Friday, December 17, 2010

Back in Mannheim

We returned from 2 weeks in the US a few days ago. Well, Kerri was there for 4 weeks, but I was only there for 2. Had a great time seeing relatives and friends, and were very grateful to be able to go to the Portland Holiday Ale Festival with Walt, Ben and Sandy. Northwest beer rules! (seriously...I have yet to find any German beer to compare, but I've just started, give me time)

The United flight from SF to Frankfurt was horrible. No personal entertainment systems (which we've been getting used to lately) and they showed terrible movies. All the kid friendly stuff was at the tail end of the flight when the kids were all asleep. I sat behind a lady with twin toddler girls. They cried in harmony! Also, *both* of them threw up when we landed. Felt really bad for the lady.

Anyway, we made it home in one piece and are starting to not feel like zombies as of today. I slept in til my alarm went off for the first time! We put our 2 beds together in the early mornings of the first couple of days, and unpacked everything we had in boxes so now it's all in piles which is something of an improvement. Last night we took public to IKEA (45 minutes one way) after work and bought everything big that we need and are having IKEA deliver it (90 euro) which is probably how much it would cost us to rent a van or something, and then we'd have to haul it all upstairs. Pity of it is they won't deliver til next Monday, so we are still using the outside porch as our fridge. At least we were forced to stay up til 10pm last night, although we were all pretty miserable at various points. Kerri, Rowan and I took turns having meltdowns.

We've done about all we can up to this point, so this weekend we're going to head down to Mannheim for the Christmas Market and enjoy a bit of christmas. We are kind of despairing of actually having a real christmas this year, but we may just do what we did last year and delay the celebration to a more appropriate time.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Mannheim, Germany

First impressions:

It's gorgeous! We've arrived for Fall and the leaves are yellow and red and falling. The temperature is brisk and it hasn't really rained yet.

I arrived less than a week ago and was whisked down from Frankfurt to Benjamin Franklin Village just outside of Mannheim. I was checked into a nearby hotel (Platanenhof Boardinghouse) that will be our home for the next month. We rented a car and did some initial in-briefing stuff on base. The hotel is about 20 minutes walking distance from the base which is great as I don't like driving here. We have a manual transmission which adds to the's been a while.

Kerri and Rowan arrived less than 24 hours after I did, and I took the train up to Frankfurt to meet them and we rode the train and public all the way back to our hotel. We then had the weekend to explore a bit, and I had my first day of work on Monday. Mostly paperwork. Had Tuesday off to look for houses, and I'm in the office today (wednesday) as Kerri continues to look.

We've seen a couple of places in Käfertal (very close by), one of which we liked. If we don't find anything by the weekend we're gonna go for it! Eventually we'll post some pics.

Really looking forward to getting our bikes as it will open up our travel options much more.

Kerri and Rowan leave for the US in a week and a half, and I follow in the 27th, so we want to have our house figured out before than, at least so we have a place to put all our boxes (all of which were here when I arrived!).

BTW, if you are shipping base-to-base and using the typical "tough" boxes they sell at the PX, do not imagine they will be used for more than 1 trip. They arrived in much abused shape, wheels missing, cracked casing, etc... The box that made it through fine was a rubber-maid box with more give.

We've explored the post here and are very much surprised (and shocked) by how big the PX/commissary are. It's nothing like Kuwait that's for sure. I'm a bit used to the weirdness of walking through a gate and basically being in America, but for Kerri it's quite the culture shock, but she's working through it.

Germany's gonna take some getting used to also. Everyone's been very helpful so far, but we can already tell learning the language is going to be very necessary as not everyone speaks English and we are not obviously "different" so that people assume we can speak German.

Well, that's it for now, we'll update more as we have news to post.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Cape Town

Click here for an HTML slideshow

We got back from our trip to Cape Town and surrounding areas yesterday. We spent the first few days in Cape Town itself, wandering around the water front area and visiting Table Mountain. The water front is fun, and there are 2 local brew-houses with good beer available (Mitchell's and Paulaner), not to mention excellent german food at Paulaner.

Table Mountain was incredible. We hiked about 3km on the top and had a blast. The weather was perfect and we were incredibly lucky as high winds had closed the cable car for the previous 7 days.

We were able to visit an online friend of Kerri's the next day, as well as head down the Cape Peninsula and see the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Point, penguins, and take a trip out to Seal Island where we saw seals and a glimpse of a great white shark attracted to a research vessel for tagging!

Next we headed off along the southern coast line to Hermanus where we spent several days walking along a coastline path and watching the many whales that swim in the bay. We also visited several nearby nice locations, including the Birkenhead brewing company, another small micro-brewery, and sampled the local beer and wine. The beer wasn't quite as good as the locations in Capetown, but the wine was excellent.

Heading east and north, we ended up in Outdshoorn and ostrich country. Outdshoorn was a nice little town, but we spent only one night there before heading several kilometers east to a small farm where we spent 3 days. It was our favorite location (Rolbaken) and we had a great time there. Dick and Mary were our hosts and cooked a great breakfast and an incredible birthday dinner for Kerri.

Unfortunately, Kerri came down with horrible sore throat and we ended up having to go to a doctor to get some anti-biotics which cleared it up after several more days. Of course, this happened during our 10 year anniversary and her birthday! Ah well...just means we get to do it again to make up for it...

While in the Outdshoorn area we also visited the nearby Cango cave complex and an ostrich farm where we got to ride ostriches! BTW, properly cooked, ostrich meat is our new favorite.

Then we went back west towards Cape Town and landed in wine country. We stayed at a small vineyard named Tanagra for 5 days. This was supposed to be the most relaxing point of our trip, but unfortunately the very large puppy was too rough for Rowan and he couldn't enjoy being outside much, and the area around there is full of ticks (we found over 10 in our room and clothes) so we brought them in with us after walks. Other than that it was lovely and we enjoyed shopping for groceries and cooking for ourselves for a while.

It was at this time that we thought to check our email after over a week with no internet. Our debit card had been declined recently and we figured it was just a matter of our bank forgetting that we would be in South Africa for a while. Much to our horrified surprise, we discovered our bank account completely empty and our overdraft protection line of credit fully maxed out. It appeared as if someone in Cape Town had managed to get all of our information from our card and duplicate it somehow. We were able to call our bank and start the process of correcting the mess, but it was quite a shock to us at the time. Apparently this is common in South Africa and it is highly recommended that when you pay by credit card you should not let the card out of your sight! Nice to know now.

We had a couple of days left so we headed north of Cape Town to the Langebaan area. There was a fossil park there that we thought Rowan would enjoy. Unfortunately the surrounding area wasn't all that nice, so we didn't really do much other than the West Coast Fossil Park (which was pretty's an ongoing dig site and you can see the dig area itself with all the bones still in the ground!).

We drove back to Cape Town our final day and drove to the western areas that are between Table Mountain and the Atlantic ocean. This area was delightful and we wished we could have spent more time there.

Our flight back was delayed at Jo-berg and we missed our connecting flight from Doha to Kuwait, so we got to spend an extra 6 hours or so in the airport there. None of us slept for about 36 hours straight and we were very grateful to collapse into our beds last night. 12 hours of sleep later and we are doing great! I'll be heading to work tomorrow and back to life as normal.

Monday, May 24, 2010


We just got back from Qatar. I had to go there for work and we figured we could make a trip of it. Rowan and Kerri hung out at our hotel while I worked and then we had a few days after for looking around.

The verdict is...meh. There are some positives...better food selection for one, and it feels less dusty (cleaner maybe?)...but that's all I can think of. It's much like Kuwait, but with a smaller feel (if that's possible).

The best part was Souk Waqif, a very nice area that was an old market and still is, but has been remodeled and done up nicely for the tourists with lots of restaurants and shisha.

We rented a car one day and drove around the area outside Doha. It feels much like the entire country other than Doha is one big construction site with lots of debris and such. Very uninteresting.

Sorry to sound so down, we had a good time really! It was nice to get out of Kuwait for a while, but we were very glad to be home.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Beirut Trip

We took a short weekend trip to Lebanon. Truly a delightful place. The short 2 1/2 hour flight was not enough to drain our energy, so we arrived full of vim and vigour. The airport experience was surprisingly pleasant, with no fee for the visa (as we had read there would be online) and very efficiently laid out. We headed straight for the car rental section and got a little Renault for $40 a day. Had I known how crazy they drive and how tiny the back roads are, I might have had more trepidation about bringing it back in one piece!

So we headed into Beirut with a vague idea of the area our hotel was (Manara) and that it was beyond a trendy area called Hamra. So we took the Center Ville (city center) roads and looked for signs pointing to Hamra. It turns out that all of the street signs are in Arabic and French, not English. Unfortunately, we soon discovered that it was a special day, as military had blocked off major roads and were redirecting traffic! So we just sort of pointed ourselves in the general direction of the sea and hoped for the best. Amazingly, we found ourselves driving almost directly to the hotel we had in mind and found it with no trouble.

The Bella Riva Hotel was more than adequate and we were surprised to see the price keep dropping as we discussed what we wanted (the opposite of the usual experience) and ended up paying about $104 a night, not bad for the very nice area we were in. Checked ourselves in and set out to find some lunch as it was only noon.

Heading down to the road that curves along the coast and the beginning of the lovely corniche, we kept an eye out for a Lebanese restaurant of the type that we like (relaxed family atmosphere, not too posh, plenty of people smoking shisha). The first one we found was 5 minutes away, the Manara Palace Cafe. Since we found it so soon, we figured such places would be everywhere, but amazingly this was not the case, at least where we were looking. We ended up coming back there 3 or 4 times.

Then we walked all along the corniche up to where it dissipated into the new downtown area that looked remarkably like some of the new neighborhoods downtown Portland (riverside). As mentioned earlier, it was some sort of celebratory day, and sure enough, as we walked along we were treated to the young-uns driving down the road yelling out the windows, waving Lebanese flags and generally making a lot of noise. The military was out in force, rolling by in huge deafening tanks, and the corniche was absolutely packed with people out having a good time. Some were out in the water and rocks, some sitting down and smoking their own shisha pipes, many were jogging or riding bicycles.

After walking back home via the Hamra district (think 23rd street in Portland), we made it back to our hotel with sore legs, but a very pleasant experience. Ate dinner at the Manara Palace, where I tried a lebanese dish I have avoided in the past: kibbeh nicewas. This is ground meat (lamb or otherwise), pounded or ground into a paste, mixed with spices and nuts, then shaped into finger size chunks (kind of like nigiri) and served raw. Generally I stay away from raw meat (except sushi) as I just don't feel the need to roll the gastrointestinal dice, but I figured if there was ever a time to try it, it would be in Lebanon itself. Of course, it was delicious and not at all like what you might think, resembling a pate in texture. The shish tawouk was not very good unfortunately (I really need to start making it myself so I can make it the way I like) but the kebab/kofta was surprisingly good, as were the other side dishes.

We made plans for the next day: drive north to the Jeita Grotto and then on north to Byblos for the afternoon, eat lunch and dinner there, then drive home in the evening to Beirut. We missed the turn off to Jeita unfortunately, but were able to turn back and wade through the traffic back to the correct location. We were very disappointed to find the Grotto closed for the entire month of February for "the annual vacation." Apparently this is not published very well as several other cars drove up while were there, as stunned as we were. Oh well...we took some pictures and bought some nuts and dried fruit from some local entrepreneurs and decided to drive north to Tripoli, about an hour further than Byblos.

Tripoli was kind of interesting...we didn't see much, but got nice and lost in the downtown area. The impression was of a much more conservative community and it felt similar in some ways to Kuwait. After getting unlost, we found another nice lebanese restaurant by the ocean, which we pretty much had to ourselves. Our waitress Miriam seemed quite stunned that we were here by ourselves and didn't know anyone. She took a liking to Rowan and we really enjoyed the entire staff (the restaurant was called Sirene I think). Oh, and it had the best shish tawouk we had the entire time.

Driving south to Byblos, we got there around 1pm and found a lovely little souk area that has been done up nice and is filled with little merchant stalls and fancy restaurants. I had been told by a co-worker that he had eaten at a restaurant he counted among the best in the world in Byblos. We hoped to find it for dinner...

First however, we went into the Crusader's castle, a crazy hodgepodge of stones taken from the many settlements of the past. Byblos has been an operational port for some 6000 years and there have been so many settlements there that it's an archeologist's dream. There's the crusader castle, the Roman ruins, the mausoleum, a greek amphitheater, and ancient Phoenician tombs. All of this in a tiny little area that we could tromp about on as much as we wanted. Needless to say, we spent several hours there.

After this we searched all through the restaurants for the one that looked like what was described to me as fusion-lebanese food. The Locanda a la Granda turned out to be it, and, it deserves it's place in my friend's list of one of the best restaurants in the world. We tried the suggested dishes in the NYTIMES review that was printed on the place mats (pasta coated in cream, Roquefort and nuts) and were very pleased. The locally brewed "dark" beer turned out to be unimpressive (to me), but the amazing honeycombed rum cake (baba au rhum) was amazing (and I don't usually like deserts without chocolate).

Needless to say, I gained 5 pounds during the trip.

Our last day was spent driving around Beirut. We headed to the downtown area which is a series of concentric circles expanding out from a clock tower. The area was blocked off to traffic, so we had to drive around for some time finding a parking spot. There are tons of little restaurants and we decided to try something a bit different and ate at the chinese place...not a good choice unfortunately...oh well, you win some you lose some. The area was lovely though, and there was a cool looking mosque (similar style to Hagia Sofia) and some old Roman ruins that are being actively worked on.

We wanted to find a local grocery store to buy some local wine and beer (I had found some in a restaurant I wanted to buy cheap and try out, 961). So we drove back north to get to the mall we had seen from the freeway. First, we had to get back on the freeway, but this in itself was quite a challenge as we attempted to navigate the back streets to find one that would let us get on the freeway. Then we had to figure out how to get off and over to the other side...all his took a good couple of hours through the crazy traffic. Seriously, this is the worst traffic I've ever driven in. They have traffic lights and lanes, but these are generally ignored. Except when they aren't...but this seems to be random. You just try to do what everyone else is doing and not get your rental car dinged up!

Anyway, we found the mall and found the grocery store. They had some local wine, but sadly the only 961 beer they had was a lager, not the amber or red that I was hoping for. We got it, but it was very disappointing and we never found it. Ah well...gotta leave something for next time we visit.

It took the rest of the day to make it home and of course we ate at the Manara Cafe again for dinner. Did I mention the fabulous shisha? Their double apple was excellent, better than most in Kuwait. I tried the turkish/persian dry tobacco and was not very impressed. I prefer saloum which is plain tobacco soaked in molasses to it.

Next morning we headed back to the airport and were home in Kuwait by 2pm. We absolutely loved the european feel of Beirut and want to go back someday if possible to do some of the things we didn't get to do. This was one of the first times I've come back home to Kuwait and wished I had more time to stay where I was. Must be getting time to move on!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ethiopia Trip

Hello! We are not dead, just traveling. We hit Ethiopia for 8 days and had a great time! Kerri knew some folks from the Sonlight homeschool user forums who live in Addis Ababa, so we brought over some stuff that might be hard to get over there. We travel light, so were able to cram a lot of extra stuff into the additional baggage allowance that we usually never take advantage of. They were really nice and took us to lunch and we got to experience taking public transportation back to our hotel (Adot Tina again).

The next day we found a travel agent and asked about flights to local destinations. Ethiopia is twice the size of Texas, so you really need to fly around. Luckily flights were easily booked in the standard tourist triangle: Addis to Lalibella, Lalibella to Gonder, bus to Bahir Dar, and flight back to Addis.

Lalibella was our favorite I think, very pretty and clean, and just seemed very real. Not the crazy tourism of Bahir Dar or the icky pollution in Gonder. Anyway, the rock hewn churches were neat, but I just liked the feel of the place. We were only there for one night, then on to Gonder. Gonder has some old castles and a "swimming pool" which is a big bath that was used by an old king, but is now used for a baptism ceremony during the festival of Timkat. We were there the week before and so got to see it filling with water. The castles are oddly european looking and nicely kept. We splurged and stayed at the nicest hotel up on a hill over looking the city.

Our taxi driver convinced us to take a minivan instead of the bus to Bahir Dar, which was a good choice I think. A little more expensive, but not much. The trip was a nice way to see the country-side some more. Kerri and Rowan were lucky enough to sit up front, although they did attract a lot of attention as we drove, and especially when we stopped! Poor Rowan was constantly being pinched, petted and prodded, something he is not very used to. I didn't like it either much. I guess tourists don't travel with their kids much in Ethiopia, so he was an unusual site. Even worse when the local word for "kid" translates to "baby" in english. He was not a happy camper with that stuff.

Bahir Dar was the most disappointing. It was partially our fault, we were done being tourists and just wanted to walk around town, but it's not a very nice town and we were constantly being pestered by men wanting to take us on the lake and beggars. On our last evening there we stumbled upon a very nice path that stretches for some kilometers around the lake and found some nice views and pleasant places, but it was too late to really enjoy it.

Our flight left that evening, so that morning we happened to walk past the local Ethiopian Airlines office and we thought we should check on it. Well...turns out there was a schedule change. So we got called later and told it was canceled! We were not happy as we had only enough cash to last out our time there and unlike more remote areas like Lalibella and Gonder, our hotel did not take visa. Luckily Ethiopian paid for another night and dinner, which was appreciated. That night we got a call from the front desk saying that our check-in time at the airport would be 5:30am the next morning, so the hotel shuttle would leave at 5am. Our shuttle driver was late and kept saying, "too early". We agreed that it was way too early, but what can you do. When we got to the gates of the airport, cars were lined up and a bunch of other "westerners" were standing around looking foolish. Turns out the airport doesn't open until 6am and our driver was trying to tell us that we were too early. We had to get out and wait by the side of the road for the guards to let us in the airport. It was pitch black out and really cold, so the guards had made a fire for those of us "too early".

We made it back to Addis and had one more night and day to kill. Not wanting to spend more money, we pretty much stayed close to our hotel (had to move to a different one as Adot Tina was full).

Forgot to mention, I got sick 2 days before we left and was under the weather pretty much until we got back to Addis. Then Kerri started getting sick. We were pretty pathetic. Most know I am a very adventurous eater, but I really didn't feel like it this time (I blame the sickness!!!!). So we ate very conservatively when we could, which didn't stop a couple of interesting surprises from sneaking through, like the time I ordered a club sandwich and got a 4-layer surprise with egg, fried fish, processed meat and heavily spiced cooked chicken on the bottom. The best thing though was that last couple of days, I went walking up the main road and came across Peony Garden, a gen-u-wine Chinese restaurant, complete with nearly incomprehensible menu and plenty of local Chinese patrons who were there to eat good food and smoke continuously. We ate twice there (no I did not eat the pork pizzle).

Ethiopia has some ok beer and pretty good local wine. We ended up liking the Meta beer best. The absolute best though was the coffee. Everywhere there are cafes with cheap but excellent coffee (50c per cup). It's all espresso in tiny cups and very very good. We loaded up our now empty luggage with coffee for the return trip.

All in all a fun but fast run through Ethiopia. I think we could live in Addis someday. It's definitely a big stinky city, but has character and isn't totally homogenized with the Western industrial hegemony yet (i.e. no chain restaurants, period). The history of the country provides a strong cultural glue that seems to knit its people together closely. Who knows, we may be back this way sometime.

Edited to add: The pictures at the end of the slide show are some of the offerings on sale at one of the "duty free" shops at the Addis Ababa International Airport. Maybe you had to be there, but we laughed and laughed.