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 30, 2014

Assignment: Jeddah

I just found out where my next post will be: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. This will actually be my second assignment (DC was my first assignment), but it's my first overseas posting with the Department of State. So, I guess that technically that makes this my true "Flag Day."

The Flag of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
So, naturally, one of my first questions (after all the obvious ones) was "What does the writing on the flag actually say?" It turns out that Wikipedia knows that too: It's the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith.
"There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God"
Now to hit the interwebs and find more about expat life in the KSA. One of the better blogs I've found so far is Jeddah-blog.com, not to mention all of the State Department resources and these ex-pat blogs.

For those following along, our FSCE bid season opened on 11 March and I submitted my bids ranked 1-10 (accounting for factors like job scope, school facilities, and general lifestyle) by 21 March, even though I only needed to submit 6 preferences. Just over two months later, I was approached by the office director to ask me if I'd take an assignment to Jeddah (which wasn't even on my ranked list). As it turns out, many of the projects I bid on fell apart in any number of the following ways: lack of funding, lack of host country approvals/permits; design issues; contractor issues. You name it, it can kill a project. So, I'm happy I've been assigned to one that's actually going to happen, and will now begin the process of preparing to head overseas yet again. And that includes starting the self-taught Saudi Arabic language lessons through FSI, as engineers rarely get formal language training.
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Friday, May 23, 2014

Anticipating Memorial Day Weekend in Washington D.C.

The office is somewhat quiet as it's the Friday before Memorial Day. If you didn't know, there are lots of Memorial Day events in Washington, D.C. and most locals try to get out of town before the tourist traffic pours in. Seriously, folks, if you're coming into town, use the metro and don't even think driving because you won't find parking...assuming you can navigate the road closures.

A screenshot of DC traffic before noon the Friday before Memorial Day.
  Click here for real time updates.
Since the office is quiet, I thought I'd share some humor. This one is about riding on the metro.

This sketch can apply to just about any office with a technical staff and a non-technical staff. I frequently find myself in the role of "the expert," but fortunately my coworkers don't (usually) fall into the other categories.


Have great weekend!
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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Civil War Reenactment at New Market

Based on a tip from my mother-in-law's former students, we went to see the 150th Reenactment of the Battle of New Market. I'm not a historian, or really even a fan of Civil War era in general, but these folks put on a good show with a remarkable attention to detail.
As we rolled along the battleground, the cannons were booming and the forces were moving towards each other while spectators watched...kind of like they did in the first battle of Manassas.


Since we'd arrived fairly close to the end of the day, we weren't charged for admission. Using some of that saved cash, we bought some kettle corn and handmade lemonade as we strolled among the white canvas tents where merchants in period costumes sold civil war memorabilia. Lots of little boys with guns and guys with VMI gear, because VMI cadets fought in the battle of New Market.




If it's possible to check off something that's not on your bucket list, we just did that. On the way home, we stopped into Front Royal and had lunch the Main Street Mill Restaurant. I had a tasty burger followed by funnel cake fries for dessert. So, yeah, a pretty good day.
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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Shenandoah National Park

Our extended family went on a camping trip to Shenandoah National Park, which is a manageable 2-hour drive from D.C. if you avoid the Friday afternoon traffic jams on I-66. One of the more scenic ways though the park is along Skyline Drive, which is $15 per car if you don't have a National Park pass.
Just one of many scenic vistas

After being roadblocked blocked by defiant deer, we reached our campsite in the middle the park after roughly 30 minutes of driving on the tortuous mountain road. At various times during our weekend stay, we saw several groups of deer, bears, and at least one groundhog.

Clearly, there is one smart deer in the group (on the left).
My dog didn't like the deer as much as we did. 

We were able to reserve two adjacent slots in the aptly named Big Meadow campground. I actually didn't get any pictures of the meadow, but you can Google it. The campsite had all the conveniences: enough shrubbery for some privacy, fire pit & picnic table (and they allow pets). The bathrooms were close enough to see from our campsite, so we were comfortable letter our 4.5-yr-old go there by herself (in daylight). There were reportedly quarter-operated showers, too, but no one in our group felt like braving the low 40F weather to find out.

The information center has some great info about the history of Shenandoah and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that made it was what it is today. There's even a section about segregation during that time, which seems obvious now but I don't think I ever learned about in school.

Saturday morning, after a leisurely breakfast with some of my mother-in-law's former IB students who also happened to be in the park, the family decided to go for a hike and then see if we could catch a Civil War reenactment at New Market.
This is how you photobomb.
Just another peaceful vista on our way out of the park.
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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Rejected by Amazon

The good news: Amazon will still take my money to send me stuff that I order from them. Which is pretty good. The bad (or perhaps simply more direct) news is that my account on Amazon Associates was rejected per their email:
Thanks again for joining the Amazon Associates program. We’re reaching out to you because we have not seen sales activity on your account.
At the time your application was submitted, you were given access to Associates Central and the link building tools located there. However, we haven’t recorded a referral from your account yet.
Associate accounts that have not referred a sale to Amazon.com within 90 days of sign-up will be automatically rejected.  However, if your account is automatically rejected, you will be welcome to re-apply to the program in the future.
Which, let's be honest, was going to happen anyways because very few people read this niche blog, and none you who do read it are looking here to buy stuff I'm reviewing. But, on occasion, there are some hilarious data analysis moments when a random search engine picks up on this blog...I'm assuming it's a search engine, and not some really bored Mossad agent passing the night shift by surfing the internet.
Ziva David, is that you?
While I suppose that I could say that I need to post more interesting stuff on here to raise readership (I do need to do that), I could also say that you, my readers, need to buy stuff (don't worry, I won't) because "I have failed because you have not helped me..."
Anyone care for a jelly donut?

So, I'll probably still continue to post links to stuff on Amazon but am (still) under no illusion that anyone's buying it.

Update: On May 24th, I received an email from Amazon Associates saying "Congratulations, your application to the Amazon.com Associates Program has been approved." Which is odd because I didn't take any action to renew the application. Oh well, guess they don't mind me plugging products that no one buys...

What it does mean is that you can once again read more of our product reviews or visit the Passport Stamp Collector Store on Amazon.

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Friday, May 02, 2014

May Day - Vienna

Because my work trip happens to span the May Day holiday, there is nobody local for me to work with today. So, after breakfast, I met for an hour or so with a few of my project team members who were also in town. After that, I went out on the streets. May Day, for those that aren't familiar with it, is a popular labor holiday and frequently has union and/or Communist party overtones. So lots of red everywhere, even more so because one of Austria's national colors is red.
Labor parade assembling next to the Opera
And what's a parade without music?
video
Or the passing of idealism from one generation to the next?
Daddy, I can I be oppressed when I grow up?
Or for that matter, supporting the right to arm bears mice?
Is that a Mauser rifle he's carrying? 
From the Ringstrasse, I cut through the Volksgarten where people were just hanging out. There was also an accordion-player who I couldn't help think was making some sort of Godfather performance art statement.
Just horsing around?
I made my way to the Rathaus where the speeches were being given. Now, in case you were worried, no one presented any overly-impassioned speeches in German...but I couldn't help expecting things to break that way. 
Vienna Rathaus
Communist literature...make up your own joke about why it's tied down.
I had a bratwurst and radler near the Rathaus, enjoying the mild weather and sunlight. After lunch, I made my way back to the hotel by way of the /link/ Spanish Riding school. 
Spanish Riding School dropouts? 
Lots of Russian/slavic language tourist groups were out, I only caught enough of the guide's speeches to determine roughly what language group, but I'm no linguistic expert. Since it was a holiday and I had nothing to do, I took a nap at the hotel in the middle of the afternoon with the windows open.

I woke up to the Opera broadcasting live footage of their performance from outside my window.
video
I typed up some stuff on the computer while listening to live opera through my open window for a little over an hour. During a break, I went down to the street and picked up a falafel durum from a street vendor (lots of Turkish food vendors here in Vienna), then ate it while watching the remainder of the performance on the screen. Once I finished my dinner, I headed towards the /link/ Stephensdom, stopping along the way to listen to some street musicians.
Seriously, Vienna is alive with the sound of music (fun fact: the Sound of Music movie is known as My Heart, My Song in Austria because, come on, there's some serious competition here). Along my walk, there were several different performers, but I forget the specifics because I was distracted by the gelato that I was munching on. Once I'd walked through the city center and out to Schwedenplatz, I hopped on the U1 back to Prater where /link/blog I was last night to see how much could have changed in a day. 

Turns out, quite a bit. There was an Italian band playing "Hey Mambo" as I walked up to the fairgrounds, and the crowds of drunken smokers were very dense. None of that was there yesterday.


A flume ride, mid-spray.
The "Y" shaped thing is the Black Mamba
The empty go-cart track from yesterday was packed today
I had come over to Prater for the fireworks scheduled for 10pm, but by about 9:15, I decided it just wasn't worth it to me to stay so I went back to the hotel. Overall, a pretty active day doing just about nothing.
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Thursday, May 01, 2014

Vienna in Spring

There are times when it's good to go with the flow, and other times it's better to have a plan. Today had both. To set the stage, I'll start with my arrival at the Vienna airport with a co-worker who had also been to Vienna several times. While she was waiting for her bags to appear on the luggage carousel, I bought a round-trip ticket from the CAT (Vienna City Airport Train) kiosk that included a 72 hour U-bahn ticket for 34 euro. That covers all my transportation requirements until I board the plane to head home. Shortly after I got my ticket, a CAT worker posted a sign on the kiosk saying that the CAT was no longer in service due to a technical issue and I'd have to take a replacement bus into town. Fortunately, my CAT ticket was honored, but my co-worker purchased her bus ticket for far less. That was having a plan, but deviating from it.

After the bus dropped us off at Schwedenplatz, I figured out which direction we needed to walk to get to my hotel. As it turns out, only then did my co-worker realize that we were not booked at the same hotel. That would count as not having a plan. But, through some cosmic irony, it also turned out that her reservation at the other hotel had been cancelled when a third member of our group cancelled his trip and somehow also her hotel reservation (they were staying at the same hotel). Ultimately, she ended up at the same hotel as me, but that totally counts as going with the flow, don't you think?

Anyways, today was a fairly long and productive day discussing various aspects of our project, ranging from design issues to scheduling to security constraints. A fourth member of our team faced several delays on his trip into town, and when we couldn't wait any longer for him to arrive, I stepped up and presented the brief to the deputy chief of mission (the person right beneath the ambassador) that my absent coworker was originally going to give. The day ended some time after 5pm, and I hopped on the U-bahn to catch up with a larger group headed out for dinner at 6pm. I wasn't sure where they were going, but I decided to go with the flow and see where I ended up. I think I made it back to the hotel around 5:50 pm, giving me just enough time to drop my stuff and turn back around to walk over to the designated meeting point.

Biergarten Zum Englischen Reiter: The English Rider Beergarden
The dinner party ended up being around 13 people, and we rode the U-bahn up to Praterstern, where we walked through the Prater amusement park to the Biergarten Zum Englischen Reiter because we couldn't get reservations at Schweizerhaus. But it it worked out well, as our restaurant had good food, for cheaper, and was less crowded/noisy. Most of my group ordered either the "Stelze (pig knuckle) for two" or the spare ribs. Both are really good, and I recommend getting the radler, too.

Anyone up for some lemonade beer and Pig Knuckle?
Three orders of Stelze for two (left) and spare ribs (right)
After dinner, we somehow managed to waddle our way back through the Prater towards the U-bahn, stopping to race go-carts at 3.50 euro per ride. After one session on the track, my right arm felt sore enough to fall off, which is weird because it was generally a "turn to the left" kind of track. Maybe that was due to all the collisions. Continuing our journey, we saw all sorts of carnival-style rides and activities, including some sort of black-lighted bumper cars blaring Michael Jackson's "Thriller."
Hey Labyrinth...
See Vienna in a gigantic ferris wheel: the Wiener Reisenrad
Notice the colored lights embedded in the ground for festive lighting.
At the U-bahn station, I saw a poster than I'm sure is some play on the word Schadenfreude. I'm not sure it's really a transliteration, but if you know what the word means, then it probably gives you an idea what the movie is about...but I haven't seen it, so I can't confirm.
"The Other Woman" translates to "Die Schadenfreundinnen"
After riding back to the hotel, one of my colleagues and I went around the corner to Cafe Sacher for some coffee and the world famous Sacher Torte. As it happens, the Vienna Opera was also having a performance that was being piped outside the opera house, which is directly across the street from us. So we got to enjoy a decadent treat while sitting in a sidewalk cafe listen to live opera on a beautiful night.

Yeah, my job does not suck. 
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Saudi Arabia: So Far, So Good?

We're over two years in to our second tour in the Foreign Service with the US Department of State in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It's hard...

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