a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


Happy October, my favorite month of the year! Pumpkins, jewel colored fall leaves, cool crisp air, the anticipation of the holiday music, baking, lights...the list goes on why October is, in my mind, the best month. And then five years ago, October was the start of an enormous life change; Stephen and I took a trajectory, a path in life, that has changed forever how we wish to live out our days and what we want to be doing with our time. So now in addition to an already long list, every October is the anniversary of the start of my little blog Rhino Crash Safari.

The unparalleled Drakensberg Mountains.

Traditional Zulu dress for a dancing and singing performance I participated in.

I call this post "Interlude" because that is how I characterize this part of our journey. Both Stephen and I see this current time as an interlude, a period of time between events, or in our case a period of time in between situations where we directly work in global health/poverty/education, most probably in an overseas setting. It's also the sabbatical we didn't get before, a time of rebuilding. Both of us are getting healthier now since moving to Washington. Stephen of course was quite ill in Cambodia; it has taken many months for his immune system to fully recover from the onslaught of infections. For me, it has been living in the US over the last several months (as opposed to living in Cambodia) that led to a decline in my health. I thrived in Cambodia, the lifestyle we had there was extremely beneficial for me. Because living in Cambodia was so great for me and I didn't want to leave (while knowing it was the right decision for us at that time), returning to the US was a reverse of the W-curve. The US has felt foreign to me and I have just wanted to leave. I went very low down the W and stayed there for several months. The culture shock was too much for me.

But after several months grieving the loss of lifestyle we had in Cambodia, I tried to apply some of my culture skills to a place that now feels culturally foreign and uncomfortable to me. I made an attempt to immerse myself in the culture (of the US) as a way to work through this reverse culture shock. So over the past month or so I have been volunteering at the church Stephen and I have been attending regularly. I have helped with Sunday school and children's music. In fact I became the children's choir director and we had our first performance October 5. The song we sang was Siyahamba, a freedom song from South Africa. Siyahamba is isiZulu, the language spoken by the Zulu people of South Africa. We lived in KwaZulu-Natal and worked with Zulu people when we lived in South Africa in 2009! Below is a video I used as reference for what I did with the children.

It was a joyful experience for me to teach the children at our church the meaning and pronunciation of the Zulu words. To share my cultural knowledge based on my experiences in South Africa was fun. And it wasn't just with the children; I led an "intergenerational" choir (children, teens and adults) sing a song from South Africa on World Communion Sunday. That one project allowed me to integrate my music, teaching, and cultural knowledge and experiences all at once! A synthesis of past and present work and interests. 

Stephen has experienced something similar. Since the summer he has been working in his former job as a biomedical engineer in the mechanical heart/transplant program. The position is supplemental which has allowed him to take on consulting work as well. Currently he is working on a new project that requires his third world public health field experience, his engineering background and his clinic biomechanical knowledge. Just like with my experience as a volunteer, Stephen is combining elements of his old career with his new career and interests.

But although we are managing, we are not thriving. I miss Asia and the lifestyle we lived during those 2 1/2 years.

I also miss South Africa and the dream that started but didn't come to fruition. Living as a foreigner in another country suits my personality and allows me to apply my skills and talents in ways I can't experience in my own country. Stephen too has demonstrated his considerable skill in negotiating cultural difference to design successful projects and manage staff.

And so we are searching and waiting for that next opportunity.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tent camping tour of the National Parks

At the end of April, we were anxiously waiting to hear word on a number of jobs in various locales around the world that Stephen had applied to. Thinking we might leave the US soon, we wanted to take a tour of some of the beautiful places in our country. Plus sitting at home just waiting seems like a torturous way to spend time. So we packed up our tent and drove south.

The first park we visited was Capitol Reef National Park. We only drove and hiked near the entrance though and never went into the actual park. One of our tires had a blow out; finding a shop and then waiting to get a replacement ate away the hours. By the time we reached the entrance, it was late. None of the campgrounds had any open sites so we had to drive to the town of Escalante to find a place to stay. To get to Escalante we drove through Anazasi National Park and it was incredible. The sunset was absolutely breathtaking.

Such a beautifully colored sky over a vast land. Awe inspiring!

We stayed the night at Escalante Outfitters and the coffee the next morning was fabulous. It was just a lucky find as we hadn't booked anything ahead. :)

The next morning we drove out of town a very long way on a dirt road that said it was impassable during times of rain (ha!) to Escalante National Monument.

Then it was back the way we came on the dirt road through the town of Escalante again and onto Bryce Canyon National Park.

All those interesting formations are called "Hoodoos" and they are created by "frost wedging". When the snow melts it seeps into fractures in the limestone then re-freezes. As the water turns to ice it expands causing the limestone to crack. I have thought about trying to do a painting of this landscape but I think I might go crazy getting all the details of the Hoodoos!

Fortunately there were a few tent sites left when we arrived in Bryce Canyon so we were quick to snatch one up and pitch our tent before doing any further exploring.

But then we drove to every viewing point from one end of the park to the other. We started at the furthest point south, Rainbow Point. Stephen never minds being on the edge of the world. :)

At one of the view points about midway, we watched these birds of prey riding the thermals. Always a very cool sight.

We stayed one night in Bryce Canyon. It was a very chilly night, at the elevation of almost 9000ft the temperatures drop pretty drastically. I needed all the blankets and sleeping bags we had plus my jacket with the hood up!

The next day it was further south and into Arizona. Though the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is the most visited side, we opted not to drive the extra miles and satisfied ourselves with the North Rim views. Pretty amazing.

The haze is from air pollution. A clear view of the canyon is a rare experience (according to the sign posted nearby).

We ate lunch at the lodge restaurant with a wall of windows looking out to the canyon, then took a short hike. There were some narrow passages and plenty of edges. I stay as far from the edge as I can but Stephen never minds being right there. There were no rooms at the lodge and no available tent sites within the park so we drove out to Point Imperial for the most spectacular view of the day before driving on. The enormity of the landscape is too much to fathom!

After the Grand Canyon it was Zion National Park.

We took a hike up from the visitors center at the west entrance.

I did the best I could with my painful plantar fasciitis. Hiking was one of the things I had really looked forward to enjoying on our trip. Sadly my injury often held us back. But in Zion I just had to get up in those beautiful rocks even if just a little ways.

At one point Stephen went ahead for awhile more and I stayed where I was and took photo after photo of these beautiful cactus flowers.

After our hike in Zion we drove to Las Vegas for dinner. Stephen remembered a Brazilian Steakhouse from a previous work visit. The way it works is you have a card, one side is "go" the other side is "stop". Waiters bring around different kinds of meat and if your card is "go" they stop at your table. It was all delicious so of course we ate too much. :) But such a fun experience.

That night we slept in our tent in the Mojave Desert. It was the only night I didn't freeze. :) We were late checking into the KOA but we had reserved our spot so the information brochure was waiting for us. Hand written next to the X that marked our site was the warning, "watch out for snakes"!! I was extremely cautious when I had to get out of the tent in the middle of the night to walk to the restroom. Thankfully I didn't run into a snake. :)

We drove across Nevada into California to get to our next park: Sequoia National Park. There we stopped to walk by the most beautiful river I've ever seen: Kaweah River.

It's hard to get a grasp on the size of the Giant Sequoias, but with Stephen's tiny form at the base of these two it gets a little easier. :)

And then there's General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world (by volume).

Our tent site that night was at the edge of the KOA property and we had a visit from one of the neighbors. :) I think I heard them grazing all night.

The KOA campground was just outside of Yosemite Park so it was a short drive to get in. The hike to see both upper and lower Yosemite Falls was near our tent site.

We lucked out and took the last spot at Camp 4, the climbers camp. We had to park in the lot and haul everything in. Lots of tents but it was still quiet for the most part. This camp is so sought after that people camp out in line hours in advance each day hoping to get a spot. We stayed here two nights.

There are so many things to do in Yosemite but I just had to float down the river in a raft. There's a nice view of the famous "Half Dome" in the background.

As we headed north again, we stopped in Stephen's home town of Sacramento and then to a KOA at the base of Mt. Shasta. Our US national parks tour was at an end. Wow, did we ever see some wondrous sights.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

New Zealand: maybe someday we will call it "home"

During our first trip to New Zealand in 2013, we discovered a country that had so many features and qualities Stephen and I value. The land is beautiful: mountains, beaches, vineyards, green pastures, pristine rivers and lakes… Other countries have these things too but New Zealand as a whole is uniquely unspoiled. The climate is mild. The people are friendly and “down to earth”. The population is small, only 4.4 million, but diverse and there are genuine uniting features that make New Zealand stand apart from the rest of the world. Not to mention the fact that Kiwis put a high value on creativity and innovation; two terms that best describe the type of work that both Stephen and I enjoy and seek. New Zealand has a lot to offer; Stephen and I were enticed by the idea of living and working there.

Moving to a foreign country is a big leap. A little research is a good plan to increase the probability of a successful transition. Our second trip to New Zealand was a combination holiday/ “research” tour to explore parts of the country we hadn’t experienced the first time.

Our flight from the US took us through Melbourne, Australia to Auckland on the North Island of New Zealand. We took a few days there to get over jetlag. As we have been to Auckland several times now, it feels familiar and welcoming. We shopped for groceries in New World Market, had dinner and drinks at the Shakespeare Hotel, walked along the waterfront imagining life in a condo there, and took a ferry ride. 

This time we bought tickets for the Rangitoto Island ferry. Because the wind that day made it unwise to dock at the normal spot, the ferry captain motored around to the other side of the island. From that drop off point we took a hike on Motutapu Island right next to Rangitoto Island. 

Being huge fans of mass transit, from Auckland we began our scenic train travel that took us all the way through the North Island down as far as Christchurch on the South Island. I love traveling by train. So much more comfortable than planes and you can read or work on your computer, unlike when driving a car. You can get up and walk around all you like and the seating is more spacious, AND you get to see beautiful country that you can’t see from the road. Unfortunately the first leg of our tickets was truncated due to a derailing that morning just south of Auckland. So we had to take a bus for most of that part. Kind of disappointing, of course. But after that there were no more interruptions and we enjoyed the beautiful land of New Zealand from the comfort of rail travel.

The first overnight stop was Wellington, the capital. I loved the artistic flare that colors the city, but Stephen doesn’t think he could live there with near ever-present  wind. Weta, the design company that is responsible for a lot of what you see in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, is located in Wellington. We took a tour of the workshop.

In order to board the train for the next leg of our trip, we first had to cross the ocean. We took the Interislander ferry from Wellington on the North Island to Picton on the South Island. 

The difference in weather from when we boarded the ocean ferry and when we disembarked at Picton was amazing: from wind, rain and choppy seas to clear skies and smooth sailing. (Wellington is on open ocean while Piction is protected by the Marlborough Sounds.)

The best section of the train ride was from Picton to Kaikoura.  It was a gorgeous sunny day and we spent quite a bit of time in the open air car where you can take unobstructed photos of the landscape.

On our last trip we drove through Kaikoura, stopping only long enough for a dolphin tour. But as we wanted to take two marine life watching tours, we decided to stay overnight this time around. The Dolphin Encounter tour was such a wonderful experience on our last trip to New Zealand that I wanted to do it again. 

We also decide to do a whale watching tour.  To see the Sperm whales we had to travel quite a distance out from the shore to get to the deep water where the whales live. 

The swells were huge that day so I had to concentrate diligently to not let my seasickness get the better of me! On both tours I added a few good shots to my collection of reference photos for future paintings. :)

Our last leg of train travel was from Kaikoura to Christchurch. In Christchurch we rented a car; the train goes as far as Greymouth on the west coast but that’s where it stops. As we wanted to explore more southern areas of the island after visiting Greymouth, we had to choose to travel by bus or by car.

The roads are often narrow in New Zealand and there are many one lane bridges.

The most incredible one lane bridge was one near Greymouth: it was a multi-use bridge that both cars AND trains use!

It was on our first trip to New Zealand that I discovered hard cider on draught at the Shakespeare Hotel.  Monteiths was the brewer and though I’ve tried other brewers since, Monteiths is still my favorite.  Greymouth is the home of Monteiths Brewing Co., so we made sure to stop and sample their ales, cider, and ginger beer. 

They also had a food menu and I noticed a venison dish on offer. Deer aren’t wild in New Zealand like they are in the states. The animals are fenced in and raised just like cattle and sheep. After seeing one pasture after the next with deer grazing, I began to wonder if New Zealand did as well with venison as they do with lamb and beef.  So I ordered the pepper-encrusted venison at Monteiths to find out.  Not surprisingly, it was delicious.  “Cervena”, New Zealand venison, is a growing export for the country.

A big part of what was so fun about our first trip to New Zealand, was the outdoor activities we did. It rained a lot more on this trip so we didn’t rent bikes or kayaks as much as we had planned. But at least we did get out on a lagoon one day in a double kayak.  We enjoyed paddling around for hours and doing a little bird watching.  

Not wanting to miss one of the biggest tourist attractions in the country, we took a ferry ride through Milford Sound one of the giant Fjords. Lots of pretty waterfalls. Again it was a really rainy day, which they said it is 3 out of 4 days, so not quite the experience it looks like in the brochure. Still it was fun to see seals and go down to the underwater observatory.

 I got to celebrate my birthday in New Zealand, one more birthday celebrated in a country other than the US, so that’s fun. We ate a most delicious early birthday dinner at an Italian restaurant in a town called Oamaru on the South Island.

It was nice to spend more time in New Zealand. Our window of opportunity has closed (there are several paths to immigration and we no longer meet the criteria for the path that was open to us) but maybe someday in the future another window will open. At least we can always travel there. :)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

An Unexpected Journey

I’m borrowing this title from The Hobbit. The most recent Hobbit movies were made in New Zealand by New Zealanders and I really thought when I wrote another blog post after leaving Cambodia, it would be from New Zealand. But instead we have been on an unexpected journey for these past 8 months.

Before we even left Cambodia, I used some of my air miles to purchase ONE-WAY tickets to New Zealand from the US. During our holiday in New Zealand from Cambodia, we fell in love with the country. Though we felt is was necessary to leave the organization Stephen worked for (in the face of a raise and a promotion no less) and that also meant leaving Cambodia, we were by no means ready to give up international living yet. New Zealand seemed like it would be a nice change of pace. We would still be living in a different country and culture but a much easier one: milder climate and English speaking. Stephen was going to look for work with the Maori people to improve their health and I was going to get started on a Master in Early Childhood Education to work with preschool Maori children. We were prepared to get jobs on the ground if our job search from the states didn’t yielded any job offers.

But that is not the way things worked out.

It was only after we arrived back in the states that we discovered that my mother had become very ill. She and my dad needed our help. We decided that moving back overseas right away was not what we wanted to do when my family needed our support so urgently. Even though our flights were still months away, we purchased return tickets from New Zealand and turned our planned move into a holiday trip instead.

Meanwhile Stephen was asked by a former colleague to work on a project. The colleague needed some engineering design work done on a project to build grain dryers for Kenyan farmers. Though we hadn’t been back in the states more than two weeks, Stephen decided to accept the work because it seemed like the kind of project that would be interesting and allow him to refresh his engineering design skills. So he set up his own consulting business and began relearning CAD, engineering design software. He was able to work remotely so it worked well for the unique situation we found ourselves in.

So we lived in rural Montana for this time, which has some challenges not unlike a third world country. The nearest grocery store is 30 minutes away but better stores with more to offer and better prices are an hour away. Very similar to our situation in Tugela Ferry, South Africa.  Greytown was 30 minutes away but the selection was not always what I wanted. Pietermaritzberg was 1 ½ hours drive one way and that’s where we did most of our shopping each week. But now that I think about it Tugela Ferry DID have a small grocery store. I only shopped there maybe twice, but it was there. AND Tugela Ferry had one restaurant. We actually ate some delicious chicken and rice there a time or two. :) There are no restaurants in Sylvanite, MT, not since The Golden Nugget burned to the ground.

The Yaak valley has severe weather. More than half the days of the year have temperatures below zero. One day we accidentally left a Nalgene water bottle full of water in the car after a trip to town. The water froze solid and stretched the bottle, though amazingly didn’t break it. We never had to worry about anything freezing in Cambodia. There we had to worry about chocolate melting all over the place or bread molding too quickly if left on the counter or fruit rotting…so many more things needed to be protected from the heat. In the Yaak we had to learn new habits to protect things from the cold!

Cambodia has yearly flooding that causes deaths, displaces people, and ruins crops. We had our own flooding in the Yaak this year. Because the snow was still pretty deep on the ground it held the water so it was all hands on deck to work to dig trenches to divert the water and shovel it out of the garage. 

To dig a good trench on the other side of the outside fence, Stephen had to stand in ice cold water up to his waist with only thin rain pants and snow boots with the liners taken out so he could fit into them. We weren't prepared and did not have the gear for such weather.

Our water source is a mountain spring, and after the flooding I had pretty severe swelling in my throat, an allergic reaction to something in the water. We had to buy bottled water and then a Brita filter which helped but didn’t completely eliminate my allergic reactions. Our water source in Cambodia was from the city and it too needed to be processed to make it safe for drinking.

In Cambodia the water came through the tap warm. Which was just about the right temperature for showering, especially if you’d just come in from spending any length of time outside. In the Yaak, the water comes through the tap so cold it “burns”. You have to run the water for about 2-3 minutes before it starts to run warm. And when you are showering if anyone uses water anywhere else in the house you get a blast of freezing cold or burning hot water. I think I’ll take Cambodia!

But just like I would in a third world country, I have tried to make the most of the situation. I did have an oven, something I longed for in Cambodia, so I baked and roasted up a storm. I’m putting together my own cookbook of recipes I’ve invented or modified that I love. I love pastries but the traditional recipes have nutrient poor white flour and way too much sugar. I’ve been finding recipes and then making sweeping modifications to get the healthiest version of scones, cookies, cakes etc. that I can. It has been fun experimenting. I am not afraid to take risks in baking! Of course not everything turns out wonderfully but that’s all part of the fun. I don’t just bake with my oven, I also roast lots of vegetables. It’s easy and they taste amazing. And during the winter I also roasted and baked meat and poultry. I’ve stretched my culinary skills even more which is important to me, building on the skills I developed in Cambodia.

And I do love my horses.  Caring for them and my parents’ cat over these past months has reminded me how much I love animals. My horse, the foal of my sister’s horse, was never properly trained. She’s only “green broke” as the cowboys say. I’ve only ridden her once and she bucked me off. I’m not a horse whisperer (which is what I’d need to be with her advanced age) or I would have been riding her all winter. I have deep respect for the big and powerful animals that horses are and I’d rather neither of us got hurt.

By April, my mother’s health had improved enough that Stephen and I felt we could start looking for our next field position. He began applying to job after job all over the world: India, Canada, the Philippines, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Ethiopia, Botswana, Singapore, Japan, Swaziland, the US, and Cambodia. We thought he was well qualified for every job and hoped and prayed that one would soon turn into a job offer. Waiting to hear back is so tough and it’s often weeks of waiting to hear either way. So with several job applications pending, we decided to take a tour of the Western US National Parks. It would help us from feeling so anxious while we waited for any news on the job front but also we thought soon we would be headed overseas and might not have another chance for several years to take such a trip.

Just before our road trip, Stephen had an unexpected email message from his old supervisor at Sacred Heart. They wanted to know if he would be willing to come back to his old job as a bio-medical engineer for the mechanic heart/heart transplant programs. He met with the team and told them we really wanted to go overseas again and if a job came through we would take it, but that if not he would come back and work with them again.

During our national parks tour, Stephen received one rejection notice after the next and it began to look like taking the offer to return to his old job was our only option. Stephen even applied for a country director job in Cambodia that we thought he would surely be a strong candidate for. But a week after the closing date he received a message “your application has not been successful”.

So here we are: Stephen is going back to work at his old job part-time/supplemental and we are staying in the US and not moving overseas. For now. This is most unexpected. I did not think we would still be in the US by this point and certainly not back to the city where this journey to pursue a public health degree to serve poor people all started for Stephen. We don’t know what lies ahead but we hope and pray that somewhere in our future is another opportunity to live amongst extremely poor people to serve and care for them. We would appreciate your prayers too for another opportunity to live and work overseas.