After our amazingly fun rafting trip on the Deschutes River last year, Andrew (15) and I decided to go rafting with some friends again this year. Even better, Michael (12) decided to join us this time.
Our friend and trip planner Don chose the Grande Ronde River for this year's trip. This river is in the north-eastern part of Oregon. Like the previous trips, we used the awesome Oregon Whitewater Adventures guys. We drove down to La Grande the day before and enjoyed the comforts of the Rodeway Inn motel there (a little different from the resorts we normally frequent.) The next morning, we drove to Minam and set out on our three day, two night adventure.
The Grande Ronde River was a nice change from the Deschutes. It was a little less exciting from a rafting perspective; it had fewer big rapids (it's rated 2-3 vs. the Deschutes at 3-4) and dropped more consistently (vs. the pool-and-drop Deschutes). However, the scenery and camping were more picturesque -- more green than the high desert Deschutes valley. The additional moisture meant we could have fires in the evening too - a big advantage! Plus, there were no trains to interrupt our sleep and fewer other people on the river. We went around 50 miles over the three days -- pretty easy.
Like last year, we had two boats with our friends plus two gear boats. The staff did all of the work; we only had to set up our tents. We had great water fights and nice rafting, although we swam less since the water was more shallow this late in the season. On the Grande Ronde, there were no Bureau of Land Management campgrounds, so we camped in more primitive sites; in particular, there were no outhouses, so the staff set up a tent and porta-potty (really a seat on top of a big ammo can). Our guides were excellent again, with Colby and Jeff returning from last year and the crazy and wonderful Pamela plus the owner Dave joining us this year.
We all enjoyed the trip greatly and are already looking forward to next year.
The boys and I on the river.
The kids playing cards (BS) in camp. It got pretty hardcore!
Our camp site the second night.
One day at lunch, we hiked up the nearby hill for a better view. It was quite steep, actually, but well worth it.
Michael enjoying a swim.
Michael enjoying some quiet time in camp, reading by the river. One of the best parts of the trip was having no electronics and no cellular signal.
Andrew (14) and I spent the last three days rafting on the Deschutes River in northern Oregon, about two hours east of Portland. We went with our friend Selva and plus two of his friends; they had taken this trip a few years ago and decided it would be fun to bring their kids along. We were joined by another father/son pair (although the son was bit older than the other kids, entering his senior year of college).
We drove down from Seattle the day before and stayed at the Best Western in Madras (the Mexican restaurant next door has the biggest margaritas I've ever seen.) The next morning we started our adventure in Warm Springs and drifted almost fifty miles over the three days, getting out a little past Maupin. I didn't know whether the trip would be strenuous since I haven't really done much rafting before and have never done a multi-day trip. It turned out to be quite easy. The Deschutes is a "pool-and-drop" river. This meant we had long stretches of pretty calm water where we drifted along, paddling only to help correct our position in the river. Occasionally, we'd hit a short stretch of rapids which required a few seconds of hard paddling then more drifting. The guides steered the boat from the back and gave us instructions of when and how to paddle. Our group filled two boats plus we had two gear boats, packed with dry bags containing our camping gear and effects, the kitchen, food, camp chairs, etc. Raft camping is a lot like car camping in the sense you can live pretty comfortably since weight and space are less of an issue than in backpacking.
We generally left shore around 9:30-10:00am and rafted until 11:30-ish when we'd stop for lunch. We'd push off again around 1:00pm and raft until 3:00pm where we'd set up camp for the night. This left us a lot of time to chat, admire the high desert scenery, look for wildlife (including wild horses, bald eagles, turkey vultures, and dozens of ospreys), and engage in boat-to-boat water fights. There were a few exciting Class III rapids including "Buckskin Mary", which Andrew and I swam twice -- very fun. There were many camp sites along the river with pit or composting toilets so there wasn't too much trouble getting good sites with enough space for our group, both for lunch and overnight. We stayed at the Wingdam camp site the first night and Buckskin Mary the second. We ended our trip at Sandy Beach, which is the last pullout before Sherars Falls. We had good weather with only a few rain drops and alternating sunshine and slightly overcast skies. Our clothes dried very quickly each day. The evenings were warm so sleeping in the tents was not a problem. It was pretty different from camping in Western Washington where the nights are colder and more damp. The only downer of the camp sites were the trains that ran along the river; they came through a few times per night and were quite noisy.
We did our trip through the very excellent Oregon Whitewater Adventures; they did an excellent job making the trip comfortable, fun, and safe. I recommend them highly and would go again with them. They took care of pretty much everything -- loading and unloading, cooking, and cleanup. The food was pretty basic but good -- French toast/pancakes or eggs for breakfast, cold cut sandwiches or Costco oriental chicken salad for lunch, poached salmon or Spanish chicken and rice for dinner (although they forgot the rice so we had Spanish chicken and toast instead). The other rafters brought beer, wine, liquor, and soft drinks so we had plenty to drink in addition to what the company provided. Our guides Lauren, Colby, Jack, and Jeff were fantastic -- very friendly and great with the kids, safe and expert on the river, and full of stories and jokes.
Andrew and I had a really great time. I could easily have kept going on a few more days, and we're both eager to do more rafting trips.
Andrew (14) and I spent the last three days camping at Spencer Spit State Park on Lopez Island, which is in the San Juan Islands north of Seattle). We had never been the Lopez Island before; we found this park through recommendations from friends on Facebook (search really is better with your friends...) Aside from a huge downpour that started right after we set our tent up, the weather was perfect -- sunny and warm.
We tried our hand at sea kayaking for the first time. We launched from the south side of the beach and circumnavigated Frost Island. We managed to successfully stay dry until a fell on my ass getting out of the boat, soaking myself in the process.
We spent a lot of time on the beach. Andrew loves driftwood beaches; he's always making stuff. Knowing this, I brought along some paracord (always useful and good to have around). Andrew used the paracord to fashion a hoe, chiseling holes through a shell and tying it onto a driftwood stick.
The shells made nice targets for our new slingshot, which we tried out for the first time. They exploded in a very satisfying way when hit, although we didn't manage to hit them directly too often since we were still learning how to aim the shots.
We also used some shells to boil seawater, in an experiment to harvest salt. After boiling off the water, we did manage to get a little salt in the bottom of the shells. I think we'd have to keep adding seawater to get enough salt to scrape out. Note: the shells can pop and explode, I'm guessing due to pockets of moisture in the shells. Andrew got hit by a "shell fragment".
Beyond our beach adventures, we played with a night-vision scope, which was much more fun in the woods than at home. We even watched a doe for a while through the scope. She didn't notice us (or didn't care) so we got to watch her feeding on the trail for a while. (No photos of this, unfortunately.)
Our campsite (#2) was pretty good. It got sun for a good part of the day and was conveniently located to the water, garbage, and restrooms. It was OK private, but a little noisy from the nearby group camping sites (although I'm not sure any sites would have been quieter). The park has a few walk-in camp sites on the beach, which would have been fun to try, although they're not very private and use a composting toilet instead of the nice clean flush bathrooms servicing the other parts of the campground. (They do have a cart at the parking lot to help you bring your gear down to the site, however.) It's also worth remembering that you can buy firewood at the campground for $5/bundle. (The "camp hosts" will even deliver it to your camp site); bringing enough firewood is always a hassle, so this is a nice perq, although I don't know if they have this service year-round.
We both really enjoyed the campout (and the visit to Lopez Village). Andrew kept saying "this is the life" and thanking me for taking him along. It was definitely a trip I'll always remember.
We were in Kauai for the first time a few weeks ago. I slipped away from the pool for a few minutes to take pictures of surfers at the beach by our hotel. (It was a heck of a lot warmer shooting these guys than it was shooting the kiteboarders at Whidbey Island a few months ago...)
I'd love to learn to surf sometime, but taking photos of them was pretty cool. There was a guy in the water with them shooting with a GoPro. That looks like fun too.
Despite having grown up in Seattle, our kids had never been to Mount Rainier; even Michelle and I hadn't been since before we were dating. It was such a nice day today that I dragged everyone on the long drive to Paradise to check out the mountain. (I had planned to go to Sunrise, but that was an even longer drive.)
Not surprisingly, the mountain was stunning. The wildflowers were in bloom and the sky was clear. Also not surprisingly, it was pretty crowded with a long line of cars trying to get into the parking lot. Note to self: go earlier in the day vs. waiting until afternoon.
The drive was a bit long for a day trip, but I'd love to check out some of the other areas of the park as well as the lovely lakes nearby.
Wildflowers dotted the hillside on the cloudless day:
Michael (11) checking out the summit from the visitor center:
The big crowds were the only downer.
Michelle, Michael, and Andrew (14) in Paradise.
Today, Andrew (13) and I went walking with sharks! We were at the very cool Siam Ocean World aquarium in Bangkok, Thailand. They have a program called "Ocean Walker" where you can walk in their main tank and be in and among the fishies -- including some big sharks! You can see one of the sharks cruising past the ladder we went down.
To do the Ocean Walk, you wear a very heavy helmet into which they constantly pump air; it's actually quite noisy, which is pretty different from SCUBA diving. (I used to do a lot of diving during college and almost became a marine biologist). They have a safety diver in the water with you guiding you around.
You can see quite well through the aquarium glass into the viewing areas where the visitors are. Here's me and Andrew waving at a bunch of school kids.
I think the kids were especially excited to see another kid in the water.
It was a super cool experience for both of us. Even though I've done a lot of diving, I've never been in the water with sharks, and there were a lot of them in the tank. Fortunately they were well fed! Andrew did a great job, staying cool and paying attention the whole time. He's excited to learn to SCUBA dive now. I can't wait to start diving with him.
Special thanks to our friend Ann who patiently waited for us to suit up and then took these photos for us!
After my trip to India, I met up with Michelle and the boys in Thailand for a vacation during the National Holiday in China. We went with our friends John and Ann out to Amphawa to see the floating market there. This is a quiet town around 90 minutes from Bangkok where city folks come for a good seafood meal. Most of the tourists there seemed to be Thai.
The streets were pretty crowded with vendors; since it had been raining pretty hard, they were hiding under big umbrellas.
The main "drag" was a river with shops along both banks.
In some parts of the river, restaurateurs in boats cooked and served up meals in little boats, with their patrons sitting on the docks eating.
Grilled seafood was a popular dish.
Phad Thai was also very popular, including this beautiful variant with squid ink noodles.
Since our party was pretty big, we ate in a restaurant and feasted on local delights. I'm still full just thinking about it.
Long-tail boats cruise the waterways. These are long, slender boats with huge engines mounted out of the water and the driveshaft and propeller extending directly from the engine into the water. To steer, the skipper pivots the entire engine. Here's the lovely bow of one boat.
Here's the pretty purposeful looking working end of the boat.
In the evening, we took a long-tail boat ride around the river to see the fireflies. There were zillions (I counted) of fireflies in the trees around the river. There were so many fireflies that at some points the trees looked like they had Christmas lights in them. The fireflies even blink in some rhythm, further emphasizing their Christmas-light-osity. It was pretty amazing and lovely.
In addition to my tours of Golkonda Fort and both the old and new parts of Hyderabad, obviously, I ate a lot while I was in India. I don't have any photos of the meals (bad foodie), but I thought I'd share a few thoughts and observations.
I've always loved Indian food; I will reliably eat Indian food like a starving dog and continue to eat until I am beyond painfully full. I simply have no self-control around the stuff. Even though I really only ate in the hotel and in the Microsoft cafeteria (due to some risk of civil unrest around the Ayodha ruling), it should be no surprise that the Indian food in India was better than any I've had outside of India (including amazing Indian meals I've had in London and Singapore.) The flavors were just deeper and more complex than those I've had before.
Hyderabad is known for it's biryanis -- a rice dish typically made with goat meat in Hyderabad. Even the chicken version in the Microsoft cafeteria was spicy and ridiculously tasty -- a far cry from the biryanis I've had before. I also gorged on masala dosas and spicy lentil stew for breakfast; not my typical breakfast fare to be sure, but I think it would be if I had a source of dosas near home. The other curries, dals, breads, and tandoori roasted meats I had were stunningly good as well. (My mouth is watering as I write this...)
The only meal I had in a restaurant outside my hotel and the Microsoft cafeteria was actually a Chinese meal! As it turns out, the Indians are crazy about Chinese food (or their take on it); it's apparently the most popular cuisine in India outside of Indian food (there is even have an Indian Chinese restaurant in Redmond, WA but apparently it's not very good.) I saw Chinese restaurant signs all over Hyderabad, even in the less affluent parts of town.
The Indians have adapted Chinese cooking to their tastes and ingredients. My friend Saurabh took me to a very upscale place in the Taj Hotel; it looked pretty authentically Chinese and the menu looked relatively familiar as well. That's where the similarity stopped though.
The appetizer was sort of like french fries in a chili sauce. It tasted very good, but the flavors were a mix of Chinese and Indian tastes (and french fried potatoes don't factor into Chinese cuisine much). For our mains, we had two of the more popular dishes: "Manchurian gravy" and chow mein. The Manchurian gravy was a brown sauce with deep fried cauliflower balls; it was sweet and soy saucy with chilis and garlic. Pretty tasty. The chow mein was like other Chinese fried noodles, although there was something a little different about it as well.
For dessert, we had a classic Indian-Chinese dish. It was deep-fried wonton skins cut into wide noodles soaked with honey and served with vanilla ice cream. Of course, it was delicious, although I'm quite sure no Chinese emperor ever had this delight.
Wikipedia has a whole article on Indian-Chinese food. Fascinating! Who knew?
I really wish I had more time in India to try even more dishes. Next time...
During my brief visit to Hyderabad, India, in addition to my visit to Golkonda Fort, I spun around town a bit, seeing both the new and old parts of Hyderabad.
The Charminar - a famous mosque in the center of the old part of Hyderabad.
Hyderabad has a large Muslim population including the most women I've seen in full burqas.
The streets were as chaotic as any I've seen anywhere, with motorcycles, scooters, and the ubiquitous yellow "auto rickshaws" darting in and out of traffic. Somewhat surprising to me, there were almost no automobile taxis to be seen. Auto rickshaws dominate the trade. You need to call a taxi to get one apparently.
Of course, Hyderabad is an exciting tech hub with a vibrant new economy as well. Google is hiring aggressively here.
Here's the very nice Microsoft campus in Hyderabad. It's much bigger and nicer than our facility in Beijing.
Perhaps this is a very telling view of modern India. This is a fancy shopping mall in Hyderabad, easily as nice as most any mall anywhere in the world. It was covered in netting, however, to keep people from throwing rocks at it. I'm not sure if the netting is always there or was put up especially because the ruling to the controversial Muslim-Hindu Ayodha debate occurred during my visit. All of India was on alert for unrest as the ruling approached; A few examples included Microsoft sending their employees home early, officials closed schools, and police blocked off the old (mostly Muslim) part of Hyderabad from the rest of town with barbed wire. Fortunately, there was very little trouble after the split ruling.
India, like China, is a complex place with a diverse and huge population, a long and rich history, and a fast-growing future. The mix of these things will continue to stretch the capacity, imagination, and patience of their leadership and population. Hopefully, they'll manage it well.
After many years of really wanting to visit India, I finally made it last week for a very short business trip to Hyderabad. Fortunately, I had one day to explore the city before heading out. Even more fortunately, Saurabh, one of my colleagues from our team in Hyderabad, graciously agreed to show me around his city.
Apparently, the key site everyone sees in Hyderabad is Golkonda Fort. This was really a fortified city built starting in the 13th century by a Muslim kingdom. The kingdom was apparently wealthy, with diamond mines in the area; the Hope Diamond came from mines in this region.
The site is pretty impressive still with a keep/palace on the top of the hill and a large village below. The outer wall encompasses a large area where some 40,000 people lived. The engineering was impressive as well. Hand claps at the gates can be heard at the keep on the top of the hill almost a kilometer away, facilitating communication. Water was pumped up throughout the complex, and there were several large covered cisterns to provide water during a siege. They also managed the airflow to keep cool breezes moving throughout the fort. Even in its current degraded condition, the fort is pretty amazing and worth checking out.
The keep from the village below.
The village as seen from the keep:
The ornate carvings at the front gate:
The barracks area:
Beautiful alcoves in the village:
Last week, the senior leaders on my team at work and I went offsite for two days to discuss our future plans. After staying for an evening at the lovely Commune by the Great Wall (super cool resort -- worth checking out their site), we went to Longqing Xia for some "hiking" (really a ton of stair-climbing). This lovely gorge is about fifty miles north of Beijing, past the Great Wall at Badaling. The mountains rise up almost straight up from a beautiful (and clean!) lake formed by a big dam.
For some reason I still don't understand, instead of taking the gondolas halfway up the mountain before starting our climb to the top, we elected to hike up from the bottom. You can see how far the gondolas go up here.
We just kept climbing up and up the stairs. I was dying most of the time. Not only was I really out of shape, but I was also carrying a big camera bag full of gear including my big 70-200 2.8L lens. Still the view at the top was worth it.
Here's are me and my colleagues at the top.
As you may be able to tell from the photos, we had a beautiful day for our outing. It was a little warm but not bad for Beijing, and the air quality was good since we were outside of the city. My only regret was not getting a chance to take a boat ride down the lake. I hope to go back soon to do that with my family.
Last week we rented a house in Holmes Harbor on Whidbey Island with our friends Barbi and Kellie for a few days of crabbing, sunshine, and general laziness. Our friends Nori, Stacy, and Jarrett (and Stacy's dad) from Beijing came out too for a bit since the were in Seattle as well.
The house was part of an eighteen acre holly farm (yes, Christmas holly needs farms too), appropriately named Holly Hills Farm. It was really a lovely place on a quiet harbor. They have three houses for rent there - a larger, modern place (which we had), a mid-sized farm house, and a smaller farm house. Our place was well outfitted with everything you could want -- great kitchen with every manner of tool/pot/pan, grill, propane boiler (for all those crabs!), washer/dryer, fluffy towels, etc.
Here's the house from the water side:
Here's the view down from the house toward their dock:
Barbi brought her 19' speedboat and crab traps along. We soon found a good spot and were hauling in tons of crabs. We probably pulled up 200 over the course of four days, keeping about fifty (there are size/gender restrictions plus daily limits -- fortunately, we had several licenses so we could get a lot of crabs. The beach was also full of lovely, easily-dug clams as well as mussels, although we bought mussels since the store-bought ones are cleaner and not stuck together.
Michael (10) driving out to check out traps:
A pot full of yummy crabs -- turkey legs are awesome bait! They are cheap, last all day, and crabs can't resist.
A blazing pot full of crabby goodness:
The day's bounty (actually, just part of it...) We wound up eating crab a million ways -- boiled crab, crab fried rice, black bean crab, crab roll, crab omelets, crab cocktail, cold cracked crab, and more. We also had oysters (with whisky and one of this year's Oyster Wine Content winners), hyper fresh and ripe berries of all descriptions, black cod kasuzuke, fresh corn, and mussels and clams. It was absolutely incredible. By the second or third day, though, Michael declared a crab moratorium for himself.
In addition to crabbing and being lazy, the kids fished a bit. Stacy's dad is an avid fisherman and taught the kids how to bottom fish for dogfish -- little sharks:
Andrew (13) hooked into two of the dogfish, but since we weren't using steel leaders, both cut the line as they approached the dock. I can't say that I'm disappointed that we didn't land it. I wasn't sure I wanted to mess with unhooking the things.
We also just played in the water a bunch (OK, the kids did -- it was pretty cold...)
Back in March as part of our trip to Singapore, we spent a few days with some friends on a private island in Indonesia. (Yes, I realize I'm more than a little late with this post.) It was probably the best vacation we ever took.
The island is called Pulau Pangkil Kecil; it's a tiny island about a half mile long near Singapore. It's owned by a wealthy guy in Hong Kong who has done a fantastic job building out the island, outfitting it with rustic but luxurious driftwood buildings and training a very attentive and professional staff. The island is available for vacation rentals where you basically get the whole island to yourself and your family/friends. There are enough bungalows for forty people to comfortably stay on the island; it was especially roomy with just seven of us plus the staff on the island.
The island has electricity and water but no real internet access and barely even mobile phone coverage; it was kind of a treat, really, to not be connected for a few days. We spent the time playing the tidepools, swimming in the lovely pool, snorkeling, kayaking, sailing, reading, napping, playing board games, and getting massages (at our request, they brought a masseuse to the island who stayed the whole time and was basically on call for us.) Oh, and of course, we ate. Well. A lot. The cook was fantastic, preparing amazingly great Indonesian and Malaysian food -- curries, seafood, and other treats.
Another treat was stargazing; since the other islands nearby had very little or no people, there was virtually no light pollution. We could see zillions of stars; we even saw the Milky Way quite clearly. I'm pretty sure it was the first time the kids had ever seen the Milky Way.
I can't recommend this place enough and am dying to go back.
Michael (9) in front of the main building. This is where we ate and hung out a lot.
The inside of the main building. You can see the open bar and coolers on the left and bunch of tiny, amazingly delicious bananas hanging in the middle. The "floor" of the building is all white sand.
This is the biggest of the bungalows. It's the only one with the bathroom inside; the others have a nice bathroom next to the house.
Here's a shot of the inside of the bungalow. Tropical/rustic but comfy and clean. The mosquito netting was necessary. Bugs were maybe the only bad thing about the island.
At night they built huge bonfires on the beach for us. We roasted the marshmallows we brought over them. You can see the kids sitting near the fire (they're about as close as they could get -- it was a big fire.)
Here's Andrew (12) near their iconic tent/table on the beach.
On the other end of the island they have beautiful freshwater swimming pool, tucked behind the rocks. You walk through a passage in the rocks to get to the pool.
They also arranged fishing trips for us. We used hand reels to catch reef fish for dinner.
Occasionally, a local family would paddle by the island.
The staff was lovely, super attentive, and all-around awesome!
Here's the sad view as we left the island. This boat took us back to a bigger Indonesian island. We then took a 30 minute bus ride (nice air conditioned private coach) across that island to a larger ferry back to Singapore. All told it takes about two hours to get to the island from Singapore.
Singapore is at the crossroads of many cultures. Aside from it's recent history as a British colony, S'pore is between Malaysia and Indonesia; they've also had huge populations of Chinese and Indians. In addition to the national cultures, I think most of the major world religions are represented in force. In many ways, Singapore is proof to me that people can actually get along. Anyway, here some random snaps I took around the island that illustrate the richness of the culture.A sign with all four official languages of Singapore: English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil.
Older building around Arab Street.
Shop sign in Arab Street
Dressmaker services near Arab Street
Outdoor, seaside dining at East Shore.
Store sign in Little India
Frieze on Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Little India
Menu board showing Indian fish head curry, a local favorite.
A few weeks ago my family and another family went down to Singapore and Indonesia for Spring Break. Michelle and I went to Singapore for our honeymoon many, many years ago. Singapore is one of the best places I've ever eaten in the world thanks to their diverse culture and high standards. Everyone I've ever met from Singapore was a foodie. That said, among the embarrassment of riches in Singapore, since our honeymoon we've both dreamed about the quintessential Singaporean local dining experience: hawker stalls.
These are food centers, like a food court but standalone instead of in a shopping mall (althought there are awesome food courts in Singapore too like Food Republic.) There are dozens of stalls cooking a range of food that mirrors Singapore's diversity: chili crab, pepper crab, satays, grilled seafood, curries, roti, shaved ice, ramen, Chinese vegetables, and more. Other stalls have beers, awesome limeade drinks, and other drinks. Each table has a number on it. You choose a table and then go from shop to shop ordering and leaving your table number. They'll deliver the food, which is when you pay.
Newton Circus is probably the best known and most popular among tourists; it's convenient and very good (and nice on pleasant evenings since they have outdoor seating). However, we really preferred the more local Chomp Chomp. Aside from the obviously awesome name, the food was better and the scene less touristy/pushy. Many, many thanks to our friend Meng who recommended Chomp Chomp and other fantastic places to eat.
The entrance to Chomp Chomp.
The scene at Chomp Chomp:
A master at work grilling chicken wings over a wood coal fire; he's using the fan to help control the heat.
Grilled (huge) prawns
The most awesome pork and beef satays as they're meant to be: hot, bite-sized, and in quantity.
This was perhaps the consensus favorite: grilled skate wing covered in sambal sauce (kind of a chili sauce). The bowl of heavenly goodness to the left is peanut sauce for dredging satays though. My mouth is watering as I write this.
The other thing we really all loved was chili crab, with a side of fried rolls for sopping up every drop of the mind-blowing sauce. Unfortunately, I couldn't hold myself back long enough to take a photo before diving into the messy, spicy treat. Chinese vegetables stir-fried with sambal sauce were also ridiculously good.
Hawker stalls are local food at its best -- inexpensive, a reflection of the society and land, and just plain awesome.
I'll be immersing myself in the delights of SIN for the next few days. Singapore, that is...
Michelle and I spent part of our honeymoon here sixteen years ago, but we haven't been back since. Now we're back with the kids and some friends.
It's easily one of the best places to eat in the world since it's the crossroads of so many cultures. I can't wait to get started; we have a bunch of recommendations from friends already (more appreciated!)
I saw this ANA 747 on the tarmac at Haneda Airport in Tokyo yesterday. Pretty cute! Too bad the kids weren't with me to see this.
While I was in Tokyo this week, my colleague, friend, and ramen fiend K1 (his name is actually Keiichiro, but since ichiro means one in Japanese, he goes by "K1") took a few of us to his absolute favorite ramen place -- Ramen Jirou.
As it turns out, this shop has a cult-like following among the Japanese. Ramen Jirou is completely different from other ramen places I've been like Ippudo or Kyushu Jangara (some purists don't even consider it to be ramen.) People have compared the place to the restaurant of "Soup Nazi" fame. To begin with, the branch we went to kind of dirty, more like something I'd expect in Beijing, not Tokyo.
There's nothing to order besides ramen -- no gyoza and if you want something to drink besides water, you can buy it from the machine outside. There are only a few seats, and often a half-hour line. You sit when a seat opens up -- no waiting for enough room for your party.
There's only one basic menu choice -- a super-rich pork-based soup with thick and dense noodles (vs. the thin ramen noodles or lighter udon noodels), a few slices of pork, and a pile of cabbage and bean spouts mounded on top. It has none of the classic ramen toppings, no egg, no menma (pickled bamboo shoots), no cod roe. It's not a really visually attractive bowl frankly -- kind of monochromatic and slopped in vs. the carefully composed look of most Japanese food. The only choices are whether you want a big or small bowl with extra meat or not. You buy a chit from a machine that specifies your preference. I ordered a small bowl with a normal amount of noodles and meat. It was 600 yen, a little over USD$6.00.
When the chef hands you the bowl, you specify whether you want garlic, vegetables, more pork fat, and additional soy sauce (K1 says it's too salty with additional soy sauce). You have to order in a specific way, like ordering a latte at Starbucks, or you will be met with derision. (I had to memorize the order in Japanese before I sat down; naturally I had it with everything except the additional soy sauce. You say "yasai, niniku, abura" for "vegetable, garlic, fat") Once the bowl arrives, you eat silently, seemingly as fast as you can. Once complete, you put the bowl on the upper counter, wipe off the counter, and leave quickly.
OMG -- it was fantastic and unlike anything I had ever had. The soup was amazingly rich and tasty with blobs of pork fat suspended in the soup. The noodles were dense and chewy, the meat tender, and the veggies added enough crunch and variety to balance the thing out. A few shakes of white pepper kicked it up even a little more. I slurped up my bowl in a few minutes with a huge grin on my face. There's nothing subtle about it. Just pure porky goodness.
K1 has described the various stages of Ramen Jirou addiction. Early on, other ramens taste wimpy. Apparently at the last stage (the one he's in), you can't think of anything else. He dreams of Jirou incessantly and goes there first whenever he lands in Japan. It's not just K1. There are a lot of write-ups on Ramen Jirou including an NPR story, a CNN article, a Guardian UK article declaring it one of the 50 best things to eat in the world, and more.
I'm fast on my way toward Ramen Jirou addition too.
The line outside Ramen Jirou. All of the official branches have this yellow awning sign.
The scene inside as I look longingly from outside. There are a few few seats at the L-shaped counter and two people working inside.
This is the machine you order from. The row on top are the small bowls, the lower row is the large bowl. The choice on the right is extra meat.
The master at work. He kind of just slops everything into the bowls. You can see the sliced pork at the bottom.
The bowl of happiness. It doesn't look like much, but damn, it's good.
As I mentioned in a post a long time ago, my family and I love the Motoyama Milk Bar in the Roppongi Hills mall in Tokyo. Since I'm in Tokyo right now, I thought I'd stop by for a lovely coffee milk and to bring some of their luscious caramels back to my loving family (who would love me a lot more if I brought back Motoyama caramels, I assure you.)
Imagine my surprise when I saw it was closed. Out of business. Kaput. The sign on the left basically said, "Thanks. Really thanks. We closed on January 17. If you have questions, call this number xxx."
Goodbye, MMB! I will always remember your flan, those cute little milk jars, and your cute waitresses...
Who knew you needed to floss your ear piercings? Thank goodness there's Piafloss. Watch the video (in Japanese) in case you need more convincing. We spotted this at Don Quijote, the craziest discount store in Japan.
Here are a few men I spotted in Tokyo doing the right thing for their wives and/or mistresses. Whatever the case, someone will be happy soon.
Andrew (12) humored me yesterday by standing very still for this photo at Shibuya Crossing, the crazy, uber-busy pedestrian intersection by the Shibuya subway station in Tokyo. It's a "scramble" crossing where all auto traffic stops so pedestrians can go in every direction. (This was also the debut of my zippy new lightweight, carbon fiber tripod. I love gear!)
Canon 40D, 28-105 3.5-4.5 at f22, 1.5 seconds.
I can't believe I missed this place in our recent trip to Hong Kong.
Hong Kong restaurant offers Michelin-starred food for 78p
A hole-in-the-wall canteen in Hong Kong which offers dishes for less than a pound has become the world's cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant.
By Malcolm Moore in Shanghai
Published: 5:54PM GMT 27 Nov 2009
Tim Ho Wan has become the world's cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant Photo: AFP/GETTY
Tim Ho Wan, which means "Add Good Luck", can seat only 20 people in its steamy dining room and its battered bamboo baskets of dim sum sell for as little as 78p.
Jean-Luc Naret, the director of the Michelin guide said it was the "most affordable starred restaurant in the world" and was included as proof of Michelin's commitment to local cuisines.
The Hong Kong restaurant is headed by Mak Pui Gor, the former dim sum chef at the Four Seasons Hotel, where he worked at the three Michelin-starred restaurant Lung King Heen. Mr Mak decided during the economic crisis to branch out on his own and offer his dishes at bargain prices.
The most expensive dish on the menu, a plate of noodles, costs the equivalent of around £3, and he sells around 750 dishes of his signature crispy pork buns each day. Other dishes include a cheung fun, or steamed rice noodle roll, with pork livers and delicate jellies containing flower petals.
"Since the news broke, we've been really very busy," said a waitress at the restaurant. "We really are very cheap, but I don't think we are planning to raise our prices," she added. At lunchtime, diners can expect queues of up to an hour on the street outside.
A number of other humble Hong Kong canteens were also included in the guide, but Mr Naret insisted inspectors had not lowered their standards in order to please local diners. "Let me tell you, I've been to quite a few of those simple restaurants in the selection and I was very surprised." he said.
Michelin verdict: "It would not be an exaggeration to say that this little dim sum shop has breathed life into this quiet street in Mong Kok. In 2009, two chefs joined forces and opened here. It has been a success ever since, hence the wait outside. There is no doubt about their ingredients.
"Special mention has gone to the steamed dumpling Chiu Chew style, the steamed egg cake and most definitely to the baked bun with barbecue pork. The wait is worth it".
While we were in Hua Hin, Thailand, we went elephant riding with our friends Kellie and Barbi. After all, we figured it was definitely a unique travel experience. So, with the help of the hotel concierge, we went to the Hutsadin Elephant Hospital for our adventure.
When we first started out, Michael (9) wasn't so sure about the whole thing. He was clinging to Michelle pretty tightly.
Andrew (12), by contrast, was much more comfortable with the whole thing and even rode bareback in the driver's seat. I think he looks like Mowgli from The Jungle Book here. (For the record, I also did the "sit bareback on the elephant" thing.)
Our drivers (mahouts) took us for a thirty minute loop around their property, which included some hilly terrain and nice views of the beach.
Our tour took us past the mahouts' homes.
Michael warmed up to the whole elephant thing and by the end was "chillaxing" (his words).
After the ride, the boys gave the elephants a treat (for a small fee, of course).
The elephants returned the favor with a little hat trick.
The whole experience was actually pretty cool, even if it was a bit manufactured. The elephants are really big; this seems obvious, but it's different when you're sitting on top. (It was definitely a great reminder than being on top doesn't mean you're in charge.) Their gait has a weird lurching, rolling feel, but they seem very sure footed even going down or side-hill. It was also pretty amazing to see how dexterous they were with their trunks. They were able to even find little bits of pineapple on the floor or accept a one hundred baht note...
The experience was a bit commercial with a push to buy elephant tooth jewelry while you're on the elephant (the boys each now have a necklace...), a photo (which wasn't bad actually), and fruit to feed the elephants (which was fun). The money is ostensibly used to take care of these elephants who they're rescuing from bad situations. It was a lot of fun in any case and ultimately not a lot of money, so we were very happy with the whole thing overall. It was definitely a highlight of the trip and one we're still talking about.
Our Bangkok friends John and Ann took us to see the the famous Chatuchak Weekend Market, affectionately known as the J.J. Market. You can buy everything from food to pets (not at the same stalls) to clothes to souvenirs to furniture and more. Here are a few snaps I took from this amazing, huge place.
Here's a set of stickers in the window of my cab in Bangkok this evening. I guess there's a lot of things they don't want you to do. I'm sad to report I did none of these (although I'm not sure what the bull skull one is.)
The family and I plus my colleagues Steve and John took the 1.5 hour flight to Xian this weekend to see the sights. On the top of the list, of course, was the famous Terracotta Army, so we headed out on a muggy, hot day to check it out.
After fending off the numerous offers in the parking lot for a tour guide, we walked through a long shopping plaza to get to the entrance. (Tip: it’s probably worth the 5 RMB to take the electric tram to the entrance. Bonus tip: hang on to your tickets – you’ll have show them to various guards several times.)
It might have been worth getting a tour guide for 100 RMB (about USD$15). As they warned me in English and Chinese, the site is not well marked. We figured out where pit #1 was and headed over to the building to see Qin Shi Huang’s army.
The building housing pit #1:
Inside this building was the largest of the excavated pits. It was really breathtaking. It’s huge. If you look in this photo, you can see the tourists gathered around the edges of the pit. The soldiers were arranged in “rooms” divided by rammed earth walls that are apparently as hard as concrete. The rooms were covered with logs, grass mats, and dirt, forming a roof.
Note the original entrance used to populate the rooms; the doors were later sealed.
There’s still a lot of work to be done at the sites. Here is a platoon in various states of re-assembly.
In fact, there are many parts of the site that archaeologists have yet to unearth. They’re going slowly, apparently to limit the environmental damage from pollution, moisture (including that from the breath and sweat of the all the tourists), and mold that are beginning to take a toll on the ones already exposed.
The detail of each of the soldiers was really amazing. While the faces are all unique, the soldiers were apparently mass produced. The faces came from a set of base patterns and then were “personalized” to add expressions and different features. The different body parts were fired separately and then assembled. The pieces were all originally painted, but the color has faded over the years. This was a bit of a surprise to me since I’ve always seen the in the familiar brown color. They all originally had bronze weapons, but these were looted. However, the ones they recovered were still sharp due to the advanced chrome plating process used – thousands of years ahead of similar plating technology in the west.
In addition to the terracotta figures, they had two bronze chariots on display. These were smaller than real life (I think half sized), but still amazingly detailed and beautiful.
There was one weird thing. Ahead of the Olympics last year, they (not sure who “they” really is) built a huge terracotta solider marionette that held hands and danced with a Western-doll marionette. The two were just creepy.
Overall, the artifacts were really amazing as was the scale of the display. I just had no idea it was so huge (also, only about 1000 of the estimated 8000 soldiers has been excavated so far). Perhaps even more tantalizing are the reports of huge, 22 square mile (56 sq. km) necropolis nearby with a map of all of China. The old records say the ceiling is studded with pearls, simulating the night sky, and mercury was pumped to simulate river flows. To unearth the entire site, twelve villages and several factories would have to be moved. Almost none of the site has been uncovered and the entrance to the tomb has not been found yet. However, the soil apparently has high concentrations of mercury. It’s staggering to think of this level of accomplishment in 210 BC.
The only real downsides were the mobs of pushy tourists and the heat. It was difficult to really look at the statues and take in everything with so many people around (often thoughtlessly shoving, talking loudly, and bumping into us); in particular, it took some effort to stay connected with the kids. We were also just hot the whole time, even though the buildings were somewhat air conditioned. Michelle also wound up with a bottle of faux Perrier at a coffee shop outside the complex (this kind of real-looking packaging with fake contents is unfortunately too common in China.)
Still, the site was incredible to see, and we’re glad we went. Definitely worth a visit.
Just like my Facebook ramen tip, I got a great recommendation for a sake shop from my old friend (and sake expert) Bruce after I mentioned I was in Tokyo (on my last trip actually). So, after our Ippudo ramen dinner, my friend Shinji and I headed over to Fukumitsuya, which was nearby the restaurant in Ginza. (I had actually tried to go the night before with my colleague John, but we got there too late.)
Fukumitsuya is a sake brewery founded in 1625; this is one of three of their retail shops. They have a tasting bar and a retail section full of great sake and lovely sakeware made from ceramic, glass, pewter, and even silver.
We were helped by the very kind and patient Otsu-san, helped by Shinji's translation skills. As we discussed more and showed our appreciation, Otsu-san started pouring more and more expensive sakes for us, ending with this amazing 20 year old Momotose, which was a deep amber color and sherry-like in nose and flavor. I've never had anything like it. She also highly recommended the Hatsugokoro Midorigura 7 year old sake; this is a daiginjo, the highest grade of sake where the rice is milled down to at least 50% of the original size. It was really delicious as well, with a full, round taste that filled my mouth and nose. Kind of hard to describe.
Most sakes are meant to be consumed young, so it's somewhat unusual to see old sakes like this, especially the 20 year old (they had 30 year old sake too.) Shinji was impressed anyway. These were pretty expensive as far as sake goes (~USD$85 for a small bottle of the Momotose and ~USD$150 for a 720ml bottle of the Hatsugokoro), but I figured I couldn't find anything like this in Seattle or Beijing, so I bought a bottle of each to share with my sweetie. Affordable and memorable luxury. (I'd rather have one bottle I'll remember forever than 5-6 bottles I'll forget once the hangover wears off.)
I also picked up a tasty bottle of plum shochu. (Shochu is a distilled Japanese spirit, like vodka but weaker). It'll be great mixed with soda on the rocks. I topped off my shopping splurge with an elegant silver flask/pitcher thing and two egg-like ceramic cups. It took a lot of restraint to not buy more, frankly. I could easily have spend a zillion dollars here.
It was a very enjoyable shopping experience. They have a restaurant upstairs too, which I'd like to try sometime too. I'll definitely be back.
You can read more about the shop (in English!) on Tokyo Qool. (I tried the pink Nipponia Nippon they mention in the article too -- delicious.)
Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Thanks to my Facebook update saying I was in Tokyo, I got a hot ramen tip from my friend, George, who I met at Foo Camp a few years ago. So, after work today, I headed out with my old buddy Shinji (we worked together on Works and Picture It! a long time ago) to Ippudo. As it turns out, Ippudo is Shinji's favorite ramen place too. After a bit of navigational confusion, we managed to find the branch in Ginza and headed downstairs into the cellar restaurant.
(The Ginza Ippudo from across the street. The entrance is actually behind the truck. The sign says "Your happiness of eating this ramen makes us happy." They must have been very happy after I ate my ramen.)
Ippudo serves Hakata-style tonkatsu (pork) based broth, like my beloved Jangara Ramen. Unlike Jangara's super rich and luscious soup, Ippudo serves a lighter but equally delicious bowl of ramen. I followed Shinji's recommendation to try the akamaru (red sea) style instead of the more traditional shiromaru (white sea) style. The akamaru is Ippudo's innovation, adding spicy miso and garlic oil to the shiromaru. It was simply great. You can even pick how well cooked you like your noodles (I picked one level harder than normal; not sure why. Normal would probably have been a little better, but it was cool to see how much control and attention to detail they have.)
(Here's my bowl of akamaru before I started eating. The cool copper tumbler is my beer. The pots behind the ramen are different kinds of pickles. The low dish at 12:00 is peeled garlic which you mince with the garlic press at 2:00.)
The gyoza (dumplings like Chinese potstickers) were also amazing, perhaps the best I've ever tasted -- savory filling in a light skin. Ippudo also provides pots of free pickles including these great spicy bean sprouts. Yum, yum, yum, with a side of yum.
(Here's my before I tuck into my bowl of ramen. The after-action photos are NSFW. The scenes of culinary carnage and self-satisfied food ecstasy are probably best left to the imagination.)
As usual, Rameniac has a much better write-up (from which I liberally drew for this post).
Last weekend, we took advantage of the boys' short spring break (two days off school -- shorter than normal this year because of the late start due after the Olympics) to take a quick jaunt down to Sanya, a city on the south coast of Hainan Island. Hainan is on the south coast of China in the South China Sea near Vietnam; it's often referred to as the "Hawaii of China." It's a popular resort destination for Chinese and expats, plus it's apparently a big draw for visitors from Taiwan, Japan, and Korea. More interestingly, it's a huge favorite for Russian tourists. On our drive from the airport, we saw a lot of signs with Russian on them.
Contrary to my normal vacation mode where I want to see a lot things at our destination, this time we just wanted to sit around, soak up the warmth, and relax. To that end, we chose to stay at the Banyan Tree Resort in Sanya. The resort is away from the bustle of the more popular hotel areas, in a quiet section on Luhuitou Bay. We spent a lot of our time in and around the private pool in our two bedroom villa, going to the beach to play in the sand and warm water in the mornings when it was a bit cooler. The boys thought the midnight swims were especially cool.
(This is a Photosynth view of our villa. It's a composite image of a few hundred photos. You may need to install Photosynth first. BTW, Photosynth is a super cool technology by the big brain guys at Microsoft Live Labs. Worth checking out.)
I managed to sneak out to Luhuitou Golf Club for my first round in eighteen months. It turns out that not playing for a while doesn't help your game. Fortunately, I was playing alone save for my caddie, who was polite enough not to laugh, and the course was impeccably maintained with perfect greens (not that I could make a putt to save my life.)
The facilities were undeniably lovely and the service was very good (particularly by Chinese standards). The only real downer (and probably the thing that would encourage us to to try someplace else next time) was the food. It was very inconsistent, ranging from great to fair, and the menu was pretty limited. By the end of our fourth day, we were pretty bored with the selection. (Although I did have a pretty good Hainan Chicken Rice - always good to try a dish in the place of its origin.)
Still, it was great to get away from the dusty grey and brown air and ground of Beijing for warm, humid, clean air and lush tropical environs of Sanya. We all had a very enjoyable and relaxing time.
I just came across this photo I took last summer in Tokyo, which I clearly forgot to post at the time. What a ridiculously awesome sandwich. I'm pretty sure the Japanese on the poster says, "An honorable way to die. Get one today!"
Three all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, bacon, and an egg on a sesame seed bun... (The song and the sandwich are clearly better with the egg, bacon, and extra patty.)
The remarkable thing about this photo is that you can see Mount Fuji. While Tokyo is hardly a clean-air city, it's definitely cleaner right now than Beijing. It's been a nice relief to not be able to taste the air for a little while.
Since I arrived in Tokyo last week, I've been on a minor ramen frenzy. I'm guessing many of you have only had instant ramen in a styrofoam cup. As I wrote before, I love them, and the Japanese voted the instant noodle the greatest Japanese invention of the 20th Century. I agree. That said, real well-made ramen is a thing of beauty and way, way better than the instant stuff.
Like many good things in the world, ramen comes from China originally (la mein in Chinese). Then, like many other good things in the world, the Japanese took someone else's idea and made it really great. It was all I could do this week to not drag my family and friends to ramen for every meal (it turns out the Japanese have other good food too...)
I've written about these guys before after I went last summer. This time, I went to two different locations. The first was in Akasaka near the Live Search team's office. This was much smaller than the Harajuku location, with just a few seats. My foodie colleagues and I actually went after the team dinner, even though we were totally stuffed, just because we wanted to eat the yummy ramen. This time I had the Bonshan ramen, an even richer, whiter pork broth full of tongue coating collagen and deep flavor (they claim that it's good for your skin too!). It's really simply luscious. I think it's even better than the signature Kyushu Jangara. Like a junkie, I actually went back to the Akasaka Jangara after the next night's dinner, but cooler heads prevailed this time. (Wimps.) I later reprised our summer visit to the Harajuku Jangara with Michelle, the boys, and my cousin Jessica, who is working in Japan. The line was long, but it was worth the wait. They have English menus, and the staff handled my English/Japanese/pantomime ordering with ease.
My colleagues Jill, Helen, and John outside the Akasaka Jangara Ramen.
A bowl of Bonshan ramen at the counter. (Sorry for the lousy pic.)
We chose Testugama mostly out of convenience since it's close to our hotel in Roppongi Hills. Like Jangara, it's Kyushu style (so pork-based soup) but theirs are lighter tasting. Like many ramen places, you actually order at a machine first, putting in money and then pushing buttons for the things you want. You get a stack of little tickets which you then hand to the waiter.
I ordered the spicy soup with hard noodles. (You can order hard, medium, or soft noodles. This isn't a statement about the doneness of the noodles; rather it's about the type.) This was so good Michelle claimed eminent domain and took the bowl. I enjoyed her shio (salt) based ramen instead. Their gyoza (dumplings) were also delicious. We really liked the feel of the place -- very friendly. I'm sad we discovered it so late in our trip; I'm pretty sure we would have gone back again otherwise. They do not have English menus, but the waiter did a fine job pointing out the major things we might want on the order taking machine.
Michael (8) in front of the order machine.
My (soon to be Michelle's) spicy ramen. (I started eating before I realized I should take a photo, so the lovely presentation is a bit messed up.)
I should also note that we had a great soba dinner at Restaurant Kurosawa, another repeat visit from our summer trip (I didn't write about it that time, mostly out of laziness.) Kurosawa makes handcut soba with great buckwheat texture and taste. It's really different from the ramen noodles I mentioned above. Michael (8) loved the cold soba (dipped in sauce) so much that he ate half of another order. They also have other delicious dishes including a simple yet amazing tomato salad. For a noodle joint, it's not cheap, but boy, it's good. They have English menus.
Roppongi Restaurant Kurosawa storefront
The amazing tomato salad
I want to go out and eat more now...
This is a long overdue post. Last month, just before we moved, I was in Hong Kong for an offsite. Since I had arrived early from the US, I followed up on a tip from a foodie buddy, Meng, who said I just HAD TO go try the dan ta at Tai Cheong Bakery (the website is much more fancy than the bakery). This hole-in-the-wall bakery is famous for these sweet desserts - thick egg custard in a pastry pie crust. Chris Patten, the former British Governor of Hong Kong, was apparently a big fan of the place.
So I trekked up the Central-Mid-Level escalators and looked around for the place. (As an aside, why do they have the escalators going down but not up in the morning? I don't care if there are more people going down. The damn hill is steep!) Although I was completely unable to follow a map that morning, I eventually found Tai Cheong and ventured in.
I bought the last two dan ta and some sugar puffs (blobby donuts covered in sugar). They were all still warm and fresh smelling. I took the bag and ate the goodies right on the street, across from the bakery.
OMFG, I had never had anything like these dan ta. The crust was tasty and flaky (apparently they use lard -- further evidence that pigs are proof of a kind and loving God) and the custard was rich, eggy, and densely flavorful. (My mouth is watering again as I write this six weeks later).
After I scarfed these two tarts down, I ate the sugar puff; this might have been even better than the dan ta. It was kind of like a warm brioche covered in sugar. If I hadn't bought the last two tarts, I might have gone back in for more. These were heaven on earth. What's more, they were cheap. I love Hong Kong. If you are in HK, be sure to go.
Tai Cheong Bakery
35, Lyndhurst Terrace
Central, Hong Kong
Tel: (+852) 2544 3475
Last week, we went back to Beijing to finalize stuff for our move there. We also spent two days at the very lovely Commune by the Great Wall resort (more on that later). This resort is just downhill from an unrestored section of the Great Wall (the section is called Shuiguan). Andrew (10) and I made the quarter mile hike up to the wall and then walked along the quarter mile section that was open (a fence at the end prevented hikers from getting to the really dangerous collapsed sections.
The unrestored sections of the Wall are very different from the restored parts. These "wild" parts have trees and grass growing on top, the walls and towers are partially crumbled, and the walking surface is broken up. There are only a few places where they've installed safety measures like a hand rail on very steep sections. I actually quite like these parts of the Wall better.
Although the sky was hazy, it was still very picturesque given the mountainous terrain and the fall foliage. Andrew and I really enjoyed it.
Here are a few photos for your enjoyment.
Beautiful fall foliage and the Great Wall.
Trees, grass, and shrubs growing on top of the Great Wall.
Andrew on top of a guard tower with a collapsed roof.
Andrew about to climb a very steep section of the Great Wall.
I'm in Beijing again, with the family this time. We're going to finalize our move stuff plus take a few days at the Great Wall (more on that later). We flew coach over here, which is different from our usual MO of flying business class on long flights. It certainly wasn't as nice but aside from some inconveniences like not being first off the plane (and hence getting stuck in long passport lines), it didn't bug me too much.
Surprisingly the thing that bugged me the most, other than Michael (8) giving me dirty looks the whole flight, was dealing with the travel amateurs. In business class, most people seem to know what they're doing. They are pretty efficient about finding their seats, getting their luggage stowed, ordering meals, etc. That wasn't the case in coach. Between the people arguing loudly about which seat was C and which was G, the family who couldn't get their bags into the overhead bin, and the flight attendants having to explain all of the drink and meal options to each person ahead of us, I wanted to scream.
I think rather than board by row number, they should board by experience. Get all of the novices squared away first while I enjoy my drink in the terminal. Once they're buckled and ready, I'll zip aboard.
I'm in the Northwest Airlines lounge in the Tokyo airport (Narita) right now on one the Macs they have arrayed around the room for travellers to use, waiting for my flight to Beijing. (I'm going for meetings with my new team). I just spent the last few hours exploring the airport. For as many times as I've been here, I really haven't walked around much. Since I was just on my butt for the past nine or so hours, I figured a walk would be good.
I turned out to be a productive walk. I found a neat origami museum and, more important, a duty free shop with a tasting bar! (The Fa So La Liquor and Tobacco shop in the south wing.) I tried a few nice Japanese whiskies (the Suntory Hibiki 21 year was especially good) poured by a Chinese lady who was happy to find a Chinese person who knew anything about whisky. It seems there are a lot of Chinese passengers transiting through here and tons of Chinese-speaking store attendants -- definitely a change from a few years ago.
I also had a good katsu curry (fried pork chops in this sort of sweet, gloppy Japanese curry with rice -- yum!) in a food court. I've been dreaming about katsu curry for sometime and was a little upset that I didn't get any this summer when we were on vacation here, so it was a nice find.
I had forgotten, however, that the Japanese like the room temperature about 3 degrees warmer and 50% more humid. I'm steaming to death. The cold Asahi Dry beer from my favorite beer pouring machine (it pours a beer with a perfect head) is not keeping back the heat, but I'll keep trying.
Anyway, two more hours until my flight...
Throughout our trip to Japan, I took the boys to go play video games; there were tons of great arcades through out Tokyo and Kyoto. There were a few trends in games that I hadn't seen much of (if at all) yet in the US.
First, many of the popular games had physical components you could use in the game play, like a card or a token. Each time you play, you get another piece, randomly selected. The more you play, the more players or moves you have. This also adds a trading/collectable element to the video game and rewards players who play more often; brilliant. We saw this with Mushiking in the US, but this went even further in Japan, including the Pokemon Battrio game the kids played which gave out poker chip-like tokens with different Pokemon on each (gotta catch 'em all indeed).
A specialized form of this genre involved buying a starter deck of cards for 300-500 yen or so (about US$3-5) and then moving multiple cards from the deck on a game surface to control armies or players. For instance, the boys started playing Sangokushi Taisen3, a real-time strategy game based on the Chinese Three Kingdoms period. (It was pretty interesting learning to play a complex game like this without being able to read anything...) Each card represented a different military unit like archers or cavalry. You position the cards on the surface to select which units were in play and where they started. Then, you move the cards to advance or retreat; you can also turn the card to aim the attacks (like arrows) a particular direction. It was an elegant way of handling a hard UI problem for a video game (normally solved on PCs by mouse and keyboard) -- much more physical and direct.
In addition to Sangokushi, Lord of Vermillion, a party-based real-time adventure game, seemed popular. We also saw a baseball game, a soccer game, and a Gundam 0083 game in this genre. I hope they come to the US soon; they looked really fun. I'm sure they're even more fun if you can understand the instructions!
We bid Jonathan, Tetsuo, and Toshiko farewell and headed back to Tokyo today on the Shinkansen. We were met on the platform at Tokyo Station by a bellman from the Four Seasons Tokyo, who took our bags and lead us on the short walk to the hotel. After a quick check-in and some lunch, I took to the boys to the Pokemon Center a few train stops away while the ladies partook in more retail therapy in Ginza.
The Pokemon Center is heaven for Poke-geeks like Andrew (10) and Michael (7). There was a big store full of everything Pokemon related you could imagine, from cards to video games to candy to nori (dried seaweed sheets cut into Pokemon shapes to put on your rice -- Michael bought some of this) to toys to clothes. They had someone teaching kids how to play the Pokemon trading card game, Pokemon videos playing on the overhead TVs, and rows of Pokemon capsule vending machines enticing the kids (the boys got Pokemon Pez dispensers out of one of the machines.
After they sated their shopping, we went next door to another room where you could play Pokemon Battrio, a video game the kids started playing at the Pokemon Center in Odaiba. You could also play Pokemon Battle Revolution, a Wii game where you use your Nintendo DS' to control your Pokemon; this is cool since your opponent can't see what moves you selected because the UI is on your DS screen.
They also offered a special birthday surprise if you had a Nintendo DS, a Japanese version of Pokemon Diamond or Pearl, and proof it was within a day of your birthday. The boys had their DS', their English copies of Diamond and Pearl, and proof it was within a month of their birthday, but that wasn't good enough. Oh well.
Some sick person planned this section of the Pokemon Center; the sun blazed into the room where the kids were playing Battrio, turning it into a solar cooker. In the focal point of the cooker, they had a cold drink machine selling Pokemon branded soda. Naturally, I bought one to keep me and the kids from catching fire.
Although Andrew (10) and I missed a bunch of the major sights in Kyoto yesterday, he felt fine today so we joined in seeing some of the other lovely older parts of town. Unlike the rainy downpours yesterday, today was a lovely, sunny day. In addition to Barbi's nephew Jonathan, we were joined by her aunt Toshiko and her husband Tetsuo, who came up from Kobe to meet Barbi and us. They were super delightful and great tour guides.
We all first set out for Kiyomizu, a gorgeous temple set in the hills. The walk up to the temple area was through a cool pedestrian street lined with restaurants and shops. The area was clearly popular with student groups and tours since it was packed with kids in uniforms and throngs of older tourists. A pair of girls approached Michelle and Kellie to try out their English, asking their workbook questions like "where are you from?" and "do you like Japan?", dutifully writing down the answers as they went.
After we checked out the temple grounds, we walked through the streets nearby toward Gion, the traditionally geisha quarter. This was what we really expected Kyoto to be more like -- quaint Japan with narrow streets and little shops. We even ran into some maiko, apprentice geisha, headed to some assignment I suppose. They were up on their tall geta shoes, so when they went down a flight a stairs, they had to support one another to keep from falling. We then passed through the Yasaka Shrine (you really can't spit without hitting a shrine or temple in Kyoto -- they're as common as Starbucks in Seattle) and then were out onto into the downtown area again. The ladies went shopping; I took the boys to play video games and to grab a tasty sushi snack in the Teramachi Street market-- a series of covered alleys (kind of like the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas only much smaller in scale).
Andrew (10) and I are spending the day in our room at the Hyatt Regency Kyoto; he's not feeling well - dehydration or something heat related I think. I've had a lot of time to watch Discovery Channel shows including a good series on Modern Marvels about the cool new buildings in Beijing and my new favorite show, Man vs. Wild. (MM is on Discovery Channel out here, not History Channel like in the US.) I also read a lot, including Andrew's Young Bond books (Double or Die and Blood Fever)-- books about James Bond as a student at Eton -- not a bad rainy day read. The others are out looking at all the shrines and temples in Kyoto, but frankly, it's pouring (and I mean pouring) rain outside, so it's not the worst day to be in the room.
Yesterday, after we got in on the Shinkansen, we met Barbi's cool nephew Jonathan who came up from Miyako (a little Japanese island near Okinawa and home of Japan's best beaches) where he teaches English. Although we were getting around pretty well in Tokyo without any of us being able to speak much Japanese, it was great to have Jonathan's language assistance.
We first went up Kyoto Tower to get a lay of the land. It seems that there was a tower building rush across Japan at some point; there's even an association for city towers in Japan. The tower isn't very nice looking frankly, and it really doesn't blend with the older, more traditional feel of Kyoto.
The tower did, of course, have a nice view though. From this vantage point, it was clear that Kyoto was much smaller than Tokyo, with many temples mixed in with the newer buildings. Apparently, Kyoto wasn't bombed nearly as much as other Japanese cities during WW II, so there were many more old buildings than in Tokyo.
After the tower, we walked to the nearby Higashi Honganji, a Buddhist temple with the largest wooden building in the world; unfortunately, the large building was being renovated so they had built an aluminum building around the building to protect it while they worked on it. Fortunately, we could see the inside plus some other buildings. I loved the sparse design aesthetic - unadorned wood with minimal painting; it's quite different from Chinese temple design.
For dinner, we stuff ourselves at a decent inakaya - basically bar food where you order lots of little dishes like grilled skewers of meat, noodles, sushi, etc. We also ate a lot of mochi, a Japanese glutinously rice dessert that is a Kyoto speciality (this is the first time I've had it stuffed with chocolate and dusted with cinnamon.) Good stuff.
Today, we took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. There are several flavors of Shinkansen that run from Tokyo to Kyoto, but of course, if you're going to take the bullet train, you have to take the fastest -- the Series 700 Nozomi. The train left right on time. (Of course. According to Wikipedia, the Shinkansen arrives within six seconds of the scheduled time on average - and that includes natural and human accidents!) The Nozomi can get up to 177 miles per hour in service, although I don't know how fast we really went. The ride was very quiet and extremely smooth; there's virtually no clacking sound like most trains because they weld the tracks together to remove the seams. It's really even nicer than the TGV in France.
The restaurant is dark and beautiful with very attentive service from the English-speaking staff. Like other teppanyaki restaurants, guests sit around a bar where the chef grills your food in front of you. However, unlike Americanized Benihana-style teppanyaki, there isn't a cooking "show", so no flaming onion volcanoes or flipping of shrimp heads into the chef's hat (much to the boys' disappointment.)
There were really too many amazing courses to list or show off here, but I'll hit a few of the highlights.
One that we all thought was incredibly delicious and innovative was the sashimi course (below). This lovely box contained (from right to left): caviar, minced chu-toro (fatty tuna), uni (sea urchin), squid (I think), salmon roe, chives, toasted rice balls, nori (seaweed), wasabi sauce (I think), sour cream, and avocado sauce. To eat this, you used the little bamboo paddle and swept across the box, combining bits of the different ingredients and then dipping the mix into the light shoyu sauce. The combination of flavors and textures was insanely great. Even the others who don't normally eat uni and such enjoyed this.
Another great course was this lobster dish. The very sweet tail meat of the Australian lobster was well balanced by the sharp pepper sauce; the cilantro was a nice addition too. This was perfect in its simplicity.
As the chef prepared the star course of the show - the meltingly tender and moaningly delicious Kobe beef for me, great fillet for the others) - we were served little ramekins of mashed potatoes. These already smooth potatoes had a quarter inch of clarified butter on top; we were instructed to mix butter into the potato. The results were almost soup-like; of course, they were rich and scrumptious. The beef, needless to say, was great, served with a choice of sauces, exotic salt, and garam masala - a nice and unusual offering. Kobe beef is the only meal I've ever had where everyone at the table either softly moans or giggles to themselves as they chew. This was no exception. Michael (7) demolished his 50g steak almost instantly.
After dinner, we moved upstairs to this very retro 70's/early 80's lounge for dessert. The centerpiece of the lounge was this incredibly kitschy Dom Perignon stand light with a rotating top. It was kind of fun that they didn't take themselves too seriously. I was too full to eat, so I just had a glass of Suntory Hibiki 17 year Japanese whisky. Lovely stuff.
Obviously, this wasn't a cheap meal, but damn, it was good. Truly a memorable feast.
Today, we made a pilgrimage to Akihabara today, mecca for geeks. In particular I dragged everyone to Yodobashi, the photo giant. While the camera gear was more expensive than I could get at home, they had tons of great accessories like camera bags (you can never have enough camera bags) and my favorite lens cleaning cloth - Microdear (yes, I have a favorite lens cleaning cloth - You can get them at Amazon too.). Since Michael's (7) birthday is coming up, we got him a little digital camera (a slick little black Fujifilm Finepix Z20fd). He's been snapping pix like mad since then.
After Yodobashi, we played some video games (including a cool Gundam game in pods) and headed to Shinjuku to get lunch at Takashimaya Department store and shop some. On the way from the train station to the store, we passed through "Little Seattle" - the row that has our Microsoft Japan sales office, REI, Eddie Bauer, and Starbucks (and now a Krispy Kreme with a huge line out the door). Our tempura lunch at the Tunahachi (a big tempura chain) in the store was nice as was the visit to the legendary food department in the basement of Takashimaya.
The ladies stayed to shop, so I took the boys back to the hotel. We stopped off at the Motoyama Milk Bar for a bit of refreshment; after seeing the name, I had to try it out. It really was a milk bar, serving great milk products like ice cream, milk, panna cotta, and so on (apparently, it's unhomogenized milk from Hokkaido). I had an absolutely lovely Coffee Milk in a cute bottle; it was like a frappuccino done right -- creamy and sweet but not cloying, with great coffee taste. I am dreaming of coffee milk and may have to come back to Japan just to get another one.
Today we took the train out to Odaiba, a man-made island in Tokyo filled with shopping malls, museums, a huge Ferris wheel, and such. We wandered around floors of shops, mostly without much luck, although the kids were delighted to find a Toys 'R' Us with a huge Pokemon Center. One of the odd things we saw in the store were live elephant beetles. Apparently, because of the popularity of the video game Mushi King where players battle with giant beetles, Japanese kids are collecting real beetles now.
After the toy store, we spent some time at the Sony showroom playing with their cool toys including the very fun Rolly, a little robot MP3 player that dances to the music; it was a neat way to get hands on with some fun technology. I kind of wonder if Microsoft should do something similar.
For lunch we found a bit of heaven - a ramen "theme park". This was a six of small ramen shops representing different styles from around Japan. There were "Iron Chef" style photos of each of the chefs. There was a hawker outside each shop drawing in customers; once we picked one (Tokyo style) we put money into a machine, pushed the buttons for what we wanted, and got some tickets to hand to staff. The gyoza and ramen were absolutely delicious; the ramen was very different from the Kyushu-style we had at Jangara with dark, rich broth.
Barbi, Kellie, and I decided to take advantage of our jet lag and go to the Tsukiji Fish Market early (5:30am) this morning (this isn't a great place for kids, so Michelle and the boys stayed at the hotel). This is the largest fish market in the world and an amazing scene of commerce and food. I had been to Tsukuji many years ago, but I was excited to come back.
In the intervening years, they have apparently had an influx of tourists getting in the way of operations. As a result, in the tuna auction area, they now have an area blocked off for tourists and rules about flash photography. I've read that they may be closing the whole thing off to tourists; while this makes perfect sense, it would be too bad.
Anyway, the big thing here is the tuna auction where they sell off huge frozen and fresh tuna. The buyers walk around inspecting the fish and then the auctioneer starts the sing-song bidding. In a few seconds, a huge tuna is sold. Click here for an idea of the prices. Beyond the auction area, the place is a maze of shops selling everything seafood related that you can imagine; the shops also cut down the big tuna they just bought for further sale. The auction area and shops are in a huge warehouse known as the inner market.
The outer market is a series of streets and alleys selling more food like pickles, spices, and such as well as cooking supplies like the big knives the guys in the inner market use. There are also crazy good food stalls and restaurants serving the freshest fish from the market. After our tour, we had a bowl of maguro donburi (fresh tuna slices on a bowl of sushi rice) at Kanno, a stall four booths from the corner of Shin Hashi Dori and Harumi Dori (the main intersection near the market). It was super good, with the super fresh tuna and lovely sushi rice. Click here for a good New York Times article on restaurants in the area.
We decided to check out the Omotesando and Harajuku area, starting with the lovely Meiji Shrine area. As explored this huge park, we discovered an extra bonus - the irises were blooming in the garden. While this was lovely, it did mean that the park was flooded with tour buses full of people checking out the flowers.
We then strolled around Takeshita Street (where the cool kids shop), Omotesando Street (where the rich people shop), had a great lunch at Jangara Ramen, took a long exploration of Kiddy Land - a huge toy store - where the boys loaded up on Bakugan, then walked through Aoyoma to get to Shibuya where we saw the big crush at Shibuya crossing, and then went back to the hotel. Whew.
The whole area was pretty cool, even on a Wednesday. The contrasts between the Meiji Shrine, Takeshita, and Omotesando were really striking as we went from serene iris gardens to hip Tokyo youth culture to the elegant "Champs-Elysees" of Tokyo in a few blocks.
For lunch today, we went to Jangara Ramen in Harajuku at the recommendation of my colleague Li. In his mail to me, he said, "...you'll be in pork fat heaven! Some say it's the best in Tokyo, and I can't imagine better tasting ramen."
OMG, he wasn't kidding. Jangara specializes in Kyushu-style ramen. I don't know if I can characterize the differences, but the broth is pork-based (vs. miso or shoyo-based) was perhaps a bit richer than I'm used to, and the pork was cut thick with a luscious cap of fat. The boiled egg on top was soft cooked, and the whole thing was topped with cod roe (lovely). The pickled greens and crushed garlic on the table made the bowl even better. For more, here's Rameniac's description of the style.
You could order one of a couple styles of ramen, each with options A-H which defined the toppings (everything, no egg, etc.) We also had nice gyoza to go with. They had English menus, and the staff was quick and helpful. I slurped down my bowl and ate what the kids' didn't finish from theirs. I was stuffed to the point of pain, but I couldn't stop eating. I'm still silly with the thought of the stuff.
Jangara is a small chain in Tokyo; there are actually two at this location on Omote-sando Dori, located on two floors. They are about a block from the Harajuku JR train station. They were apparently voted best ramen in Tokyo in 2003. I must find who won this year.
This evening, we had an early dinner at Inakaya, a robatayaki place here in Roppongi. I had been to the original branch several years ago and was excited to come back. In robatayaki you sit at a U shaped bar with a huge selection of vegetables, meat, and fish before you. You point to things you want and the chefs grill it in front of you. As you order, all of the staff yell out the order in reply, so the place can get pretty raucous (although we were there early, so it was more subdued.)
The chefs pass the food, beer, whatever to you on these 3-4 foot long paddles; these guys are seriously strong. They can hold the paddles up without shaking at all. I'm not sure I could even hold the paddle steady.
The food was simple and very fresh; for instance the prawns (which were the hugest I've ever seen) were still moving on the display tray. The abalone was especially good but the whole snapper was my favorite. They thread a whole fish onto a skewer so the fish is in a S-shape; they rub a little salt on the fins to make them stand out, then they suspend the fish over the heat to cook. When it comes off it looks like it's swimming. The meat was tender and perfectly done.
Anyway, it was a great start to the trip. I'm looking forward to some other great meals...
Greetings from Tokyo! I'm on vacation with the family plus our friends Kellie and Barbi. We're here for ten days in Tokyo and Kyoto; I'm taking the family to Beijing for a few days afterwards. While Michelle and I have each been Tokyo on business before (Michelle was here just two weeks ago!), this is the first time either of us has been here on vacation. It's also the first time the boys have been Asia.
The trip from Seattle to the Grand Hyatt here in Roppongi (a district in Tokyo) was very smooth. Our flight left on time, arrived an hour early, we were right on time for the Narita Express train into town, and we had a smooth check-in. The weather is even sunny and warm.
We had a great dinner (more on that in another post) and are back at the hotel now, fighting to stay awake for a while to get acclimated to the new time zone.
Anyway, stay tuned for more...
I've had several people ask how our first camping trip went, so I figured I should post about our experience.
I left work early to get ready for our big boys weekend camping trip at Deception Pass. I did some grocery shopping and made a last minute decision to get a cook stove (a Coleman PerfectFlow InstaStart two burner job -- great decision). I picked the boys up from school and started packing the car. I had too much junk, so I had a bit of last second re-packing to do and we were off. We left Bellevue at 4:30pm on a Friday, headed to Deception Pass. The weather was miserable at home, and we were in continuous rush hour traffic pretty much all the way up past Everett, so we didn't get off to a good start.
However, as we got closer to Deception Pass, both the weather and traffic started clearing; by the time we got to the campground 2.5 hours after we left home, the weather was clear and beautiful. We found our site easily (even though the photo on the Parks website wasn't the right one for our site) and got the tent set up; then I went to get the sleeping bags and realized I had forgotten them at home during my mad repacking. My brain raced through the options - go home and get the bags, sleep on the pads wearing all the clothes we brought, bail on the entire thing... The boys looked on nervously as I sat with my head in my hands. I then realized that we weren't that far from civilization; we piled back into the car, drove to Oak Harbor (nine miles away) and bought three new sleeping bags at the Kmart. We were back in business!
We went and played by the water in the lovely sunset, had our fire complete with hot dogs and s'mores. Actually, Michael (7) cooked chunks of sashimi-grade tuna over the fire because he doesn't like hot dogs. We read ghost stories in the tent and listened to the EA-6Bs and P3s from the nearby Naval Air Station Whidbey Island fly their night missions (the aircraft noise was the only real bummer that night). Fortunately, the heavy rain that night drowned out the noise. :)
It was still raining when we woke up; I rigged a tarp over the picnic table and made coffee for myself as the kids slept in. By the time they woke up, the rain cleared up and didn't rain again. After breakfast, we played on the beach, climbed rocks, messed around with the driftwood, tried to find a geocache, and generally mucked about. The guys both managed to flood both pairs of shoes we brought (including rubber boots), so I had shoes drying by the fire.
Michelle landed from her trip to Tokyo, took a nap, and then came up to join us around dinner time. It was getting a bit nippy, so Michelle decided not the stay the night; Michael decided he wanted to go home too, so it was just me and Andrew (10). We had a great breakfast in the morning (pancakes and bacon -- wow, I forgot what a pain it is to cook bacon in a pan. Oven bacon rules!), packed up camp, and came home.
We all had a great time. The boys were already pestering me to go again, so I think it was a success.
As I wrote back in January, I resolved to take the boys camping this year and had booked a camp site. The fateful weekend is now here; we leave tomorrow afternoon for our big adventure at Deception Pass State Park. I think I have everything I need and just need to pack now.
We're all pretty excited, but I admit I'm a little nervous about how it will turn out since this is the first time I've ever really camped. Plus, the weather forecast is a little dicey (70% rain, 50% rain, 20% rain for the three days...). I'm sure we'll make it work.
Anyway, see you on the other side...
I almost missed yet another change in the security theater of airline travel in the US. Starting on January 1, 2008, there are restrictions on how you can travel with lithium batteries -- the kind of rechargable batteries you probably have in your laptop, cellphone, MP3 player, digital camera, and so on.
As I read it, for the most part, you can carry your lithium batteries in your devices the way you do today, in your carry-ons or in checked luggage. However, you may not check spare batteries; you must hand-carry spare batteries. There are also new limits on how much lithium you can carry aboard, for most people, this won't be an issue. The TSA also has suggestions on how to pack your batteries in your carry ons to minimize the threat of short-circuiting the battery and starting a fire. You should read the details and figure out your own interpretation. (For grins, here's the FAA analysis of lithium-ion battery fires in aircraft.)
For me, this will mean no longer checking my camera bag or at least the extra batteries. I usually hand-carry my laptop and its spare battery so no issue there. Stil, one more thing to think about.
As I mentioned previously, I chaperoned Andrew's (10) fifth grade class for a four day, three night field trip to Islandwood, a 255 acre outdoor learning center on Bainbridge Island near Seattle. (Here's a link to the Live Maps view of Islandwood. You can also get a "bird's eye" view of the facility.)
I must admit, the trip was much more enjoyable than I expected. First, the facilities are incredibly nice; it's not like any camp I've ever been to. Islandwood was donated by Paul Brainerd (founder of Aldus Corporation) and has a donor role that's a who's who of the Seattle wealthy (apparently Steve Ballmer hosts the fund raising dinners at his house, for instance.) As a result, they appear to be incredibly well funded. The facility is constructed and operated as a demonstration of eco design principles and is LEED Gold certified. Everywhere you look, there's a sign saying how the toilets are saving water, how the counters were made from recycled yogurt containers, how the wood was recovered from state highway projects, etc. They even weighed all of the compostable and non-compostable food waste after each meal to teach the kids to take only what they need. (By the last meal, we only had three pounds of food waste for 100+ people. This is crazy low; apparently most Americans each waste four pounds of food per day.)
During the day, we broke up into field study groups of eight kids, two instructors (masters students in education), and an adult chaperone (e.g. me). We visited some of the various ecosystems within Islandwood such as the harbor/estuary, pond, and bog. We also did team building activities on their teams course. The instructors did a good job keeping it fun for the kids, using games and hands-on activities. I especially enjoyed the owl/mouse/seed game where they had the kids learn about the balance of nature. The kids were divided into owls, mice, and seeds. The seeds had to go plant themselves, a few seconds later the mice had to pair up with a seed, and then a few seconds later the owls would try to hunt the non-paired mice. There were some rules about what happened if you were caught, etc. and over a few rounds, you could see the mice numbers fall when there were too few seeds, etc. This was especially clear on the chart they created. Neat stuff and the kids had fun.
Another highlight for me and many of the kids was a night hike. We walked through the woods with no flashlights or other illumination. I was surprised how well I could see after a little while. We talked about night vision (rods and cones), listened to the forest (they did a blindfolded "trust walk" which was interesting), listened to some stories, and did the wintergreen Lifesaver trick (they really do spark when you bite them -- cool.)
The meals were good. Most of the food was made from scratch on site (e.g. they baked their own bread) and were very accommodating to the various food restrictions the kids had. The kids ate a lot and many gushed about how good the food was. I think many families don't cook much at home so the food really stood out for them.
We also lucked out and had good weather (read: it didn't rain or snow) the whole time. Given this was only a week after the massive rainstorm that hit the area the week before, I feel very fortunate indeed.
The kids were much better behaved than I expected. The Islandwood staff commented on that as well. The only real bummer was a few kids and a teacher in my dorm got sick (projectile vomiting, etc.) Other than this small outbreak of typhoid (not really typhoid) it was a great trip. I also really enjoyed getting to know Andrew's classmates better; I hear their names all the time, but I don't know many of the kids well. It was a great opportunity for me.
I highly recommend anyone who gets the chance to attend one of the programs at Islandwood.
I just got some horrible news. In the big windstorm we had yesterday, a kiteboarder died on Lake Washington; the victim was Dan Bergin, skipper of Papa, the boat I sailed on last September. Apparently, it was a freak accident, but I don't have more details. I'm in a bit of shock. I just saw Dan a few weeks ago at the Seattle Boats Afloat Show. He told me about his new boat, and we were trying to find a good time to go see it.
I really respect Dan and the way he lived his life. He was an Annapolis graduate who served our country flying EA-6B Prowlers off of carriers, flew for Delta Airlines, and then left all of that to pursue his passions of skiing and sailing. He really enjoyed life and people; he was fun and irreverent most of the time, serious and professional when needed. It's fitting that was doing something he truly loved until the very end. In the talk he gave about long distance cruising at the Boats Afloat Show he reminded everyone to actively pursue their dreams. He did. It was a good reminder for us all.
I'm glad we met and am sad I didn't know him better. I will try to live a little more like Dan every day. Rest easy, Captain Dan.
[Update: Here's a link to Dan's obituary in the Seattle PI.]
One of the oddest things I've seen travelling is the Starbucks in the middle of the Forbidden City in Beijing. I've stopped there several times and admit to having a latte or iced mocha there once or twice. However, we'll have to find some other refreshment stop in the Forbidden City from now on. The people who run the Forbidden City apparently decided they wanted all of the vendors to operate under a common brand, so Starbucks decided to close the joint. Oh well.
More from the International Herald Tribune.
Thanks to Richard for tipping me onto this story.
(I've taken hundreds, maybe thousands of photos in the Forbidden City, but I don't seem to have any of the Starbucks. I'm sure I took some. Weird.)
I just got back from Foo Camp. It's late, so I'll have to write more later, but sufficed to say I had a great time, learned a lot, met some amazing people, and made some good connections for work. I even met someone who went to my high school in Minnesota (albeit many years after I did).
I had a lovely drive back from Sebastopol too, going out to coast and then driving south to San Francisco down highway 1. (Click here for the route, just for reference). I met up with my college friend Connie at Town Hall for a fantastic dinner and then headed home.
I flew down to San Francisco this morning, picked up my red Mustang convertible (may as well enjoy the sunshine), and drove up to my hotel in Santa Rosa before Foo Camp.
On the way up, I stopped at the Golden Gate Bridge on the Marin (northern) end. I have been to the bridge zillions of times, but not too often on the north end and certainly not recently. I really like the view from this side since you can see the bridge and the city behind it. Chooky and I once were on the top of a hill here on the 4th of July and saw a great show, with the fireworks over the bridge and the city behind.
I also checked out some of the old gun batteries; the area is littered with gun emplacements and an old Nike missle battery that were here to protect the bay. I've never really spent much time in this park and want to come back. I got a little lost on the way out of the park and wound up in the cute town of Sausalito. After driving through, I headed up to Santa Rosa, baking in the sun (oh well). I'm in my hotel room now finishing up a few things and then will head over to the O'Reilly campus.
Anyway, I got a few decent shots even though it was mid-day; I changed up the set of lenses I normally carry to force myself to try to shoot differently and to reduce the weight of my gear. I have my Lensbaby, a 24/1.8, and a 70-200/2.8L (yeah, still not light).
I finally got off my butt and made my travel arrangements to go to Foo Camp next weekend. Tim O'Reilly hosts this annual event at the O'Reilly Media campus in Sebastopol, CA. They invite 250 hopefully (supposedly?) interesting "Friend's of O'Reilly" (aka FOO) to get together for a few days to share ideas, debate, hang out, etc.
I was flattered to get an invitation; I'm impressed with the people I know who are going and am looking forward to meeting some of the others on the list. I admit I'm a bit unsure about how this will go since I haven't been before, but I'm excited to participate and learn.
I don't have an agenda I want to drive, but I'm still thinking of ideas of stuff to present. (Let me know if there's anything you want to hear from me.) Maybe I'll just talk about bacon.
Last weekend, Kellie, Kristen, Katya, Christopher, Barbie, and I went out to the Yakima Valley in Eastern Washington for a little wine tasting. After a brief stop at the XXX Root Beer Drive-In for lunch, we headed to Ellensburg for a fun filled evening (there were no hotel rooms in Yakima that evening). We had a good time playing hearts (which I never played before, but now I'm a fan) and drinking beer at the Tav, a good dinner at Pearls-on-Pearl, and more bar fun at the Starlight Lounge and Oak Rail Tavern. Nothing like partying with a bunch of college kids (from Central Washington University - the only thing in Ellensburg.) I really liked the Tav and Starlight Lounge; Pearls-on-Pearl was nice too.
After a slow morning at the luxurious Comfort Inn (I got a in a five mile run before almost anyone was up and got to watch Americas Cup TV coverage!) we headed over to Red Mountain, an AVA about an hour east of Yakima. We hit six wineries in a short period here. Of these, I really liked Fidelitas and Tapteil.
Fidelitas, in particular, was a group favorite with several of us joining their club (many of these places have a wine club where you "subscribe" to their quarterly or semi-annual mailings of a few bottles of wine). Their M100 reds and whites were very nice low-priced table wines, and their 2004 Syrah and eight Syrah were fantastic. Their new wine room was very nice too.
We had a pleasant lunch at Tapteil inside their cozy wine room (we brought a picnic lunch, but it was too windy to eat outside). Their 2001 Cab Merlot was our lunch wine and very tasty, especially once it opened up. We also found some good wines at Hightower Cellars and Kiona Vineyards Winery (esp. their Chenin Blanc ice wine - lush and tropical...). I didn't care for Sandhill Winery or Chandler Reach (although their 36 Red wasn't bad) as much.
Honestly, I think six wineries was too much for me. My taste buds were blown by the fifth place (Kiona), so I chose to sit out for a while; I probably didn't give Chandler Reach a fair shake because of this. After all that wine (thank goodness Barbi, who doesn't drink, was driving the mini-van), we had a quiet dinner at Gasperetti's in Yakima. Gasperetti's is supposed to be some kind of institution in Yakima (I'm sure it is), but I thought it was only OK. We saw a few kids out in prom-wear; ah, young love. Apparently, prom in Yakima includes Cheetos, since Barbi saw a bunch of girls in prom dresses buying bags of Cheetos at the gas station. We made a half-hearted attempt of going out in Yakima (including a few rounds of shuffleboard on the worst table ever at the Sports Center in Yakima) and called it a night.
After another night in a luxurious hotel (the Cedar Suites in Yakima), on Sunday morning we hit a few more wineries, all of which we loved. Our hands-down favorite was the new Agate Field Vineyard. Pretty much everything was gold there. I especially liked their 2002 and 2003 Red Blends (esp. 2002) and their Syrahs. Another favorite was Wineglass Cellars; Linda, the co-owner, was very charming and helpful. I bought a few of their older Cabernets and loved their Elerding and Rich Harvest. I'm looking forward to trying the ones I brought home. Masset was a nice surprise as well; I thought their Margaret Alice Late Harvest Viognier was especially good and slightly unusual. Sheridan was pouring their second label, Kamiakin, which was fine. Unfortunately, I had hoped to try their Sheridan branded wines. (Don't go to Sheridan on a Sunday, I guess.)
The cars loaded down with wine and a yummy Mexican lunch under in our bellies, we headed home. We had a great time and found a lot of tasty wines. There are apparently over five hundred wineries in Washington now, so I guess we have a lot more tasting to do...
Click here for Kellie's account of the weekend (I can't believe she got her post out before I did...)
Yesterday I took the boys over the Blake Island for our regular adventure outing. Blake Island a small island a few miles away from downtown Seattle in the middle of Puget Sound (map). It used to be a private estate owned by William Pitt Trimble, until his wife died of an accident, after which the heartbroken Trimble abandoned the estate. It's now a state park with a Native American arts and culture center called Tillicum Village (complete with salmon dinner and dancing show - not bad actually). It's only reachable by private boat or tour boat (the Argosy cruise line runs back and forth).
We've been to Blake Island once before a few years back on the sailboat we owned, and Andrew (9) went recently on a field trip. The guys have both been badgering me to go back since they like the driftwood covered beach, so I relented. We hopped on the 11:30 boat (the only one that runs this time of year) and spent two hours playing on the beach. Andrew, predictably, started building a huge house of driftwood, aided by a pretty girl who was camping nearby (lots of camping on Blake Island). Michael (6), equally predictably, enlisted my help sending driftwood "battleships" out into the water and trying to hit them with rocks. The weather was pleasant enough and everyone had a good time. We got a bit of lunch from the snack bar at Tillicum Village (I had a salmon salad - the salmon here is good since they pin the salmon on cedar stakes and cook it over an alder fire as part of their dinner show) and then caught the 2:30 boat back (again, the only one they run during May.)
It was a bit expensive - normally $40/adult, $12/kid minus a AAA discount for the round trip boat rides - plus the crazy Seattle parking rates (I paid $22 for parking across the street from Pier 55 where the Argosy departs.) Add to that the cost of snacks on the hour-long boat ride each way. On top of that, with the single boat sailing each way, you really only get two hours on the island. I think the next time we go back, we'll camp for a few days. The island has great views of Seattle and Mount Rainier, a fun beach for kids, and miles of wooded hiking trails. There are good facilities (bathrooms/showers, water, fire rings, and the snack bar with firewood/charcoal, lattes, and ice cream), and it's easy to get to.
In any case, it was a fun outing, and any day that I get to ride on a boat is a good one in my book.
Once every few years, I seem to have to relearn that having naturally darkish skin does not make me impervious to sunburn.
On the first morning of the trip to Cabo, I took the boys down to the beach; none of us had sunscreen on. Michelle had the bag with sunscreen and was supposed to be right down, but she got sidetracked trying to find a live network connection for her laptop.
Of course, I was well protected with my extensive base tan after a Seattle winter (not). As a result, the three of us were unprotected in the Mexican sun for about three hours. By the time I realized there might be a problem, I was good and red. That evening, I could barely sleep for the pain. (Somehow, the boys managed to escape serious burns; Andrew (9), in particular, just got a little more freckly.)
Two or three days later, my face started peeling in earnest. It was pretty horrific. Michael (6) started peeling a bit too, although he was more excited about it, thinking he was shedding his skin like a snake (he's clearly a Slytherin...).
As the trip was winding down to the last few days, I could go outside again without feeling the searing heat reburning my skin. Must remember to be smarter next time...
For our trip to Cabo, I had prearranged our airport transfer online before we left. Transcabo clearly warned their customers on the site to ignore the touts in the airport, explicitly stating their representatives would be outside the airport in distinctive orange shirts.
So, of course, as we left customs, I got sidetracked by a dude who looked very official and said my Transcabo guys were just out and would be back in a few minutes. He started telling me about the free breakfast, return transfer, and activities I could have. Michelle caught on immediately, said we weren't interested in a timeshare pitch, and left. I stood there like an idiot for a few more minutes until I clued into why Michelle left. Transcabo was just outside the airport holding a sign with my name on it, as promised.
Michelle, once again, proved that she's the brains of the operation.
BTW, Transcabo was great. I'd use them again any time. They were right there ready for us, the van was nice (unlike the taxi we took back to the airport), and the driver was friendly/helpful.
Michelle, the boys, and I just came back from a week of sunshine and in Cabo San Lucas. It was a good trip. Tons more later. Time to go to bed now.
Two weeks ago (before the storm and such), I took another trip to Whistler, this time with friends (and no kids). Eric (Group Program Manager for Microsoft's Digital Memories team) has a place up there and invited me and Chris (architect-type dude on Live Platform or some such thing) up for a boys weekend. It must have been an unofficial Microsoft weekend up there. We ran into zillions of Microsoft folks, including a girls trip of folks from my team (Kristen, Kellie, and Kellie's non-MS friend Juli) and Eric's sister, Stacey (who is a developer at Microsoft). We wound up hanging out with the girls and skied some with a bunch of other MS guys too.
It was really different skiing with adults vs. chasing Andrew (9) down the hill. My legs were definitely not ready for real skiing, plus I think my skis are simply too advanced and long for me. I was dying, but we had really good days for skiing. One of the fun things I did this time was wear my Garmin Forerunner 301 GPS while I was skiing. I used SportTracks (still one of my favorite apps) to pull the data off and then converted the tracks to Google Earth for a 3D rendering of the days' work. (You can see three tracks in the image above. The rightmost is the first day I skied on Whistler. The left tracks are on Blackcomb. The first track is me, the second track is Eric (who skied out down the mountain). Whistler Village is in the lower left corner.)
We also enjoyed the great apres-ski scene Whistler has to offer including many beers at the Longhorn Saloon (the inspiration for the codename of Windows Vista too, btw) and a great dinner at the Bearfoot Bistro, complete with Eric sabering a bottle of sparkling wine open (which is super fun incidentally, if a little less dramatic than one might expect.
Fortunately, the drive home was much easier than last time. I'm ready for another trip any time, hopefully with some new skis (maybe the Volkl AC2...)
Michelle and I took the boys up to Whistler, British Columbia, over the Thanksgiving weekend and just got back. Our timing and luck were great. The resort got an early dump of snow, so the skiing was good as was the snow play. Plus, since it's early in the season, the place wasn't very full yet. The weather was decent the whole time, with warmish (20 degrees F) temps and mostly light winds. It snowed almost the whole time, limiting visibility, but making for lots of fresh powder.
Andrew (9) went to ski camp for two days to polish up his very rusty skiing skills from a few years back and then skied with me the last day. He's a demon, bombing straight down the hill. It was really fun to ski with him, actually, even though we stayed on the easy runs (mostly Olympic at Whistler). Michael (6) wanted nothing to do with skiing and was more than content playing the snow and hanging out watching TV (since we don't have TV at home).
I haven't skied for three years and am definitely out of ski shape, despite my recent exercise. I was dying the first day -- thighs on fire, feet in pain, and heart racing. It took a while to settle back into any kind of rhythm, but I started to enjoy myself once I did. This was the first time I skied Whistler. I skied Blackcomb the one other time I've been at the resort before, a sunny May weekend many years ago where I skied the top of Blackcomb in a t-shirt and jeans in the morning and then swam under 75 degree sunshine in the Village that afternoon. It was pretty much the last weekend of the season that year; this was basically the first weekend of the season this year. Despite the extremes of the seasons, in both cases, only the tops of the resorts were open; the bottom runs back down the village were closed for lack of sufficient snow. Maybe some day, I'll actually ski the bottoms of the resorts.
Off the slopes, Michael and I played in a snow covered field (really a golf driving range across from the hotel) where we built an igloo, complete with a roof. Despite having grown up in Minnesota, this may have been the first time I've built a covered igloo (I have dug them out of snow banks before, but that's entirely different). The snow the first day was perfect - just wet enough to stick together, but not so wet as to be messy or heavy (after the first day, the snow was too powdery for building, but superb for sking). Each day Andrew, Michael, and I revisited the field and made something new out of the pieces of the igloo (since invariably someone would come smash it). We had a few epic snowball fights as well. Good fun.
We stayed at the Westin Resort & Spa in Whistler. This is a good hotel in Whistler, and I highly recommend it. The location is superb, right at the base of the Whistler gondola and a stone's throw to the Blackcomb gondola. It has great access to Whistler Village (lots of shops and restaurants) and couldn't be easier to drop the kids off at Whistler Kids for ski lessons. The hotel itself is newish with all the amenities that I like about Westin (especially the Heavenly Beds). We had a one bedroom suite which included a full kitchen and a dining table - convenient. Michelle and I had considered the Four Seasons, but after checking it out, we were glad we didn't go there. While it was certainly posh and I'm certain quite nice, it's location was terrible. Not only is it in the less-convenient Upper Village, but it's tucked away from the village areas behind another resort. We also tried a bunch of restaurants, which I'll write about later, but the short version is that almost everything we tried was a bit disappointing, even the vaunted Araxi.
The drive home was a bit of an adventure since everywhere from Whistler through about Everett had gotten a pile of snow. We were crawling along at 15-30mph for a huge part of the drive, with an hour+ wait at the border. The total time was about nine hours; by contrast, the drive up took just over five hours. We saw dozens of cars and trucks in ditches, spun out, or just plain stuck. Fortunately, we were in our four-wheel drive Honda Element, which handled the slick conditions like a champ.
Anyway, the whole time we were up there, I kept wondering why we don't go up to Whistler more often. It's beautiful, fun, and pretty convenient from Seattle, especially for a world-class resort. Hopefully, we'll go back soon.
I had night in Vancouver, British Columbia before Michelle and the kids showed up. After checking into the Westin Grand Hotel (nice hotel, btw) and, of course, checking my email, I struck out to find dinner.
The place was packed, even though it was relatively early on Thursday night. I bellied up to the bar and was immediately gratified to see a huge wall of Scotch bottles before me. I settled into my old favorite Ardbeg 10 Years Old and started to salivate through the dinner menu. Blue Water has an extensive seafood menu including a good oyster list and an amazing sushi bar. Since I love whisky with oysters and sushi, I was in heaven.
As I chatted with Brad, the bar manager, I learned that Blue Water has over a hundred different single malt whiskies; the owner is apparently a huge whisky fan. Brad knew his stuff too. I had an amazing Ardbeg Uigeadail, which I hadn't seen before (Brad told me the local liquor store had a few bottles left, so I went the next day and bought one). I like it even more than the Ardbeg 10 - smoky and delish. I also did their Highland Park Scotch flight - a tasting each of the Highland Park 12, 18, and 30 year old whiskies. I'm a big Highland Park fan, so it was super to be able to try all three side-by-side. After that, I put myself in Brad's hands, letting him pick. I admit I lost track a bit of what he served, but they were all great...
The oysters and sushi were fantastic as well (of course, a few glasses of whisky makes everything taste good.) I chatted up my neighbors at the bar and met some nice folks including a guy getting ready to start his own restaurant and a couple from California who had just gotten off their chartered power boat after a week in the Canadian Gulf Islands (what a coincidence).
I had a very enjoyable evening at a fantastic restaurant. I'll definitely go back again.
(Note: I wrote this post on the day the events occurred, but posted this after the trip, so the dates may be a bit messed up. This post is from the seventh day of the trip, Wednesday.)
We left Smuggler's Cove this morning and headed into the teeth of a big storm. We motored for a while in 2-4 foot seas with 15-20 knot winds and rain coming exactly from the direction we needed to go. It was actually a good day to learn how to handle a boat in heavy weather. It was getting pretty tough with the boat pounding, but I admit I enjoyed it. For a while, the portholes on the low side of the boat (sailboats heel or lean in heavy wind) were under the water (click here for video of pounding seas and green water going past the porthole, 687K .wmv). It can get a little dangerous below in seas like this. I was laying down for a while trying to get a little nap when Mike and Dan tacked the boat (changed directions). Suddenly, stuff started flying across the boat - binders, books, Mike's iPod, jackets, etc. All of this stuff had settled someplace on the last tack, but now that the boat was heeling the other way, it all came shooting out again. Good times.
We hove to for a while so we could cook and eat (heaving to is a cool sailing trick where you almost stop the boat by balancing the sails and steering). It was actually a bit amazing to see the stove swinging around and the pot of hot soup not sliding around. (Stoves on sailboats are gimballed, allowing them to swing to match the heel of the boat so the pots don't slide off). After lunch, we sailed into the storm. Cap't Dan coached us on heavy weather sailing and tacking single handed.
After a bit, we motored the rest of the way into Vancouver, coming under the Lion's Gate Bridge. We're tied up now at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club, Coal Harbor outstation, on the edge of Stanley Park. We just had a good dinner in the cafe here on the docks. It's nice to have someone else cook for a change.
Michael took off back to Seattle, and we were joined by Brad, a new sailor who will be riding with Papa back to Seattle. I'm staying on board tonight and will hang out on the boat tomorrow for a while before they leave for the San Juan Islands. Michelle and the kids will be joining me here in Vancouver for the weekend.
It's been a great trip - relaxing and fun. It was kind of a gamble getting on a boat with two strangers, but it turned out fantastic. Mike and Dan were easy to get along with and good shipmates, and Papa was a great boat. I highly recommend Dan and SailPapa.com for any chartering.
I'm super glad I did it.
(Note: I wrote this post on the day the events occurred, but posted this after the trip, so the dates may be a bit messed up. This post is from the sixth day of the trip, Tuesday.)
We're holed up in Smuggler's Cove on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, about fifty miles north of Vancouver on our last night of the trip. We have the tiny inner bay all to ourselves; it's amazingly quiet and an appropriate finish before we arrive in busy Vancouver tomorrow.
This morning we left the Cortes Bay outstation under sunny skies. Once we cleared the harbour, we pretty much had a straight shot down the Malaspina Straight. Once again, at the north end of Texada Island, we ran into a herd of Dall's porpoises. (my guess is that it was the same group we saw earlier) They played with us for a while and then turned tail and ran for greener pastures.
The wind was ideal for a few hours this afternoon, so we set sail, first sailing downwind wing-on-wing and then flying our spinnaker again. (It was nice of Cap't Dan to arrange a downwind run on our way out and another on our way back - it's neat and unusual go downwind north and south...) We ran for a few hours before the wind finally gave out.
All day we've been finishing our foodstuffs, finding creative and yummy ways to exhaust what's left. It's a good exercise.
I'm a bit sad as I think of only one more day on the boat. We've settled into a good rhythm with everyone knowing what needs to be done and just making it happen. I've also enjoyed being disconnected from the world, like a week long plane ride. It'll be weird to be back in "civilization" tomorrow with connectivity, noise, and people.
More than anything, this trip has reminded me that I need to take time off of work.
We have another early tide to catch, so time to go bed. More thoughts later.
After a few days beyond all electronic communication, we're back to civilization (well, we have wifi). We're tied up at the Seattle Yacht Club outstation here in Cortes Bay on Cortes Island, just at the mouth of Desolation Sound.
I have tons to write about, but I need to go to sleep now since we have to get up early to catch the tide back to Vancouver. It'll take us two days to go the one hundred miles back to Vancouver, and it looks like we'll have a storm blowing in our face the whole way. Should be interesting.
It's been stunning up here. We've had great experiences from seeing whales and porpoises to feasting on oysters to resting in secluded anchorages by ourselves. The weather has been mostly rainy with a few breaks, but I've loved it.
Anyway, more later.
(Note: I wrote this post on the day the events occurred, but posted this after the trip, so the dates may be a bit messed up. This post is from the fifth day of the trip, Monday.)
We woke up in our little cove to a whole new world. The sun had come out, and tide had gone down exposing a beach covered with oysters. I mean absolutely covered. You couldn't take a step without stepping all over the oysters. We took the dinghy into the beach and proceeded to feast on oysters. It was kind of caveman and a bit obscene really, using hammers and screwdrivers to smash and pry the oysters open to eat. Delish. (We felt pretty good about eating the oysters since the area has several large oyster farms.)
I also checked out the little lake behind the cove we were in. At high tide (when we came in) it looked like you could sail from our cove into this other cove, but at low tide, the back cove was cut off as the beach was exposed. It's good to know how to read a chart and tide book. Anyway, it was lovely.
After our little feast and dinghy ride (always fun), we picked up our anchor and motored off. We headed over to West Redonda Island and up the Teakerne Arm, a long fjord into the island. (Side note, we had a minor miracle of seamanship, finding a black fender that we had lost the day before.) Again, we were the only ones there all the way up to the end of the fjord to Cassel Falls, a water fall that goes from Cassel Lake into the salt water of Teakerne Arm. Apparently, the flow wasn't very high, but it was still lovely. Dan dropped a pole into the water, so we pulled on his wetsuit and dove for it. Meanwhile, Mike and I hiked up to the lake and went for a (brief) swim. Once we got back to the boat, I decided I should swim in the salt water too, so I dove off of Papa's stern into the icy, icy water. Damn, it was cold.
As we left the falls, the rain picked up again, getting pretty bad, so we headed to Cortes Island and the Seattle Yacht Club outstation in Cortes Bay. It was nice to have shore power again (so we could finish Master and Commander), wifi access, and a real bathroom/shower. We were the only ones at the entire outstation; I understand that during the busy part of the season, all 1500 feet of dock space are full.
(Note: I wrote this post on the day the events occurred, but posted this after the trip, so the dates may be a bit messed up. This post is from the fourth day of the trip, Sunday.)
Well, it rained on me as I slept on deck. Actually, I was up already because Cap't Dan's cellphone was beeping as the battery ran low. After I killed the phone, I turned over to go back to sleep, but it started to rain, so I had to retreat back into Papa.
By the time we woke up again the morning, it was totally dumping. We all slept in, keeping warm in the cold boat (we left the diesel heater off to conserve power and to keep the boat quiet). I stayed in the sleeping bag for a while, reading and sipping coffee; it was a very civilized and pleasant way to spend a Sunday morning.
After lunch, we decided to go exploring a bit and find a new anchorage. We motored around for a while going from cove to cove. Dan put up a bimini cover over the cockpit to keep us a little more dry as the rain and wind picked up. We also hooked up the radar to help us see in the mist and fog (it's bloody hard to read a radar display; fortunately this was the same model we used to have on our boat.) We finally settled motored up Pendrell Sound in East Redonda Island. We were all alone in the sound; we didn't see another boat at all. We found a little cove, just big enough for Papa to anchor and swing around it; it was protected by an hooked peninsula and island. We dropped our bow anchor and stern tied to a tree on shore.
It kept raining pretty hard, so we decided to have movie night, watching Master and Commander - The Far Side of the World on Dan's computer, pumping the audio through the boat stereo. Unfortunately, the laptop ran out of power because the inverter (the thing that converts the 12 volt DC boat power into 110 volt AC power the computer needs) was broken (which we just discovered that evening). As a result, we only saw the first half of the movie (disappointing to me because I hadn't seen it before.)
Mike and I had a good geekfest (we got to play with a multimeter) diagnosing the inverter (but to no avail). The lack of the laptop means that we won't have a chartplotter - a GPS that draws on a computerized chart. We'll have the navigate the old fashioned way - a GPS and paper charts. Oh the horror. Mike and I considered a mutiny and thought about demanding a refund, but cooler heads prevailed.
Fortunately, we had plenty of beer. You can see Mike (left) and Dan (right) modelling all the good ways to hold a beer on a boat.
(Note: I wrote this post on the day the events occurred, but posted this after the trip, so the dates may be a bit messed up. This post is from the third day of the trip, Saturday.)
I thought yesterday was the best day ever on a boat. Today might have been even better. We slept in a bit today and woke up this morning in Blubber Bay to a beautifully sunny day with a nice breeze from the southeast. I checked our crab traps and found a nice little Dungeness crab in there. We had another great breakfast (with bacon cooked on the grill, oven style -- wonderful on a boat too.)
After we cleaned up, we left our anchorage under sail and started flying as soon as we left the bay. In 20kts of wind, we were booking along at six and seven knots. It felt great to sail finally after motoring for the past two days. Once we turned north, we set our spinnaker and flew under the kite for three hours - easily my longest spinnaker run ever. The highlight was cutting through the Thulin Passage in Copeland Island Provincial Marine Park under spinnaker. It's a very narrow passage, maybe a few hundred yards wide; the wind was exactly on our stern so we were able to run it under spinnaker -- very exciting and somewhat rare. We continued our run outside the passage until we turned the corner at Sarah Point into Desolation Sound, where the wind died down.
As we motored up Desolation Sound, I sat in the bow pulpit (my favorite place) and just soaked in the amazing scenery. The sun was still super warm and was lighting up the big mountains and islands perfectly. It's really fjord-like back here. We pulled into the very lovely Prideaux Haven, a small set of protected coves described as the "quintessential Desolation Sound anchorage" in the guidebook. There were already a few boats in the two main coves, so we picked Melanie Cove, the one with four sailboats (it's funny that even here, the sailboats and stinkpots keep apart). The water was glassy and full (I mean full of zillions) of jellyfish (so no swimming here). We anchored easily and went for a dinghy ride to the island. Once we pulled up on the island, we hiked around for an hour and then pulled up a few oysters. Michael had his first raw oyster, standing in the water where it was harvest and bashed open by Cap't Dan. He loved it.
We came back to Papa and prepared yet another feast - salad, ribeye steaks grilled three ways (soy sauce marinade, jerk marinade, and plain with a rosemary/garlic herb butter), corn on the cob, and red potatoes tossed with the same rosemary/garlic butter. We washed it down with a nice Ravenswood cab.
It's quiet here like no quiet you could ever get in town and the visibility is stunning. We sat in the dark looking at the stars, even seeing satellites shoot past. Unfortunately, the clouds were rolling in, so we did see as much as last night.
Tomorrow, we're supposed to get a real blow, so who knows what it will be like. I'm sleeping on deck tonight to get a real sense of the outdoors. Hopefully it won't rain on me.
(Note: I wrote this post on the day the events occurred, but posted this after the trip, so the dates are a bit messed up. This post is from the second day of the trip, Friday.)
Today may have been the best day I've ever had in a boat -- and we didn't really even sail! After a late start due to grocery shopping, chart shopping, waiting for the liquor store to open, and getting more fuel, we took off from Nanaimo this morning around 10:00am. The weather was overcast with a 10kt wind right on our nose from the northeast. We had to take a slightly longer route to skirt Whiskey Golf, a Canadian weapons testing range (36ft fiberglass sailboats lose 100% of the time against torpedoes moving at 50kts). The Canadians had a big amphibious assault carrier out on the range turning circles; not sure why.
As we motor sailed north (again, more motoring than sailing) and enjoyed the great breakfast Michael cooked, the weather opened up and the seas became flatter. It really became a very pleasant day. I learned how to input the GPS waypoints and have the autopilot drive from point to point which made my job even easier. I just hung out on deck watching the islands go by, taking a few photos, and reading my book. The photo here shows me sitting in the hammock with the autopilot remote. The data on the display shows that the cross-track error is zero: we're on course. Hard work...
Later in the afternoon, we finally killed the two crabs that Cap't Dan caught a few days ago. I steamed them over beer, garlic, and basil and made some garlic/basil butter for dipping along with some garlic bread. We ate our lunch on deck and washed it all down with some cold beer. The crabs were amazingly great and tasted even better in the sunshine and breeze.
As we reached the north end of Texada Island, we heard a wooshing sound and saw a grey whale on the surface. We killed our engine and sailed along the path of the whale, watching it blow and dive for a while. Then the whale approached the boat a few times. At one point, it crossed less then twenty yards in front of the boat, and then rolled under Papa with one tail fluke coming out of the water. We could see a spiral line of bubbles disappear into the deep. The whale continued to play with us, going under the boat a few times (we could see our depth sounder go from 400+ f eet deep to 20 feet instantly and then drop back to 400+.
After a while, we resumed our course when, ahead in the distance, we could see a lot of splashing. Michael and I then realized it was a line of Dall's porpoises coming at us, jumping along the surface of the water. These amazingly fast animals jetted by us (under the boat). We turned and followed them and then came back and swam under the boat and jumped along side us for a while (click here for video, 543K .wmv). It was truly amazing. Finally, they took off in search of a more fun and food. The three of us each had our cameras out (I had two) and were shooting, yelling, and laughing the whole time, maybe 45 minutes.
Because of our time with the whale and porpoises, we realized we weren't going to make our destination by dark, so we decided to stay in Blubber Bay, which was close by. This is a little bay on the north end of Texada Island. It would be cute except for the limestone quarry right at the water's edge and the ferry that runs between the bay and the mainland, presumably to take the workers to and from the factory. Fortunately, it quieted down after sundown.
We circled the bay a few times to check out our anchoring conditions. Neither Michael nor I had ever set an anchor for real, so this was great chance. We put out a bow and stern anchor (with Michael having to row the stern anchor out) and then set about making dinner - a nice meal of grilled halibut, corn on the cob, buttered red potatoes, and hot chocolate chip cookies. While we enjoyed our dessert, we relived the day through all of the photos and videos we shot. There were definitely some great shots.
Even with the ferry dock and factory here, it's amazingly quiet and dark. We can see the Milky Way and zillions of stars (including a shooting star). It's really lovely and peaceful.
Time to go to bed. Tomorrow: Desolation Sound.
I'm on Papa with Captain Dan and my shipmate Michael here in Bellingham. Michael and I planned to take the train up here, but there was something wrong with the train so we wound up taking a bus - less cool than watching the sunset from the coastline train.
Anyway, so far these guys seem cool. Michael is a user experience designer at Adobe, so we're all geeked out already.
We're settled in for the night and are planning to ride the early morning current out to Nainaimo.
Should be fun!
I've decided to go on a sailing trip, leaving tomorrow. I'll be sailing on a boat named Papa, a Bavaria 36, from Bellingham, WA, up toward Desolation Sound (between Vancouver Island and the Canadian mainland) and back to Vancouver, BC. We'll be gone a week, plus Michelle and the kids will meet me in Vancouver for a few days afterwards.
It was definitely a spur-of-the-moment thing. I had been thinking about taking some time off since I haven't really taken a vacation all summer. I was noodling around the Windworks Sailing Club site and came across the link to Papa. Captain Dan runs the boat as a charter sometimes and was planning on a trip from Seattle to points north. I liked the vibe of the site and wanted to get some more boat time this summer (I had precious little), so I gave him a call. I liked him on the phone, so I decided to do it.
There will be one other guy on the boat with us; hopefully, everyone is cool, otherwise thirty-six feet will not be very big. I'm not normally one to do things like this at the drop of a hat, so I'm kind of proud of myself for taking this chance. We'll see how it goes.
Dan talked about supplementing our diet with crabs, salmon, oysters, clams, and shrimp, so the foodie in me is excited. I'll also be taking some sailing classes on-board to get my next level of certification, which will be nice too.
Special thanks goes to my loving and understanding wife, Michelle, who is taking the boys solo again so I can play.
I'll try to update the blog as I go. We'll see if I can get connected.
Ugh, I've been going through the worst jet-lag recovery since coming home. Flying east is always harder anyway, but several other events at home have conspired to make this recovery worse than normal.
I did a good job managing the flight home, switching to Seattle time as soon as I got on the flight in Jakarta and sleeping at mostly the right times. The first night home I had no problems sleeping. The second night I camped with the boys in the backyard. The combination of the uncomfortable sleeping arrangements (we were one sleeping bag short, so I was sleeping on blankets on the ground) and Michael (6) waking up a few times left me unable to get a reasonable night's rest. I tossed and turned again last night, being too overconfident that things would be OK to take melatonin (my jet-lag medication of choice). Unfortunately, I took a nap today, so I'm up this evening/morning.
It's 3:00am now, and I'm wide awake. I just read all of Heir to the Empire (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, Vol. 1) (the first book in the trilogy after the original six Star Wars books - it was actually a pretty fun read. Thanks, Irene, for the suggestion).
Anyway, it's too late this evening for melatonin. I should just try to power through and get some sleep. Hopefully tomorrow will be better.
On this trip to Jakarta, I flew on Eva Air for the first time. They are an air carrier from Taiwan) and do a very competent job. The service was very attentive and the food (if you like Chinese food) was quite good.
However, their older planes like the 747-400s I flew on don't have the amenities that I've come to expect from international business class (esp. trans-Pacific). In particular there is no power in the seats, there's no on-demand entertainment system, and the seats are old-school. The contrast to my flight on Air New Zealand was startling. I understand their new 777s are much nicer. Too bad they don't use them on the Seattle-Taipei leg yet.
The only other big complaint I have with Eva is that the they aren't part of any big airline miles systems, so I couldn't log the miles on any of my normal carriers; the closest I could get to a carrier I might fly again soon is Continental. Oh well.
On the older 747-400s like we were on, First and Business class are upstairs (get a window seat so you have the storage bins right next to you). Don, a nice guy I met on the flights who flies Eva regularly, says the Evergreen Deluxe class has the same seats but are downstairs in front and cost $1000 less. Good tip.
Anyway, I wouldn't hesistate to fly Eva again, especially since they were more convenient and less expensive to Jakarta than Northwest.
Ah, home. While Indonesia had its charms, I'm glad to be home where I can drink the tap water, drive between the stripes on the road, and see through the air. Oh, it's good to see Michelle and the kids too... :)
Aside from the two jackasses across the aisle who thought that everything they said was important enough for the whole plane to hear (it wasn't), the flight from Taipei was uneventful. I stayed awake most of the flight in order to be sleepier when I got home at 7:30pm.
I was the first one off the plane and through passport control (I think that may have been the first time for me for both of those.) Even though I got flagged into an agricultural inspection (I guess they get ansy when you come from Indonesia and say you're carrying food products, even if it is just chilli sauce and roasted coffee beans), I was in my car less than an hour after wheels down. God bless America.
Finally got connected here in the airport in Taipei. I'm at the end of the three hour layover and will finally be on my way home. I'm trying to shift back to Seattle time, which unfortunately means I need to power through the flight and stay awake.
Anyway, it'll be good to be home.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of my trip to Jakarta was that I finally tasted a real mangosteen. The mangosteen is a tropical fruit that I only ever tasted in the form of mangosteen flavored chewing gum (easily the best gum I've ever had). According to the Wikipedia article, mangosteen is illegal to import into the US for fear of fruit flies, so I've never been able to taste the real fruit in the US before.
Anyway, I was in the grocery store in the basement of the Sogo department store in the upscale Plaza Senayen shopping mall. (I like visiting grocery stores in different countries. Interesting to see what they have to offer.) After passing the stinky durian, I noticed a fruit with a sign that said mangis. I wondered if this could be the fabled fruit (I didn't really know what they looked like.) I figured I had nothing to lose by buying two, so I picked them up along with some coffee beans (how can you not buy coffee when you're on the island of Java?) and candy for the boys and went back to the hotel.
I eagerly cut open the first one, revealing the yummy white fruit. Success! It was a mangosteen. The fruit inside the thick red peel is like a white tangerine - a few small sections and one big one containing the pit. The texture of the flesh is kind of like lychee (if that helps) but thicker. The flavor was ethereal - delicately intense like a great pear. Anyway, I quickly wished I'd bought more. I'm not sure when I'll be able to find my next mangosteen, but I'm looking forward to it. In the meantime, I'll have to see if I can find some canned fruit.
Here are some bad photos of my mangosteen.
I'm done at last.
My agenda originally had me finishing up mid afternoon on Friday at the local Microsoft office, but things ran long and I wound up having dinner with our MVPs (Microsoft's Most Valuable Professionals - enthusiast volunteers who help support our users) at Izzi Pizza, a local pizza chain that serves pizza with a spicier Indonesian twist - not bad). As usual, the MVPs are awesome. This group in particular all knew each other well and really seemed to enjoy each others' company, so it was fun.
Risman from the local office asked me to come in today (Saturday) to open a developer event he was having, so I dutifully showed up to talk to the 100+ mostly ASP.net developers who came. I guess there was some misunderstanding about my role. I thought I was just going to do some quick ceremonial bit, but Risman was hoping for an IE7 talk and demo. I hadn't prepared anything or even brought my computer, so I freestyled a fifteen minute talk with Q&A. I jetted out afterwards with six bottles and jars of local chilli sauce that Risman brought me after seeing how much I liked the sauces the day before. Pretty much everyone I've met in the various Microsoft offices has been great; they do so much for us and have so much energy and initiative. We're lucky to have them be our face to the customer.
So, now I'm back in the hotel room packing. I've got about an hour before I need to leave.
See you on the other side.
Hermawan and Risman (above) from the local Microsoft office took me out to a place near the office for a real Indonesian lunch. This little cafe served Padang-style food where the servers bring out a bunch of dishes, and you only pay for the ones you eat. You can see the various plates stacked up in front of us. There was a great chicken curry, another chicken covered in curry and then roasted, some nice shrimp with potatoes, and a good dried beef. Almost everything was very nice.
With some glee, Hermawan put this crispy brown thing on my plate and wanted to see if I'd try it. Risman sat giggling. I asked what it was; Hermawan just said he'd tell me after I ate it. So I did. It tasted kind of like a pork rind, but beefy and a bit grainy. Not bad all in all. It's a dish called nasi padang -- fried beef lung. Well, that was a first for me. I think I earned some cred by eating it without flinching. As we left the table, I finished off the last bite just to show I wasn't scared of it. Somehow, I don't think it's going to ever make it big in the States.
We also had a tasty but slightly weird looking dessert. It was a bowl of coconut milk, tapioca noodles (I think), some bright pink fruit (like a cross between passionfruit and a pomegranate), jack fruit (yum), and avocado over ice. Frankly, the ice scared me the most as the water isn't great around here (I've been avoiding ice all week). It was yummy and refreshing, I must admit.
When it came time to tally the meal, the waitress pointed to a few dishes where we only ate part of the dish, like one of the two pieces of chicken; she only charged those as half a dish. A bit scared, I asked my hosts whether they re-served the uneaten food. They both smiled and said "I think you know the answer." As Michelle wrote to me when I told her this, "Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww, ick, ick, ick"
Lack of American-style hygiene aside, it was a good meal. I'm glad to have had at least Indonesian meal outside the hotel ordered by locals in the know. It was very memorable...
(Pardon the poor photo quality; these are camera phone snaps. We left the office in a hurry since we were short on time so I forgot my real camera.)
I'm sitting at the Microsoft office in Jakarta right now getting ready for an interview and some more presentations. It's nice to be back on the corporate network at high speed. It's a nice office (all of the subsidiary offices seem nicer than ours in Redmond.)
Yesterday was kind of a lost day for me. I went back to the conference in the morning, but by lunch, I wasn't feeling well and went back to the hotel. Even after taking a nap, I still felt bad, so I skipped the closing dinner and party. I was up and down in a haze, watching bad TV.
Fortunately, I feel better now. OK, they've come to get me for my interview. Time to go.
I'm sitting here in my hotel room in Jakarta getting ready for my talk in 3.5 hours about the Security Development Lifecycle and IE7 at the Bellua Cyber Security conference. I think my demos and deck are all set (knock on wood), so now it's up to me to deliver. I'm up first, right after the keynote speech by the Minister of Communications and Information of the Republic of Indonesia. I just got a text message though that due to the Minister's schedule, my talk got pushed back half an hour. Oh well.
Yesterday was my only free day in Jakarta. I slept OK well given the time change but was awoken just before 5:00am by the very loud call for morning prayers blaring outside the hotel. I was up anyway (sorta).
I had hoped to do some sightseeing and shopping, but we got a late start due to incredibly slow service at the hotel restaurant. Fortunately, the coffee was very good (not surprising since we're on the island of Java and next door to Sumatra) and the breeze on the deck at the restaurant was comfortable.
We did eventually manage to get some shopping in at a big discount mall called Mangga Dua frequented by locals. This was seven floors of twisty passages, all alike, chock full of little clothing, purse, watch, electronics, and DVDs. The prices were slightly higher than Beijing for clothing but way, way less for DVDs and purses. It was kind of a weird place. There were these super creepy mannequins in many of the shops and the popular snack stand was D'Corn where you can get cups of sweet corn with your choice of toppings ranging from butter to caramel to tuna salad. Having just had my late breakfast, I skipped the D'Corn. Maybe next time.
Traffic in Jakarta is typical of my experience in developing nations, where the lane boundaries are merely widely ignored suggestions, scooters dive in and out of traffic, and vehicles are inches apart on all sides as they crawl through traffic. Add that to my normal dysfunction around driving on the left side of the road, and I died a thousand deaths in the car on the way to and from the shopping. they manage to do it somehow.
The food has been OK so far - nothing to blog about, although admittedly I've been lame and have only eaten the hotel (something I almost never do). I'll have to reach out and find some real local treats.
OK time to get dressed and head off to the conference.
Dorian and I made it to Jakarta safely, although getting out of the airport and to the hotel was an ordeal. First, there was the hour line to get a visa. Then, there was the hour line to have someone else check the visa they gave me in the previous line. Fortunately, after two hours, our bags were out already plus the customs line was short. We found our hotel driver easily and then proceeded to drive into a big traffic jam.
About 45 min later we got to the hotel. As the car entered the hotel drive, we passed through a security checkpoint where they used mirrors to check under the car and opened the trunk and passenger compartment doors. I was simultaneously relieved and worried by this security treat. I'm glad they're doing it (since they clearly think there's a risk) but concerned since there were a bit cursory about it (I guess they don't consider the hotel Mercedes a threat, but maybe that would be the strategy...)
When we pulled up to the hotel, we went through another security check where they wanded our bags (but they didn't really dig around much) and then went through a metal detector. I guess we'll have to do this every time we go in and out of the hotel. Wahoo.
Time to unpack and get a beer (yes, I'm blogging before I've even had a beer - can you believe it?)
I'm in the business class lounge at Chiang Kai Shek International Airport here in Taipei, waiting for my connection to Jakarta. The lounge isn't too bad as far as these things go. In particular the food in't too bad (Dorian Orr, my travel partner from Microsoft's security team, keeps going back for meat baozi - humbow for the Seattle folks).
The fun surprise was a game room filled with XBox 360s. Dorian proceeded to kick my ass at Dead or Alive 4 (he's vicious with Christie, the white haired snake-style fighter gal.) That was a nice way to kill some time during this four hour layover.
The Eva Airways flight from Seattle to Taipei was uneventful. I mostly just ate and slept (story of my life, I guess). It wasn't as lux as Air New Zealand or even Northwest, but the flight attendants were cute, so there's that.
I had hoped to post this from the lounge, but I am unable to connect to the wifi network. I tried it in both IE7 and Firefox, but their site fails. Oh well. I guess I'll just have to get another bao. Another hour or so and it'll be time to board.
I'm getting ready to leave the house for my 2:00am (!) flight to Jakarta. As I packed my bags, I noticed all the things I carry based on my experience travelling for work and thought I'd share the list.
For the flight
For the hotel room
I like packing my stuff into little bags to keep things organized, but I'm too cheap to buy the fancy bags made for this. I use the bags they give you business class that have the socks and eye shades in them as well as the tons of ziplock baggies.
Oh, crap, time to leave for my flight. See you on the other side.
The class I took this week was a residential class where we stayed at a hotel for the three days. This week we were at the Willows Lodge in Woodinville, Washington (about 15-20 minutes north of Microsoft campus). I've been to the restaurants at Willows Lodge before (the excellent Barking Frog and the legendary Herb Farm), but I've never stayed at the hotel before.
It was great.
The rooms are swish and lovely; each has a fireplace, huge tub, high thread count sheets, a computer w/ flat panel, and super nice decor. It's like the Salish Lodge (where we held Strategy Conference) but more modern and hip -- a luxury NW resort.
I did, however, find some minor annoyances. While the lighting was very nice, there were switches all over the room and no master way to turn them off, so I had to run around the room turning off a dozen lights before I could leave. (I love the stick-the-card-in-the-switch thing that many hotels in other countries use to toggle room power). Also, the shower had a pretty cool faucet where you set the desired temperature using up and down buttons, watching the LCD display and then hit the on/off switch. While this satisfied my inner geek, it was just inconvenient. I don't need to know this level of precision (102 or 103 degrees?) nor do I want to press and hold anything. (There's probably a long blog post coming about the usability of water faucets.)
Still, these things were trivial and didn't diminish the experience much. If you're visiting the Seattle area and need to be near Microsoft or want to be in our local wine country (Woodinville has a bunch of good wineries), I highly recommend Willows Lodge.
I just got back from a quick weekend trip with the boys to Disneyland. A bunch of my fraternity brothers (I am a Kappa Alpha) and I got together with our families to play at Disneyland and California Adventure. We also met more So Cal brothers at a bbq hosted by one of the families. It was great to see these guys; they are truly special to me. It's amazing to see all the kids too; I think we had something like eighteen kids ranging from six months to fourteen years old. They all got along and played like they'd known each for years, even though we came from California, Texas, Oregon, and Washington for the event. I hope we all get together again soon.
As Michael (5) said, "Disneyland sucks. I like Disneyworld better." It's true. Disneyland was fun for a weekend, but it really doesn't compare to Disneyworld with the huge array of choices it offers. The guys did enjoy the Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters and some of the other stuff, but they're not really into thrill rides, so that limited our choices a bunch. Games, climbing stuff, and geeky hands-on stuff like Innoventions seem more their speed, although Andrew (8) did succomb to the desire to look cool in front of Derek, a new 10-11 year old friend, and rode the swinging/sliding gondolas on the Sun Wheel (a huge ferris wheel). These cars swing so much that the thrill riding parents didn't go on, and even I'll-ride-anything Derek said he didn't want to go on it again. Andrew toughed it out, although he looked a bit queasy when he got off.
I did notice that we got scolded a lot more at the park ("we ask the kids wear a shirt", "please don't let your children sit on the railing", etc.) In the zillion times I've been to Disney parks, I've never had so many "cast members" wag a finger at us. It was kind of a downer really.
To make the trip even more exciting, I was solo parenting. With my recent and upcoming travels and classes taking me out of the house a bunch, Michelle deserved a weekend sans kids and me plus this was mostly about my college buddies, so I offered to take the kids alone. By and large this was OK, especially since we almost always had other parents with us to help. The guys were pretty well behaved, so it turned out to be OK.
Finally, we stayed at the Anabella Hotel; I had planned to stay a the Grand Californian Hotel, a Disney hotel in the park that we've stayed at before, but I messed up and couldn't get reservations. The Anabella was located conveniently, about a half-mile walk to Downtown Disney. However, this "hotel" isn't exactly the Four Seasons. It's really a nice-ish motel, not the "luxury hotel" with "elegantly designed Anaheim deluxe accomodations" and "lavish features". I can't remember the last time I've stayed in a hotel anywhere in the world that didn't have broadband (I admit, I don't have a very representative sampling of hotels...); horrors -- I had to use dial-up to check in on some stupid issue at work. Anyway, the hotel got the job done, but I'm confident the Anabella won't make my short list of must-stay hotels.
Anyway, it was a nice boys weekend away. It was super great to see my old friends and their families. Back to the salt mines tomorrow...
I really like New Zealand. I thought it was a beautiful place with great sailing, super nice people, good wine, and good food -- all the things a man could want. Here are a few observations and learnings, some big, some trivial, in no particular order:
I really can't wait to get back to NZ and see more of the country, hopefully with the family. It really is a special place.
I'm on the ground and home again after 24+ hours of travelling. The trip home had a few more bumps than normal.
My flight from Wellington to Auckland was delayed by an hour due to fog in South Island delaying flights. (All of you who watched Saturday's Super 14 rugby final between the Christchurch Crusaders and the Wellington Hurricanes saw the horrible fog in Christchurch.) Anyway, this resulted in a tight connection in Auckland for my Auckland-LA leg. I literally ran the half mile between the domestic and international terminal, trying to find the blue and white line I was told to follow (it starts about halfway to the int'l terminal). Once I got to the international terminal, I had to pay the exit tax (why isn't this built into the airfare?) After two tries on the machine failed, I had to wait in line. I used my last New Zealand dollars to pay. Sweating, I made it to my flight and had a nice icy glass of orange juice to cool down.
Lest anyone worry that I didn't take care of business, I did manage to run through the Duty Free to buy a bottle of Arbeg 10yo single malt (a bottle I've been wanting to try for a while.) A man has to have his priorities straight after all...
I hate LAX. Just let me say that up front. The signage is terrible. The staff is terrible. The flow is terrible. The services are terrible. I don't ever want to fly through there again. The only thing half decent was the United Red Carpet Club. There were a lot of people there who couldn't work it out (staff and passengers.)
In any case, I did manage to sleep at the appropriate times, scratched my Lord of the Rings itch on the flight, and got a little work done. All that said, I'm glad to be home. More later.
I'm leaving windy Wellington for the airport in a few minutes. It's been a great trip; New Zealand is really wonderful. Lots more to come in the next few days about my trip.
See you on the other side.
Today is my last day in Auckland. Grandhi and I have a few meetings with customers, partners, and the MS New Zealand guys before we head down to Wellington this afternoon. It'll be a bit of a hectic day I think.
Yesterday was pretty calm by comparison. We didn't have much in the way of meetings, so we checked out the New Zealand National Maritime Museum. I love maritime museums (surprise, surprise) and Grandhi was nice enough to indulge me. The museum was quite good and much larger that outward appearances might suggest.
Afterwards, we had a nice lunch at the Loaded Hog by the Viaduct Basin (where the Americas Cup boats sortied out from). I didn't love the beers they brewed onsite, but the food was good. the local mussels are well-known and tasty, although I still think Penn Cove mussels in Seattle are better. Too bad it was raining all day; otherwise sitting out on the sidewalk would have been great.
We worked all afternoon trying to get ready for our upcoming talks and keep up with work at home. We then headed out to Parnell, a cute neighborhood in Auckland full of art galleries and shops, all of which close early to spite us. Fortunately, we found a nice restaurant called Igaucu for dinner. Pretty cool place. I finally got some lamb here in New Zealand. Everything you've heard about lamb in NZ is true -- fantastic. The one thing I've noticed is that every restaurant we've eaten in so far has under salted the food relative to my tastes. Grandhi and I both have been adding copious amounts of salt to everything. Given that Grandhi lives in India, I don't think this is just an American taste thing. Anyway, just an observation.
OK, time to pack up and head out. Talk to you from Wellington...
My colleague Grandhi and I had a great first day (Sunday) in Auckland (click for map). It was sunny and breezy, apparently uncharacteristically nice for this time of year.
We first walked around the clean and compact downtown area including the Viaduct Basin in the Americas Cup Village. The Emirates Team New Zealand Americas Cup team headquarters is here now; their big black building overlooks the basin. Lots of incredible boats here, although I didn't see any Americas Cup boats.
We then had lunch at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. This is a lovely building with a friendly staff. We watched a bunch of sail fleets race by as we ate in the members bar. I added to my burgee collection while we were there. RNZYS hosted the last Americas Cup and is the sponsoring yacht club for the Team New Zealand boats.
The highlight of my day was a two hour sail with SailNZ aboard an Americas Cup boat. The boat was formerly JPN 41, the Nippon Challenge boat that raced in San Diego in 1995. (SailNZ also has NZ40, the New Zealand boat from San Diego.) We had 15-16 knots of wind with calm seas, so we were flying, holding around 8.5 knots per hour throughout the ride. Everyone got a chance to grind and drive. It was Grandhi's first time sailing; I think he loved it. I certainly did.
I've arrived in Auckland safely and am online (obviously).
The flight was comfortable and on time. Air New Zealand's business class has pretty slick pod system where each person gets their own private space. The seat converts into a bed - 180 degrees flat - with sheets and a comforter (of sorts). The food was reasonabel and the in flight entertainment system was sincere. I was a little embarassed to see the WinCE bootloader running (slowly) when we first arrived; the system was slow but it got the job done.
Unfortunately, I'm disappointed with the hotel room I'm in. It's actually quite nice, but the sinks and toilet are such that the water doesn't swirl one way or another, so I can't see the Southern Hemisphere swirl. I'll have to find another way to see it.
It's 7:00am here now. I have to stay up all day. I think I'll go for a run now to get out and get my blood going.
I'm off to New Zealand today. I'll be speaking at WebStock, a web conference in Wellington, as well as doing some Microsoft internal events and meeting with press. I've never been to New Zealand or even the Southern Hemisphere. I plan to flush a toilet as soon as I get there just to watch the water go down the other way.
See you on the other side!
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I go down to the Silicon Valley area all the time for day meetings, but I haven't actually been up to San Francisco for years. Monday's IE7 beta 2 dinner in The City was a bit of a rediscovery for me. I only had a little while between having lunch with my aunt and 91-year old grandmother and our dinner, but it was great.
First, the shopping was amazing. It left Seattle in the dirt. In the area around Union Square, I visited the Sak's Men's Store and the Macy's Men's Store (yes, separate stores/buildings for the men's stuff, not just a little department, a big Kenneth Cole, and Diesel just to name a few. It was crazy.
Next, there are a lot of places that are much more swish than I recall. I stayed at the St. Francis Hotel (now a Westin). I used to come here on dates for drinks and the ride the elevators (great view of the Bay at the top, put your head against the glass and look down while you're descending -- freaky) and for drinks in the lobby bar. It used to be charming in an old shabby way. Very slick now and the rooms are nicely redone too.
I also went for a drink at the Clift Hotel. Michelle and I stayed here years ago when it was a a slightly run down Four Seasons; now it's an uber swish Ian Schrager hotel. The bar, the Redwood Room, was hopping even on a Monday night. They had these interesting Harry Potter-esque "portraits" on the walls -- really plasma displays with movies of people that move slowly; there is apparently a back story between the people in the images, so if you watch long enough, you can start to see the furtive looks, the disappointment, the lust, etc. between people in the images. It was fun to try to figure out the story.
Finally, I had breakfast with my dear friend Connie at the Campton Place Hotel, another luxury boutique hotel that makes me want to come back to San Francisco. (Spending time catching up with Connie reminded me that while I love my current friends, there's something special about friends you've known for twenty years like Connie. She, of course, also makes me want to come back to San Francisco.)
Of course, it's not perfect. It was crowded and traffic-jammed. It took me forever to drive to see my grandmother. The infrastructure (roads and bridges mainly) seemed in disrepair. It's even more expensive than Seattle. And, they're going to be wiped off the face of the earth in the next thirty years.
Still, I had forgotten how much I love SF (like I had forgotten how much I love Stanford.) I can't wait to go back soon. There are a bunch of old favorite places I want to check out again like Bix (one of my favorite restaurant/bars in the world) and the Pied Piper Bar at the Palace Hotel (I "discovered" Bob Dalpe, the singer and bandleader who played at our wedding, at the Pied Piper) to name a few.
I had a bit of good luck on the trip I just took to the Bay Area, outside of the fact that my meeting went well. I got bumped to first class on both the outbound and return flights; I'm an MVP mileage club member for Alaska Airlines and have had premier frequent flier status on various airlines for years, but I've never been upgraded before, let alone twice on one trip. It's a short flight, but first class is still nice.
I also had my rental car upgraded to a Mustang convertible. I've always had a huge soft spot for Mustangs, and I love convertibles. I also really like the new body style and have wanted to drive one for a while. As it turns out, it's still a squishy American car, but it was great to buzz around in a convertible under the sunny California skies. And, it beat the heck out of the boring sedans I normally wind up with.
I'm not sure what I did to merit this luck, but I'm happy to have had these small bits of good fortune to make the travel a little nicer.
I just got back from a quick trip to the Bay Area. After my meeting, I had a little time to visit my Stanford University, my alma mater. It's been probably six years since I've been back to campus.
I had forgotten how much I love it. As I walked through the Quad past Memorial Church ("MemChu" in Stanford parliance, seen above) at night, memories of my years at Stanford came flooding back. It was a special time in my life at a very special place. In some ways I felt twenty years old again, like I never left.
Of course, things have changed a lot since then. I scarcely recognized parts of campus that had lots of new buildings put up, and the students all seem a lot younger than I remember ever being. My old haunts like Miyake have moved to new digs or are no longer around. Heck, even the Stanford Stadium is gone (it's being demolished and rebuilt.)
I wouldn't expect the campus to remain static, but it's odd to simultaneously feel like I'm home and feel like a stranger. I enjoyed the visit and hope to go back again soon, but I think Stanford will always be just a pleasant and significant part of my past.
When I left for my Asia tour, it was still summer in Seattle. When I got back, it had changed into autumn. The leaves are a lovely red and gold, and the air is crisp. Really lovely.
While I enjoyed the cities in Asia, I must say how refreshing it is to be back in Seattle. This is a beautiful part of the world, and the fresh autumn air is such a nice change from the muggy tropical air of KL and HK and thick, polluted haze of Beijing.
It may be trite to say, but there's really no place like home. Travelling always reminds me how much I love Seattle.
I took advantage of the reciprocal privileges the RHKYC has with my club, the Seattle Yacht Club. It's a lovely clubhouse on the Hong Kong side overlooking the harbor towards Kowloon. They're actually a lot like SYC in the sense that it's a very nice club with history, but RHKYC is still a boating club for families (they even have a pool, bowling alley, and playground). I saw lots of kids and families there. It was nice but not at all stuffy, and the staff was very friendly to us.
Dinner in the Compass Room (their more formal dining room) was quite good. I had New Zealand oysters (good, but not as tasty as good Puget Sound or Hood Canal oysters) to start, a bowl of pigeon consomme with abalone (very subtle and nice), and grilled kangaroo -- a first for me (it was mild, tender, and tasty). Good wine (Penfolds bin 707, think) and some dessert (which escapes me now but that I'm sure was good) topped off a good meal.
This was the first time I've exercised my reciprocal visit benefits. I'm excited to try other clubs now, maybe in Hawaii?
Thanks to the RHKYC for your great hospitality.
I'm home again after twelve days on the road that took me to Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, and Hong Kong. It was a good trip to three amazing cities with my good friends Rob, Christopher, and Andrew (all MS colleagues.)
I've already mentioned my newfound love of Kuala Lumpur. I also rediscovered Hong Kong on this trip. I haven't been in HK since my honeymoon eleven years ago (before the handback of HK to China).
It's still an incredible place. The crowds and the energy are still insane, but the development of the area was even more incredible. Since my last visit, there were huge new bridges (Tsing Ma, Kap Shui Mun, and Ting Kau), a new airport, a new Disneyland, and countless new skyscrapers and major civic buildings. KL, Shanghai, Beijing, and the other Asian cities are all upstarts compared to this grand dame of Asian tiger cities.
While we didn't have much time in HK, it was a great visit. The Grand Hyatt is beautiful, with stunning views of the harbor (see above for the view from my room). Dinner at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club (see an upcoming post) was really a nice experience as well. And, it's still a fun place to shop, especially for electronics (ask Rob about his MP3 player purchase experiences.)
I can't wait to go back.
I'm sitting in the Microsoft office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia right now. It's on the 30th floor of the Petronas Twin Towers, the second tallest building in the world. I just finished my last meeting/talk for this two week trip. It's been a busy time, starting in Beijing first and then winding up here in KL.
I did the keynote talk at Hack in the Box, a computer security conference here in KL. The talk went pretty well and seemed to at least not make people hate us more. I actually got a few comments that started with "I don't normally like Microsoft, but..." which I view as a success.
KL is a very cool city. I wasn't really sure what to expect, but it's beautiful, vibrant, and very exciting from what I've seen so far. I haven't had much time to check things out between the conference and meeting with customers, but I hope to go out a little tonight and tomorrow before I get on a plane. I'm pretty impressed with KL compared to other Asian cities.
Anyway, time to go. More blogging later.
I'm probably the last person in the world to know this, but the Disney Imagineers hid Mickey Mouse images, shadows, outlines, etc. all over Walt Disney World (WDW). Apparently, when Epcot was being built, there was a controversy over whether Mickey would be reserved for the Magic Kingdom exclusively or if he would show up in other places. So, some rebels decided to start hiding Mickeys in Epcot and the other parks.
These can be in many forms. I only found a few including the shadow above in a mural in Animal Kingdom. More often, I found the three circles that signifiy his head; for instance, along the bottom edge of the bells hanging from the pagoda in the Japan pavilion at Epcot, the decorative cutouts were Mickeys.
Anyway, it was fun to search for them as I walked through the parks. Maybe you'll have better luck finding them than I did.
On this trip, in Orlando we stayed at the Walt Disney World Swan Hotel for the first time. This was easily the best hotel experience we've had at Walt Disney World (WDW). The other Disney hotels are crap, as far as I'm concerned. We've even stayed before at the Grand Floridian, supposedly the best hotel in WDW, but aside from the public areas, it's just a glorified Motel 6 with crappy sheets, dirty rooms, and nothing to offer.
However, the key is that the Swan is not managed by Disney; it's a Westin and managed mostly independently (apparently, employees need to abide by Disney personal appearance rules (e.g. no facial hair, no piercings, etc.) but not much else. As a result, it meets the higher standard you can expect from Westin, including the Heavenly Beds with feather pillows (big, big difference from most hotel beds).
The restaurants were also mostly great. In particular, we loved Pallio, their Italian place. Michelle had an insane pasta dish (the name of which escapes me) with little wonton-like pouches filled with farm cheese and black truffles in a rich wine sauce, and my grouper was amazing. More important, their bartender, Chris, is easily the best bartender I've ever encountered. The martinis and Manhattans I had were perfectly balanced and chilled with just the right amount of ice chips floating across the top.
Across the river at the Dolphin, Todd English's bluezoo was also very good, although frankly the hype was so high that it was almost impossible to meet expectations. (Do try the clam chowder and the clam flatbread though. Both were great.)
One note: avoid the restaurant Fresh at the Dolphin. The food wasn't "made-to-order" as advertised. It was just an expensive buffet.
In any case, I have no reservation recommending the Swan if you're visiting WDW. It's a solid hotel, and it's on the Disney transportation system, which is a huge convenience. I don't think you can beat the combination.
(Note, if you're visiting Universal Studios, I'd recommend the Portofino Bay Hotel. It was quite nice and had cool suites for families with kids. I've also heard the Hard Rock is good, and it's even closer to the park.
Once again, we made our pilgrimage to Florida. After a few days on in St. Petersburg Beach with Michelle's folks, we went to Orlando. While last time we stayed at and visited Universal Studios, this time we stayed at Walt Disney World (WDW).
I've always been amazed by Disney properties. At their best, they're amazing. Great attention to detail, sometimes super customer service, and just an incredible world. This trip was no exception. It was especially fun with the boys being older since they really got to enjoy the place (even though they don't like the thriller rides or even many of the loud movies).
We went to all the major parks. Animal Kingdom continues to be a snoozer (although the boys liked The Boneyard, a dinosaur dig themed playground). MGM was similarly a bust for the kids aside from Star Tours. The Magic Kingdom, of course, was great.
However, Epcot turned out to be the surprise favorite of the guys, mostly because of the newly revised Innoventions pavilions. My geeky kids loved all the hands-on activities; this is a huge improvement over the old Communicore with their outdated technology. The Japan pavilion was a hit too, although I'm pretty sure that's just because of the great Pokemon, Transformer, and Yu-gi-oh selection at the Mitsukoshi department store there.
Michelle, being a Disney expert from growing up in Florida, had the system down and managed an excellent vacation. We went at opening each day, playing through noon or so. Then we'd head back to the hotel, have lunch, and hang out a bit. Then we'd head back to the parks in the late afternoon. This strategy kept us out of the crowds and the hottest parts of the day; combined with the fact that Florida schools were already in session, we rarely waited in line for more than ten minutes ever. Very nice.
The only really odd thing (aside from the fact that virtually all the other guests were fat, fat, fat -- especially the people visiting in the water parks -- scare me) was how heavily Disney was pushing their Disney Vacation Club. There were booths and signs everywhere. It was a bit off-putting, frankly.
Despite this push, the visit was good and the kids had a great time. Say what you will about Disney, but they do a great job.
I kinda slept in a bit today, getting up at 11:00a. The four hour time difference, the hella long flight (after getting up at 3:30a), and the blacked out room made getting up early to tour around a bit of a non-starter. I can't remember the last time I slept in that late; usually the kids won't allow it.
I went up to visit El Morro, the huge fort that protects San Juan harbor. It's pretty amazing, but unfortunately the power was still out, so it wasn't open. After a nice lunch of a local pork dish at El Patio de Sam and some shopping, I headed over to the Bacardi distillery for a tour and a little tasting.
They do a nice job here; the tour is complimentary as are two drink tickets. They have a big pavilion where you can enjoy nice rum drinks and taste all but the highest end Bacardi rums. Unfortunately, the new visitor's center was damaged in the storm and closed; however, they still had a nice tour showing the distillery, teaching people when the use the different Bacardi rums in different drinks (e.g. Bacardi light for dry drinks, Bacardi Gold for sweet drinks, Bacardi Limon anywhere you'd use vodka, Bacardi O anywhere you'd use gin, etc. The tips are on their website too.) The gift shop was a nice surprise too; unlike most factory gift shops, the prices were very reasonable. The rum, in particular, was a super value compared to buying it at home. Even better, they had several varieties that aren't available or are hard to find in Washington. Picked up a bunch of those...
After my little tour, I hopped back in the car and drove out to Mayaguez, home of the University of Puerto Rico. This is a 2.5 hour drive. This is the first time I've driven somewhere I don't speak the language, significant since the road signs are in Spanish. As a little tip for those who would do this, learn the cardinal directions in the local language if nothing else. "Exit" and "Only" are good too. I got to my hotel without too many issues despite the fact the stupid website had the location of the hotel completely wrong. When I unpacked my suitcase, I discovered all my clothes were extremely damp after having been in my trunk all day in the super humid (although not raining!) weather. Had to iron everything to dry them out.
Once again, I was mislead by the hotel advertising as once again, "high speed internet access" means they have fast access somewhere in the hotel. Once again, it was one computer in their "business center." This business center was just their sales office with an extra computer. I'm hooked in via dial-up in the room now; no fun.
Oh well, time to review my notes for tomorrow and go to sleep. Big day of grilling college students tomorrow...
Once again, I'm on the road for work. This time, I'm in Puerto Rico for a little recruiting at the University of Puerto Rico. I arrived in San Juan this evening on the tail of Tropical Storm Jeanne. Fortunately, it's not raining or blazing hot, but it is muggy as hell. After living in Seattle for 14 years, I'm a wimp now around humidity.
The flight was long, but uneventful. Between Seattle and DFW I was sitting between two soliders from the Stryker brigade at Fort Lewis who were returning to Iraq for their last 45 days on this tour. I hope they come home OK. After a surprisingly good lunch in the DFW airport (super great shredded bbq beef sandwich and green beans cooked to near goo with ham), I found myself on the plane next to a so big he was four inches into my seat. Fortunately, the gods of travel were smiling on me; the exit row aisle seat behind me was open and the flight attendant took pity on me. Score one for luck.
I had good directions (I thought) from the airport to my hotel (the El Convento, a converted convent in Old San Juan), plus I had my GPS unit. What could go wrong? He he he.
So, the streets in Old San Juan are not especially well marked. Plus it's dark, being night and all; on top of that, huge areas are still blacked out with no electricity. Every few blocks there would be some scraggly guy trying to direct traffic, presumably to help people find parking spaces for tips or to direct cars toward bars or something. I swear though, it was the same guy all over town. I was totally confused.
After taking a huge tour of Old San Juan, I finally blundered into the hotel and managed to get checked in. Thank, God, it wasn't raining hard or I may never have found my hotel.
A big glass of rum with lime juice made everything OK. At least there's power here. I wound up having dinner in the hotel since the few places I wanted to try were still powerless. It was OK, but the campiranas (rum, lime, and simple syrup I think) that Michelle recommended made everything just fine.
The "Highspeed Internet Access" touted on their website is apparently this shared PC in the library. Not enough to sync my mail, but enough to spam my blog.
Anyway, I'll tour around San Juan a bit tomorrow and then out to the UPR campus is Mayaguez. I may stop at the Areceibo radio telescope for a little geek tour since the Bacardi factory tour is closed on Sundays. Damn it. Hopefully, it won't be dumping rain tomorrow.
Time for bed.