American Southwest Family Vacation

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.

Our Adventures in Sri Lanka

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

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Assignment: Nicosia

Over the winter holidays, we were given what is known in Foreign Service parlance as a "handshake" for our next post: Nicosia, Cyprus. This will be our third assignment with the Foreign Service: Washington, D.C. was first, followed by our current assignment to Jeddah, Saudia Arabia. And I should point out that after the first two assignments, folks are usually tenured and considered to be "mid-level" and that changes how one goes about getting an assignment. And, as always, my career field does things differently. But I digress.
The Flag of Cyprus
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Friday, December 16, 2016

Christmas Break in NYC

To make the most of our Christmas break, Kacey and the girls flew out of Jeddah a week before me and then we reunited in a frozen New York City. Before I arrived, they saw the New York Botanical Garden, Santa at Macy's, and the Rockettes. We also visited the Statue of Liberty and took our 7-year-old daughter to one of the last performances of Roald Dahl's Matilda on Broadway.
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Friday, November 25, 2016

Canyoneering in Wadi Shab, Oman

We first heard about Oman's Wadi Shab when we spent an evening with bedouins in the Saudi Arabian desert. It's a great place for river trekking (tracing), which is non-technical canyoning (you don't need climbing gear, just shoes and a swimsuit). We took our kids on a day trip from Muscat to see the Bimmah sinkhole before hiking through Wadi Shab. I've also got some tips on what to bring on your outing.
Canyoneering in Wadi Shab
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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Muscat, Oman

We based our trip out of the Shangri-la resort, about 30 minutes outside of Muscat. it was an easy drive into town to see the opera house and the Mutrah Souq. We went back into town two days later to see the Grand Mosque on our way to the airport.


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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

En route: via Riyadh to Oman

Our family took the Thanksgiving holiday to leave Saudi Arabia and visit Oman right after their #national-day. This post has #travel-info on getting in and around and also contrasts our impressions of #Saudi Arabia to #Oman.
pic



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Friday, October 21, 2016

Bedouin Night in the Arabian Desert

We took a break from the city of Jeddah and headed into the Saudi Arabian desert, where we saw a camel farm before catching dinner and a show at a bedouin camp. There was food, dancing, loud music, and several other activities that you just don't see in the city.
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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Backlogged

Ok, I know it looks like I've been totally off-grid for five months, but we've been busy at home and work. If you're reading this and that previous statement makes no sense because I have lots of posts between April and October, consider this a mid-year summary post. Otherwise,

1) I still have to finish writing up the last posts from April about our Nile Cruise, and that link will hopefully be finished by the end of the month, along with the other posts from Egypt.

2) In July, we went on R&R to Florida, California, and Canada with a stop at a Kentucky horse park and Ireland along the way. Again, those links will work when I publish the pages. They're mostly written, but not quite ready for release just yet.

3) Then in September, we went to Sri Lanka for over a week and saw leopards, elephants, and went from the beach to the mountains. A great time, with lots of photos and stories...but that also takes time to write up, and don't even get me started about trying to schedule my photo uploads to compensate for the slower internet speeds during the only times I seem to have to work in this.

4) We have trips planned to Oman and Qatar in the next three months as well as Christmas in the US. With luck, I'll clear the backlog by the time we generate more content. That in itself is a challenge with all the other daily living stuff going on, but I'm a glutton for punishment so...

5) I am also reviewing and overhauling my personal media strategy, which at present is about as organized as a filing cabinet that has caught fire and fallen over. I suppose that's a rather incoherent way to describe how incoherent it is, which is either ironic or apropos. Anyways, here's the new plan:

  • Blog: The Passport Stamp Collector blog (the one you are reading right now) will be the primary focus and will link other social media to it using #PassportStampCollectorBlog and to a lesser extent #PSCblog. So, of course, I'm going to spend days tweaking the template. It also gives me an excuse for any formatting errors and broken links, but I am working to correct them as I find them.  
  • Instagram: I gave RRR his own Instagram account at @WorldTravelRRR because I have far too many snapshots of him (on the order of hundreds) that didn't make the final blog post. If you like stuffed animal travel companions, follow RRR on Instagram or find him with #TravelRRR. When appropriate, I might drop in a #PSCblog tag to let you know there's a related blog post.
  • Tumblr - RRR: Since Instagram doesn't support links very well, I'll also be using travelRRR.tumblr.com for the "bonus material" RRR photos that may or may not have an associated Passport Stamp Collector post. For instance: Mardi Gras 2005. If there is a related blog post, I'll link the two together.
  • Tumblr - Passport Stamp Collector Bonus feed: I've set up what you might call a "Slightly Askance Tumblr Feed" for the Passport Stamp Collector Blog where I'll post the one-off things that don't really substantiate a full blog post but I still think are worth sharing #PassportStampCollectorBlog
  • Tumblr - Travel Trinkets: I collect travel trinkets from the countries I visit, and you can either read more about what I look for in a travel trinket or see the full gallery at TravelTrinkets.tumblr.com. The travel trinkets descriptions also feature a link to a blog post related to when I added the trinket to my collection.
And since "no plan survives first contact", I expect the kinks to be worked out over the next, let's say, two months. Now, where's that fire extinguisher...
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Monday, September 19, 2016

Sri Lanka Family Vacation Summary

Our family of four spent a little over a week in Sri Lanka and covered quite a bit of territory. From animal safaris in the jungle to Buddhist & Hindu temples on the mountain sides, with train rides through tea plantations along the way, Sri Lanka was an amazing place to visit. We highly recommend most of the the things we did, and have included as much info as we can for you to plan your own trip.
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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

Our last day in Sri Lanka took us from the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, to the Royal Botanical Gardens, and finally the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage before heading to the airport.
This photo is from the Temple of the Tooth
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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Kandy

We drove to Kandy, visiting a tea plantation/factory and Ramboda water falls along the way. I won't lie to you, this post is still in the roughest of note form and i have to upload some photos still.
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Friday, September 16, 2016

Nanu Oya to Nuwara Eliya

Today is split between taking a train ride to Nanuoya, then driving to Nuwarealiya (also known as "Little England") for some high tea and horse riding along Gregory's Lake.




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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Ella

We spent today relaxing in the Sri Lankan mountains near Ella. What, you didn't know there were mountains?

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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Arugam Bay Beach Day

It's always a good idea to plan a rest day into a long trip, and for this trip we chose to spend it at the beach in Arugam Bay.
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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Sigiriya Fortress and Traditional Sri Lankan Village

Today, we visited a traditional Sri Lankan village on our way past the Sigiriya rock fortress. We also saw a Hindu parade where the people had hooks in their skin!

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Monday, September 12, 2016

Anuradhapura & an Elephant Safari in Minneriya

In the north of Sri Lanka, we visited the ancient capital city of Anuradhapura and then went on safari in Minneriya National park where we saw over 150 elephants in the wild!


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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Leopard Safari in Wilpattu

Sri Lanka has several national parks that are home to leopards. The most popular one is Yala in the south, but it closes for September and part of October. So, we went north to Wilpattu National park and went on safari to see some leopards there. Like this one drinking from a water hole!

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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Abu Dhabi

To start off our Sri Lankan family vacation, we flew through Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. It was mostly to break up one long day of travel into two shorter days. The first night we went to Yas Island, and the following day we saw the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque before our flight out to Sri Lanka.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
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Friday, May 27, 2016

A New Family Member: Bertie

I think that I've mentioned that there are lots of stray cats in Saudi Arabia. Sometime it's hard to tell if they are just abandoned pets or were born wild. Occasionally, you'll find a cat lover who puts a collar on strays so they don't, um, "disappear." One of the guys at post took in a pregnant cat that was roaming around the Consulate and then set about finding homes for her litter. We liked this one. Meet Bertie. He's an Arabian Mau.
Ok, so technically, his name is بُرْتُقال which is Arabic for 'orange' and pronounced [burtuqāl], or "Bertie" for short.  That fits in well with our "all cats named after food" theme, and also appropriate since he's a marmalade.
But compared to our other cat, Schnapps, Bertie's tiny. For now. When I went out to the store to find some kitten food, I found one brand that I found had a spokes-cat with an expression like "What? No, you eat that first" with a dubious warning label on it.
"Food Not Fit For Human Consumption"
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Saturday, April 09, 2016

Nile Cruise Summary

Our family of four (plus one set of grandparents) took a Nile River cruise from Luxor to Aswan during the kids' Spring Break from school. We also saw parts of Cairo before the cruise started. And, more importantly, we made many new memories (and even some new friends!). Here are some of our stories from that trip.

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Friday, April 08, 2016

Flight Out of Egypt

Ever been on a plane with dozens of pilgrims on their way to Mecca when the plane hits turbulence? That's how we ended our Nile cruise.

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Thursday, April 07, 2016

Aswan

Our Nile Cruise came to a close in Aswan, after visiting the Aswan Dam, Philae Temple, an unfinished obelisk and a Nubian village where we got to hold a baby crocodile.
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Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Edfu and Kom Ombo Temples

On the Nile south of Luxor, you can visit the Edfu Temple to Horus and the Kom Ombu Temple to Sobek (and the crocodile museum there). Both add to the experience of walking through history, and were so very detailed even now.
Edfu Temple
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Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Luxor - West Bank

For Egyptians, the West Bank is the dead bank. The Theban Necropolis is where you can find the ancient pharoahs buried in the Valley of the Kings and the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut. After visiting both sites, we continued southward on our Nile Cruise and interacted with the local merchants on the shoreline.
Our Ticket to The Valley of the Kings

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Monday, April 04, 2016

Luxor - East Bank

Luxor (also known as Thebes) is an ancient city in Egypt where many monuments and temples can be found. It's divided into East and West by the Nile River. What's really interesting is that Egyptian mythology influence the development and planning of these amazing structures such that the East Bank is to celebrate the living, and the West Bank is to celebrate the afterlife. Here's a preview of what we saw today:
Photo: Entering Karnak Temple
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Sunday, April 03, 2016

Cairo with Kids

Before starting our Nile Cruise, we flew into the ancient city of Cairo. The highlights of the day included visiting the pyramids, the Coptic Hanging Church, and the Egyptian Museum. We also rode camels, visited a papyrus store, and got a windshield tour of the city from the local perspective. A very busy day, but the kids loved it.
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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter in Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not recognize any religions other than Islam. The national ID cards have only two options for religion: "Muslim" and "Non-Muslim." Which makes it really hard for the Easter Bunny to get a visa. But we've got connections:
Don't let the bunny suit fool you, that's a Marine in there.
On the hunt for Easter eggs in a swimsuit, as one does.
Expat kids are just like other kids: they love candy.
While you might not expect it, the supermarkets in Saudi Arabia do sell holiday candies...but they are mostly the four-month-old Christmas candies that didn't sell elsewhere. Delicious irony, am I right?

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Friday, March 25, 2016

Return to Moon Mountain

Saudi Arabia is more than just a big sandbox. Before I arrived here, it never occurred to me to question the stereotype because all I ever saw in media was sand, sand, and more sand. One of the more unusual geological places we've been here is a place dubbed "Moon Mountain." About a year ago, we made our first visit to Moon Mountain. This time the kids were a little older, so I took our older one to the top and the younger one made it about halfway.
Now, this was the first time I went all the way to the top. Last year, I stayed with the kids while Kacey went to the top. This year, we switched...sort of.
Not a whole lot of photos in this area because of the slope.
Going up, we had to squeeze through a pass. Here's what it looked like coming down.
 And this is what she was looking at:
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Saturday, March 19, 2016

Diving in Yanbu

Yanbu is a Saudi Arabian city on the Red Sea. The Red Sea is one of the top diving destinations in the world, but Saudi Arabia is one of the more restrictive countries to get into. So when the opportunity arose to go on a night dive and two day dives, we barely hesitated. In fact, we brought the kids and their grandparents, which made this trip even more memorable...but not for the reasons you might think. Let's just say it involved the Saudi Coast Guard and a hospital.
From our first dive of the day
Because this trip was arranged through the American Consulate, we found ourselves included in the Consulate General's convoy. What that means is that we ended up spending the whole 3-hour drive between Jeddah and Yanbu in a high-speed convoy with Saudi police escorts joining and departing at regular intervals like fighters on a WWII bomber formation. It was a bit intense, especially with all the flashing lights and coordinated driving between the official vehicles... because you never know when this could happen, pretty much like this scene from The Kingdom. Of course, we're just tagging along behind them like ambulance chasers while also dodging the local Saudi drivers. I don't have any pictures of this because I was driving, and photos of diplomatic vehicles shouldn't be posted online anyways.

We checked in to the hotel where we met our American contact Tom, then dropped our bags in our rooms. Since not everyone was going out on the night dive, we switched car seats and shuffled folks around so that the night diving group was in one car and the group headed to the Yanbu flower show was in another. Kacey's father, David, ended up riding with Tom in a well-weathered town car that would put a 70's cop-show chase scene to shame. It really sticks out from the more common SUVs in the Kingdom and made going to our night dive site feel even more exhilarating.
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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Carpets and Culture

Carpets are a big thing in the Middle East. We're kind of into them, having added to our collection from Morocco, Turkey, Qatar, Germany (at a bazaar), and now Saudi Arabia. But here's where the story gets interesting: The last one we got is a Turkmen carpet sold to us by an Afghani in Saudi Arabia who just so happens to also have a store in Washington, D.C.
At least our daughter took off her shoes before climbing over the merchandise.
Feda Mohammed is a third generation carpet expert and runs the Afghan House Oriental Carpets and Handicrafts in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It's in a shopping center near the Rawdah and King Fahd intersection.
Feda and his rubab
When we arrived, he served us tea and dates. We talked about all sorts of things, but you can tell that he really loves to talk about Afghanistan.
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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Hejazi Angawi House Tour

The character of a location is often formed by its architecture. In Jeddah, the Angawi house is a truly amazingly well-executed example of the features that can be found throughout the area. It's probably the top tour I'd recommend to anyone visiting Jeddah.

Photo: The Angawi house atrium


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Monday, February 29, 2016

Jordan Trip Summary

Over four days, we saw some of the most famous attractions in Jordan: Petra, Wadi Rum, and the Dead Sea. Truly amazing scenery, and so many photos that each location gets its own post.
The Monastery at Petra

Our 2016 Jordan trip itinerary:

The Treasury at Petra
Riding camels into Wadi Rum
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Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Dead Sea

One of the highlights of our trip to Jordan was swimming in the Dead Sea. I knew that it was the saltiest body of water in the world, but I was surprised at how salty that really is. I mean, significantly saltier than I'd imagined. Actually, it's hard to grasp just how salty it really is unless you've been there, but I'm going to try to describe it to you in this post.
Our view of the Dead Sea
The kids were up by 6, which was unfortunate after our long day yesterday driving from Wadi Rum to Aqaba, with a brief stop over at Kerak Castle before rolling into the Mövenpick around 9pm. The resort is quiet, dare I say "dead"? I've heard that tourism in the region has decreased, and we've only seen a few other guests since we arrived.
Mövenpick Resort and Spa, Dead Sea
After breakfast, we went for a swim in the Dead Sea. But I would hardly call it 'swimming', since you generally feel like you're rolling around on slippery water bed. How's this for an absolutely terrible visual image:
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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Kerak Castle

Kerak Castle is a large crusader castle located in Kerak in Jordan. It is one of the largest crusader castles in the Levant. Control of it passed from the Crusaders to Saladin, the Mamluks, and the Ottomans. So much history in one place that it's hard to keep it all straight, but you can see each group's influence in the architecture.
Following our guide through Kerak Castle
We had started the day having breakfast in Wadi Rum, after which a truck took us back from the campsite to our car parked at the tour guide's office. We drove down to Aqaba, Jordan to see the town, then waited for McDonald's to serve lunch at 10:30am because our kids were getting hungry and it was the first place that was going to open. After our early lunch, we drove north towards the Dead Sea, detouring along the way to see the Kerak fortress. At one point, it held 1000 soldiers and 100 horses (in double-decked stables, no less).
The only sign we had to tell us about this place. The guide was helpful.
The tour included barracks, dungeons, dining halls, and stables.
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Friday, February 26, 2016

Wadi Rum

The Wadi Rum Protected Area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site The 74,000-hectare property, inscribed as a mixed natural and cultural site, is situated in southern Jordan, near the border with Saudi Arabia. It features a varied desert landscape consisting of a range of narrow gorges, natural arches, towering cliffs, ramps, massive landslides and caverns. Petroglyphs, inscriptions and archaeological remains in the site testify to 12,000 years of human occupation and interaction with the natural environment. The combination of 25,000 rock carvings with 20,000 inscriptions trace the evolution of human thought and the early development of the alphabet. The site illustrates the evolution of pastoral, agricultural and urban activity in the region
Wadi Rum is spectacular
Woke early to drive from Petra to wadi Rum. Stopped by police asked if we had reservations "you are welcome" and visitor center had way too many guys hanging out, like tour reps. One guy in a brown thobe took our admission fee to the park and told us how to get to Jordan tracks where his uncle would meet us - recommend. same brown thobe right by a mosque (only one in town).
Stored our baggage in office and then
Map of Wadi Rum

Rode camels, or as my daughter called it "we're camel-backing" to Lawrence's Spring. Well, most of us rode...my father-in-law David walked halfway instead of riding the camels,



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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Petra

Petra is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, built by the Nabataeans in 312 BC. Now, I don't mind admitting that I was under the impression that Petra was really just that temple-looking thing carved into the rock of a narrow canyon that you've probably seen in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But I noticed that some times the photos of Petra had sky behind it or it was at the bottom of a canyon.
The Monastery at Petra
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Friday, February 05, 2016

Day Trip to Taif

We started our modern-day caravan into the Saudi Arabian countryside at the Red Sea Mall in Jeddah. Our guide is driving a Bentley. This is going to be a fun day.

We drove east for a while to get out of the city, then we turned off on a ring road to take us around the holy city of Mecca. We saw a herd of camels on the road (just like in Turkmenistan), but there were several others roaming around like little mountains with legs. There were also herds of goats and sheep that looked like fluffy white clouds floating on the surrounding hills.
Camel pretending to be a mountain.
Free-range sheep.
Now, a bit of geography: Jeddah is on the west of Mecca, Taif is on the east of Mecca. You might think "hey, we can just take this road straight through Mecca" but you'd be wrong. To enter into Saudi Arabia, you have to identify your religion on the visa paperwork.  Pro Tip: They don't care what religion you are if it's not Muslim. They really should change it to ask "Muslim" or "Non-Muslim", but they give you a blank to fill in just in case you want to get into any religious arguments about the existence of a particular deity. Anyways, there are checkpoints outside of Mecca where the guards check your documents and won't let you through (at best) and might arrest/deport you (at worst) if you are not a Muslim and driving on a Muslim Only road. So we ended up on what expats nicknamed "The Christian Highway."
Turn Right...NOW!
Approaching the mountains.
If I asked you to tell me what you picture Saudi Arabia looking like, my guess is that you'd say "lots of sand and camels." And I guess you'd be right, but did you know that there are also mountains and monkeys? We wound our way up the mountain road, stopping frequently (like everyone else) to take pictures of the monkeys on the side of the road.
Trunk Monkeys looking for work
Maybe they are apes, like in Gibraltar where they tried to climb into our baby stroller...but I think the big difference between the two is the tail.
My friend wouldn't translate the graffiti for me,
so my guess is that it's pretty good.
Shortly after the monkeys, we arrived the farm of our guide/host. It was not what I was expecting.
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End Of Tour Summary: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

We spent two and a half years in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on our second tour in the Foreign Service with the US Department of State. As you migh...

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