Little by Little

I’m almost two months away from a flight to Shanghai!

While I will be in Arizona for the majority of my remaining time in the States, working at a summer camp, it seems like I’m mentally halfway into China because of all the preparations I need to make for the move. They say it’s the little things in life that matter – well, that’s definitely true in moving. Every time I cross something off my to-do list, I have about three or four more tasks that pop up. I guess I’ll never feel fully prepared. How can you feel thoroughly prepared to move alone to a different country?

I’m currently trying to prepare for an inspection of my Jeep, which I leased two years ago and will need to return to a dealership within the next three weeks. This is the last big task I need to knock off my list, and one of the big moments that reminds me what I’m doing. The work visa, the flight ticket, the returned Jeep – three giant leaps on the path to leaving Arizona.

Time feels both oddly compressed and simultaneously stretched out. Now that I’m not really teaching at the moment, I have the time and energy to see friends, go to events, read all the books I want – time stretches out, and summer feels like it will never end. But the constant focus on China (and more frequent “oh, shit, what am I doing” moments) compresses my time, making me feel like I’m leaving tomorrow completely underprepared. I think there is no escaping that feeling, and maybe I don’t want to escape it; I have time to enjoy with people I care about, and I have enough to do that I’m not just dwelling in anxiety for two months.

Little by little, I’m making moves. By the time I’m on the plane, I’m sure it will feel as though it all happened in a second. I’m just trying to focus on the little steps for now – the big step will come soon enough.

Dog Days of Summer

A week feels like a year, and summer is officially here. A little over a week ago, the last day of school came and went; I’m a few days into my job at a summer camp, and trying to find routine.

Yesterday, I received the most important email of the last year. My work visa for China has been approved. I read the email repeatedly, sitting poolside in the last few minutes of my summer camp shift, trying to absorb the information. It’s real. It’s really happening, and I’m really moving to China. This process of getting the work visa – a five month long, high stress process – is over, and the biggest task remaining is to buy a one way ticket to Shanghai.

Transitions will always feel strange, I think, though this one feels stranger than most. I remember conversations in Indiana cornfields with high school friends, listing all the places we’d planned to travel. There was a period in college, when I decided to become a teacher, that a slow understanding grew: I really could move abroad, and make good on those daydreams. There was the summer before grad school, when I took a 100-hour course to become certified to teach English as a Second/Foreign Language, and I dreamed of all the places I could go; and I watched several friends go to those places, while I finished my Bachelor’s and headed to my Master’s. I remember the feeling of defeat after months of planning to move to South Korea, during a politically shaking period between governments; I remember the color of the sky at dusk, in a friend’s front lawn, accepting the position of teaching English in a Tucson middle school. The conversations with a friend, en route to Senegal at the time, about how this shouldn’t be considered a failure but a detour. The painful experiences of teaching for the first year. The singular goal of finding a job abroad during my second year, the interviews at night and early morning, the constant searching, the second and third interview for a school in China, the runs around my neighborhood to think about what I wanted. The moment when I told my family, all at once, that I accepted a position in Shanghai, China.

This plan is almost ten years in the making. It feels sudden for some people who know me, but it does not feel sudden to me. I’ve thought about this, daydreamed about this, and planned this for several long years. Perhaps that is why this transition feels so different from others I’ve made in the past – to stand on this cliff, ready to take the leap into the real unknown, after such a long journey, is a singular experience for me. It feels like the next natural step. It also feels surreal, and a little frightening in the moments that I fully understand what I am in the process of doing.

In the dog days of summer, I will have one of the most odd and exciting transitions of my life. And as odd and exciting as it feels, I do think I’m ready. As ready as you can be to move to China alone, anyway.

Enchanted: Las Cruces, New Mexico

I’m sitting on my couch, writing this post as I watch another nature documentary (when not outdoors, watch the outdoors, am I right?). I’ve just come back from Las Cruces, New Mexico. I took the trip in order to run a half marathon with a friend and, luckily, we had time to explore. What a wonderful final break before the final stretch of the school year. Although I did not have much time in this city, I loved what I saw: blue skies, friendly people, beautiful architecture and color, local art, good food.

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Because we were very, very hungry after our run, my friend and I found ourselves at Cafe de Mesilla due entirely to Internet searches involving what was closest to us. (Delicious. I recommend the omelettes.) We spoke for a bit with the owner, who pointed us in the direction of Old Mesilla Village. If you visit Las Cruces, definitely make a stop to Old Mesilla Village. It is a small plaza, easily walkable, and filled with shops of local art and other unique products. It was a beautiful, breezy day, and we explored almost every store while we were there.

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The architecture is clearly quite old, and likely restored with original materials embedded in certain areas of the buildings. When in Old Mesilla Village, it is easy to picture the days of horse buggies and no air conditioning. Of course, I’m not wishing for those days – I love my Jeep too much – but it is always fun to be able to feel the history in an area, like in Las Cruces.

848f5641-7d53-4943-9340-b42eba124fd4Something I loved the most about Las Cruces was how brightly colored the city is. Although I live in Southern Arizona, with similar traditional architecture, Tucson is too large to have such consistencies in the look of buildings and decoration. I saw these bright blue doors everywhere in Las Cruces, often surrounded by some pastel color or blinding white, like the one in this photo. It’s worth it to walk around just to see such colors, and I cannot understand why every city in the U.S. doesn’t look like this.

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I did not spend enough time in Las Cruces to really give recommendations of what to explore, eat, or do while there. I can only recommend that you go. I will certainly be going back if I have the opportunity. New Mexico, I think, was aptly named: the land of enchantment.

An Easier Way: Work Visa

I did not go to Los Angeles over spring break for my visa. I found an easier way, one which I hope every expat teacher learns about far sooner than I did: an agency that is located in Los Angeles, taking my papers to the Consulate for me.

Although I am still waiting for my documents to be mailed back to me, there is already a palpable sense of relief. This has been a series of fiery hoops to jump through, and I’ve yet to feel as if I’m doing it quite right: such tiny things, like handwriting an application rather than typing and printing it out, can get you turned away from the Consulate to try again.

The company I hired to help me is China Visa Service Center. They have locations in cities other than LA, but because I am currently a resident in Arizona, the LA Chinese Consulate is the location I need to send my documents for authentication. With all costs for individual documents, what the Consulate will charge, and shipping fees to get my documents back home, it is less than half the price of a hotel in LA; that’s not including the money I’d have to pay for driving out to California, food and putzing around in the city for a week to wait for my documents to be authenticated.

I’d say that’s pretty good.

After I get these documents authenticated (for me, a teacher, I need a criminal background check and my teaching Master’s degree – both notarized and certified by the state of Arizona), I need to scan and send them back to my school in China. They will then fill out an application for me that will be sent back to me, and I will have to take that application back to the Chinese Consulate a second time to apply officially for my work visa. I am hoping that, if this agency is as effective as I want them to be, then I will be able to hire them a second time for my work visa.

Mt. Wrightson

I am sunburnt. Badly sunburnt. My right toenail is dangerously close to falling off (mainly due to my hiking boots, which need to be replaced after years of trails), and it is sorely bruised. This is the second time I’ve climbed Mt. Wrightson in the past few months, and I have to say, I feel like I’ve come up against this mountain twice and ended with some serious “trail wounds” – after all, the last time I climbed this mountain, I didn’t make it to the top because of the snow and was sunburnt on my eyeballs because of the snow.

But oh, man, is this mountain worth it.

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I chose the same trailhead as last time (there are a few starting points from which you can start the climb to Mt. Wrightson), a trail called Old Baldy. It is about 10 miles roundtrip and an estimated elevation gain of approximately 4,000 feet of elevation gain. The peak is at almost 9,000 feet of elevation, and from the peak, you can turn in any direction and see thousands of miles on a clear day.

The weather was perfect – breezy, just warm without being painfully heated – and although there was a small section of snow at the very last stretch of the mountain, we cut our ascent time significantly because we did not need to climb over 3-4 feet of snow. Usually at this time of the year, April is fully into 90 degree days and burning sun, so I think our group was lucky; this hike, during a normal year of normal weather, would likely be perfect in the month of March.

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One of my favorite aspects of this trail is that there are so many sections to it. From Old Baldy to the Josephine Saddle, it takes about 1-2 hours depending on pace; it is completely shaded, with lazy, loping switchbacks and a steady climb. After the Josephine saddle, there is a noticeable increase in how steep the trail becomes, but it still isn’t overwhelming for a frequent hiker – this is the second section, still littered with longer switchbacks while becoming slowly more exposed to the sun as you reach the second saddle. This took about another 1-2 hours, mostly due to my increasing number of breaks. Then comes the final section: less than a mile to the absolute peak of Mt. Wrightson, a series of very short and exposed switchbacks that wrap around to the summit.

Because the trail is broken like this, it does not feel as though you’re in some grueling, purgatory-like climb. The views are changing continuously throughout the ascent, and there is never a boring part of the hike. It feels like three hikes rolled into one beautiful day.

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Wrightson makes you work for the summit. It is a long hike that rewards hikers who can endure the hours and steady incline. It is absolutely worth the wait. I’ve spent the last six years hiking in Tucson, and this is without a doubt now my favorite hike in the Tucson area.

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China Update: The Visa Process

Next week is spring break for the school I currently teach at. I will be driving to Los Angeles, which is the closest Chinese Consulate to me, so I can hopefully begin the process of getting a work visa in China.

It is a complex, specific process, and I am very focused on not getting it wrong. The first time I drove to L.A., it came with a two-day break and I planned poorly enough that I couldn’t submit my documents because I didn’t have enough time to stay in L.A. and wait for the documents to be processed.

Basically, the work visa process for teachers is a two-step process: you need to first get documents authenticated by the Chinese Consulate, before completing the application and taking said application back to apply for the official visa. If I can authenticate my documents (first step) I will hopefully be able to get the official visa (second step) soon after my school year ends, so that I can have it ready to go far before I fly out to Shanghai.

While I’m in Los Angeles and waiting for the documents, I’m going to be as much of a tourist as possible. If you have any ideas about what I absolutely need to check out in L.A., definitely let me know!

Blackett’s Ridge Trail

Over the weekend, I hiked one of my all-time favorite Tucson trails. Blackett’s Ridge is approximately 1700 feet in elevation gain over a 6-mile roundtrip, out-and-back trail. It’s relatively quick (1.5-2 hours up to the summit, depending on my pace), and beautiful all the way through. It was, of course, exactly what I needed.

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This first photo is from the very summit of Blackett’s, as we were ready to turn around and head back. From the first ascent of the hike, you can see views of Tucson stretching out all around for almost the entire hike.

For the first mile or so, you’re walking under the looming presence of giant, ancient saguaro cacti, until the trail splits to either Phoneline or Blackett’s. Once you take that turn, you march upwards onto steeper, jagged switchbacks until the first false summit. Right now, Blackett’s is absolutely covered in wildflowers. Typically, you see yellow or orange wildflowers in Tucson, but this trail had several spots of red and purple as well. It was such a breathtaking view (partly because of the climb, mostly because of those flowers).

One of the reasons I love Blackett’s Ridge is because it very much feels like an indication of health for me. If I’m huffing and puffing, stopping every two minutes, I need to be hiking and completing high-intensity cardio more often. If I can make it up in a reasonable time, I feel pretty good about where I’m at in my fitness.

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As much as I love exploring new trails, Blackett’s was an endearing reminder to return to my favorite hiking haunts. There’s a reason certain trails, like this one, found their way into my hearts, and there’s a reason that I will always find my way back.