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.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Moon Mountain at Sunset

The sun sets on Moon Mountain
After we departed from the Ottoman fortress at Usfan, we needed to make a U-turn before we got to a checkpoint on the road that leads back to Jeddah. But we actually had to go through the checkpoint to make the u-turn because every break in the median leading up to the checkpoint had been blocked or otherwise barricaded. I guess they thought a U-turn in front of the checkpoint would be suspicious...just like the beginning of a Hollywood chase scene. Our caravan stopped several times on the way out to Moon Mountain to ask for directions from the locals. Fortunately, two folks in our group speak Arabic. Unfortunately, Moon Mountain doesn't appear on any maps.


On our journey deeper into the Saudi back-country, we drove past several farms with camels and sheep/goats. The terrain changed fairly rapidly as we entered the foothills, and the rock formations started looking more and more otherworldly.
We passed one formation that might be named "Turtle Rock," but I think it looked more like it should be called "Camel Rock." Chances are, though, that somewhere in Saudi Arabia there's already at least one other "Camel Rock." But that's better than the other names it could be given, because when viewed from the wrong angle, it also looked rather...phallic. I'll leave it to you to pick your favorite dirty pun from however many will probably pop into your head when you see the picture:


Ottoman Fortress at Usfan

The Ottoman Fortress at Usfan.
We were looking to get out of town for a little sightseeing, and we came across a Destination Jeddah article about an Ottoman fortress north of Jeddah as a place to go. So we went, with a couple other folks from the consulate.

From the description of the fortress, we expected to spend about 3 hours there after a long hike up. Our kids packed "light snacks" that probably could have provisioned us for a week. And with more stuff in our vehicle than we'd possibly need, our caravan headed off into the desert...and a sand storm. The sand was blowing across road like snow. And when we got out of the car, we were greeted by the stinging wind.


Reality vs. Expectation: I suppose we could/should have Googled it to discover that the fortress was much smaller than we'd imagined, about the size of a mini-golf course and surrounded by on-ramps. So much so that on our drive up, our daughter asked "Are we going to actually go there, or just drive around it?
The ladder invites you to climb it.
We came across a hole in the ground that reminded me of the Army of Darkness "Boom Stick" scene.
RRR isn't sure about the ominous hole in the ground
Curious, I ventured down into the hole...


Saturday, April 18, 2015

DiploPundit vs. OBO

For those of you that haven't heard of DiploPundit, it's one of the most popular blogs that "monitors the goings on at ‘Foggy-Bottom’ (i.e. the State Department) and the 'worldwide available' universe from Albania to Zimbabwe." So you'd think that getting mentioned in it would be a good thing, right? Well, it depends...but as far as I can tell, if DiploPundit calls you out, it's usually not for something good. Recently, my Bureau (Overseas Buildings Operations, or OBO for short) has found itself once again in the DP's cross-hairs. And while there is some truth to be found in the article, there were also a few points that were slightly off the mark.
Source: OBO
The DP blog post in question addressed an anonymous post to its site that highlighted how the FSCE retention rates have suffered under the "Excellence" initiatives of "Design Excellence" and the rebranded "Excellence in Diplomatic Facilities" (EDF) initiative. The EDF moniker came into existence after its predecessor "Design Excellence" lost the public relations war. Notice that the term "Design" was dropped in favor of the more broadly inclusive "Facilities"? Don't get me wrong, I like a pretty building as much as the next guy, but this actually isn't about the building at all. So what's the issue here?

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

My first Zipcar Experience

Ok, so I've been putting off trying Zipcar for roughly 14 years. Back in the early 2000's, I lived in the greater Boston area and my roommate Andy did some of the early coding for them. I had my own car at the time, so it didn't really seem like something I'd use. Flash forward to 2015, and I'm back in the US for a week of training and I need wheels to get me to the stores not serviced by the Metro.
At first, I'd considered renting a car for the week. But in DC, the parking fees alone would run something like $200 just to sit around for the few hours I might be able to actually use it. I'd also have to go in to the Reagan airport to pick it up and return it, not really all that convenient. So, even though the area is serviced by quite a number of public transportation options, it would require several transfers and lots of waiting to get everything done. And I just don't have that kind of time.

Now, getting everything set up did require some administrative prep work, so in hindsight I probably should have signed up before I left the country. They will only mail the keycard to your billing address or you can pick it up from the office. Since I decided to sign up so close to my flight's departure date, there was no way I'd have the card in hand before I left Saudi Arabia. So, my only option was to ride the Metro into the DC office on my conference's lunch break to get the card. The Zipcar office reminded me of a computer lab at MIT crossed with the same dispatcher vibe I got from working at the Gentle Giant Moving Company. More importantly, now that I was in possession of the physical card, I could make reservations and unlock the cars.

One of the truisms about life in the Foreign Service is that every trip back to the US is a chance to stock up on the stuff that either doesn't exist at post or is ridiculously expensive on the local market. And we're talking a random assortment of things: Children's sunblock. White whole wheat flour. Barbeque sauce without corn syrup. Peanut butter. Lara bars. French press ground decaf coffee, make-up, etc.

Monday, April 06, 2015


While I went TDY to post frequently during my last assignment in Washington, D.C., this week is the first time I'll be going TDY to D.C. from post. Which effectively means that I'll be visiting all the places in the US that don't exist in Jeddah...during Easter weekend and the Cherry Blossom festival. Think it might be a little crowded?
Cherry Blossoms and blue sky
To put things in context, living overseas means that certain things simply aren't available on the local economy, and those that are carry a hefty import surcharge. I think a box of Cheerios is ~$8. So I came back with a list and intended to start shopping on what turned out to be Easter Sunday. Oddly, Easter Sunday in Arlington, VA somewhat reminded me of shopping in Jeddah, with one key difference: In Jeddah, ALL the stores close for hours every day for prayer. But in Arlington, even on Easter Sunday, at least 50% of the stores were open (even though some of them did have reduced hours). I don't think I would have considered that convenient before living in Saudi Arabia, but what a difference a few months makes. Anyways, here's the haul of some pretty mundane stuff:
This is what a Foreign Service Easter basket looks like
Glad I packed an extra duffle bag to carry all of this home. And I still had to ship some of it back to Saudi Arabia. 


Here's what I got in D.C. that we can't get (for a reasonable price) in Jeddah:
  • Chipotle - and even if you did, they wouldn't carry the carnitas burrito
  • CVS ($250 in sunscreen for the kids and other stuff)
  • General Tso's at a Chinese restaurant
  • A good haircut - best one I've had in DC at Willy's Barber Shop
  • A decent massage (at Bye Bye Stress) ... only $48 for 60 min + 20 extra min free!
  • Trader Joe's (organic peanut butter, organic jelly, Lara bars)
  • Harris Teeter (white whole wheat flour, french press ground decaf coffee)
While shopping in Harris Teeter, I realized that Paul Simon's "Call me Al" was playing on the store's speaker system. It struck me as particularly relevant now that I am a "foreign man, he is surrounded by sounds...". I'm not sure if I have mentioned it before, but there is rarely music in Saudi stores.

As for why I'm actually in D.C., it was for some Foreign Service Construction Engineer training. But coming back to D.C. also made me remember how living aboard abroad has accustomed me to non-native English speakers making occasional errors (I also recognize that this is far better than if I attempted the same feat in their native language). That said, it still makes me laugh when native speakers make the same mistakes in the States. For example: I stopped into Starbucks for a morning snack, and this is what the baristas put on my order...
My name is Greg, and I'm a "Tall Greek" & "B Greek" 
I'll pardon your appearance, but not your spelling of 'Envioronment'
My discovery was that 'discoverey' is not a word.


Ok, so I've covered the stuff I got and why I was there. But there were other errands I had to run too.
  • Update my military records, which required me to show up in person for a new ID
  • Renew my State Department ID, which I was unable to do because I didn't have the right form signed by my supervisor. 
  • Get my pants hemmed. It really was easier to bring them back to the US than to find a good tailor in Jeddah. I'm sure they exist, it's just taxing to find them.
  • Get a Zipcar card to finish my shopping list at the places I couldn't reach on public transit.
  • Get to a chiropractor. Again, this was mostly for the convenience of not having to find a guy in Jeddah and getting to the office between prayer time closures.
After my training ended, I went into D.C. proper to see the Cherry Blossom festival. I timed it so that I would arrive just after the Cherry Blossom parade that shuts down the city, but could still check out the main festival area around lunch time. It was so crowded and the food vendor lines were so long that I decided to skip it and check out the National Archives exhibit on alcohol and politics that I saw advertised in the Metro. That line too was really long, due in part from the parade goers simply taking a step back from the parade route to start a new line for the Archives. So I skipped that, too, and went back to get my bags and head to the airport.
Alcohol in politics exhibit poster
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Saturday, April 04, 2015

Production Controls, Easter Style

I ended up passing through the Frankfurt airport (FRA) during Easter weekend, and was pleasantly surprised by how their security system was implementing a customer feedback survey. Since I'm always looking for clever process improvement techniques, I thought this was a good one to share.

The first person I meet in the security area gave me a card with a free Lindt chocolate Easter bunny on it to eat while waiting for my stuff to pass through the X-ray machine. Then, just outside the security area but before the first garbage cans, there were three containers with either a green, yellow, or red Easter egg on it and the survey was complete when I put the card in voting box.
I think this is absolutely brilliant for a number of reasons:
  1. I like free chocolate, and really, who doesn't? It also probably starts the security screening experience off more positively as well.
  2. You are given something to entertain you while they do their job of screening.
  3. You don't have to eat the bunny right away but the card is just big enough that you won't pocket it, so it's your natural instinct to look for a place to put it. 
  4. As far as filling out a survey (the actual information they are looking for), having 3 clear bins you can easily count how many cards are inside is much better than requiring folks to write something (in an international airport, how many languages could that be?) to be interpreted. 
  5. It reinforces positive behavior from travelers, compelling people to put stuff in the right container. If you've ever been through FRA, you'll remember the Germans love sorting out their refuse into separate bins for glass, plastic, paper, etc.
  6. My only negative comment is that the clear bins might introduce a selection bias, because the green bin was about twice as full as the yellow and red bins. But if the purpose is to make people think that most everyone is enjoying the experience, it's a great tool. I'd probably have stacked the deck in my favor and pre-loaded a couple dozen cards in the green bin (accounting for them in the final results, of course) to encourage the trend.
Well done, FRA: win-win.


Thursday, April 02, 2015

Foreign Service Construction Engineer FAQs

The US Department of State has released another Foreign Service Construction Engineer vacancy announcement, and it will stay open for applications through the end of April 2015. If you've ever dreamed of living overseas with your family while building landmark buildings in a career with great promotion potential that includes lots of great benefits from #34 on Forbes' list of America's Best Employers, this might be the job for you.

After I started blogging about being a Foreign Service Construction Engineer (FSCE) with the U.S. Department of State, I began receiving some frequently asked questions about what to expect while following the Foreign Service Specialist (FSS) career path. Finding first-person accounts about specific government jobs overseas can be difficult, if they exist at all. Since there's another FSCE hiring announcement out, I figured it would be a relatively good time to consolidate those questions and answers that have accumulated over several years and emails into one post (this one, in fact) that gets updated every once in a while. I've also noted whether the answer applies to all Foreign Service Specialists or whether they are FSCE-specific.
This link is to an article about FSCEs that was written by my peers and published in State Magazine.

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