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.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

TDY to Turkmenistan

The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations has more projects than they have people to staff them full time, so Foreign Service Construction Engineers frequently travel to other projects in the region to cover the management gaps in active projects (apply here if you're interested). Previously, I've gone TDY to Beirut and Adana to fill in as the Project Director, but this time I headed to central Asia to fill in for a project in Ashgabat.
One of the most common symbols in Turkmenistan
Here are some posts and photos explaining the things I did and saw during my time in one of the most closed societies in the world. I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I did experiencing it.
Riding an Akhal Teke horse
See why they call it the "Door to Hell"
There are horse icons everywhere in Ashgabat

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Parting Thoughts from the Parthian Empire

The two weeks I spent in Ashgabat flew by. Here are some of the things that I'm going to remember out the trip. While this area has quite a bit of history, you can tell the city wants to present a very modern feel.

Social Order
The President's motorcade, like most national leaders, shut down the road when it was travelling. But things go a little extreme here: no one is allowed to be out to see (or be seen by?) the motorcade. One day, the motorcade was going to pass by our construction site, so the police required the crane operator to climb down from his cab. I've heard that they also go into the apartment buildings and order the residents to close any windows that face the street.
That's an LED display that pretty much only shows the President.
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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Horses of Ashgabat

I had originally planned on including a paragraph or two in each of the other posts from my TDY to Turkmenistan, but that seemed to make all of the posts a little too long. So I've compiled them here, with the exception of my day riding an Akhal-Teke horse. Before you even land in the country, your letter of invitation bears the national emblem of Turkmenistan and that lets you know in no uncertain terms that the horse is literally a central theme here.
The Emblem of Turkmenistan is centered around an Akhal-Teke horse.
What I noticed while I was wandering around Ashgabat was that there are lots of horse-themed motifs to be found. From prominent signs like the one for the Ministry of Horses to more subtle motifs in the shopping bags, signposts, and streetlights, it seems that the horse is everywhere:

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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Riding an Akhal-Teke Horse

The horse is very popular in Turkmen culture. So much so, there's a horse on the national crest and there is a ministry of horses. There is one breed in particular, the Akhal-Teke, that is considered to be the horse of Turkmen. My older daughter is well into her horse phase right now, so of course I wanted to ride one to share the experience.
How to look dramatic in a photo: Mount a horse.
I contacted a few folks that I thought might know someone who could get me out on a ranch or on the trail. I was put in touch with Gulya, who coordinated my trip out to Katya's Horse Farm in Gökdepe. Historical sidenote: The Battle of Geok Tepe (Gökdepe in Russian) was a significant battle between the Russians and the Turkmen back in the day of the cavalry.

Anyways, what I thought would be a simple out-and-back trip to the farm turned out to be quite an enjoyable afternoon of sight-seeing near the Iranian border and some errand-running with Gulya, her son, and the driver...
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Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Gates of Hell

When someone mentions "the Gates of Hell," do you think of Rodin's masterpiece in the Musee D'Orsay, a Tom Petty song, or a failure of Soviet engineering in Turkmenistan? Well, after today, I'll be thinking of the last one.
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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Like the Deserts Miss the Rain

What happens when a city that doesn't get much rain during the year gets hit by a rainstorm? Flooding - because there isn't a functional storm water system. This is probably not what you think of when you picture Saudi Arabia, is it?
Highway access roads up to the bumpers.
Yeah, this seems safe.
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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Ashgabat and the Silk Road

My first Sunday in Ashgabat, I went to Tolkuchka Bazaar and then rode around the city. It was an interesting experience, definitely worth spending a couple of hours there. The sprawling bazaar is just outside of town, and was designed to look like the Ahal pattern. Here's the Google Maps satellite view:
I caught a cab to the bazaar from the hotel, and was rather proud of myself for confirming both the destination and price in Russian. Tolkuchka? Da. Skolka? Tresat. Tresat (30 Monat). I had expected 20, but that 10 Monat is roughly a $2.80 USD difference for a 25 minute cab ride. Definitely not DC prices.

Tolkuchka Bazaar
Upon arrival at the bazaar, I was initially met by a wave of choking diesel exhaust. Getting out of the road and into the buildings, I saw row after row of silver jewelry safety pinned to blankets - was it for anti-theft or simply a convenient way to wrap things up at the end of the day? There were lots of the traditional, colorful, matronly headdresses and I finally saw the padding that goes under the headdress too. It looks like it would do a good job keeping their heads warm. I'd have taken some photos, but there are enough undercover police in the area to make you think twice about it. I thought they were pretty easy to spot: most of the shoppers are women, and then there are random guys just standing around not trying to sell you stuff. Seems like a give away.

Lunch was deep fried dough with spiced meat inside. Think empanada, but the size of a quesadilla. I got two, since everyone line ahead of me was getting 2-3 per person. I gave the cashier 20 and got back 18.40. So, they are 0.8 monat each: that's like 25 cents each? I had them again for lunch later in the week, they are called "prashka", I think.

The bazaar is divided into sections to make it a little more organized to find what you're looking for. The Ç section had the most traditional clothing/jewelry, while the F section had the carpets. I wasn't really looking for large carpet (we have enough already, from Morocco, Qatar, and Turkey), but I did want to get something representative. For only 20 & 30 Monats, I was able to get mouse-pad sized carpets with the most common Guls (tribal designs):
The Teke pattern
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Calling all Engineers!

The Foreign Service Construction Engineer (FSCE) Vacancy Announcement will open on November 17, 2015 and will close on December 09, 2015.

Foreign Service Construction Engineers are members of the US Foreign Service, assigned almost exclusively to the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. There aren't very many of us, so there are lots of opportunities to fill in when & where needed.

For instance: In my current assignment to Jeddah, I replaced a guy I worked with in DC who worked for the guy I had replaced when I began my DC assignment. I also went TDY to Ashgabat to fill in there until the permanent OBO staff arrives. To prepare for that TDY, I talked with other FSCEs who had filled in prior to my turn...all of which I had worked with previously. Since the FSCE community is pretty small, you end up with a global network of resources pretty quickly.

If you want to read more, here's a page about my own FSCE experience.

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So, if you know construction, like to travel and live abroad, and are looking for a challenging career with excellent benefits, I highly recommend you apply today to become a Foreign Service Construction Engineer!

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Saturday, November 14, 2015

Wandering around Ashgabat

I had some time off to explore the city of Ashgabat. One of the most striking features of the city is how nearly every building seems to be made from white stone with gold trim. Of course, there are some distinct challenges to take photos in the city: You are not allowed to take photos of government buildings, which wouldn't normally be an issue except that every building seems like it's a government building, and there are police everywhere to make sure that you abide by the rules.
The Protector of Turkmenistan
Ok, so that's the official position, but it turns out that "government building" primarily applies to just the President's buildings. Make no mistake, Ashgabat is the President's city and everyone else gets to live here. When I arrived earlier this week, I heard that the President was returning from China. The expediter told me that meant the main roads would be shut down. I also learned that the President doesn't want to see anyone on the streets when he's on them...police will guide people off the sidewalks to literally hide behind bushes. Or demand that our crane operator climb down from his cab way up in the air.

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But I also had access to a local driver who took me to some of the best sights on a beautifully clear day, and he had no problem with stopping to let me take a picture before continuing on. So, I hope you enjoy my photos from one of the world's most repressive countries.
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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Transiting Iranian Airspace

Normally, "fly-over" country refers to somewhere that people normally don't want to travel to. But in this case, Iran is a "fly-over" country that, as an American, I'm not allowed to travel to. But it's totally legit for Americans to fly through Iranian airspace on foreign carriers. Here are my photos from the window of a FlyDubai jet.
JED-DXB
The story starts in Jeddah, Saudia Arabia. Which adds another dimension to my story when you consider the adversarial relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran. I said bye to our girls, who were still in their beds, but our 3-year-old got up to wave goodbye to me from the front porch steps at 4:45am.

It only took half and hour to go from my home to the departure gate. That's unheard of, as Jeddah is currently considered to be the second worst airport in the world. There was none of the usual street traffic on the way to the airport, no line at check in (sidenote: it's the first time I've checked a bag for a work trip in years), no line at security (they didn't even bother making me take out my laptop). Now, I did arrive slightly before the first prayer of the day, so that may have helped clear out the crowds. But that also meant that all of the coffee shops were closed. A small inconvenience well worth the alternative. .
Jeddah's Airport never looked so good.
The most direct flights the travel agent could book me on connected through Dubai. While I probably could have worked out a way to spend the night there, I think we pretty much hit everything we wanted to see when we took our family vacation in Dubai last May. Here's the annoying thing about going through Dubai: the city has a higher than normal percentage of self-important, pretentious wannabes. While we wait for the initial boarding call in Jeddah, this one older teen in particular perfectly captured everything I'm talking about in one outfit: flat brimmed red hat, Southern frat boy hair, trendy ugly sweater, skinny jeans, paired with what look like womens' flats. And his mannerisms strike me as an entitled little punk.
FlyDubai onboard restroom sign
The early morning flight was uneventful, and I slept through most of it. It was raining in Dubai when we landed.  That entitled punk got put in his place by the flight attendant for getting bag up after landing while the plane was still taxiing. The attendant walked up the aisle, put the kid's bag back up in the overhead, and politely told him to sit down. Bravo, Mr. Flight Attendant, well played.

And I miss you, like the deserts miss the rain...
We landed in Dubai while it was raining. We all had to walk down the stairs to the bus in a respectable downpour. It felt kind of nice, so I wasn't rushing to get in the bus (I won't melt), but I kept in mind that wet shirts and air conditioning don't mix well. I did wonder if my checked luggage would be soaked through and though, since Dubai is built to provide shade from the desert sun, not rain.

DXB-ASB
I grabbed some McDonald's in the terminal, and I didn't have to wait long before boarding for Ashgabat. The bus was full of women with colorful headgear. When the first women got on the bus, I thought "oh, this is the traditional Headwear. The second woman got on with what looks like the exact same pattern, and I wondered if the women had one of those "oh no, she wore my outfit" moments. Then more and more ladies got on. I could see at least 4 from where I sat on the plane.
Apparently, this headwear is only for married Turkmen women.
Now, if you know your geography, if I'm in Dubai and headed to Ashgabat, taking the most direct route means that I'm pretty much spending the entire flight headed north over Iran.  As far as I can tell, there's no issue with me being in Iranian airspace since i'm not in a US aircraft. Hopefully we don't have to make an emergency landing, because that would surely complicate things.

But as long as I'm up here, might as well enjoy the Beautiful scenery. Mountain ranges looked like snakes buried in dust; snow capped mountains look like clouds that went to sleep on the desert. of course my window would be so dusty the camera focuses on the dirt and not the landscape. But the window behind me was clean enough, and might actually have been a better angle:
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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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