Great American Western Road Trip: Summer 2018

4 weeks, 3 kids, 1 van, 16 different lodgings, 5400+ miles, 12+ National or State Parks and Monuments adds up to 1 Epic Adventure.

American Southwest Family Vacation 2017

We followed historic Route 66 on our way to see the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest, the Painted Desert, plus much more in New Mexico and Arizona.

End of Tour Summary: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Here are our stories from two and a half years of living in Saudi Arabia while exploring the region.

Excursions to Oman

On two different trips, we strolled Muscat, hiked Wadi Shab, and sailed a dhow through the fjords of Musandam.

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.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Commissary Shopping in Saudi Arabia

Alright, so occasionally Foreign Service posts also enjoy access to military commissaries. There just happens to be one in Riyadh, and it's...well, we'll come back to that.
One of the best things about commissary shopping (like we used to do when we were stationed in Germany) is getting the familiar American products at reasonable prices. You can usually find a list of items that the local commissary carries at post, so you just go down the list checking off things like a sushi menu. Imported American goods are often twice as expensive on the local market, if you can even get them in the country. So, we send in our shopping list each week, and someone in Riyadh tries to fill the order in time to make the truck back to Jeddah.


That word "tries" is key here. The commissary in Riyadh gets their supply shipped in monthly from Germany, so you can usually expect nearly (if not already expired) items in the weekly shipment you receive if it isn't right after the monthly delivery. That's if the item is in stock. We've been trying to get the Tostitos chips for weeks now, and the order slip keeps coming back "NIS": Not In Stock.

While there is an option to say "No substitutes" or "Substitutes Acceptable," sometimes you get things that aren't really what you want. Case in point: Lactaid brand lactose-free milk replaced with Lactaid drops. Oh, won't those go well in the lactose-free cookies? And, while I know I'm fortunate enough to be able to buy almond milk through the commissary, it has on occasion arrived completely frozen (which is not recommended). Which kind of defeats the whole point of ordering it in the first place. But the mental image of a truck carrying frozen almond milk across the Saudi desert is just as ironic, don't ya think?
Wait a minute, where's the road?


Sunday, February 22, 2015

How to Improve Your Foreign Service Blog

Some time near the end of 2014, I came across an article on the Government Executive website titled "8 Tips for Managing a Federal Blog." While The Passport Stamp Collector blog is not an official blog (federal or otherwise), it is listed as a Foreign Service blog by both AFSA and the AAFSW websites. So, I thought I'd see how well I could apply the tips (because FSCE is a federal government job, after all):
  1. Do Your Research - Know Your Industry: I'm guessing that you found this blog because you like to travel and you're looking for information on federal government jobs abroad. You may have already taken the next step and are looking for information about entering the US Foreign Service either as a Foreign Service Specialist (FSS) or more specifically as a Foreign Service Construction Engineer (FSCE) like me. If that's you, check out my FAQs about FSCE post.

    You might also be a fan of Kacey's writings about Foreign Service life as a "trailing spouse." It's okay if you are, it won't hurt my feelings. I'm a fan too, besides, she's the better writer anyways.

    It's also possible that you're currently in the military and looking into what's involved in the military to civilian transition to the State Department, how that works with VA benefits, or other issues unique to veterans. You may be one of my family or friends that want to keep up to date with our last minute travel. Of course, you may have just stumbled across this post somehow and now I have only a few more seconds to capture your attention...

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Happy Fourth of July, Ash Wednesday, and Chinese New Year!

When I heard that the Foreign Service required flexibility, I never thought that it would also include rescheduling the premiere date on the American diplomatic calendar. I think it's safe to say that there are few things more American than celebrating American Independence Day on the Fourth of July. If you didn't know, the Fourth of July is the big event at American Embassies and Consulates. Sure, there might be some wiggle room to move the festivities to the nearest weekend, but that's just a couple of days. But would you ever think about holding it in February? I wouldn't. That's literally moving the big show up five months!
I think the rugs were a nice touch.
Tonight, the US Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia celebrated the Fourth of July in the Middle of February! At first, I thought that this was done because Ramadan 2015 will run from June 17th to July 17th, and it's kind of hard to throw a Fourth of July kind of event when everyone is fasting or has skipped town because the heat is unbearable. As it turns out, the Independence Day celebration this year was held in February because it's the 70th anniversary of FDR's meeting with King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. That was the first time a U.S. president met with a Saudi king. It was such a big deal that there's even a picture from that meeting hanging in the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C.


With any luck, there will be some pictures of the event posted to the US Consulate Jeddah's Instagram page before too long. Who knows, since I was in the role of "dynamic greeter", I might even be in one of them. In the background...behind several other people...trying not to be in the photo. Or you might see me in the background in more of a "dynamic eater" role, since we had all sorts of American companies with franchises in Jeddah providing free samples.
Cornhole? Seriously?
Although, I don't think that I've ever seen anyone but Americans play it.
Now, one of my hobbies is to look for incongruities, juxtapositions, and ironies. So, of course I found it interesting that February 18 also happens to be Ash Wednesday for Catholics. But it would be a seriously bad idea (point #4) to walk around Saudi Arabia with an ashen cross on your forehead. Now, we're not Catholic, but we still try to maintain some of the traditions from back home along the Gulf, and Mardi Gras is one of those. So we had pancakes for Shrove Tuesday last night to celebrate the season.


Completely switching gears: I've notice that I'm getting more search hits from the Chinese search engine Baidu. As you may be aware, February 19th begins the Chinese New Year... the lucky Chinese WoodChinese Sheep (Year of Wooden Sheep/Goat)! So to any of my Chinese readers out there, 新年快乐! I don't think we'll end up getting assigned to China any time soon, but I'm sure we'll visit there at some point in the future if we get posted nearby.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Choosing the Right Adapter for International Travel

If you're preparing to go on an international trip with all your gadgets, how sure are you about which adapter plug you need to bring so that you can actually use the local outlet? Are you worried about blowing out your device's power adapter by plugging it in? Or, maybe, you're just wondering why your plug-in digital clock seems to run fast (or slow) but you don't understand why? I'll try to answer these and other important questions in this post about choosing the right adapter for international travel.
Source: International Electrotechnical Commission
Whenever I travel, I like to keep it simple and not bring too much stuff with me that requires electricity. Not only does this save on weight, but I get through the lines at security much faster. But, in today's connected world, chances are you are traveling with at least a cell phone and probably a computer or tablet.
So if you're ready to get "plugged in" to the irrational world of power standards, let me help you identify the adapters (and/or transformers) you should bring with you to the countries on your itinerary.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

One Month In

We've been in country for a month now, so we've had about four iterations of our weekly schedule punctuated by all the one-off activities that go along with moving to a new place...or the death of a king...or a visit by the President of the United States. Here's a summary of how it's going:

1) The work week schedule hurts my brain. The Saudi work week runs Sunday to Thursday, with the holy day observed on Friday. Apparently, my psyche is so engrained with the idea that the work week is Monday to Friday that I have a really hard time remembering what day of the week it is. Except for Friday, which I had no problem accepting as a recurring day off. Friday night is the social night for sitting around with friends into the wee hours of the morning. Saturdays are still Saturdays, but not so many people are out as on Friday because "tomorrow's a work day." When Sunday comes around, even though I know that it's the first day of the work & school week, my brain will register it as a Monday and I'll end up thinking that I am one day closer to the weekend than I actually am. It also doesn't help that my phone's alarm settings are limited to "On", "Off", and "Weekdays"...which it believes are Monday-Friday and not Sunday-Thursday (which is really annoying when trying to sleep in on Friday or when waking up late on Sunday).


2) The death of King Abdullah. This was probably the most significant event that occurred on a national level. It happened on a Friday, which is the first day of the weekend here in Saudi Arabia. The mourning period lasted through Sunday, which you'll recall is the first day of the work week, so government offices and schools that are normally in session were closed. Kind of like getting a snow day.

3) President Obama visits Saudi Arabia's new King Salman. Fortunately, the President visited Riyadh and not Jeddah, so the visit didn't cause much of a disturbance to daily life here. However, the media picked up on the First Lady's clothing choices, and my wife posted about how the media got it wrong. Also, the Daily Show had a great piece about how many top US officials hopped i on this boondoggle visit.

4) I got my Saudi Driver's license! Of course, on the first dayout  driving on my own, I got stuck behind a three car accident at an intersection. The rule is that you basically leave the cars where they are until the police show up, which meant I had to weave through the accident site to make a left turn. And I stand by my initial assessment of what it's like to drive in Saudi Arabia.
I had to go right of (1), the left of (2), and the left of (3),
which put me into on-coming traffic while making a left turn.
5) We set up our internet using STC's 4G wireless router system. It's pretty cool, and doesn't require anyone to come out to install it since it works the same as your smartphone on a 4G network. The buildings here aren't great for reception though, so we had to get an antenna to improve the Wi-Fi range. That only took several weekends and several different stores to figure out. We had been considering a few other options but just gave up because we had something that worked well enough.


6) We hired a housekeeper. She visits on a weekly basis for a few hours, but at least the chaos our kids cause is reset every week...and the cycle begins again when they come home from school. It still seems weird to have someone come over to clean up for us (especially since we are still waiting for our main household goods shipment), so much so that we sometimes clean up before she arrives so that our house doesn't look that messy. There were lots of other little things good and bad, but those were the highlights.
Happiness is...a chocolate milkshake on a warm day.
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