Category Archives: travel

Living in the ‘Pound: A Glimpse of Life on a Western Compound in Saudi Arabia

2016-06-21-21-28-13
Follow Me…

Dogs are not welcome in Saudi Arabia. Foreigners are not welcome in general, but dogs are particularly unwelcome. In many countries, an imported animal must be kept in quarantine to prevent spreading unwanted diseases to the native herds; that’s what it’s like to live in Saudi Arabia as a westerner. The Saudis are kind and friendly, but to protect their social structure, they must be protected from the rabid influence of the immigrant workers that keep the economic wheels turning. The liberal social customs of imported workers could infect the poorly inoculated locals, leading to chaos and destruction- at least that would be the conclusion of an outside observer visiting the “western” compounds that house the many workers from around the world.

The truth is, as always, more complex. Many expats live within Saudi neighborhoods, and culture, with minimal difficulty. This living arrangement involves a very clear and non-negotiable arrangement, however; you must abide by Saudi traditions and customs. Women must be covered in public (including the abaya and something to cover her hair, such as a niqab or hijab), and they cannot drive. Well, actually this woman from British Airways can drive, but only on the runway:

2016-10-08-22-46-00-1

In fact, unmarried or unrelated men and women may not mix at all. This is supposed to include the workplace, although typically this just involves separate sections of the cafeteria or lecture hall. An interesting paradox is the “driver” culture; because women may not drive, there is a huge industry of professional drivers that chauffeur women and families to their destinations. The irony is that, of course, these men are not related nor married to the women they are spending time with. I guess we all rationalize away those things that might upset our worldview.

Life is different, however, on the compounds. Separated from Saudi culture by a bubble of reinforced concrete walls and barbed wire, inside you will find an oasis of progressive ideology, mixing of men and women, and even cinemas!

From the outside, you think you are entering a maximum security prison. Maybe you are.

Once inside, however, women can shed their abayas, men can wear shorts that go as far above the knees as they dare, and unrelated boys and girls can ride bikes, swim, and engage in whichever activities their home culture deems appropriate.

2016-10-22-18-37-37

Bikes, typically off-limits to Saudi girls, are everywhere on the larger compounds. They transport kids, teachers, even burgers! Bikes can even be used to pick up refreshments that are definitely not allowed. Hypothetically speaking, so I’ve heard.

When you choose your Scotch-like beverage based on the number of months it has been aged, rather than years, you know you are living in an alternate universe. Another sign that there is a little home-brewing going on is the bulk purchasing of grape juice at the local supermarkets:

2015-02-26-18-02-23

Another difference between the wealthy Gulf Coast Countries and the real world is the attitude toward laborers. In North America and Europe, a street sweeper is a machine. Here, it is typically a guy from Bangladesh who probably makes just enough money to pay off the agent that arranged his visa and (at best) send some home to feed his family.

2016-02-07-09-02-19

Once you venture outside of the compound, everyone has to conform to the local customs. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t have fun or meet amazing people.

2015-01-03-15-10-59

Camping and off-roading are one of the few activities that allow you to escape the gilded cage of compound life. Fortunately, there’s plenty of desert for everyone.

 

Sometimes, the desert comes to you. Our kids looked forward to the occasional sand storm, as this usually resulted in cancellation of school.

2015-04-01-18-14-22

My favorite photos from Arabia are mostly sunsets, perhaps representative of how hard and barren life in Saudi Arabia can be, and how that focuses one’s appreciation on beauty and peace that can’t be repressed.

After a while, aspects of Saudi culture that I found shocking or hilarious became normal. It has been revealing to scroll back through those memories and relive the initial emotions upon arriving for the first time.

 

I appreciate that my family and I were able to explore this part of the world while having a comfortable home that felt like “home”, replete with Girl Scouts, soccer, and lemonade stands.

My prediction for the future is that Saudi culture will change radically in the next few years; combined with the departure of many of the western workers, it is likely that the compounds will become enclaves for western-minded Saudis. I hope they enjoy the lemonade and Thin Mints.

2016-09-16-17-31-15

 

Mada’in Salah, the Cursed Tombs of the Nabateans

Around Halloween, you can’t beat a haunted house for a little spooky fun. If you are fortunate enough to have a visa to enter Saudi Arabia, the ultimate taboo is Mada’in Salah. The dark history of this place extends back to the period of the Nabateans, the architects of Petra; their civilization extended into the Arabian peninsula, and their trademark sandstone tombs can be found there as well. According to our local guides, the Quran describes this area and its inhabitants as cursed. Something about killing a sacred camel; thereafter, Muslims have avoided this area. Our flight to the neighboring airport even flew a longer path to avoid the obviously dangerous airspace above the tombs; ironically, it took us closer to Iraq, but I guess you choose your risks in life.

Next to the World Heritage Site around the tombs, there is a restored portion of the Hijaz railway; not the exact section blown up by T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia, but close enough.

2016-11-04-09-06-58

There are two unique qualities of this tourist attraction; the first is that, being declared cursed, you won’t find many local Saudis there. Secondly, being under the protection of the tourism board, you also won’t find any Muttawa (religious police), so the few tourists there tend to be western women in yoga pants enjoying the freedom to hike without an abaya!

2016-11-04-17-42-46

Look! Her ankles are almost showing! Scandalous.

Once you arrive at the tombs, the differences with Petra are astounding. No gypsies, no swarms of tourists, not even a gift shop! Also, no marked trails, no tour guides (bring your own), no place to buy water (bring your own), no snack shops (you get the point…).

It is just you and the work of the Nabateans:

2016-11-04-10-13-42

You can wander around freely, as long as you pack plenty of water and have a four wheel drive to navigate the “road” on site.

2016-11-04-10-36-37 2016-11-04-10-55-36

The edifices are not as grand as Petra, so after an hour or two of exploring, you can shift gears and climb the bizarre rock formations that give the area a truly haunted feel.

 

 

2016-11-04-11-16-54 2016-11-04-17-19-46 2016-11-04-10-37-35

Nearby, at the end of an unmarked dirt trail, you can find Elephant Rock. Actually, you would never find it on your own, but hopefully your guide knows where it is!

2016-11-04-15-56-53

Like any travel adventure, there are a few nuances to traveling in this area. Because it is close to the Jordan/Iraq border, there are some people who are somewhat less friendly to Westerners. In fact, the local police Captain arranged an escort to and from the airport:

2016-11-05-09-42-50

We were almost late because our driver had evidently planned on driving at twice the legal limit, and had to maintain a slightly less insane pace. Of course, police escorts don’t eliminate the other hazards of crossing the desert T. E. Lawrence-style. Like waiting for road crews to move a sand dune off of the road:

2016-11-05-10-01-49

Or yielding to four-legged pedestrians:

2016-11-05-10-25-08

I’ll probably never set foot on Mars, but it would feel familiar there I think:

2016-11-05-09-47-48

There’s something appealing about venturing into that which is forbidden; I’m glad we were able to visit before the area is developed and is littered with chain hotels and tourist traps. Add in the vast desert landscape and achingly beautiful sunsets as a backdrop, and Mada’in Salah makes for a perfect Halloween weekend getaway.

2016-11-03-17-53-40

 

Not Another Nice Review! Or,”I loved Nice and I’m just jealous I couldn’t stay”

 

The French Riviera can never, ever live up to its reputation. Think about it; this is the only place that is really cool enough for James Bond to return to again and again. Perhaps nowhere else on earth is there such a convergence of style, wealth, and beauty. Dubai may surpass the Cote D’Azur in the wealth category, but is found woefully lacking in the style and beauty departments (although I do have a soft spot for gold-plated Lamborghinis). Paris certainly has style and wealth, but the sapphire blue oceans  of Nice were beautiful long before the birth of any artist in the Louvre. San Francisco? Hong Kong? They are crowded ant piles of humanity compared to the softly churning shores of the south of France.

2016-10-07-12-59-03

How do you visit a place that creates such lofty expectations? I recommend you find a way to write it off as a business expense and not take it so seriously. If you are the one paying exorbitant rates for a small, depressing hotel room, it is possible the charms of Nice will fail you. If, however, your employer is paying for your lodging, it is suddenly cozy, minimalist, and encourages you to get out and explore! Attitudes are everything.

With this tongue-in-cheek perspective, you are free to be enamored with the grace of Mediterranean living. Don’t be sad that you can’t afford to indulge in the sophistication of the casino at Monte Carlo; be thankful that your humble car isn’t one of the Bentleys and Rolls Royces being left out front for every commoner to spit upon.

dsc_0782

Speaking of cars, anyone who appreciates four-wheeled transportation should visit the private-but-available-to-the-public collection in Monaco. Whatever your generation, you will find the cars that once decorated your bedroom wall.

The next dream to be fulfilled is culinary. Oh, the food! I don’t know how I could recommend a particular restaurant, as every meal was amazing. The simple pasta and pizza from a street-side cafe, meticulously prepared meals by candlelight, even the Skittles in the airport tasted better. Perhaps most amazing is the wine. It shouldn’t surprise me, but these people know wine. The typical house wine tastes like a $100 special occasion opening.

The dessert above is made from Nougat. What is nougat? I didn’t know. Fortunately, because Nice is in Europe and the service is glacially slow, there was time to look it up on Google. It turns out that nougat comes from the nougat tree, and it can only be harvested during a certain season by an indigenous tribe. Since I read that on the internet, it is certainly true. Other less interesting sources claim that it is made from almonds, egg whites, and honey.

I would also recommend that you do not learn French before visiting Nice. I can’t imagine how boring it would be to order something and know what the server will bring 30-75 minutes later. Where is the fun in that? I prefer to look knowingly at the menu and use my mangled version of “This please”, Sa sil vou plais (imagine that with a southern drawl- Saw Seal View Play, ma’am. Mare sea.). They probably nodded knowingly, then served me whatever was leftover from the night before.

Such gastronomic perfection tends to weigh on you. Figuratively, and literally. To combat both, I recommend long walks. Europeans in urban areas typically live in small apartments, with parks serving as the shared outdoor space. You’ll find families with children, old men playing checkers, old women gossiping to and about each other, and love-struck couples showing their affection obliviously through it all. However, even the charm of this environment shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Especially after a few glasses of the above-mentioned house wine. If you can never hope to fully grasp the historical gravity and elegance of a place, you can just be silly and make fun of it…

2016-10-05-17-57-572016-10-05-18-20-09

I was encouraged to find that, despite the cultural differences on each side of the Atlantic, there are some points of agreement. For instance, Speedos are not for wearing in public:

2016-10-07-12-13-22

I would also like to point out that most guys wearing Speedos on French beaches do not have the shape or hairlessness of this drawing.

In case of a fire in your tiny, overpriced hotel room, take this immediate action:

2016-10-06-21-21-18

Take your skinny self out of the room, which is probably on fire because you live on wine and cigarettes. Don’t use the elevator that is old enough to have surrendered to the Germans. Notify the reception desk, where they will pretend to not understand English. They will look at you with disdain until you try a few phrases in French, and then they will admit that they do in fact speak English and will eventually address your complaint; but it should be noted that none of the other tenants have complained, and perhaps you are just not sophisticated enough to appreciate the normal amount of smoke found in French hotels.

Nice, and the rest of the French Riviera, is one of those few places where common folks like us can breathe the same air, walk the same beach, and sit in the same traffic as the rich and famous. Other than that it’s fantastic 😉

 

Seattle- Home of Jetson Motors, With a Double Shot of Dreadlocks

Seattle really doesn’t know what it wants to be. The next San Francisco (there are only a few places dreadlock-wearing homeless white people can feel at ease), the reincarnation of our dearly departed Detroit (home to Boeing- the General Motors of the aviation industry), or a copycat London (pretentious yet approachable)?

2016-05-02 16.55.03

The space needle is the incontrovertible icon of the city. It boldly lays claim to a techno-future that few would have predicted for what was once a sleepy secondary port for logging and fishing. The needle is rigid and inhuman, and Seattle as a center for aviation and technology is well reflected thus.

2016-04-30 19.36.04 HDR

An interesting thing happened on the way to the Jetsons, it seems. The pacific northwest began to attract people who weren’t engineers; some of them didn’t even have real jobs! Artists, musicians, and other social deviants were drawn to the intersection of ocean and mountains. A friend of mine once told me that we go to the mountain to find God, and to the sea to find ourselves; there is a certain innate wisdom in seeking out places where the two are so close.

2016-05-02 16.31.30

Dale Chihuly is a great example of those who had an alternate vision for the future. His work is displayed at the base of the space needle, like alien wildflowers springing up around the base of some deserted  spaceship, waiting for a perpetually-distant  launch window.

2016-05-02 16.22.18

The hills of Seattle lead you to the ocean eventually. You can strive up the steep grades of self-discovery, but the ever-churning tides are waiting when you join the river of humanity flowing to the sea.

2016-05-02 19.37.54

2016-05-02 19.50.24

 

2016-05-02 22.36.12

2016-05-02 20.06.46

 

 

Leaving Seattle is bittersweet, unless you also happen to live in a vibrant, green place flush with energy and optimism. The dream of Seattle is out of reach for most people, but it provides an optimistic lens to view the world. 2016-05-03 15.21.32

The future may not look like Seattle, and Seattle may not be able to write its own future, but at least there is a vision of what tomorrow could be.

Crazy Kathmandu

At an altitude of 21,000 feet, you typically have a sense of omniscience; you can look down upon the world with power, confidence and knowledge. This false sense of superiority is laid bare by the Himalayas. From this lofty position, you are barely a peer to the foothills surrounding the true giants. The stark, jagged ridges and vast glaciers do not look like a world humans should inhabit.

Visiting Nepal is a visit to two places; crushing poverty that exists in the shadow of the most majestic of mountains. Kathmandu, the capital, is reminiscent of rural China or sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, the Nepali people have a well-deserved reputation for kindness and authenticity. As a westerner, you wonder what it must be like to work in the streets of the city, where the average yearly income is $500 USD, and see the rows of stores selling trekking gear that costs many times that.

Most visitors to Nepal are seeking the mountains (my friend Curtis would say that they are there to find God, even if they don’t know it). There are countless trekking companies to choose from, but if you don’t have weeks to sacrifice to your pilgrimage, there are a few short-cuts to catching a revelation of the mighty Himalayas. The most direct method is to book a “Mountain Flight” from the main airport. I hopped on board a reasonably modern twin turbo-prop from Yeti airlines, and resisted any comments about the abominable service; it was actually quite nice.

2016-07-03 04.51.59While there was some nod towards security at the airport, you can tell that regulations are a little less strict here. We were allowed to come forward to the cockpit for photos during the flight! The helpful flight attendant pointed out the highest peaks as we cruised past. Mount Everest, or Sagarmatha “Goddess of the Sky”, sits behind the others, an inner sanctum of ice and altitude.

2016-07-03 04.28.45

The second way to view the mountains from Kathmandu is to drive up to a small hill (just 6000 ft above sea level) and watch the sun rise over the peaks. Of course, this involves driving up the side of a mountain in a developing country in the dark:

2016-07-04 04.30.03

In North America, you would have a trail-rated off-road SUV, with 33 inch tires, a winch, and a half dozen extra lights to conquer the wild. We took this:

2016-07-04 03.50.13

Cute, isn’t it? We scraped the bottom of the car on a few large rocks, but our little burro never got stuck.

Once we reached the summit, we climbed an observation tower. Like other adventures outside of the US and Europe, the lack of safety equipment takes me back to my childhood, when riding in the back of a pickup truck was a perfectly normal means of transportation.

2016-07-04 02.29.27

The cloud that had obscured the sky for days suddenly lifted, and the tour guide urged me to shoot before the mood of the skies changed again.

2016-07-04 02.09.19

He told me that for two months they had seen nothing but fog, and he was almost as excited as I was to see the painted skies over the mountain tops. Within just a few minutes, the clouds remembered their monsoon duties, diffusing the glow of the sunrise until it disappeared again.

2016-07-04 02.13.462016-07-04 02.27.16

Descending in the gray enlightenment of day, we could finally see the land we had sped through in the pre-dawn darkness. Terraced fields of corn and barley, subsistence farms, and empty power lines that only intermittently provide anything other than a blemish on the otherwise simple beauty of the valley.

2016-07-04 02.50.21

We stopped on the side of the road, where a man was making condensed buffalo and cow milk, a common breakfast among the rural Nepalese. His grandfather had taught him the trade, and it looks like the method hasn’t changed in centuries.

2016-07-04 03.15.56

Back in Kathmandu, we toured the many Buddhist and Hindu temples. Tragically, many of them were damaged during the massive earthquake of 2015, and those still standing are often supported by struts. The architecture is beautiful, and the intricate craftsmanship is fascinating.

 

One of the benefits of having a devout Buddhist as a tour guide is that in his drive to convert you, you have access to the inner workings of the temples. Leather shoes are not cool (wearing something made of cow parts here is like wearing kitten- and puppy-fur slippers in the US). We always toured religious sites barefoot, in a clockwise fashion, casually rolling the prayer drums as we passed by.

2016-07-02 10.50.222016-07-02 08.25.13

 

The first temple we visited, Swayambhunath or the Monkey Temple, is known for two things. The first is the series of 365 steps required to reach the site, one for each day of the year. The second is, as you might guess, the monkeys. They confidently strolled among the monks and tourists, and looked as if they owned the place.

2016-07-02 08.05.13

There is an easy way to determine if you are in a local market or one targeting tourists; if the wares all appear authentically Nepali, or the T-shirts have slogans about Everest, Nepal, Trekking, Bob Marley or smoking hashish, you are in the tourist bazaar. If the vendors are selling “Name Brand” jeans, flat brim hats, or T-shirts with Nike/Adidas/ fill-in-your-brand-or-rock-band-here, you are in the local market. Ironic.

During the trekking season of spring and fall, many tourists are trustafarians from western countries, putting their parents’ money to good use by eating pizza and drinking beer in a place much more exotic than the usual places they eat pizza and drink beer. A majority of the tourists during the summer monsoon season are from India or China, so the local merchants target their audience accordingly.

2016-07-03 11.52.592016-07-03 11.57.01

Despite the earthquake that disrupted what little infrastructure existed in Nepal, the people I met seem to have a sense of calm and satisfaction with life that is uncommon in the west. Some of us might feel that having a damaged temple is a great tragedy, but this guy knows it is still a great place to take a nap until the rain passes.

2016-07-02 09.51.01

Amidst the chaos and ruin, people seemed to be going about their lives, as others have done for millennia.

 

Overall, Nepal is a beautiful land of beautiful people, both filled with peace. I don’t think anyone could visit and not be moved by both.

Here’s a gallery of other images and observations from Nepal:

Namaste!2016-07-01 13.39.522016-07-02 10.18.45

Early medical textbook:2016-07-02 10.24.33

Momos- tasty dumplings that are a local favorite. I tried the fried buffalo momos and they were delicious:2016-07-02 15.58.54

Hint of the hippie days before hashish was made illegal and all of the hippies deported at the request of the US State Department in 1973. Nixon was such a buzz kill!2016-07-03 05.05.56

This discerning goat peruses the market for the finest ingredients:2016-07-04 05.38.35

Looking for a crosswalk in Kathmandu:

 

 

 

Bahrain- The Forgotten Middle Gulf Coast Country

The Gulf Coast Countries are a glamorous family. Dubai is the beautiful but narcissistic one, most likely to “accidentally” post inappropriate images of itself on social media. Abu Dhabi is the older brother who works at a hedge fund and never has time to drive his new Ferrari. Kuwait is the rich uncle who has been divorced 3 times but likes to lecture you on your moral character. Oman is the laid back cousin that spends the summers surfing, gets a job as a ski instructor every winter, and everyone in the family is either insanely jealous or judgmental of their choices. Saudi Arabia is the matriarch that rules the family from their 1970’s-era shag carpet living room. Yemen is that step child that ended up in rehab and no one ever mentions anymore.  And then there’s Bahrain…

 

Bahrain is that awkward child that never gets into enough trouble to be noticed, but isn’t quite successful enough to be the hot topic at the family reunion. Let’s start with the skyline of Manama, the capital (and only city- its a small island):

2016-04-08 17.37.57

Adequately attractive. Of course, we all know there’s no Burj Khalifa here; why can’t you be more like Dubai? You’ll never get married to a respectable trade organization with that look…

I mean their architecture is cool and all, but are Boat-Plane-Buildings still in fashion this year? Who wears that?

2016-05-05 20.57.22

Being in the middle of the family has its advantages, though. A standing engagement with the US Navy’s Fifth fleet means there’s never a dull Friday night, even if you’d rather be invited to the parties that the Lebanese girls always talk about. There’s also a little crush on the neighbor boy Iran, which infuriates the parents, and results in Bahrain getting grounded occasionally.

bahrain map

Like most forgotten middle children, there’s more to Bahrain than not being the others. Spending enough time with the Navy will inevitably result in a tattoo and maybe even a story or two; just don’t tell mom and dad! You can even get a haircut at a place that is evidently endorsed by Justin Bieber!

2016-05-06 19.48.13

Other bad habits that Bahrain brought home include a certain Tex-Mex chain:

2016-04-09 14.56.33

…and an authentic Texas BBQ joint, complete with huge chunks of cow and a cover band that sings about momma, pickup trucks, trains, and going to jail.

2016-04-08 19.48.16 2016-04-08 19.49.40

There is a rebellious side to Bahrain, and you wonder when it’s going to quit its day job and join a Jihadi punk band. 2016-05-06 20.15.14When the little old ladies sit around the quilting circle, do they ask each other “I don’t know Martha, which color should I use for the grenade? Should it match the armored personnel carrier?”

Stay tuned, I think the next few seasons of Keeping up with the Bahrainians could get interesting!

 

Traveling With Short People (Or Children, if you want to be more specific)

The world is a really, truly big place. Even during the lamest excuse for a “stay-cation”, your eyes should open just a bit to how expansive it is, and how narrow our perspective tends to be. If you are fortunate enough to leave your familiar surroundings and venture into the unknown, your eyes will be peeled back into a full Hollywood diva too-much-plastic-surgery “surprised” look. Perhaps the perfect example is hiking; how often do you top a ridge, only to find that it was merely a foothill that was obscuring the truly majestic peak beyond?

I’ve been blogging to share my small steps into the greater world, and perhaps a unique aspect of my travels has been the particular baggage I bring along- namely, my children. It has been exciting to see the world through my own eyes, but even more so through theirs. I hope that expanding their horizons will give them a head start on the life lessons it took me a few decades to learn.

2014-07-25 16.12.35 2014-07-25 16.08.53

I usually plan a vacation in a fit of mania, drawing up grand plans and optimistic itineraries. Children are the travel equivalent of a sea anchor; yes, they slow you down, but that helps parents with a wandering mind to focus on what’s essential. For example, an itinerary without kids might include a half day of museums, an afternoon of walking through a shopping district, dinner at a well-recommended local restaurant, followed by an evening frolicking with trust-funders. The same vacation with kids might include an hour or two at the most interesting museum, a casual lunch (read: someplace that serves pizza), followed by an afternoon at a nature park. Dinner might be at the hotel, with an evening drink on the hotel rooftop while they watch a movie in their room. There isn’t a drastic difference, but the goals have to be scaled back a little.

However, I think that we probably do more “fun” and spontaneous stuff with the kids than we would alone. For example, stopping at an amusement park in Oslo:

2015-05-15 18.47.52

And whatever this moment was in the Athens airport:

2015-12-31 11.35.54

Everyone gets tired when traveling, but kids can be remarkably resilient; just make sure the iPads stay charged, and the kids will keep going long after mom and dad’s batteries are drained.

 

2015-05-16 13.14.55 2015-05-16 13.14.48

2015-12-19 06.19.27 2015-12-06 12.55.03

The most satisfying moments are when we don’t have to build enthusiasm for them; when they yearn to venture out and explore, and are excited by what’s around the next bend.

2015-05-15 19.10.52 2015-01-03 14.44.42 2015-11-08 13.24.54

2015-11-07 12.27.40

Enthusiasm is infectious though, so I suspect that a large part of a child’s enjoyment of the world is a reflection of the parents. If the grown-ups are enjoying the moment (even if it means standing in the rain waiting for a ferry), then the kids are likely to adopt the same attitude.

2015-05-22 09.42.23 2015-05-15 19.36.13

Of course, they will always be honest. When the fish market in Muscat smelled like a building full of day-old fish, my kids were not impressed…

2015-03-22 10.24.46

We have to allow more time for just playing, and that is a good thing. Maybe the most important thing.

2015-03-21 16.45.29 2015-03-21 16.46.10 2015-01-03 16.58.09

Its fun to see them get excited about new experiences, and even catch the photography bug:

2015-12-21 16.49.56

2015-12-21 17.38.00

2015-11-09 11.36.17 2015-03-26 17.28.43 2015-12-20 09.53.40

However, even the boldest of kids reaches the limit of experimentation, and you have to fall back on comfort food. Fortunately pizza is the universal language:
2015-12-24 16.55.24 2015-05-17 14.06.58

The second image was actually part of a story much cooler than you would expect. We had returned to a great little hole-in-the-wall pizza place in Bergen, Norway, and the owner took pity on our rain-drenched and pathetic looking herd. It probably helped that we had tipped well the day before. Whatever the reason, he brought us upstairs (which was half storage for the restaurant, half apartment where he obviously lived with his family). He was very interested to hear about our experiences in the Middle East, as he was a refugee from the region. It meant a lot to him to be seen as a person with a culture, a heritage, and a family that he was struggling to provide for. The pizza was great, but the story was even more memorable. Without the kids, my wife and I would’ve probably had much more pretentious food without the human connection.

Don’t misunderstand me, we do make our kids try all sorts of uncomfortable food. Vegetables of every shade of green, strange soups with unnameable things floating in the murky depths, and many other non-chicken-nugget food groups. Sometimes it works, sometimes they revolt.

2015-06-13 15.33.30

2015-12-21 14.13.422015-12-21 16.12.27

Children have a fresh perspective on life, and given the opportunity they can surprise you with their insight and appreciation for the beauty that can easily be missed.

2015-11-07 12.08.29 2015-11-07 12.09.48 2015-03-22 09.08.45

Of course, most 8-13 year-olds are not full time philosophers, so there are moments of frustration.2015-12-20 09.46.29

“Not another old church! It looks just like the last one!”

 

 

 

 

 

Or, “Yeah, whatever, I’d rather be playing on my iPad than sitting on this ancient sea wall”

2015-12-25 12.39.59

All in all, traveling with children can be worth the effort. Usually. It helps if the place you are visiting has plenty of partially-tamed animals and you don’t mind taking the small risk of rabies:

2015-12-28 16.03.52 HDR 2015-12-25 14.45.102015-12-27 17.21.28

Traveling with the people you care most about is the most rewarding, and I hope when I’m old they’ll lead me along a forest trail somewhere and let me share some of their wonder and enthusiasm again.

2015-12-23 13.21.49 2015-12-20 10.30.04 2015-12-23 14.52.57 2015-12-23 13.50.02

 

Austin Ain’t What It Used To Be

Austin is a place that never really existed. It is a fantasy land, the Shangri-La for musicians, hippies, partiers, and other folks your mother wouldn’t want you to marry. Ask any Austin native, and they’ll all tell you how great it used to be ten, twenty, forty years ago.   This answer is especially pervasive among the people who moved there a few years ago; they can just feel the vibe slipping away.

I think Austin is alive and well, because that’s what people want it to be. As long as Austin-ites strive to “Keep Austin Weird” (that’s a real movement actually), they will succeed. If you’ve never visited, but are among the 93% of hipsters who can’t decide between Austin and Portland, allow me to give you an introduction.

First of all, if you have any preconceived notions about Texas, Texans, and all things Tex-ish, you will find Austin to be a land of contradictions. For example, at Zilker Park, I found a coal-rolling lifted Bro truck (likely with a confederate flag bumper sticker), an Alfa Romeo, and a certain hippie chick who likes to ride bikes with me.

IMG_6607

 

Riding towards downtown, you definitely find evidence that you are not in Dallas or the plains of West Texas. You would not find this in Lubbock:

IMG_6613

I don’t really know what that sign means, but because it looks like Homer Simpson it made me smile. Here’s another positive-ch’i, karma-sending, let’s-buy-some-weed-and-not-go-to-class sign:

IMG_6608

As cheesy and hippie as it is, I really like the message. I do want to live a great story. Not one of those greek tragedies, or a Stephen King novel, or a young adult romance-thriller where all of the parents are absent or stupid, but an authentic, good story.

Next to Zilker Park is the botanical garden; there is a nice Japanese garden, and if you like to do yoga while discussing crystals or auras you shouldn’t have any trouble finding someone of like mind. I liked the small peaceful statue of St. Francis, with the warm sun on his back and a hopeful pile of wishing coins at his feet.

IMG_6606

If you think the local menu must always include either beef, Tex-Mex, or both, you are actually right. However, don’t be surprised to find exciting tangents from that arc. At Kerbey Lane Cafe, I found this concoction:

IMG_6614

It is the Austin-weird version of eggs Benedict. You will see the buttermilk biscuit (just like momma used to make), fried chicken, an egg, and instead of Hollandaise…. Queso! Other than the egg, there’s nothing Benedict about it, but it was tasty. Of course it was served by a spunky tattooed girl with blue hair and various piercings; her parents may be appalled, but at least she has a job!

Those who feel the real Austin has been lost will be quick to point out the sprawling suburbs, the influx of tech industry yuppies who don’t know  Willie from Waylon, the Republicans popping up like Blue Bonnets in every neighborhood… But the weird vibe is alive and well. Just ask our neighbor:

IMG_6595

Greece- The Faeries May Be Real, But the Ferries Are Not

2015-12-20 09.50.55

Greece is the cradle of democracy, but the baby grew up and became a screaming toddler of revolution and discord. You might be surprised to learn that Greece is actually a fairly young democracy in its current form, as there was a military coup that held power from 1967-1974.  My children now say that I am older than Greek democracy (and the wheel, and dirt).

You have to love, or at least tolerate, historical facts like this if you are going to visit Greece. The deep and rich history of the region permeates everything, including the people, and is a part of every experience. Even the subway system was subverted by history; there were so many historical finds during the construction, Athenians joke that it was excavated entirely by archaeologists with toothbrushes.

Most people visit Greece during the warm months, leaving the tourist destinations abandoned during the winter months. If you love a  bargain, winter is a great time to go. One awkward lesson that we learned was that the ferries run much less frequently during the off season, and the fast ferries don’t run at all. Luckily Aegean Air has cheap last minute tickets!

Being good little democrats, we began in Athens. We even walked up the hill where Pericles would lead the men of Athens for their primitive voting exercise; they probably held their open-air town hall meetings early in the morning to avoid the rush of tourists from the cruise ships. The Acropolis is just high enough above the city to rise above the human tsunami that crashes ashore in the summer, but in the winter is easily accessible and really an impressive sight.

Athens is very urban, and you can interpret that however you wish. If you are looking for bustling nightlife, clubs, and general debauchery, its a nice destination. If you don’t like pickpockets, traffic jams, or overpriced hotels, one or two days will be plenty.

2015-12-20 17.45.33

If you seek relaxation, escape to the islands…

Crete is still a surprisingly wild place, given the thousands of years that it has been inhabited. There are snow-capped peaks, deep gorges with ancient switch-back paths, and New Zealand-esque sheep around every turn.

2015-12-23 14.55.29

Luckily, there doesn’t seem to be any significant risk of intestinal parasites despite drinking fresh spring water during a hike. You get lucky sometimes….

2015-12-25 14.29.22

Another important part of Greek island culture is the interwoven influence of Roman, Turkish, Greek, and Venetian colonization. We rented a house next to this cool Greek Orthodox church that has a belfry and a minaret; it had been a church and a mosque at various points, and nobody seems to mind the juxtaposition.

Crete has a large enough population that life goes on after the tourists leave in the fall; we found several great local restaurants, and enjoyed hiking the mountains and the ancient sea wall in Chania. It was a restful place to spend Christmas, and I’d go back in a heartbeat.

2015-12-24 17.28.06

An ironic pattern to our trip is that Crete was the home of the Minoan civilization, which was destroyed by a tsunami created by the explosion of a volcano later known as Santorini, our next stop!

Santorini is rumored to have the best sunsets in the world; I don’t know that the sunsets are any better than in the southwestern US, but the views really are fantastic.

2015-12-27 17.21.42

2015-12-27 18.04.28

2015-12-28 16.39.05

The many small Greek islands only have one speed; it is that speed at which the setting sun travels while you sit in a taverna sipping a glass of local red wine. Its a great pace. Another winter warning: similar to the ferry availability, around Christmas Santorini apparently dwindles to 4 open restaurants, a few stray dogs and cats, and my family. Luckily that’s exactly how we like it! My kids especially enjoyed petting the cats.

2015-12-27 17.30.14

2015-12-27 13.04.33

One of my favorite discoveries in Oia was a little bookstore in a converted cave house. In summary, this had been a cave, then a house, and now a bookstore. Barnes and Noble this is not.

2015-12-29 16.24.08

2015-12-29 16.33.29

I don’t think the Greek economy is going to boom anytime soon, so you probably have a few years before prices begin to rise; plan ahead ( or don’t, remember Aegean has cheap fares to bail out your failed plans to take the ferries…) and soak up the sun, sand and history of Greece while it lasts. At this rate, it might not be around in two or three thousand years.

 

 

 

Finding the Not-So-Lost-City of Petra

One of the coolest scenes from the third Indiana Jones movie was the canyon leading to Petra (remember the old knight? “He chose… poorly”).

DSC_0148_2

IMG_5939

Since then, Petra has represented the pinnacle of exotic places I’ll probably never visit. However, now that we live in the neighborhood, the lost city is just a long weekend away.

Visiting Jordan was a pleasant surprise; the people are friendly, and for centuries people of all faiths have lived, worked, and coexisted in relative harmony. Many of the most popular tourist sites are those that are at the intersection of the three monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), where Moses and Abraham are revered by all.

Our first morning in Wadi Musa, the village next to the Petra site, welcomed us with a sun-kissed view of the mountain where Aaron, Moses’ brother, was buried. At the very top of the peak, there is a spot of white where the tomb is claimed to be.

DSC_0094_2

Our awesome driver and tour guide, Hasan, explained that prior to the Arab Spring and the economic downturn, we would have been joining thousand of tourists on various pilgrimages and vacations; it was bittersweet that we never faced crowds, but it’s clear that the local economy has been left barren by the lack of tourist dollars.

Several opportunities arose during this trip that were certainly “off the beaten path”. Each time, a tour guide would mention something off-hand, usually followed by some reason why sane tourists don’t go there. Our attitude was that we never expected to visit this area at all, so we were already in bonus time.

The first course correction was at Petra. In an area where the canyon opened up to allow a marketplace, most of the tourists spend  their day swarmed by Gypsies, flies, and other tourists.

DSC_0183_2

Our guide pointed out a series of royal tombs above the canyon floor, one of which had been converted to a Byzantine church around 400 AD. Of course, that would require an extra hour of hiking. Perfect! Our views were much improved by the extra elevation, and we had this area of the site to ourselves.

DSC_0197

DSC_0223

The village next to Petra, Wadi Musa, means “Moses’ Valley”, and is the site of Moses striking the rock to provide water for the Israelites. In true modern fashion, there is now a gift shop and convenience store next to the rock…

DSC_0083DSC_0088_2

After Petra, we had a simple itinerary- jump in the van and drive to the Dead Sea for one night at a resort there. During the otherwise boring drive, Hasan was telling us about the history of Jordan, and we passed a sign for Shobak Castle. It is an ancient fortification built atop an isolated hill; it has been controlled through the millennia by Nabateans, Romans, Crusaders, Ottomans, and Arabs.

DSC_0234

When Saladdin was sweeping out the crusaders, the impenetrable fortress was beset by a siege. It is easy to see why a direct assault would be futile. However, the defenders held out for at least 16 months, primarily due to a secret tunnel from the castle to a spring in the valley below. Hasan mentioned that you could even take flashlights and go through the tunnel… Heck yeah! So off the itinerary we went:

IMG_5955

In the US or Europe, there would be helmets, hand rails, a waiver of liability, and more than one flashlight. In this case, a teenager who was hanging around the entrance to the castle takes off his sandals and waves us into the darkness. An hour, 385 steps, and probably 200 vertical feet of descent later, we emerged into the valley below, met by a group of curious locals who probably had bets on our odds of success.

IMG_5959

It is comforting to see how Jordan has found a path to common ground with Israel and the west. We sometimes forget how close these neighbors are; at the site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus, you can enter the river from either side. Swimming fifteen feet to the other bank would require a passport, visa, and the permission of the guy with the assault rifle.

IMG_6023

A sad reminder that all is not well in the neighborhood: on the way to the airport in Amman, we passed the Syrian embassy. Refugees waited outside; it’s hard to imagine that they’ll receive anything but bad news there.

IMG_6052

After taking in the majority of the Palestinian refugees just a generation ago, Jordan again has demonstrated a generous spirit that is inspiring, and has provided a refuge for the Syrians fleeing the chaos in their home country.

Of all the beautiful things we discovered in this country, the tolerant and welcoming people will be what we remember best. The treasures of Jordan were never really lost, just waiting to be rediscovered by the rest of the world.

DSC_0245_2IMG_6055