I Put a Poopoo Pellet in the Potty

It’s been pretty well established that COVID-19 spreads through droplets of moisture suspended in the air. Apparently, a very cautious person wants to be sure that we don’t spread the virus through the sewage system. Or maybe someone’s worried that people will be smelling stuff that normal people would avoid smelling.

When we “checked in” to the quarantine hotel, we were given a bottle of chlorine tablets, and written instructions for how to use them. We are supposed to put a tablet in the toilet before we flush down our business. This makes our poop nice and clean before it hits the sewage system.

The written instructions were to put ten pellets in the toilet, wait 30 minutes, then flush. A friend had shared the written instructions with me in advance, so the Poopoo Pellet thing wasn’t a surprise. What the hotel staff told us was different, though. The hotel staff told me to put in ONE pellet, and to flush it right away. I asked for confirmation that she said one pellet, not ten, and that we didn’t have to wait 30 minutes. She confirmed yes, one pellet, and don’t let it mellow, just flush it down.

Because it was so important to get it right, we were given written and oral instructions. I believe that this is a arbitrary bureaucratic policy informed by pseudo-science, and so the fact that two sets of instructions were contradictory does not bother me in the slightest. I think that waiting 30 minutes for the poopoo pills to do their magic, and flushing the pills down with the poop right away, are equally effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19. That is to say, not at all.

Yes, I’m pretty skeptical that even if I were carrying the COVID-19 virus, that I could spread it via my poop and pee. And if I could spread it that way, I doubt that a chlorine tablet in the toilet would prevent that. In fact, if this is a danger, then we have a bigger problem to worry about. To be honest, the whole thing sounds like something I’d hear from a certain elected official in the U.S. You know who I mean: the guy who talked about stuffing ultraviolet lightbulbs up our body cavities (or something like that). But I try not to be a jerk, and I admit that I’m not an expert on poop-born COVID, so I’m playing along.

I plop a poopoo pill into the pottie before I begin my business. The chlorine smell that wafts up from the toilet bowl invokes happy memories of frolicking in a swimming pool, during the salad days of my youth. The smell cheers me up as I sit on a Chinese toilet, waiting for this silliness to end.

Chock Full of It

The China Daily claims that Shanghai has over 7,000 coffee shops, compared to New York’s measly 1,591. And since the China Daily printed it, of course it’s true. 100%.

Although there is apparently plenty of coffee for everyone here in Shanghai, it’s unavailable to me while I’m in quarantine. I can’t go out, and they can’t deliver to me.

No coffee is not an option. A co-worker once gave me the nickname “Professor Coffee.”

In addition, bad coffee is a bad option. I’ll drink instant coffee when I’m backpacking in the middle of the wilderness. But I don’t want to live like an animal if I don’t have to.

In a stroke of genius, I set up my own little quarantine coffee shop.

I call my coffee shop “Chock Full of It.” Because I’m getting pretty chock fed up with quarantine.

Chock Full of It serves beans from Dead River Coffee Roasters in Marquette, Michigan. We tried their coffee in July this year. The owner is an interesting character, he loves his craft, and I learned a lot from talking with him about coffee. Just before leaving the U.S., I ordered two pounds of their Brazilian beans to bring to China with me. They do mail order, I highly recommend giving them a try (I receive nothing for this promotion, I really like their product, and want them to succeed).

Beans are hand-ground especially for each cup using the Hario hand grinder. The ceramic burr grinds the beans perfectly, taking about 90 seconds to grind enough for one cup (I have plenty of time on my hands in quarantine, if you haven’t guessed by now). Customers unanimously agree that the flavor of fresh-ground beans is worth the extra time.

Chock Full of It exclusively extracts coffee using the Aeropress coffee maker, one of the best Christmas presents that I ever received. If you haven’t had a cup of coffee made with an Aeropress, you’re missing out (again, not a paid promotion, I just really like the coffee maker).

Presentation is not nothing. Chock Full of It serves its freshly-extracted coffee in souvenir mugs from Isle Royale National Park, which is the happy place of the coffee shop proprietor (me).

Finally, every coffee shop should have a soundtrack. Chock Full of It features playlists from Spotify. Currently playing is “Lazy Chill Afternoon.”

My favorite aspects of Chock Full of It are (A) the coffee is made exactly the way that I like it, and (2), I get to keep all the tips.

I am denied quarantine lunch

I’m sure there’s a story behind my late lunch today, but I’m equally sure that I will never, ever, hear that story. Because China.

Quarantine is going OK so far. The hotel room could use a good scrubbing, but it isn’t as disgustingly filthy as some people had complained about. The room is large, bed is comfortable, the view is nice, the Internet is reasonably fast (by China standards).

The food is a different story. I am not a fan.

Three times a day, the doorbell to my room rings, and when I open the door, I’m greeted by the droppings of the hotel’s kitchen.

Deliveries are left on this stool outside my door.

The food is (mostly) edible, but it isn’t gourmet dining. I’ve had better food on the street. I’ve also had worse food in restaurants. Bottom line: it is neither worth complaining about, nor writing home about.

A typical meal.

The boy scout in me was still working before I left the U.S. I came prepared with my own snacks. Having some comfort food helps, a lot.

A sample of my snack bar. Why yes, those are Taiwanese instant noodles, the best in the world!

I was a little confused, and more than slightly amused, when lunch didn’t appear today. My wife sent me a text message from her room that her lunch was delivered. But when I looked outside my room, the stool was empty.

These things seem to happen to me in China. I learned to roll with it, and see the humor. I had a snack from my stash, and wasn’t too hungry. But I was curious. An hour later, I called the front desk. “I’m not complaining, just curious: no lunch today?” I asked.

“It’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming!” the voice from the front desk assured me.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, the doorbell rang. Lunch was served.

I was expecting a piping-hot, fresh-from-the-wok meal. After all, it was an hour late. Maybe they had to make something just for me? So it would be a something special? Silly me. I got a cold box lunch. And it was just as nondescript as all the other meals. So why the delay? Why did it take an hour for the hotel staff to deliver my lunch? I will never know.

Leave it to China to inject some drama in something as simple as lunch.

How I spent my summer vacation

Home leave is a paid vacation that you pay for.

Section 903 of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 states in part:

“(a)The Secretary may order a member of the Service who is a citizen of the United States to take a leave of absence under section 6305 of title 5, United States Code, upon completion by that member of 18 months of continuous service abroad.

(b) Leave ordered under this section may be taken in the United States, its territories and possessions, or the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.”

The English translation of that legalese is pretty simple: after a tour of duty abroad, every Foreign Service officer must return to the United States for “home leave.” The length of home leave isn’t specified in the law, but the current policy is that we have to be in the United States for at least 20 days.

The State Department describes the purpose of home leave like this: “Home Leave is provided to employees by order of Congress to ensure that Foreign Service employees maintain close ties to the United States while pursuing careers overseas.” That might seem like an old-fashioned concept. With modern technology, it’s easier to maintain ties than it was in days of old. We have the benefit of the internet, email, social media, and video calls to stay connected and informed with events back home. It’s almost as if we were still in the United States. It’s reasonable to think that technology has largely negated the need to maintain our American identity. A friend once described home leave as: “re-becoming the American that I never wasn’t.” But in my experience, being physically in America is different from watching a YouTube video or Skyping with family. There is value to physically experiencing America.

As much as I like serving overseas, I always look forward to home leave, when I can spend some time back in the United States. After we finished our tour in Bangladesh in June, we planned to take 25 days of home leave, during which time we would apply for visas for our onward tour to China.

It can take a long time to get a China visa.

Home leave is nice if you’re from Michigan. It usually falls during the summertime, and Michigan is lovely in the summer. I dipped my toes in three of the Great Lakes (Erie and Ontario, you’re next, I promise!), and spent a wonderful week on Isle Royale (my happy place).

Who doesn’t love it when Lake Michigan kisses their toes?

And of course during home leave, we applied for our China visas. And it took a long time to get the visas.

Instead of 25 working days, we wound up spending 58 working days (83 calendar days) in the United States, almost 12 weeks. During that time we slept in 12 different beds in nine different cities in four different states, and rented three different cars. Home leave is an example of an “unfunded mandate.” We are required to be in the United States, but we have to cover all of our expenses. We have to budget for housing and in-country transportation. Many Foreign Service families spend most of our time serving overseas, and we don’t have a house or a car in the United States. We have to plan for those home leave expenses. This time around, our home leave extended for a lot longer than we planned, and we hemorrhaged a shocking amount of our own money, and imposed on family for a place to sleep at night. So it was a huge relief when we finally got our visas and could travel to Shanghai yesterday.

Although it was sometimes stressful, because we never knew when our visas would come through, home leave was still great. We traveled around, spent some quality time with friends and family, and ate a lot of food that we had been craving (tacos just aren’t a thing in Asia, for some reason).

Home leave is now over, and we’ve arrived at our next post (Shanghai, China). After a long break, I’m ready get back to work.

Isle Royale Trip Report

We visited Isle Royale July 10-16.  After five years, it was great to get back to Isle Royale. Some things have changed, probably due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.  But the island is still as beautiful and peaceful as ever. This was my fifth time to the island, and it won’t be my last.

We took the Isle Royale Queen ferry. Copper Harbor seems to be feeling the effects of the pandemic. Pre-departure breakfast options are pretty much limited to the coffee and doughnut stand by the dock. I missed having a hearty breakfast, but the Pines restaurant doesn’t open until 9:00, an hour after the ferry departs. Maybe next year?

The crossing was the smoothest I’ve ever experienced. The lake was as flat as a freshly-made bed.

The number of passengers on the ferry was reduced to allow for social distancing, and masks were required.

Some people had told us that they wanted to go to the island, but they couldn’t get boat tickets. Lucky for me, I had bought tickets back in February. Planning and preparation are a must when going to Isle Royale! 🙂

When checking in with the rangers on the island, I realized I had over-paid my park usage fee. I paid online (pay.gov) for seven days, two people, $98. I could have/should have bought a season pass for $60, which would have gotten both of us in for the whole week. Oh well. Live and learn. I wasn’t going to let a little thing like money spoil my vacation!

We stayed in Rock Harbor the first night, because we wanted to check out Scoville Point, which is on the east tip of the island. It was a nice day hike, good trail, pretty scenery.

Trail conditions throughout our trip were excellent. It obviously hadn’t rained for a while. There was a little mud in some places, but it was not squishy, we could walk right on it. My feet hadn’t been that dry on the previous trips.

After a night in Rock Harbor, we hiked to Lane Cove. The trail was plagued with a lot of downed trees blocking the trail. We stopped counting after climbing over, under, and 20 windfalls. That trail is also challenging, a lot of up-and-down over hills. We both fell on our butts on steep slopes.

Lane Cove was peaceful. We met a couple of hikers leaving as we were approaching. They said it was beautiful but buggy. We didn’t notice that the mosquitoes were especially bad. They said they were using natural repellant, which didn’t work. I chalked that up to a rookie mistake. I don’t mess around when I go to Isle Royale. I use the 99% DEET spray.

If I could do it again, I think I’d skip Lane Cove. It’s pretty, but no prettier than other parts of the island. It’s hard to get to.  There are also no shelters, so you have to use your tent.  There’s easy access to the water, but there are a lot of trees right down to the water’s edge which obscures the view of the water. The lake is shallow there, we could walk pretty far out, and splash some water on our sweaty bodies. Word to the wise: Lake Superior is COLD.

The next day we hiked back to Rock Harbor and spent another night in a shelter there. The following morning, a hungry resident woke us up. Two young bull moose were foraging right outside our shelter.

We took a water taxi to Moskey basin and stayed there for two nights. The ride wasn’t cheap ($160) but it only took 40 minutes (hiking would take us 5-6 hours).  Moskey is still our favorite place on the island. The sunrises are really stunning, and access to the water from the shelters is convenient.

From Moskey, we did a day hike to Chippewa Harbor, which was about 12 miles round-trip. The trail was in excellent shape, and the scenery was really pretty.

We like to treat ourselves to a night in the Rock Harbor Lodge on our last night, to take a shower, use a flush toilet, and have a hot meal in the restaurant. The lodge was full to capacity, I was glad that I booked a room five months ago.

The Lighthouse restaurant is closed, probably for the whole season.  The store is open, and has the same food items they usually stock.  The only dining options are the Greenstone Grill, which is open from 7:00 am – 7:30 pm. Here’s the menu:

These dining options will probably not change for the rest of the season.  A ranger told us that they make staffing and logistical arrangements before the season starts.  They can’t ramp up in the middle of the season, even though the restrictions have been eased and the number of tourists is almost at the same level as previous years.  So if you’re planning a trip, plan accordingly.

On the trail, we ate a lot of Mountain House freeze-dried food.  It’s more pricey than some DIY options, but it’s very convenient.  The pouches are labeled as two servings, but a hungry hiker could probably eat a whole package on his own.  My two favorite entrees are beef stroganoff and the adobo chicken.  The teriyaki chicken was a little too sweet for me.

The morning after our return to the mainland, we skipped breakfast in town and headed up to Mohawk to eat at Slim’s Cafe.  Excellent food, great service, highly recommended.

In total, we saw three moose, two snakes, several loons, too many ducks to count, several squirrels and rabbits, one otter,, and approximately three billion mosquitoes.  No wolves, of course.  The rangers estimate there are 12-14 wolves on the island now.  We think we might have heard some howling one night (wolves, not rangers) when we were in Moskey Basin, but I can’t be sure.  As I mentioned, the mosquitoes the biting black flies were out, but DEET kept them at bay.

All in all it was a good trip.  The weather was perfect: sunny every day, some haze, high in the mid 70s and lows in the low 60s.  It seems like the whole tourism industry in northern Michigan is still recovering from the pandemic shutdown.   Some services aren’t quite back to normal.  But it’s the high season for Michigan: people want to travel and hotels are full and restaurants are crowded.

Another culinary adventure!

And this one was good. Our housekeeper made a chicken dish, it’s a recipe from a local ethnic minority. You wrap chicken and other goodies up in banana leaves and then bake it. She said that she cut down a lot of the hot peppers for us. Bangladeshi food is HOT.

Now I have a problem. We forgot to ask her what the name of the dish is. I’m not sure how we’re going to describe this when we want her to make it again. We’ll probably have to show her these photos.

Hunkered Down in Dhaka

Four years ago this month, there was a serious security incident in Dhaka. After that, the Embassy enacted some serious security restrictions on Embassy personnel. It was years before the security officer determined that it was safe for Americans to go outside alone, walk around, go to restaurants, etc. By the time I arrived at post, things were getting back to normal. We still couldn’t walk around alone after dark, there were still no-go areas in the city. But we could do some normal daily tasks like grocery shopping, for example. We found a restaurant where we liked to have weekend brunch. Post even got the go-ahead for officers to bring their young children to post. The international school in Dhaka enjoys a reputation as an excellent school. Things were getting back to “normal.”

Then the worldwide pandemic hit. Suddenly “normal” was thrown out the window. A city-wide curfew shut down the city for weeks. No more eating out at restaurants. They were closed. Many went out of business. The legendarily impossible Dhaka traffic vanished. The city was like a ghost town. The State Department ordered all Embassies to stop all routine visa services, in the interest of safety. The feeling when walking to work in a deserted city was eerie, like a post-apocalyptic scene from a movie.

We went through the excitement of evacuating Americans on seven different repatriation flights, during which more than half of my fellow officers also returned to the United States. After that, those of us who stayed behind hunkered down to wait for things to get better.

And we’re still waiting.

We adjusted our staffing plans so that people only came to work for essential work. Most of us are teleworking. Today I saw one of my coworkers in person for the first time in five weeks. Even in the Consular section, we have a skeleton crew in the office at any time. We are still providing essential U.S. citizen services.

I’m still busy. There’s always work to be done. But I’m sad that I can’t do more of the visa work that I came to Bangladesh to do. We are doing a very small number of mission-critical visas. This week I issued visas to three doctors to work in U.S. hospitals. We’re processing a handful of immigrant visas for spouses of U.S. citizens. Nothing close to the volume that we were doing back in March, though.

Because of the curfews and closures, Dhaka’s already-limited entertainment options have been reduced to almost nothing. We go to work in the morning, go home at night, and sit in our house. Luckily, we have a big house. But even a gilded cage is still a cage. I’ve been spending time on TripAdvisor, planning a vacation that we might not be able to take until next year. Which is still six months away.

We had some fun last week, moving our home office from the smaller unused bedroom to the larger. This room also enjoys better natural light.

Before: a storage room.
After: an airy and bright office. Another desk is coming tomorrow, it will be in the window alcove on the left.

So after that excitement, what’s next? Back to hunkering down.