You’re going the wrong way.

arrow signJust back from a great (if hectic) visit back to the States for a fabulous conference and some quality time with the fam in MN. Wonderful trip, but I am very happy to be home.

I don’t know about you, but jet lag is the least of my issues when doing the continental shuffle. You think I’d be used to it by now, but a zillion little things always trip me up when I get to one side or the other. I get in the wrong side of the car. I have to remember to say “zed” and not “zee” or vice versa and tweak other word choices so that people understand me. I spend an inordinately long time studying the pizza delivery menu, trying to remember which toppings they use where (oddly, SAfrican and American pizza toppings arepretty different). I lean in for a hug or a kiss on the cheek at inappropriate moments. But the thing that takes me probably the most time to reprogram are my default settings: do you default left or right? 

Don’t worry, this doesn’t seem to be a problem when driving – the steering wheel on the other side is a pretty good reminder. But it causes me problems for weeks on end when walking down the street,standing on a busy escalator, or most frustratingly, in the grocery store. My sister and I noticed the phenomenon of pedestrian rules of the road when we visited Ireland a million years ago. We kept dancing with people on narrow sidewalks, running into old grannies, having to dodge runners at the last minute. I guess I’d never realized how ingrained your left/right default settings are, even when on foot. And for some reason it’s harder to reset and pisses people off more than many things – I’ve definitely had obscenities shouted at me by little old ladies in walkers more than once in the UK, or had someone simply refuse to cede their side of the sidewalk and push me into the street here in SA. The trickiest bit is that the strength of the right/left default seems to be directly correlated to the propensity to queue. In otherwords, if you’re in a society that dutifully lines up behind that person who really isn’t in the checkout line, than odds are that you’ll experience more forceful opposition to giving in to right of way. What makes this tricky in SA is that some people are queuers, and some most decidedly aren’t. So some people stick rigidly to their side of the grocery store aisle, and others are weaving all over the place. As you can imagine, this makes it tough to navigate and pretty darn frustrating, especially behind an oversized shopping cart.

Rough life, huh? Oh the trials and tribulations of an international life 😉

Just another day at the airport

If you’ve never experienced the joy of trying to depart from an airport in the developing world, it goes a little something like this:

The process:

1)   Leave for airport. Two hours early for a flight? Not a chance. The ‘protocol’ team insists you leave 5+ hours early to get to the airport. While it does make some sense given the nutty traffic (that’s another whole story), it is still excessive. You finally track down the driver, negotiate it to a more reasonable 3 ½ hours, and arrive well over 2 hours before your flight is set to depart.

2)   Pay exit tax. It seems straightforward, but there is an unwritten hierarchy (read: who pays the biggest bribe) that makes your place at the front of the line irrelevant. Since you’re not planning on bribing anyone today, ‘handlers’ push in with stacks of passports from either side, pushing yours to the bottom. When the man (or woman? You can’t see their face behind the mirrored glass they stand behind) finally asks you a question, you can’t see or hear them given they are trying to talk to you through a tiny slot just big enough for your passport to slide through. Pay money, leave.

3)   Baggage screening. You walk past a (broken) x-ray machine to a table where a man opens your bag, dislodges everything you’ve neatly packed, checks out your bras, and closes it again. There is no indication of precisely what they are looking for,  but they make a mark in chalk to show that the bag has been searched (which is, I’m convinced, some kind of code to tell others whether there is anything worthwhile in the bag to steal).

4)   Passport check #1. You wander, slightly lost, to find the right place in the cordoned off area around the check-in counters to enter the maze. When you finally find the right place to enter, the man there checks your passport picture to make sure it is you, and sends you through the maze of aisles to the counter.

5)   Check-in (and passport check #2). The man at the counter greets you, takes your passport, checks your name off a list, hand writes a boarding pass, and sends you…somewhere over there for baggage (very unclear).

6)   Baggage check-in (or so you think, and passport check #3). You walk about 3 feet to a table, hand over your passport and boarding pass, and are waved on to somewhere else (again totally unclear).

7)   Baggage screening #2 (and passport check #4). After walking another 2 feet you see a table, where someone who does not look at all like they are working finally makes eye-contact, but only after you stare at him for several minutes and asking multiple times where you need to go. He checks your passport again and makes you open up your bag again to rummage through it…you’re only  about 15 feet from the first baggage screening, and there is nothing in the whole airport you could possibly buy to shove into your luggage. Satisfied (with what?) he sends you forward another 4 feet to the gatekeeper of the baggage check-in.

8)   Baggage check-in?? (and passport check #5). The VERY unenthusiastic woman at the front of the line checks your passport (of course), takes note of your name and makes the obligatory Jennifer Lopez comment (she is apparently the most well-known Jennifer in the world, according to my research), and you wait. Finally she points to a counter with a grunt. You move forward 3 feet.

9)   Finally the baggage check-in (and passport check #6). You wait (impatiently) for someone to acknowledge that you are waiting in their line. There are literally 12 people behind the counter, some looking very busy and others ‘advising’. No one will make eye contact with you. The man in front of you has about 5 very large bags to check. One of the ‘advisors’ tells you to put your passport on the counter, but the woman working there indicates (through mumbles and gestures) that she’s too busy and you should take it back and wait. You do (remember, you’re still 2+ hours early and only have to cover about 20 more feet before the gate, so there is no rush). Finally a baggage guy stops flirting with the woman at the counter next to you, realizes you’ve been waiting awhile, and beckons you to come over there. You do. The woman behind the counter is annoyed. The counter you just left suddenly frees up and three more people rush up. You wait again. Finally the team of women check your passport, your hand-writen boarding pass, check your name off another list, and print you a proper boarding pass. (Just to paint the picture, this set of counters is DIRECTLY adjacent to the first set of counters where they hand wrote the boarding pass in the first place). Your bag gets its tag and is taken away on the conveyor belt.

10)  Getting out (and passport check #7). Now you have to find out where to exit the 15 foot-wide cordoned-off area. You walk around, can’t seem to figure out how to get out other than crawling under. Finally someone stops you to check your passport again and stamp it. They graciously allow you to leave.

11)  Health check. I am reminded that I  have to show the very tired, cranky looking people in booths next to the security check my yellow-fever vaccination card. They are not excited to have to work. They glare at me as I ask them if anyone wants to see it, look at the front page (which has only my name on it) and jam it back into my hands.

12)  Immigration (and passport check #8). There are four booths with passport officials sitting in there, two with signs that read that they are only for protocol passengers (VIPs). No one is waiting at those, but there is a line at the other two. You wait (having been shooed back to line after trying  to approach the woman – shame on you for interrupting her nap). When you finally get beckoned to the booth, the most important question the officer can ask you is what your address in the country you are leaving was. Does it really matter?? You’re trying to leave!

13)  Passport check #9. You stand in a (sort of) line waiting for the man at the front to look at your passport again. He takes it from you, looks at you, looks at the woman next to him, looks back at you, and says “ok”. Ok what? You think he might usher you through to the security screening, but it is so poorly designed that only one person at a time is allowed to go into the air-conditioned screening area. As you walk past the woman (who has done NOTHING) she asks you “what you are going to give me?”. Um, nothing.

14)  Hand luggage screening (and passport check #10). Your bags are pushed through the x-ray machine. No taking out your laptops here – the man isn’t even looking at the screen.  You walk through and it beeps. You look around but no one cares, so you just keep going. The man at the end takes your passport and examines it up and down, reading every piece of information carefully. He hands you the passport, holding on tightly to the end. Quickly before he too can ask you for a bribe, you thank him profusely and snatch it out of his hands.

15)  Phew, bathroom break. You make a quick dash to the bathroom, half expecting your passport to be checked again when you enter. You pile your bags against the door (no lock) and try not to touch anything. There is a woman in a reflective vest waiting for you when you leave the stall – a sure sign she thinks she is important. She rushes to the sink, turns on the tap, then waves her hands incessantly in front of the ineffective hand dryer showing you how to do it. You know what’s coming – the inevitable ‘what are you going to give me?’. You say nothing, and quickly exit.

16)  Boarding call? There are about 3 flights waiting to board at around the same time. They announce (if you can call it that) the first flight is boarding. You try and guess by the passengers who stand and rush the exit which flight it is. Everyone else seems to know. You deduce it’s not your flight but the one which leaves after yours. You sit down, only to get up again 5 minutes later as the rest of the passengers start towards the door – no one has announced anything, but you join the line. No passport or boarding card checks here, you just get on a bus hoping it’s going the right way.

17)  Baggage check and hand luggage screening #2. Wait, aren’t the bags already checked? All the bags are lined up on the tarmac – you have to identify yours for them to load it onto the baggage cart (and then hopefully onto the plane). You walk a few more feet and present your hand luggage for search again, and then yourself for a pat down.

18)   Finally on the plane…

Seriously. I’m sadly not exaggerating AT ALL – this is what I went through to get home this past week from a work assignment. And in an airport not much bigger than my house. Really, it isn’t much different from anywhere in the developing world- although perhaps this was a BIT more over the top than usual (I did hear a number of other passengers joking about the ridiculous number of times they’d been asked for their passport, so I wasn’t the only one laughing). As much as I hate airports worldwide, experiences like these definitely make me think more fondly of airports in the US and Europe – there is something to be said about the relative order of airports in nations that believe in queuing…

…everything works out


nice.

It’s been a strange few weeks.

I rushed off to Liberia at the last minute for an urgent assignment. Then…nothing. It seems to always be a case of hurry up and wait here. The request for proposals I was meant to be working on wasn’t released until the end of my 2nd week here. While I had plenty to do, it certainly wasn’t the emergency that they had led me to believe. Oh well!

It was surreal being back. I’ve been gone just about 1½ years, and I was amazed at how little had changed. Yet so much had changed. After having come and gone from here so many times over the last 5 years, it feels a bit like coming home. And in this case, IRC was the crazy family you sometimes wish you weren’t related to, but love just the same.

I left Liberia in a haze of frustration and exhaustion. My two years here were…well, let’s just say challenging. Although I’d had some good times, I was ready to never set foot in the place again for a variety of reasons. So it was a pleasant surprise when I walked into the IRC office that first morning. So many familiar, smiling faces greeted me, and plenty of new ones as well. In many ways I felt like I was welcomed back as part of the team as if I’d only been gone on R&R for a few weeks. It was nice to be back in a country where I know how things work, or rather where I know how they don’t work. it makes things so much easier.

I gorged myself on Lebanese food while I was here – I ate so much moutabal that I nearly turned into a giant eggplant myself. I think I managed to get my fill, though, so I can survive awhile back in SA where Lebanese food doesn’t seem to exist. I also had plenty tuna sashimi salad from Royal sushi…yum. Who knew the stuff my sushi dreams were made of would be found in Monrovia?? And sundowners and drinks on the beach are pretty idyllic here – I’ve yet to find the same sort of unpretentious, chilled out beach spots in Cape Town. It was great catching up with old friends and meeting new ones – fun colleagues, feisty little Liberian kitties at my apartment building, random friends of friends to chat to over drinks. I had forgotten how easy in some ways it is to live in an expat community like Liberia – everyone is constantly coming in and out, and everyone ‘gets’ what you do, so you quite easily find common ground to bond over. I found myself feeling quite proud of my life choices, though – I got more than one jealous comments about my house and Cape Town and just getting out of the madness of development for awhile.

Some things seem to be inching forward in the country – new buildings going up, banks opening and ATMs, roads being repaired in town – and others seem to have gone in reverse – the roads up country and UN drive, ATMs that don’t work, driving skills, corruption. So I guess if you do the math the place is the same. It’s a bit like the seasons here – you build, repair, make progress during the dry season, and much of the work that you’ve done is washed away or damaged in the heavy rains. But it was good to see the signs of progress and stability.

I’ve ended up being here for nearly a month in all. More than enough time in my book! But who knows, I may have the chance to go back sooner than I think. And at the end, I’m pretty happy to have come back – I needed to exorcise some demons and remember why I actually liked working in Liberia. The best thing a friend told me on this trip about Liberia sums up the place to a tee – ‘In Liberia nothing works, but everything works out’.

 

On the road again

So, I’m on the road again. After MUCH hemming and hawing, IRC finally gave me the go ahead this afternoon at 2pm to leave. On a flight at 7pm. Talk about last minute.

I’ll be back in my old stomping grounds, Liberia, which I’m simultaneously looking forward to and dreading. My last few months there were less than plesant, and I won’t have Nick there to keep me sane – but I did have some good times, and I hope I won’t be there long enough for the place to really get under my skin. Plus I get to see some good friends and former colleagues, which is nice.

Of course, timing couldn’t have been worse. When I originally agreed to the assignment a month ago I told them I had to be back by the 1st to move. Unfortunately everything was delayed, so now poor Nick has to move into our new house (!) by himself. I packed as much as humanly possible, but feel really badly. I’m super bummed I’m not going to be around!

Anyways, it’s time for flight #2 of 3. The lovely midnight flight from joburg to nairobi. OR Tambo is the place to be this time of night…Here’s to hoping my window seat isn’t comandeered, that I win the armrest war and that I can actually get some sleep.

Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.

DRC beers

Ok, enough about work – time for the important stuff.

I was surprised on my first night here that there were so many beers on the menu that I haven’t tried before – Mutzig, Skol, Primus, Tembo, Turbo King, Legend, Castel..and of course there is the ubiquitous Heineken (barely worth a mention). At our hotel, which thinks it’s pretty posh, they serve us our beers in wine glasses. My favorite was eating at an outside ‘restaurant’ (there are vendors all around selling chicken, goat, beer, peanuts, etc. and they’ll bring them to you at your plastic table and chairs crammed in on the sidewalks and over the covered-sewers) and seeing all the buildings around brightly painted like different beer labels – very fun. I know, it seems like I’ve been partying a lot, but really we’ve been working hard! We just managed to fit a beer tour into our busy schedule – it was a priority.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Kinshasa

So far my life in Kinshasa has consisted of a) work, b) expensive dinners, c) cockroaches, and d) traffic.

I hit the ground running in terms of work – I arrived in Friday afternoon and went straight to the office (fun, considering I was broiling hot in the sweater and jeans I’d worn to keep warm on the airplane.) We’re working on writing a proposal to USAID for a very large health grant, so several staff from NY and other country programs have come in to help, but none of them arrived until Sunday. So all of the sudden I found myself leading an initial brainstorming meeting with the Health technical team here Saturday – I wasn’t quite prepared for that! It’s been pretty fast paced since then. We are working in partnership with some other organizations on the proposal, so we spent much of the week meeting with their proposal team and writing up inputs for the first draft.

Kinshasa is an insanely expensive city. I thought Liberia or Cote d’Ivoire were expensive, but they’re not even close. I guess it’s a UN Mission/price ratio – the more UN forces you have on the ground, the more expensive things are! I’m sure it’s in part the places we’re going, but dinner and a drink routinely costs at least $30, even for a pizza or pasta. There are some nice restaurants, though – Taj, a really good Indian restaurant, is up on the 8th floor of a building (which you have to get to by riding a very dodgy elevator) and has a great view of the city. In addition to the high cost, you have to bank on at least 2 hours minimum for every meal – tiring when you’ve just spent a gazillion hours in the office.

In the 10 days I’ve been here I’ve stayed in 3 different hotels. I thought I’d be able to move in before everyone else got here and no one would be able to see how much stuff I’d brought (I’m a founding member of over-packers anonymous), but no luck. The first place seemed fine to me (except maybe for the slanted floors in the shower that successfully directed the water away from the drain), but our Admin guy wasn’t happy that they didn’t have a back-up generator so I moved after one night. The next place seemed more posh – right on the main Boulevard and decked out with bordello-red curtains and bedspread – but unfortunately had a major cockroach problem. EW. At first I thought it was just one or two of the little tiny ones. I should have known better. Where there is one there are millions. I spent two nights in the room spraying Doom like a fiend and stomping on the little buggers, but they were fearless. I came back to my brightly-lit room to see one just hanging out on my bed. Yuck. I am pretty sure they were living under the wooden bed frame. Needless to say I slept with the light on – it was a good thing I was exhausted or I never would have gotten any sleep. I changed rooms finally and was lucky that the ground floor room seemed to be roach free, but my colleagues weren’t as lucky. We moved hotels the third time a few days ago – now we’re in this super posh hotel (ok, not actually posh by anything other than DRC standards). Unfortunately, every time I repack in a hurry my bags seem to multiply, so now I had about 11 it felt like…at least I wasn’t the only one. My room is great other than the chain-smoking South Africans in the next room, but hey, they’re not cockroaches.

Traffic is insane here in Kinshasa. We’re probably a 2 minute drive from the office with no traffic, but some days it has taken us over 30. There is one bottleneck in particular just outside the UN compound, about 5 car lengths from our office, where we routinely get stuck. I was told of one day when the staff were coming back to the office and got stuck there for so long they decided to walk to the office. The car they were in apparently only made it in the gates 2 hours later. Ugh. The worst is that it is totally unpredictable. Midday is usually bad, but you never know how bad. And you’d think that Saturday at 11 wouldn’t be the worst traffic time, but we did get stuck for about 30 minutes at one intersection the other night…

So, so far I’m enjoying the work and the people here a lot, and have seen a little bit of the city. I would LOVE to be able to explore the rest of the country, especially the area around Lake Kivu on the border with Rwanda and Burundi, but doesn’t look like I’m going to be venturing too far beyond the hotel and office on this trip. I guess that’s the exotic life of a consultant!

So much for roots…off to DRC!

One of the things that I was looking forward to most about moving to Cape Town was the chance to finally put down some roots. This is not something I would have imagined myself saying a few years ago – I have always had itchy feet and while I imagined having a home someday, that someday always seemed far away. Not sure what it was – stress, age, circumstances, all of the above – but I was very excited about the idea of staying put for awhile when we moved here. And I managed not to travel for a bit…

It’s starting to seem a bit like I’ve put down those really shallow roots – they hold me in one place, but aren’t really all that solid yet and can easily get swept away. I’ve been trying to figure out how to do my job without traveling so much, but with little success so far. So I’ve also been thinking about what else I can do so I don’t have to travel so much – also haven’t gotten very far on that.

Maybe part of the problem isn’t so much the travel or even the work – I most always enjoy it once I get there. I think probably it’s more about the uncertainty. And the unpredictability. In the last month I’ve almost gone to about 3 different countries – Kyrgyzstan, Iraq, Georgia – and every one was a last minute, prepare-to-put-your -life-on -hold-and-be-ready-to-leave-in-two-days kind of assignment.  And none of them panned out, for various reasons (the organization I was on a bit with didn’t win the proposal, the proposal was postponed, etc). Makes it a little hard to plan your life when you’re never sure if you’ll be in the country the following week.

So now I think it looks like I’ll be heading to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)  with the IRC a week from today. They wanted me there sooner, but there is this whole pesky visa thing. And I was literally called about this job for the first time last night. Things move quickly! I’m never sure I’m actually going until I’m on the plane, but this one seems pretty solid. It should be an interesting assignment, writing a $142mm health proposal, and I’ve always wanted to visit DRC. But I am heartbroken to have to leave my little kitten – she’ll be so big when I get back in 3-4 weeks! Not to mention having to cancel classes I was planning to take, etc. Oh well, c’est la vie – at least for now.

Roadtrips – US vs. South Africa

I am a huge fan of road trips. There is something so exciting about the prospect of a long drive, despite the obvious drawbacks of road travel. It’s far from the fastest way of getting anywhere, but even without the insufferable security screening, endless lines and baggage restriction induced panic, I would opt for a road trip any day. I love listening to music, staring out at the landscape and towns whizzing by, snack breaks, chatting, stretches of comfortable silence, and, of course, finally getting there.

I’ve road-tripped in a lot of places, and haven’t met one yet I didn’t like. I even relished the epic drives on potholed roads in Liberia. Somehow the repetitive soundtrack of Lionel Ritchie, Lucky Dube and West Africa’s greatest hits induced a trance-like effect that had me doing some of my best thinking on the road.

Nick and I just got back from driving his car back from Jo’burg to Cape Town, via Arniston. I’ve done quite a number of roadtrips over the years in South Africa, including the Jo’burg-Cape Town drive (about 16 hours) 5 or 6 times. There are quite a lot of differences between road-tripping in the US and South Africa – here are just a few:

  • While the main roads in South Africa have pretty major gas stations that have snacks, food, clean bathrooms, etc, if you venture even a short distance off these roads you’d better plan in advance! Even on stretches of major roads, the towns are sometimes far apart, meaning fuel stops are too. A major challenge for people with pea-sized bladders like me.
    • Even the major N-S route that crosses South Africa is a one-lane highway in many places. There are few super-highways in the middle of the country, unlike in the US, despite the fact that it is the major trucking route. This means there is a LOT of truck dodging and passing. Even on tight, windy mountain passes.
    • Passing is polite here. There is an unwritten rule that if a vehicle pulls over or somehow tries to make it easier for you to pass, you thank them by turning on your hazards. They respond by flicking their lights at you. If you don’t do this, you will incur the wrath of the driver (I’ve seen it firsthand – normally calm Nick yelling ‘you’re welcome, jerk!’ at cars that haven’t thanked him…)
    • There are hardly any billboards! I spend my time trying to read and pronounce the odd Afrikaans named towns and landmarks since those are the only reading material. It would be damn hard to play the alphabet game in some parts of the country!
    • Only pretty major towns have streetlights, so once the sun sets it is just DARK.
    • There is not nearly as much to buy. There are farmstalls along some roads that sell fresh naartjies (nectarines), pies (the meat ones, not the fruit ones) and preserves, you won’t find the same kind of roadside stuff shops you can in small town USA.

    Of course, some things are the same – speed traps in small towns, construction and lane closures, artery hardening burgers and chips as the main form of sustenance on the road, crappy radio stations, etc. I’m sure there are a lot more, so I’m going to plan another road trip to try and find out! Now if only I can stay awake long enough in the car to take note…

    Roadtrip Happiness Is…

    …the smell of damp, freshly cut grass and the smoke from far off velt fires rushing in through the vents

    …needing to dig out your sunglasses even though the weather forecast called for cold and rain

    …smoked beef Simba chips and Coke Light at the gas station

    …dancing madly and singing along to the cheesy tunes on the only radio station in the area

    …extremely random conversations about anything and everything

    …hearing rush-hour traffic reports for the cities you’ve escaped and seeing no other cars on the road for miles

    …the sun sinking slowly below the horizon to my right, the colors deepening and spreading across the sky, turning the landscape pink and gold

    …seeing a huge yellow moon rising in the navy sky over the horizon on the other side of the car, illuminating the fields and reflecting in the ponds and reservoirs

    …the feel of the fresh, cold air that hits just as the sun goes down

    …cute B&Bs in odd towns (with electric blankets and MNet!)

    …arriving at your destination ahead of schedule!

      I’m allergic to West Africa.

      Yep.  It’s true.  I’m allergic to West Africa, I fear.  Or maybe it’s IRC.  Or maybe just work in general.

      I’d only been there in Abidjan a few days when I started feeling all achy and feverish.  Signs I should have been familiar with, but had banished to the back of my mind.  After a night of excruciating pain and high fever, I came to the conclusion that the infections I’d been having continuously in Liberia in the months before I left had returned.  Of course, since I left Liberia I’d been the picture of good health – well, other than self-inflicted klutz-factor related injuries, of course.  So I hadn’t come prepared with my usual traveling pharmacy for self-medication.

      Luckily I’m here working on a Health proposal, so my colleagues are an MD and an RN – both had plenty of cipro and ibuprofen to get me started, so I’m on the road to recovery.  I do love the abandon with which us development folk both self-diagnose and self-medicate.  I’m always a bit wary, but after you’ve gone to one incompetent doctor too many it really hits home that medicine in most parts of the world really is an art and not a science.  And I certainly know myself better than anyone else, so my guess is as good as theirs most of the time.  Why pay to confirm what you’re 99% sure of, especially when you don’t need a prescription to get the drugs and the pharmacy anyways, and you have your own non-practising MDs to help you with dosage? Not to mention I would be incapable of explaining my symptoms in French.

      (Mom, don’t worry – I will go to a doctor if it gets worse!   Don’t you love it that moms still worry even when you’re 31?)

      Abidjan again

      It feels odd. It was almost exactly a year ago that I was here in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire with IRC for a conference. Now I’m back helping their Health team out with a proposal for a couple of weeks.

      It’s great to be back – the team here is very welcoming and friendly, but I am totally LOST. I haven’t spoken French since I was here last, and it was pretty poor then!  I am really struggling with the basics – I somehow managed to skip the whole intro French stuff back in the day when I started learning, so I am particularly bad at things like greetings and pleasantries – it probably makes me look unfriendly, but I honestly don’t know what to say when people greet me!

      It’s interesting being back with IRC West Africa, seeing so many familiar faces and hearing the gossip of what’s going on in the region and beyond.  In many ways it feels like nothing has changed at all.  But it’s cool to be back as a consultant, working specifically on one project rather than being swamped by a million things at once.

      The trip here was long – suffice it to say I ate way too much odd airplane foods at weird times of the night and slept in such a way my neck may never be the same again.  The best thing about the trip was that on my first leg (CPT-Dubai) we flew in an Emirates 777.  It had an awesome lighting system, and when the food service was over and it was time for the passengers to go to sleep the ‘sky’ lit up blue with little pinpricks of starlight!  Very pretty.

      US Roadtrip Revisited

      For the last three months, Nick and I have been roadtripping around the US, visiting friends, family and generally exploring the country. For those of you who were keeping up with the roadtrip on my blog, you’ll know that I did a terrible job posting regularly.  I jotted down detailed notes and reflections on each of our stops, but I was just so tired most evenings that I didn’t quite get around to writing them up!

      The map above shows the route we took – heading West from MN in early June and circling around (with a few detours), ending up back in MN in August. The question we were asked most often was where our favorite places were.  I generally loved the Pacific Northwest, especially the drive on Highway 101 down the coast from Washington to Northern California.  Seattle is always one of my favorite cities to explore, and we spent a few days doing just that.  But my favorite place we visited was Lafayette, Louisiana.  I had always wanted to visit cajun country, and Lafayette is its heart.  We stayed in a great B&B, which also happens to double as one of the best live music venues in town, so we stayed up late listening to zydeco and watching people of all ages dance. There was even a guest appearance by Marc Broussard!

      Nick didn’t have a favorite place necessarily, but he did think that Portland was probably the most his kind of place. He also really liked New York, mainly for its novelty – really, is there anywhere else like it in the world?! Though I think he was probably also swayed by the fact that he was introduced to beer pong here for the first time 🙂 His favorite part of the trip was the camping in general – we stayed in national parks, private campsites, and of course Kampgrounds of America. He was amazed at how  each one is so different – some having organized movie and ice cream nights, some with central campfire areas, some with pools and even hot tubs – seriously posh.

      Looking back at the trip, it was pretty darn amazing.  What a diverse set of experiences.  We seriously could have spent a few more months driving around – I still only felt like we were doing a sampler tour, since there were a million places we didn’t get to go or things we didn’t see.  But still, it was pretty great. I guess that means we’ll just have to plan more US trips in the future.

      So now we’re back in MN, and starting to think about getting back to the ‘real world’ – sprucing up CVs, starting the job search, getting ready for the move to SA.  We head out August 24th – let the next adventure begin!

      Oshkosh II

      Since the crew arrived rather late yesterday (and it was raining), we didn’t head to the airshow until this morning. All the guys were up super early, having just come over from SA and still jet lagged. Nick and I got a bit slower start, but managed to make it to the show in time for him to see Richard Branson, the Virgin Galactic plane the White Knight ‘Eve’, and one of his idols, Burt Rutan. (Until I finally saw that spelled I thought his name was Bertrude Tan – I thought it was a bit odd!)

      Since we’re going to be here for a few days, we paced ourselves. We mainly sat near the flight line and watched the show – the Airbus A380, tons of awesome aerobatics, the old Warbirds (planes from the various wars). The aerobatics was pretty insane – the pilots go screaming into the air, stall, do some ‘spins’ (Pete explained to me that they’re really not in control when the fall out of the sky so it’s a little misleading to call them spins). My neck got a little sore from looking at the sky, but it was pretty cool. I think my fav was the Beechcraft 18 – it’s an old 1940’s plane that did a really pretty aerobatics routine to some very monumental music. A few other of the hot-shot guys had whole musical routines and so many product placements it was a bit ridiculous! There was also some really neat formation flying and aerobatics. Everyone is afraid I’ll get bored – and maybe I will after a few days! But I have my book and my chair, and can entertain myself anywhere!

      Oshkosh

      The drive out of Chicago is a bit of a blur. We got going early (or early-ish, we’re not exactly morning people), and since our visit to Chicago had been so rushed decided to drive through some of the neighborhoods to the North of the city instead of getting directly on the freeway. It still amazes me how far some of our cities sprawl. You still felt like you were in the middle of the city 30-40 minutes outside the city center! There were some awesome apartments – I am obsessed with little balconies with window boxes, and there were so many to look at. Even amongst a row of cookie-cutter construction you’d see a gorgeous building with amazing detail. Eventually the cute shops and restaurants and buildings with rooftop decks perched atop them gave way to small, squat buildings that must be in a predominantly Romanian community. How I know that? Well, aside from the Romanian churches and Little Bucharest restaurants, there was also an office for the Romanian Liberal Democratic Party on one street. Interesting.

      We got a call from Nick’s dad as we were getting out of Chicago area. He and a few of his friends came over from SA for the Oshkosh airshow, which is where we were headed to meet up with them. They were renting cars and driving from Chicago, but didn’t have directions to the house they’d rented…we luckily had Ted, so we sent them a few directions via SMS, and headed our on way. We knew immediately that we were in the right place when we took the exit to Oshkosh and saw tents, RVs and airplanes stretched out on every grassy area available. It is incredible how many people are here! We arrived about about hour ahead of Nick’s dad (thanks to Ted), and spent a little time catching up with our ‘homework’ (trying to keep track of expenses, doing a bit of writing, etc). We were glad when they finally arrived – we had worried that perhaps we didn’t have the right address, and someone would come home from work and ask us what the hell we were doing sitting on their porch drinking a few beers. That would be a bit awkward to explain!

      Chicago briefly…

      Originally we intended to bypass Chicago on our way to Oshkosh, and head back ofter the show. However, we all of the sudden found ourselves in Michigan a day early, and decided we’d might as well take advantage of the time. Plus, I think we might be getting a little bit traveled out…

      We found a great deal on a hotel right near Michigan Ave downtown – quite a change from our little tent! After making ourselves a bit pretty, we hit the town and wandered down the ‘Magnificent Mile’ – not quite our speed with all the fancy shops, but the buildings are gorgeous! In Millennium Park we had to take a few pictures at the big mirror ball-thing (technical, no?). We were just walking by, and all of the sudden we started feeling a tremendous sense of peer pressure – everyone had their cameras out. We felt compelled to whip ours out and take a few pics! It actually was kinda cool – it’s rounded so you can get a reflection of yourself with the city in the picture.

      Despite a few wrong turns, we finally figured out how to get down to the lake front. It was a fabulous day – sunny, a bit breezy so not too hot. Walking by the marina we were really jealous of all the people with boats. We did a little shopping, looking for which boat we want to buy (the dream: the next long trip will be on our boat, but in reality we have to decide between a boat and a house…unless we win the lottery!). We decided on a modest catamaran we saw moored there – it’s not home, but it’s much. There were quite a few people ‘green-boating’, as my uncle calls it – saving fuel by sitting on their boats and drinking rather than going.

      We had arranged to see the Blue Man Group in the evening – Nick has the CD, and hadn’t ever seen a show, and we’d tried unsuccessfully to see it in Boston as well. (For those who don’t know, they’re a 3 man percussion group that combines random instruments with showmanship and comedy). The show was fun – though the skits could use a bit of updating. The humor was at least 10 years dated in some skits! But the music was awesome – I loved the tunes played on the PVC piping. Our highlights tour ended with a giant stuffed Chicago pizza at Giordano’s, and a ride back on the El. There is SO much more we could have done in Chicago – I can’t wait to come back again – but in our limited visit we had a lot of fun.

      One of the most interesting things was on the ride up to the theater we saw a group of apartments that had what looked like tennis courts on the roof. Groups of college kids seemed to be playing some sort of crazy drinking games – beer tennis, maybe? Looked like a fun Sunday afternoon! There was also a full on street party going on near Fulton street, and a ton of happy Cubs fans.

      Viva Las Vegas!

      What could possibly compete with the natural beauty of the Grand Canyon? The man-made garishness of Las Vegas, of course.

      On our way we made a few detours. Nick had asked me about Route 66 – I knew that it passed through this part of the country, but despite the signs we’d seen in Flagstaff I didn’t put two and two together and realize that the current Interstate 40 is the old Route 66 in many parts until we were leaving the Grand Canyon. When started seeing signs for the ‘Historic Route 66’ – I had a little ‘aha’ moment. We hit the road early, so we got off in Ash Park, Arizona to find somewhere to eat our breakfast. The town used to be a main hub for the Santa Fe Railroad, and also had a large hotel in town. When the railroad moved its line, the hotel closed, and I-40 bypassed the town, Ash Fork was pretty much deserted. It still has some folks living there, but it’s pretty quiet. Sound familiar? It felt like the movie Cars could have been based on this little town, though I am sure there are a million more like it out there.

      Next stop: Hoover Dam. It’s nice to go to a major attraction that they don’t make you pay to look at! It’s big. And it was windy. I have to say I wasn’t too excited about looking over the edge, but Nick was. I was more tempted to use the fancy art deco bathrooms in one of the columns – just to be able to say I went at Hoover Dam. Actually, the most interesting part for me was the bridge that they are building just a bit up the road from the dam. It is meant to be a bypass, and will be HUGE. They’re building it from both sides, and it looks like it is about to meet in the middle. I can’t imagine a much worse job – being suspended above the water like that doing construction. Gives me the willies just thinking how far down it would be…(can you sense a theme? I’m not much of a heights fan).

      We arrived at my Uncle Pat’s place in the ‘burbs of Vegas on Fathers’ Day, just in time for Kathy’s awesome pulled pork sandwiches and mac & cheese. The golf was on and everyone was already happy. It was a well-needed early Sunday night, and it meant we were ready to get an early start on the strip the next day! We happily got stuck into the mid-morning traffic, which gave us a good chance to look around and ogle the sites. I’d been here once before, but wasn’t 21 at the time so it wasn’t much fun. To be honest, Vegas isn’t really Nick or my scene, but we wanted to check it out. We tried to stay out of the Vegas heat as much as possible – it was hotter than a (insert some random, funny phrase here – I’m no good at those). We parked on the one end and made our way through a bunch of the casinos. I felt like we weren’t really taking Vegas seriously – it was almost 5 before we even had a drink! But luckily we caught up with a few margaritas and beers, then decided to try our hand at gambling. We are both major losers (not it the general sense, just when it comes to gambling…). Knowing this we only put aside a little cash to play with. Nick probably lost his in 5 minutes at the blackjack tables. Mine lasted longer, but only because I was playing the 1 and 5 cent slots. Not exactly a high stakes gambler! I was just mesmerized by the pictures, hoping they’d all line up – kept me entertained. We should have listened to our yes/no coin, which kept answering ‘NO’ whenever we asked if we should play this particular table or machine.

      We ended the evening with an amazing dinner at Mon Ami Gabi in the Paris Casino – we sat out on the patio, which overlooks the dancing fountains at the Bellagio (one of Nick’s favorite parts of Vegas). It was great to sip sangria, eat blue cheese smothered steak frites while listening to ‘I’m Proud to be an American’…Yes. Odd. Nick thought it was the funniest song out there, and I can’t say I disagree. We headed home with lighter pockets but our heads full of lights. It really is a kind of fairy land at night with all the colors and flashing pinpricks. I can see how it would be addictive!

      Grand Canyon

      I’d been to the Grand Canyon on a family vacation about 10 years ago. I remember clearly thinking yeah, it will be cool, but really – what’s all the fuss about a big hole in the ground?

      Yep, I was wrong. I was surprised at how astounding it really is. And it was just as breathtaking this time. I’d managed to book a place at one of the campsites right in the park – amazing, given it’s now Summer and most of the places seem to be booked months in advance! Unfortunately the weather didn’t really cooperate. When we arrived it was windy and of course started to rain as soon as we got out to pitch the tent. Luckily (and unsurprisingly), not long after the rain passed over and the sun even poked its head out. It made for some amazing light over the canyon. Like Sedona, the colors are amazing, but a bit more colorful. There are a lot more blues and purples and yellows in the GC. We had a really clear day and the visibility was great – we could see for miles. Because of the route we were taking, we came at the Canyon from the South, which is the much more developed side. It’s both good and bad – there are a lot of organized walks and activities you can take advantage of, but there are also huge crowds of people. We did one Ranger guided walk along the rim that talked about the wildlife. Ranger Emily (in her oh-so-stylish Ranger hat) told us some interesting stories about the early attempts at park management that went wrong – makes me wonder what we’re doing today that people one hundred years from now will be shaking their heads at. There were also a neat exhibit that showed photos of the early life on the rim – I’m always into the historical perspective.

      Nick made a good friend as we were having a snack on the canyon rim – Sammy the Squirrel. He wasn’t tame – he was wild for people! I was afraid he might bite if we didn’t give him what he wanted…a sort of wildlife terrorism. I’ll add our little video we took here.

      Camping here was really the highlight of the GC. Our campsite was great – it was surrounded by other sites, but you didn’t really feel like there was anyone there. We managed to fit in a little happy hour with cheese and crackers, a good bottle of wine and some tunes before we drove back out to a scenic overlook to view the sunset. BEAUTIFUL! We made ourselves jiffy pop, toasted sandwiches, and Nick got to try s’mores. He’s pretty handy to have around – he managed to fashion a marshmallow toasting stick out of a long piece of wood, rope and the short metal handle from the popcorn…though why we couldn’t just use a stick I don’t know.

      The Border…

      Surreal. that would be the word I would use to describe the landscape on the drive from Southern California into Arizona. The landscape is barren, empty, with small rocky hills lining the sides of the road. It’s clear that you are in the desert. The rocky ochre hills are dotted with cacti, including my favorite kind that look fat and fuzzy (you know the ones I mean). As we went further East, huge swaths of green arose in the midst of the arid land. Some entrepreneurial farmers have created farmlands in the middle of the desert! The lush greenness seems out of place – I wonder where they get all the water for irrigation. There is also evidence of using the vast, flat terrain for something a bit more environmentally friendly. In one area, there were hundreds of wind turbines lining the ridges around the road. They were pretty amazing up close – huge, white blades contrasting with the cloudless blue sky.

      The road parallels the US-Mexico border most of the way. All those stories about the difficulties immigrants face trying to cross the border come to life when you see just how brutal the landscape is. Everywhere there is little beyond the asphalt, rocky hills, brutal sun and heat and Border Patrol vans patrolling the area.

      We took a small detour and passed over what looked to be a dry creek bed. Looking over the edge we saw a bridge off to our right. I was surprised to see 3-4 life sized scarecrows set up under the bridge. Their arms were made of branches outstretched into a V, and they were dressed in over-sized tattered clothes. I am not exactly what they are set up to scare away, but I would be afraid if I ran into them unexpectedly!

      I’ve only ever approached Mexico from the air or sea, never by land. Crossing over into Mexico on this trip is out of the question – Nick doesn’t have a visa, and I actually left my passport at home (it was an odd feeling – I NEVER travel without it). However, I was really interested to see what the US/Mexico border crossings looked like. We drove South from the main freeway and approached the border in Calexico, California. Calexico might as well be Mexico – all of the signs are in Spanish, the attendant at the gas station didn’t seem at all comfortable in English, and there isn’t much that distinguishes the area geographically from Mexicali across the border. The border crossing looms up out of nowhere to bisect the straight road between the two cities. It is ‘monument grey’ – a big, ugly concrete building, with the US border fence erected nearby. We drove up as far as we could to check it out, but to be honest it was a bit scary and intimidating, so we took our out and exited when we saw a sign that read ‘Last U Turn in the United States’. I so wanted to take a picture, but with my bad experiences taking pictures in foreign countries I wasn’t about to take a photo near a US government installment, no matter how benign. Who knows if I would have made it home! It was fascinating to see this 60,000 person/day crossing. I of course had Calexico playing during the drive – always nice to have a little theme music!

      Arizona – ‘We’re Deep’

      The scenery on the drive from California to Arizona got a bit repetitive, and unfortunately I fell asleep for awhile (sorry, Nick!). I only woke up as we got stuck in traffic skirting around Phoenix. Oops. I’m sure it was a fascinating city.

      The desert landscape slowly changed as we drove further north. Then we arrived in Sedona – wow. Arrive is really the right verb for this part of the country. It isn’t a slow build up of pretty sights, but rather an almost sudden ‘arrival’ at the foot of the red rock formations that seem to leap up out of the ground in sheer faces. And the colors are amazing – every shade of red you can imagine stacked together with oranges, purples, browns. The town itself followed the same color scheme – the beautifully built adobe houses tucked into the greenery between the mountains might inspire a paint selection at the local hardware store – burnt oranges, chocolate browns, eggplant purples. The sun was getting lower on the horizon and the colors were starting to soften even more as we drove through.

      Sadly, everyone seemed to have the same idea as us – to camp in one of the state parks nearby. Every campsite we passed was full, so we weren’t able to explore the town as much as we would have liked. I was getting tired and hungry so we made a few calls and decided to stay at a KOA in Flagstaff, closer to tomorrow’s destination (the Grand Canyon). Luckily they still had a few sites available when we got there, as two buses of schoolkids had just pulled up and had nearly all the tent sites reserved. Amidst the rowdy crowd, we got our tent pitched just as sun was setting and a mean wind picked up. Exhausted by this point, we barely dragged ourselves over the road to the Ruby Tuesdays at the local mall. It certainly wasn’t the gourmet cuisine of a posh restaurant in Sedona, or even one of the cute diners on the Route 66 portion of Flagstaff, but it was (huge) food and a beer. And Nick hasn’t really had the US chain restaurant experience…

      For Rex, Arizona was a homecoming of sorts. Though we got him in Oregon, he has an AZ license plate. The picture on the plate is of the Grand Canyon – ok, it’s pretty impressive. But really, is that all the state has to offer? Maybe their slogan should be ‘Arizona…we’re deep’. Not sure how well that would go over.

      San Diego and Southern Cali

      Our trip to San Diego was far too short – so this entry will also be short. Actually, the best part of the day was the drive (as many of the days are – we see so much!). We drove from LA down the coast, taking the road along the ocean as much as possible. It was neat to see all these beaches I’ve heard of – Huntington, Newport, Laguna beaches – the whole Orange County area. I was actually surprised (shouldn’t have been) to see oil rigs in this part of the state. On one side of the road beautiful beaches, people sunning themselves everywhere; across the road fenced in areas with the little hammer-head drills working overtime. And right next door – an ecological reserve. Very interesting.

      We stayed at a great hostel right in the Gaslamp Quarter (thanks, Gretch!), which is a fun part of town. We didn’t venture too far out beyond – we found a bar with some happy hour specials (Nick tried some Fat Tire and Sam Adams), made our way to an Italian place for some calzones and pasta, and fell into bed. We SO wanted to stay longer, but had to make tracks today day – we had places to go, people to see! We decided that this is a bit the sampler platter tour of the US – we’re checking out places, seeing what we like and making notes of where to go back to. San Diego is definitely high on the list!

      LA

      We’d been told not to get into LA during morning or afternoon rush…in reality it doesn’t make any difference. I am certain that no matter when you drive in LA it is inevitable that you’ll get stuck in traffic. Nick was not at all looking forward to driving here. There were a few things on our ‘to do’ list in LA. We took a walk along Venice beach, watching the body builders do their thing and then drove up into the hills of Malibu to look at the fancy houses. We also went to the Mann Chinese Theater area to check out the hand prints of the stars – there are some really old ones there!

      I’ve made a little mix of US songs, and another one of road trip songs. It’s amazing how many songs have been written about LA! We rocked out to Weezer’s
      ‘Beverly Hills’ and the ‘Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ as we cruised through Beverly Hills and ogled the enormous houses (or more accurately their fences – they’re totally hidden for the most part). I am always astounded by the money in this part of the world – it’s just all such ostentatious wealth! Even the city hall – wow. what a building.

      We also drove into the Pasadena area – so much calmer, but a really pretty city. I loved the cross-walks – you can cross the streets on the diagonal! I made Nick cross even when we only need to cross to the other side of the street, just for the novelty. We had been wanting to watch a movie, and sitting out the traffic seemed like a good excuse. We went to see the movie ‘Up’ – as usual, a great Pixar flick! I loved the dog and his squirrels. Too true.

      We stayed with Kaitlin’s sister and brother-and-law and their adorable daughter who made a cameo appearance to ‘introduce’ herself to us – a see through ploy to avoid having to go to bed. They were awesome hosts, and it was fab to stay with them in their super cute house, rather than have to spend way more than our daily allotment on a room in a dodgy neighborhood. We took advantage of their internet access this morning to do a little planning and try and make some decisions on where to go next – I hadn’t really thought that far ahead. We did have to see the Hollywood sign before we left, since for some reason we hadn’t been able to see it yesterday (probably didn’t know where to look), so we took a little drive up to the observatory. What a great view, despite the smog!

      On our way out of town today we made an obligatory stop at In-And-Out burger. I’d heard about them from all my West coast friends, but haven’t make a stop when I’ve been in the area. Since Nick is on his ‘eat every burger in the US’ mission, I knew we had to include it in the tour. As anyone who has been there knows, there are many more things to order than just the four things on the menu. We tried our hand at the ‘secret’ menu with success – super tasty! ‘Fries animal style’ rock.

      Los Olivos and Sta Barbara

      My sister had worked for a few weeks out at a vet practice in Los Olivos (lucky girl), and raved about the area so we decided to make a stop. It is an intensely cute place – almost too cute! It’s about 4 blocks total, with some shops, restaurants, and wine shops clustered around one main intersection. It’s in the center of the Santa Ynez winelands, which was made famous by the movie Sideways a few years back (hint: don’t mention the movie to the locals, I think they’re not big fans). We strolled around, had a bite to eat, visited one of the wine shops that does tastings for a number of the vineyards in the area. Unfortunately, the guy doing the tastings in his shop was a serious wine snob, and obviously had no time for tourists (a bad characteristic to have when the vast majority of your income probably comes from tourist dollars). The surly shopkeeper didn’t make for the most pleasant of tastings, but at least we got to hear a few local stories as he chatted with his wine reps who came in to sell while we were there. And the wines were excellent, making up for his lack of charm. Pinot Noir is the wine the region is most well known for, and we enjoyed a few – but in reality we’re both pretty out of habit of drinking reds. Tropical climates and red wines don’t go together too well, white tends to be the wine of choice as it’s a bit more refreshing on a hot night.

      After pitching our tent in a random campsite (really an RV park with a few tents, and apparently the only site in the area – I can see that would be true given how expensive the area is, there probably isn’t much land to cater to passers through!) we drove into Santa Barbara. Again, I’d been here before, but loved the posh-ness of the area. There was a huge farmer’s market lining the main street, so we browsed that for some amazing samples of peaches, avocados, strawberries and other yummy items. We settled ourselves at a little wine bar with great happy hour glasses and flatbreads and sat people watching for quite awhile. The guy next to us was a real character – he wore a unbuttoned hawaiian shirt that showed off his leathery tan, obviously knew the owner or something and proceeded to make himself completely at home, taking cushions from other chairs, putting his feet up, and talking loudly to the woman he was with. Nick thought he had a strong accent, a bit of a Donald Sutherland sound. I guess I never thought he had much of an accent! We walked down to the beach, which is actually not all that impressive. We took advantage of the happy hour specials at another bar, had a few margaritas and fish tacos – my first! I can’t believe it took me so long to discover the fish-taco goodness. What was I thinking?? YUM.

      Is it strange that so much of my blogs revolve around food? I guess that’s one of my highlights of the trip so far – all the great food. We’re trying to balance fun restaurants with cost-saving make your own sandwiches and breakfast, along with Nick’s desire to taste every fast food chain in the US while we’re here. Not doing to badly so far, though it’s easy to make your own sandwiches when you’re not surrounded by a million tasty restaurants like we have been in SF and now this area!

      Big Sur

      We grudgingly left Santa Clara – it was a relaxing, chill couple of days, and so good to catch up with friends after quite a bit of time driving on our own. The only thing that made driving off on Monday morning exciting was that we were headed to Big Sur! I’d driven the LA-San Francisco route a few years ago with my friend Jessica, but we were headed to Monterrey and didn’t take too much time to explore the area. I was also eager to share it with Nick – it’s one of my favorite areas, and I couldn’t wait for him to see it.

      On our way we decided to stop by Santa Cruz to check out the kitsch boardwalk – a little slice of Americana for Nick. We didn’t brave the deep fried twinkies as it was only 10am and we thought it might be a little too early to clog the arteries, but we did wander around and check out the scores of kids just out of school for the summer giving their chaperones a good workout. Summer vacation has got to be one of the best things in the US – three whole months of no school, summer camp, warm weather, no parents (someone has to do some work). I loved that feeling! I was always ready for school to start again in the fall, but there was so much to look forward to in June. We also checked out the surf scene – there were quite a few guys braving the cool day and choppy waves. Of course, the water is so cold they’re wearing full wetsuits – Nick would feel right at home (brr, Cape Town waters…)

      Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate with us. When we stopped off in Monterrey, Carmel and Pacific Grove it started to drizzle and the sky was cloudy and grey. I imagined what it would have been like if I’d gone to Monterrey Institute of International Studies, which I had been accepted to back before I took the job in Sudan. I’m sure it would have been a great place to live, but I might be in a totally different place right now! We did the 17 mile drive, which was pretty even in the greyness. The cyprus trees looked somewhat haunted in the fog and mist.

      We started on the road towards Big Sur – not a specific town, but a general area along Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s a wildly beautiful area, with a bout 6 or 7 state parks (my favorite is Garrapata state park – who thought it was a good idea to name a park after a wood tick?). Being the start of summer most of the state parks were booked up, even on a Monday night, but we found a great private campground right near a little stream and set up camp. I was excited to be able to go to Napenthe, one of the most beautiful restaurants ever for dinner and the sunset. My mom had raved about it years ago, and Jess and I checked it out on our drive through the area a few years back but just had a drink there. Nick and I spend a few gorgeous hours drinking amazing wine, eating awesome food, and best of all watching the sun set over the Pacific. The sky had cleared from its earlier rain, and the clouds that still remained provided the perfect canvas for the amazing pinks and golds. The hills lining the coast all took on a rosy glow – we couldn’t keep our eyes off of them! Truly one of the most beautiful places.

      We had planned to do some hiking the next day, but unfortunately the weather still didn’t cooperate. Instead, we kept on South and enjoyed the scenery along PCH. The weather started to clear as we got nearer to our destination. We passed San Simeon this trip – I’d been there before, and we started to realize if we were ever going to get anywhere that we’d have to make some choices (otherwise we could spend months in California alone!).

      Bay Area party!

      I’ve been to SF a number of times before, so after showing Nick the sights and sounds of the city (Fisherman’s Warf walking tour, clam chowder at Boudin’s, cable cars and trolleys – which we somehow managed to get for free, wandering around the city and checking out the architecture, good Thai food, brunch in Haight-Ashbury, steep streets, plus meeting up with my Mom and Tom who randomly happened to be in SF at the same time), we headed out to Santa Clara to hang out with Ellie, 1/3 of the brainshare (i.e. best friend from college) from whom I’d been separated for far too long.

      We happened to arrive on an auspicious (I guess) weekend. Ellie and her friends had just finished their last day of school – they are teachers at a San Jose school and after school program. Plus, Ellie is leaving the Bay area in August, so this was her last last day of real work before she heads back to grad school. We are lucky enough to have taken part in the annual ‘Ding-Dong’ party (don’t ask), which involved a lot of margaritas, tequila shots (ouch, haven’t done those in a long time) and and egg timer. Needless to say we had a raucous Saturday, a greasy hangover brunch the next morning, and a day of recuperating in the prone position in front of the TV. But it was so much fun to be able to just hang out, meet Ellie’s friends in CA and catch up a little – it was far too short as always!

      Another friend from several lives (DAI, Liberia, etc), Kaitlin, met up with us on Sunday. She is a PhD student at Stanford, and brought us to a party at the Stanford community farms/grand opening of the farm’s pizza oven. Pretty cool – I didn’t know people were doing that in Palo Alto.

      We really wish we could have stayed another few days – we didn’t have a chance to play Guitar Hero! I guess that means there will have to be a next time 🙂

      Oh, and Nick also got a taste of the joys (and annoyances) of the bottomless cup of coffee phenomenon. He loves that he can get as much coffee as he wants at brunch, but when the waiters are too attentive it drives him a bit crazy. ‘They’re messing with the ratio!’. Hmm, how to cope? I think it was my Dad who tried to tell the waitress no more by putting his hand over his cup…and it only landed him with a scalded hand. Guess Nick will just have to deal! Yes, there are times when I’m happy I’m not a coffee drinker, with one more thing to worry about…

      Claifornia’s ‘Lost Coast’ and the Redwoods Forest

      Crossing over into California from Oregon, things were a bit different from the start. The vibe seemed different, a bit more relaxed, but most importantly, gas was WAY more expensive!

      We continued down the 101, which in California is called Redwood Highway. We passed a number of old, rundown looking coastal towns and several different redwood groves. Branching off on the 211, we followed what is known as the ‘lost coast’. It’s California’s longest stretch of completely undeveloped stretch of shoreline – so incredibly different than the California I know with the huge houses, beaches and people everywhere near the beaches.

      The scenery was a crazy beautiful mix of landscapes. In some areas there were dark forest floors with a covering of ferns, dense groves of furry Redwoods that looked like a bad drawing kids do of trees – stick straight trunks with a million straight branches jutting out. Then we’d come through the forests and see rolling farmland with fields of wildflowers, including a flower I swear looks like cauliflower. Other times we’d come around one of the steep curves and see huge stretches of deserted beach and sea.

      Driving through the green hills with the sea in the distance very much reminded me of parts of the UK. I remember going on ‘walks’ (I quickly learned that Brits call even the most strenuous hike a ‘walk’) that wound across the hills and cut through private pastures and farmlands throughout Brighton. However, in the US everything was fenced in and divided up – in the areas we walked in the UK even private farmlands are made accessible to the public through strategically placed fence gates and even steps over the paddock fences. We passed through one little town on the coast called Capetown – a little smaller than the original!

      The 211 turned out to be a really, really long, twisty turn-y roads – posted speed limit was at least 20 mph faster than we felt comfortable taking the curves, especially with the huge trucks and even fire engines racing the other direction on the road! We learned that Ted estimates the time based on the stated speed limit – it took us at least an hour (or more!) longer to do the drive than expected.

      The Redwood Forests were just as amazing as I had expected them to be – huge, imposing monoliths, making me feel small. Dark, twisty roads are shaded by the giants. There are forests as far as they eye could see – we took a small little walk into one of the groves and it was so quiet with the needles absorbing the sounds of our feet, and the shafts of light piercing the treetops created so many picture-perfect images I just couldn’t capture. I can only imagine what it would be like to hike far into the groves away from the road. Looking up through Rex’s sunroof gave a really cool view of the tall trees! We even fell into a giant tourist trap and paid to drive through a giant redwood – silly, but pretty fun!

      Highway 1 led us all the way down the coast towards San Francisco the next day. After our twisty-turny detour the day before, we were a bit sick of scenic drives! We’ll have to go back and experience the area again when we’re a little less wound in circles. I didn’t take too many pictures on this route because I had a few issues on the Sonoma County part of Rte 1 – I had a bout of panic as we crested one curve and I realized that the cliff face on my right (I was driving) was a sheer drop into the ocean. I started freaking out a bit at how far down it was, and even after I made Nick drive I was a bit jittery. I knew I was afraid of heights a bit, but usually am not quite such a chicken. Only other time was at the Cliffs of Mohr with my sister when we crawled out to the edge to look over and I was so frozen with fear I couldn’t go back…Or the time we stopped to watch people bungee jumping over Storms River in South Africa when I couln’t actually watch them without clutching my stomach…. maybe it was the combo of the heights and the wind. Who knows. But the rest of the drive was beautiful, with a ton of picturesque towns and even a good number of ‘houseboats’ – I say that in quotes because I’m not sure if they were actually boats or just houses built on docks.

      The first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge was breathtaking. I’ve been to SF quite a few times before, but I realized I’ve never approached it from the North. When we crossed over it was dusk, and you could see the lights of the city coming on. Gorgeous. We tried in vain to camp at one of the sites listed in our book, but ended up in a great hotel downtown instead. We were both exhausted by the time we finally got our car parked and bags dropped off. We scarfed down some amazing (or maybe just amazing because we were starving) Thai food, and fell into bed. Of course, after watching some mindless television for awhile – it’s my guilty pleasure to watch silly sitcoms and un-newsworthy CNN when we splurge on a hotel since I’ve gone so many years without tv at home.

      Teriyaki?

      I just don’t get it. These Pacific Northwesterners LOVE their teriyaki. I swear, there is a teriyaki restaurant on every corner – ‘Teriyaki Sushi’, ‘Teriyaki Burgers’, just ‘Teriyaki’. It is a little absurd – even little podunk towns have at least one (some two or three, right across from each other!). I just don’t get the fascination – I love teriyaki as much as the next guy, but this is obsession!

      Oregon

      After Seattle, when we took a detour into Olympia for an all-too-common bathroom break I was surprised at how small town the state capitol felt! That small-town feeling continued as we headed south into Oregon – it wasn’t too much of a change from Washington, except everything had a slightly smaller feel to it. We stayed in the NW area of Portland at a really cute hostel. It was within a few blocks of lots of funky restaurants, bars and shops. I dragged Nick into a Trader Joe’s to buy my fav cheap sparkling wine – he’d never been to one, and found it a bit of a strange place. It had been a long day, so I was pretty low on energy. We found a little place and tried some random beers, had some nachos, then Nick practically had to drag me back to our room with our take-out pizza

      Trying to ward off my crankiness and stiffness from riding in the car for so long, I found a yoga studio (Corepower, the same one I go to in Mpls!) and did a hot yoga class. Man, am I out of shape! I felt a bit refreshed afterward, and we walked in to check out downtown. We spent a ton of time at Powell’s, a giant book shop with possibly every new and used book you could imagine (amazing! we need to bring one of these to SA), and I did my favorite thing – wandering around looking at old buildings. It had a much more small-town vibe than Seattle, but was a lot of fun.

      The people at the hostel had made it seem like Portland’s famous rose gardens were just a few blocks away…turns out it looked a lot closer (and flatter) on the map! We slogged up the hills, which were luckily shaded from the heat, and finally reached the gardens. As soon as we arrived, I had a serious sense of deja vu – and then realized I had been there before! VERY bizarre – I had totally forgotten that we had made a stop here on our family vacation a number of years ago, but it all came flooding back to me. Portland is a really pretty, flowery city. In addition to the formal gardens, there were even beautiful wildflowers growing along the busiest freeway! Made for a nice drive down to Eugene.

      After pitching our tent in a nearby national park, we drove into Eugene, OR to have dinner with my stepbrother, TJ. He took us to one of his favorite restaurants in town called Cornucopia. Great food! There were SO many beers that we were a bit overwhelmed, but we managed to find a few we liked (never actually that hard). We didn’t see too much of Eugene, but what we saw was entertaining – apparently, the saying goes that the 60s never died, they just moved to Eugene.

      Next day we went West from Eugene to Florence, then took the Pacific Coast Highway Scenic Route down the coast into California. The scenery was stunning – at times it looked like we were traveling through a green tunnel with the tree branches interlocking over the road. Many of the trees hung heavy with moss, which gave them a kind of eerie look. There were also these amazing beaches, nearly deserted and littered with driftwood. There is supposed to be good surfing, but TJ told us there were some places where the locals are so protective of the beaches that they will do anything to keep tourists away…good thing we weren’t looking to surf. One of the more disturbing things was that we started seeing these signs that told us that we were driving along a Tsunami danger zone, or that we were on a Tsunami evacuation route – as if we could outrun one! Even so, it was one of the most stunning drives – I would have loved to drive along the coast all the way from Seattle.

      I didn’t do too much Oregon Trail related tourism, but a small Pioneer cemetery we passed in one small town reminded me of my favorite game back in elementary school – Oregon Trail. I didn’t get to stop in, but I am pretty sure none of the epitaphs could even closely rival those that were thought up by Jefferson Elementary students…meaning I don’t think anyone used profanity of any kind on the headstones. But I could be wrong!

      Farewell Nelly, Hello Rex!

      Farewell Nelly, Hello Rex!

      We noticed a bit of tire damage on the car that we’d rented in MN as we were heading out of Seattle. Better safe than sorry, we thought, so we called Hertz – they told us we could exchange our little Kia at the Portland Airport for another, no prob.

      Nelly earned her name by her utter lack of spunk – basically, she had 0 ‘go’ power, then all of the sudden she’d kick it into gear, tearing past the car we were just trying to pass slowly. ‘Whoa Nelly!’ Nick did finally figure out that even automatics can be driven in manual mode to some extent (I’d always wondered what D2 etc were all about…). She also got pretty good gas mileage, and was darn comfy to ride in for long distances. We’d gotten quite comfortable with Nelly – all our stuff (and there is lots of it – camping gear, wood, groceries, all my various warm tops, water bottles, salt packets, ipod, Ted, etc) had their place. It was going to take us forever to swap everything over to another car, and it was getting late in the day. Plus, she had MN plates – I didn’t want to give her up and become just another generic West-coaster! But at the end we decided to be smart, expecting we would just get a Nelly II, just in a different color.

      When we got to the front of the line, though, they only had one car available in the same price range – a Pontiac G6. I took an instant dislike to the new car. It is incredibly showy and ostentatious – super shiny hubcaps, big silver grill, everything in the interior is also silver and shiny, sunken leather seats. Nick assured me it was better from a driver’s perspective, but seeing as I have been a passenger for a large part of the trip (Nick prefers to drive and I prefer to navigate/DJ/look around aimlessly at cows and scenery) it was kind of annoying that seemingly no thought had gone into the passenger’s comfort or usability. Case in point – awful cup holders and a glove compartment that can barely hold a pair of sunglasses! Sigh. The name Rex just somehow fit. It sounded like someone who thinks he’s cool but really isn’t. He’s as bling as Nelly was humble, but I guess it is nice to have all the gadgets to tell us what station we’re listening to and how many more miles we have on our tank of gas. So I guess we’ll keep him. However, we now have Arizona license plates – I guess it could be worse, there aren’t any stereotypes I know of about AZ drivers, are there? (If so, I should really know so I know what people are swearing at me).

      Seattle

      Our first week on the road had been pretty hectic, hitting major sites every day, covering long distances sometimes devoid of people. It was great to be back in a big city, for me anyways! We slept in late (as one should on Sunday), enjoyed a lazy Sunday morning walking around the city, having coffee and bagels and reading the local paper. With no real plan in mind, we wandered down to Pike Place market to see the fish, the crowds and the flowers (they have more amazing floral bouquets than they do fish it seems. Clever me deduced there was a Mariners game going on by the number of people wearing jerseys and funneling through Union Square towards the stadium, but I only realized later that the reason so many people were wearing Twins shirts and people were calling out ‘Yay Twins!’when we were driving around in Nelly (our car with MN plates)wasn’t just random, but that they were the opponent…Well, it was Sunday, I was a little slow!

      I did have one thing I wanted to do Sunday – visit Beecher’s Cheese Shop and try out their supposedly ‘World’s Best Mac and Cheese’. Watching the cheese being made was pretty cool – something similar to Nick’s excitement watching airplanes being built, but a lot unhealthier 🙂 The Mac and Cheese was indeed pretty good – basic with a nutty cheesy flavor – though I’m not sure about the world’s best claim…but I’m a pretty tough customer. It’s a stop I highly recommended to any cheese lover!

      Since we’ve been on the road, we haven’t really had much time for happy hours, my favorite time of the day. We’ve been getting in pretty late, so have spent the 6-7pm time driving somewhere, which makes drinking a major problem. That second night in Seattle we planned to camps outside the city, but after a few local brews decided that enjoying the sunshine and checking out the Sunday night happy hour scene was a better plan, so we got a room again at the hotel we’d stayed at the night before and set off! Armed with the Seattle weekly paper which conveniently had listings of a ton of good bars and restaurants, we managed to visit quite a few super cute places.

      We started out at the Cellars, recommended to us by some Starbuck enployees for their good happy hour margaritas (so-so). Once the sun on that street started to fade, we wandered to Txicho, an incredibly cute Basque tapas place. I had the red wine mixed with orange soda – pretty much like sangria with out all the annoying fruit, actually yum! Nick had what he referred to as Gummy Bear-y juice, or a calimoxo (red wine mixed with Coke). This was a favorite of students when I lived in Spain, but I never did aquire the taste. I haven’t had really good Spanish food in a LONG time – we had pinchos of tortilla, jamon serrano, croquetas, manchego…mmm. Just after we walked in and were deciding whether to stay, a big group of Spaniards walked in and started ordering – they looked like they were there visiting, and I find it funny that they came all the way to the States just to have food from home, but I guess Americans do it all the time! Lastly, we walked up to the Capitol Room in Capitol hill, which I thought was much closer than it was…but we made it eventually. I’m not sure if the Indian comedian was really as funny as I seemed to think he was, or whether the sangria made me giggle, but we had a ton of fun. On the way back to our hotel, we happened across a park where there was a big softball game going on, so we stopped to watch. Nick noticed that there was a killer game of dodgeball going on on the tennis courts next door – a bunch of 20 and 30 somethings chucking a big red ball at each other, what could be more fun, right? Nick joined in at the new game and lasted quite awhile, but they seemed to take it all pretty seriously…

      I REALLY enjoyed visiting Seattle. I’d been here before with my family, but this was a totally different experience, just hanging out and enjoying the city. One thing I would highly recommend to anyone who loves music is the Experience Music Project – we didn’t go this trip, but it’s prob one of my fav places.