Thursday, October 28, 2010

Reality Check

Lately I’ve found myself saying this phrase quite a lot: “Well, I guess it’s time to get back to reality”. I say it when I’m leaving a hotel, when I get off a plane, or when I’ve had a surreal experience in a foreign city. But, I’ve come to understand that this is my new reality now. And the times that I think I’m living in some dream world? Well, that’s my life.

Usually when someone has been away from home for two weeks, it’s at the end of a vacation and the thought of going back home, back to reality, is a bit unsettling. I remember leaving Jakarta after my two week business trip last week and saying to the hotel staff (whom I had become friends with and who knew me by name), that it was time to go back to reality. Well, I now recognize that traveling, and staying in hotels, and becoming friends with hotel staff, and being on airplanes IS my reality. It’s my life. It should come to no surprise to me that I come and go on such a regular basis.

So when do I get to go back to reality? That’s a good question! My life right now is so full of opportunity and new experiences. I’m starting to get used to it and have sort of stopped feeling like I’m in some dream land. My whole life is like a dream land. And I don’t mean that it’s dreamy and everything is hunky dory all the time (because that certainly is not the case), but I do have to pinch myself on a regular basis. I need a reality check!

What else is now a part of my new reality, apart from hotels, airplanes and surreal experiences in foreign cities?

My new reality includes seamlessly making the transition from being overseas, to being at home in Houston. In the past, I’ve had to spend a couple of days getting back into the swing of things after being away from home for a while, especially after an overseas trip. Now, I don’t waste any time acclimating to home anymore. I jump right in, jetlagged and all. My house looks the same as it did when I left. Everything is still in tact and ready for me. And thankfully, after a good night’s rest, I don’t really miss a beat. I can’t afford to as my time at home is too precious!

I usually get home on Saturdays after a business trip, and my Sunday School class gets the pleasure of me showing up on Sunday mornings looking and acting a bit like a zombie. But you know what? I can always count on them to warmly and enthusiastically welcome me home. And it feels great. And I am so thankful for them. I always worry that people are going to forget about me and be a true reflection of the “out of sight out of mind” theory. But they prove me wrong. They care about me, they ask about my trips, and they miss me when I’m gone. And I miss them, and we love catching up when I get back. That’s my new reality.

Kenna stays with my parents while I’m out of town, and she understands what’s happening now; which means I have to be super sneaky when I’m getting ready to leave. I have to act like nothing is different (except for my luggage of course, which is a dead giveaway), so that she doesn’t go hiding somewhere before I have the chance to put her in her crate for the ride in the car. And then I get shunned in the car as she so kindly puts her back to me the entire way up to my parents’ house. She won’t look at me. But you know what? She is so excited to see me when I get back in town, and proceeds to purr like a V8 engine and give me endless cuddles. So I’ve learned to accept the fact that I get ignored up front, because I know that I’ll be loved a little extra on the back end. And that’s my new reality.

When I was home on a regular basis, I think I took my friends for granted. Not their friendships, but the fact that they were around and available. I might go two months without seeing one of my friends and think nothing of it. It’s easy to do when you know someone is around – there’s always another time, right? Well, my new reality says that’s wrong! I’m only home for about two weeks a month. So I have this urgency to see people when I’m home; which means that I see a lot more of my friends now than when I was home all the time. I kind of like it! You know when you just say you’re going to meet up with someone for dinner, then someone gets busy at work, or is tired, or just doesn’t feel up to it, and it’s easy to say, “we’ll reschedule for tomorrow or next week”? Well now, if you cancel on me (or vice versa), it’s likely to be a month before I get to see you again. Let’s just say that my social calendar is full, hardly anyone cancels, and I LOVE it! What a great new reality.

An Amazon Kindle has also become my new reality. I fought it for a long time in favor of a tangible book, with pages I could feel between my fingers and smell as I flipped them. But when I travel for 24 hours on a plane, each way, on a monthly basis, I find that I read…..A LOT. I power my way through books. And who wants to lug several books with them all the way across the world? Not me! So my mom finally convinced me that I needed a Kindle, and I pretty much have a love affair with it now. The best part is, I can download a book anywhere in the world thanks to the Kindle’s 3G service, and so I’m always armed with fresh reading material…..and a depleting bank account. My carry on is no longer stuffed with books. And that’s a fantastic new reality!

I love cooking, and I love going to the grocery store. I seriously love it. Even though there is just one of me, I often times cook a normal size recipe for four, meaning I have leftovers for the next couple of days or frozen goodies to eat a few weeks later. With my new travel schedule, and my full social calendar, I don’t cook much anymore. It’s somewhat depressing, but I’m getting used to it. I generally just make a quick trip to the grocery store when I return home, for some fruit and veggies and breakfast stuff, but other than that, I’m eating out a lot and don’t have the need, or opportunity, to hang out in my kitchen and cook. I may have to do something about this, as I don’t really like this new reality. Neither does my grocery store!

The reality is, life doesn’t change all that much while I’m gone. Most of the time I don’t get to check Facebook while I’m overseas, and I’ve learned that I don’t really miss much without it. That was a refreshing revelation! Sure I miss some special events and gatherings in the lives of my family and friends, but I make up for that when I’m back in town and have great friends who keep me posted on their lives while I’m away. I really couldn’t ask for anything more.

I’ve spent this blog post talking about the significant changes in my life that have come with the start of my new job. Some are good changes and some I don’t like so much, but I know this is where God wants me right now (even if I’m not so sure why) and I’m just embracing these changes and taking things day by day. I am experiencing things that most people won’t experience in an entire lifetime, and I am grateful for this opportunity. I still try to soak in the culture of all of the foreign lands that I visit, and I will also try to soak in the culture of home when I am here. This is my life. This is my new reality.

Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don't worry about missing out. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.
– Matthew 6:33-34 (MSG)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Globetrotting: Indonesia, Part II

Well, I've just returned from my trip to Indonesia, and I don’t even know where to start. I had no expectations of Jakarta. But it left me with a lot of memories, and a lot of fun facts. I feel like an Indonesian encyclopedia now! I truly hope that I can capture the essence of this massive city with the few tidbits and stories that follow.

(P.S. For those of you wondering, I left before the tsunami and volcano and was not impacted at all. Praise the Lord!)

Things I learned about Jakarta (the capital city) and Indonesia (the country):

  • Indonesia is the 4th largest country in the world by population. It follows the good ole US of A, which is preceded by China and India. I had no idea that Indonesia has 240 million people;
  • Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. You know those 240 million people I just mentioned? Well, 200 million of them are Muslim. But, it’s not a Muslim country! It’s a secular country, and the other 15% or so is made up of Christians, Buddhists, Hindu and those who simply just don’t believe;
  • Indonesia has the second largest variety of vegetation in the world. This is because is lies in between Asia and Australia and has access to the waters in between the islands. And the weather is always tropical. There are 2,500 different types of orchid and hundreds of varieties of bananas and mangoes. Yum!;
  • Jakarta has several “downtown” areas, so no matter which direction you look, you’ll see a group of tall buildings. Talk about getting disoriented!;
  • There are no tourist activities in Jakarta. The local people are the ones who told me this. What do they do for fun on the weekend? They go to the mountains outside of Jakarta or to the shopping malls. There are what seem like a bigillion shopping malls, all really nice, and this is their big outing on the weekends;
  • Jakarta has the same weather all year long. How boring. Nice, but boring;
  • Jakarta is very “entrepreneurial”. And what exactly do I mean by this? Everyone is looking for a way to make a buck. Teenage boys stand in the middle of traffic and direct it, allowing cars to turn or change lanes when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to, and then they get a couple thousand rupiah from the thankful driver whom they helped. And there are “3 in 1” roads during peak traffic, where you can’t drive on the road unless you have 3 people in your car. So what do these “entrepreneurs” do? They hop in your car for the length of this “3 in 1” section, you give them a couple thousand rupiah, and then they take the public bus back to the beginning to do it all over again, and still net a little bit of cash. And just to put that in perspective, the exchange rate at the moment is about 9,000 rupiah to the U.S. dollar. All I can say is, at least they’re not just standing on the corners asking for handouts;
  • Komodo Island is one of the main islands of Indonesia, and is the home to the Komodo dragon. It is one of only four islands within Indonesia where these creatures roam free. I had no idea;
  • Sumatra Island is the home to the largest flower, the infamous Corpse Flower (aka Titan Arum), known for it’s odor of rotting flesh. For those of you in Houston, this may sound familiar to you as there was big news about our very own Corpse Flower, “Lois”, at the Museum of Natural Science this past summer. Only 28 Corpse Flowers have ever bloomed in the United States. Sumatra Island is there native home;
  • Indonesia was originally settled by the Dutch a long time ago. Since then, the people of Indonesia are a blend of Malaysian and Chinese. Some of them look more Polynesian (think dark island looking Asians like in Hawaii, and some of them look Chinese).
So now that you know a little about Jakarta and Indonesia, I’ll tell you what made it a special place to me, and a great overall experience.

Indonesia is made up of lots of miniature people. I don’t mean to sound rude when I say that, but I felt like an Amazon woman the entire time I was there. Six Americans on an elevator took up about as much space as twelve Indonesians. But that didn’t seem to intimidate them. I have never seen a people so assertive when it comes to getting on and off of an elevator. There is no waiting for anyone, and they certainly have no concept of elevator etiquette. It’s a free for all. After about a week of this stressful experience, we opted for the escalators :-)

There were surprisingly a lot of expats in Jakarta. It really is a nice city, and I can see why people can easily live there. The food was varied and delicious, the infrastructure is sufficient, it’s a relatively safe town (even though all you ever hear about it is related to terrorism), there is good nightlife, and you kind of just fit right in (well, other than the fact that you may not be miniature).

The hotel that we stayed at was connected via an underground walkway to what we would classify as a 5-Star shopping mall. That shopping mall was also connected to the office building in which we worked each day, so needless to say, my experience was perhaps better than it should have been since I didn’t have to deal with Jakarta traffic at all. Every entrance to every building requires you to go through a security checkpoint – some more serious than others – but the intention is at least there. The security guards between the mall and the Ritz knew us after a couple of days.

Jakarta has many western establishments – McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Tony Romas, Wendy’s, Benihana, etc. But there is also a lot of great local and regional food. I ate lots of sushi while I was over there, and some of the best stir-fried noodles I’ve ever had. They have a lot of Australian Wagyu beef (like our kobe beef) and lamb, which I quite happily indulged in.

One of the members of my team tried to eat “American” pretty much every day, and he certainly never caused the rest of us to have food envy. I’m sorry, but if you’re traveling overseas a lot as part of your job, branch out a little, huh? If you’re scared to partake in local flavors (within reason, of course), perhaps you shouldn’t travel overseas for a living. Just sayin’. I had ice in my drinks AND ate fruit AND ate vegetables AND ate the local fish, and I’m still alive and kickin’!

And we learned that service is sporadic. Meaning, I get my meal within 5 minutes of ordering, and my co-worker doesn’t get his until 15 minutes later. And that’s normal to them, and they think that it’s okay to put me in the position of having to choose to eat before my co-worker has his food, or have a cold meal. I’m not okay with that. But I got over it. I ate first :-)

On the weekend in between our two weeks of work, half of the team went to Bali and the other half of us stayed back. A former co-worker of mine now lives in Jakarta with her husband and family, and she invited me to come spend some time in the mountains with her family. The mountains are about two hours outside of Jakarta. What I didn’t realize was that they have this amazing villa and surrounding plantation with every fruit and vegetable that could possibly grow there, complete with a pond stocked with fish and some imported Australian deer. I had such a wonderful time catching up with her, meeting and hanging out with her family, eating lots of local foods grown on their property, and getting out of the big city. It was a generous display of Indonesian hospitality!

Her family is also very active in their church, and help with the Christian orphanage that houses 25 boys and girls. All of the kids are allocated to various church families to take home each weekend, so her family had three of the girls that weekend and they were up at the villa hanging out with us. They were adorable and it was even a better experience being able to spend time with them. I’m still amazed that with so many Muslims in Indonesia, I got to hang around with part of the 2% of the population that are Christians. What are the odds???

What else did I love about Jakarta?

  • the almost daily, scare-your-britches-off, afternoon thunderstorms. It looked like the world was going to end. But we always survived :-);
  • the 10 minute process that it took me and a co-worker to get coffee with milk from Dunkin Donuts each morning. It was a ritual that involved paper bags and tape;
  • the fact that every employee in the Ritz Carlton knew me by name by Day 2, and knew that I had coffee with breakfast and wine during Happy Hour. And this even includes the staff in the fitness center who would brightly welcome me each morning with a “Good morning Miss Mason”. Gotta love the Ritz!;
  • the 20 minute cab rides in a Mercedes for the equivalent of $4;
  • the fact that they didn’t really treat me any different because I was American. It seems that they are accustomed to expats. And I loved that. I just want to fit in. Well, as much as I can being an Amazon woman.
I’m not really sure what else to say, other than that my impression is that Indonesian people are hard workers and take nothing for granted. Jobs are created for people to keep them busy. They may not be paid a lot, but at least they are working. The city is well kept (at least the parts that I saw), and although there are a ton of people within the city, it’s well controlled and I never felt threatened. It’s very green, very close to the equator, and has little earthquakes pretty much every day.

Would I recommend going to Jakarta? Apart from the fact that there is really nothing to do, absolutely. Next time I may venture down to Bali to see what all of the hype is about, but I left Jakarta with a smile on my face. And I really couldn’t have asked for more than that.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


I have officially, blissfully, completely, fallen in love. It’s for real this time. There is no doubt in my mind. It’s exhilarating.

I have fallen in love with the dry air, and the chirping birds, and the brisk mornings, and the pep in everyone’s step. I have fallen in love with FALL. Ahhhhh!

I know that pretty much everyone loves Fall. Who couldn’t? For some it’s the end of a brutal summer (thank you, Houston), and for others it’s a milder version of what’s to come in the winter and a time to watch the leaves change. Either way, it’s a welcomed change. Houston has about two weeks, on average, of Fall weather each year. We are currently half-way through the second week, so perhaps we will be blessed with an extension this year. Here’s hoping!

So what else does Fall mean, and why is it such a beloved season? Here’s my take on it:

Fall baking: nothing else compares to this, ever. We get to put pumpkin in everything, and pumpkin makes everything better. And Fall baking makes the house smell good, and gets our minds focused toward Thanksgiving rather than July 4th. My favorite is this scrumptious chocolate chip pumpkin bread that I make. The best way to get Vitamin A that I know of! The first batch has already been baked and consumed this year, and there will be many more to follow.

Fresh air: this may not mean much to a lot of you, but the fact that I get to use the sun roof in my car instead of the air conditioning, well, that’s just a pure blessing. I love driving down the freeway with my hair whipping in the wind, and I’m not sweating! This is a sacred occasion as it happens so rarely. And the same goes for opening the windows at my house. Fresh, outside air is so much better than recycled air. And the fat cat just sits underneath the open window with her nose in the air taking all of the new smells in and enjoying every minute of it.

Warm things: think down comforter on the bed instead of a blanket (this transition was made 2 nights ago and I have not slept better in weeks!), long sleeves instead of tank tops, cozy pajamas instead of the bare minimum, blankets on the couch, hot tea – you get the picture. I love being cozy. I love wrapping up in something. There are really few things in this world better than being cozy. I would pick a log cabin in the mountains, in front of a fire, over the beach any day!

Football: I will caveat this by saying that I’m not actually into football anymore. I really just don't care all that much. BUT, I love the energy that is in the air during football season. People become friendlier because they discover they cheer for the same team, they bond over fantasy football leagues, and they talk to others they would not normally talk to. Football brings out hoards of people (albeit some obnoxious and annoying) together for socializing and relishing in the cooler weather. So even though I don’t actually watch the football games, I love the energy that this sport creates. I love just sitting back and enjoying the vibe.

You feelin’ frisky?: Have you noticed that animals are much friskier in the cooler weather? And people are in better moods? Why is it that the heat drains so much out of us? When Fall comes, every animal and every person seems to have more pep in their step. All of a sudden we’re outside exercising, doing chores, etc. and we are loving it! I don’t know about you, but sometimes, the feeling of Fall makes me believe that I can conquer the world. That’s pretty powerful!

I know I’m not saying anything here that most of you haven't already thought or experienced, but my love affair with this season has been extraordinarily powerful this year. Maybe it’s because I now have a job where I can leave at a decent hour and enjoy being outside at night having dinner at a cafĂ© or walking the park with friends. Maybe it’s because I am traveling a lot more now, so when I experience this amazing weather while I’m home, I just soak it up and appreciate it even more. Or maybe it’s just because I’ve taken the time to acknowledge all of these little aspects of Fall that have made me fall in love. Whatever it is, just know that I have fallen. Have you?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Globetrotting: Indonesia, Part I

I’m going to be honest with you, and I’m a little ashamed to admit this: I don’t really know much at all about Indonesia, or specifically Jakarta, the city that I’m about to be living in for the next two weeks. I guess I’ve just never really known anyone to go there, nor have I really cared. It’s not been one of my most wanted travel destinations. When I lived in Australia, a lot of Aussies would go to Bali on vacation. That’s really all I had ever heard of Indonesia. But I’m not even going to Bali.

So, I’m about to embark on an adventure to a place that I really know nothing about. I know that there have been problems with terrorism in the past, that the “Love” portion of “Eat Pray Love” was in Indonesia (Bali specifically), and that it is going to take me a very long time to get there from Houston. That’s really about it. All I’m really equipped with is a wide open mind and a lot of curiosity.

Here is what I do know:

It is taking me one 10.5 hour flight, one 11.5 hour flight and one 1.5 hour flight to get to Jakarta. Tag on 2 extra hours on the way back;

I am probably most excited at this point that I am staying at the Ritz-Carlton in Jakarta. I don’t know if it’s safe for me to post that on here, but I just did. And I’m going to love every minute of that hotel. I can feel it in my bones;

For some reason, I expect lots and lots of seafood in Jakarta;

If I can find a little medicine man like the one in “Eat Pray Love”, I may very well just fold him in half, stuff him in my suitcase, and bring him back to America with me as a souvenir. I think he and Kenna would get along nicely;

Apparently, there are over 17,000 islands associated with the country of Indonesia. I kind of don’t believe it, but that’s what Google tells me. And Google knows everything;

The population of Jakarta is just under 10 million, so it’s a big city by any measure.

So off I go in a few days to the next country in my “I” trilogy. I look forward to being taught what Indonesia is all about, to not having to take malaria pills, and of course, to business class travel on Singapore Airlines.

Part of me is glad that I have no expectations. It's somewhat exhilarating. It leaves my mind free from bias and open to what this unknown world has to offer. So with that in mind, Jakarta, here I come!