Kinda makes you want to have the whiskey instead, right?

I drove into town the night before last, to pick up my daughter from the nickel arcade. I had been “dieting” all day. The brief, imagined conversation between me and an attentive officer of the law went something like this:

“Ma’am, I smell alcohol. Can you step out of the car?”

“Honest, sir, I haven’t been drinking. Not actually drinking, just sipping. It’s medicinal really, because of my braces. I mean, heck, I’ve been at the bottle all day long, but just teeny tiny sips. I hold it in my mouth till everything’s totally numb. By that time, it’s partially evaporated. There’s barely enough to swallow.”

I couldn’t anticipate it would go very well. Rather, I just prayed to Bacchus that I wouldn’t attract attention.

Yesterday morning I woke starving! Interestingly, Crown Royal does not sate hunger pangs. Any kind of chewing hurts. Biting a banana seemed too much to bear. I made a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, originally placed into my cupboard to be used in some future casserole. Ah, blessed liquid food! I finished the entire can, and – still hungry – made a second and ate that too. (I didn’t chew the little mushroom pieces. They are small enough to swallow whole.)

At the hair stylist, there was a plate of star-shaped chocolate-coated Christmas cookies. My stylist raved about them, “You must have one!” I broke off one star point at a time, set it on my tongue, and waited till it got mushy, then swallowed. Oh, it was very good. It took me 10 minutes to eat one tiny star cookie. That was enough cookies.

Holiday fudge? Peanut brittle? Peppermink bark? Nope. Roast goose? Ham? You cannot tempt me! Salad? Broccoli? Are you kidding me?  I’ll make an exception for baked yams and all their mushy goodness.

Honey, be a dear and top off my glass, will you?

Tara in downtown Iwakuni. The arched sidewalk roofs mimic the arches of the famous Kintai Bridge.

On Sunday my T was still dealing with jet lag and reluctant to get out into the heat again. We made easy plans to go shopping in downtown Iwakuni and then to watch movies (Best of Monty Python’s Flying Circus) and have some mother-daughter bonding time.

Again, we enjoyed finding grocery stores to wander through, in order to cool off. The first one we found was very small and the attendants all female and very sweet. Tara spotted some grapefruit-sized watermelons she wanted to come back for on our return trip. The next grocery store was huge (they are often multi-story in Japan), refreshingly cool and very LOUD! At strategic locations all over the store, mini-stereos played recordings of people shouting advertisements and pleas to buy the product. There were little videos playing as well. Though we seemed to be nearly the only shoppers in the store, there was a cacophony of voices rising around us. What a crazy environment! We had been searching for baking powder for two days, and did not find any here, but we did pick up some powdered sugar. It’s fun to pick up regular ingredients at a Japanese market. Also risky – since I can’t read a dang thing on any of the labels.

Our destination was the 100-yen store, like a dollar store. Miss T had a blast, and we left with heaps of gifts for her friends back home. Next we went to the bakery, where I recoiled at most of it. Bakeries here tend to stuff nearly every piece of bread with some kind of goo filling. Sweet goo or hot dogs baked into most of the breads. Bleh. I  found a roll with no filling, and was happy. Then we stopped in a clothing store where Tara chose a darling miniskirt from the racks. She cracks me up: when no friends are around, she wears skirts. When she’s with her pals? Jeans only.

Fans, fans, and more fans at the 100 yen store.

I bought one of each, but don’t know what they say!

The rest of the week she hung out in the library most of the time. Iwakuni has an awesome library for such a tiny base. I had to work every day, and base security didn’t want her leaving and returning to base without me to accompany her, so she opted for a combination of facebook in the air conditioned room and lounging with books in the air conditioned library.

Do you think Tommy Lee knows he is selling Japanese canned coffee?

Tommy Lee Jones is the face of BOSS brand vending machine coffee

Friday we finally got to shake things up a little. There was an MCCS picnic we attended, and Friday night we went to Sanzoku. It was Tony’s idea, and he brought Andre and Phil, who was visiting from Sasebo. Tara and I rode with Bonnie, her daughter and a friend. For some reason, everyone calls this place the Chicken Shack. Before we left, Tony explained mysteriously that “It’s not a shack at all, and it’s not just about the chicken.” He was absolutely right, but it didn’t give me a sense of what I was in for.

Festive atmosphere of Sanzoku

Glimpses of other people dining, in amongst the trees.

It is a complex of restaurants, apparently all owned by the same company, perhaps serving the same food, with seating scattered up into a small and narrow creek canyon. In addition to places to eat, there are booths with a thousand things for sale, lining paths that link the eating places. It’s all beneath trees, surrounding a lovely creek and a few ponds and waterfalls, so the setting is just wonderful.

Seated shoeless on tatami mats, waiting for our food.

My meal, and Tara’s thumbs-up

Tara’s breaded, deep-fried chicken

Statue in pond, near our table

But at night! We got there just as it was growing dark and the place became magical, with paper lanterns everywhere, even formed into a gigantic pyramid into the sky. Lights strung through trees, music on the air, cicadas whirring, frogs chirping, and people’s voices murmuring and humming and tittering out of sight in the forest.

We chose large

We kicked off our shoes and sat on pillows at traditional low tables, and used Tony’s and Andre’s skills to order. Soon our table was piled with food, and we ate very well. I had the teriyaki chicken on a stick (excellent!), gyoza (dumplings), and the giant musubi (rice ball wrapped in seaweed). The rice ball was in the common triangle shape one finds here, and each corner is stuffed with a different filling: salmon, salted seaweed, and pickled plum. Andre and I ordered beers and the waitress asked “Small or large?” Silly question.

Tara tries drumming while Phil looks on

The atmosphere is just as wonderful for the indoor seating.

Tara, Tony, and Andre browse the wares

After we ate, the girls browsed the shops and bought ice cream. Phil and I went exploring on the trails all the way to the end. We found several little shrines and spirit houses, waterfalls, and unexpected surprises, like a performance stage way at the back, with cardboard cut-out characters on it. I found a row of the most vending machines in one spot I’ve seen to date. (Vending machines are a staple ingredient to life here, to the point where I’ve come to expect to find one within 40 feet of me no matter where I am. I never pack drinks when I travel anymore. Never.)

More seating areas tucked away in the trees.

Waterfall cools this hidden path behind the busier sections.

Me on a stone bridge over the creek that runs through Sanzoku


We finally climbed back into the cars and wound back through the narrow green canyons and tunnels of Yamaguchi Prefecture, and home to Iwakuni.

My daughter. Samurai Warrior.

Melt-in-your-mouth

Tara’s Spring Break was last week, so I took the week off work, and we made plans for a road trip.

Arno suggested going to Moab, Utah, since that is what he and the boys have done multiple times in the past. T and I were game. We went in separate vehicles, since I could do some family visiting along the way. Saturday, March 24, we made it as far as the Trulove River Rat Rest & Relaxation Ranch (TRRR&RR), near Givens Hot Springs, Idaho.

On the way we truly enjoyed ourselves. Tara and I adore road trips. Although she is a teenager, we love each others’ company on a highway. In our effort to avoid a chain restaurant for breakfast, we discovered a fabulous restaurant in The Dalles, called La Petite Provence. After fresh croissants that melted in our mouths, Tara loved her salmon hash and I inhaled the breakfast special du jour. For the remaining 350 miles we listened to the audiobook of Heroes of Olympus, the second series by Rick Riordan after Percy Jackson and the Olympians. It is a fun way for me to brush up on my Greek Gods. This book in particular was also a lesson in comparison of their Roman counterparts.

We popped in CD #1 and began learning Japanese by Pimsleur’sfabulous tools. This is the same company that had me impressing Egyptians after only a half-hearted attempt and probably 10 hours of listening (far less than the whole tutorial I bought). I again bought the inexpensive ($35) “conversational” version. Tara enthusiastically practiced right along with me, and we got through Lesson #1. It was fun to have her correct my pronunciation, based on her gazillion hours of watching English-subtitled Japanese anime.

Tara, Pa & Chelle on the porch at their house

I’ve blogged my Pa’s gorgeous place in the past, so I won’t belabor it. Always a place of peace with two excellent hosts. It was a long overdue visit. I haven’t been to their place on the Snake River in about two years, and Tara hadn’t been there for three. Pa and I have had a couple of explosive fights in the meantime, making our relations even more uncomfortable than they were already growing. Mom’s death made it so we could talk again. Out of character, my Pa finally felt empathy for me and reached out to give some long-hungered-for love and affection. Breaking that ice in December made this visit easy.

Tara and I left Sunday morning to do some visiting around the Treasure Valley. First Gramilda (Gramma + Armilda) and Rex across the river in Nampa, whom I simply could not drive past in good conscience. Gramilda is rightfully grieving the loss of her daughter, and somewhere in there got the idea that I don’t like her anymore. I had to go visit to assure her of my love and devotion, as well as give her some needed love and support too. She’s 85 and looking surprisingly well, since she has struggled with serious health issues the last few years.

Parker was a big fan of Tara right away. Here he has asked her to read him a story. {I had to take the photo with my phone. Sorry about the poor quality!}

It was high time I visit my brother Eli and Addie at their house. I think… is it possible… I haven’t seen Addie since the wedding in 2004. That makes me a dreadful sister in law. {sorry!} Got to see little Parker, who is growing stronger and smarter. What a great nephew I have. My brother built a picture frame to hold historic U.S. Forest Service posters, and made Parker a little book that holds miniaturized versions of all the posters. He flips through the little book and tells us which poster he wants (this time: “Snakes!”), and Dad puts the proper poster at the front. Very clever. Eli had also built a bathroom stool for Parker with a fold-down step that I was very impressed with. Since it was my first time at the house, they gave us a tour, and I got to see all the hard work they put into making their place beautiful. All new floors, paint, fixtures, features… Eli even cut his ownslices of rock for the fireplace hearth. The guy is amazing. Addie is carrying Parker’s future younger brother, and -tired and sick- apologized for not being the ultimate hostess, but I thought she was as wonderful as always. What a dear, dear woman I have for a sister-in-law. She never missed an opportunity to ask about my life, my work, my well-being, and asked Tara all about her life. Addie raved about her son and her husband, and I just couldn’t imagine a sweeter family. I love them so.

Adorableness.

Then I called up my old high-school sweetheart, Jess, who had moved to Boise only days before. We’ve stayed in touch all these years. He was at his mom’s house (who I remember from 25 years ago when we dated – funny, huh?). Stopped at Fred Meyer on the way to buy T some shorts in anticipation of sunny weather. We had a short visit with Jess and I finally got to meet his beautiful boy, Everett, who is not at all like Parker and just as delightful. Our visit was short and Tara and I made our way back into the streets (at this point VERY impressed with myself for having navigated all over the Boise area communities without getting lost).

The peak event of the day was, of course, alligator for dinner. Chelle recently traveled to Georgia to visit family, and arranged for some alligator and turtle to be sent back home to my Pa, who is always ready for a culinary adventure. He thawed it out in honor of our visit. He made a light and savory sauce that complimented the mild white meat perfectly. We also had fried cod and sauteed mushrooms and salad. Absolutely delicious. One never goes hungry at the TRRR&RR.

We crawled gratefully into bed to get some good sleep for our early departure for Moab, Utah on Monday morning.

Ethiopian Supernatural tastes good when you're camping

I used to do a lot of backpacking. In fact, I viewed work solely as a means by which I could spend all available summer days on trails in the mountains somewhere. My good friend M (mentioned recently) is the one that introduced me to backpacking, which is one good thing. She also introduced me to fine food while backpacking, which is entirely different and wonderful.

M used to organize all-female backpacking trips every summer, and invited me along the first time in 2000. We ate linguini with crab, roasted brie in brown sugar with dried apricots and sourdough for dunking, burritos with fresh avocado, salads, fresh fruit… you get the idea. We had wine with every evening meal and the best coffee every morning. It was M’s goal to convince us that there was no reason to sacrifice fine dining just because one was living in a tent at 6000 feet.

She also felt there was no reason to skip fashion up there, as she applied perfect makeup every morning with color-coordinated earrings and sandals by the campfire, but that is a whole other story.

In any case, her lesson stuck, and I do eat very well when camping, and I never miss an excellent cup of coffee on the road. The photo above was taken in the Lost Dutchman State Park during my road trip last month. It reminds me that camping weather is almost upon us and I need to remember to buy some brie.

I just returned from picking up some groceries at Fred Meyer. It was my first grocery shopping trip since Tara left to spend the summer with her dad. As I began filling the cart, I noticed something interesting about the contents.

See if you notice it, too. Scan the photos below and try to identify which group might likely be purchased while Tara lives here, and which was purchased today.

Image A

Image B

Yes! You are correct!

Image B obviously is the group designed to appeal to someone with a minimally creative sense of taste, i.e., my child. Image A is today’s restocking of things I haven’t had to buy for the last 10 months, since I would be the only one eating them.

Now I can’t wait to cook and eat!

On a completely unrelated note, but still interesting, I have not yet put away the jar of capers. I went to set an armload of things on the counter, so I could place them into the cupboards above. The capers popped out of my hands and landed on the counter top and spun around slowly. My first thought was that I had to grab it before it hit the floor, but I still had other jars in my hands. I put it all down and reached for the capers, but by that time the jar had stopped. It came to rest at an angle, precariously balanced on the little glass ridges on the bottom of the jar. How cool is that? And what are the odds? I’m going to leave it like this till Mark gets home, so someone will believe me.

In January we did our taxes and got another shock: Mark owed thousands. In 2007 he had panicked, watching his stocks fall, so he gambled and took everything out of the previous investments, and put it all into banks. Hindsight will tell us all that it was an unfortunate move. Investors will know that when you pull stocks out of one place to buy something else, it’s counted as income. Though Mark never saw a penny of it, the IRS saw that he “earned” about $140 thousand in 2008 by selling stocks. In his despair at seeing banks fail and all his savings evaporate, Mark did not remember to hold anything aside for paying taxes.

Catch up to our story if you like, by reading Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, and Chapter 5.

24)       We did manage to talk the IRS down from owing $46 thousand to owing $18 thousand, but what’s the difference when we have nothing to pay it with regardless?

25)       I was thankfully spared from owing taxes, because of my incredible loss on selling the Massachusetts home.

26)       Eventually the stay on foreclosures was released. We chewed our fingernails. In April 2009 we received our foreclosure notices.

The paperwork that went into our response was tedious, but we were willing to play their game for a chance at a new agreement. We began hearing stories about how people had their interest rates reduced to 3%, or had the amount financed reduced from $400 to $300 thousand – huge benefits offered to those who were willing to work with their lenders and to pay off their debt somehow. We had hope, and pressed on.

Part of our requirement was that we had to call a credit counseling agency. I called one of the numbers listed in the Wells Fargo paperwork. I talked with a wonderful woman who asked a million questions and gradually began to lose her assurance that she could help us. “There is no way my company could get you better rates than what you have,” she said. “You are managing your finances very well.” Hm. Small amount of good my smugness did for me at that point. But regardless, I had talked with the credit counselor. I had upheld my end. What would Wells Fargo do for us?

27)        We had been asked for budget spreadsheets and copies of taxes and pay stubs on three separate occasions. We had been asked for letters explaining why we wished for a mortgage modification. Finally they responded that we had been approved on a trial basis. Rejoice! They came up with a new, lower monthly rate, and said if we paid that new amount for three months in a row, they would consider installing it permanently. They had reduced our obligation from $1624 a month to $1185. We were thrilled. Now we could afford everything on my salary alone.

We paid $1185 in May, June, and July, and then called Wells Fargo. They had stopped the foreclosure process, and our house would not go up for auction. Whew! But that’s all they could tell us. “Keep paying that same amount,” they always said. “We will contact you as soon as we get to your case. We can’t guarantee it, of course, but the $1185 you have been paying will most likely be your payment from now on.”

Months trickled by. My student loan forbearance with Direct Loan expired, and they requested that I begin paying another $210 a month in addition to the $223 I am already paying in student loans to Sallie Mae. And, in the time since I had last reviewed my account, I saw that the amount I owed in student loans had climbed to over $80 thousand. Why, again, did I go to school? What an idiotic thing it seemed to me. What a fool I was to buy that classist ideal that school is the path to a better life. Well, not from what I have seen. I put that portion of my loan back into forebearance.

28)       When my tax money came in, I paid off a credit card, and paid off Mark’s student loans.

29)        Mark got a job in July, after 13 months of unemployment and no unemployment compensation.

Finally we didn’t have such bitterness when hearing news about unemployment benefits extensions. We had applied for food stamps, medical care, housing assistance, heating assistance, and were turned down for everything because I make too much money.

Finally we didn’t have to listen to all the ignorant comments from people intending to help, saying, “If you haven’t found a job, it’s because you aren’t trying hard enough.” Or “Lower your sights and you’ll find work.”  And, “Apply to 10-20 jobs a day. Unemployment is a 40-hour-a-week-job.” And our favorite, “Have you tried looking outside your field?” Thank god there are people who have had an income through all this, and have had no reason to understand what it has been like for suffering families. But still, if you think you’re helping someone by saying those phrases to them, you aren’t, so shut up.

30)        With the new lowered mortgage payment, and second income, you’d think we’d finally be in a comfortable place, but it didn’t work out that way. Suddenly, we had the option to take care of more responsibilities, and all of them cost money.

Milda and me

We scheduled dentist appointments for everyone. We took both of our clunkers to the shop so that they would pass emissions tests and we could renew our tags and drive legally again. Both cats went to the vet. I paid off a loan from my 87-year-old grandmother (I HATE owing money, and especially hate owing people I love). I started getting the mental health therapy that was long overdue. Bought our kid new clothes that she desperately needed. Paid off another credit card. We continued our pared-down lifestyle of no cable, no home phone, very few dinners out, no splurging on little things that catch our eyes. We ate tons of food from our small but unexpectedly productive garden.

31)       The last week of September our final paperwork from Wells Fargo finally came through! But we were confused with what it said. Rather than the $1185 we had been paying, they had finalized our bill at $1536. And even though we had been making payments on time since May, the money had been held in a separate account, and not paid against our debt. Their records showed that we had not paid for months, so 1624 x 7 months = 11,368 + 207,000 still owing = a new financed amount of $218,000 at 4.625% = $1536 a month.

Ok, yes, I concede that 4.625% is a great rate. However, we previously had a great rate of 5.875% that was fixed. Now we had an adjustable rate and the amount financed had jumped drastically! Months of fear, anxiety, and paperwork all amounts to this? A savings of 88 dollars a month? Yes, we defaulted on our mortgage, but we were under the impression that this “Making Home Affordable” plan at Wells Fargo was going to, er, help make our home affordable.

With Mark’s new job we could possibly afford the new payment plan (if we made a few more cuts), but we were furious. We had been abused. I saw it as a breach of contract. Mark called to ask what happened, and was told that the people who first worked up our paperwork had made a mistake by using our net income rather than our gross income, and the $1536 was the absolute best they could do. I called someone else at Wells Fargo, and she said if we don’t like the new terms, don’t sign the new contract and send it back with a letter explaining why we won’t sign it. So we sent it all back.

32)        Then we wrote our congressmen, the CEO of Wells Fargo, President Obama. We’re hoping for a couple of form letters from someone, but so far haven’t received even that.

cc: President Obama

33)    The IRS called and said, “Enough dilly-dallying! You must pay!! $300 a month, and that is our final offer.” So, I guess we must pay.

And here it stands.

November 13, 2009, we have two reasonable incomes and are as broke as can be. How is that possible?

  • Mortgage – 218,325.79
  • Sallie Mae – $57,570.70
  • (Direct Loan Student Loans – $19,487.35) – in forbearance till April 2010
  • IRS – $18,461.60
  • Discover Card – $14,125.37
  • Chase Visa – $4,737.38

That leaves a monthly amount of $289 to take care of: utilities, school clothes, food, phones, home&auto insurance (we have no health insurance), internet access, etc.

You try spending only 289 on every expense for an entire month for a family of three. It is not POSSIBLE. When my forbearance expires, it will drop to $79 per month available to live on. I don’t know what we will do. Wish us luck.

Here’s a quote I caught this morning, and I’m going to take courage in it: “Despair is for people who know beyond any doubt what the future will be. Nobody’s in that position. So despair is not only a kind of sin, theologically, but it’s also a simple mistake.”

Home grown zucchini, beets, and cucumber!

I am very excited to see that it’s about to become full-on harvest time. That was actually a pretty quick process, despite my impatience.

The raspberries seem to be producing much more and for much longer than they did last year. I’d like to believe it’s because I made the family collect compost all winter and then I’ve been dumping it on the raspberries. It’s a forgotten part of the yard in the winter, so I don’t mind making a mess.

Doesn't your mouth water just looking at this?

If there’s a pile of onion skins, apple cores, carrot peelings and coffee grounds and no one sees it… is it still an eyesore?

We’ve already been eating zucchini every day for 10 days now, and so when our neighbor came over talking about how much he liked zucchini, I sent him home with one. And a handful of cucumbers too. We will soon be overrun.

You should see these plants! They are going gangbusters. I think the watermelon is going to take over the whole hill. I keep telling them about gravity, and the foolishness of producing a watermelon on the slope, but for now they don’t listen much. My cherry tomatoes are finally turning red and I’ll be giving those away too.

Last night while I was watering, I actually had the idea to put a sign up on my herbs: Please take some! I am overrun with basil and sage and cilantro.

One of Mark’s friends was teasing him about having the Obama Victory Garden in the front yard, like the first family. Actually, that’s something I don’t mind being teased about…

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