Our Adventures in Sri Lanka

Safaris to spot leopards and elephants, swimming in the Indian Ocean, sipping tea in the mountains, and several more!

Our Nile Cruise

Starting in Cairo, we sailed to Luxor, Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Aswan.

Trouble at Sea: Our Red Sea Dive Trip in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia

The Red Sea is one of the top diving destinations in the world, but Saudi Arabia is a very restrictive country to get into. That alone would have made the trip memorable...but then things went south and the Saudi Coast Guard and a hospital got involved.

Our Expedition to Jordan

Highlights included tracing the steps of Indiana Jones into Petra, following Lawrence of Arabia into Wadi Rum, and floating in the Dead Sea.

Discovering Turkey

We emersed ourselves in Istanbul, explored the white travertines of Pamukkale, and traced history through Laodikeia, Hierolopolis, and Cleopatra's Baths.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Bike to Work

So, May was "Bike-to-Work Month" and May 17th was "Bike-to-Work Day," but I missed out because I was on my way back from Istanbul. But in the spirit of participation, I just barely got my first bike commute in on the last day of May. It only took a little last-minute preparation to bring it all together, but if I had applied a little forethought, then I would have pre-positioned my work clothes at the office instead of bringing them in on my back.

I wore my MS 150 team jersey, a fluorescent green number with black tiger stripes on the ribcage (with hot-pink edges) and a big old day-glow pink flamingo on the chest and back. I call it my "What do you mean, 'you didn't see me?'" jersey. Anyways, my morning ride was quite pleasant, taking less than an hour from door-to-door with clear weather in the low 70's. For the return leg, Kacey met me near the trail head, and we went about 6 miles to where she'd parked. Which worked out well, as the rear hub of my bike started to wobble about 3 miles into the return leg. As it turns out, that particular style of hub was too challenging for the local bike shop to fix and they ended up swapping out the entire wheel. Haven't taken it for a ride yet, but hopefully next week everything will work as expected.


I also found out that the State Department also has a link to several videos where US diplomats promote National Bike Month around world. I found the one filmed on the cobblestone streets in Paris to be quite amusing. And who knows, maybe on my next assignment, I can make a contribution as well.
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Friday, May 17, 2013

Istanbul

So my original plans had me leaving Adana at 6pm and arriving in Istanbul around 8pm, spending the night, and flying home around 9 am Friday morning. But, based on how much I got done yesterday and that most of the tourist sights in Istanbul close by 7pm or so, I opted to try to get on a 1:40 pm flight out to Istanbul. I talked to some of the staff who talked to Turkish airlines on my behalf, and I found out that it wouldn't be a problem to change my flight...but I'd have to do it at the airport instead of online/over the phone. The staffer told me that I should probably aim to to get in the cab around 11 am to have enough time for all that stuff.

Well, best laid plans and all that...I didn't actually get into the cab until around 11:20. I still figured I had plenty of time, Adana's got a pretty small airport. the taxi delivered me to the terminal around 11:45, and promptly went to the ticket counter...after going through the metal detector set up at the terminal entrance. Anyways, the agent was able to change my ticket, but not to the 1:40 pm flight as planned. She put me on the 12:20 flight that was just about to board! I went through the second metal detector just before the gate and was on my flight less 3 hours after asking whether it could be changed. It also gave me six more hours in Istanbul, during daylight hours no less!

The flight over was uneventful, but I did get more cherry juice. I really have been pleased with my Turkish airlines experience, so if you get the chance to fly them, you should. After landing, I caught what might have been the strangest cab ride I've ever had. I mean, I've had several interesting ones (Southern England and Thailand come to mind), but this was just strange.

The cab was a legit cab from a cab stand at the airport (as opposed to the guy who solicits you around the baggage claim and then charges exorbitant fees for short distances), and everything was normal at first. Then we're driving along and the driver gets a phone call and seems to get a little upset/agitated at whoever was on the other end. But I don't speak Turkish, so I couldn't tell you if that's how the conversations normally sound. Anyways, the driver then asks me if it would be "okay to change cabs?". I'm thinking that there's something wrong with this one, or it's just taking him outside his usual radius and there's some territorial rule that exists between cabbies here. But I don't ask. I probably should have, because next thing I know, he's tail-gating another cab trying to get his attention before yelling something out the window. I can tell that the other cabbie wants nothing to do with this proposition. So we drive on, only to have the mystery caller ring the driver again. This time he asks if I'm "okay with a driver change." At this point, I'm curious to see how everything turns out, but I'm also a little concerned that driver number #2 isn't going to take me to my hotel.























So there we were, on an overpass somewhere around Istanbul when the driver pulls over, gets out and other guy gets in and starts driving. That's strange, right? I got to the hotel about 20 minutes after the check-in window opened at 3pm, and quickly went about getting my stuff upstairs and getting back out on the street to see the sights.

Based on a Istanbul walking tour blog post I read yesterday that said it took an hour to go two miles in a cab, I knew I had to be smart about getting into town with enough time to see stuff. So I hopped on the tram at Kabatas and rode it all the way in to Sultanahmet Square. The tram was packed tightly by the time I had to get out (of course the doors opened on the side opposite me and I had to climb over people to get out...just like a regular day's commute on the D.C. Metro).

I walked around taking pics of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, but since it was prayer time I didn't have the chance to go inside. While wandering, I received an occasional "Where are you from?" in English (and one or two in German). I'd respond with whatever language wasn't offered to throw them off a bit as I kept walking away. Rather than wait for prayer time to end, I followed the tram tracks west and then diverted up to the Grand Bazaar where I found a little bronze wolf for my travel trinkets and a little bronze genie lamp for my 3.5 year old daughter. I ended up getting totally disoriented at the bazaar, but I expected to from the beginning, so I didn't bother trying to keep oriented. The place is huge, and it all kinda blends together after a while.

After finding an exit from the Grand Bazaar, I had a chicken doner durum, my requisite local "meat in a carbohydrate food" option. I walked north to the Spice market, but the road intersection there is crazy due to the bridge and I was starting to wear out. While ascending the stairs, an old (80+ and hunched over so badly her back was horizontal) Turkish woman asked for help climbing the stairs. A random Turkish guy carried her two bags, and the woman held on to my wrist/forearm as we went up the stairs. That was my good deed for the day. The spice market has the same feeling as the Grand Bazaar, but it's only one corridor and full of spices instead.

I caught the tram from the the spice market back to the end of the line and walked back to my hotel. I had just enough energy left to visit the restaurant level to see the view before going back to my room to shower. Istanbul is a dirty city, but not in a bad way. It reminded me a little of Santiago, Chile at times. But I tell you what, that shower felt so refreshing. To help get me back on Eastern Timezone hours, I'm trying to stay up as late as I can writing this post. Unfortunately, my flight leaves just early enough that getting breakfast at the hotel required me to place an order for a continental breakfast delivered by room service.

But if you're thinking of visiting Istanbul, you really should plan on taking two full days to do it...and please don't wear shorts. There was a cruise ship in town and it was painfully obvious who those tourists were. Also, you can't get into the Blue Mosque in shorts, so plan accordingly.
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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Getting to Adana, Turkey

Last week, I was told that I'd be going on a short-notice trip to Adana, Turkey. Most American military folks would know Adana as the location Incirlik Air Base. It's really not a tourist town. And based on the trouble I was having getting my tickets issued, I wasn't sure if I was really meant to go. It came down to contacting people in the approval chain after hours/over the weekend to ensure I actually had a ticket just over 30 hours before I was due to depart. I think that's the closest I've ever come to saying "I can't go because my authorization didn't go through in time." I owe someone a box of Turkish delights for getting that pushed through.

After getting my tickets for an evening flight, I spent the rest of Sunday packing. I did have to drop into the office on Monday before the trip for a coordination meeting, but otherwise spent the rest of that day with my family trying to participate in the daily routine that usually occurs while I'm at the office. I'm definitely a little rusty.

Anyways, I should also mention that this short-notice trip was with a group of folks, which never simplifies things. We all made it to Istanbul with relatively little trouble, but we had a close connection to make in addition to getting visas issued, clearing immigration & customs, and getting boarding passes to Adana issued. I'm not sure where the heightened sense of urgency came from, but our team leader got kinda pushy...literally. He finagled a way into getting us processed in the much shorter Turkish citizen line, only to discover that there was a diplomatic line at Istanbul (for future reference, it's all the way on the right hand side of the Turkish immigration booths). Then he plowed through the "nothing to declare" line like a bulldozer. After that, he some how found an airport employee to guide us to our gate...a service for which I think the guide expected monetary compensation. And we arrived there before the first boarding call. So, really, there was a lot of unnecessarily-added / self-induced stress but we made it on the plane. Yes, the airport is foreign, but the process is familiar and I think I could have gotten through everything better had I not stayed with the group (who also seemed a bit peeved at the whole ordeal).
Airport kiosk: Girls books on the left, girlie magazines on the right.
Perhaps all the chaos made me appreciate the moment of sublime humor when Turkish Airways served me a Cheese and Turkey Sandwich for a snack. Not just a Turkish Turkey sandwich, but a cheesy one at that. We also saw the Taurus mountains peeking through clouds near end of the flight. I lost consciousness several times on this part of the trip, since I think we'd been travelling for some 17 hours at that point. I missed takeoff completely, almost missed the food service, and it was only a one hour flight! But we arrived, and then disembarked from the plane onto some waiting buses. I just barely squeezed into the doorway, but the doors stayed open for some reason and I saw a few other folks walking to the terminal that was only 100-200 meters away. So I got off the bus and walked for a couple of minutes to the baggage claim area with a steady stream of non-bus riding folks.

That's when it got interesting. I think the part of our group that walked over to the terminal was waiting there for a good 20 minutes before the bags showed up, and the passenger bus that I had bailed on arrived shortly after that. So I missed out on being crammed into a standing-room only bus for half an hour, not bad. But, as it turns out, that was not the last hiccup. My companions who had checked bags all the way from D.C. were informed that their stuff didn't get transferred in Istanbul. I guess the baggage guys weren't in as much of a rush as we were. While half the group tried tracking down their luggage, those of us who had taken all of our stuff as carry-on were just standing around. At least until I said that I'd taken out cash at Istanbul (while standing in the visa line), and those of us who had all of our bags in hand hopped in a cab for the hotel. We had dinner (I got the Adana Kebab), then retired to our respective rooms but never saw the other team members come in. As it turns out, they were there for several more hours but their luggage didn't arrive until mid-day the following day.

Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from this trip was that I am more familiar with how to travel internationally to places I've never been to where I don't speak the language than I am with the daily routine of all the stuff involved with getting my daughters to school when I'm normally at the office.
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Friday, May 03, 2013

Buying Good Suits at Goodwill

As summer rapidly approaches, I've found myself looking for clothing options that do not include sweating through my suits on the Metro. So, I've decided that I'll be commuting in shirt & tie and leave the jacket at work. The problem, though, is that suits kinda work best when worn together. The solution? Blazers & sport coats. Which also cost money. So, where can I find a decent jacket that I can leave at the office, just in case I need to wear one to meet with upper management?


Yeah, that's right. Goodwill. I kid you not, I found $88 Brooks Brothers shirts in there for $5 and decent suits for $20. Unfortunately, very few were in my size matched what I was looking for. We visited one of the local Goodwill stores on Sunday and there was one rack of suits, one rack of sport coats, and probably 100 linear feet of dress shirts of in all shades and sizes. The catch is that the clothes may or may not have sizes on them other than "M", "L" or "XL" (if you're lucky) so you really, really need to know your personal dimensions (e.g., neck & sleeve) before hand to be able to parse through the inventory with any real efficiency. Here's how to measure yourself. It also helps if you're familiar with how a good suit should fit, and knowing a few department store suit house brands (the names of manufacturers/designers) doesn't hurt either. I was able to do all this while also keeping an eye on a three-year-old, which can be a full-time job in and of itself. If you want a handy guide, try this 30-second suit quality test.


Anyways, I pulled out the suits/coats/shirts that appealed to me visually, checked for size info (mostly dress shirts), quickly inspected for unsightliness like stains and rips (I can credit my years in the military for learning how to do that very quickly), and then tried on the jackets before taking anything to the fitting room. I found two suit jackets that fit me well (one from Macy's, the other is Joseph Abboud/Nordstrom). At that point, the pants were bonus because I was just looking for jackets...but the pants fit too. My dry cleaner was able to replace the cracked or missing buttons on one of the suits for a couple of bucks and I'll probably still need to get some alterations. But I wore one to work today and got a couple of complements, which I think validates my strategy. Of course, in addition to making sure your suit fits, you should also observe the "rules" for wearing a suit if you want to make the best impression.

Obviously, there isn't a Goodwill on Savile Row. But this interactive graphic from NPR on the difference between a $99 suit and a $5,000 suit might give you the knowledge and the confidence you need to find that gem that just needs a little polishing. Also, it helps to hunt for bargains in locations where rich people are likely to donate high-quality, lightly-worn clothes (like Washington, D.C.).

If you're in the Greater D.C. area, the Goodwill at 10 S Glebe Road, Arlington VA 22204 gets all sorts of good stuff from folks who move into the area only to discover that their townhouses can't hold all their stuff.

Update: this link at lifehacker.com entitled "Use These Handy Tests to Make Sure Your Suit Fits Right" might come in handy as well.

Happy bargain hunting!


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